Monday, November 5, 2012

Proud to Be an American

Let me start out by saying that I know that I am privileged. Privileged to have been born to two parents who love me and care for me unconditionally, privileged to have been raised in a family that could afford for me to take ballet lessons and send me to summer camp, privileged to have grown up in an area with safe, worthwhile public schools, privileged to have had the support of friends and family as I've screwed up as many times as I've succeeded, privileged to have a college education, a great job, a wonderful husband, a bright future...

But until we moved to India, I hadn't ever considered how many of those privileges stem from the fact that I am a citizen of the United States of America.

Maybe you've always been genuinely patriotic,  maybe you're one of my amazing friends who served our country in the military or a volunteer corp, maybe you've lived outside the country and came to the same realizations I have, maybe it's just me. But if you have a few free minutes this morning, before you leave to exercise one of your greatest rights and duties as an American citizen, casting your vote for our next President, I hope you'll read my thoughts.

The wealth divide in India is extreme.  33% of Indians live at or below the poverty line, that's over 400 million people.

Here are just a few of the ways in which that disparity affects the people of this country:
  • 90 million females are illiterate
  • 20% of children ages 6-14 are not in school
    • In some states, over 60% of girls who are enrolled, drop out before completing 5th grade
  • Infant mortality is as high as 63 deaths per 1,000 live births
    • 1 in 5 women die during birth
  • More than 122 million households are without something as simple as a toilet
  • In 2010, one bride was murdered every hour due to unmet dowry demands
  • 45% of Indian women are married before the age of 18
    • Child marriages result in the abandonment of a formal education, unsafe pregnancies, and a restriction of freedoms for community participation
  • 51% of men and 54% of women think that wife beating is justifiable
  • 61 million children have stunted growth as a result of severe malnutrition
I'm going to offer one more, more personal example.

I've mentioned in past blogs that we have a house keeper here. What I haven't mentioned is that we have a house keeper because we feel obligated, as a family who earns a middle class salary, to create a job. Most middle and upper class homes in India have at least a housekeeper, but many also have cooks and nannies. This is not unusual. And here's why: for one hour a day, seven days a week to clean our home, our house keeper asked for a salary of 1, 500 rupees a month. That's less than $1 a day.  

Yes. Cost of living is much less here. But to put that salary in perspective; our rent for our large but simple, furnished apartment comes out to about $600 a month, and basic+ groceries cost us around $100 a month. Bus transportation from our apartment to and from my office (a very short distance), and a few weekend rides, costs approximately $20 per person a month.  We are living within the same means as my middle class peers, all of whom were raised in middle class families, and simply perceive this divide as part of normal life. 

For the millions in India living in poverty, their children have almost no chance to make a better life for themselves. Our house keeper was married off at 18 to a man who drinks her salary and  then beats her. She had a baby within the first year of their marriage, but tries her hardest to avoid having a second. Each month she scrapes together $60 to send her child to school. Some months she doesn't have it. The reality is that even if her daughter makes it through elementary school, high school is a reach and college a fantasy. An economical cycle will put her child in the same situation she was put in.
In contrast, 4% of the world's wealthiest billionaires come from India. India's billionaires alone make 10% of the national income and in 2008 before the crash,  that statistic was 22%.

So how does the US stack up? Currently 16% of  Americans, approximately 47 million people, are living at or below the poverty line. A number that started climbing after the housing bubble burst in 2006 and got worse after the stock market crashed in 2008.  And our billionaires? Like in India, they make 10% of the entire national income.

Increasingly,  our children are going hungry, our people are going without necessary medical care, and our renowned social welfare programs are collapsing.  But in 2012, I am still undeniably proud to be an American. Because as an American I had the right to cast my ballot, from thousands of miles away, and vote for the candidate I trust will create the future I believe in. 

It was a motto my grandparents and parents lived by and is an unwritten tenent of our country; our children will do better than we did. Because I am an American, I get to have that dream too.

When you vote today, I hope you will be thinking about what this election means on a grand scale for the increasing wealth divide in our country. Our country that has provided us with the incredible rights to education, clean water, hygienic and safe public spaces, shelters from fear and poverty and better lives for each successive generation.

Please vote for the candidate you truly believe can make our country better not just for you, but for everyone.

I gathered these statistics from:

Saturday, November 3, 2012

The Backwaters of Kerala

Last weekend Tal and I headed to the south Indian state of Kerala for a weekend away. You CAN fly, but it's far more economical to take an overnight bus. It makes for much better stories too.

Tal and I grabbed an auto-rickshaw after work on Friday, and made it across the city without running into too much traffic. When we arrived at the bus pick-up location listed on our e-tickets, we were told to walk a few blocks to a different location. At that location we were told to walk a few more. At the next location we were ordered (Yes. Ordered.) without any other instruction, to get into an unmarked minivan filled with twice as many people as seats. 

Four months ago I would have found all of this verrrrry fishy. But when the gentleman behind the counter (at what may or may not have been our bus company) suggested that we climb into the van, Tal and I just looked at each other and shrugged. Seemed about right to us.

The van dropped us off at a final location, and our bus was only (Yes. Only.) an hour late.  Our seats were nice and comfy, the air conditioning was the perfect temperature, and despite a series of VERY loud, VERY dramatic movies in a language we couldn't quite put a finger on, we both slept the majority of the next 10 hours.When we woke up, we'd been transported to the beautiful backwaters of Kerala.  

We had a completely romantic, totally memorable weekend exploring the waterways of Alleppey, and the culture (and GREAT markets) of Cochin. But my hands-down favorite part of the weekend was  our hour long cab ride ride from Alleppey to Cochin. Sure the scenery was amazing and I was in great company snuggled up to my best guy. But it was playlist engineered by our driver that was the icing on the cake. For the first twenty minutes we were serenaded by really lovely traditional Hindi tunes. And then, with NO warning whatsoever, our ears were accosted by hardcore American gangsta rap, so offensive that I don't dare Google the lyrics to find out what we were listening to. And for the final twenty minutes? Celine Dion. 

I couldn't make this stuff up.

Residents of Alleppey use hand crafted canoes to get from place to place. Our hotel runs a small ferry shuttle from the main land to their property.

Ice cream truck at the beach.

One of the main attractions in the area is the opportunity to tour on a luxury houseboat. Many of them offer overnight stays as well.

The inside of a houseboat. Tal and I took a lovely sunset cruise but opted, on the advice of my coworkers, to stay on shore in a traditional hotel.

Most of the land in the area is covered by rice paddies. The weekend we were in the area was one of  two annual harvests. 

A recently harvested paddy. 

Tal and me next to a giant pile of unprocessed rice.

A gorgeous sunset.

Our waterfront hotel.

Cochin used to be known for it's massive spice markets, and in many of the old buildings you can still smell the spices. However most are now used as antique warehouses. The majority of the stores we wandered through in the market sell their wares wholesale to shamncy boutiques in Western countries.

Cochin is home to a Synagogue built in the 1500's and still used today. We weren't allowed to take pictures inside, but it was a beautiful mix of Indian aesthetics and Jewish customs.

Spice markets are still common in the area of Cochin called "Jew Town".

The town clock tower atop the Synagogue was built in the 1700's. 

The giant fishnets in Cochin.

There was a festival of some kind the day were were in Cochin. I love the colors of these ladies' outfits.

To be honest this elephant made me sad, but still made for an interesting sight marching down the middle of "main street" Cochin.