Seeing Ho Chi Minh

More to come…

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Because We Just Haven’t Had Enough India

“Don’t cross now!”  the woman commanded, holding her arm out in front of me like a mother barring an impulsive child from the busy street.

We were standing on the edge of Serangoon Road in the heart of Singapore’s Little India district, poised, despite the penalties that prohibited jaywalking in this city, to dash between the oncoming cars at the next opportunity. I was both amused and touched that this young mother, her shy six-year-old clinging to her left hand and ducking behind her hip when I winked at him, thought I might be leaning too far into traffic and sought to save me.

My friend Judy and I were doing what Americans do when we visit developing countries: supporting the economy. It was Deepavali, the Hindu Festival of Lights, and here in Little India, a side street was blocked off for a holiday street market. In a city that seems almost sterile, with laws prohibiting not only jaywalking but spitting, littering, smoking in non-designated areas, failing to flush, and insulting the modesty of a woman, the market was a guilty thrill. Dozens of booths crowded the street draped in brilliant, flashy colors. The scent of incense wafted through the air. Merchants drumming on their merchandise competed with Bollywood soundtracks. It was a delicious, exuberant, ecstatic cultural immersion.

But as Judy deliberated over a gold necklace in one of the shops, I wandered away, lured back into the mayhem of the market to bargain with a beautiful dark-eyed woman for a silk pillow cover and consider some bangles and beaded earrings. When I returned to the jewelry shop, my friend had moved on. After some minutes searching, I’d finally spotted her across the street busy with traffic, and was eager to catch up with her.

“We will go after that yellow car,” the mother instructed in crisp Tamil-accented English.

And when the yellow car passed, this beautiful young woman, whose name I learned was Shveta, grabbed my hand and ushered both me and her son across the street where she turned me over to the safekeeping of my friend.

© 2010 Linda J. Kobert

Into India

Our travels in India began in South Africa with the Cape Malay friends we made in Bo-Kaap. When we moved on to Mauritius, we discovered the southern Asia influence here, too. In this multi-ethnic island east of Madagascar, Indo-Mauritians make up the majority of the population. We ate the most delicious Indian food at a waterside café, heard a talk on the geology and biology of this volcanic island from Professor Amenah Jahaneer-Chojoo at the Mahatma Gandhi Institute, and saw nothing but Indian shop girls at the market. So it was hard not to imagine we were in India for the two days we spent here.

Judy, Gail, and I wandered through the shops at the Caudan Waterfront in Port Louis on our first afternoon. Throughout our voyage, we’ve learned to brace ourselves for an onslaught when we set out on this sort of adventure. At markets in almost every port we’ve visited, sellers seem so eager for a sale that, the minute one pauses to look at the goods arranged to attract, they snag you like a fisherman hauling in his nets.

“Pashmina,” the Indian shopkeeper said as Judy fingered a fuchsia scarf dangling at the doorway. “We have many more color. You come. Free to look.”

She was hooked.

Gail and I eyed the intricately embroidered bedding, the silk shawls, the wool rugs while Judy tried on one Indian blouse after another. The two young women tending the shop pulled out pillow covers, scarves, and table runners trying to tempt us with the wide variety of their wares. But they knew it was Judy who would be the buyer.

As our friend modeled a pale pink peasant blouse, I asked one of the women about the smear of vermillion that colored the part in her silky black hair. I recognized the bright red dot between her eyebrows, the bindi, with which many South Asian women adorn their foreheads. But the added color at the top of her head was new to me.

“This is called sindoor,” the woman, whose name was Varsha, explained with a wide smile. “It is because I am married.” And she showed off two gold rings studded with tiny diamonds on her left hand.

Varsha told us about the Hindu custom, how her husband applied this red smudge during their marriage ceremony, and how she renews the color every two or three days as a sign of her fidelity to him. Her marriage to a man she didn’t know before her wedding day was arranged by her parents. The two had been married almost a year.

“It will last forever,” she declared, meaning she will wear this symbol on her forehead for as long as she is married.

The second shop girl, unable to restrain herself, joined our conversation. Vanisha wore a bindi but had no red streak in her part, and she confessed that she, at 22, is not yet married.

“I would like to be married,” she said, “but my parents don’t think I’m ready.”

“We’re going to India next week,” I quipped. “We’ll look for a husband for you.”

Vanisha nodded and giggled. “Yes! You find nice boy in India for me.”

We talked and laughed with Varsha and Vanisha long after Judy had exchanged Mauritian rupees for a pretty floral blouse. They told us of their lives—they work ten hours a day everyday but Sunday, then Vanisha goes home to cook and tend to the housework for her husband. And we told them about our work, teaching on this floating university that is circumnavigating the globe. And while we sail off to Chennai, neither of these young Indian women has ever set foot in the country.

© 2010 Linda J. Kobert

In the Village

As Alex stepped from the bus, a wiry black girl of about seven jumped into her arms and wrapped her legs around the student’s waist. Alex had never met the girl, but she instantly fell in love. A swarm of other children buzzed around the door as thirty Semester at Sea students and staff alighted from a tour bus in Khayelitsha. Our white faces and the bus, which was double the size of many of the make-shift houses around us, were, to say the least, out of the ordinary in this black township outside Cape Town. The kids all wanted to touch our white skin, our blond hair. They clamored for us to take their pictures then snatched the cameras to snap our pictures.

The swarm moved with us to the end of Kiyane Street where we ducked into Vicky’s B&B. Vicky Ntozini, the owner, welcomed the opportunity to talk about her enterprise and her passion. In Khayelitsha, Vicky’s is a model for entrepreneurship as a way to improving conditions in South Africa’s overcrowded shantytowns. It’s an example of how individuals are taking control of local problems, helping the millions of non-white residents who live here and in other poorly serviced townships across the country to find dignity and develop skills for self-sufficiency.

“We aren’t waiting for the government to fix things,” Ntozini told us as we gathered in the sitting room of her home, which she and her husband have cobbled into a two-story, six-bedroom guesthouse. It is an unusual structure, by any standard: walls and floors slanting at odd angles where one incongruous addition after another was appended. But in a neighborhood where a great many of the houses look like shabby backyard sheds with dirt floors and no plumbing, this sturdy, comfortably appointed dwelling with familiar Western bathrooms is unusual.

Ntozini started her business twelve years ago, renting her then two-bedrooms to overnight guests who wanted an intimate experience of the townships. The business—South Africa’s smallest hotel, Ntozini jokes—expanded as this sort of eco-tourism became more popular. Today, Ntozini leads a group of Khayelitsha B&B owners—most of them women—who support each other in creating and maintaining successful businesses.

But running a B&B isn’t Ntozini’s main concern. It’s the children.

“We practice my-child-is-your-child,” she said. “Everyone takes care of the children.”

With this community spirit, Ntozini runs a feeding program for kids in the neighborhood, providing a nutritious meal three or four days a week to those who go hungry otherwise. She helps children who can’t go to school because they don’t have shoes or uniforms that are required for attendance. And at Christmas time, everyone knows about the party at Vicky’s where Santa shows up with gifts and food for dozens of Khayelitsha kids. Ntozini even gets her guests involved, collecting donations that help fund her work with the children, because, she says, quoting that famous American who was quoting an African proverb, “It takes a village to raise up a child.”

© 2010 Linda J. Kobert