Friday, March 02, 2007

John Has Landed

Our son John has just returned from his adventure in SE Asia. His mom is relieved. All the exotic places John visited (Malaysia, Thailand, Kuala Lampur, Sri Lanka, India and Burma) can be viewed at his travel blog. The pictures are incredible and John’s commentary is fascinating (He’s my son!) His second last stop was India where he hired a nice fellow named Bhojraj to be his guide. In the picture above John is treating Bhojraj to his very first pizza. For my family and friends, here are a few excerpts from John’s blog about India.

My original plan was to focus on Southeast Asia and save India for another trip, but my interest in working with children led me to change plans. When researching my trip, I was lucky to connect with a woman named Ann McLaughlin and her organization NGOabroad.
Their tagline is “Custom-Fit International Service” and they were extremely helpful in connecting me with people and organizations in SE Asia.
Ann's number one recommendation for me was the Mitraniketan school in the Kerala area of Southern India. Visit Mitraniketan Website The Kerala area is tropical, with beautiful beaches and lush farmland. The school was founded 50 years ago by a man named Viswanathan, and he is still the Director of the organization today. I had all my meals at his home.

Mitraniketan promotes rural development through education programs for children and young adults. The school focuses on children from the lowest rungs of their society. Most of the children live in non-permanent homes in the jungle, and for many they are the first generation to be educated. Around 400 of these children live at Mitraniketan, and their room and board, education, and even some clothes and supplies are provided by the school.

Mitraniketan also started their People's College ten years ago, which provides a one-year residential program for the most disadvantaged segment of Indian society to build life and vocational skills. Development of personality and leadership are emphasized in addition to fields such as agriculture science and computers.

Everyone at Mitraniketan was excited to have visitors, and someone from America was unusual. Most people spoke some English, even the little kids, and they were very interested in me and my life. The first day at the daily morning assembly with the students, about 400 children sang Indian songs, discussed a life lesson, and had announcements. It turns out Mr. John from San Francisco was the main announcement, so I was asked to stand up, introduce myself, and talk about my travels. I asked the kids if they knew the Terminator (some of the older ones did), and said he was the Governor of my state. My short speech was translated into the local language Malayalam.

After the assembly dozens of children came over to say hello and practice their English. I started taking pictures and the children all loved seeing their images on the screen. Then I would make videos and they went bananas! I was able to spend time with the pre-schoolers right though the People's College and was regularly a guest of honor in classes and events.

One night a group of older nursing students had a performance that the whole school attended. During the initial announcements (in Malayalam) I heard bla bla bla, Mr. John from San Francisco, bla bla bla. Much to my surprise I was led down behind the stage and the kids organizing the event were telling me the name of their program and pointing at the microphone. I asked what they wanted me to do, and they said “Oh, just make a felicitation.” Oh, ok... What is a felicitation? It turns out a felicitation is to offer congratulations, so I got up in front of a few hundred young people to talk about the tremendous work the nursing students were doing.

One afternoon the school principal took me to the closest town, Trivandrum. Walking down the street I was stopped by a couple of guys who wanted to talk. On hearing I am from America, one tells me about his friend's uncle who lives in Ohio. Excellent. They recommend a tandoori restaurant for dinner and say to stop back when I am done.

I found Zam Zam and it was packed downstairs, upstairs and next door. I end up sitting at a table with a two young guys. We try to talk, and are able to communicate the basics. I am from America, they work construction, etc. Then they are saying “Sidem Sidem”?? OH, yes Saddam! I signal my comprehension by making a gesture like holding a noose above my neck since this is a few days after his hanging. Immediately I realize my potential faux pas. I ask if they are Hindu. “No, we are Muslim.” I know the answer to the next question but I ask anyway if they are Shiite or Sunni... “We are Sunni.” They are still smiling, but for a minute I wonder if I am next in the Tandoori oven.

The time at Mitraniketan was really special.

My last stop with Bhojraj was Agra, home to the Taj Mahal. I had high expectations, but they were all exceeded when I arrived. The white marble mausoleum was built by Emperor Shah Jahan in 1653 as a memorial for his wife, who died giving birth to their fourteenth child.

After Agra, Bhojraj dropped me off in Delhi, the capital city of India. My neighbor and friend in San Francisco, Shabeena (aka Bean), introduced me to her parents via email last year when I was planning my trip. Bean's parents, Lata and Yogan Vadehra, live in a nice suburb of Delhi. Lata is a former teacher who still tutors children most days and Yogan is a retired 3-star general in the Indian Army.

India was quite a trip. The people were very interested in me, and I was approached all the time to chat. Here is a sampling of some of the more unusual comments.

Girl working in an Internet cafe: “My friend thinks you have a beautiful nose.”

Guy playing soccer with me: “You have a very close likeness to your President Bush.” (The only Americans many people there know are President Bush and Bill Clinton.)

Tour guide pointing to a hotel: “It is very nice. Last year, your Princess Clinton stayed there with her boyfriend.”

Male waiter at a restaurant: “You are very handsome.” I laugh nervously, and he says: “No, Really.” (I am sure this guy was straight. It seemed like having white skin and blue eyes are very desirable traits here.)

Young Muslim guy at Internet cafe in Jaisalmer near Pakistan: “You should tell people you are from Slovenia.” He sees my look of confusion and explains: “Everyone in India hates Americans.” I ask why, and he says: “We all hate Israel, so we all hate America.”

I asked Bhojraj about the Muslim guy's comments since they seemed to be completely contrary to all my experiences in India. Bhojraj said that many young Muslims in India have a “congested” mind, so they are not able to think clearly. Then he told me a story:

Bhojraj grew up in a Muslim neighborhood in Jaipur, and his family was one of the only Hindu households there. When he was 19 and living with his parents, siblings and wife in the same family home, there was an event about 600 miles away that upset Muslims. A large group of Muslims in Bhojraj's neighborhood rioted, and they stormed into his home. He thought they were going to kill his family, but they were able to escape alive. Their house was destroyed, along with all their possessions, and they have never been back.Bhojraj told the story to make the point that, in his mind, there is no logic behind actions like this. His family had lived for over twenty years in that area with many Muslim friends and neighbors. That these same people would destroy his family home because of an event that occurred halfway across the country was just sad and confusing to him.

Bhojhraj felt that the Musim community leaders take every opportunity to foment distrust and anger in their people. Every legitimate gripe, and many others, are fit into an adversarial worldview where someone else is always to blame. And the focus of this blame is typically Hindus and the predominantly Hindu government in India, which is perceived to be supported by America and “the West.” This mentality leads many Muslims in India to feel they are under attack and need to fight back, and this response tends to be a self-fulfilling prophesy.

The issue of Muslim anger is extremely complex, and after reading many books on the subject, I still don't understand much. I thought the exchange I had though, and Bhojraj's response, were interesting enough to share. If you are interested in this topic, I just read two good books this month that I can recommend: The Crisis: The President, the Prophet, and the Shah-1979 and the Coming of Militant Islam by David Harris and The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 by Lawrence Wright.

John’s last stop was Burma (aka Myanmar) and it was his favorite country. Check out his travel web site for the latest pictures and commentary.



Anonymous Anonymous said...


It's like seeing you all over again when we were young.


10:50 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Bill

Thanks for sharing your son's trip to the far east. I am very impressed that he changed his life and started on this journey. I can expect a great future for him whatever he choses.


10:51 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great message from your son. Enjoyed reading it all!


10:53 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

First of all you sure know who his daddy is. John looks just like you Bill.!! I bet mom is happy to have him back. Mommies are like that.

I haven't looked at all the pictures yet but it was hard to stop because they are fantastic!! I feel like I have visited the places with his descriptions and seeing the pictures. AWESOME.. John should publish those pictures and write a book!!!!!! Thanks Bill


10:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a wonderful son you have. His writings are excellent. Thanks for sharing.


10:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am sending this to my friend Shah who lives in Bombay.

I was in India with my dad on three different occasions and loved it. One trip we spent over two months and really saw so much. We had one really good friend that was Muslim but had married an American missionary and they honored each others religion but that was in 1980 and times have certainly changed since then.

Your son is getting such an education!!!!


10:47 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bill, hearty felicitations (congrats) for you and Lee and for your wonderful son. U musta dun sompin rite!


1:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Congratualtions having such a great son!

9:19 AM  
Blogger fetching jen said...

Wonderful stories and adventures Bill. John is obviously a special person. Bet you're glad to have him home!

11:04 AM  

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