Chapter fourteen : Finally home sweet home-Philippines 1994 to present

Tourists follow a huge whale shark, near
Source : Google photo AFP PHOTO/SCOTT TUASON (Photo credit should read SCOTT TUASON/AFP/Getty Images)

Finally home sweet home  : Philippines 1994 to present

I returned to the  Philippines in April of 1994  leaving Sudan and the FAO for good. I had waited for a long time for this day so now I intended to fully enjoy my retirement . But first we had to build our dream house so that we could all stay together . Ashis  was in the dormitory at the University for over a year and now Jayanti joined him starting June of 1994.  Jasmine had found the team that would build our house so she got them started by the middle of March.

The building permit was obtained and money was transferred to a local account. When I arrived from Rome , I found the laborers digging the foundation of our future home  in earnest to layout the rooms . Jasmine said that she could not find a house to rent  because the local people did not like to rent their houses for less than one year whereas we needed a place only for a few months . We expected our house to be completed in 6 months time.

So we drove back to Naga while the work continued in the university town . Jayanti stayed in the dormitory . But in the month of May someone called to say that their house was available for rent for a few months so we packed quickly, locked up our house in Naga and moved to Laguna . Now I could supervise the construction personally.

We had drawn up the plan ourselves during my previous home leave by playing with Lego set arranging and rearranging the rooms until we got everything right . Jasmine also made many suggestions . It was to be a lovely house of over 345 sq. meters with 4 bedrooms, 2 bath rooms , and huge 20 ft by 40 ft. living room, kitchen and a laundry room. There was to be a 60 ft. long and 8 ft. wide veranda outside shaped like an L and a spacious garage.

We left room in the front for lawn and room all around the house on our 600 sq. meter lot . The whole house was to have only one level and the rooms and the bathrooms were huge by normal local standards. I decided to spare no expense to build this home . Jasmine and I searched for choice materials, marble , slate stones and beautifully carved narra doors . We ordered Spanish red colored tiles for the veranda . It took more than 2000 bags of cement and tons and tons of steel bars to build our home.

All the bed rooms were to have parquet floors and the outside veranda walls and the outer fascia were lined with green slate. The roof was an expensive metal tile system called Decrabond that was Spanish red in color . In short it was a house to be proud of.  The windows had  extra strong grills that were ordered custom made .

So the work progressed speedily and soon the house started to take shape. Jasmine and the kids came from time to time to see the progress and were excited as the house was nearing completion by September. Now the marble floor shined like mirror and the inside of the house was painted and electricals fitted .  People marveled at the size of the bed rooms and the bathrooms and became the talk of the University nearby.

Then In September Jasmine  and I drove back to Naga and arranged for all furniture and other things to be shipped to our new home the very next day. The huge truck came and loaded everything .The Naga house was again locked up and remained so for a while until one day it was sold later.

We had finished with Naga for good so from now on this small town was to be our home . It was a magnificent home . Within a short time Jasmine arranged the furniture and the appliances . We had purchased huge beds with very nicely carved headboards . Now Ashis and  Jayanti had their big private rooms.

Then on the 8th of September we had our new home blessed. All the laborers and masons who were still working on the finishing outside were invited to their great surprise because in the Philippines they were never invited to the house blessing ceremony anywhere . But we did because they had worked very hard to build us our lovely home so they deserved to be invited.

They continued to work outside for one more month until the 15th of October when the last of them left.  The kids had moved in from their dorms so once again we were one family living together.   Now we started planting grass on the lawn and looked for other ornamental plants to fill up the garden.  Ashis watered the lawn everyday while Jayanti helped in the garden  or decorated her room in her own style.  I bought them both 18 speed bicycles but they preferred to walk to the campus nearby.

We were genuinely happy and forgot all our past bad experiences . At this time I decided to buy a luxury car .We had already purchased the adjacent lot of 600 sq. meters so now we had a total of 1200 sq. meters of land.  Jasmine said that we should build another garage in the next lot where the pick up could stay and retile the main garage for the arrival of our new car.  After several visits to many show rooms in Manila we decided on a Nissan Altima with 2 liter engine and leather upholstery.

It is the top of the line Nissan and is very powerful and roomy. It has power steering, electrical doors and windows and side mirrors, power antenna etc. and is truly a magnificent machine. Now Ashis had the full time use of the Nissan pick up that I had purchased earlier .

The best part of our home turned out to be the veranda that all visitors liked. It is spacious  where we can sit and enjoy the cool breeze coming from the  mountains looming nearby  but our  home is very well ventilated and full of natural light due to extra large windows.  Jasmine soon purchased the curtains to complete the  interior decoration.

Surendra who still worked at IRRI came often to visit. He said he was now handling the IRRI outreach in India and elsewhere so constantly traveled . We sat in our veranda savoring the cool breeze and talked about the old days sipping ice cold beer . This is the life we had dreamed of  but now with the help of  Jasmine , it was a reality. The music played softly on the stereo and I could see that  Jasmine glowed with contentment .Kids were also happy.

Thus the years passed . I was contacted by Dr.Singh who was now settled in the United States and wanted me to go to Zambia or Zimbabwe but I said that I had retired .He was surprised but did not say anything. Then some other people wanted me to go to Madagascar but I said the same thing. I was not going anywhere anymore.

Then one day our lovely children who were now grown ups graduated from college .  Ashis got a BS in agricultural economics and Jayanti graduated with a degree in Development communications .  Ashis soon started the graduate program in agricultural economics and Jayanti got a job on campus .  She had been selected as the beauty queen of the university and won a 10000 pesos award and a crown.  She was very popular with every body.

Ashis is the quiet type but he too became popular in his department where he was finishing up his Masteral program . He was over 6 feet two inches tall. He then started working with various projects of the university and did so for almost two years but in  the year 2004 he announced that he was accepted by two top universities in the United States as a graduate student in Agricultural economics. He chose the University of Pennsylvania where he studied under scholarship and eventually decided to get a second Master’s degree in agricultural economics.

Soon after his graduation he was accepted by Monsanto as a trainee in Soda Springs in Idaho and after spending 6 months there as a trainee he was offered a good job in St.Louis ,Missouri by the company .  While at PennState he had met a beautiful girl  whom he decided to marry .  The marriage took place in St.Louis on September 16th, 2007 that was well attended . Jayanti  and  Jasmine among many others were present for the happy occasion.

Jayanti after working on campus for a while decided to go to Australia where she was accepted by the University of Canberra in their information technology course of two years leading to a Master’s degree.  After her graduation she started working in various places until  one day she was given  a good job by the Australian government where she worked as an IT specialist and business analyst. They also gave her the citizenship. However, she surprised us one day by taking up a job in Phnom Penh, Cambodia as a senior IT specialist and soon left for Zambia for a one month long assignment. She in the mean time had also attended a MIT organised workshop in Lahore in Pakistan, visited India to take yoga lessons in Rishikesh , attended a meeting in Austin, Texas among other things and seems always on the go somewhere.

Ashis has nicely settled down in Philadelphia with his wife and two children who are growing up fast. He works in New Jersey for an international company.They are soon to become American citizens so our family is like the UN now.

I wanted my children to see India so we all went to visit  Agra, Jaipur and Delhi and later went up to Nainital , Almora and Ranikhet in the hills. We climbed up the steep Himalayan slopes on horseback to reach the Kedar Badrinath temple at 17000 ft. elevation full of snow in April and rowed boats lazily in the lake in Nainital . We saw Jaipur and the fort nearby .They rode elephants and saw snake charmers and even  dancing bears.

In Delhi we went to Rajghat to see the memorial of Mahatma Gandhi and others and marveled at the Qutub Minar , the presidential palace and the parliament building then visited the red fort and many such places .The Lotus temple which is a Bahai temple is worth seeing in Delhi. The Taj Mahal, the Agra fort, the mausoleum of Akbar in Sikandara, the ruined and abandoned city of Fatehpur  Sikri near Agra , the mausoleum of Sheikh Salim Chisti there  were so many places we saw.

During that trip to India in 1996 , we had decided  to buy a house  in Lucknow and finalized the papers . We now had a nice bungalow in a planned city on the out skirts of Lucknow . This is where Annapurna now lives after her retirement from  her teaching job in a nearby town. She had chosen not to live in the Sri Rampur  house. I also bought a huge 350 cc Royal Enfield motorbike that I kept in our new house so that I could enjoy bike riding once again in India.

But this was the last time we as a whole family would go some where. Kids now had their own lives to live in  Australia and the United states. I  went again to India in 1997 for a short time and returned with Annapurna. This was to be her third and the last visit to the Philippines. She really liked our new home  and enjoyed the space and the  greenery. We brought her to some  touristic places or flower shows.

The sad news came in the year 2001 when Sushmita called one day to say that mom had died . It was the month of March and the day was the 8th. I called Sri Ram Pur so Nirmal told me that the funeral rites were to be held after 10 days. I then traveled to Sri Ram Pur to attend the last rites of  mom.

She was a wonderful mom but now she was gone. They said that she had a heart attack and expired suddenly .She was 92 . She had lived a long life . The Hindu tradition says that the body must be cremated soon after death but they hold the funeral rites after ten days when the sons have to shave their head and attend to the Vedic rites with of course the guidance of a priest,

I did all that was required and gave Nirmal some money . They shaved my head and I went to the Ganga to perform some ritual ceremonies. The 14 Brahmins were fed and given gifts as was required but finally it was over and I soon  returned to the Philippines. The sad part was that now Annapurna and the Sri Ram Pur folks did not get along at all so she did not attend the last rites of mother. She did all the pooja with the  help of a priest in Lucknow. Sushmita also did not come to Sri Ram Pur and performed the rites in Meerut.

We were no longer a family of brothers and sisters and so soon after the death of our beloved mother. That was the shocking part. Devjani came and was surprised to know that mom had left her and Parvati her remaining money . Mother thought of everyone up to her last moment on earth.

I had during this trip brought home my grandfather’s hand written diary in which he had written down the  family history that my father had continued .It was very dilapidated but I had it photocopied and began the translation in earnest now. The notes I had taken from the conversation I had with mom were now transcribed and one day I completed the document that included the  family tree of both sides. It was a more complete document than the original .

I also had found quite accidentally my father’s silver medal that the British had given him for his services in Waziristan which is now part of Pakistan. This medal was minted in London with my father’s name inscribed on it and has the bust of King George fifth on it so I brought it home along with another gold plated medal that he had received from the seven sisters during that prank he had played in Sri Ram Pur so long ago. I also found his Parker pen. I brought these things to the Philippines and framed them along with his photo in our living room  . I brought the old photo of mom when she was only 11 years old and framed that too along with her latest photo.

Our last trip to India was in the year 2003 when I brought  Jasmine to South India to visit many places there . We landed in Kolkata where  we visited the Adya Peeth Kali temple for a pilgrimage and paid some money to them to fix a marble slab with the names of my father , mother and Kamal chiseled on it . This slab will now be there forever in their memory. I had previously asked them to fix such a slab so there were two of them .

Then we took the train to Chennai where we booked a guided tour of south India for 14 days. We visited many sites in Chennai like the  snake farm, the deer park, the Thiruvalluvar memorial, the museum, the aquarium and the  famous beach called marina. We visited a famous temple and the silk market where we purchased very nice silk saris for Jayanti and Jasmine . We bought expensive shirts for Ashis there as well.

Then we took the bus trip to the hills of Kodaikanal . The guided tour of the south India started on October 1 and took us to Hoshur, Bangalore, Mysore city, palace of Tipu Sultan and his fort , the Vrindavan gardens, the Hills of Ootacamund, the Madhumalai game reserve, the Guruvayur temples in Kerala, Cochin, the waterways of Alleppy, KanyaKumari and the shrines of Swami Vivekananda and Thiruvalluvar there, the temples of Rameshwaram, Madurai, Thanjavur, Mahabali puram, Pondicherry ashram of Aurobindo, the Kanchipuram silk weaving center, the Tirupati temple in Andhra Pradesh and many more such places .

Jasmine visited the famous  and holy Hindu temples and offered pooja and money at each of them. The priests put vermillion powder on her forehead as a symbol of piety . She was blessed by the elephants in Thanjavur and other places .We rode in boats through the scenic waterways of Kerala and climbed to the top of  a hill in a cable car to visit a temple that had its dome completely covered in gold plates. The trip to Tirupati was in itself wonderful and I think Jasmine enjoyed the richness of Indian culture and the  beauty of the south.

We then visited Secunderabad  and saw the famous Golkunda fort, the Birla temple and the zoo among many other sites one whole day and proceeded to Aurangabad where we visited the  Ajanta cave temples and the Ellora temples , the Bibi ka Makbara, the grave of Aurangjeb who was the son of Shahjehan and emperor of India . He was buried in a simple grave of soil with a carved marble screen protecting the grave in the open.

One can write volumes about the Ajanta and Ellora caves but this is not the place for it so I will skip it.  It was an exhaustive trip covering many states and thousands of kilometers by bus and train but finally we arrived in Sri Ram Pur and after a day there went to Lucknow to visit Annapurna. Then it was back to Kolkata and Manila via Brunei.

I took many photos during this and other trips which I now burned into a CD and gave the kids a copy each. I turned thousands of photos and slides into photo CD so that the kids can have their copies.

I had to make one more trip to India  in September of 2006 to settle a long standing issue . I had decided to donate my house in Lucknow to the RamaKrishna Mission so this is what I ended up doing . Annapurna  was allowed to stay there by the mission but I could tell that she did not like my idea at all . My short visit to SriRampur once again was to see Nirmal again and convince him to visit us in the Philippines . However, this was not to be. I understood that his wife did not support the idea but I had to try anyway.

He looked old and frail and told me that he could not climb stairs or do anything strenuous because of palpitations. His food was severely restricted now and he spent most of his time either with his rosary beads or prayer rituals  and had lost all interest in worldly affairs or so it seemed to me . He made no comments about my deed of gift to the RamaKrishna Mission or my wish that my share of the proceeds of the ancestral home should be donated to charitable missions.

I saw a few of my old acquaintances but they all griped about how hard it was to live in India, how corrupt the society, how polluted the atmosphere, how no one cared about anyone or how  there was so little to be cheerful about. Listening to them made me depressed as well .

It is true that India had changed dramatically since I first left I 1967 but many of the changes were negative in nature. I did not feel like visiting my alma mater anymore because there was no one there who knew me. The old professors had died or retired and there was no such thing as alumni in our system. The batch mates once graduate left the campus for good never to be found again .

I could see the old Sri Rampur vanishing under the new development that brought more traffic and pollution to the once placid city .There was a new bridge over the river that was a feat of ingenuous engineering but it added to the traffic than to solve it.  The DurgaPooja that I attended was now a commercialized, lack luster affair that brought nostalgic memories of the time when Pooja was  truly a community affair. Our whole family participated then . Now I saw only ghosts of the past.

I longed to get back to the Philippines . I was surprised when Nirmal who seldom saw me off  insisted to accompany me to the train station. He looked sad and forlorn . He so much wanted me to stay in the ancestral home but this was not to be. The past could never be erased but we had learned to live with it and move on .

It seems only yesterday but so many years have gone and so many changes have taken place. Ma is no more . Dad had died a long time ago . Now sisters look only to their self interest and had nothing to say to me and I to them. The next generation is already aloof and drifting apart. That is perhaps inevitable but still lamentable just the same.

In Delhi Surendra was waiting for me because we had planned to visit our old friend Laksman Lal in Hissar where he was now a professor . I had not seen him since 1975 so one day we drove to Hissar. Laksman Lal had aged as we had all but he looked frail and limped due to an accident he had suffered awhile back . Still it was good to see him after such a long time and we reminisced until wee hours. I do not know if I will ever see him again.

Surendra still  comes once in a while to our home. He is now based in Delhi and no longer works for IRRI. He plans to build a beautiful home right next to ours so that we can grow old together. Dr. Singh still works in the United States where he is settled. Subroto has now retired as the vice chancellor of an agricultural university in Bengal.

Dr. De la Cruz has died . Suranjeet I heard now works in Jullunder in India. Robert Springstein is now a professor of agricultural economics in a famous university in the United States.

Ramesh who was my classmate at the Institute in Sri Ram Pur now stays in Delhi and works as a consultant after his retirement from the Fertilizer company. Susanto has also retired as  an under secretary in the ministry of agriculture of Bengal. He had visited me in our new home a few years ago.There is no news of Abhit who used to work as a block development officer in Bengal the last time I heard.

My mentor and professor Dr. Chowdhury of Sri Ram Pur  has died .

The news from India has died down . I know that my two sisters died and the third is dying of cancer. The money I sent them should be useful at a time like this but they all have stopped writing. Nirmal who had heart surgery , lives in Delhi and has cut off all contacts with us so there is not much I can do.

Very few people from the Vietnam era or Algeria keep in touch with me but that too is expected . People of my age are in their sixties  now. This is the time when the health problems start to crop up, family ties loosen and  perhaps break apart resulting in divorce or worse, children grow up and leave etc. All these factors make people less social and more of introverts. I am not complaining .

My life has been rich in experience . Now I must stop here . I am happy and contented with life because  Jasmine is by my side  .We live in the big house in a peaceful area. Our life now is peaceful and without excitement as it should be at this age.

The saga of the Sri Rampur house 

My last chapter was supposed to be the one I wrote and published last but as life goes on, many things happen so I would like to write about them as well. Jayanti  lived  in Sydney, Australia for a while where she was the senior consultant for an IT company and frequently traveled to many parts of Australia to give lectures on IT related topics to CEOs of big companies and such groups. 
She now works in Cambodia where she develops programs for the government to make social services more accessible to the poorer section of the society and works in Africa as the program leader of similar projects.

Our son works in the United States and lives in Philadelphia. They have two children. They are now permanent residents of the United States which means they will become citizens in the future. Jayanti is already a citizen of Australia so we in our family all have different passports meaning different nationalities.

But the Sri Ram Pur chapter had to come to a close so in 2010 , a buyer was found and the ancestral home was sold and Nirmal moved to Delhi with his wife for good. Now the house where we all grew up and shared so many years of togetherness was locked up and dark.The new owners have not decided yet what to do with it. The garden must be full of weeds and the cobwebs everywhere but that is what happens when a house is locked up. I can imagine the empty rooms full of dust with footprints of mice everywhere . Once it was a very decent home full of light,laughter and music with Pa and Ma in charge but that was a long time ago.

Now the circumstances dictated that the house be sold because no one wanted to live there. I suggested the idea that Nirmal should move to Delhi to be near his daughter and grandchildren so eventually that is what he did .He is quite happy now and feels that it was the right move for them. Annapurna lives in Lucknow in the house that I donated to the mission and our youngest lives in Meerut. We have made our permanent home here in the Philippines. 

Shanti and Devjani have both died in the mean time but I gave my share of the proceeds from the sale of the house to all the sisters and their children so they are happy.
The letters have stopped coming and no news comes .The e mail or Skype is useless because Nirmal or my sisters do not have computer and they do not know how to type.They are also afraid of the technology.
My younger sister calls may be once a year and sometimes asks when I will visit them. I have a pat answer saying I do not know. The truth is I really do not know.

 

Note :  My blogs are also available in French, Spanish, German and Japanese  languages at the following links as well as my biography:

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Anil’s biography in English.

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Chapter thirteen : Land of Mahdi-Sudan- 1991 to 1994

 

Land of Mahdi- Sudan – 1991 to 1994

I had often thought of quitting the overseas work and return to the Philippines  for good . Living alone overseas did not appeal to me any more. The kids were growing up and Jasmine was handling them alone . I also did not need the money .We had a very nice house in Naga all paid for and were solvent. Jasmine was not extravagant  and we lived a simple but comfortable life so there was no need for me to stay in places like Karuzi in Africa.

The African problems had to be solved by themselves .I found the Burundian people at ISABU very uncooperative because they did not share the idea of farmer as a partner in development. It was their schooling and training that was top heavy .It was just like in Mali except that here the mentors were Belgians who taught them values that did not mesh well with the concept of working with poor farmers. The intellectuals if they could be called that were Tutsis who had no empathy with the Hutu farmers.

They resented that I pushed for appropriate technology to help solve farmer’s problems. When I designed a hand operated grain blower to clean grains that was actually based on an IRRI design, they laughed at me and said that I was going backwards. The way to go forward for them was to import expensive machinery from Belgium  and not build primitive hand operated tools.

These people had a closed mind that nothing could penetrate . I loved the farmers in Burundi. They were simple people who were excited with the new blower or the crop varieties that increased their yield but the Burundian researchers had other ideas. It was just like in Mali.  The project gave me full autonomy in doing my work so I did a lot of good and very productive work . Americans were happy and came to see the trials in Karuzi .

But literally I had enough. I was tired of dealing with the Burundians who could not understand what farming system was all about . I sought their cooperation but only the North Koreans were interested . The ISABU director had died in a road accident so my link with them was also lost. Then the Frenchman in the project had started spreading lies about me so that too discouraged me to stay on and fight this lonely battle.

So I left Burundi gladly . I did not know what the FAO was going to do because I had not heard from them .I was at this point not too keen on working anywhere and wished to go back to my  loving family in the Philippines but I had to make a stop at Sri Ram Pur once again.

Nirmal’s daughter was getting married so they wanted me to attend her marriage . I had to spend nearly two months there and then pick up Annapurna to bring her to the Philippines . She was eager to travel abroad for the first time in her life and visit the Philippines.

I have written  enough about the Sri Ram Pur people so I will not repeat myself . I found Nirmal very busy preparing for the marriage of his only daughter .The groom had been selected through match making as was the custom and he had purchased the gold jewelry etc. already  that he showed me eagerly. There was some communal tension in Sri Ram Pur  so the mayor had imposed curfew that made going around difficult . But somehow  the preparations went ahead and  the invitation cards printed.

Nirmal had included my name on the card as sponsor but I noticed that in the final printing my name was omitted because Sabita did not want it. She had also refused my gift of a Sony radio/tape recorder to her daughter by saying that they could afford a better one . I had given Nirmal a check in dollars for his daughter that he neglected for a while to put safely away and left it here and there on the coffee table or somewhere else .

When I asked for one invitation card to give to someone, Nirmal neglected that as well until a day before the marriage making it clear that my guests were not important to him . My gift of the radio was later passed on to Parvati  because Sabita did not want it . As if they were bent on humiliating me in every respect .I put up with everything silently .

I was a stranger here so could not really help him in anything because I did not know anyone anymore . I waited patiently for my stay to end so that I could leave but one week in that house seemed very long let alone two months. Annapurna did not make it any easier by constantly harping on my silence and said I was a very boring person who did not know how to talk to anyone . I did not go out or talk to anyone .

Finally the day of the marriage the groom’s party arrived from Delhi by train so I went to the station to receive them along with Nirmal and others. There was a problem when the bus driver could not be found anywhere while the guests waited so I suggested to hire a few taxis but I was  over ruled  in this effort.  Nirmal’s friends did not give me any importance because they took their cue for him. Anyway the driver was later located  and the guests lodged in a hotel but here too there were problems.

The hotel rooms and the bathrooms were dirty because the person in charge had failed to clean everything before the guests arrived. Again I tried to help but my help was ignored . Later in the evening they all arrived at the house but there was no one to receive them .The reception committee of girls was busy with lipsticks and mascara so it was very embarrassing for Nirmal being the host and the father of the girl.

I was just a silent witness to all these dramas . The reception for the invitees was held outside the house on the sidewalk under a tent where the caterers prepared food and coffee and put them on tables for the guests to help themselves  . This was the new trend. Gone were the traditions of serving food to the guests and urging them to eat. Now people came to eat by picking what they wanted and soon left without once entering the house and seeing the bride and the groom or any one . Many did not know who I was so paid no attention. Nirmal was busy with the ceremony inside the house.

My mom was also ignored. She was old and could not help anyone in any way but she still was the owner of this big house and being the grandmother of the bride deserved some respect and attention but Sabita said that she was too busy even to die . The girls stayed up whole night playing VHS movies one after the other along with the bride and the groom .I was told that this too was a new tradition . They also inspected each and every gift to evaluate its worth and who gave what. This was to be their subject for the gossip in days and weeks to come.

I was very annoyed by everything I saw. Now we had to leave for Delhi where another reception was planned . There too it was the same story. The caterers left the food on the table for the invitees to take as they wished . I did not know anyone there so no one paid any attention to me . But I was happy that it was finally over and we could leave for the Philippines.

So one fine morning we flew to Manila and from there by bus to Naga.  Jasmine wanted Annapurna to enjoy her stay with us so spared no expense to make her comfortable. She bought her gifts, took her to parties at her friend’s house, to movies and to many scenic places like Balatan and Legaspi to show her the Mayon volcano. She took many photos for her and gave her the prints in several albums to take back to India.

There is no limit to Jasmine’s generosity because she has a big heart unblemished by petty feelings and jealousy . It was as if she could not do enough for Annapurna . So Annapurna returned to India very happy .Her visit to the Philippines and her first trip abroad flying for the first time was very successful  . She had many photos to show and many things to talk about but found Sabita not interested. Her relationship with them was from this point on to go steadily downward.

Soon the FAO office in Rome offered me the job of the project chief of a Farming System’s Project in Sudan and hired me as the  Chief Technical Adviser or CTA in the multi million dollar project and invited me to go to Rome for the two week orientation program. This was in January 1992.

I was sad to leave Jasmine and the kids again but promised her that it was going to be my  last assignment so she had to bear with me for a while. I will come home during leave and she and the kids will be able to visit me in Sudan during the school holidays . I did not tell the FAO that it was to be my last assignment because it was none of their business.

The FAO office in Rome is on via delle Terme di Caracalla near the old ruins of the Roman bathhouses of Caracalla and is a massive monolithic and quite ugly building with marble façade . It is also close to the Colliseum and can be reached by the metro Circus  Massimo . It covers enormous grounds and is complete with the flags of all nations that UN represents  fluttering in the wind in the front .

The security is really tight in the building. No one can go in without first checking in with the security people who then call someone you knew there to verify if you are expected and then issue you a temporary  pass for the visit . In my case they had to issue a 14 day pass later on that I had to always wear  for scrutiny by the guards. I was also given the commissary card  but I had no use for the  whisky and got some  chocolate they sold there .

There is a nice book store where I found the Salman Rushdie book that the clerk charged me double for  by saying that it was the last copy. I naturally could not bring a book like that to where I was going so sent it to Jasmine through someone who was going to Manila .

The FAO offices were just cubicles on both sides of the long  corridors on every floor and were spartan .There were some 3000 employees so you could  easily get lost there and had to remember the floor and the corridors. People sat in front of their computer terminals and peered into the screen whole day or talked to overseas managers endlessly on phones. I found many of them very nervous and chain smoking . They were also cool and calculating but one of them invited me to have coffee with him upstairs.

The Egyptian woman was meticulous in explaining the complex accounting procedures to me for several days and the very nervous finance officer explained to me how their finsys or financial system program worked on the computer  without ever looking at me and smoking constantly.

On a Sunday I walked around the thieves market nearby or went to the Vatican that I was familiar with. I had spent one month in Italy when I was working in Algeria . So on the whole the training went well.

The UN people are real gentlemen and very proper in everything they did like giving me an extensive training in accounting and office procedures  and giving me a detailed contract that spelled out everything about my salary , benefits and privileges. They determined my salary based on my qualification and years of experience and not on my last salary.

This was in sharp contrast to the Americans who would not even give me a written appointment letter and failed to mention what rights and benefits I had or deserved. One of them even said that I had no rights, only some privileges implying that they could be taken away anytime.

 I was very impressed by the FAO and its staff in Rome. Everything was done by them including my visa to Sudan and the generous allowances to settle me down there. I was the CTA of an important project with a huge budget and had the sole discretion to spend the money of course according to the UN rules to advance the project goal , hire the personnel and set up the project in five locations in Sudan from scratch . My only guide was the project document and the accounting procedures I had learned in Rome.

They promised to send me technical help from time to time from Rome but on the ground I was the head and no one could challenge my sole authority. I learned as much as I could about Sudan and its people but the real education began when one bright morning I arrived in Khartoum .

The FAO was the dream job for the professionals because so few are chosen. However, I had the qualifications and the experience they were looking for although the ability to speak Arabic would have been a great advantage to me. But to find a Ph.D. in agronomy with vast experience  in the Farming System’s research who could speak Arabic was almost an impossibility so I was the choice of the FAO.

You can see the Aswan dam in Egypt flying high over it and the huge lake Nasser spread out over the desert . But Egypt was mostly desert with the Nile flowing south to north and irrigating a very narrow strip of land on both sides that was green .The rest was brown . Further on we were in Sudan but the landscape did not change at all. It was still the same Nile and the brown desert on both sides.

Now as I approached Khartoum ,some green patches appeared . Here the Blue Nile came down from the highlands of Ethiopia and met at Khartoum with the White Nile that originated in Uganda and Burundi and became one mighty Nile . I had read that General Gordon who was employed as the Governor of Sudan by the Khedive of Egypt in the 18th century was murdered by the fanatic hordes of a madman called Mahdi who preached fundamentalism .

Gordon appealed for help from London but the help came too late. Queen Victoria urged her generals to save Gordon but the bureaucracy and the difficulty in communications  delayed the expedition force that finally arrived late and took tremendous revenge on Mahdi’s followers. Mahdi in the mean time had died .

His remains were dug up and scattered to the jackals by the British. They hanged a lot of people in reprisal to General Gordon’s death and would stay for nearly one hundred years to rule Sudan .Here the educated people spoke English but Arabic was the national language. The British brought the railway and telegraph to Sudan and taught the people the governance and built  many institutions to do so.

My first impression of Khartoum was a negative one. It was a shabby, dusty and dry city laid out in a rigid grid pattern on the eastern side of Nile. You could hardly see any tree anywhere although there was some greenery near the river. They grew some crops and fruit trees on some islands in the middle of Nile . The other side of Nile was Omdurman which is an old city where there is a huge mausoleum of Mahdi .His bones were rescued by his followers and now burried in the place which was a national shrine.

The Hilton hotel is located near the Nile where I stayed but soon moved out to another hotel in town . The FAO office did not send anyone to pick me up at the airport because they said they did not know I was coming . Their office is on the 10th floor of a tall building where I was introduced to the representative and others . The program officer was from Yemen and a nice person. He took me to Wad Medani and other places to introduce me to the Sudanese people who would one way or the other be useful to my project.

At this time Sudan was fighting a long protracted war in the south where the mainly Christian people of various tribes were seeking autonomy from the Moslem north but Khartoum was insistent upon fighting because they wanted the entire country to be under Moslem and sharia law. The war had devastated the south and sent hundreds of thousands of refugees some of whom were settled near Khartoum in massive camps in the  desert.

One could see these tall and often ugly Dinka tribesmen in Khartoum and elsewhere in the country but the Arabic speaking Sudanese populated the north .They wore white gowns and very white turbans. Women did not veil themselves but wore a chador over their head . One could see mosques everywhere reminding you that you were in a Moslem country.

Wad Medani is about 60 km from Khartoum and is the head quarter of the Agricultural Research Council or ARC that overseas all agricultural research in Sudan and was involved in my project that I had come to set up with their help. Wad Medani is in the middle of a vast agricultural plain  called Gezira that is irrigated and produces cotton, sorghum, corn , small millets and many such crops on large scale. They use small aircrafts to spray the fields . Here I met with the director of ARC who said that he had studied at Calpoly in the United States which was my alma mater .

So it looked as if I was in the right place after all. I was eager to go to El Obeid which is where I was supposed to stay and set up the project office but I did not have security clearance to leave Khartoum. No one could travel anywhere in Sudan without one so I waited for several weeks until it came through. I placed advertisements in local news papers to announce that the project was in need of field assistants soon and checked with the local UN office about vehicles and started sending orders for office supplies etc.

Then one day I flew out to El Obeid in the ARC Fokker aircraft .It is some 600 km by road but the road is good and asphalted all the way. I was to meet with the researchers of the ARC station here where they were to give me the office space and facilitated the start of the project. They had a radio through which I could reach Khartoum or Wad Medani  . The Sudanese who worked here considered themselves the elite of the country in terms of education and mostly connections .

It did not take them long before they started name dropping like the minister of agriculture is their cousin or they know the president etc. They showed me the office space they would give me but presently it was used as a warehouse full of foul smelling something that would require at least a month to clean up . They were eager for the project to start and offered me tea and promise of help. This was the honeymoon period so to speak.

I took advantage of my short one day visit to line up a house to rent as my residence and bargained with the land lord to a reasonable rent and gave him one month to fix up the house that needed a lot of renovation and fixing. This done I looked for a carpenter who had a workshop and ordered a house full of furniture that he promised to  make and deliver in one month time . So within 24 hours I had a house and furniture and an office that would all be hopefully ready in one month’s time.

I flew back to Khartoum greatly elated by what I had accomplished in a short visit. Now I had to see how many vehicles had been ordered and where were they garaged. I had to get the vehicles out, hire some drivers and get the UN license plates for them . Then I placed an order to deliver a tanker of fuel to El Obeid that our office in Khartoum secured in Port Sudan. I also ordered motorbikes for the field assistants .

I found 10 vehicles stored in various offices by the UN so I got them out, fixed the plates on them and took them to a research station in Khartoum to park there until I could move them to El Obeid and elsewhere. I was walking around so far but now I had my own car and a driver .

The applicants for the post of field assistants started to come in for interviews and I spent a lot of time with them and selected a few but the main issue was to select a local project director who was to be my counterpart . After screening several candidates I selected a fellow from El Obeid station and asked the FAO to appoint him with a good salary .This was done after some delay but finally his appointment came through but the thorny issue of national project professionals or NPPs remained unsolved.

In El Obeid lived a German CTA in another project who had promised me a house and help me settle down but he died in an automobile accident at this time. But I had found a house on my own and was eager to move to El Obeid soon. Because the rains were due in May so I was pressed for time to get a work plan for the season prepared soon before the planting began.

The security clearance had delayed me in Khartoum for nearly two months but now there was no time to lose . I left for El Obeid soon and settled in my renovated house where soon all the furniture were set up. The carpenter had kept his word and the landlord had done so too. Only the question of the office remained which was still being cleaned but I ordered office furniture and the FAO delivered tons of office supply etc. The computers I had ordered in HongKong also arrived so the office started shaping up fast.

But I was troubled by the calculating looks of the Sudanese researchers who soon started bringing their female cousins to apply as my secretary. They looked at me with suspicion and mistrustful eyes . One in particular struck me as a devious person who had eyes like snake and face full of pock marks .  He was the director of the station and often name dropped.

These girls all came loaded with gold jewelry but could speak little or no English. Their typing skills were very doubtful as well so I rejected all of them. I then found an Egyptian  woman  who was young and spoke English reasonably well. She was naturally fluent in Arabic and knew how to type so I hired her on the spot. This did not sit well with the Sudanese because she was a Coptic Christian but selecting a secretary was purely my prerogative so I ignored their snide remarks and got on with the job.

I had brought most of the vehicles to El Obeid and the fuel had arrived to be stored at the station . I had also hired the drivers and opted for an administrative assistant who could get things done in Khartoum for me. I was in good mood and set about making a work plan for the coming season The field assistants were selected and sent to their stations . In addition to El Obeid I was to administer 4 other stations spread out all over Sudan .These were  Idd el Ghanam, Umm Kadada  in  the Darfur region west of Sudan and Ed damer and El Saada   in the eastern part of Sudan.

So I went to all the sites and helped settle the field assistants there in rented houses and brought them motorbikes and the vehicles with the driver and some fuel. They started the selection of farmers for the field trials that were to start soon but we were still working on the trial protocols in El Obeid.

Sudan is a vast country . West of El Obeid there are no roads but trails through arid regions that look like desert. You could fly to Nyala to reach Idd el Ghanam or to El Fasher up north to reach Umm Kadada but these two airports had only dirt strips that became soft during heavy rains so planes had difficulty in landing. By road it was too tiresome and took several days.

The road to Idd el Ghanam was particularly bad where even the 4 wheel drive vehicles bogged down in the deep mud or got stranded because the wadis ran full and could not be crossed.  The road to Umm Kedada was a bit easier  because it was mostly desert.

The roads in the east were better so I could easily drive to Ed Damer because the road was newly asphalted upto Shendi by Osama Bin Laden’s company and the road from Ed Damer to El Saada was just desert trails so also easy.

But the distances were vast. It took me two days to reach Ed Damer from El Obeid and the same time to return making the road travel bone weary. There are a number of roadside stands selling food and drinks 24 hours a day but in some places like Umm Kadada, the food was truly awful .

Back in El Obeid I pushed hard for the completion of the work plan and asked the El Obeid researchers to get busy planting the trials in various sites with the help of our field assistants . Now the trouble began in ernest.

I found out that these Sudanese were not used to work in the fields because they considered themselves elite of Sudan. They hired assistants and laborers from the station to do their job. I did not agree with this set up because in a farming system’s project it was the farmer who was our partner. He did most of the work under the supervision and active participation of the researcher.

It was against the principle to bring in hired laborers to work in the farmer’s field but the Sudanese insisted on this way and now demanded that their workers be paid full time plus overtime . They also demanded enormous salaries for themselves. When I said that I observed they did not go to the field and did not in any way work in the project, their answer was that they were thinking so I have to pay them for their thinking exercises.

The ARC people came but they sided with the Sudanese researchers of El Obeid . It was a very bad beginning for the project but elsewhere in the western part and in the eastern part the work took off and many trials were planted the very first season.

But soon every one started asking for money. The gas station attendant of the station would not fill our vehicles with our gasoline unless I paid him, the guards would not watch our offices at night and so on. When I argued that the Sudanese government has signed a legal document saying that they will be responsible for a great number of things like office space, housing for the staff and rent etc. ,it fell on deaf ears. No one honored the agreement between the FAO and the government.

I in the mean time was pushing very hard for the FAO to formalize the contract to hire the national professionals and sent to them all relevant documents . Finally one day it was signed and the NPPs were now directed to work full time for the project and report only to me . But again they balked and said they could not work full time for the project but wanted full salary. Most of them worked as consultants outside and used the project computers at night to do their work. This earned them good money plus they did not have to work for me but got paid just the same.

The snake eyed person was their leader and spokesperson  . In short they found the FAO project their fat milking cow  . They did not care about farmers  or ways to help them but always bragged about the package of technology they were developing for them. I was in an impossible situation.

My counterpart was the worst person chosen and the fault was partly mine. I had trusted his resume and the endorsement of the ARC in Wad Medani. He was given a car, a driver and an office but he did nothing. He went out but not to the fields and wanted to control the money. This was not allowed under the rules. Only I as project manager and CTA was responsible to the FAO to spend and account for the money but he resented  it .

When I asked him to read a report I had prepared to send to the FAO, he kept it on his desk for two months and said he was writing the forewords. No one had asked him to write anything so the reports were delayed. He started conspiring against me and saying that I was paid high salary whereas he was paid pittance although he was equally qualified etc. etc.

The Khartoum Government did not respond to my request for them to pay the rents of the houses for the junior staff and build their permanent residences as soon as possible but they always said that they were short of funds so no rent could be paid and no houses were built. The situation in Ed Damer was very bad where the female staff had to be housed properly. In Idd el Ghanam it was the same story where an FAO employee from Tunisia  who was also a CTA decided not to cooperate with my project and help my staff  there to the great embarrassment of the FAO in Rome.

He would say one thing to the visitors from Rome and do another when they left. He saw our project as a rival and not as a partner and made awful remarks. Then the Sudanese person who was the coordinator in Ed Damer started stealing money and made false receipts in Arabic knowing I could not read or write Arabic. A receipt of 100 pounds became one thousand by adding a zero while he pocketed the 900 . This went on unnoticed until the Arabic speaking accountants in Rome spotted the  anomaly and asked me to explain. But this would happen after almost two years.

I was having difficulty in keeping an eye on 5 sites while the UN cut our project budget drastically  but Rome advised me to shut  down two sites and transfer the staff elsewhere to consolidate the project.

El Obeid is a dusty town  where only a few roads are asphalted . Sometimes the rains flooded the town to a depth of few feet . It had one cinema and one park where people sat in the evening to escape the  heat. It had one hotel and a few low class restaurants . The only place where I could go and sit was the Syrian club where the El Obeid Syrians gathered a few times a week to socialize or play volleyball. They warmly accepted me and often invited me to their homes . They were  Sudanese but remained apart because they were Catholics. The girls wore short skirts and western clothes that the Moslem mollahs did not like . They castigated anything western on TV and radio all the time  . The Syrians did not mix with the Egyptians who were Coptic.

The Egyptian Coptics had their own club and their women too wore short skirts and western clothes making the Mollahs upset. It was a Moslem country where one could see the cement hands holding Koran and a gun in many traffic circles . Women were shabbily treated  and often shouted at .

I stopped this practice when I forbade anyone shouting at my secretary and insisted that she be treated with respect and dignity. In return they accused me of being a foreigner who did not understand their culture.

Sudanese often asked me if I was a Pakistani or Bangladeshi .When I said no, then they assumed I was an Indian Moslem and were very surprised when I said no again .  What was an Indian Hindu doing in a Moslem country ?

The housing situation in Ed Damer got worse so I made a decision. I gathered all the villagers and asked their help to build a residence complex for us just outside their village. The project would provide the doors and windows and some other costs . They agree and built adobe houses in a short time and a separate house for the female field assistant . In El Obeid I had found some shelter for them in some villages but in Idd el Ghanam now called Idd el Fursan I still had trouble and paid the rent from the project funds. I had to take care of the staff everywhere and explain to the FAO later the justification for the expenses.

One of my staff based in Nyala fell seriously ill and had to be evacuated to Khartoum by plane but the pilot refused to take the responsibility so I had to get a doctor from El Obeid to certify that the patient needed very urgent medical assistance. He was flown to Khartoum but he died soon after anyway. Another of my staff in El Obeid was seriously sick so I took him to Wad Medani personally where he had a brother to look after him. He got well. So there were many problems that I had to handle right away.

One of the more serious problems was that of communication with the field and Khartoum . At first another project office helped in transmitting the radio messages for me but soon the radio operator started asking for money. They were all UN projects and were in theory supposed to help other UN projects but I had mentioned about the Tunisian in Idd el Fursan .It was the same story here as well.

I tried to make friends with them by inviting them to my house for dinner. They came and had dinner but  never returned the courtesy. They were aloof and uncooperative from the start and nothing I could do to win their heart.

Jasmine and the kids came to El Obeid to spend their vacation but really there was nothing to do for them .It was worse than Timbuctoo. Jayanti learned how to bake cake at the Catholic mission and also had her hands dyed with henna but Ashis was really bored . There was nothing to read and I had no TV. Jasmine tried to keep busy with cooking and some house keeping but said one day that she did not trust my servant. Perhaps he was stealing money.

I took them to the El Obeid water reservoir one day and had a picnic. The foreigners of El Obeid were a strange lot and unfriendly .When we invited one Dutch fellow to dinner, he forgot to show up . Others came but never returned the courtesy. I had become thin due to constant traveling all over Sudan and poor food on the road that worried Jasmine and the kids.

I took them to Khartoum which at the best of times was not a pretty town . Jasmine was dismayed at the shabby hotel rooms where I mostly stayed and poor quality food. There was an Indian family in Omdurman where they served traditional Indian food so that is where we used to go. She was terrified one day when the infamous haboub hit Khartoum one day.

Haboub is a terrible dust storm that can appear suddenly and  cloak  the entire city in darkness in broad day light  . The dust is so thick and choking that one has trouble breathing even inside a closed car. It was a novel experience for her .She had never known anything like it and was glad when it was over. I used to go to Omdurman to buy some books they sold on the sidewalks .I picked up a few good books on Sudan there.

This story is not complete without mentioning the Nepalese fellow who came to join my project. I had to get the approval of the Sudanese government for this fellow to come and join the project so one day he showed up and said that he was an economist . His idea I soon found out of  survey consisted of interviewing 4  or 5 farmers to fill up long questionnaires and then he wrote up voluminous reports by extrapolating the answers . He called it key informant survey. I called it a preposterous short cut that produced erroneous conclusions but he insisted .

He lived alone and refused invitation to my house . In 18 months that he stayed  , I went to his house only once for 30 minutes so our relationship was cold and unfriendly . I do not know why it turned out that way but it was like everything else in Sudan. He left the project but left no mark. He vanished and I never knew where he went .

Jasmine did not enjoy the terribly long flight back to the Philippines but at least we were able to see each other. Soon I went home for my first leave. Back in Sudan the grinding work and fighting the bureaucracy and the devious Sudanese of El Obeid sapped my energy like never before.

But by this time I had received the long awaited radio that I installed in my office at El Obeid and was from that time on able to reach any part of Sudan. I sent my secretary to Khartoum for one week of training on how to use the radio  .She was an excellent student . She typed my reports, did the accounts with my help, went with me to the bank,  handled the radio to receive or send messages, solved any problem I had like the alternate fuel storage facility that she found for me down town. She did many such chores with a smile and more while the administrative assistant  looked for something to do.  I was very happy with her but the Sudanese were plotting against her to get her out of the project.

The Yemeni project coordinator in  Khartoum in the meantime had been posted in Egypt . He had been very friendly and helpful to me but his replacement was another story. This fellow of unknown nationality was hostile to me from day one and often spoke in an uncivilized manner on the radio that many others could listen to .

I had to from time to time do the budget revision as mandated by the UN but one day I found to my surprise and dismay that this chap had done a budget revision by him self and sent it to the UN office as a result of which some 60000 US dollars were slashed from my project.

I said that what he did was wrong. I could report him and get fired on the spot but he was very well connected in Rome. That is how he had gotten his job in the first place. I fought very hard for several days to get this money restituted to my project and had to go to many ministries and wait for long hours for them to sign or write letters . The Egyptian fellow at the UN office was also very unfriendly and kept me waiting in the outer room for long time while he attended to other matters . He said that he had to correct my English .Obviously it took him a long time to do that.

But finally the money was restituted . I said that if he did such mischief again then he will be in more trouble than he can handle. No budget revision is ever to be submitted without my approval and signature because that is the rule. I never reported this misconduct of the project coordinator to the FAO although it became known to the Rome office somehow anyway.

The bad roads in the west took their toll on the vehicles that now needed frequent repairs and spare parts that were hard to find in Sudan. The photocopying machine in my office started breaking down as well. Some one borrowed the project camera and returned it later but it never worked again.  My servant meanwhile was caught red handed stealing from my house so he was taken to the jail only to be released a day later.

They said that they had no budget to feed the prisoners .The fellow promptly left the town but a policeman came and suggested to me  that for the consideration of a fee ,he was willing to go and look for the culprit in Khartoum . It was a pure con job so I disagreed. The thief had stolen my money, the traveler’s checks and the project camera . I never recovered most of the money and the camera but the American express after nearly 8 months of writing refunded me the loss.

The second year work plan was made on time and field trials started but the problem of national professionals remained and got worse. The animal science part of the project was doing well in El Obeid and also in Darfur. The agronomy work continued in Ed Damer but so did the stealing.

There the driver lent the vehicle to an unauthorized person who caused serious damage to the car. The repair bill was horrendous so I wanted to fire the driver. Now the driver ran to his mentor for protection who happened to be the former ambassador to the United States who had begged me to hire this fellow.

He promptly called now the FAO rep to protest and said that the driver was a poor fellow and should be given a second chance etc. etc.  The FAO rep was an American fellow who often had compelled me to hire people in my project whom he wanted to get rid of himself. I paid the repair bill and took the driver back.  Such is the power of connection. In Sudan it seemed that everyone was  connected .

Hiring people was easy but firing them was not. They made lifelong enemies but I had no choice but to fire the administrative assistant who was of no use to me and a few drivers. I also fired a field assistant for the neglect of his duties but I could not fire the national project director yet. The researchers at the El Obeid station were also proving to be difficult to handle because they still refused to work full time for the project and wanted full time pay.

So I sent the Director of the ARC in Wad Medani to Rome to sort out some of the problems I was having with the people in El Obeid . He went there at the project expense that I had authorized but once in Rome he said that it was I who was the problem because I did not understand the Sudanese people etc. No one in Rome believed him and sent him home.

Western Darfur :  If you watch the CNN or BBC these days you will often see the Western Darfur and the problems there . In 1992 the problems were in the making and simmering under the surface . Darfur is bigger than France in size so you can imagine the distance. Here there was a conflict developing between the nomads who called themselves Arabs and had large herds of camels and goat or sheep that they constantly moved from region to region for grazing.

This brought them into conflict with the settled farmers who also had their animals and contested the  grazing of huge herds of animals on their territory the nomads brought in.  Darfur is very dry and animals had to be watered in few watering holes near the villages that also caused conflicts that would later erupt in full scale war in which thousands died and millions would become refugees in vast camps . But in 1992 I could still drive to Umm Kadada that I had to soon close due to budget cuts .

There is a bad road between El Fasher and Nyala but south of Nyala there are no roads. During the rainy season I had to cross the  fast flowing wadis in the evening using the car headlights as the source of light and holding on to a rope and carrying our bags on our heads . This is how bad it was there. Then there were roots and sharp objects under water that could seriously damage the tires . If you have ever tried to change a tire in mud and water when jacking up the car is nearly impossible , you will know what I mean.

Here in the south Darfur many Africans had settled who had come long ago from West Africa with the intention to go to Mecca on pilgrimage but had never made it .They now settled in villages near the wadis which run dry most of the time but are  full during heavy rains. During the dry season the wadis look dry but there is moisture under the sand so these farmers plant mango trees near the wadis . A wadi is a natural drainage system .

So the mango trees grew very well and produced tons of fruits. They also planted banana and many other crops . The villages here had a settled look. But now they were in conflict with the Arab nomads who invaded their territory for grazing and water . The Arabs hated the villagers whom they considered non Arabs and would attack them again and again but that was  still a few years away.  I had to keep the staff here, keep them supplied with fuel for the vehicles and rent for their houses and salary every month.

But when I wanted to send a computer there on the UN plane one day, the project coordinator from Khartoum refused .This was the same fellow who had  revised my budget without authority and my consent. I had earlier written about the Tunisian fellow here . I sent him music cassettes as a gift and invited him to El Obeid or in Khartoum but he always refused.

The Filipino community in Nyala is worth mention here as well. There were only two or three of them but they had heard of my Filipino wife through the grape vine . They would say hello only if you had a Filipino wife and not otherwise .They really did not care who you were but would always press their resumes on your hand just in case you were hiring .If you said no you were not hiring anyone, then  they would just turn away and never look at you again.  The one who ended up living behind my house in El Obeid later could never stop bragging about his house and cars  back home and how much money he was spending bringing gifts for the relatives.

But one person who was an Englishman and lived in Nyala is worth writing about as well. He had an Iranian wife who hated everyone . Once I went to  his house just to say hello because he had seemed friendly in the past . Now he hurriedly came out to meet me outside his house sort of blocking the main door . She soon peeped to see who had come and made faces. He then asked her in a pleading voice if she would be so kind enough to prepare a cup of coffee for me to which she did not reply at all.

Instead she just stood there for several minutes not saying anything  and disappeared  somewhere. I understood  and took the hint . I was not fond of coffee anyway . But I always found it odd that foreigners who were so totally isolated  and a thousand kilometers from  anywhere could be so unfriendly and so  unwelcoming . This was also true in Mali and elsewhere. How can any one explain this phenomenon ? I can’t.

Eastern Sudan : If one considers the western part of Sudan desolate then the eastern part is more desolate because there are vast tracts of featureless land where nothing grows and where there are no villages . Shendi is the only town between Khartoum and Ed Damer and  Shendi is just a hell hole. It has changed little since the days of General Gordon except that the road to Shendi from Khartoum is new and well made. It gets worse after Shendi.

On the way to Shendi you come across the ruins at Meroe where the ancient ones built small pyramids that are no more than 20 or 30 feet in height .None of them are intact and are vandalized . At the base you can still see some very beautiful carvings but they too are vandalized by people writing  Ahmed love Fatima type of graffiti by scratching crudely on the fine carvings. No one cared about the past. At one time Sudanese pharaohs ruled the entire Egypt but that was a long time ago.Then you come to Ed Damer which is another disappointing town on the way to Dongola . Nile in this part takes an S shape and passes through many cataracts before becoming straight at Abu Simbel and Aswan. But I have not gone that far. The trip to Ed Damer and El  Saada all the way from El Obeid was over 900 kms that always wore me out. I had to close the El Saada site due to budget problems and transfer the staff but Ed  Damer continued .

Back in El Obeid the Sudanese now started black mailing the project by saying if they were not hired with high salary they will not cooperate any more and will block any appointment of people if I chose to hire  from elsewhere. I gave them one more chance to prove their worth and asked the FAO to confirm their appointment  using a formula called reimbursable loan agreement or RLA. I did not quite understand how it worked but the problems remained the  same. They liked to get their salary but not work for it.  They had become a total liability to the project and were wasting precious resources .

Jasmine came to visit me during my second year and stayed with me for a month but it was the same story . El Obeid was still the same dusty and dirty town where there was nothing to do for young children or for  Jasmine. Jayanti tried to make friends with the daughters of my neighbor but I do not know if she succeeded. Ashis was worse off but they never complained . This is what I really appreciate in my family. They knew that I was the head of a very difficult project where many people were not cooperating and hell bent on giving me a hard time.

This made me often irritable .They said that I should return home and be happy but I could not. At least not yet. They had to endure the period of Ramadan when no food is available anywhere  but thankfully they came at the tail end of it so I was able to feed them properly. Now I was glad they were going back home . They had seen enough of Sudan and were not impressed  . It is not a tourist country .

I had to go home one more time but the FAO Rome office knew my troubles and proposed that I transfer to Myanmar where they had already obtained the approval of the government but I wished to complete my term of three years in Sudan and leave for good to retire. I was determined that this will be my last  assignment  anywhere. I was not going to go to another hellhole leaving this hellhole .That made no sense but the FAO people were only trying to help me. They were very concerned.

So I went home for a month. I had already discussed with Jasmine the matter of moving to Laguna in the near future where the kids will study at the University so she had in the mean time purchased a lot there. Now during my home leave we drew up plans for a beautiful house that we will build there.  This was also the time when Annapurna came to visit the Philippines the second time. Jasmine said that she will go to Laguna and get the building permit and look for people to build our house.

I returned to Sudan after putting Annapurna back on a plane to Delhi . I could now sense that the Sudan situation was becoming more and more untenable  . I was right. During my absence the counterpart fellow wrote nasty letters to Khartoum accusing me falsely of all sorts of things. I then made up my mind quickly to resign and return to the Philippines .

I wrote to the Rome office that I had come to the conclusion that my usefulness to the project had come to an end therefore I wished to leave Sudan and the FAO by the end of  March of 1994. I had spent more than two years and three months trying to setup this project from the scratch and had succeeded in establishing the project in three parts of Sudan. The junior staff were working well and were doing useful work but I left the fate of the national project director to the FAO.

They replied that I should stay at least until the middle of April because they were sending an evaluation team . This team finally arrived so I spent a whole day and evening talking to them in Khartoum about the project and the problems some had caused . They listened silently without saying anything. Obviously they would hear another side of the story from the  El Obeid trouble makers and then perhaps make up their mind. I did not care.

I had given this project nearly two and half years of my time but now it was time to quit and rest. I had enough of my international career. I later heard that the FAO had fired the national project director and a few others no doubt upon the recommendation of the evaluation team.

I left Sudan behind for good. I did not have the same feeling as in Haiti . I loved the Haitians and the project was tremendously successful but here I was not so sure although I did try. It is just that the odds were too great to overcome. I suggested that my replacement be a Moslem who can read Arabic. I do not know to this day whether the FAO found someone. Now many years later the entire Darfur region is in turmoil .Who knows what is in store for those poor people?

Thus I ended my professional life with a simple letter. It took me to distant places and I was able to achieve a great deal in many countries like Vietnam,Algeria,Burundi and Haiti but everything must come to an end. I gained a lot of experience and met many people, some good and some bad but that is life. The lesson learned is that one has to know who the good people are and cherish them. One has to also know who the bad people are and avoid them.

 

Note :  My blogs are also available in French, Spanish, German and Japanese  languages at the following links as well as my biography:

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Anil’s biography in English.

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Chapter twelve : The blood soaked hills of Burundi -1988 to 1990

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The blood soaked hills of Burundi- 1988- 1990

I left one day in July of 1988 for Addis Ababa where I was to catch a flight to Kigali which is the capital of Rwanda. It was to be a short visit of about one week to see the country and the project first hand and to decide if I will accept the job to work there. I had to meet with many Rwandan and other officials to assess the situation there . I had decided not to bring Jasmine and the kids with me this time if I accepted the job  because uprooting them again would have been hard of  Jasmine and them .

So I mentally prepared myself to work in Africa alone this time but first I had to find out what the project was all about and more importantly who were the project personnel both Rwandan and the foreign experts. It was good of the Americans to offer me to visit the country first and then decide so I was under no obligation to accept the job if I so wished.

I arrived in Kigali to find no one to receive me although I had sent a telex to that effect. The military officer took his time to stamp a transit visa on my passport so by the time I was free to leave, the airport was empty. Then I had to have some local money but the bank was closed so a Rwandan girl changed some money for me. Outside I found a lone taxi and asked the driver to bring me to the hotel called  Hotel des milles collines where I was booked . But here again there was no booking made so I was directed to the hotel called Diplomat where a room could be found.

The Diplomat is a nice hotel and had some people selling beautiful wood carvings and statuettes so I bargained to get a tall Tutsi woman beautifully carved and polished in typical African style . The next morning I found my way to the office where I was to meet with the representative of the project.

Kigali is a hilly town and there are  thousand hills as the name of the hotel suggested . The valley below was full of vast swamps full of papyrus reeds and hippos and crocodiles . I could see it before landing how extensive the swamps were and how green they looked. The town was small and well laid out with a small business district but Rwanda was a poor nation comprised of two tribes of Tutsis and Hutus who mistrusted  each other deeply.

This mistrust was sown by its former colonial master Belgium which made it its business to describe two tribes as distinctly different from each other although to you and me they looked just the same . They even measured the width of the nose to say that Tutsis had sharp nose and thin lips and were taller than the coarse Hutus .  The population was roughly 80% Hutus and 20 % Tutsis but  here the government was Hutu whereas in the neighboring Burundi the government was Tutsi although with roughly the same mix of the population.

They spoke the same language in both countries so the separation of the region into two countries seemed very artificial made of course by the Belgians who separated the two and sowed the seed of mischief that was soon to come. At this time I did not see anything but was told that there was an undercurrent of hatred between the two tribes.

I was given a driver and a car to bring me to Rwerere up in the hills in the north  where the project of farming systems was set up  so soon I was on my way through green hills and arrived late at night in Rwerere . The project here was complete with a guest house and the residences for the project staff and office buildings. There was no electricity here so they used a generator that they turned off at 10 pm but there was water piped in from some source.

Here in the cool mountains of northern Rwanda I saw hills heavily populated  and many farmers could be seen tending their coffee and plantain or banana plantations. Their houses were simple mud house built of red clay. In fact the hills were mostly of  red soil  but very green and full of plants of all kinds.Women worked with babies on their back the African style like in Mali but here the hills were lovingly tended and neatly planted everywhere which was in stark contrast to  Malian jungle  .

We went to the lake Kivu or to a place near it where there was a water fall. People said that it was a favorite place for some to commit suicide where they just jumped off the cliff .I was shocked . Why would anyone commit suicide in such a lovely green country where food was plentiful and climate so cool ? They said that up the hills near the volcano there were plenty of gorillas that Dian Fossey  had studied . Many tourists came to Rwanda to see the gorillas there who were now protected from the poachers by the armed guards.

I liked the beautiful country of Rwanda but was unsure about the job.

I met and talked to many Rwandans and the expatriate staff about the project and visited their sites in some villages. They had set up a huge tree nursery to distribute saplings to farmers to plant on hill slopes to prevent erosion so obviously the project was doing something good. But I found the Rwandans morose and sulking. They were unhappy about something but would not tell me what. The expat staff also were unhappy about something so I sensed that their relationship with the Rwandans was not smooth .

If I joined the project here then I would be in the middle of their quarrel which did not sound very appealing to me . The person whom I was to replace said that he was glad to leave the place . There was also tension among the expat staff so they did not get along very well. The project chief was an American who asked me why I did not publish any technical papers to which I replied that enough has been written about the farming systems already .I was a field person and wrote about my work as a final report but never really cared to publish anything.

He thought that publishing articles is what people should do and looked at me with suspicion . He was not a friendly person but addressed me as Sir which I thought very odd indeed.

Then the American representative from Arkansas suggested that we go to Burundi next door and see if I liked the project there.They also needed an agronomist there so we drove through Butare on to the border one day.I bought some wood carvings of misshapen African figures in Butare that I found typical if not very attractive but arriving at the border, the border guard refused to let me cross to the other side.

It was because the officials in Kigali had made a mistake of writing date of expiry of the visa which had expired before I had even arrived in the country. But the guard was adamant and said that it was not his problem. He said that I should go back to Kigali and correct the problem but we stayed and insisted to go to Burundi. Finally after what seemed like a long wait, the guard finally saw my point and let us through.

We walked across the border when the policemen lifted the barrier. On the Burundi side the project leader had come to pick us up . I noticed that the Burundi outpost had a solar panel telephone with tall antenna . The road slowly climbed up the hills of Burundi snaking through green hills full of coffee bushes and villages until we finally arrived in Gitega where the project had the office and where most of the staff lived.

From my long experience I knew that a project succeeded or failed depending on the relationship among the team members and the relationship with the host country counterparts. Money had very little to do with it. I had very good success in Haiti although Mali was a bad experience where the Malians controlled everything including the money.

My strong personality and ideas about what farming system should be doing did not mesh well with the project staff in Rwanda whose leader insisted on doing very scientific research and publish results. There was nothing very scientific about a farming systems project anywhere. It had mostly to do with trying new crops and varieties, new methods of cultivation and improve the yield .One had to be daring and innovative. You could draw on the expertise of the International research centers around the world and ask them to send you seeds or technical materials . I always received help from IRRI.

Here in Gitega I sensed that it was a better administered project. I was assured of full autonomy in deciding what I wanted to do within the framework of the project goals .They had heard about my success  in Haiti and said that I was to stay in a remote village called Karuzi which was some 60 km from Gitega . The road to Karuzi was a dirt but drivable road.

I did not mind the isolation of Karuzi .I was coming alone so it did not matter where I stayed so I accepted the offer and proceeded to Bujumbura which is the capital of Burundi. But something that I had seen in Gitega bothered me a great deal. It was the army soldiers in battle gear running on training exercise through the streets all the time. Why they were so heavily armed and what was the meaning of this exercise? I was to soon find out.

The road to Bujumbura runs downhill all the way from Gitega to the plains through similar green hills like in Rwanda. Here too coffee was the mainstay of the economy  but the farmers grew plantain in profusion as well. It was their main diet although I saw some rice in the valley. They grew manioc and potato and I heard they had huge tea plantations in the north. The rain fall was similar to that of Rwanda so Burundi was just as green.

Here women wrapped in clothes of psychedelic green or bright red walked down the hills carrying babies on their back and loads of stuff of their head  but the men were really dangerous. They carried huge loads of plantains on their rickety bicycle and speeded down the slopes without brakes all the way to the plains . The accidents were frequent on this part of the road to Buja as they called Bujumbura. Then there were mini vans that plied between Buja and Gitega that competed for space on the road with the daredevil farmers with their loads of plantain.

The huge tankers carrying fuel from the coast snaked slowly through the mountains posing more dangers . But now I was on my way to Bujumbura to meet with the officials there and mostly to let them see and appraise me.

Bujumbura is spread out next to the lake Tanganyika that is a very big lake next to lake Victoria .It is a fresh water lake that is the source of livelihood of thousands of fishermen in Burundi and Tanzania . You can see the huge hippos playing in the lake just near the shore but they are wild and dangerous. The bull hippos often flashed their saber like teeth at people when they felt nervous. The baby hippos bathed and cavorted under the watchful eyes of their mothers.

But the hippos came out to graze in the middle of the night and mowed the gardens like a lawn mower destroying everything in its way .Many Bujumbura residents complained of the marauding hippos and the destruction they caused but the hippos were protected . There were also huge crocodiles in the lake somewhere .

In Bujumbura one could find a lot of ivory and hippo teeth carvings as well as zebra skins and many artifacts made in Burundi, Rwanda and Zaire. The expat population was small and tourists very few so it was not like Kenya. I liked Burundi and thought it was a nice country with friendly people. People at the airport remembered your name even after many months . The pace was relaxed and the atmosphere very exotic with all the hippos bathing nearby. The market was chaotic and full of minivans leaving or coming from the distant parts. They sold beautiful baskets and bowls made of papyrus reed that grew in abundance everywhere .

The meeting with the Americans and Burundians in  Bujumbura went well. It was mostly the monologue of someone who seemed to know all the answers and had face marks like an Ibo from Nigeria but I was used to strange people . We all agreed that I should come to Burundi and work in the project as the only agronomist in Karuzi  . The Belgian fellow at the ISABU looked at me very strangely as if he had never seen an Indian. ISABU is the agency that represents the Burundi government interest in the project .

The director of ISABU had visited our project in Haiti and I had taken him to the field so show some of the work I did there so he remembered me warmly and said that I should come to Burundi and give the project a helping hand. His companion in Haiti was to be my counterpart in Karuzi.

So having accomplished the mission I flew  to India to pay a short visit to mom. She was happy to see me again although no one was expecting me. Mom hugged me and cried while others milled around asking where I was coming from, how long I was staying etc. so I told them that I had just visited Rwanda and Burundi and was on my way back to the Philippines. No one knew or had even heard of these countries but that did not surprise me anymore.

Shanti even made fun of Rwanda saying it sounded like anda which means egg in Hindi but I was determined not to be disturbed by their comments. It was only going to be a short visit of 10 days so I was prepared to say nothing and do nothing. Thankfully their curiosity lasted about 5 minutes after which they left me alone.  I felt sorry for mom who said that she suffered a great deal of pain . I was amazed at the great number of medicines she took and gulped down the white liquid which she said was the antacid syrup.

I tried to comfort her but did not know how. She was feeble and partially blind. She stayed in bed most of the time but did not sleep very much. Nirmal said that he was doing all he could and consulted the best doctors in town but her problem was old age and loneliness.

I kept quiet. I knew better than to open my mouth. These people could take something I said and use it twenty years later to start a quarrel with some one. I said nothing about Rwanda or Burundi. Nirmal had once told me that God had made the blacks ugly which to me was so shocking that I did not know what to say. But Bengalis derided anyone who was not Bengali.

They said that the Sikhs were stupid, the southerners uncouth who did not know how to eat properly and the Punjabis were shameless and unethical. The local UP people were uncivilized and the Biharis were barbarians etc. Only the Bengalis were the best because didn’t they produce Tagore ? and Subhas Chandra Bose ?  The Bengalis tended to live in the past probably no more than others but they did live in the past .

Annapurna also came but had no idea I was in town. People were not surprised that I visited India often. They took me for granted and said that international travel  to me was like going  to visit someone next door. I left for Delhi with a heavy heart this time because I knew mom was not going to be around much longer . Dad was long gone and now she too would leave us . She had lived through many difficulties and sickness in life of which she spoke with misty eyes while I brushed her snow white hair.

She told me how badly the relatives in Kolkata  had treated her when she was with my father there tending to his needs. He was in the hospital for his cancer treatment and the operation while my poor mom braved the crowd riding many buses to reach him everyday with food . She was old at that time but no one often gave her a seat in the crowded bus . I did not know that our relatives were so bad and made a promise never to see them again.

I had sent her money from Vietnam  regularly and built the upper floor so that she could get an income from the rent but she gave the money to Sabita for her upkeep and Sabita being a shameless woman took it. But she had the pension and was not short of money. She in fact gave it away freely to her daughters and their children. What she needed was the feeling that she was loved and cherished by everyone but Sabita did not love her .

Nirmal took care of her but often sided with his wife. Annapura was away working somewhere and I was the farthest . It made me sad. She was the greatest mother in the world and I said so. But now she was old and weak and needed our love and help. Don’t people ever realize that they too will get old someday ?  How would I feel for example if Ashis  and Jayanti someday told me that I was pretending to be sick to get attention when I lay in my bed all wrinkled and shriveled  ? If I am a proud person which I am then how much prouder mom is  ?

She came from an important family in Sri Ram Pur and was the apple of the eye of her parents . She was born after my grandmother prayed for a girl child in Tarakeshwar temple and fasted there. That is why my mom was called Tarakdashi  or the servant of Tarakeshwar which is another name for Lord Shiva. She was given gold jewelry and beautiful saris when she married by father at the tender  age of 13 . She survived her husband and two sons who died which is hard for any woman .

She traveled all over India with my father but never saw any place because she was busy raising children but never complained. I asked her to give me something that she had made so she gave me a most beautiful bed cover of crochet work that had taken her years to make. It is now with us forever in the Philippines .

I returned to the Philippines and told Jasmine all about Sri Ram Pur but she knew most of it from her experience there. She now urged me to bring Annapurna to the Philippines where she could spend some time with us. But this had to wait for two more years. I still had to go back and work in Burundi for a while.

Meanwhile the news from Burundi was bad . My worst fears had materialized . The Tutsis were killing the Hutus again everywhere. That is why they were marching in full battle gear in Gitega that had made me so uneasy. The CNN and the BBC reported mass slaughters of Hutus by the Tutsi army while the world watched in horror. Years later the Hutus in Rwanda would take revenge and slaughter half a million Tutsis there until driven from power by the Tutsi militia.

These green hills of Burundi would be soaked with the blood of Hutus who fought back only with machetes and knives but were no match for the machine guns. Many fled across the  border to Zaire and Tanzania and some to Rwanda . Their lovingly tended coffee plantations were now abandoned as village after village was destroyed and people died or fled in fear.

I debated with myself whether I should go back there but the project people urged me to return in October .They said that the bloodletting was over at least for a while so the project could start again . Jasmine was worried that I should go back to such a place but I said that I will be ok if the project people said so. Burundians seldom attacked foreigners .

I visited IRRI to see mainly  Surendra who now worked in an outreach program . Others seemed too busy to have time for me .They all felt very important and would keep me waiting in the outer office  like a refugee. I did not respect such people but IRRI was a strange place . There were a lot of scandals there involving some people in  wide scale theft and mismanagement. Dr.Singh seemed unhappy  and said that there was a lot of reorganization of departments so he was not sure of his status now.

I found the atmosphere unfriendly but Dr.Singh promised me any help I needed from Burundi like seeds or technical help . He had helped me a great deal in Haiti  by sending  me wonderful high yielding rice varieties and would do so again in Burundi but he still wished that I had taken the job in Cambodia . Everyone heard of Burundi in the news or rather saw it onTV.

I liked Surendra. He and I did our graduate studies at the same time at the University and had somehow kept in touch although not often. He did not know that I was in Haiti for a while but now we talked about our good old days whenever we got together.  I had a feeling that he too was not very happy at IRRI and wanted to get out . IRRI’s reputation was carried forward by such stalwarts as Dr.Singh who was a scientist of world renown but I wondered what would happen when such people retired or left IRRI for other jobs somewhere .

I returned to Burundi in October of 1988 but I had to spend a few days in Addis Ababa this time to get a visa for Burundi . Addis Ababa is perhaps the most forlorn city that I have ever been through . The small and old airport is seen full of refugee relief goods piled sky high on one side while Russian jets unloaded some more reminding you that there was a war going on in Eritrea in the west . The ride to down town took you past  drab concrete block buildings and many had a red star on top meaning the regime was communist . People were poor and would often ask you to buy them beer .

You could hardly find any one to guide you to a good restaurants although I tried hard because I liked Ethiopian food in Washington DC but I had no success. The Ethiopian hotel only served beefsteak or omelet with oily french fries that I had trouble swallowing  for three consecutive days. It was a tough country that had gone through horrible famine and now a protracted war that no one was winning.

They boasted about their coffee but I found it tasteless after the Burundi coffee that was so aromatic. Their handicraft was shoddy although I did buy a leather briefcase that was well made. The Burundi consulate was nice and stamped me a visa so I was ready for Bujumbura once again . I was glad to leave Addis Ababa . The Ethiopean airways was not a good airline that took your business class ticket and put you in the economy class saying that the flight did not  have a business class  .They also did not like to refund the excess charge or give me a first class upgrade which I demanded.

The flight to Bujumbura from Addis Ababa takes you over the lake Victoria which is the biggest fresh water lake in Africa but it was pitiful the see the shores denuded for miles around. This did not look like the Africa of Humphrey Bogart and Hepburn  but as we approached Kigali ,the country turned green and hilly . The green dense papyrus swamps spread over a huge territory . Only in east Africa you could see such huge swamps. The one south of Sudan  was bigger in size than France .

This time I was met at the Bujumbura airport and we soon traveled to Gitega again and then on to Karuzi which was my station.

Bujumbura was now calm and showed no signs that there were fighting here and in the country recently except many check points everywhere manned by armed militarymen  . I arrived in Karuzi the next day but saw some checkpoints on the road where the military scrutinized the papers thoroughly before they let us proceed. The situation was still not totally normal but no one talked about what had happened here so recently.

My driver was a Tutsi who felt hesitant to discuss the recent massacres in the northern Burundi . In Karuzi I was given a house next to the guest house of the project. It was a fairly big house just for one person and was partially furnished so I settled down quickly and hired a servant to do the cooking and cleaning chores.

The village of Karuzi is hilly and is surrounded by small hills and numerous valleys where the farmers plant rice. Just below my house down the hill is a small lake where the cattle herders always brought their cattle to water. Sometimes you could see wild ducks landing on the lake . The governor of the province received me without much enthusiasm but that was understandable. People were still uptight about what had happened here and were suspicious of foreigners.

Karuzi is a very small village with a few houses and a few stores .The Institut Technologique Agricole of Burundi  or ITAB was located here so their staff mostly stayed in Karuzi . The foreigners who worked in Karuzi commuted from Gitega but my job was here . The project had an office just outside the village where I soon met my Burundian office workers who appeared a bit shy .They were young people who had been shabbily treated by the American woman I had replaced so they thought I was also arrogant. But I soon put them all at ease and found them very willing workers.

I was in charge of the big research station which was nothing but an area full of weeds and  jungle so my first job was to carve out of the wilderness enough land area to plant the experiments and do seed multiplication work. This work had already started and some land had been cleared but more land was needed . The Burundians worked eagerly and did whatever I asked them to do .They were glad to work because they were bored doing nothing so far.

Soon several hectares of land was cleared and I started laying out many trials on corn , beans and potato . Down the slope we cleared more land and planted corn ,beans and potatoes for multiplication. We had some huge pits dug and filled with compost that we collected from the dairy farm.

The French fellow who worked in the project commuted from Gitega but never lifted a finger to help in anything. He played with his computer all day and went right back to Gitega if there was no electricity which was often.

But he came to pose and take photos of beautiful experiments on corn and beans or oher crops to take credit . This project was 90% agronomy work and I was the sole agronomist so I wondered what the others did.

The routine of work with the farmers in outlying villages in the province and the work at th Karuzi research site kept me busy all the time so I seldom went to Gitega . I had received some rice varieties from IRRI that I was testing in the valley below but also some upland rice varieties that I had planted in a distant village. Upland rice is grown just with rainfall and directly seeded as compared to the lowland rice that had to be transplanted .

The villages of Bugenyuzi, Munyinya, Gishikanwa,Kabwira, Rugazi, Kiranda and Murambi were many such sites where I had planted trials on potato and beans . The potato trials were very successful but the bean did not do badly either. Often farmers asked me to share a glass of banana beer they brewed and called pembe . They also made beer from sorghum .

Beer drinking in Burundi was a national pastime. Almost everyone drank huge quantity of local beer or the Amstel that was brewed under license near Gitega .  We often sat around sipping pembe amidst the coffee plantations and joking. Women tended the coffee plants with care and plucked the red beans while carrying the babies at their back .

I did not understand this beer culture at first and invited my office workers to my house for some tea and cake . They made faces when they were served tea and inquired if I had any beer . No one drank tea . Beer was the only thing respectable here so it was expected that I serve beer to them.

The farmers were simple folks who lived in rectangular adobe houses with tin roof  and planted coffee ,  banana and plantain near their houses on the hills .They also planted beans, manioc, corn , potato and sweet potato.

They planted low land rice in the valley below which was mostly women’s job. In general the country was blessed with good rainfall and rich volcanic soil that made growing anything easy. They had plenty to eat and were prolific breeders . It was not unusual to be surrounded by at least a hundred kids of all ages as soon I stopped my car somewhere.

Most of the farmers were Hutus  and their landowners were Tutsis . The periodic slaughter of the Hutus by the Tutsis probably made them more anxious to produce children  . There were trees everywhere but the farmers chopped them down mercilessly for firewood. The government was  military that often ordered the villagers to plant trees on the slopes so you could see many many hills completely planted  with pine trees .

The villagers were required to work one day a week to help maintain roads or make new ones or repair small bridges or culverts . In that respect it was so different from Haiti where no one did any community work and chopped down all the trees making the hills so utterly denuded. Here it was really green and lovely . The farmers here wore tattered clothes and were barefoot but that was perhaps because they always worked in their fields and did not want to spoil their good clothes.

The once a week village markets were a riot of colors where mostly women bought and sold things they produced. They carried huge bunches of plantain on their heads and walked 10 kms to a market where they sat whole day to sell it for a small price but often carried it back if unsold. The women would not reduce the price by 10 cents and preferred to carry the heavy load back to their village .

Children here didn’t throw stones at passing vehicles or shout insults. Instead they said good morning and smiled .People raised their hands in greeting whenever they saw a vehicle but whether it was the show of subservience to others was hard to tell. The past was tragic in these lovely hills that a Times correspondent had called the bloody hills of Burundi.

They lived side by side with the Tutsis but in fear. I only saw a country where no one benefited from this mutual animosity .The country was beautiful and supported a growing population  well but it lacked infrastructure like roads, schools and health care facilities . I often saw seriously ill people carried in a reed basket by strong men and walking for miles over the hills to reach a primary health care facility. There was no ambulance service here . The roads were just dirt road that became muddy during  the rainy season that  often washed out the culverts and bridges.

Many villages were remote and cut off at such times . The public transportation system was also poor and dangerous as I had mentioned the road  to Bujumbura where banana carrying bicyclists posed a threat. People waited by the roadside for hours to get a ride to some place and  a medical emergency could be catastrophic.

Most villages had no electricity or running water but in  Bugenyuzi, the Italians had set up a hospital and clinic that probably had a generator. The also had a church. Even in remote  villages one could see beautiful churches. The one in Karuzi was built with red bricks and had stained glass windows and dirt floor  where women sat suckling their kids during service.

There were many Catholic missionaries of various nationalities who lived in isolation I small villages but built nice churches and often a school and a vocational school where they trained boys in pottery making  or women in basket making or weaving. Islam was not much in evidence  yet but I suppose it was only a matter of time. One Tutsi girl in Gitaramuka once told me that she did not believe in the church controlling the lives of people but the Catholic church insisted that the Catholics baptized their children. This was the only way they could propagate the faith.

She also said that the Hindus were correct in thinking that the religion was a private matter that concerned no one except the individual and wished that others would follow their example. But this was not to be .In some countries it was the State itself that controlled the religious lives of its citizens  rigorously. Then there were the fundamentalists forever pushing their agenda.

The young lady was an educated Tutsi who saw no future in the intertribal hatred . I suggested that  perhaps people could forget their tribal differences and learn to live in peace but for that to happen , it was essential that teachers like her work hard to make the children understand that they were Burundians first and last. Perhaps more intermarriage could also blur the tribal lines and reduce animosity.

My life soon settled into the routine of going to work at 7 am and visit some villages and sites where we had set up field trials. In the evenings I would often curl up with a book or listen to the short wave radio .There was nothing else to do or no one to visit . Only my next door neighbor who was a Peace Corps girl dropped by once in a blue moon so we played scrabble.

The nuns and the priest also came to visit me but not often. The Burundians remained aloof because I did not share their enthusiasm for gulping down beer every night at the village grocery store that also doubled as the pub.

The evening meals were the left overs from the lunch that I warmed up. The life became monotonous and routine with no break for anything. I did get a dog later on but he was a free foraging dog chasing chickens and birds in the village and showed up at dinner time only  . I called him Jumbo but he looked more like a hot dog with small legs and floppy ears.

Sometimes I played on my harmonica and sang a few lines of songs that I played on the cassette player or even talked to myself that is also known as thinking aloud but mostly it was a very solitary existence.

Jasmine frequently wrote and asked me to return home. Kids were missing me because this was the first time we were separated but I could not return  home. Home seemed so far from the hills of Karuzi  but the fact was that home  was  indeed very far from here. The letters took more than a month to reach heightening the sense of isolation but time somehow passed.

One day the governor invited me to his  inaugural ceremony which meant the traditional dances and parade . The Burundian drummers are known for their drumming skills .They all showed up in their costumes of leopard skins and feathers  and beat  15 or 20 drums in unison . They beat their drums and danced at the same time while the women in bright clothes also paraded and danced.  The school teachers brought their students who also paraded and sang .

Later I saw similar dances and the drummers when the president of Burundi  came to Karuzi. His ministers stayed in my house and made a mess of the bathroom by flooding it and dirtied the carpets but the President stayed elsewhere . They took my sofas for him to sit on . The ministers made their obligatory speech of ” when you are in Buja ,come and see us”  etc. and left not meaning a word of it of course  but that was expected of politicians.

I could not depend on the project staff in Gitega to buy anything that I needed for the work in Karuzi. Once they brought me a can of spray to kill mosquitoes when I had asked for a bottle of insecticide for corn. Others said that they simply forgot . The only problem was that nothing was available in Karuzi so everything had to be bought in Gitega , some 60 kms away or in Buja, some 200 kms away.  Their attitude was that if I needed something then it was my problem and not theirs.

But they always took credit for the work I did by saying that our project did this or that . They bragged endlessly about the success of the project to the visitors but left it to me to do all the work in agronomy. The project did not work as a team because others did not participate or help in the project work in Karuzi. The meetings were held in Gitega but mostly to  discuss administrative matters and seldom technical matters.

People often asked me if I was lonely in Karuzi to which I always answered  that  although I missed my family , I was not lonely and spent my time in solitude reading  books or listening to radio or music. It gave me time to think about a lot of things and sort them out in my mind. People in Karuzi thought that I was unsocial because I did not join in their beer drinking but it was never my style. I liked talking to people over a cup of tea.

I tried fishing and fashioned two fishing rods . My servant made a platform at the edge of the lake below where I often sat in the evenings with a lantern and caught a few catfish. Later an FAO expert from Congo who came to work in Karuzi became my fishing partner . It was more fun than actually catching anything  because somedays we came back empty handed.

The French fellow who was a team  member often derided my work by saying the data were too good to be true or that I had faked it somehow. I let it pass but knew that the matter had to come to a head someday. He was a lazy fellow who pretended to work   but only played with his computer. He said that he was an extension specialist but  there was nothing to extend to the farmers yet . This was not true as the results showed .

Once I organized the field day for the farmers in the Karuzi station to show them what results we had obtained . This was pure extension work .The field days were very important in the farming system’s project when you could discuss with the farmers the experiments .They often made valuable comments that could then be taken into account in planning for the future work. So I depended  on the  French fellow to take charge.

But  he let me down and said I could handle everything myself . This I did. We transported  the farmers from their villages to Karuzi and back and  set up a program .We also ordered banana beer for them and the drummers to entertain the crowd so everything went well .The Frenchman then came and took photos to take credit for the successful extension work.

This was the last straw. I confronted him at the next staff meeting and said that he was a lazy person who shirked his responsibility in the project by not doing what he was hired to do . I was very angry .

From that day on wards this fellow became my avowed enemy and started spreading lies that I was a womanizer and received women in my house .People who lived in Gitega believed him and spread the word farther afield. The Gitega people were all with families and children and often got together so they were a solid group of which I was never a part . They treated me as such .It was now them vs me  . It was unfair about the lies but it is an unfair world we live in . No one bothered to hear my side of the story.

I had nearly spent 18 months here and wished to leave . The FAO expert who became my friend often said that I was doing excellent work so I should apply to the UN  . I thought about it and sent for  an application form from Rome . They replied that they were very impressed with my resume and encouraged me to fill the form and return to them as soon as possible. I did and waited.

Jasmine and the kids were arriving so that was very exciting . I counted the days until they landed and waited eagerly for them at the Bujumbura airport.  The kids came running and hugged me tightly. Jasmine looked more beautiful than ever . She remarked how different the country was from Haiti which it was. We climbed the hills to Gitega where we accepted the invitation only from the project leader  for a short visit. I did not like these people who were treating me in a poor way and said so to Jasmine. The Frenchman’s invitation  we rejected out of hand .

In  Karuzi  jasmine and the kids stayed for a month. I tried to keep the kids occupied with fishing and bee hive installation .I took them to various villages to show them the field work I did. We went to see the Italians in Mutumba nearby who were very nice people and had invited me to attend their Christmas party the year before . They received Jasmine and the kids warmly . She attended the Karuzi church service and saw the research station I was developing in Karuzi .

I had recently completed the building of a big warehouse there with toilet facility nearby and was in the process of building a potato storage facility. This was completed later where all the potato harvest from the fields was stored.  I had planted fruit trees and cleared more land for other experiments.

I brought them to the Bugenyuzi market to show what they sold . The Karuzi market was very small by comparision.  We went to see the hippos in the swamps of Karuzi one night  but they came out only late at night . The kids had never seen the papyrus swamp before  and wondered what else could hide there . There were probably crocodiles too. They marveled at the crowned herons that looked for insects in the farm and the  spoonbills. Africa had so many different types of birds that were unique.

Back in Bujumbura the kids were thrilled to see the hippos in the lake and the black mamba snakes in the small zoo. There were huge boa constrictors and pythons. But soon their vacation was over and they flew back home. It was the difficult period for me now because I sorely missed the kids so I occupied myself with finishing up the remaining part of the  work that included data processing and analysis of results so that I could start writing the final report  .

I had attended a meeting in Arkansas  few months ago where I presented the results of the work in Burundi with the help of a video that I had filmed. The lab that helped me re do the audio part of the video wanted a copy of it . It was very unique and showed how the Burundi farmers grew their crops. Now the project invited a professional video man to make a film on the project at a great cost  and promised me a copy but never sent.

This is also the time I started writing my memoirs that would be the basis of this biography  later on. My time was short and I prepared to leave in a few months time although the Americans wanted me to stay on for a while. This I refused . I had done my job well and got very good results that I presented in the form of a final report now and left Burundi for good in November 1990.

 

Note :  My blogs are also available in French, Spanish, German and Japanese  languages at the following links as well as my biography:

Mes blogs en français.

Mis blogs en espagnol

Blogs von Anil in Deutsch

Blogs in Japanese

My blogs at Wix site

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Medium.com

Anil’s biography in English.

Biographie d’Anil en français

La biografía de anil en español.

Anil’s Biografie auf Deutsch

Anil’s biography in Japanese

Биография Анила по-русски

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Chapter eleven : The tragedy of Sri Ram Pur – 1987 to 1988

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The tragedy of SriRampur : 1987 to 1988

This time my visit to Washington,D.C.  was short where I had to get an immigrant visa for the Philippines . The consulate required a complete medical check up so one day I went to the George Washington University clinic to ask if they could do it.  The nurse said that normally they did but now the doctors were busy attending some meeting so I had to go elsewhere.  She in fact told me about another place downtown and called to make sure they would do the tests required.

This place was just nearby where an old doctor tapped my chest and knocked my knees and also peeled my eyes to pronounce me healthy but took an x -ray as was required and tested the urine and filled out all the medical forms the embassy had given me . That satisfied the embassy so they stamped my passport with the immigrant visa.

Hubert asked me to stay with him for the few days I was in DC .He was working in Washington now but I knew that he would soon go elsewhere. I never knew where he went or worked because he was a poor correspondent and seldom wrote or answered letters so keeping in touch with him was always difficult. I was surprised to find him in Haiti after so many years but he could have been elsewhere just as easily.

I knew at one time he was in Zaire although what he did there was anyone’s guess. He wrote once that he had married a Belgian divorcee who was probably black and had now her two grown up daughters to take care of in Belgium because his wife had died  so I suppose he went to Belgium for a while.. Then I heard  that he was in Iraq and lastly he wrote that he was in Jerusalem but never mentioned what he did in those places.

I guessed he was involved in some animal science project because that was his specialty but we rarely kept in touch . Then he wrote to me that he was again getting married and this time to a woman from Costa Rica so that was how Hubert was. I never knew what he was up to until he wrote which was seldom. Anyway I was going to make a stop in India before going back to the Philippines and did not know if and when I would see Hubert again.

So one day I arrived in Sri Ram Pur again. My mom was now in her eighties and very frail. All her hair had turned white and she was just bones but her hearing was good and her brain was still active. Only her eyes were poor and she could only see a blur but  she was not senile. Her memory was sharp and she recalled names and events of time past very clearly.

She could not go outside the house because she was afraid. She said that she could not read or write like before because of her diminishing eye sight. I missed her big and beautiful handwriting  full of love and blessings but she said that no one took dictation if she wanted to write to me . Sabita did not care and her hand writing was very bad .

She was also lonely and had no one to talk to . She stayed in her bed and listened to radio most of the time and complained of her acidity. I bought her some antacid medicine that she gulped down and asked  for more. I often sat with her caressing her shriveled arms and legs or giving her a massage but mostly I listened to her while she rambled on  . No one really came to visit her or pay much attention to her .

I at this time started taking copious notes of what she said because I someday I hoped to write it all down as a part of the family history. My grand father and his brother had kept a family record book that my father had continued but now no one kept any records . I also did not know anything about my mother’s side and about her relatives so I started to write it all down and asked many questions .

Nirmal said that our family was a most ordinary family not worth writing about in which I was the sole exception but I did not agree with him and asked him for the dilapidated family record book of my father so that I could someday translate it into English for the next generation. I also wanted to make it as up to date as possible so no one was better informed than my mother   . I also took some tape recordings.

Sabita was her usual self so  we  hardly ever talked. The only words she said in a day was like ” dinner is ready” and often not even  that . She complained to everybody about how hard she had to work and take care of everybody and had no time to enjoy life or go anywhere. She often said she had shackles on her legs and destined to take care of others all her life this meaning mother and an occasional guest like me .

Annapurna said that she did not feel welcome to the Sri Ram Pur house anymore but came anyway because of mother. She was also considering buying a house in Lucknow for her retirement because she could not live in Sri Ram Pur with Sabita always bitching about something or someone. Sabita did not get along with anyone  now and had something nasty to say about everyone . She was only devoted to her husband and daughter.

Gone were the days when we the brothers and sisters could sit around joking or singing songs pedaling the old Miller organ  or discuss something and have fun . Sabita felt left out because she did not understand the jokes and could not sing so she sulked in another room . Now the atmosphere had changed .There was no more gaiety and no one sang songs or joked.

Nirmal who is an artist and of sensitive nature sat in one corner reading news paper and rarely touched his electric guitar or paint brush. He had stopped making clay figurines in which he excelled. If I tried to talk to him about something , he took a negative approach right away. He was now very nationalistic and flared up if he felt that I was criticizing India or any thing Indian . He said that no one could take an opposing view without feeling bad or bearing grudges.

I did not agree but kept my own counsel. He did not take any argument kindly and bore grudges for life time if you crossed him . The only time we could talk was when I made silly jokes about his scooter or something but mostly we kept silent . The time passed agonizingly slowly as I was bored.

A week felt like a month and a day like a week. I had nothing in common with them anymore. They were not interested in knowing anything about Haiti where I had just come from and they were not curious about how we lived in the Philippines .

Sabita’s daughter was a copy of her mother and I felt no love for her anymore. I used to bring her toys and dolls from abroad when she was a little girl and adorable but now she behaved like her mother and was haughty. Her studies had the priority so she often came to turn off the TV when we were watching because it disturbed her studies. Usually it was Sabita who closed the doors and turned off TV when she thought we were making some noise .

Ashis and Jayanti did not feel any kinship with their cousin because she was aloof to them and never wrote letters . She asked casually one or two questions about how they were doing to which I answered also cryptically .This was all the conversation we had during my stay of several weeks.  Ashis by the way was the sole namesake in the family because Nirmal’s daughter  would soon marry and take the surname of her husband.

Sabita often snickered at my foreign education and wealth and said that it was more credible to get education in India and succeed than abroad because it was tougher . I could say nothing. We really had nothing to talk about.

It was the same with my sister Parvati who lived nearby. She never smiled and always had a sour beaten look on her face. It was very difficult to spend more than five minutes with her or her senile husband who did not remember me. Her children were also aloof because I did not bring them gifts.  They were at a loss as to what to do with me because they had no topic to discuss and I did not drink tea or coffee .

Indians always offered tea in a small cup with milk and sugar but I did not like tea or coffee so this caused a problem every time I visited someone. They did not keep anything else in the house unlike here in the Philippines  Jasmine kept all sorts of fruit juices and ice cream. They felt embarrassed when I said that a glass of water would do.

Nirmal said that he too was lonely living alone while we all stayed so far. Perhaps he still felt some brotherly love .I will never know but my life had taken a different direction since 1967 and he had come to acknowledge that fact. The house was big and we could all stay there comfortably but a house was never home if no one lived there or those who lived there did not welcome us. Annapurna too did not want now to live in Sri Ram Pur after her retirement and we had made our choice never to return.

I felt sad about mother. Had she been able , I would have brought her to the Philippines where we could take good care of her . I remembered how she had enjoyed the trip we took to Agra to show her the Tajmahal back in 1970 but now she was weak and not fit to travel. She was curious about the kids and our house in Naga City and asked how  Jasmine was doing. She was worried about  my  frequent transfer from one place to another because it would disrupt the studies of the kids but I assured her that they were doing fine and had returned to Naga from Haiti to start schooling there.

I was glad that mom had an income from the rent of tenants upstairs so she had money. She was also given the pension of my father that the government had recently approved for all the widows in India so she was independent. What she needed was someone to talk to or listen to. The old age is a terrible time for some people who become dependent  on others for their daily needs and more so when that care is grudgingly given.

She was once a proud woman who had toiled and suffered hardship to bring us all up . It was because of her that we got education and became what we are today. It was she who convinced my father to let Annapurna go and take the government job saying that she should be independent. It was my mother who convinced my father to bring back Shanti and her baby when she became a widow at an age of 18  and convinced her to start schooling.

Shanti over the years had passed high school and college and now had a government job  . It was my mother who had convinced Parvati to undergo tubal ligation so that she will not produce more children. Her husband had a very low paying job that barely fed their family of 6 . It was my mom who convinced my father to buy the lot and build a few rooms for which she willingly gave all her gold jewelry to sell. It was because of her that we all succeeded in our own ways but no one gave her credit. She was a great mom but now she was old , feeble and helpless.

I hugged her and told her that she was the best mom in the world and I will never forget what she did for all of us . She shed some tears of joy and said that at least someone had said it.

But Sabita was cruel and said that she pretended to be frail and sick in order to draw attention . I began to detest this woman and her heartlessness. It was she who had poisoned the mind of my mother when  Jasmine said that her father was very sick and we needed to return to the Philippines.

I visited Mr. Bose who used to be the tenant upstairs and who now lived in his own house but he was an old man who lived in his past and often sick. His wife was also sick of cancer and would die soon. Others in the community avoided me although I knew them well since childhood. They were ill at ease with me because they had heard that I was now called Dr. and was wealthy .I think the wealth part worried them more than the doctor part  because they were still struggling with their day to day living  while I traveled all over the world  by jet plane.

We had grown apart and had nothing in common now with any one . Only Rinky was happy to see me and said that she knew of no one who lived abroad and came to visit India many time like I did. Her younger sister was closer to my age  who had gotten married in Kolkata and I have not seen her since 1968 but Rinky lived nearby. Her failed marriage had produced  a daughter who was  Ashis’s companion in going to school every morning.

My old alma mater the Institute was also a place I did not care to visit because my old professors had either retired or died and the new people did not know or care who I was. The librarian Miss Desouza was also dead .She had given me a job to pay for my tuition and always welcomed me in the past . But  now the Institute was just a place full of buildings and old memories. We had played so many pranks and mischief here but my classmates had all scattered all over India never to come back and some even had gone abroad. The alumni association was very weak although it existed.

I took some video of the campus just for posterity and Nirmal one day took me around on his scooter to take photos of various parts of Sri Ram Pur. There were many interesting places like the old fort with its massive ramparts and the Pillar of Ashok inside inscribed with the words of Buddha in Pali . It was a dead language now so no one could read those words. Besides one was not allowed inside the fort because it was a military fort.

But there was the  Sri Ram Pur university with its huge Admin building , the Science College, the Central  park where Queen Victoria used to sit under the marble canopy with her broken nose and scepter , the public library, the Gothic stone church, the cathedral where  Jasmine used to go for prayers, the high court building and many such places that I photographed for Ashis and Jayanti.

At home the TV was the center of entertainment when everybody sat down to watch a religious soap opera in the morning. Practically the whole country came to a standstill during this time because it was Ramayana that every Hindu knew by heart. When I got up to leave because I found it boring, they were surprised  . It was poorly done and actors jumped around in comical fashion wearing face masks of monkeys but the Indians took it seriously and never missed one episode.

It was the same as the Hollywood Biblical movies that no self respecting Christian would find boring no matter how badly they were done. People sat enthralled in front of the TV swallowing every word and making running commentaries of their own . I often sat to watch their facial expressions that changed every few seconds .

Ramayana was the story of Ram who was exiled to the forest for 14 years because of his step mother’s ambition to make her son Bharat the king so Ram and his wife Sita and his brother Laksman all went to live in the forest from where one day the evil king of Lanka now called Sir Lanka abducted poor Sita . This led to the war in which Ram was victorious with the help of the army of monkeys etc.

Whether he was the ideal king or not  did not matter to the Hindus because Ram was their God so he must have had pretty good reasons for doing what he did and we mortals never could understand the ways of Gods . They revered Ram and looked with suspicion at skeptics like me . They thought that I was not religious enough because I did not watch Ramayana . They were right.

I now looked at all aspects of Hindu society impartially and with detachment and found them lacking in many things. I found them discriminating the “untouchable ” even today although Gandhi had tried hard to let people be treated equally with dignity . They did not let a Moslem into a Hindu home and the Christians did not fare much better either .  They still believed in the rigid caste system although the government was trying hard to overcome it.

They also believed in taking a dowry for the marriage of their son from a poor family .Only the price of the groom depended on the outer limit to their greed.  Bengalis were not as bad as others but there was greed no doubt.

They believed in the superiority of their religion although dogma had set in but almost everyone now a days had to have a personal guru so the number of gurus had proliferated beyond belief . Nirmal and his wife sang devotional songs every evening together playing the harmonium and I often wondered if Sabita really believed in the words she sang everyday of the duty to be good and kind and truthful etc.

My mom had always been wary of these so called gurus and said she never needed one. She was a devout Hindu lady who had lived her entire life according to religious rules and laws but now it was different for the next generation . Now to appear religious was more important than to be good in heart and helpful to others .

India was a country where people still talked referring to the past events that took place 2000 years ago that had no relevance today. Most of them isolated themselves  by saying that they did not need the world and had nothing to learn from them. A college education did not change anything. I noticed a  streak of fanaticism in Annapurna who would shed tears listening to religious music and reading the scriptures.

I was happy to see Devjani arrive one day. She was still the jolly one we knew and had not changed much yet because she lived near Kolkata and far from the unhappy house. She teased everybody and  laughed but noticed that no one shared her gaiety much  these days. I was grateful to her because she had helped Jasmine a lot during her delivery of Jayanti in 1979 .

Devjani was the sole exception in the morose  family who laughed, giggled and teased everyone  and brought a breath of fresh air. She had left the family at the age of 17 when she married  and now she was in her middle age but she was still the same beautiful, tall and now almost regal Devjani . She had put on weight but still  was the young girl at heart that I fondly remembered.

I teased her about the monkey who had pulled her hair so hard. How could she ever forget ? She lived near Kolkata with her old husband and son in a small village .Her two daughters were married and recently her son was also married to a village girl who was without any education and plain in looks.

This son had a daughter who was always sick because she was born with some defects that needed constant medical attention. This was the sore point in Devjani’s life . I tried to help by sending some money but the daughter would soon die .

I was glad to leave Sri Ram Pur once again though. I hugged and kissed my mom and said that I will try to come and see her again and gave her some money . She always refused  to accept  but I slipped it under her pillow and left. I looked at the house sadly .It was such a big house but as if there was no life in it now . We were all gradually moving away from it but once it had vibrated with laughter and music and jokes . Once my dad was in charge who sat in the veranda in his easy chair and received visitors .

But now  his easy chair was empty although still in the same place. It still had the teeth mark of the dog on its legs where it used to chew but that dog too was dead. I did not know how long  Ma had but she looked so old and frail.  She often cried to Annapurna and said that she was ready to go and wished to God that He would take her now. It broke my heart to hear her say that because she was our mom and I loved her .

I remembered how lovingly she had selected the material for my suit before I left for Saigon  and how she looked at me when I was leaving Kolkata for Saigon so long ago . I remembered when I was a little child and climbed on her lap and how she used to pack my lunchbox everyday or shine my shoes. As if it was a whole life time ago which it actually was.

Now in her hour of need I was always leaving because I had to. I could not stay with her for more than a few weeks and had to return to the Philippines . She knew it and always forgave me .She said that she was happy as long as  we were happy living wherever we happened to live . It was her grace and forgiveness that perhaps hurt more but I had to leave .

I said my good bye one day and left for Manila . It was on December 4 and my birth day but no one remembered. Birthdays were not important in India so we never celebrated it . Jasmine was waiting for me at the Manila airport to receive me .She had traveled 10 hours by bus to get there and looked tired but we were happy to see each other again . She had gone to Haiti  with the kids and had returned to the Philippines  so I was proud of her. She had managed everything so well and had gotten the kids into schools right away. She also said that she had made substantial improvements in the house as well that I was eager to see.

She was the solid rock on which my life rested making me feel secure and happy. I was sorry that  Haiti was such a mess and she had to be there during the troubled times but nothing mattered now because we were home where our kids were waiting for us . Jayanti had made a “Welcome Home Papa” sign and strung it on the doorway and I hugged them tightly.

She had memorized  a long piece of  text and recited with actions flawlessly that I video taped.  Ashis also was doing well and got awards in his class.  Jasmine  told me that the Bicol region had been hit by a severe typhoon recently that had brought devastation on a wide scale. Our fruit trees were uprooted in the strong wind and the garden was destroyed but the trees could be replanted again and the garden rebuilt. I was home again so I was going to set everything right .

I was surprised to see the new kitchen that  Jasmine had fixed and the backside walls that she had raised . The floor was new and the drainage around the house had been improved . She had the city water connection now and also cable TV so there had been substantial improvement since she had returned.

But I also noticed that the two small bedrooms were not enough for us so we started thinking about adding one bed room on top of the garage for us so that the kids could have their own rooms .

So the masons and carpenters came and the construction began in February of 1988 . It was a messy job but soon the room came up nicely. It had attached bath with hot and cold shower and the room itself was the size of the garage which was huge .We installed  the cabinets and put yellow tiles in the bathroom floor and walls  .The bedroom floor was of wood that the maid polished with wax every week. The stairs were concrete with hand rail .

This was a bit of luxury we could  well afford. She even had a small ref and the cable TV in our room while the  big screen TV stayed downstairs where the kids enjoyed  watching Chitty Chitty Bang Bang on VHS now .

The house was painted nicely and lights installed upstairs so everything looked very nice.  Ashis moved into one room and Jayanti stayed in her room that she had to share with the mother of Jasmine who came and stayed .

I bought new stove and refrigerator for the kitchen  and ordered many narra furniture for the living room . The old  narra furniture was repolished and the entire house spruced up. Jasmine surprised me one day when she brought back the VW Brasilia which we had sold previously .

We hired tutors for the kids to give them lessons in the Bicol language and also piano lessons . They were doing well in school. Ashis had won an elocution contest . Later both Ashis and Jayanti would win medals in the extemporaneous speaking contest in Naga City . No Filipino kids could come near them when it came to English.

Our garden regained its health and started blooming .The back garden was replanted with carpet grass and some fruit trees .Now our home looked shiny and clean and no longer run down like when her younger sister had stayed there . They had now moved to their house nearby but we did not have much to do with them because I disliked her husband by sight.

Our new bedroom  upstairs was cool and airy where I put my huge study desk. I did not want to leave again because the family was so nicely settled here .I hated to uproot Jasmine again and bring her to some remote country disrupting their happy life. I could see that she was happy here because she was in her own house and the kids were in good school. She had many friends in Naga where she had grown up and worked before we had gotten married so she was very much at home.

I had to look for another job somewhere soon. Dr.Singh had informed me that he wanted me to be a candidate for a post in Cambodia that IRRI was looking to fill and said that he was sure IRRI would hire me but another offer came from  Rwanda . I had mixed feelings about going to Cambodia where the war was over but the Khmer Rouge had strewn the country with millions of land mines  making it the most dangerous country to work in. My job there would have required working with the farmers in the countryside.

So I backed out of the IRRI proposal and decided to take a look at Rwanda first to the disappointment of Dr.Singh who had pushed hard my candidacy. I did not know anything about Rwanda except that it was a small country in central Africa and very hilly. They were famous for coffee. I was to also visit Burundi which was next to Rwanda to see a project there.

So one day I flew to Addis Ababa in Ethiopia from where a connecting flight to Kigali could be obtained . I was afraid another chapter in my international wanderings was about to begin.

 

Note :  My blogs are also available in French, Spanish, German and Japanese  languages at the following links as well as my biography:

Mes blogs en français.

Mis blogs en espagnol

Blogs von Anil in Deutsch

Blogs in Japanese

My blogs at Wix site

tumblr posts    

Blogger.com

Medium.com

Anil’s biography in English.

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Chapter ten : The repressed people of Haiti in revolution – 1984 to 1987

The repressed people of in Haiti in revolution- 1984 to 1987

I was met at the Port au Prince airport by a Haitian employee of the AID who took me to the hotel called Castel Haiti up on a steep hill and helped change some money in the local currency called gourds. It was indeed very nice of her to receive me and fix me up in a hotel although I was quite used to be on my own anywhere.

Port au Prince is partly in the plains and partly up the steep mountains that rise just behind the waterfront .From the airport to the town, we passed by the most horrible bidonville I had seen anywhere. This is where the multitude of very poor people lived in the capital of Haiti. The streets here were strewn with garbage and gutters overflowed . People in rags were everywhere reminding you that you are now in one of the poorest countries in this part of the world.

Near the bidonville which is a French term for slum made of tin can houses, there were scores of minibuses preparing to leave for the provinces or arriving  from somewhere .People were on top loading or unloading charcoal and bananas or firewood among  other things. Live animals like goats were also carried this way not to mention basket full of quacking chickens .

There were a lot of women selling food by the roadside and trying hard to keep the flies off. People seemed not to mind the filth, flies and the sewage that flowed and went about their business . I could see little cardboard cubicles everywhere painted with gaudy colours and called borlette where they sold lottery tickets .It displayed a sign called mariage meaning wedding so I thought that they were perhaps some kind of marriage offices wondering who could get married in such offices. Why there were so many of them?

The answer was that it simply meant a marriage between the lucky number and the jack pot which they assured every lottery ticket buyer. I noted that poorer the country, more desperate the people were to buy lotto tickets hoping that their luck would change . This was Haiti.

The airport is modern and set back in a vast plain but as we approached the town, we saw shanties and ramshackle buildings everywhere and the streets were choked with traffic. The main artery was called Boulevard Jean Jacques Dessalines although such names did not mean anything to me . I had only heard that the dictator of Haiti was called Papa Doc Duvalier who had left his son in charge after his death. His name was Jean Claude Duvalier and he ruled the country with same ruthlessness as his father.

One never failed to notice the brightly  painted buses or mini buses. Most of them showed some painting of a  religious nature although once in a while the artist got carried away and painted big breasted women in skimpy clothes in provocative gestures. It was techni color and very visible and also very crude but then a fine artist did not waste his time painting mini buses.It was done by amateurs who not knowing the sense of proportion made funny drawings that no one paid any attention to.

The changing of dollars into the local gourds was easy and could be done anywhere and you could  get  10 %  more than the going rate as the AID girl explained but she forgot to mention if it was legal or not. I suppose it was not by the sound of it . Later I learned that there were many things illegal in Haiti but  no one appeared to worry too much about them.

It was for example illegal to bring in luxury good like tape recorders and cameras without paying duty but I saw at the airport people passing through without any problem . How much money changed hands under the counter was hard to tell but obviously the policemen   were in cahoots.

Huge Haitian women called Madame Saras plied between Port au Prince and Miami every week and brought in suitcase filled with contrabands that they sold at high price in Haiti .

The taxi drivers were no different from the ones I knew in Marseilles or Delhi. Their meters never worked and they tried to bring you to your hotel for twenty dollars when the fare was only two. These people only tried to make some money from the unsuspecting . If you wanted to pay the minimum fare for example in Manila , you said you were going to the Saudi as a carpenter or mason . It was the same everywhere.

It was warm in February .People wore colourful light clothes and women usually wore a piece of colorful cloth wrapped around their head.  Many women wore fine straw hats they called panama. They were tall and walked with a certain grace . We saw people dressed in carnival costumes and feathers and dancing in the streets to the beat of drums, flutes and cymbals.

Their faces were painted and they frequently sipped from bottles that was not coke by the looks on their faces. Women dressed in very colorful and low cut attires displaying a good deal of their body and danced in a sexy way. Men wore outlandish costumes as well and cavorted with women.

They were the Ra Ra bands who were warming up for the upcoming carnival called Mardi Gras for which Haiti was famous although the event was many days away. Carpenters were busy fixing up roadside stands .There was an atmosphere of gaiety although most people paid little attention to the Ra Ra bands and the loud music some people played using loudspeakers.

I saw brightly painted artwork for sale on the sidewalk but they did not look to be of good quality .What impressed me most was the profusion of it. There were other handicrafts for sale as well near the traffic bottlenecks. Shiny wooden boxes with Haiti carved on it in big letters, brown or black jars, figurines, bowls and many such things were sold on the streets. They knocked on the car windows to show their wares but were not persistent.

I did not speak Creole but understood many words as it was close to French that I spoke well. I noticed that they addressed each other with “my dear or darling or mama or papa “even if they did not know them . It sounded very nice as compared to “hey you there” in some countries. I did not know all these things on my first day but I was a keen observer .

The hotel where I stayed was on top of a hill overlooking parts of the town and the wharf but what struck me most was the cemetery and the sheer size of it . I was given a complimentary bottle of Haitian rhum in the hotel as well as a straw hat and was told that the Haitian rhum was very good and was exported to many countries.  The restaurant had conch meat on the menu called lamby in Creole .I had never tried Lamby before so soon a plate appeared . It was like India rubber but the Haitians chewed it like cows chewed cud  and said it was good. I was not so sure.

I did not like the Haitian rhum either although an American fellow from Naples that is in Florida urged me to drink it glass after glass to the great dismay of his wife or girlfriend . Americans also have Athens in Georgia and Delhi and Madras somewhere . The Castel Haiti was not a very good hotel for the price they were charging .I learned that the cost of living was astonishingly high although the country was very poor. It was like in Mali or Senegal where the same thing happened.

Like in many countries, the population was divided into the minority rich and the vast majority poor people . The small minority of rich people lived up in the cooler mountains called Petionville in fancy villas  while the vast majority of Haitians lived in the sweltering heat of the plains below ,many in bidonvilles or vast slums that surrounded the capital .

The rich were very ostentatious and drove around in fancy European cars while the poor swarmed around their cars trying to sell them something. Then there were the mulattos .They were the legacy of the French or other Europeans like in many countries in Americas. These mulattos considered themselves superior to the natives and looked down on them .

I had lived in Mali where the poverty was very real but here in Haiti it seemed to point to you very directly .The contrast between the rich and the poor was very visible indeed even on the first day . I wandered around the town on foot and found that people always asked for money if you asked them for direction .The beggars and street urchins followed you everywhere.

The large number of vehicles were mostly either government vehicles or belonged to projects that displayed their stickers on the side like Foster parents or UN etc. The poor people just walked or rode in mini buses called Tap Tap here. There were also some jeepney like public transport that plied certain routes . Haitians often quarreled in jeepneys over something minor and fist fights broke out so the driver stopped and waited until the matter was sorted out on the street. Once I found myself in the middle of such quarrel and tried to be a peace maker but it was much later when my Creole had improved.

The Presidential palace is gleaming white building with the background of green hills which gives it a good contrast. In the front there is a statue of a Haitian slave raising a conch shell to his lips to blow and had shackles.

Not too far  from it  stands a statue of a Carib Indian in loin clothes and feathers. I was told that the name  Haiti came from the Carib Indians who named the country . The other half of the island of Hispaniola is Dominican Republic or in short DR .

To learn more about the country one had to read Graham Greene but I was learning as best as I could by observing and talking to people. Just outside the hotel I met with a group of Haitian boys and girls who asked me to find work for them and then asked for money .The girls suggested that they were also selling something else .It was the same as in many African countries.Only the degree varied. Here there was not much of prostitution because of their strong Catholic beliefs.

Yes, there was no doubt that the Haitians were very religious . I had already noticed the religious paintings on their tap taps as they were called. The churches overflowed on Sundays and on many other days as well. There were many grottos in Post au Prince where the Catholics prayed  but now there were Protestants as well thanks to the North American missionaries everywhere in the country.

The AID people who had approved my appointment made it clear to the new team that they expected good work and would not hesitate to “kick us out” if we did not perform. It reminded me of the Algerian Agricultural ministry  but Americans were cruder people and did not mince words. They showed no respect to a person’s qualification and background . Some of them however , invited  the team to their house once as a part of the routine and mentioned casually that I had a friend in Port au Prince.

I was naturally surprised .It was the old rascal Hubert of Ba Xuyen. He was now working here as the head of a pig repopulation program and came right over to the Hotel .He did not look like a scarecrow any more but I still did not trust  his driving. The last time I had seen him was in Washington, DC in 1971 so it had been many years . He said that he was very busy with the project because all the pigs in Haiti had to be slaughtered due to the African swine disease so now he had to replace them with American pigs from Iowa.

Later the Haitian farmers told me that it was a great conspiracy by the Americans to sell their pigs to Haiti so they invented the swine fever theory to kill off the native pigs but it is hard for me to know the truth.

Anyway Hubert and I talked endlessly trying to catch up with the news about our mutual friends. He said that one of them was working at the US embassy and I should go and see her but I never found the time.

He then took me to a Chinese restaurant where we ate with chopsticks like in the good old days . I wrote to Jasmine that I had met an old friend of mine here.  She had heard  about Hubert before so sent her regards. Another American also invited the team to his house but I knew it was merely a formality and never went back there during our long stay in Haiti.

One day we drove to Jacmel to see the project site .I did not like the idea that people decided for me where I should work before I had a chance to assess the situation on the ground. Jacmel is about  two hours drive from Port au Prince over steep mountain roads that zigzagged through very eroded hills. It was a small town on the coast with a small market and few houses. We drove up to Haute Cap Rouge and other places to see how the rural folks lived and how or what they cultivated on these mountain slopes.

Most of the road to Jacmel is in bad shape and steep . People planted coffee and manioc everywhere  .They lived in sturdy but simple box like houses on hills and worked very hard to grow food. They painted their crooked doors and windows in bright colors . Women carried water in jars on their head which they must have fetched from the valley below and slowly climbed up the hills with the load. People carried everything on their head reminding me of the hardship of rural Malian women.

The Haitians smiled easily and said hello in Creole . The hotel in Jacmel was on the waterfront called la Jacmelienne and was pleasant but the Canadian manager was greedy because it was obvious that she was  losing money. There were hardly any  tourists staying there or anywhere in Haiti for that matter. They were scared of AIDS although it was not true that Haiti was endemic .There were more AIDS patients in the United States per thousand population but the label stuck.

So the tourists stayed away although the beaches were lovely and people so friendly . At the Jacmelienne hotel lobby people sold ceramics and papier mache handicraft as well as masks and little figurines but the price was high.

After Jacmel I went to Les Cayes in the west .It is some 200 kms from Port au Prince on the lower arm of the country. If you look at the map, the shape of Haiti looks like a crab with two arms . Here the road is excellent and passes through scenic coast of Zanglais .It was a small town with a jetty and old houses with rusty tin roof ,unpaved  gravel roads and a small Catholic church in the centre of the town with a park where old people sat on benches and looked at new comers with interest.  There was a statue of someone in the park with peeling paint and terrible eyes.

From the waterfront one could see the distant island called Isle a Vache and a few rusty hulk of boat wrecks and very few boats. There used to be brisk sea trade here in the past but now the port was closed and the custom’s office looked dilapidated  facing the small post office. But Les Cayes was in the plains and in the  middle of an agricultural area where the farming was intensive .They grew rice all around Les Cayes and had some irrigation. I could sense that some wonderful work could be done here and decided that it was going to be where I lived.

The next thing to do was to look for a house to rent . Again I was lucky to find a beautiful beach house built like a Swiss chalet just outside the town but we had  to ford a few streams through bad gravel roads to get there.

But the house was new and had water, electricity and even phone. You could sit on the front porch and see the ocean 50 meters away and feel the constant breeze . The smell of sea so close was exhilarating . The house was set back on a huge expanse of lawn of blue grass which is not blue at all but thick green Korean grass.  I liked the house right away and took it.

Now the next item on my agenda was to look for a school for the kids so I met the American Missionaries who lived up the hill where they also ran a small school for children . These people told me that my kids could not be admitted there .It was meant only for their children which I found very odd and unfriendly to begin with  but the school administrator told me that my kids would be welcome. They needed more children to pay for the cost of a teacher . So with the housing and schooling problem solved in a short time ,

I wrote to Jasmine to prepare to come to Haiti right away.

A school meant the difference between having my family here and spending the 4 lonely years alone so why the Americans were so unfriendly when they needed more children in their school ?  We would get to know these people better in the future and understand them better.

Now it so happened that my landlady worked in the telephone exchange in Port au Prince so one night I tried to call Jasmine and told my land lady that she did not have a phone but her cousin  Ramon  who lived nearby did  .

Could she ring up Naga City and ask the operator there to look up his number and give him a call  ? This she did. Naga is a small town where people know each other so Ramon was contacted this way and I told him to send a car to fetch Jasmine right away .The long distance was costing me an arm and a few legs so please hurry.

Jasmine was very surprised to hear Ramon banging on the gate late at night. She finally came to the phone after what seemed like a long time and was very happy that we could hear each other clearly over vast distance of oceans. I said that she should pack up and come to Haiti because I had found a beautiful house and most importantly a school for the kids.

She said that I should fetch her from the Philippines but this I could not do. Then she said that I should meet her in San Francisco but that too was not possible so finally we compromised. I said that I will meet her plane in Miami ,Florida  so she agreed on a date. I then called the office to wire her the tickets to a Manila Travel agent we trusted and I also called the travel agent to know the exact date and time of her arrival in Miami and flight number  etc. and told them to call Jasmine in Naga .

When I asked the landlady who was listening how much I should pay, she said it did not register on their exchange computer. She laughed and said that working in the Phone company had certain privileges. She had many long distance operator friends.

I now had to go back to Port au Prince to send her a few documents by DHL so that she could be granted a US visa by  the Manila embassy. The Haitian visas could be obtained in Miami. Then I had to look for the furniture and all things Jasmine would need. The project then ordered a house full of furniture and appliances from a factory outside Port au Prince which promised to deliver in a  month .  I had accomplished a great deal just in a few days time and felt really good.

My Haitian counterpart who lived in Les Cayes kept the project jeep so I had to walk back and forth from the house to the town but this was later resolved  and I got the Jeep . He was not very friendly but that too  would change later. In town I met a Chinese American who was a very nice person and often invited me to his big house where he lived alone. He was a fantastic cook as well and gave lavish parties that the expat community enjoyed at his expense . He introduced me to all of them that included mostly the missionaries who lived uphill in Cite Lumiere but also some Haitians.

The Ideal Guest house in town served meals to people who had not found a house yet .This is where  few expats met for meals everyday. I got to know the  French Canadian and his Bolivian wife this way but their cross eyed brat  was intolerable. I had  never seen children so ill behaved.  I later helped find a house for them in town but they were aloof.

Soon I returned to Port au Prince where the carnival was about to begin. On the road  you could see a number of Ra Ra bands beating drums and dancing in the middle of the streets .They also stopped cars and demanded money for their rhum that they sipped constantly. It was dangerous to pass because in their drunken state they took offense quickly and  were not above stoning passing cars so we had to wait .It was prudent to pay these people and move on. The band included women as well.

In Port au Prince the carnival fever was reaching its climax .Now the streets were full of people in colorful attire dancing to the beat of drums and other instruments . We met an American woman who said that the best place to watch the Carnival from was the balcony of the Holiday Inn so that is where we went .The crowd now was elbow to elbow but we somehow managed to squeeze through.

The floats were numerous and some of them well made on which sat pretty girls throwing candies to the wild crowd . There were many foreigners who mingled with the crowd and danced with abandon. It seemed that everyone was having a good time dancing and drinking. Bottles changed hands freely  and once in a while some fist fights broke out but were controlled quickly.

The policemen were out in great numbers to control the crowd which in general was orderly and moved on slowly in the long procession passing the Holiday Inn . The bands played so loudly that it hurt the eardrums but I enjoyed watching the crowd from the safe distance . It was also to be my last carnival but I had no idea at that time what lay ahead in Haiti. Judging from the way people danced and sang, one got the impression that the Haitian people had nothing to worry about in life and were very happy go lucky people but this was only the appearance.

People said that the carnival was the only outlet for the repressed masses whose problems were many to say the least. It was a country where there were no civil liberties and the blue denim clad  militia were the dreaded Ton Ton Macoute who were the main instrument of repression in the hands of Duvalier. Their ruthlessness would have shamed Idi Amin.

In Les  Cayes I shared a corner of the office of the district agriculture because we did not have an office of our own. The agriculture office was a very dilapidated building with leaking roof and full of huge rats and spiders . The agriculture chief resented the project because he had no control over it or its finances . But luckily we did not have to stay in that awful office because our field work had started with the reconnaissance survey in the plains of Bereault and the hills of Maniche . The roads were bad .We often had to ford the streams in Maniche and Bereault that damaged the jeep but we carried on the work in spite of the difficulties.

Soon we got the know the rest of the team that worked in Jacmel and Port au Prince but Les Cayes team worked somewhat independently of others because the rainfall pattern and the agriculture was different from Jacmel so the priorities were different as well. Rice and sorghum, corn and beans as well as sugarcane were the important crops here . They grew a great deal of coffee in Maniche up in the hills.

I think it was the 10th of April ,1984 when a truck was found to bring all the furniture that I had ordered from Port au Prince . I loaded up six motorbikes for the project as well, arrived late in Les Cayes and dumped everything in the house .I had no time to unpack and arrange the furniture because I had to return to Port au Prince with the truck.

Jasmine was arriving the next day in Miami so I had to reach Miami before she did . Hubert was also going to Miami but he disappeared into the crowd soon after arrival there on his way to pick up  more pigs somewhere so I stayed near the airport . I had to find a department store to buy a few things before Jasmine arrived but here I started experiencing the bad side of America.

The bus driver yelled at me because I was too close to him to ask a few questions and the kids in the streets on roller skates tried to push me off the sidewalk shouting something in Spanish that did not sound pleasant. A huge dog tried to chase me and possibly bite that scared me because I could not find anything to defend myself with .

I knew nothing of Miami but from what little I learned, it was  not a pleasant place. People spoke Spanish more than English and one could see the Cubans everywhere. They ran hotels, motels, shops and tour buses. They drove taxis and they ran Miami or at least that is how it seemed to me. They were impolite people who took offense if I did not understand their poor English . Miami did not look like an American city  except the big wide freeways and incessant traffic .

What annoyed  me  most was the arrogance of the Cubans or the Hispanics . I had lived in the United States where I had not known this sort of arrogance but then I had lived in a mostly white town of San Luis Obispo in California. Now I was seeing another side of this country although to be fair, one must not judge a whole country by the behavior of a few odd Cubans .I didn’t .

Anyway Jasmine and the kids were arriving that night so I went back to the airport and asked the  Pan Am agent to let me go to the arrival lounge. This he would not do. He said that there were restrictions due to security problem etc. but I insisted .I said that my wife and kids were arriving after traveling a very long distance so they will be very tired and needed my assistance.

He still did not relent .Finally I said how could I get inside ? He said that I needed a pass so I asked him for a pass and he gave it to me. Americans are very logical people.

The arrival lounge was deserted at 5 pm .The announcement board said that her flight was delayed and would arrive late. I had a long wait until 11 pm when finally the flight arrived and I saw Jasmine emerging from the plane holding  Ashis and Jayanti and looking absolutely fatigued . She was also very surprised to find me there right near the plane and obviously very relieved.The kids came running and kissed me showing great joy.

We went to the hotel nearby and after giving the kids warm milk and some food  went to sleep. They did not need any prompting .Their little bodies had  taken a pounding on  very long distance flights and showed. I really felt sorry that the plane travel was so awful . Jasmine was probably more tired than them because she looked ready to fall apart.

The next morning we went to the Haitian consulate to get them visas and then to the airline office to get them tickets to Port au prince because the office had sent them tickets only up to Miami to my surprise. Then it was time to relax a bit . I thought a trip to Disney Land in Orlando would be fun for the kids. The Cuban hotel manager of course had a tour bus leaving the next day run by who else ? The bus driver was impolite but we tolerated and arrived at the Disney Land passing through some place called Kisseeme. Jasmine asked me if most Americans were like the bus driver to which I said I hoped not.

The Disneyland and the Epcot centre in Orlando is a very big place that tires adults .I could see from the faces of Ashis  and Jayanti that they were still tired but enjoyed being photographed with Tigger and Micky Mouse and Fowlfellow .They knew all these characters by heart and were delighted. Jasmine and I strolled holding hands and enjoying watching our children.

They pulled the tail of Tigger and hugged Micky and played with Winnie the Pooh . We took the moving carousel to enter the caves full of witches who lived in castles and brewed frogs in giant cauldrons to make their potions. We took the toy train ride through the wild wild west and mining towns roller coasting through caves and water falls. Then there were paddleboats and Nautilus of  Captain Nemo. The attractions were too numerous to count and see in one day .The Epcot centre itself takes a long time.

We took the carousel ride through its dome to see the world history through figures, scenes and animated models . It was all very well done .Their computer room was enormous that controlled each and every aspect of the  Disneyland but was far beyond the comprehension of the kids. It was time to go back to Miami and rest.

The crowd was very thick and lines endless but it was a good break for all of us. On the way back we ordered some hot dog and french fries but were surprised when the waiter brought us enough food for an army which we left nearly untouched . It was too much and a waste.

The flight to Port au Prince takes only about 90 minutes making Haiti seem like the back door or the front door of the United States which it probably is. Jasmine had lived in Mali where she learned to like the black people so she felt at home in Haiti . For the kids it was a new experience. Soon we drove on to Les  Cayes through Petit Goave, Miragoane and the beautiful coast of Zanglais . The Zanglais coast is spectacular with white sand beach and azure blue waters with small islands dotting the ocean. The tall eucalyptus and pine trees line the highway and there are white or pink blossoms of some plants by the roadside making the scene breathtakingly beautiful.

One could see the fishermen and women pulling nets from the ocean while others in little dugout canoes paddled in the water. People sold steamed lobsters by the roadside  along with a variety of other foods and smiled in a very friendly manner. After Miami it was a welcome sight . Jasmine was very pleased with the beautiful countryside and said how different it was from the drab and colorless rural Mali full of jungle.

For one thing Haiti was very small compared to Mali with as many people making Haiti very densely populated . There was no virgin forest of any consequence in the country because people lived  everywhere and cultivated even the uncultivable land . At one time the country was very green and covered with tall trees everywhere but that was a long time ago. Now people had chopped down all the trees to make charcoal or burn them for fuel. I had seen the Tap Taps in Port au Prince loaded with charcoal and firewood .The effect or denudation of the  hills everywhere was very shocking indeed.

One could see the heavily eroded hills on which people planted beans and other crops. Sisal was also planted on some slopes but on many hills we could see vetiver growing. Haitians extract its oil from the roots to make perfume . We drove through many small villages where people dried corn or other grains on the road side.  One could see enormous crowds of children in neat school uniforms carrying their books in bags or in their hands.

We arrived late in Les Cayes and found the house a complete mess. I had no time to fix anything before I left for Miami so we decided to eat downtown that night and locked ourselves out of the house by mistake. Now we had to find a locksmith and bargain with him to come and help.

But Jasmine in the next day or two made wonders and arranged everything neatly and made it the most wonderful house while the kids ran around on the beach making sand castles . The Cite Lumiere workshop fixed our stove so soon we were cooking good meals.

The ocean was just in the front  where the fishermen pulled the nets and women and children milled around . Their hands were raw because pulling a net was a very hard job that yielded very few fish but they tried day after day. Ashis and Jayanti  loved the ocean and ran around everywhere reveling in the new surroundings while we sat on our front porch in easy chairs savoring the sea breeze . The kids had a long summer vacation because their school in Cite Lumiere was to start in September so we took them to swim in the ocean often. They loved catching small crabs.

They also tried to make friends with the Haitian children who lived nearby and tried to imitate their language. But our house was too far from the town and isolated  . Jasmine often walked to the town but said that we should look for a house there . This happened when the Chinese American gentleman told me one day that his house will be soon vacant as he was moving to Port au Prince . This was a good opportunity so we moved to the rue Gabion house.

It was certainly very convenient for us to live in town because now she could walk to the market nearby or to go to the post office. She also attended  the Sunday church service regularly and the kids started their schooling .It was a very small school of about 9 or 10 kids of various ages and one school room with one teacher who walked around barefoot but it was better than no school at all. In fact the small size of the school meant that Ashis and Jayanti  got individual attention and personalized learning. Their classmates were the children of the missionaries and one or two Haitians .

The emphasis in their school was on religion but they were taught other subjects as well so it was ok with us . The missionaries who at the start were so pessimistic about our children attending their school , remained aloof and unfriendly but it did not matter. One of them refused to teach our kids piano saying that they only taught American children but shamelessly tried to borrow our video camera. We too refused.

I had a great deal of experience dealing with the American missionaries in Mali and formed a very poor opinion of them. It did not change here and was probably worse . When we invited them to our house, they all came and watched video movies after sumptuous dinner  Jasmine had prepared but never in the fours years returned the courtesy.  It was also true in Mali.

One woman in particular was very offensive who would invite Jasmine and later cancel the invitation. Once would have been enough but she did it many times so we remained apart from them.

It was perhaps not difficult to understand  their attitude towards us. We never attended their prayer sessions or other religious activities because they were Protestants and always used such times to do a bit of Catholic bashing which offended  Jasmine being  a devout Catholic. They were also not interested in the heathens of Africa and found excuses to leave when I showed some slides on Mali one day .

Their naked intolerance to other people and  culture had to be understood in the context of their mission to convert Catholic Haitians into proper Protestants and weed out the voodoo culture they hated. They were also very ignorant people who went around telling people not to buy Proctor and Gamble products because they were devil worshipers .

They also felt ill at ease with us. Our deep appreciation of the Malian animist culture was anathema to them who believed that the Africans were savages and had to be “saved” . Among the missionaries the American and the Canadian missionaries were the toughest lot  who openly showed a great deal of racism and intolerance. As I said earlier they were also very ignorant.

They often mistook me for a Haitian and started talking  to me in Creole even if I replied in English.  One of them thinking that I was a Haitian closed the gate on my face  but did not apologize when she learned of her mistake. They were by and large very arrogant people but were eager to take any advantage they could get anywhere .

One woman in particular made me very angry by her bigotry and self serving talks. She was the type who knew all the answers so we came to a head a few times over unimportant topics .I told  Jasmine to be wary of such people but she wanted to belong to the expat community that frequently arranged for pot luck parties to amuse themselves. There was nothing else to do in Les Cayes. I stayed at home to baby sit the kids . Bad people were no longer welcome to our house once we got to know that they were bad.

Our next door neighbors were also such people who kept coming and asking Tipin for favors all the time. This woman was such a pest that we sighed with relief when they moved to Port au Prince but sighed again when the replacement turned out to be just as bad. This white woman had an illegitimate mulatto child who was very ill behaved. She often asked Jasmine to baby sit this brat .

I had written earlier that  Jasmine had a golden heart and could not refuse anyone any help so the missionaries were very surprised when one day we brought home  a  woman and her boy friend who had an accident and needed home care . They asked Jasmine if she  knew these people whom she tended when Jasmine answered that no she did not know them but helped them anyway ,they were all the more surprised.

They never helped anyone in distress unless they knew them ,not even their own countrymen as was the case here  but enough about the American missionaries. Only Jasmine could be nice to such rotten people and I loved her for it.

One day we went to Saut Mathurine which is a magnificent water fall some 20 km from Les Cayes .It was lovely place for a picnic so  we packed some lunch box for an outing. The waterfall was well known in Haiti but it was more beautiful than what one learned from the guide books. The water fell from a height of 50 or 60 feet into a blue lagoon that was the source of Maniche river emptying into the Cavaillon bay further east.

Children climbed up the rocky edges near the fall and jumped into the lagoon which we understood to be quite deep. It was astonishing to watch small children climb up so high and jump but apparently they did this all the time.

Down the stream some boys and girls caught shrimps that hid under the rocks. Soon a crowd of women and children gathered around us so we share some food with them. Americans were always annoyed with such crowd but we were used to it and did not mind them. They did not mean any harm.

Among them we found a girl of  eighteen or so and asked if she was willing to work for us and live with us. She showed interest but her father wanted to make sure where his daughter was going so came with us to Les Cayes , saw our home and was satisfied. Thus we found a maid who did cooking and cleaning which was a tiring job for Jasmine . The maid ate with us and was treated as a member of the family which some foreigners living next door found intolerable . The Bolivian woman treated her maid like dirt but we did not have to follow their example.

We hoped that they will treat their servants more humanely but that did not happen. People were a product of their culture and did not change easily. How the maids were treated by women in India or the Philippines ? It was the same but we made our own rules and Jasmine was very kind hearted.

I had written in the mean time to Dr.Singh at IRRI to send me some rice varieties that I could test in the Les Cayes area. We had always kept in touch over the years and often visited IRRI during our home leaves. I planted these seeds near Les Cayes on a missionary farm and watched the crop grow anxiously. These were the high yielding varieties developed by the IRRI scientists and I was testing them for the first time in this part of the world .

The  7 different varieties grew well but one or two showed better results. I started  naming them such as Colette, Amina , Ti Marie, Yole,Ti Rose etc. and waited for the harvest to determine the yield.. The USAID officers came and were impressed by what they saw. It could greatly help the rice farmers throughout Haiti if these IRRI varieties out performed the local ones. It could have profound implications .Our project staff from elsewhere  also came to see and appreciated my effort .

Many farmers came as well and looked with interest at the heavily laden panicles of rice that bent with its own weight. They asked me how soon I could give them some seeds to plant . I had planted the other half of the seeds at a village called Charlette where they also grew well . Little did we know at that time that one or two  of these varieties would do exceedingly well and spread to many parts of Haiti in a short time. It all had started from only 500 grams of seed for each variety. I wrote to Dr.Singh and sent him the results. He was very pleased and promised more help if I needed.

I soon built a simple rice thresher   to facilitate threshing .The grains separated only after three or four beatings on it which delighted the farmers. It meant that they could now harvest  the rice plants at the base and beat it on the thresher holding the bundle of stalks .It was easier as compared to their method of cutting the panicles one at a time and saved tremendous time. Later I had many of these threshers built at a workshop run by an Italian and sent some of them to other parts of the province.

But it was Amina  that proved to be the winner and spread far and wide in Haiti in three year’s time making it the success story of our project. Some farmers also like Colette and planted large area with it.

I would later get funding for a seed multiplication project in Bruny where we built a huge warehouse with self help and the funds provided a brand new power tiller, seeds of Amina for propagation and fertlizer. I had set up a cooperative of farmers who would grow Amina here and sell to other farmers as seed.

But some farmers liked other varieties that I had introduced. In Foscave the farmers grew nothing but Ti Rose and Colette but by and large it was Amina that they liked because of its quality and high yield. I also started working on sorghum and black beans called Tamazulapa in Bereault and installed many field trials but it was  the rice trials that gave very good results.

I asked and got a Nubian Alpine cross breed goat from a goat project in Hinch to start a local breeding project for goats and sent few farmers to Hinch for training . The project also built some pig pens in study villages to start the pig breeding  as well with the introduction of improved breeds of pigs from Iowa that our friend Hubert supplied. Next was the rabbit breeding program that I started and built a large number of hutches  for the farmers in many villages . Thus I was involved in many things at the same time.

I was picking up a lot of Creole by this time but was not fluent. I came to know hundreds of farmers in project area and names like Charlette, LaForce,Gauvin,Macieu ,Boudet, Bereault ,Jogue, Dassemar ,Melon,Dame Marie, Fond de Freres became very familiar to me . We developed close relationship with the farmers and specially in Fond des Freres up in the hills where we set up contour terracing planted with napier for erosion control and also set up a nice nursery of fruit trees to be planted later on .

A Peace Corps girl helped the project with the pig repopulation and rabbit breeding program in Maniche and Fond de Freres for whom I had brought a motorbike and a helmet. She also had a huge crush on my friend Hubert that was very amusing because the rascal never looked at her .

Often we organized field days for the farmers when we showed them the rice or other trials . The field days were a lot of fun for everybody . The farmers often brought musicians who sang and played guitars and danced . Food and drinks were served after the field visits and long discussions were held under the trees when we learned about their reactions to what they saw. Often their comments changed our focus of research during the next season so we considered the field days to be very important .

Then in December of 1984 we decided to go on a vacation to Mexico .We found the girls at the Eastern Airlines in Port au prince were rude but I had to wait patiently for them to write up the tickets by hand but finally it was all done and we were set to leave for Mexico City via Miami.

This was our first trip to Mexico . We arrived late at night but the welcome was not good. They inspected my passport very carefully and made us all wait. They even wanted to see and count   how much money we had . Finally they were satisfied and answered sulkily that there were many cases of Indians who used Mexico to get to the United States illegally  so they had to be careful.

From my experience in travel around the world I knew that the worst part of any country was the airport where people were unfriendly to begin with and more so if you carried a passport they did not like. The rules were not universal . Some nationalities did not even require a visa while others were not admitted without one and still others were admitted reluctantly even if they had proper visa like here in Mexico.

Others were denied entry if the immigration officer did not like the looks or suspected that the person did not have enough money or spoke like the Japanese  with deep grating sound . They all had to look carefully in a thick black ledger to check if your name was there and you were wanted for some offenses somewhere. In the USA for example it was not enough to say that you were a tourist and going to stay at a hotel. You had to give them the name , address and the phone number of someone you knew there.

Then they often asked to see the money and even counted to make sure you were not telling lies like in Mexico city airport. Gone was the glamour of jet traveling and the deference with which people treated an international traveler. Now every Tom, Dick and  hairy person could travel .Often the planes were full of janitors, maids and laborers who gulped down free booze and looked in the toilet rooms to see if they could take away the cologne or aftershave lotion bottles. The airlines now had to remove the bottle caps to prevent stealing  and often ignored passengers stranded in strange cities.

They were not going to pay for the hotel room any more . It is so bad in the middle east that even a business class passenger is denied a hotel room if the passenger is from a certain country . Now they treated you like a criminal and searched your bags and your body a number of times and even x -rayed your  hand bags . A simple letter opener could make those metal detectors ping like crazy . I suppose  no one wants to take any chances what with so many international terrorists on the loose but it does not make travel any easier or enjoyable.

Anyway we finally got out of the airport and took a taxi to reach a downtown hotel called Ontario  which was right near Zocalo which in Mexico meant the center of the town. It was an old hotel  but the location was very good and we were only minutes from the subway station. There were many restaurants nearby and a very good ice cream shop. We did not speak Spanish but it did not matter that  much . Jasmine and I got to know all the subway stations thanks to our Fodor guide book.

The Mexico city subway is a world class subway. It is very clean and beautiful .The trains are shiny and comfortable and to get around the city is really very easy .Some stations had a nice underground market .People were well dressed and did not shove and push .No one wrote graffiti on the trains or vandalized anything like in New York. You did not see the derelicts sleeping on the platforms or begging or urinating in the corners .The Mexicans had a right to be proud of their subway.

We found many things in Mexico they could be proud of .Their civilization was very old and their city had many  well maintained parks and museums. The Anthropological museum was of world renown and the Opera hall called  Palacio del Bellas Artes was a splendid building in architecture where we saw the Mexican ballet that is world famous . We did not find the city full of smoke or smog as is often mentioned in the western press and enjoyed walking in the Chapultepec park where kids rode on horses or we took  the boat to row in the big lake.

Mexicans like to eat all the time like in the Philippines so there were food stands everywhere . Here you could find the authentic Mexican food and not the watered down version I used to get in San Luis Obispo ,California. Near Zocalo we saw the excavated pyramids of the Aztecs and a huge round slab that was their calendar. The huge cathedral in Zocalo was very ornate and sinking on one side because the Spaniards had built the city on a lake bed with the rocks of the pyramids they had destroyed .

Aztecs were smarter .They had built Tenochtitlan in a beautifully laid out plan and used causeways to join the city with the outer parts. It had the most spectacular pyramids and temples ever built in the Americas .There is a model of the city in Zocalo. There was no city in Europe in the 14th century that could compare in grandeur but the Spaniards came with swords and put people to death . They destroyed what was beautiful and converted the people to Christianity by sword . But that is the story of the Spaniards anywhere .   Remember Magellan ? He did the same thing in the Philippines but was put to death by Lapu Lapu .

The Spaniards could not believe that these so called savages could build such a city and were actually very advanced in astrology and mathematics. One needs to go to Teotihuacan to see what the Aztecs were capable of. Their guns and the greed for gold sealed the fate of these proud people that their national artist Diego Garcia so lovingly depicted in murals after murals in a palace nearby .

We found Mexico city a delightful place . In the parks the clowns entertained the large crowd and came over when they spotted my video camera . They made fun of us to the great joy of the crowd but it was all very friendly .

We really enjoyed watching the Mexican ballet .They showed different dances from different regions of Mexico but they started out with dazzling dances of the Aztecs in their spectacular dresses . I could tell that Jasmine and the kids enjoyed it too . Outside the palace one could buy Aztec paintings. Later we found that the artwork and handicraft was plentiful no matter where you went. One could get  tired of going to all the art galleries and museums  but we did manage a few.

But a tragedy was waiting for us in the Chapultepec park where one day Ashis while swinging from a swing just fell off and landed on his left elbow. We knew right away that he had a broken bone and looked frantically for help. Soon a social worker arrived who could speak English , called for an ambulance immediately  . The ambulance arrived but would not take us with Ashis so we worried where they were taking him . We then decided to take Ashis to the Red Cross hospital by taxi where a team of doctors interviewed us at length and then decided to operate on him right away. He was just a small boy who had never been alone but they assured us that they will take good care of him .

We returned the next morning to find Ashis in a cast .He must have been terrified being alone in a hospital room not speaking the language but his roommate was a sweet girl called Elizabeth who was recovering from an auto accident and it was she who kept company with constant chatter.

We were greatly relieved . Ashis was given the best medical care possible by the best doctors in the Americas and wonder of wonders, they did not charge anything for it but in gratitude we donated some money anyway.

The doctors spoke excellent English and assured us showing the x ray that they had joined the bone perfectly and it should heal in a month when the cast could come off. Our vacation had turned into tragedy but we were glad it had happened in Mexico City . We stayed with him everyday as long as possible  until the day he was discharged . We came to know the family of Elizabeth through our misfortunes and I often sat with her or helped change her clothes or bed sheet .She could only say gracias but we understood the human bond that had developed.

After three days we brought him back to the hotel where his arm in cast had to be  hung up with a cord . He complained  and sometimes cried  but put up with it very bravely just the same . I bought him a colorful poncho to wear covering up his cast but we had to be very careful and protect his arm from people accidentally bumping into him.

Jayanti was also very protective  toward her brother and kept an eagle eye on him all the time. One day we all went to see the pyramids of Teotihuacan about 20 kms away . These pyramids were the largest  in the Americas and were built many centuries ago by the Aztecs for perhaps some ceremonial purposes . They compared well with the Egyptian pyramids in grandeur and had steps built into it to climb to the top although the steps were at a scary angle. We marveled at the pyramids of the Sun and the Moon on the avenue of the dead  and bought some handicraft before returning back to the city.

The hills were full of obsidian , malachite , onyx and many other semi precious stones that the Mexicans used to make beautiful objects but  one had to bargain for everything.

Of all the Mexican sites, Teotihuacan  was the most impressive. The neatly laid boulevard called the avenue of the dead leading all the way up to the Moon pyramid and many smaller structures on both sides were built with precise  astrological  orientations . The marvelous planning with very precise measurements in laying out various buildings was quite impressive . The government was slowly restoring some of the ruins but more discoveries were being made constantly. There is a museum nearby showing what they have found so far in the area.

The Mexicans rightly took pride in their Aztec  heritage and often showed the pride through the ballet or public  folk dances at religious places .They collected old artifacts and displayed them in their museums and spent a great deal of money and time in restoring what can be restored .  Yet we found a paradox almost as soon as we  arrived in Mexico.

The descendants of the Aztecs now called Indians lived in poverty and could be seen selling flowers and homemade dolls . They had the unmistakable Aztec features and could be spotted quickly as compared to the rest of the Mexicans  who were of mixed blood . The fair skinned mestisos looked down upon the darker skinned Indians because they felt superior to them.

It was the same story everywhere. In Haiti the mulattos behaved worse.I found this hard to believe  while the Mexican people took pride in their Indian culture or at least that is the impression one got anyway.

The native Mexican women did not like to be photographed and hid their faces with shawls or turned around. Their children had shiny black eyes ,black hair and oval faces . I found the natives very attractive and full of character they way they walked or held their head high  but they were nevertheless sad people whose ancestors had ruled the land long ago . Now all that remained was some ruins but they carried on their tradition of colorful weaving and basket making or pottery.

In the United States the Mexicans were derided as wetbacks  and poor  but here we found a proud people living in a clean city that was well planned and had one of the better transport systems in the Western hemisphere. We saw a city that was full of manicured parks, gardens and lovely buildings. We saw a city full of lively people , shops and  bazaars.

We found everything cheap and could buy anything for a lower price than elsewhere but perhaps it was not cheap for the Mexicans. The peso fell almost daily  against the  dollar making inflation grow fast. Except for the accident that  Ashis had, we had a good stay in Mexico but now it was time to go back to Haiti .

The whole of 1985 went by without any problem .  Ashis’s cast had come off and the fracture healed perfectly thanks to the good doctors in Mexico but he was accident prone and had run into Jayanti one night playing in the dark when the electricity failed . It left a gash on his right eyebrow that had to be stitched up and he would have other  problems later but it was  a part of his growing up .

Jayanti did better and became very good in recitation . She had tried to write words just by the sound of it not knowing the spellings yet so we made a lot of fun of it. She wrote things like brid for bird and moon wid star instead of with star or gril for girl etc. Now she is all grown up but we still call her a  gril for fun. For  a 4 year old to write anything just by the sound of it was very remarkable indeed.  Her first reaction in Dakar Senegal to the ocean was “Look papa very big swimming pool ” which had made us all chuckle .

The project in the mean time made good progress and we settled down in the routine of living. The kids made steady progress in their school and often brought home some of their classmates to spend the weekends with us.  Jasmine got to know the Mexican wife of a local doctor who made wonderful Tamale and we often got together. Others remained aloof.

In May or June I went to Fort de France in Martinique to attend a meeting and found the Creole spoken there somewhat similar to Haitian Creole. But the similarities ended there. Martinique was a part of France and their banana trade was mainly  for France so made money. It was also a very expensive place. The meetings were attended by people from many parts of the world but I found their way of handling the question answer part of any session tedious and proposed changes. This was quickly adopted by the President of the session, a professor from Surinam although the French didn’t like it . The French always had to have the last word in anything.

Haiti became independent in the 1800s and was the first free republic of former slaves .The slavery by contrast in the United States would continue until much later and only the civil war and Lincoln would bring about its end. But Haiti was ruled by despots like Henry Cristoff who ruled Haiti  from his castle in Cap Haitien in the northern most part of the country.

We went to see the castle .It is perched high up on a mountain and is massive in construction . We rode on horses to reach the top and saw the massive ramparts and the canons pointing towards the north from where Cristoff  expected an invasion by France that never came. The history says that many people died building the castle and manhandling the massive canons up on the slope but the king was ruthless and did not care.

The ruins of his huge palace down at the foot of the mountain shows that he was ambitious in its design and lived in style while the rest of the population lived in poverty. Haiti at his time did produce enough sugarcane and other things to be exported and the country at his time was not so denuded. There were forests and wild games and a lot of fishing.

The legacy of ruthless tyrants still continues to the present day although they had brief periods of elected government .Most Haitians could not remember when was the last time they had an elected government .The present regime has been in power for over thirty years and showed no signs of relinquishing it through the ballot box . I had earlier mentioned that their power base was the militia called the Ton Ton Macoutes  that terrorized the rural folks .Some peasants joined their ranks so that they would not be the victims.

They were mostly illiterates but then literacy had never been a requirement to oppress people . We lived next door to the police barracks in Les Cayes where people were brought in, beaten and jailed. We noticed that more and more people were being brought in lately. We also now felt more than we saw the general unease among the population with the political system. The factory workers demanded  higher wages, students demanded more academic freedom and farmers higher prices for their produce .

The farm workers demanded the end to their exploitation by the rich landlords and in fact everyone complained about something. Life had become very difficult for the average Haitians. People went on strike everywhere but such strikes were broken up by the government using brutal force often killing the demonstrators. Jails started to fill up more rapidly and the Macoutes and the military took a more offensive posture if that can be imagined but the grievances were genuine.

The suppression of people by force made them more determined so we could feel the tension everywhere . Often there were road blocks where poor people demanded ransom from passing cars or they stoned the vehicles.

The farmers with whom we worked complained that the price they got for their produce did not cover the cost of production because the fertilizer price and labour was so high.

In Camp Perrin area many people were killed in fights over water rights because the rich and powerful farmers who were also Macoutes took the lion’s share of water from the canals leaving farmers downstream dry.

The schools were closed because the teachers went on strike . We all felt that the country was heading towards more and more social turmoil the intensity of which increased by the end of 1985 . We avoided going to Port au Prince where such troubles were frequent now specially in the Carrefour area where most of the poor Haitians lived .

The most disturbed area in Haiti was Gonaive north of Port au Prince where people set up road blocks and confronted the army with stones and home made weapons .The body count started to rise but in Les Cayes it was not so bad yet. Duvalier came to Bereault  once to inaugurate the irrigation canal system built with the US money . The AID director came from Washington for the ceremony but it was a hired crowd that cheered Duvalier. The soldiers with automatic weapons pointed their guns straight at the crowd to make sure that no one had any funny ideas.

When the local AID director said that he wanted me to meet with his boss, I found  the boss busy talking to his effeminate son so the local director lost his courage to approach and introduce me . I was appalled at his temerity and subservience . While the minister of agriculture was making a speech, the wife of Duvalier kept up the chatter with someone .It was very rude and disrespectful  . She was the Madame Ngu of Haiti and was known to be ruthless. She was the woman behind the downfall of Duvalier .

People could sense that Duvalier’s days were numbered .We heard this through the grapevine .People said that something was going to give soon because the situation was no longer tenable for the poor masses. The government  tried to drum up support by asking for a referendum but again the hired crowd cheered and voted. Most stayed away.

Our project staff  met once a month in Port au Prince to discuss the progress of the project as if nothing was happening  but we all knew better.  Damien was a mess where the faculty of agriculture had shut down .There were changes in the Ministry of agriculture and everywhere but changing ministers did not  change anything .The frequent changes made the matter worse .The country was now heading towards a cataclysm .

In October of 1985 we went on a home leave to the Philippines and India via Seattle . My old friends Roger and Lauren from Vietnam days now lived near Seattle  so I wanted  Jasmine to meet them. I also attended a meeting on the Farming systems in Manhattan, Kansas passing through the head office of my employer in Arkansas.

The secretary of the director general kept me waiting in the outer room for hours until she came in bursting with excitement saying that the DG will see me now .He has just found a few minutes. The DG was a typical fellow who looked at my resume to know my name and a few other details, asked a few silly questions and stood up. The five minutes were over . It left me with the impression that no one at the head office cared a great deal about its personnel in the field . It was very reassuring.

I wanted to have some computer analysis done there so I brought a lot of field data but the head office with its room full of computers and full time experts could not do simple analysis and left me with massive volumes of manuals to sort it out myself. I was very disappointed and soon left for Kansas.   Jasmine in the mean time was waiting for me in Seattle.

In Manhattan, Texas my friend Abou Diabate from Sikasso was also attending the meeting. The head of that project was also there along with the Dutch fellow but after saying a half hearted hello, they all disappeared. But Abou was not like them. We were good friends and it was Abou who had found the lovely village outside Sikasso where we had built our beautiful adobe house. I was naturally happy to see him again and helped him in translation during sessions because he did not speak English.

Jasmine had called from Seattle saying that the airline had misplaced her luggage but otherwise she was ok and staying with some relatives. Filipinos have lot of relatives in the States but more on them later. So I arrived in Seattle and we all went to spend a day with Roger and Lauren. It was great reunion. They met my family for the first time although Roger had sent me a long telegram on the day of our marriage saying how he regretted not being able to attend our marriage. Now we had two lovely kids and they had a kid of their own  .

Ashis and Jayanti had great fun picking strawberries and selecting pumpkins for the Halloween . The relatives of  Jasmine let us stay with them but insisted that we carry huge boxes for them to the Philippines called balikbayan boxes. This is a tradition among the Filipinos .They always send box full of things for their poor relatives which keeps their social relationship well oiled. We had no choice in the matter and carried the boxes to Manila. Filipinos always demanded payment in some form if they did something  for you.

Back in the Philippines, we noticed a few changes . One of them was that the younger sister of  Jasmine had married in the mean time and they lived in our house in  Naga . I disliked the fellow the moment I met him and found him greedy and dishonest . They had to move out.  We were there only for a short while so I did not make any fuss but made a mental note of keeping a distance from this fellow who had demanded that we pay him for house sitting . They had also gotten rid of the wonderful maid we had.The house looked pretty run down but we had no time to fix anything and soon left for India.

I wanted Jasmine and the kids to see TajMahal and other parts . She  greatly enjoyed visiting Agra to see the wonder of Taj Mahal , the  fort where the king Shah Jahan was  kept in prison and the ruined city of Fateh Pur Sikri that Emperor Akbar had built near Agra , the mausoleum of Akbar in Sikandara which is an Arabic version of the word Alexandria  and many such places. The kids were still small so I do not know how much they really enjoyed . They would again visit Agra when they had grown up.

The Buland Darwaja of Fatehpur Sikri which was the tallest gate in India, the mausoleum of Sheikh Salim Chisti  with its jewel like mother of pearl canopy on the grave and its fine lattice work, various royal palaces and the huge Panchmahal, the royal stables and the royal chess board, the execution ground and many such places were of  great interest to Jasmine who listened with rapt attention the history of Moghuls.

The visit to Sri Ram Pur was nothing remarkable except that we attended the marriage of one of my nieces whose elder sister compared the gift we had given her to that of her  younger sister now and found it cheaper. Such petty things caused jealousy among women . Poverty made women mean and the relationship was always judged by the value of the gifts we gave and nothing more. It is not that different in the Philippines as I had just mentioned. We had not forgotten the sad episode of our previous stay here so were anxious to return to  Haiti  once again.

There were more road blocks and demonstrations than before . The police and the military frequently opened fire  on people to kill so the body count rose everyday. There were mass strikes everywhere closing down factories and offices .The reaction of the regime was always the same . More repression to fill up jails where the prisoners were tortured and often killed.

Now the Haitians wanted a fundamental change which meant the fall of the regime but Duvalier held to power tenaciously with the help of the Macoutes and the army.  In  Les Cayes we had seen peaceful marches but how long they were to remain peaceful ?   The shops were ordered closed by people so the town looked like a ghost town . Then the violence started one day.

Scores of houses were looted and burned , some on the street where we lived. The Haitians wanted revenge on people whom they considered haughty and insulting towards poor people. One mulatto woman was a victim. It was true that rich business men and women treated poor people like dirt so now they paid for it with their lives. One hotel was burned down. People burned tires and barricaded the roads making circulation difficult.

Anyone driving around was just asking to be stoned so we stayed indoors for a while .More and more military people were brought in who patrolled the streets with machine guns and the army barrack next door was full of soldiers all the time. I was anxious because of Jayanti and the kids and waited to see what happened next. All the expatriates were asked to return to Port au Prince for evacuation  just in case but we stayed in Les Cayes where we felt somewhat safer.

We did not dare pass through Carrefour near Port au Price where the angry mob always milling around surrounded cars or stoned vehicles but one day the  dam burst . We were ordered back in Port au Prince just in time. It was the month of February of 1986.

We arrived in Port au prince not knowing how long we had to stay or if we could ever return to Les Cayes . We found many families gone to the United States so they urged us also to leave but we decided to stay. There was a place in la Boule in Petionville where we could stay but it was very isolated Besides there we could not get any food or water so we stayed in the apartment that the project rented .At least it was near the market from where our maid to get us some food somehow.

All through the night we could hear the gunfire every where and people shouting and running with torches. The military declared curfew and patrolled the streets so no one could move about . I thought I could go back to Les Cayes alone and pick up some essential stuff but I was ordered not to leave town. It was very dangerous .

Then on the morning of February 6th, 1986 the rumors spread that Duvalier had fled the country. This was the moment people were waiting for so now they poured onto the streets everywhere and attacked the hated Macoutes whose protection was gone. Right near our apartment we saw the crowd attack the house of a Macoute who escaped in the nick of time in his underclothes from the very angry mob .

They looted the house in minutes and carried away anything that they could carry. First they smashed the window glass after destroying the grills to enter the house. Then they carried away furniture and fans and even the door of a refrigerator .A  mangy dog was seen grabbing a sandwich in the melee while we watched from our balcony.

But the real tragedy was taking place elsewhere downtown where people attacked and killed hundreds of Macoutes and paraded with their severed heads on stakes shouting and looting .Houses were burned and many scores of shops looted and many people killed. Streets were strewn with debris and often covered in blood . They looted the house of Duvalier and his cohorts all through the day and night and fled only when the military came with guns but they could no longer control the crowd.

The relative calm returned only after a week or so when a new government was formed and people were allowed to move around more freely. At last the storm blew over and we were allowed to return to Les Cayes once again. We were told that many macoutes were killed here and their houses burned down but we could sense that it was not over yet.

Soon after our return a macoute was spotted near our office and knifed to death .There were others killed near the hospital and many more in the countryside .People were in a very angry mood and asked for money or food so we fed a few of them .

Now the people wanted the new provisional government to remove all the pro Duvalier people from power and install a more acceptable government which they refused to do so the agitation continued throughout 1986.

Back in the Philippines a similar drama was playing out and Marcos had fled the country but that is where the similarities ended. The revolution in the Philippines was largely peaceful but here it was bloody.

People had tasted victory here so they kept the pressure up by demonstrations and road blocks. One never knew when they were going to close the road and for how long so any travel became risky. This exacerbated the fuel crisis. We had to fall in line for hours to get a few liters of gasoline.

I started working again with the farmers who in general went about their business of planting and harvesting as usual so our project continued in spite of what was happening in Haiti. At this time I submitted the proposal to set up a seed multiplication cooperative in Bruny which was approved and funded to the great anger of the whore turned missionary woman who demanded money for her project of saving souls and was refused.

In fact Haiti was the ideal country in turmoil where these American missionaries came in droves to save their souls now .They came with loud speakers and tents for these revivals and held their show in stadiums

where their counterparts translated their harangue in Creole for the masses in rapid fire style. Haiti was being overrun by them . You could see the white American women wearing only bras and panties sun bathing  in remote villages where they had come to establish a church as if Haiti was short of Churches . I had previously written a great deal about the missionaries in Les Cayes who were more established but there were a great number of itinerant ones who descended on Haiti like plague .

My seed multiplication program was a great success thanks to the funding and the farmers who worked tirelessly to build the warehouse, threshing cum drying floor and filled up the huge CARE truck borrowed with sand ,gravel and rocks in the river bed. I taught them how to operate the new Kubota power tiller  and got them the seeds of Amina.  Later I was approached by other donors to establish similar programs for corn and beans but I had no time.   Our project became well known for its positive actions so many people came to visit us from other parts of Haiti.

The kids started schooling again now that peace had returned temporarily. Jasmine lived through it all knowing that I was there to protect her and the kids although in her heart she must have felt anxious at times. She even bought tee shirts printed with Vive Haiti that were selling like hot cakes . But we were surprised at our so called friends in Les Cayes who never even phoned to know if we were alright or how we had managed during the revolution in Port au Prince.

Jasmine and I often talked about the Haitians and the expatriates in Les Cayes whom we had now known for more than two years and in general about their apathy. These are the people for whom Jasmine  did great favors all the time inviting to them for dinner or lunch but they remained aloof except when they wanted some other favors.

The tradition of potluck party was now discontinued due to lack of participants or someone taking the responsibility of organizing one but everyone showed up if Jasmine organized it. They wanted fun but shirked responsibility . The  Camp Perrin people formed their own clique and the Peace Corps people had their own group. Then there were the missionaries in Cite Lumiere who did not mix with any one .

I was more and more engrossed in with my work with the farmers because many of my efforts had started to pay off . The corn, sorghum, sweet potato, black beans and the soil conservation project in Fond des Freres all were on track and doing well. I also helped push the construction of our office cum residence in Maniche  for our field assistants and helped set up the peace Corps girl in  Maniche for her animal science work there. In short the year 1986 was a momentous year when so many things good and bad happened.

We often heard the voodoo drums late at night but had never actually seen a ceremony so one night I followed the sound to its source and found a large crowd  in a hut swaying to beat . There was a houngan who is a voodoo priest doing some chanting in the middle and a few women dancing as if in a trance and writhing on the floor . The Haitians practiced Voodoo as a form of ritual worship and considered it a part of their Catholic faith .

They  assembled in great numbers in a place in Central Haiti  each year to celebrate the Voodoo ceremony there so I took Jasmine there once. But closer at home the drums beat every night . The missionaries hated it and said that it was devil worship but in this they failed to understand the Haitian people.

Voodoo had come to Haiti from West Africa a long time ago and had now become part and parcel of the Haitian people who saw no contradiction in their practice of Voodoo and their Catholic faith. The two went hand in hand.  The missionaries thus sowed disharmony in the Haitian society by turning Haitians against Haitians .

One could see the fanaticism of new converts in the countryside who would go around the villages cursing the sinners and frothing in their mouth doing so while the villagers just looked . I had seen this sort of thing in Bamako where the Moslem zealots cursed loudly standing outside restaurants that served beer to patrons. The fanaticism was not limited to American Protestants .It could be found anywhere but in Haiti which is a small country in size, its effects were deeper on the society.

In 1987 we took our last vacation in  Mexico and the rest in the United States . I will not write about Mexico again because I wrote enough already so let me just mention our stay in the US. In Washington ,D.C. we met our friend Hubert who had now found a job there. Jasmine had met Hubert before and he had come to stay with us in Les Cayes for a while .The kids were happy to see their uncle Hubert again.

So we saw the usual places in the capital like the Lincoln memorial, Jefferson memorial etc. but the kids were more interested in the Air and Space museum , the Smithsonian and the zoo . I showed them the place near the Dupont Circle where I used to stay learning French from Nicole but that place had closed in the mean time . The next stop was New York where we went to the Liberty island , saw the Bronx zoo and the Metropolitan museum. We climbed up to the top of the World Trade Centre which does not exist any more ,to see the 4th of July fireworks. We were not  impressed although many tourists oohed and aahed as if they had never seen anything like it. They probably had not.

Jasmine was very disturbed by the poor people sleeping in the subway stations on card board or urinating in corners. The trains were full of graffiti and often obscene words but the stations were also spray painted by vandals.

We saw poor homeless people sleeping on card boards and covering themselves up with rags or news papers in the Central Park which was also shocking to her. Filipinos believed that America was rich .

We then took the train to Niagara Falls passing through the countryside full of derelict factories and abandoned hulks of machinery or cars. The names like Poughkeepsie etc. did not mean anything to the kids who observed everything with keen eyes . But Niagara falls was wonderful . The roaring water falling over the precipice was spectacular .It made a mist catching the rainbow .

In fact everything seemed to be named rainbow there like rainbow helicopter service, rainbow hotel, rainbow shopping mall etc. Some people even went up near the falls in boats called Maid of mist wearing yellow raincoats but we stayed above . There are some museums nearby but we all had seen enough  already.

The shop keepers in Niagara where I bought some records were rude. It was just like in  Miami . The waitresses in restaurants who were usually old and dour looking always engaged in small talks like ” your kids are cute etc.” but gave us worst seats when there were very few customers and expected big tips. I learned that the waitresses had certain tables assigned to them so they made sure that they all got equal share of their tips . Their chitchat was a part of their commercial jargon that did not fool Americans but there were many rich foreigners in Niagara.

Back in New York we found a hotel but they had no fix rates. The rate for the day depended on demand so it went up double during the 4th of July. This was another aspect of commercialism we came to know about in the US. Jasmine was disturbed by the aggressiveness of the African Americans. We saw a fellow pull a knife in a street brawl so we walked away quickly. The filth in the subway that stank of urine, the mud caked derelicts in the Central Park and elsewhere  showed a different side of New York to her .

Black women spoke or laughed in the subway trains in loud exaggerated voice while bantering with what sounded like sex talks with younger ones. We felt uneasy and were glad to leave New York. It was time to return to Haiti. We did not like New York at all.

While in Mexico we had decided that Jasmine should return to the Philippines with the kids to start schooling there and asked our office to wire the tickets to the agent in Port au Prince. When we arrived in Port au Prince, we found the streets deserted . The airline had warned us that there was trouble in Port au Prince so they had to cancel previous flights.  The airport was also deserted but someone came to pick us up .

In Port au Prince we could feel a sense of desperation now .

One  fellow told me to leave for Les Cayes immediately because he had information that the road was going to be blocked starting the next day .

He was wrong. We saw the first  road block outside the city. They demanded money and the rabble wanted to smash the head lights of the car. I could see the tense face of Jasmine and the kids but somehow I managed to talk my way out . There was the second road block further down the road where again they demanded money and were very angry so again I tried to talk my way out and finally paid a few dollars.

The third road block had a bigger crowd and many women to whom I explained that I was an agronomist going back to Les Cayes with my family and my two children were really tired so they should let me pass . Jasmine was on the verge of tears and very tense but somehow we mollified the people and they let us pass. This is how we reached Les Cayes late at night. There was a road block just outside the town but we again explained that we were almost home so they let us pass.

The very next day Jasmine started to pack when we received the phone call that her tickets were all confirmed all the  way to Manila so she must leave Les Cayes immediately .It was not easy to pack so quickly so I said that I will ship the rest later because I was staying behind. So hurried good byes were said to a few and we drove right back to Port au Prince .

It was a Friday afternoon when I got finally the tickets and rushed to the bank that closed at 1 pm to get some travelers checks .The bank manager was about to close the doors but gave me the checks just in time .Now everything was ready for her to leave next morning but nothing was easy in Haiti anymore. At 4 am next morning I found road blocks on the way to the airport and had to get down in the rain to remove the logs and burned out tires . We arrived in time and Jasmine and kids flew off to Miami while I looked at the disappearing dot in the sky sadly.

Now I found a puncture in my tire. I was so glad that it had happened after she left .Now I had all the time to take care of punctures .It was a big weight off my chest .She was safe and on her way to her country where the kids once again will rejoin their old school and where we had a nice well established house in Naga city. I was not worried any longer.

I had one more job to do in the project. The Americans had asked me to prepare a comprehensive final report on all the work I did for the past several years . So I got back to Les Cayes to prepare this report. I had kept meticulous notes on the experiments and trials so I did not have too much trouble putting it all together in a final form. I finished this job and submitted the report in October of 1987. I had asked to be relieved of my duties now so that I could rejoin my family in the Philippines  although the project ended a few months later. They agreed .

The construction in Bruny of the warehouse, threshing cum drying floor had been completed so the farmers were really happy. They said that it is the first time they had seen the money faithfully and honestly spent for a noble project like this. The Haitians were noted for their corruption who always kept something for their own pocket .

But a few more unpleasant things were in store for me. At this time thieves broke into my house several times and carried away almost everything of value including the video camera, record player and the radio . It was always known to them that now I was living alone and often out in the field so they took advantage. They also knew that I was leaving so could not stay behind to find justice. Nothing worked in Haiti anymore .It was just a total loss that I had to accept. The thieves even left a pair of military handcuff on the roof.

They had come prepared to hand cuff me if I woke up and caught them red handed . They also stole the project motorbike from the office and a motorboat engine just behind my house. The thieves were very active with no one to stop them or catch them.  I did have a night watchman and a maid but never knew if they were in cahoots and had left the kitchen door open on purpose  . I was relieved that they did not harm me although perhaps they could have if surprised.

The Bruny farmers arranged a farewell party for me in their village. Their daughters wrote poems for me that they read. The farmers sang songs on their guitars that they composed praising Doctor Amal for all I had done for them and offered rhum to me. It was all very touching. I recorded their music on tape that I still play sometimes .It brings back nostalgic memories of a proud people who were going through hell.

I danced with them but in the gaiety there was sadness in the knowledge that I was perhaps never to return here and never to see these wonderful people again. We had all come a long way since I had first arrived here. We had accomplished much working together  but it was the time to leave.

The girls came one by one and kissed my cheek  and I hugged the farmers and  said goodbye.  I liked  the country and its people in spite of my personal misfortune in the hands of thieves. I thought that the Haitians were a courageous people  who suffered needlessly . It was a great country and they were great gentle people . Haiti will remain my favorite country for the rest of my life.

I left Port au Prince on November 1 of 1987 for good. There was no one from the project to see me off at the airport but that was nothing new. I did not make any friends with the expatriate project staff so naturally they were aloof. The national project director who was a Haitian had spoken on the national TV about my work in Les Cayes and showed great appreciation so it was something. He died soon afterwards.

Thus the chapter on Haiti came to a close for me.

 

Note :  My blogs are also available in French, Spanish, German and Japanese  languages at the following links as well as my biography:

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Chapter nine : A very stressful period-India,Philippines- 1981 to 1983

A very stressful period : India and Philippines- 1981 to 1983

It was the month of December of 1981 when we left Mali for good. My  old friend Pierre and Monique lived now in a small village called Domremy aux Bois  a few hours north of Paris  so we decided to see them on our way to India. I had not seen them for over 8 years or so but we had kept in touch while Pierre and Monique lived in Daloa in the Ivory Coast. I wanted Jasmine to meet some of my friends and they too were eager to meet with my family and children.

We had arrived in Paris in the winter but were not very well prepared for the extreme cold weather. My first job was to find quickly a hotel room which we found near the rue de Bac downtown . It was not a good hotel but the location was good .Jasmine went to the church near by where the body of St.Catherine Laboure was preserved in a niche . This belonged to the Order of the Daughters of Charity   to which her sister belonged . The Pili high school of Camarines Sur in the Philippines was named after this saint so Jasmine was very happy to visit the place in rue de Bac.

Jayanti and Ashis were very surprised to see a Santa Claus in the supermarket handing out the grocery bags that we had paid for. They thought that the Santa was giving us the Christmas gifts. They were innocent and did not know about the commercial  Santas in Europe and America. They also  saw some Portuguese or Spanish people dressed as Three Kings of Biblical times  begging for money in the streets . It was all very new to them.

I had other problems to worry about. The airlines had not confirmed our seats and were reluctant to do so citing Christmas rush and full bookings but I found the Swiss Air more sympathetic .They sent telex to  their Geneva office to request four seats citing two small children and demanding priority. I was still wondering what would happen but the good news was waiting for us when I returned to the hotel . The SwissAir had called to say that they had confirmed our seats but they could only fly us to Bombay .I did not care. We were going to India via Geneva and Zurich .

Now we were free to proceed to Ligny en Barrois where Pierre would pick us up. He had not changed a bit and still had his scraggy beard and the old beat up BMW .We were glad to see each other after so many years and soon left for Domremy which was some 12 kms away tucked away in a rural area.

Pierre had bought an old farm house there that he was renovating slowly during weekends . Monique was still the same beautiful and vivacious Monique I had known in Mostaganem  but the kids had grown up. They instantly adopted Ashis and Jayanti and would not let them out of sight.

It was a novel experience for Ashis and Jayanti to see the snowfall like combed cotton and cover everything .We lit up the fireplace and reminisced about the good old days and caught up with the news about people we knew. Monique had taken up weaving and made beautiful clothes on the loom that Pierre had assembled for her . Kids were gong to school where Pierre taught.

Their house was full of artifacts they had collected over the years in Africa. There were precious ivory and ebony carvings and masks from the Ivory Coast but Monique sighed and said that the village folks were farmers who had never gone anywhere and failed to appreciate finer things in life like art or museum like collection of African handicraft.

I went around anyway to see the village and meet with some folks who enthusiastically coddled their piglets to show me and one farmer even showed me his milking  machine .He knew about poor India where they had probably never seen such machines . I knew exactly how Monique felt .She was a sophisticated woman of art and culture living in an unsophisticated village where the most important news of the day was the birth of piglets.

The village was picture pretty with meadows full of brown  cows, streams full of fish and deers could be found in the forest nearby but it was very rural and definitely not a place for  the likes of Pierre and Monique but they stayed and improved their farm house bit by bit.  She told me that one day she went to the village church and sat in the front row not knowing that it was reserved for the rich farmers whether they came or not. They gave her dirty looks and made her feel that she was out of place which she was and stopped going to the cold stone church.

But his house was nice and big. He had installed a nice bathroom and the fireplace made the house seem cozy. I noticed that one of his chairs needed fixing so together we shaped a new leg for it while their dog kept leaping at us to my great annoyance . But it was good to see them and sad to leave not knowing if we would ever see them again . Probably not.

We were lucky once again because at the New Charles de Gaulle airport in Roissy they told us that they may have to shut down all flights due to heavy snowfall soon but our flight to Geneva left on time.  We had to change plane there but the computer malfunctioned while we waited impatiently to get the boarding cards which were finally hand written by the agent .We boarded the plane to Zurich in the nick of time but Zurich to Bombay flight was on time and we arrived in India without any hassle.

Now we had to get on a flight to Kolkata but there was a nasty surprise waiting for us here. The agent said that our names were not on the list .This was the last straw . I had brought my family all the way from Bamako and had confirmed tickets so I made a great fuss and insisted. Soon another agent appeared and said that there was a mistake and gave me four boarding cards  . All is well that ends well so now we headed for Kolkata where Annapurna was to meet with us and together we would go to Darjeeling for a vacation . I wanted to show Jasmine and the kids the majestic Himalayas and the snow covered peaks of Kanchanjangha.

Nirmal at that time was posted in a small town in Bihar state so we decided to visit with him there after our trip to Darjeeling. Annapurna arrived in Kolkata on the dot so soon we left for Siliguri from where we would take the toy train to Darjeeling. This toy train is really like a toy train that a small engine pulls up the steep gradient huffing and puffing while an attendant sits in front of the engine sprinkling sand on the tracks to get more traction.

It is a  relic of the British past and a great favorite of tourists but we were out of luck .The train was not running so we took a taxi all the way to Darjeeling passing through and slowly climbing all the time lovely green hills full of tea plantations, pine forests and cute red tiled houses . This is the place famous for  tea in the whole world. We could now smell the crisp mountain air laden with the scent of pine trees and see the deep blue skies full of cotton like clouds. It is truly beautiful .

At 7000 ft above sea level  Darjeeling is always cold and cloudy but we found a nice hotel . The clouds would come in through the windows and soak your clothes if you forgot to close the windows tight. It was a novel experience for all of us but specially Jasmine and the kids .Only poor Annapurna hated going up and down the hills to go anywhere because she was obese and easily tired .

Still we had great fun and went to see the famous sunrise on Kanchanjangha that tourists from all over the world came to see . It is spectacular but only if there were no clouds obscuring the peak . As our luck would have it, we did not see anything spectacular at all due to heavy clouds but the touts always said it was fantastic the day we did not go . They practically broke down your door trying to wake you up at 4 am and bring you to the Tiger Hill to see the sunrise of course for a hefty fee . The rudy cheeked hill women made hot tea by the roadside for the tourists and put cardamom in it .

Cardamom and many exotic spices grew abundantly in these verdant hills but the most valuable crop was the tea that the British had introduced long ago. It not only grew well here ,it produced the aroma that was unmatched anywhere .It was the number one export of the country and employed thousands upon thousands of hill people who worked in innumerable plantations picking tea leaves and tending the gardens.

We were told that the best quality tea leaves were the tiny leaves that only small children with nimble fingers could pick .They had never heard of anti child labour laws here but mostly it was a women’s job who carried enormous basket on their backs and picked tea leaves while singing hill songs together . The cool climate, the white clouds and the emerald green manicured hills where colorfully dressed hill girls and women wearing silver jewelry picked tea leaves and sang their eternal songs was out of Arabian night storybook .

But there was a dark side to Darjeeling at this time that we soon saw in the insolent and arrogant behavior of Nepalese people who had settled here. There was an undercurrent of tension here that would explode in a few years to cause widespread unrest among these people. I still do not understand what was their main complaint but it destroyed the tourist trade that was the mainstay of Darjeeling and brought poverty and misery to people.

I understand that the situation has improved since then but we felt uneasy and after staying a few days left for Kolkata. We visited the Buddhist monasteries run by Tibetan and many such sites like Mirik lake where the government was developing bungalows and parks for the tourists but some local visitors were dirty people who threw garbage around and did their toilet in public places. It was disgusting.

The Batasia loop, the Tibetan handicraft center, the mountaineering institute set up by Tenzing Norgay who climbed the Everest with Hillary  were many places we visited . We also visited a tea garden and Jasmine saw the tea being picked, dried and processed there. The air was full of aroma of dry tea that they also sold there at half the market price so we bought some.

The road passed by very close to Nepal border where the tourists went shopping illegal umbrellas and other cheap things. Why would anyone get excited about umbrellas or trinkets was beyond me but Indians were crazy about anything imported even if of shoddy quality. The taxi driver had many hidden places under the bonnet to hide the contrabands from the prying eyes of the customs officers but we were not impressed.

Back in Kolkata , we decided not to visit the birthplace of my father in the village about 40 km away and went to Bihar to see Nirmal . The train ride from Siliguri and from Kolkata was exhausting in the heat of the plains but we arrived in the small town where Nirmal and his family was staying. Mom was also with them so  we all rested for a while before heading towards Sri Ram Pur . Nirmal was a gracious host and arranged for a picnic but Sabita was still the same and looked unfriendly.

Annapurna liked the warmer climate of the plains and disliked the cold weather in the hills where she often complained of dizziness so she was happier .  We were thinking about what to do now. The kids needed schooling and we needed to stay put in one place for a while  I sorted out our future so Sri Ram Pur seemed like a logical place.

This was perhaps the most trying period for Jasmine. Visiting the folks for a few weeks was one thing and staying in Sri Ram Pur was another . Sabita had never liked her and was openly jealous of her . I was there to protect Jasmine from hurt and told her that it was a blessing the she did not speak Bengali. Sabita was poor in English so that too helped but not that much.

In  Sri Ram Pur we got Ashis  admitted to St.Joseph school where the headmaster was impressed by his English not knowing that it was his first language .  Jayanti was too small to be admitted there but she went around the table chirping ba ba black sheep and other rhymes oblivious to the smiles of the headmaster . She was adorable . She too was eager to go to school so we got her admitted to a nursery school where she learned to sing a few Hindi rhymes and other things .

The first day of school was difficult for both of them and they cried but soon got used to going to school and greatly enjoyed it. Ashis started learning the alphabets and slowly but steadily developed beautiful handwriting while Jayanti mostly sat with Hindi speaking children trying to understand a strange language that she could not fathom . Ashis’s classmates did not speak English either so he felt isolated but his teacher, a young compassionate lady took him under her protection and care realizing that he was a special child.

At home Jasmine felt the same isolation as before and longed to return to the Philippines but I tried to make her stay in India as comfortable as possible and converted the old kitchen into our bedroom, the room next to it renovated for the kids and bought new furniture, electric fans and many other things . But lonely she remained as no one tried to be her friend . She tried hard to please Sabita and mom but did not succeed . Our living quarters were separated from the rest of the house by an iron door that was locked at night by them making our isolation seem more complete.

I busied myself with painting the house and fixing mosquito screens. We were not used to mosquitoes and flies although the others did not care . My aim was to make Jasmine and the kids comfortable because it was their first prolonged stay  with my folks but she often cried silently because they misunderstood her . The great cultural barrier seemed greater now. Mom was aloof to Ashis and Jayanti although she caressed Sabita’s daughter.

One day Ashis eagerly tried to show his grandmother his new school uniform but she put it aside ignoring him. He was only a 4 year old child who was baffled.

My heart cried out for the innocent children but it hurt Jasmine the most. She became pale and sickly making our family doctor very concerned and one day gave her tablets of valium to make her sleep and less tense. I bought her vitamin tablets and energy drinks but that too did not help . I had brought her and the lovely innocent children into this nightmare so felt terribly guilty and desperately tried to get a job somewhere so that we could all leave.

But no one cared in India for a person of my background. You did not get a job in India because you were qualified. You got a job because you knew someone .I did not know anyone. I no longer understood this country where I was a complete stranger now.  My folks in the past had complained that I never tried to find a job and settle in India because I did not want to live in India but that was not true. I came and was trying hard.

I shielded Jasmine and the kids as much as I could but often that was not enough . The summer months were the only respite we all got but it worsened once Sabita arrived in July from Bihar. Only Annapurna showed sympathy to Jasmine and loved the kids but she had to go back to her job in another town. Even Parvati showed callousness towards Jayanti when she refused to sew her  a blouse. Jasmine’s fault was that she wanted a blouse that covered her stomach completely. Indian women wore blouses that looked more like a bra .

We were shocked  at this attitude of Parvati but kept quiet. They were hurting a saintly girl who was innocent like a child and was trying hard to please my relatives . What was worse was the Sabita often compared Ashis and Jayanti with her daughter who was better in every respect according to her. She even wondered aloud what did I see in Jasmine to marry her. It was in Bengali so Jasmine thankfully never knew what it was that she said.

I began to hate Sri Ram Pur . I had lived away from  Sri Ram Pur for nearly 14 years but now realized that we had absolutely nothing in common with them any more . They did not understand us or even try. I could not talk to Nirmal any longer because he showed open contempt for the western ways that he thought I had picked up by speaking in English etc. but felt very defensive about India ,good or bad. He was like those super patriot Americans in DC.

He often flared up when we said that the people defecating openly by the railway tracks in plain view of the passing trains gave bad impressions to foreigners who came to India for the first time. He said it was better than the half naked women lying on the beach in America although the analogy failed to clear up in my mind . We had really grown apart in every possible way and there was no meeting of the mind based on logic .The point was that they felt ill at ease with us and our view of the world that they could not share being tradition bound . It was the typical us vs the rest syndrome.

We had traveled to many parts of the world and had lived in many place but it did not mean anything to them because they lacked curiosity. They said that it did not matter to them what happened outside India but I suspected it did not matter to them what happened in India as well . They lived in the small confines of their homes and a few people they knew .Politics never interested me and one could not discuss weather for long so we fell silent and slowly but definitely an invisible wall came up .

What was very surprising was that no one wanted to know anything about Jasmine or about her family. They did not know that she was a college graduate and had majored in accounting or that she had worked in banks holding important jobs. They did not know anything about her family and did not seem to care . Sabita did not believe that Jasmine was knowledgeable about child rearing or their health care but Sabita was as ignorant as a door knob on any matter let alone child care but never admitted.

Jasmine waited patiently to be asked but they never did. Later I began to understand that the root cause for this aloofness and jealousy was perhaps  the fact that Jasmine was beautiful ,tall and educated and now well traveled  so in her presence Sabita felt inferior and tried to hide it by showing negative feelings. Our children were also beautiful with very good manners and that too grated on her when she compared her daughter to them. There were many reasons but none of them are important now.

My mother walked a tightrope .She could not be seen siding with or favoring her younger and obviously rich son because she was taken care of by Nirmal and his hateful wife who would do so until she died.  I think Nirmal was less concerned about such things but his wife was not and it was she who controlled Nirmal totally.

Their marital relationship was  very different from ours. Nirmal being a peace loving person by nature had surrendered to his wife long ago who now dominated his life by deciding everything for the household but she had no such control over us . I think she resented it . She seldom spoke but we all felt that she was behind every decision ever made. I had seen what had happened when Nirmal voiced his objection . She simply packed up and left for her father’s house nearby.  Then  Nirmal had to go and placate her in order for her to return. This is what I suspected what happened in arranged marriages where  women tried to get the upper hand . Their relationship was not based on love and mutual understanding .

I remembered Nirmal to be interested in playing guitar and had bought for him a magnet for his electric guitar in Kolkata but now it collected dust. He liked music so I bought an expensive stereo from Algeria that was the first in the community and had given him a Kodak carousel slide projector and many slides from many countries to enjoy .They too collected dust. He used to paint and make beautiful clay figurines because he was an artist but now he sat in one corner reading news paper . His wife had killed the artist in him as surely as the Sunrise. It was sad.

He sometimes mused that he regretted not having a companion to his heart who could understand and appreciate finer things in life . Sabita was a devoted wife and knew his daily routine and what he liked to eat .She cleaned his shirt and prepared his meals so that he could leave for his office on time . She waited at the gate at 5.30 pm for him to return everyday. She was devoted of which there was no doubt.

But whenever I tried to get him interested in doing things that I knew he loved most , his eyes sparkled for a while before they dimmed again .He had paid a price to have marital peace but he was often very irritable and showed it over very simple reasons  like a missing button from his shirt or a hole in his sock . He was the lone male in a household full of females and often felt his frustrations.  A Bengali household full of women even though related could be a tense place as they never openly fought with each other but kept their differences simmering over many years.

I learned that they remembered what one had said twenty years ago and made an issue of it if they wanted to. Their vindictiveness had no end which was hard for me to understand . Jasmine was innocent like a child and was often baffled at the simmering of tension that needed only a slight excuse to come to the surface .

She was also  very surprised at the two facedness of Sabita who would hug a visitor in obvious delight and start cursing in vile words when the visitor left .In fact it turned out that she had very few good things to say about anyone making us wonder what she said about us to others behind our back.

The  Sri Ram Pur household lived for only one reason . It was to serve the needs of Nirmal who was the bread earner so everything else became secondary . For example we had to wait until 10 am to get any breakfast  until Nirmal left  for his office and the daughter left for her school . She did not care if Jasmine and the kids were hungry because her first duty was to her husband and daughter.

I therefore bought bread, jam, jelly etc. so that Jasmine could have early breakfast . She was not allowed into the kitchen to help herself . If I bought sweets or fruits for everybody, Sabita would ignore it because it did not come from  Nirmal. She even ignored the pooja sweets that I brought from the Holy temple of Viswanath in  Benares that I had gone to see once. No Hindu worth his salt dared to ignore the offerings from the Temple of Viswanath but Sabita did not believe it. She did not consider me religious enough to offer worship to Shiva.

She openly said that she did not like guests who stayed because it meant extra work for her .It perhaps included us although she did not say that openly .Jasmine learned that she had to be self dependent if we were to stay in Sri Ram Pur. So she prepared the kids for school early in the morning and their lunch boxes . Our lunch was still served at 1.30 pm or later but we learned to cope . We always reminded ourselves that it was not our home so we had to adjust to others as best as we could .

I kept fixing the house and looking after the needs of  Jasmine and the kids. Only my cousin and his wife came once in a while to talk to Jasmine or invited her to their house. I took her out for long walks when she poured out her frustrations and difficulties but I was also helpless.

I had written to many potential employers but they did not reply .The New Delhi office that offered employment for returning Indian scientists like me gave me hope and said that they were processing my application and would soon answer . In fact one day a policeman came to tell me that my appointment was due soon because my police clearance had been sent already  to Delhi. I became hopeful. It was our way out of this mess.

Some people began to talk to us in a condescending manner saying that I was indeed on a prolonged vacation  so all these experiences finally laid the groundwork for the ultimate decision that we would soon make of leaving India for good but we were still a few month from it and did not know it.

It was a period of trial for the four of us and specially so for Jasmine who endured it more bravely than us . It made me appreciate her more . We became more close to each  other since we understood that our bond of love was also our protection against hurt feelings.

Then one day in October of 1982 we received a telegram from the Philippines . Jasmine’s father  was in the hospital and in a very serious condition. Her sister wrote that he had only days to live and wanted to see Jasmine . She cried a lot and urged me to return to the Philippines immediately . But mom thought that  Jasmine was using the telegram as an excuse to leave India and perhaps her father was not sick at all.

It was truly shocking .I did not expect it from my mother but had a suspicion that it was Sabita who had sown the seed of doubt in my mother’s mind. I did not take long to make my decision . Jasmine was surprised  when I told her that we were all going back to the Philippines immediately .The same night we boarded a train for Delhi via Meerut although I had fever. .Our family doctor gave me some medicine to take on the train . In Delhi the very next morning we went straight to the Philippines consulate and Jasmine convinced the consul to issue the three of us visas right away .

Then we went to the airline and confirmed four seats on a flight from Kolkata which they did after sending urgent telexes to HongKong. We were cleared to take off in three days time. Then we went to the passport office to get a clearance for the kids which they stamped right away. Then we went to the income tax office and got a clearance for myself because any Indian who stayed over three months had to get a clearance . We accomplished all of these tasks in a few hours that normally took many days and took the train back to Sri Ram Pur right away.

The next day I got the transfer certificate for the kids because they were now going to study in the Philippines and never coming back to India. Jasmine started packing right away .Our stay in Sri Ram Pur thus came to an abrupt end and we soon left for Kolkata by train  from where we would fly to Manila via HongKong . It was the wisest decision I would ever make. This time there was no doubt that we will never come back .

It was clear that our children could not grow up in India and Jasmine could not stay . The government of India finally offered me a job but it came too late. I could not accept it . The Sri Ram Pur folks sensed that it was a definite departure for us but kept quiet. I think my mother realized that we faced an impossible situation in Sri Ram Pur although I had tried my best to settle. But that was not to be . Our destiny lay elsewhere.

Soon we left India and the bad experience behind forever and flew towards the Philippines for possibly a new life and a new beginning. We had no plans other than reaching Pili in time  so that  Jasmine could get to see her dying father . But in Manila there were some formalities to complete. I had to now apply for a resident status so we went to the Immigration office and met with the bureau chief who handled the process.

He was an old lawyer who finally agreed to expedite my case and asked a junior lawyer to do the paperwork immediately .I had convinced him that we needed to reach Pili soon and were traveling with two small children who were tired and needed rest not to mention Jasmine whose father was very sick. So all the paperwork was done and we arrived in Pili the very next morning.

This is remarkable because the Bureau of immigration and deportation in Manila was not noted for efficiency when it came to the cases involving Boombais as the Indians were called here . The word deportation was often emphasized in case of aliens so by and large it was an unfriendly place full of unfriendly people who were very prejudiced against the Boombais. That is why I said that it was truly remarkable. The lawyer chief was friendly and they handled my case with compassion and speed.

The Boombais were a sad lot in the Philippines .Many came as tourists and stayed on to do business of  loan sharking although the local pawn shops were better at gouging people than them. They hid in the provinces from the immigration sleuths but sometimes got caught and deported. The term Boombai included anyone who looked like them like Bangladeshis, Pakistanis or others . Children were taught rhymes that went like .”. there is a Boombai , there is a Boombai hiding under the bridge ” and the local TV and radio were full of deprecations about the Boombais who were called five sixers . The transvestites made jokes about them on TV.

You could often hear Filipinos talking among themselves belittling Boombais so the prejudice was widespread . They had read in the Reader’s Digest how poor India was and people there starved all the time. Nothing you could say or do could change their mind because their belief was very strong . This would later change as the cable TV came via satellite and brought BBC and CNN and with it wide coverage of India but only among the educated class. The grassroots did not have satellite TV or understand English and it was they who would continue this tragic prejudice.

When Jasmine defended by saying that India was a misunderstood country , they just laughed and said she said it because she was married to a Boombai. The fact was that very few Filipinos had ever traveled to India and most knew absolutely nothing about it because their knowledge of other countries was limited to the United States where the streets were paved with gold and where every Filipino wanted to go and live the good life ,

Even those Filipinos who had emigrated to the United State lived in close Filipino communities  like in Daly city near San Francisco and did not mix very much with the mainstream Americans .They had their own TV programs piped in from Manila and shops where they could buy the native food.  The ones in the Philippines envied them and wanted to go there.

There were historical reasons for their affection for America or anything American . The Philippines was colonized by America for a long time and they came to its aid during the last war when the Japanese occupied the country and treated the locals roughly .Many Filipinos like Mr. Castillo had served in the USAFE which stood for US army in the far east and many war veterans were later allowed to emigrate to the United States . They number now in millions there and constantly petition for their relatives. USA is also the main trading partner of the Philippines.

Filipinos imitate anything American good or bad and consider them as their role model . They have historically looked to the east and not to the west because east is where they all wanted to go . In their schools they were taught American history but not much Asian history. The American fashion, American music, American food, movies and hot dogs were better in their mind. There were many other reasons .

But their prejudices against Indians came primarily from ignorance as most prejudices are .The ragged looking strange people wearing funny turban and bracelets riding motorbikes and hiding in the provinces did not create much of an impression on the Filipino mind . They thought that if India was such a great country then why these people came to the Philippines selling umbrellas ?  Their logic was hard to beat.

The local newspapers did not help the matter either. When a giant warship of the Indian Navy made a courtesy call to the port in Manila, they printed a badly taken photo and the article in very small letters also in faded ink and shoved it into the 13th page  . As if they did not believe that India had a very modern navy including carriers  and sophisticated submarines.

Many Filipino women saw that marriage to a white American was their only ticket to the promised land to escape from their misery here and were very surprised that we voluntarily returned to settle down somewhere.

People were often surprised that I had a Ph.D. and was not selling umbrellas or hiding under the bridge . It made them uneasy and at a loss as to how to react. Most had never met an Indian who was so educated and who did not wear turban or bracelets . Some even asked  Jasmine what made her marry an Indian when they did not rate so high in their mind. Remember her  sisters ? They were typical Filipinos. Ignorance and prejudice goes hand in hand.

Most Filipino girls if asked to rate in order of preference whom they wanted to marry inevitably said that the first choice was a white American and last a Boombai. The African Americans were not even considered. They could not believe when we said that we found the Philippines a very nice country because they tried so hard to leave where opportunities were few . Most would go to the middle east doing menial labor jobs but they came from the grassroots or grp as we called them . The educated ones tried for the United States .

Anyway  our journey had come to an end at least for the time being . Her father was in the intensive care in Naga City hospital and indeed very sick. It took him some time before he could recognize Jasmine  but finally showed signs that he was happy to see her. He could not speak and was fed through the nose. His hulk had shrunk to practically nothing and he had terrible bed sores .  His eyes were vacant and  the body emaciated .It was even harder for us to watch but I was glad we were able to come quickly because he died two days later.

The death of a parent is always very hard on the children as I knew from my experience when my father died so painfully of cancer in 1966.It was naturally very hard for Jasmine and the rest but I think they were also relieved that his sufferings were over.

Her younger brother was at this time about to be ordained as a priest which was a great moment in any Filipino family so they got busy preparing for the funeral as well as the ordination. I was just a passive observer in these family rituals because here too remained a barrier between me and them .

I was here to give Jasmine moral support who was undergoing a good deal of emotional turmoil after her harrowing experience in India. This was the time she needed me the most so I was glad to be by her side.

I noticed that no matter how distant people were to each other ,they all showed up during a funeral .It was a time to show their solidarity. It was the word Annapurna did not understand because we did not have such solidarity in our family. In India even close relatives often did not attend the funerals. It was because the Hindu tradition dictated that the body be cremated within 24 hours of death so the relatives living far could not reach in time.

But in the Philippines the body remained in the coffin for a long time to allow distant people to come and join the funeral so a constant stream of people came and ate and drank beer to my great amazement. As if it was a festive occasion and not a wake . Such are the traditions of different countries . Here people wore black but in India and also in Vietnam the color of mourning is white not black.

Ashis and Jayanti still very young watched everything with curious eyes. They could not speak Tagalog or the local dialect called Bicol so they remained outside the conversation .Most Filipinos were very poor in English although a few made a valiant effort for a few minutes until they ran out of vocabulary. The children did not bother .

The cultural differences between the Philippines and India are very remarkable . In fact they are so great that I often wondered if other than the religion, there are some common grounds .How could these two people develop  even  a modicum of understanding of each other given such differences tainted with prejudices ? Of course no one was trying or interested.

Soon after the funeral and the ordination , we decided to find a rented house in Naga City where the kids will now have to start their schooling because here too , living with the in laws was tiring . So a small dilapidated house near the school of Jayanti was found and we quickly moved in . Ashis was to go to school just across the street so it was perfect. The transfer certificate helped them get to the higher grade right away so the transition from India was smooth . Jayanti was a bit underage for kindergarten but she charmed the teachers with her fluent English and baby talk .She would remain the baby of the class all through college and so would Ashis. Filipino children started schooling  at a later age than in India.

We set up a new household once again in the Jacob street apartment and looked after the kids and their education. They had started well and in fact were far ahead of their classmates in every respect . Jayanti became the darling of the sisters because she was not shy and could recite many rhymes by rote.

She started to learn the alphabets and made rapid progress. She learned many songs and dances and showed them to anyone . Ashis was also getting along well and started to learn many things .They clearly had advantage in English which was their first language but also because they had lived in different countries and traveled .This experience set them apart.

This cross cultural exposure was an asset to them but their classmates had no  idea what Ashis and Jayanti talked about in Mali , France or in India . They had never heard of Mali and what they knew about India or Indians was not very favorable but our kids got along wonderfully and adjusted well to their new surroundings and schools. The trouble was that their classmates did not speak English and our kids did not yet learn the local language . This would change later as they grew up  . They started to pick up Bicol words.

I was not as well adjusted as I appeared to be . The rented house was on a very noisy street that made me very jumpy because I am sensitive to noise pollution and can not stand it. The trimobiles and motorbikes without mufflers made the matter worse . I longed for a quiet place but it was not to be where we lived.  I think at this time the idea or either building a house or buying one started to take root .

Jasmine had inherited a lot in town where we could build our house but I soon discarded the idea . A new house meant dealing with the corrupt city hall people so we started to think about a suitable ready built house somewhere. It is really amazing how fast the word spreads in a small town like Naga.

Soon some real estate agents started hounding us with their endless proposals but we turned them all away until one day I said to Jasmine that we should go with them and then say no so that they will leave us in peace.

The house we went to see was an unfinished house in a subdivision which the old woman wanted to sell because she could not pay the bank the monthly amortization .She was a widow and lived alone. I liked the house right away because it was just right for us. It had a big living room and two bedrooms. The bathroom was small but that could be enlarged and the kitchen needed some work but on the whole it was a good house that had a garage and some space in the front and the back.

We agreed to buy it to the great joy of the agents and the old woman and I got very busy for the next month or so to fix up the house properly. It had to be ready before Jayanti’s birthday in January when we planned to move in. We no longer had to live with in laws anywhere and finally had our own place .This was to be our home and a lovely home at that. I made sure of it.

We tore down all the plywood and built solid brick walls. We enlarged the bathroom and put in flush toilet, shower and beautiful blue tiles. We put in fence and a steel gate and had all the walls plastered with strong cement .I bought a pressure operated automatic  water pump and had a deep well sunk in the back garden .The floor was to be red. The new tube lights were installed in all the rooms and the house spruced up with paint in and out.

We put in balusters outside for the garage which would soon house our VW Brasilia that we bought . In fact I was in the mood of spending and fixing up everything because I really liked the idea of our first real home. Jasmine was ecstatic and gave me many ideas. We planted roses in the front and fruit trees at the back  . The front door was of a heavy duty carved narra wood.

The metal gate bore the letters of our surname in bold style that we painted white with a blue background . In short we got everything done in time for us to move in on the 5th of January of 1983 . Jayanti was to celebrate her 4th birthday in the new house.

I bought a very nice Akai stereo with tape deck and record player and set it up in our newly painted huge living room where we set up the sofa set that  Jasmine had purchased long ago .We brought all  her stuff from Pili including the narra divider .I bought her the Singer sewing machine, ref and gas stove, pots and pans and everything she needed . We setup the TV and the dining table set on one side of the big living room so it was perfect.

Only the curtains remained but that too came shortly.  For Ashis and Jayanti we built double deck beds because the bed rooms were not large and we occupied the front room .Soon a maid was found and we had a regular  brand new household going in no time at all.

I started to enjoying life again truly relaxing with good music and playing with our lovely children or just sitting in our new garden  talking to Jasmine. I put two easy chairs in the lawn where we usually sat savoring it all .

We talked about how momentous our decision to leave India had been because one thing led to another . I had been given the permanent residency by the Manila Immigration office and our children were recognized as Filipino citizens. What more could I ask for more ? We had everything.

Our new maid waxed and polished the floor like mirror while we just sat enjoying it all .  Due to our good luck the kids went from one grade to the next and never missed a single school year since we had gotten them started in India so the transition was smooth. Now they had their own bunk bed and their room . People marveled at the beautiful house that took shape so quickly.  We now had a car and it helped a lot in bringing the kids to school and run errands .

Her younger sister who had opposed our marriage now had a change of heart and moved in with us . Often her mother came and stayed so it was nice for the kids to have a grandmother here. Their experience with their grandmother in India was nothing to write about and we hoped that they did not remember her  . The best news was that Jasmine regained her health and was the jolly and lively woman I knew in Mali .

Soon I received a letter from  Robert Springstein  who now worked in the United States . He asked if I would like to work in a project in Haiti to which I said yes. The offer of a job of professor in the Visayas state college of agriculture that had been recently made did not interest me because I had been to that place. It was isolated and full of religious fanatics .

The Americans were anxious to have me in Haiti so one day in the month of February of 1984, I left for the United States for the orientation program and then for Port au Prince ,Haiti . Jasmine and the kids were to stay behind until I could find a suitable house and schooling facilities in Haiti. I really did not know anything about Haiti so I had to first find out.

I met the team leader in Arkansas and many others .I was assured that Haiti is a nice country and I should get ready to go there for four years. He was bringing his family there so I started hoping that soon Jasmine and the kids would be able to join me . We had never been separated before so I really wished us to be together in Haiti.

Thus a new chapter was about to begin.

 

Note :  My blogs are also available in French, Spanish, German and Japanese  languages at the following links as well as my biography:

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Chapter eight: Abject poverty of Mali- West Africa- 1979 to 1981

The abject poverty of Mali, West Africa – 1979 to 1981

Getting out of the plane at the Bamako Senou airport in Mali , we were hit by the heat wave like a blast . Jasmine was certainly worried and covered up Jayanti some more  lest she start dehydrating . We were all very tired after the long journey from Delhi via Paris and eager to reach a hotel.

The hotel we reached in Bamako was the Amitie Hotel , an old albatross of a featureless drab but huge hotel that dominated the landscape. It was the biggest building in town not too far from the placid Niger river . The thing that one never failed to notice in the Amitie hotel was the elevator wrapped in boa skins. I do not know how many poor creatures were slaughtered to obtain all the skins but I assure you the elevator was big.

We were met by a fellow called  Jeff  who was a middle aged person who never could decide whether to smile or frown so I suppose he tried to do both at the same time. But he was helpful in settling us down temporarily and had my personal car driven up from Dakar the next day. We had to stay in that hotel for a few days because it happened to be a Moslem holiday that closed all the offices in town where we had some business.

So patiently  we waited and took all the food in the shelter of our air conditioned room . Ashis at that time a small baby himself ran around the room and often got a shock by touching the door knob due to built up static on the rug so he soon learned not to touch it.

The official tour guide book describes Bamako as a dainty town but we saw nothing dainty about Bamako with open sewers ,garbage piled up by the roadside and obnoxious flies everywhere . However, people were not obnoxious like in Dakar and women selling beautiful tie dye clothes in rainbow colours smiled innocently . Kids smiled too but for a different reason . They often hanged around the few department stores where the foreigners did their shopping of imported chocolate or ice cream.

It was shocking to see the priorities in a desperately poor country like Mali but the foreigners did not care. They had to have their chocolate and ice cream. The kids often picked pockets if you thought they were just innocently smiling at you  but the worst were the gas station attendants who distracted you while pumping gas and quickly set the meter to zero telling you that your tank is full.

Just behind the Amitie hotel we found  scores of weavers squatting in the dirt in the shade of trees who made colorful strips of clothes on their looms made of bicycle spindles and wood . They never could made the strips wider than about 4 inches so they had to stitch the strips together to make a bigger piece . These weavers sat there in the heat sweating it out on their primitive looms day after day to make a living but judging from the rags they wore or the houses they lived in , it was doubtful if they made a good living. Only the blanc made a good living in Mali .I felt a bit ashamed for the first time being in the category of blanc although my salary was low by the  international standard .

Mali is a huge country with the land area greater than France and Germany combined but with only about five million people. The northern half of the country was desert with little or no rainfall and was inhabited mostly by the nomads tending their herds of  cattle, goat and sheep . The southern half was greener due to more rainfall  but we were to  go to Sikasso in the south east corner of the country some 400 km from Bamako. I had visited Sikasso previously and had some misgivings about bringing my family there but we had to make a start somewhere .

The drive to Sikasso was boring and tiring but the road was straight and flat with a great number of potholes that cut through the featureless African brush country . Large herds of cattle could be seen crossing the road with Fulani herders not far behind. Scattered villages could be seen where the mud houses were either rectangular or round with conical grass roof clustered together under occasional baobab trees . Some villages had crumbling mud walls around them as fortification .

The only fair size town if it could be called a town at all was Bougouni halfway down the road . Jasmine was disappointed as I could see it in her eyes but she put up a brave front. Women with goiters, children with swarms of flies on their faces and people in homespun cotton rags were all around us to liven up the spirit but it did not help much. I had written a bit about Bougouni previously so I will not add to it except that outside the town one saw the signboard of a Missionary compound .They were there to bring the light of Jesus to the heathens .

We would later meet many of them in Sikasso as well but more on them later. We stopped in Bougouni to get some gas and food but the former was easier .The only restaurant in town was owned by an old Lebanese. It was dirty and full of flies  but we sat there trying to ignore the outstretched hands of beggars who appeared as soon as the car stopped . But they were not aggressive like in Bangladesh or India and left after a while.

One could not fail to notice the mango trees everywhere. Mali was known for mangoes and those who never had tasted good mangoes before said that it was the best in the world. We found many roadside  village markets where Fulani women sold milk and  butter and others sat with piles of vegetables and meat. We stopped at one of them just to see what was available. It was not much as compared to Asian markets but Mali was Mali .

Sikasso was not any better either as we settled down in the only hotel in town chasing the cockroaches and rats in the room . Soon the word got around that I was a doctor meaning a medical doctor so many people came around asking for help . The very next day we started hunting for a house and took the first house we came across to the disappointment of Jeff who had lined up a few houses for us to look at. But we were living in hotels too long and were anxious to settle down.

Our house was a concrete pillbox type of a house but it looked better than a hotel room so we unpacked and she was soon busy cooking. The yard was big and a few mango trees . The wonder of wonders, the house had electricity and a hand pump for water. We also had a night watchman living in the yard . British people are horrified when you say yard meaning a garden but it was more like a yard full of gravel and no garden.

The night watchman had a young wife and another woman who looked like his mother but  Jasmine after observing them for a few days declared that she was his first wife. Most Malians are Moslems and practiced polygamy. The first few days were spent looking for the things we needed to set up our household so I found some crude furniture made of trunks of palm plants and held together with leather thongs .

To our dismay we found the only grocery store stocked with old cases of Heineken beer and not much else. They also had champagne but we did not know who drank champagne in Sikasso and were not eager to find out.

The local market assembled once a week on a Sunday where farmers brought in their produce of fruits and vegetables etc.  to sell and buy what they needed in return. Mostly it was a women’s affair.They came in their colorful clothes and some wore headbands or a turban of sorts. Men wore boubous or homespun cotton clothes.

We were warned that Sikasso  was a Malaria zone  so I fixed up the wire screens on doors and windows and bought mosquito nets .We also started taking Nivaquine tablets and gave the kids the powdered form as prophylactic . Jayanti and Ashis were miserable because of the heat in the pillbox of a house that we had and soon their tiny bodies filled up with rashes.

We were helpless because the voltage was too low to run the air conditioners we had installed so we just sweated and tried to cool their bodies with wet towels . We were all miserable but felt sorry for the babies.

We were lucky if we had electricity more than a few times a week so bought a few kerosene lamps and lot of candles . It was not very reassuring for a new family  like ours with so small children but somehow we managed.

Our first job was to get a domestic help so soon a boy was found. He was called Abou which is a common name but his sense of propriety offended Jasmine. He walked around the house in his brief  and did not know how to babysit although he made an effort. In Mali such tasks are always given to girls or women . Jasmine was baffled when he started doing some strange calisthenics everyday  sitting on a mat so I had to explain that he was a Moslem and had to pray five times a day. She had never met a Moslem in the Philippines and was totally unaware of their religion or culture.

But calisthenics or not Abou had to go because he was totally hopeless. He also did not know how to count so I had a difficult time explaining his wages. Soon we found the White Fathers who were mostly French , Belgian or Spanish priests who ran a Catholic mission and the only church in town.

There were also White Sisters or nuns who ran orphanages and taught women some skills in homemaking. They were very friendly and loved  Ashis and Jayanti. We soon found a maid through their help . Babycare came naturally to women here so we were greatly relieved.

She carried Jayanti on her back the African style and went around the neighborhood where Jayanti soon became popular . Ashis was a toddler and could walk around the house by himself but we had to watch him all the time because of his propensity to put anything in his mouth , food or not.

By this time Jasmine was learning the word patience by heart. We had to make do under the circumstances which must have been hard on her with two small kids to look after round the clock  but at least we were settled and found a maid . It was not a bad start considering..

One day we found the new maid crying but not knowing the Bamanakan which is their language, we could not understand what her problem was. The white fathers said that she was suffering from Malaria so I took her to the hospital and proper medication was given.  Many Malians suffered from malaria but could not afford the medicines . They did not know what preventive medicine or measures that they could take .

We were amazed how quickly the kids responded to medication of any kind. Often we found them with scabs or some festering wounds to which we attended and they recovered fast. We noticed that their parents did not care much about tending their kids so simple sickness went un cared for until it developed into something more serious . Often children died.

You could see kids with huge belly buttons the size of your fist which they explained was natural because everyone had it. Malians did not agree that it was due to faulty severing of the umbilical cord at birth . I soon found out that the Malians seldom accepted that they did not know something but then are the Bengalis or the Arabs any different?

The goiter was another example .Their food lacked iodine so something as simple as iodized salt was the cure or prevention was beyond their comprehension .They thought that goiter was something most women had . They took great pride in dressing up in embroidered boubous  and certainly looked very elegant in them but they ate only cornmeal or sorghum gruel and little else. Dry catfish smoked to last long was a delicacy but it stank to high heaven . Meat was a luxury for the most .

Men too wore boubous of colorful silky materials with a great deal of embroidery but the emphasis was more on show and less on substance. The once a week Sunday market in town was a riot of colours as even the poorest showed up in their finest making the scene a photographer’s dream as long you did not look too closely  at the mountain of garbage left behind or the sores.

Most of the buying and selling was done by women in Mali as elsewhere in Africa . They came from outlying villages with huge bundles on their head walking for miles . They sold their produce in order to buy what they needed but some barter also took place as money was in short supply.

The few toubabs as we were called were an oddity in town . Women often touched Jasmine’s shiny long hair to admire although we found kinky hair beautiful that they braided in many different ways. A young Malian girl with beautifully braided hair was a person to behold. Many top models in Europe were West African girls who had a grace and a poise unseen elsewhere. But often they did not appreciate their own beauty like their almost silky and shiny black skin. To them being of fair skin  was better. Just like the Bengalis or the Filipinos.

Part of it was due to the introduction of Christianity and Islam in a country that was to a large extent animist . They were told that being bare breasted was uncivilized  so they wore bras with wire that cut into their breasts and developed festering wounds . They were told that singing unholy songs or dancing was sinful so some women covered themselves up entirely with black veil  in case of the Wahabite sect of Islam . But you could also see young bare breasted girls pedaling bicycle carrying a boy in the front.

On the whole the Malians loved to sing and dance and were exuberant people .We would get to know them more closely when we moved to a village later but the pressure of religion whether Christianity or Islam was relentless so perhaps it was a matter of time before they lost their exuberance. Certainly the mollahs and the missionaries were working overtime to change all Malians.

It was quite apparent in Mali that the spread of Islam was faster than that of Christianity . Mosques were sprouting up in every village like mushrooms. The  mullah from the big mosque in Bamako  could reach every corner of the country on the radio five times a day .

The Catholics were no less lacking in their zeal and at one time provided  the Malians the only occidental education in math, science and social studies in their church run schools until they were closed by the government. Now the Catholic church was providing health care , running orphanages  and teaching women how to sew or embroider. They often organized sport activities and helped the community in many ways so a small catholic population was slowly growing.

Not to be outdone , the Protestants also  set up their shops run by the North Americans  but their activities  were restricted to a lot of singing hymns and chanting in their crudely built churches or translating the Bible into the local language which was a very difficult undertaking . There were also Canadians in Bougouni and elsewhere running missions. The pastor in Bougouni was a very friendly and outgoing person but his wife was suspicious  and very unfriendly .

In many  rural areas people remained rooted to their animistic past and fetish worship .They enjoyed the freedom of singing and dancing to the sound of balafon which is a xylophone . The Malian balafonist is a true artist  but they also made many homemade musical instruments from tin cans, sinews and animal skins that they played exceedingly well. In fact one of the best known vocal artists in Africa was a  Malian who also gained fame in Europe.

In Sikasso we settled down to the routine of living and caring for baby Jayanti and Ashis  who were growing chubby day by day . Jayanti enjoyed her piggyback ride to no end and Ashis joyously pedaled his tricycle around the house often with Jayanti sitting in the back. But they had no other children to play with . Every Sunday we brought them to the church where the nuns would fall in line to cuddle Jayanti and Ashis .They also came to the house if we failed to visit with them.  Jasmine did not speak French so remained outside the conversation but welcomed the friendship of the religious community.

I still waited for the project to start. I did not know who the co workers were or where the office was going to be .There were some Dutch people who worked in one of the villages near Sikasso collecting data on sociology and would later superficially integrate into our project but they remained aloof to us . We always felt that they remained apart willingly so we never got to know them in three years we spent in Mali .

I do not know what I can attribute their indifference to but perhaps they were uncomfortable with us being a married couple and they being bachelors .Or perhaps it was something else .We never knew.  One Chinese French was a bit more friendly at first but later we hardly ever saw them. Among the two Peace Corps volunteers , one would later move elsewhere and die of some causes while the other , a young girl remained in Sikasso where she did animal science projects. I do not remember any of their names .

I had learned over the years  not to expect any friendship or social mixing from the few foreigners who lived in isolation so it was no different here. Infact smaller the town and fewer the toubabs as the foreigners were called ,less likely it was that they would say hello or want to get to know you. Do not ask me why it is so . This pattern repeated itself  in many countries where I had lived . The European missionaries were the sole exception.

The Malian counterparts did the same. They came to our house often but never returned the courtesy . In three years that we spent , we never knew where they lived .Perhaps they were hesitant because they lived in poor houses or there could be other reasons. We just did not know.

There were  many dangers of living in Mali but one that we were unaware of was right in the house where we lived. One night Jasmine dropped the bottle cap and bent down to pick it up in the dim candle light when the cap squirmed in her hand. Her very quick reflex spared her from the sting of an African scorpion . We were horrified. What if the kids had stepped on it ?

We started searching the house everywhere for more scorpions and found several of them.  They were also found under rocks in the yard. It was a very disturbing development that I was not at all prepared for.

Then there were rumors going around the town that there was a fanatic fellow who was cutting off the ears of unsuspecting people so everyone was scared and alert. It so happened that one morning just near our  house we heard a women scream in distress so people came out quickly and found a fellow with a knife in his hand and beat him senseless. Soon the policemen came and took him away to be shot .

It was learned that a marabout that is a Moslem priest or hermit had ordered the fellow to collect the ears for some secret ceremony but no one really knew the truth. Mali was a dangerous country . People came from the Ivory Coast to collect heads to be buried whenever some important village chief and such died there . I heard that there were regular suppliers of such things for a price because the business was brisk . Many Malians who worked in the Ivory Coast as farm hands disappeared whenever some one old and important was about to croak .They did not take any chances.

The number of heads buried with a person signified the importance of that person. I had seen very gaudy mausoleums of people there where reportedly many heads were buried . It was scary. No one could say that the Africans were not enterprising . But in the old days it was worse. We saw many villages with crumbling mud walls that in the old days protected them from marauders and bandits .Slavery was still practiced here not too long ago and people were abducted by the enterprising traders . People still knew who were the former slaves or their children and looked down on them.

The Fulani people who were racially different from the rest could be always seen walking with their herds of cattle and their women wearing big gold earnings that were so heavy that they had to support them with heavy cords tied to their heads . They did not believe in banks and carried their valuables on them . Such women would not last ten minutes anywhere in Asia but in that respect Africa was safe. Or perhaps their men folks defended their women and their gold with all their might .

They also loved amber jewelry and one could see the biggest amber  beads on them which are quite valuable. Amber is petrified resin and it takes a few million years to make amber by mother nature so it is quite valuable.

They stained their face around the mouth black with some permanent dye to make them look beautiful although other Malians did not share their sense of beauty. These were the nomads and cattle herders of West Africa. They never settled anywhere and made crude temporary grass huts outside the villages .

They sold milk and butter in the market on Sundays so we had abundant supply. The Americans were very prejudiced and warned us that the milk probably came from cows with tuberculosis but it was just a prejudice based on ignorance . We never had any problem with the milk or butter .

However, I did encounter problem buying fresh mutton. The butchers whacked the meat anyway they wanted and mixed intestines and other unsavory parts with it . Malians were not particular but we were. One day the matter came to a head when the butcher refused to weigh the meat and charge me the correct legal rate so I took the matter to the mayor’s office.

He was a very nice gentleman and promised me that the justice will be done swiftly. He then sent two of his assistants to fetch the butcher, his meat, balance and took him to the office of trade that regulated such matters. There my purchase of meat was weighed , the over price refunded and the balance and the rest of the meat confiscated . The poor butcher sat there the whole day trying to sort out the mess he had created himself.

The result was that from that day on, he always sold me meat by weight and charged the correct amount. Later some foreigners complained of the same problem so I said that they should just  mention my name . I always tried to fight injustice . I had earlier written about the problem I had in Saigon when a dishonest shopkeeper had sold me a faulty camera. I also fought injustice in Washington when that language school was ripping off  Nicole.

The Peace Corps volunteer was a young girl who had great trouble buying eggs in the market because most of the time she found them spoiled so I suggested that she let the eggs in a bucket of water. The ones that sank were the good ones but the next time we saw her she said that this time all her eggs were spoiled . She said that she followed my advice strictly and picked the ones that floated . So much for the advice. She had majored in animal science.

She used to come to the house so Jasmine finally had someone she could talk to. One day she took us to a village where there was a cave. This was the village where the fanatic marabou had come from so we were a bit apprehensive going there but what was interesting was that the mountain had an unmistakable  silhouette of Richard Nixon . I am sure Richard Nixon would have been very pleased to know that mother nature did not forget him even if the rest of the world did.

The caves were not interesting at all and stank of batshit so we got out fast but the infernal flies kept following us until we ran back to the car and rolled up the windows quickly . May be they suggested that we needed a bath but the heat in Mali was oppressive and you sweated no matter how often you took a bath .

There was no place to go in Sikasso but soon we found a mudhole near Farako where we went to swim once in a while . The British had built a small dam there to tap water for the town but we were not reassured when we saw the source . Our landlord had in the mean time put in water pipes but they rattled like machine gun at night due to high pressure scaring the babies a lot. Nothing was perfect here but we had water. I bought a water filter and Jasmine started boiling the filtered water .It was a  very wise thing to do.

Near Farako there was a tea plantation set up by the Chinese inspite of the misgivings of the French who had misgivings about anything that they did not suggest themselves but the Chinese proved them wrong and produced tea . Now no self respecting tea drinker will say that the Malian tea was good but the  Malians could not care less. It was their national drink.

Now let me explain how they made their tea so that you may have an idea.First they boiled the tea and drank the first cup with a lot of sugar so that it looked like syrup . Then they added more water and boiled some more and drank their second cup with more sugar. Then they added more water and boiled some more for their third cup adding more sugar. By this time the tea was bitter and tasted like quinine . I wondered what would be their reaction to taste a cup of first class Darjeeling tea but they had never heard of Darjeeling and could not care less. They had their tea thanks to the Chinese.

We longed for the pure Darjeeling but it was not available. The Malian tea was prohibited in the Ivory Coast where they saw it as a threat to their coffee but some tea was smuggled anyway and fetched a good price there. But smuggling was not restricted to tea by a long shot. We often saw captured herds of cattle or sheep in the custom’s office  but for every one they intercepted perhaps nine got away . The border between Mali and Guinea was porous and had myriad of trails running through the bush that the cattle rustlers were very familiar with.

At this time we had spent nearly one year in Sikasso but more and more we were unhappy there because our yard became the communal washing ground for the neighborhood . Women brought their kids, their wash and their infernal radio that they played constantly while making tea under the mango tree  .On top of that we found out that our night watchman was making money from them by selling our water. This was too much so I started to look for another place.

Then the idea came that we should find a village near Sikasso where we could build our own house the African style. So soon a village was found at a distance of 10 km where I met with the village chief whom they called dougou tigi and asked his permission to build a house there .He in turn called the  village council meeting but after long discussions nothing was decided because it was so unusual for a toubabou to live in a village.

Toubabou is a term they used for all foreigners. They then went to see the governor to seek his advice .The governor was a military man who received us warmly and said that it was a splendid idea and would like to see the house once completed. This was then settled so we began in earnest to draw plans for the house and the location in the village. Finally a wonderful site was given to me for free because no one buys land in Mali. It belongs to the village and the chief decides who makes his house where or which field to cultivate . The site was surrounded with mango trees loaded with fruits .

I then drew up a plan of five round huts in a semicircular fashion and interlinked by passage way to make it one house .This was never done before but the masons with my encouragement and guidance built five perfectly round huts and joined them with wide passageways. They were very proud of their accomplishment and showed off the house to everyone.

The walls were coated with shea butter to give it a hard coat and the roof was perfectly conical made of straw of golden colour. All the rooms had cross ventilation and screens on windows and the semicircular arrangement made a perfect inner courtyard which was then enclosed by high walls .The toilet was a deep dry well covered with logs and the bathroom next to it had huge clay jars that was filled with water drawn from a well nearby.

The floor was hard packed earth that Jasmine coated once a week with cow dung to give it a hard dust free surface while I decorated the interior walls with Khajuraho figurines that I had brought from India. The kids room was adjacent to ours . Then was the living room, kitchen and a spare guest room. I put the more erotic Khajuraho figurines in our bed room wall but the visitors insisted on seeing them  anyway . You should have seen the expression on the face of the nuns who peered at them closely.

In short it was a sensational house that Malians came from great distances to see .They did not know that round huts could thus be joined and made fly and mosquito free. Women came and wandered from room to room and finally laid down in the living room to sleep.This went on for about six months . We were amused and did not disturb their sleep.

We planted papaya trees and an orange tree in the inner courtyard but Jasmine and I planted pea nuts in the front of the house that was the best pea nut patch one could find anywhere . It was planted in neat rows that we kept weed free. We also planted pigeon pea as a fence.  I cemented the bathroom floor and the toilet only .  Near the main door I fixed a stone statuette of some African style and told the kids that it came alive during full moon and guarded our house.  They were afraid of their shadows so to speak so the idea of an ogre coming alive sowed  endless fear in their hearts .

We even had a baby deer and a very naughty monkey called George as pet but the deer died of strangulation by turning around the cord during a fierce storm but the monkey stayed and destroyed plants and papaya leaves for fun. He also looked for lice in my hair while I slept under the mango trees .

Girls went crazy during full moon and always ran around our huts giggling and chasing boys or boys chasing them hence the idea of the stone ogre near the front door. That cooled their ardor drastically but not totally because some of them  older girls did not quite believe my ogre story.

Ashis and Jayanti wandered off somewhere but we never worried about them because the old people sat under the mango tree keeping a watchful eye on the kids . One old man called Tiecouroba was very fond of Ashis and Jayanti and came every morning to wake them up by calling  ini sogoma meaning good morning .

Jayanti rode piggy back that she really liked and we often found traces of food on her mouth because the village women fed her something. Jasmine was really very happy in our new and spacious house that was cool during the summer and free from insects. We enjoyed living in the village because the villagers sort of adopted us and invited us to their festive occasions as well as funerals .

I brought them to the hospital in case of emergency day or night and often I gave them ride into the town 10 kms away.  In return they would bring me a chicken or a basket of oranges as a sign of gratitude . We bought fresh milk, eggs and vegetable at our front door.  We also had constant stream of visitors but the foreigners were the most nagging type who would look for a refrigerator or generator . We explained that we did not need a ref or a generator and were perfectly happy with our five kerosene lamps that I lighted and placed in rooms. It burned all night and the yellowish light was very soothing to the eyes but they did not believe us.

I was happy to see that Jasmine was so well adjusted and obviously enjoying the village life .She was happier than she had been in that awful house in Sikasso  but some people could not accept that we were happy. They surmised that Jasmine must be going through terrible hardship and told others that it was a shame because we could afford better.

One of our well wishers was a fat and ugly American woman who had arrived in Sikasso to join her husband. He was working in our project and had one day arrived with his huge dog totally uninvited and moved in with us in the village . Jasmine was very annoyed by this unwanted intrusion and had to feed his big dog as well although the fellow kept on saying that he had some dog food somewhere. I am sure we could never move in with an unknown American family without invitation but they felt condescending towards Asians as I had earlier mentioned. We were taken for granted.

We did not know how long the fellow was going to stay because he kept on saying that his house was not yet ready . The fact was that he was not used to take care of himself  and the dog so he stayed until one day we decided to go to Mopti in the north and left him to fend for himself and his dog. That did it . He finally moved in to his own house where he impatiently waited for his huge wife to arrive .

Soon after her arrival this woman declared that Sikasso was a great village . I do not know how many Malians were offended to hear that the second city in Mali was a village but the woman was totally ignorant and full of prejudices.  She walked around in tight shorts exposing her gigantic thighs to the dismay of Malians who took a dim view of women showing legs. She would also say “I am not home ” to visiting neighbors who were baffled by this expression .

This woman became a pain in our neck as she told everyone how poor Jasmine was suffering living in a hellhole like that . Soon a Swiss woman arrived in our village carrying  a basket full of food and canned goods because she had heard of the poor Jasmine . When we explained to her that we  enjoyed living in the village in our own house , she was clearly embarrassed .We insisted that she take back her food basket .

Then I went to the husband of this fat woman and told him that we are doing quite well and they should mind their own business . We had never been friends but now the break was complete . She made a great deal of her own trouble by ignoring the Malian culture and her rude behavior toward them so we avoided this family like plague and predicted that she will not last long.

She complained about just about everything from day one and one day finally packed up and left the fellow and the country for good.

She was not the only misfit though. There was another American woman who lived across our street in Sikasso . Once I saw this woman with painted lips, nails and high heels and predicted that she will not last long in Mali and was looking for an excuse to leave.  The excuse was given one day when her black cat wandered off and was promptly beaten to death by the kids.

In Mali a black animal is considered evil . It mattered little whether it belonged to someone or not . It was cultural and culture is always based on beliefs and superstitions . Like in America there is a superstition about the number 13 so they do not have hotel room number 13 or the 13th floor in the elevator etc. Mali was no different. Here it was black animal among other things . But this rattled the woman who promptly packed up and left her husband high and dry.

The American missionaries were a tenacious lot although they went through a great deal of culture shock  and  built in prejudices. They looked down on the native culture and took a very patronizing view of everything. Their sole mission was to convert the heathens to see the light which they firmly believed only they could show . I began to form a very negative impression about the American missionaries .

I had made no attempt to learn the Bamanakan other than saying Ini Tie or Ini sogoma although the language is not as difficult as Vietnamese. There simply was no great need to learn the language as my colleagues all spoke French and they interpreted for me if I needed to talk to farmers. Malians took great pride in telling you that they spoke French correctly although it was not true. They also showed great contempt for the uneducated and illiterate  peasants although our project was set up to work with farmers.

In a farming System’s project there was no getting away from the farmers but no one in the project showed  any great concern for the rural folks and hated to visit the villages that were remote and far from Sikasso. They were a product of the education system dominated by the French teachers who molded them in one way while the situation in Mali demanded otherwise.

They were very proud of their methodology of selecting farmers base on how many hectares of cotton they grew although the project had nothing to do with cotton. This made the choice of Gladie, Monzondougou and Sakoro logical in their mind. These villages were hundreds of kilometers from Sikasso and some in very remote areas so do any  meaningful work, we had to go and stay in those villages from Monday to Friday.

During the rainy season the goat tracks we used to follow in the featureless bush country were covered with very tall grasses that made driving very difficult .We never knew if we were on track or off and sort of went by guesswork towards the villages . Often we bogged down in deep mud and spent hours extricating the heavy Land Rovers only to get bogged down again down the road. There was always the danger of sharp spikes or roots that could puncture the tires .

At first the village chief provided us with a shelter and the women prepared hot water for our bath and cooked our meals but the food was mostly dry cat fish and rice or corn gruel. The farmers at a porridge made of pounded sorghum dipped in a slimy green sauce but it was always mixed with some sand or so it seemed to me. Perhaps they added a bit of sand to make it taste better .I do not know . We often survived on this porridge called To .

I could never eat the dry fish that stank to high heaven so prepared my own meals on a small kerosene stove. Jasmine packed me a provision of vegetables and other things for the week so I managed to prepare a simple meal but the effect of such primitive regime started to show after a few months in the bush. I had to leave her in the village to fend for herself and the kids but I had no choice. The work came first.

After a year or so I decided that  each village should have our own quarters so that we will not impose on the villagers and held meetings with the village chiefs on this matter. As a result the mud houses were built in two villages for us but never occupied. Do you know why? The project leader who was a Malian said that there should be feast to properly inaugurate the lodgings but never gave the money to organize the feast . He in fact never got around to doing much of anything  and was often absent .He did not like to mention where he was going and how long he was going to be absent and seldom visited the project sites . He was supposed to be my counterpart but that he wasn’t.

I was left alone . The project was filled with people who did not know the first thing about agriculture although it was a farming system’s project meaning agronomy and  animal science. They collected data on genealogy which had no relevance to the project but they would not listen. These volumes of data collected at great expense collected dust and were never analyzed or put to any kind of use .

Many thousands of questionnaires were filled by these people who often did not know what they wanted know and what to ask the farmers but to admit it was out of the question . They discussed for hours what should be the coefficient for a child, a woman and  a man doing the same work and never could come to any conclusion after 5 hours of meeting. They were great talkers but it did not help the project or advance the cause.

The Dutch went a step further. They wanted to know each and every franc the poor farmer spent and for what purpose every day of their life and piled up massive questionnaires that they said will be analyzed later in Holland. They said that an agronomist like myself did not know anything about social science and only they were qualified to do such work. It did not matter to them that I had training in agricultural extension methods at a graduate level.

They also had nothing to do with the farming systems project in the three study villages but they always sat in the meetings that lasted no less than 6 to 7 hours each time and contradicted anything I proposed or discussed. They however, were very defensive about what they were doing . I found that nobody wanted to do any agronomy work that was supposed to be the primary focus of such a project because no one was an agronomist .

They also loved to talk. I had never known people who could talk for hours and say nothing . They never could agree on a single agenda or topic .The decisions were always put off or hedged like organizing a simple feast for the villagers who had helped build the houses for us in two villages due to my sole effort. I often went home angry and tired due to my inability to the do the work I was supposed to do .The employer also felt the disappointment but the project was run by the Malians so we could do nothing.

The Malians always had a pat answer. They said that they had to first understand the problems of the farmers before they could do something about it so more questionnaires were made to collect more data. This was the dead end.  Jeff often came to Mali and brought with him some “experts” in order to brain storm  as he put it but a Malian brain could not be easily stormed .  He said that I should visit other international centers of research but did not approve when I was invited to a Farming System’s symposium in Tanzania  . Professionally it was going nowhere .

At least our personal situation had greatly improved since we moved to the village where Jasmine felt happier. The village life was unhurried and peaceful. Our bare breasted maid did most of the chores but proved difficult when we did not give her gifts all the time and told others that we did not take care of her and she did not get to eat what she wanted etc. which people who knew us did not believe.  So we had to find another maid. This one was a bit younger and preferred to play most of the time than to work .

One day she came running saying there was a  sa in the well. Sa means a snake so I went to see what kind of snake was in the well. It turned out to be a baby boa so I pulled it out and let loose. A few days later the boa was back because the well had many frogs . Again I pulled it out and drove to a dry river bank to let it go. Perhaps it would survive as the boas usually did in the brush country . But there were many dangerous snakes in the village.

We often saw their tracks in the dirt and I was worried. One night I went out behind the house and saw a huge spitting viper and chased it into the hollow of a tree  and called some farmers. But they all ran away when they saw what it was. People are very afraid of this particular snake that spits venom into your eyes and causes blindness. The trick is to corner it so that it can not stand up and take aim because it is too late once it stands up and takes aim.

Jasmine was worried that I was messing with this venomous snake . Anyway the farmers later killed a spitting viper near our house but I do not know if it was the same one I saw . No wonder Malians girls made so much racket during full moon .I think it was their strategy to scare off snakes .

In December we decided to have a Christmas party so we invited the balafonists .A balafon is a xylophone that has the calabash or the African gourd as the resonance chamber filled with spider webs that they hang below the platform. It produces a wonderful sound . The African balafonists are great indeed and can play for hours by rote. They are illiterate and do not have musical scores so they play by memory .

Jasmine decided to cook some meat and rice while I blew up hundreds of balloons for the kids that made my cheek hurt for days. But the bigger kids lost all self control and pushed and shoved the younger ones to get to the food first as a result of which the food turned over into the dust. The kids then fought over the food and ate the dust covered meat and rice like animals. It was truly pathetic. Jasmine was shocked to see such chaos. All our efforts were in vain. The smaller ones got trampled and kicked in the process and wailed .

Later when I gave them the balloons, they quickly removed the air and put them in their pockets . I still had a lot to learn about their culture. In Mali you have to always ask the elders to discipline the kids when there is food. They did this with a long cane . It was our mistake that we did not ask the elders .  The balafonists came in the evening and played for hours and the whole village gathered under the mango tree so that part went well.

Some of the villagers were expert dancers who showed us their traditional dance in which they mimicked the movements of animals or insects . It was wonderful but the younger boys and girls did not like the traditional dance.They preferred shaking their buns to the sound of  cassette music.

We also noticed that the women took scarves from their head and put them on some male dancers perhaps to show appreciation.Some women danced with babies tied to their back to the sound of fast balafon .The babies were thus shaken like rag dolls by a dog.

The crowd got thicker as the hours got late and they danced all night. The balafonists never quit .After a while you got the feeling that the sound was monotonous but it was very traditional and very Malian . Balafonists demanded a lot of money so we could afford only twice but there were other distractions in the village as well.

Once we heard the muted drum beats late at night and went out to see what it was all about. I found hundreds of people under the tree making a tight circle in the middle of which danced a magician or sorcerer and his sidekick. These itinerant black magicians as I was told later were feared people because people believed that they could do many bad things . They danced around in the circle singing and often stopped to peer into a small mirror intensely . Villagers said that they could see the future or the past in the mirror .Perhaps they were clairvoyant .

They wore outlandish costumes studded with small mirrors and feathers in their headgear and paint on their faces .No one in the crowd smiled or even talked  as they watched the ceremony intently. Even the normally whimpering kids were silent . I felt something sinister in the whole affair that made me uneasy and left. Jasmine did not bother to see it.

It was true that the Malian rural society had many secrets that remained secrets to foreigners  no matter how long one lived among them so I never pried to learn what these secrets were . I had a feeling that some of them were quite unpleasant . I had heard rumors that some people were cannibals but there was no way one could know such things. I did not want to know and we learned only about the nicer aspects of their culture.

On another occasion in another village called Sakoro, I happened to see the mysterious bird dance in which a fellow was completely covered with feathers and chirped like a bird which his sidekick then translated. No one was supposed to know who was the person under the feather cloak because it was a strictly guarded secret . Photography was not permitted although the village chief allowed me to take a few shots.

But normally a village dance was a jolly affair and was held around a campfire in the village square. During such dances the village griot or the bard danced around playing his  home made musical instrument singing about crops, weather or village happenings  and entertained people. They were very good at improvising as they went along . The griot was followed by a string of apprentices  or future griots who repeated everything the master said and played the cymbals or other instruments creating quite a racket . The villagers enjoyed such dances enormously and often joined in verbal duels or songs themselves.

But the musical talents were not limited to griots only. Infact there were many farmers who were very good at improvising, singing and dancing. Once in Monzondougou I remarked that the village was very quiet so something should be done. Soon some musical instruments appeared and the crowd gathered in the square .One old woman brought out a basin full of water on which she banged her calabash  making a booming sound while others rattled cauri shells . They could make do with simple things to make sound and have a good time. Distraction were rare in the villages where the life was hard specially for women.

They had to get up before dawn to pound the millet or corn , then fetch water and fire wood which often meant a walk of several kilometers ,then prepare meals all the while carrying babies on their back or suckling . Then they had to go out and work in the fields and bring food to their men folks at noon time. The fields were often very far from the village. They also had to gather shea nuts in the forest  to extract butter which was their cooking oil so to speak.  So women indeed had to work very hard.

They looked old at the age of 30 due to constant child bearing and overwork without rest. You could never tell the age of women by looking at their withered breasts although most of them were young by Asian standard.

They nursed their young as long as they  could because they  knew that a weaned child was a malnourished child. Their basic food of corn gruel or sorghum to was lacking in protein and meat was a luxury.

I saw their fingers permanently crooked because  the way they held the heavy pestle to pound the grains every morning. Men seldom had toe nails and kids often had festering scabs . Medicines were hard to find so they searched the forest for herbs and roots to cure minor ailments. Anything serious was indeed serious because the medical facilities were hundreds of kilometers away and the remote villages were hard to reach even during the dry season let alone wet season.

Many did not have money to pay for medical treatment in faraway hospitals so many people died of infections of wounds . A kid could be accidentally gored by a cow and die before help could be found in such villages. But their major problem was lack of water during the dry season. The Swiss people had installed some hand pumps in some villages of an Indian design that was sturdy and popular but the need was far greater than the resources.

Jeff was a very insensitive fellow who would often ask the villagers what their problems were as a matter of conversation not realizing that the villagers pinned great hope on such queries and were disappointed . Jeff did not mean to do anything about their problems . He would also take the Africans for granted and made them wait needlessly when they had done him a great favor . He said that he did not want to meet with some people whom he had asked for appointment and kept them waiting because it was a waste of time. He ignored  lunch saying he ate too much so you could go hungry if you were with him. Canada hired such people as program officers.

We lived in Mali for nearly two years now  but the project was not doing well and not a single agronomy trial had been  set up anywhere so I was getting more and more irritated and this showed . I had no one to share my troubles with except Jasmine. She listened  and often said that we should return back to the Philippines because she also felt that our stay was not as meaningful as it should have been .

We listened to the BBC every night and enjoyed the play of the week or we just sat around playing with Ashis and Jayanti. Ashis had memorized a great number of rhymes which Jayanti also listened to and picked up . Our favorite was  this little pig went to market  .. which Jayanti finished by saying all weli home instead of all the way home .

We found great joy in watching them grow up day by day but they also caused problems once in a while. Like the time when Ashis playing with Lego set thought it would be good idea to insert a piece up his nose . This was late at night but we rushed to the hospital and woke up the Chinese doctor who took out the piece with a pair of long tweezers.

Or the time when he came home bleeding from his head because he had been hit by a bicycle in the village. The wound was superficial but we were worried and cleaned up the mess with hot water and disinfectant. He was accident prone   and would cause more trouble later on in Mexico and in the Philippines but I am getting ahead of my story.

We had to be always alert and ready for such emergencies but on the whole they adjusted well and were healthy. Jayanti loved spaghetti and forked it up into her puffy cheek making a mess on her bib but Ashis liked other food. Later they would reverse their roles when Jayanti  would become the fussy eater.

Many people often visited us in the village but none returned the courtesy except the white fathers and the nuns who came in their mobilettes or 2CV. We often picked up people in distress and brought them home for a meal. Others just came and stayed a while because they had heard of our hospitality to strangers.

Once I saw an English woman walking down the road with a bag and asked if she needed any help. She was on the verge of tears as she narrated her tale of woes. She spoke no French and was trying to get to the Ivory Coast so she bought a ticket to ride in the taxi de brousse  that plied between Sikasso and Korhogo . The driver promised to leave soon which he told everyone in order to sell more tickets but left only when the taxi was full. This could take whole day as the few passengers trickled in .She not knowing Africa at all believed the driver and had waited since dawn until noon already.

So I brought her home where she washed up and rested. Later I brought her back to the taxi that was still waiting to fill up and in no hurry to leave . At the station there were small children who sold water by the glass but the English woman thought that the water was for washing so she started washing her hands in it.   The kid let out a wail because she had fetched the water from quite a distance for selling to thirsty passengers and although the water may have looked a bit unclean, it was perfectly potable so far as the Africans were concerned.  I asked the woman to compensate the kid.

Another time in Sikasso we picked up a Zulu with his German wife or girlfriend I never knew which.  He said that he could not cash his traveler’s cheques  so needed to go to Korhogo in the Ivory Coast. We were also going that way so gave them a ride. At the border the drunken border guard gave them a hard time because he  did not like black men going around with white women so I had to placate the man somehow . The fact that he was a Zulu and from South Africa did not help the matter much.

In Korhogo more trouble was waiting . I managed to get them a room in a hotel although the manager was very reluctant and wanted to get paid upfront because he said many such people left without  paying their bills. Jasmine said that the poor fellow had no money for anything so we should go and give him some money so I went very early the next day to the hotel. The room was empty so I too tiptoed out . Who knows what their story was or whether the Zulu had infact told me the truth  ?

Once a Swiss fellow came to my office and said that he needed a place to stay for a few days . He was pedaling his bicycle from Dakar to Europe via Mali, Niger and Algeria. I greatly admire the courage of such people and brought him  home . He sent me a post card from Algiers saying that he had crossed the Sahara without problems and was on his way to Morocco.

Jasmine has a golden heart and jumps to help anyone in trouble. She never asks questions and tries to help as much as she can so soon the word gets around that the we always help no matter where we live in the world. Some people have taken advantage of this hospitality like that American with his huge dog but it has been our policy to help and not ask questions . I hope someday our children will also learn to help others in distress if they can.

The project was another story. They were in distress but accepted no help. Worse they did not even acknowledge that they were in distress but Jeff knew that something was wrong .That is when he brought in some ” experts” to brainstorm the Malian brains but that had no effect although it lasted a few days and even nights exhausting everyone . I had never heard so many people who could sit around and talking so much that could be said in a few words but they were the experts who wanted to prove their worth.

The Malians always said that they did not understand the problems of farmers .This was sad but it should be understood in the context of their education which required a lot of rote and little practical experience. In a country of illiterates , it was a great privilege to get some education so the so called educated Malians never let anyone forget that they were privileged people . I called them pseudo intellectuals .

Their problem stemmed from the fact that France that had colonized Mali for so long exerted strong influence on their educational system that they had in fact devised and encouraged Malians to go to Montpellier or Dijon for further education. They did not learn the hands on approach of the American or Western education that I had gone through in the States ,India and the Philippines .

The Malian Franc was tied to the French Franc and  they were the buyer of the Malian cotton at cheap rate to feed their mills .They heavily financed the cotton company called the CMDT that was the monopoly in Mali. They often bought first class cotton and gave the farmers a low price by saying that the cotton was not first class, it was dirty etc. The cotton farmers had no choice because they borrowed money from the CMDT to buy the seeds and fertilizer etc. and were obliged to sell the cotton to the company.

Cotton was the only cash crop for the Malian farmers and the Malians had no other buyer other than France so they could not get away from France no matter how hard they tried. The Malian franc was weak and caused rapid inflation .Eventually the Malian franc was abolished and the CFA reintroduced which was controlled by the central bank of France.

The agricultural research was no exception because one could not get away from the French and their methods that they had insisted upon in their schools. It made little difference whether a Malian was educated in Katibougou or in Monpellier because they learned the same thing . Such graduates felt very ill at ease when they were asked to solve a practical problem in the field like calibrating a seed drill or adjusting the depth of ploughing . They only learned the theory.

Their classical approach to research was always to start off with questionnaires but that was not helping the farmers at all .A great deal of project money was being spent on collecting useless data that had no direct relevance to the problems the farmers faced.

In the third year I was able to do some work in three study villages where I introduced the cultivation of upland rice which was greatly appreciated  by the farmers. I also tried to build a cheaper plough with a wooden beam to be drawn by a pair of bullocks  but I did not succeed due to lack of time now.

I also looked after a weed infested research station at Tierouala where 30 hectares were worked by few laborers and fewer resources. People who came to visit the station often said that it did not look like a station but never increased to man power or the budget to fix the only dilapidated tractor. When I tried the Chinese to manufacture the broken part for the tractor, the project leader refused to pay the bill. He also dillydallied about fixing up the residence for the manager of the station until one day I put my foot down.

Although the project was funded by the Canadians and I was their employee, it was tightly controlled by the Malians. I never had funds for anything and often had to argue  for it to buy a sack of fertilizer  or seeds.

Mali is a destitute country . You have to live in their villages to understand  the gravity of their situation. They not only have no roads, no schools, no health clinics or potable water ,they also have no money to pay for the medicines if they got sick.  They do not eat what they do not grow so their diet is very  limited leading to malnutrition in children and also among adults. Their agriculture is totally rainfed so very risky if the rains fail or do not come in time or not adequate enough to grow crops.

What precious resources they do have is poorly used and managed like hundreds of hectares of perennial weed choked rice land  in Mopti where they once had good irrigation system . Their waterways are in disrepair and in need of  thorough rehabilitation. It is a big country with a small population but most part of  Mali is not suitable for agriculture   . Only the south and south east corner is where they can grow crops but they have to clear the brush manually to do so. That is very very hard.

People live in round houses with thatch roof in villages and suffer from malaria and a host of other diseases like the river  blindness or TB. Skin ailments are also common as is goiter. Many children die  at young age due to lack of medical care. The untrained midwives do not help the matter that much so may women develop complications after childbirth.

But the Malian researchers  met once a year in the Amitie Hotel where they read their research papers and made resolutions after resolutions to do this or do that to improve the lot of the poor . The minister came in his flamboyant boubou and made speeches and agreed that the resolutions be implemented  but it just remained a futile exercise . The resolutions passed the years before  still were not implemented because there was no budget.

The farming system’s project was designed to help poor farmers in agriculture by testing new varieties of crops, introducing new crops and technology to increase crop yields. How I wish I could bring some of these farmers to the Philippines to show them what was possible but it was not the farmers who needed a tour. It was the project manager so he was packed off to see the latest in technology at  IRRI and elsewhere in the world. It was he who attended the conferences in Tanzania but that did not help much either.

I participated in a meeting in Dakar, Senegal where I discussed my results on rice and other crops like peanuts with the international scientists but what was needed was a drastic change in attitude on the part of the Malians .This did not happen while I was there so my frustrations boiled over . The project people instead of helping the farmers became an impediment to the progress so I realized that my time could be better spent elsewhere in the world.

The Malians thought that I had landed another lucrative job somewhere but it was not true. I had no other job but I could not stay there any longer . The Canadian employer could not object because I had stayed the three years that I had signed up for but they asked if I could suggest a replacement for me. I did not know anyone who could speak French and deal with the obstinate Malians and said so.

Now the Malians were very eager to buy my things cheaply or get it for free. Jasmine gave away most of the kitchen things to the village women  and a few things were sold. No one asked for our address to keep in touch that in itself speaks volumes about people . We made a few friends in  Mali but they were not Malians . The  packing and getting ready to leave was a hard job but one day it was all done. Jasmine managed it wonderfully.

My employer made some difficulties about paying for our shipment so we shipped at our own cost  . The last part was also tragic .One American fellow who also worked in the project asked us to have lunch with him to which we agreed  but on the appointed day we found to our surprise that he had forgotten about it and asked why we had come to his house. This was the ultimate in uncivilized behavior but we had to move on thankfully never to meet these people again .

It was amazing how little we felt for the country or its people now that we were leaving for good. Mali was already in the past for us. There was no nostalgia but we did like the village where we lived so we donated our house to the villagers to do what they would with it.

Jasmine and I would never return to Mali and never look back. I suppose one day the Malians would be able to solve their own problems in their own fashion .I just did not know when or how.

 

Note :  My blogs are also available in French, Spanish, German and Japanese  languages at the following links as well as my biography:

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Anil’s biography in English.

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Chapter seven: A great leap forward-Philippines -1974-1978

aliwan_fiesta_philippines

A great leap forward : Philippines- 1974 to 1978

I  arrived in the Philippines in July of 1974 with about 5 dollars in my pocket and no one to receive me at the airport from IRRI but that was hardly a problem. I knew where the BLTB bus station in Pasay was from where I got on a bus to Los Banos .The fare was less than one dollar .

At IRRI , a middle aged sour looking women told me that she was the dormitory manager. I was to stay on the third floor and share the room with a Nigerian fellow . The  cafeteria was closing so I should hurry.  Although I felt tired , I went down to the cafeteria in my red Chiang Mai silk shirt and nice pants.

As soon as I entered the cafeteria, I noticed a Sikh with bright colored turban and quite a few other Indians .They looked at me with interest but did not know who I was. All new arrivals at IRRI were announced a week earlier but they somehow forgot about mentioning me so no one had a clue.

I paid no attention to their stares and fell in line with a food tray. A tall girl who served as food manager took immediate notice and asked where I was from and when did I arrive etc. She was very friendly. The new arrivals were few and not often so they were interested in knowing how long I was going to stay and what I was going to do. I said that I was at IRRI only for six months to do some research on rice . The Indians could wait no longer so the Sikh fellow came over to my table and introduced himself.

He said that he was Suranjeet from Rajasthan who was doing his Ph.D. research in microbiology . The other Indians came over and introduced themselves one by one so I got know  Subroto   and Laksman Lal . I would meet many others later.

Suranjeet was the most talkative one of the lot  who wanted to know all about me at once so I told them what I could as briefly as possible and attended to my food . But they were not to leave me alone. They noticed that I behaved as if I was familiar with IRRI which was quite true. That was unusual because they had come to IRRI for the first time and in fact had traveled outside India for the first time.

They were interested in the cloth bag I carried and wanted to know what I kept inside . The female secretaries were the worst of the lot. They inspected the bag carefully and wanted to know who were the people that autographed my bag so I had to tell them about Sapri and my Italian friends there.

They would always ask the questions like  “when did you graduate” instead of asking how old was I . They looked carefully to see if I had a wedding band or not . I always disliked telling strangers my life story so often I answered very briefly  or yes or no .

Back in my room I found the Nigerian fellow playing very loud music. This was going to be a problem that reminded me of Mohamed in Tizi Ouzou .I would share the room with this fellow for six months but we never talked and he never knew my name . It was just like the Wesley house in California. He would often go to Manila and buy some Mickey Mouse tee shirt or umbrella that he wanted to bring back to his home country.

The next day I met Dr. De la Cruz  who was the deputy director general for administration and the person who would one day be responsible for making major decisions that would change my life forever . In fact it was he who had written to me in Algeria inviting me to come to IRRI. He was a short fellow who welcomed me and gave me some advance from my stipend right away.

I met a few other people who remembered me from my Vietnam days but finally I got to the Agronomy department where I was to meet the head. He was an Indian scientist called Dr. Singh who said that I was practically free to do any type of research I wanted but suggested that I look over a few ideas that he had for me. He also gave me a lot of reprints of his articles on rice research . He looked a bit impatient but introduced me to some other researchers in the department.

It was a small department where all the researchers and scholars and the Filipino staff worked in a small room called the scholar’s room . I had already met Subroto earlier. The Filipino staff carried on research on rice on behalf of the senior scientists who gave them the ideas whereas the scholars and the fellows like me pursued their own research for a degree like MS or Ph.D. I was to learn through my personal experience and many mistakes how to carry on field research but the next six months were  a trying period for me . I did not have any prior field experience in this type of research.

Dr.Singh gave me a very large experiment to conduct that required a lot of labor but the IRRI laborers were a canny and devious lot. During weekdays they often did not show up to work saying they were sick but showed up on weekends when the pay was higher.  This created a lot of problem for all the researchers who depended on the laborers to do the field work and collect data. I suffered grievously and my experimental plots looked anything but experimental  . Still I struggled on as best as I could.

My Filipino co workers were not very helpful and kept distance . Often I insisted on getting more workers to do the field work that also added to the tension .Everyone was affected by the shortage of laborers . My time at IRRI was short and I was given a very large experiment that was not doing well so I was very discouraged .I had no one to share my troubles with.

I had made many mistakes in laying out the experiment so correcting them caused further delays . I worked seven days a week but it was not enough. The Indian fellows had been there longer and understood some of the problems I was facing but were unable to help . We made a routine of going out in the evenings to a place called Eva Lanes to play bowling or drink beer upstairs .  I did not play bowling or like to drink beer but one who persisted that I try bowling  was a Filipina secretary working in the plant physiology department. Her name is not important.

The Indians were more interested in drinking beer upstairs so eventually that is where I ended up with them.  Upstairs ,there used to be a band and two girls singing the same songs every night dedicated to the same Indians .The girls worked hard in the heat and perspired and the band players had the same bored look on their faces but it was a routine for them.They looked like they had never washed and all needed a  hair cut but that was the style. They had to look like hippies.

The shabby place and the smoke filled atmosphere did little to add to the lure and no one cared if the girls sang the same songs every night. Then there was the same old bent man carrying a basket full of eggs called ballot that he peddled. Balot is a 21 day old duck egg that had a duck formed partially in it . Filipinos loved to eat balot with feathers and all but I could never bring myself to eat it. It reminded me so much of the green egg in Ba Xuyen . I sat through the evenings with just a bottle of beer watching the show through the haze of smoke. Often the policemen or women came for their free drinks but they meant no harm.

San Miguel beer was cheap which the Indians and others drank like water and kept on shouting at the singers to sing this or that song. The empty street of Los Banos reverberated with the loud music.

Down the road was the competition called the Bamboo grove which was just the beer joint but a favorite of many because there was no bowling alley to make a racket. The girls there were a bit more daring with their backless gowns or tight pants . However, it remained  a small town affair where poor students spent their evenings because there was nowhere else to go .

The Indians were a canny lot and collected equal share of the cost every evening which turned out to be expensive for me . Suranjeet would always pull out his black book where he kept accounts of who owed him what . They were having fun at my expense so gradually I stopped going out. Besides beer drinking was never my favorite pastime anyway.

The Filipina secretary noticed . She asked me to join her at meal time which I often did but she showed annoyance if I did not. She wanted me to wait for her at every meal . Now I began to be annoyed . I had never waited for anyone in my life except Suzanne and that was already history. I was not about to start again waiting for people  so one day I told her that she should not expect anything from me at all. I was not that type of a person . I did not open doors for women or wait for them at tables .They could very well open their own doors . Besides she had absolutely no right to demand anything .

She kept quiet but did not give up. Then one day she  asked me to show her my experiments although I was not sure if she was really that interested in field research . So we passed by in front of the women’s dormitory in plain view of the volleyball players to go to the field. The gossip had already started.

Then came her birthday when she invited me to go with her gang to play bowling  and afterwards join her in a party at the dorm. I played for a while but felt bored and went back to IRRI. Later I remembered  that there was a party so I showed my face and went back to my room. I hated small talk and weather topics.  She was very mad at me but I did not care. More and more this girl was acting like I was her boyfriend which I was not . This attitude annoyed me to no end . She was not pretty and did not have any qualities that I could appreciate so I kept my distance.

But her resolve was enduring. She made me a gift of a carved wood name plate that she had worked on for days. It was a nice gesture because no one remembered my birthday .Still I felt bad because I could not reciprocate her feelings at all. We had nothing in common and she was used to frivolities. My Indian friends noticed but kept their own counsel  .

The Indian researchers tended not to mix with the rest and usually went to drink beer at the Eva Lanes as a group. I tried to make friends with the Filipinos, Japanese, Koreans and other nationalities. Indians found this odd that I did not like to go with them every night . I had mentioned that beer drinking was not a favorite pastime of mine .

At this time I thought it would be good idea to organize a samosa party. Anyone could join who shelled out 20 pesos . We would then go to look for a goat and prepare samosas in the forestry apartment. This idea created a lot of enthusiasm and money was collected rapidly . Then on a weekend Suranjeet and I went looking for a goat. He was always game for anything out of the ordinary . It was funny because we leaped off the jeepney as soon we heard a goat somewhere and thus ended up in Tanauan in Batangas province where Suranjeet convinced a farmer to part with his goat for 80 pesos.  We returned to Los Banos triumphant with the struggling goat in the jeepney to the amusement of the passengers.

The rest was history. The IRRI kitchen staff took over the preparation of the meat and others went shopping looking for other things .In the afternoon the samosa making got started and no one really cared if the samosas did not look like samosas or they were too big. The Iranians, Bangladeshis and Indians were having a whale of a good time .Soon some scotch appeared.

The next door neighbors joined in and prepared more food. Now the party really began in earnest and people fought over each other to get hot samosas from the frying pan while Suranjeet kept on filling paper bags full of samosas  on the sly for the late comers.

The party lasted all night with food , drinks and loud music . Now it was time to go back to the IRRI dormitory but Subroto laid down in front of the auditorium and said that he had found his bed . He had been a bit too free with the scotch  so now we had a problem on our hand . But somehow we managed to drag a reluctant Subroto all the way to IRRI and get him over the fence because the main gate was locked. The great samosa party was still talked about 30 years later but never repeated . It was the only time different nationalities came together and had great fun .

I think it was in December that  one of the Indian fellows announced that he was getting married to a Filipina .I was to be his best man . He was finishing up his doctoral program and others were not far behind . Subroto,  Suranjeet and Laksman Lal would also finish their programs and return to India in the coming months.

Then one day Dr.Singh returned from his innumerable foreign trips and asked to see my experiment . The experiment was not doing well as was quite evident to anyone but he was not interested in the reasons. Sure everyone had labor problems those days but that should have made me try harder.

I was as disappointed as he but said that I had learned something out of this experience  and now I was planning to go back to India .

Dr.Singh said that he was not convinced that I did my best. He said that he saw a potential in me and thought that I could do better given the right circumstances. I listened to his sermons . After all he was the head of the agronomy department . In research no result is negative because one can learn also from negative results .  Anyway my stay at IRRI had come to an end so I began to pack my bags.

But Dr.Singh kept on delaying my departure and one day said that I should fly to Naga City in the Bicol region and see the rice research potential in the area and mostly talk to farmers to see their reaction to on farm trials . He knew this was my strongpoint because of my experience in Vietnam and Algeria . I did not even know where Naga City was .

So one day I flew to Naga and from there went to Pili. It is the capital of the Camarines Sur province which is a vast rice growing region . There I visited many farms and talked to many farmers about the possibility of doing on farm research .They were enthusiastic and said they welcomed any help from IRRI in growing a better crop because they believed that IRRI was the centre of new technology . I was very impressed by what I found and reported back to IRRI . Now the problem arose of funding the outreach program and the  whole concept was put on hold for a while .

One day I went to see Dr. De la Cruz to find out if I was to stay or go back to India . He surprised me by saying that if Dr.Singh thought I was the right person for the program in Bicol then he will see to it that funds are made available . He was the second person to recognize my strength and said so. The first person was ofcourse Dr.Singh. He said he had great plans for me and thought that I could do better working directly with the farmers.

I was a field agronomist and was at ease with farmers anywhere. There was no doubt that I felt happier working with farmers .The research station trials did not reflect the conditions and constraints faced by farmers .

Thus the International Rice Agro Economic Network or IRAEN project got started and I was to head the program in the Bicol region . The economics, entomology and the statistics departments were involved as well. This was to be the biggest outreach project in the country with many sites so I was excited to a part of it from the beginning.

So once again I left for Pili, but this time to look for a place to stay. I had met a girl called Myrna during my previous visit who had promised to look for an accommodation for me in town.  She said there was a housing  shortage but perhaps the next door neighbor could give me a room.

This is how I met Jasmine . Her father was the retired mayor of Pili and they had an old but sturdy house in Pili on the main road. Myrna soon left after the introduction.

I saw in front of me a girl of extraordinary charm and beauty .She had perfect oval face, long shiny black hair but what impressed me most was her deep penetrating eyes that touched your soul . I remember that she wore white shorts and a printed blouse. I got tongue tied for the first time but somehow explained to her that I was from IRRI and needed a place to stay.

She said that she knew about IRRI and visited the place once. Her father was against the idea of a foreigner staying with them but she said that she will convince her father to let me stay temporarily until I found other accommodation . I remember her saying that in that house her word was the command so I should  not worry . She smiled very sweetly and invited  me to have some ice cream. She said that she was trying to set up an ice cream shop in front of the house .

I do not remember what we talked about. I felt myself in a turmoil of unquantifiable proportion. I was a man of the world and had been to many countries , had known many people interesting or not  but I had never met someone like Jasmine. There was a faint glimmer of hope in my heart that long search and wait was over and I had finally met my soul mate in this sweet and beautiful Bicolana.This was the dazzling moment of my life but I did not let it show on my face . Not yet anyway.

I did not dare to say anything lest I said something stupid and spoiled the moment so I mostly listened to her. She said that she had quit her job in a bank due to some disagreement with the management and was trying to set up an ice cream shop . She was a college graduate and majored in accounting.

Soon I moved in but her younger sister did not like me and  was indifferent. Her elder sister who lived elsewhere also did not like the idea that Jasmine let a Boombai stay in the house . Filipinos call Indians Boombai for some reason. The family was devout Catholic and never had a foreigner stay with them. This was made possible because of  Jasmine.

She and I hit off splendidly from the moment we met. One day she took me to Legaspi along with Myrna to show me the buried church in Cagsawa. The Mayon volcano loomed majestically but ominously nearby spewing smoke. At other times she introduced me to her friends in Naga City. I became more and more enchanted with her and spent long time talking to her in the evening .I never knew I had so much to talk about. Besides she always beat me in scrabble .

She said that she used to work in a bank in Naga where a jealous woman accused her falsely of something she did not do. When  Jasmine demanded an apology and did not get it , she resigned although the management begged her to stay.  Jasmine was a girl  of extraordinary moral character and would not back down . I was very impressed by this steel in her.

In fact I had never met anyone like her . One day we went to see a movie in Naga when I put my arms around her shoulder .She said that I was behaving as if I was her boyfriend so I quickly withdrew feeling hurt. But she surprised me and smiled and held on to my arm. I never knew what the movie was all about. Something extraordinary had happened between us. I was head over heals in love with Jasmine. This news was not welcome by her family. Her younger sister said that the Boombais were not good people so Jasmine should have nothing to do with me. Her elder sister was also dead against and showed open hostility.

The opposition was building up so I had to find another place to live. Once again Jasmine came to my rescue and found me a foster family who happily took me in .The foster family knew that there were problems but said that in time everything will work out fine. They were very kind and loving people .

Mr. Castillo  liked me like his own son and told me how he had survived the death march of Bataan during the last war. Thousands   had died on that march after the fall of Corrigedor when the Japanese had rounded up Americans and Filipino fighters and forced them to march several hundred kilometers .

In the meantime I had written to mom in Sri Ram Pur and asked her blessing for our marriage. The news must have caused a storm back there but my steadfast brother Nirmal came to my rescue and convinced mom to let me live my own life . Finally after a long wait, I received her letter in which she wrote in English that Jasmine would be most welcome to the family. This was all I needed .

I rushed to the bank in Pili where Jasmine  had found a job and showed her the letter . She read it many times but could not really believe that it was true. I told her that I was going to visit her family that evening and propose marriage to her and seek approval of her parents. She literally went red in the face and disappeared somewhere in the back room.

When I told Mrs. Castillo about it, she said that it was indeed a very good news and there was nothing to worry about . She will handle everything. So in the evening we trooped to her house where a party was waiting. The marriage was a very serious matter that required  very careful consideration. Jasmine was nowhere to be seen.

Now the interview began in earnest. The old Mr. Luis said that he did not like the idea of his daughter marrying a foreigner and a non Catholic at that . The non Catholic part was the hardest nut to crack or so it seemed. He asked if it was true that Indians had four wives etc.  Mr.Castillo interceded on my behalf frequently and Mrs.Castillo said that she truly believed that it was a heavenly marriage proposal. Obviously she had developed great faith in me. I had not known Jasmine for over four months when we talked of marriage.

Finally a priest was called in to sort out the problem of religion. Her father said that he personally had no objection to this marriage  except that I was a non believer so I had to accept the Catholic faith first. The priest promised to make a good Catholic out of me in a short time if I so agreed. I did .There was nothing  to stop me from marrying Jasmine .No condition was too great.

My ancestors must have turned over in their funeral pyres but I had found my soul mate and had the blessing of my mom.

I accepted to their great relief and at this point Jasmine was called in. She came down very shyly and sat in one corner not even looking at me. Her father then told the gathering very eloquently that he agreed to our marriage as soon as I was converted. I asked to marry her on the 15th of July but she said July 23rd was her choice. It was the year 1975 and in January I did not even know where was Pili, Camarines Sur. This is what I call destiny.

So the date was joyously agreed upon by everyone and the cake and drinks were served. Jasmine was so surprised that I had agreed to give up my religion for her but I said that it was a small price to pay . Besides I had an appointment with the old toothless priest to keep.

The very next day I went to see the priest and told him frankly that I was converting to Catholicism only to satisfy the condition Jasmine’s father had imposed . In my heart I was never going to be any thing other than what I was so I was not going to keep the Catholic routine of going to Church and reading the Bible etc. I had read the Bible anyway.

The old priest saw in me a very obstinate fellow and said that it was of no use  being a Catholic unless I welcomed Christ in my heart. I agreed  and said that I was being very honest upfront . I was now ready to be a Catholic if after all I told him, he still wished me to go ahead.

He shook his head and  said “what’s the use” and promised to talk to the father of Jasmine to convince him that we should be allowed to marry without any precondition. He finally gave in and asked us to prepare for our marriage .

I had never known such joy in my life. This news spread to IRRI like wildfire and was received by everyone there with a great deal of surprise. They could not believe that I was serious because Jasmine and I had met only a few months ago. At that time Dr.Singh came to Bicol to see my experiments and said that he was very pleased with the results. I had worked awfully hard these 6 months so all the sites were excellent. I expected great harvest and data. But he also said that he had heard about my impending marriage and advised me to think it over.

He said that many of his friends who married outside their country and religion had ended in failures so it was a serious matter indeed. When I said that we were determined to get married, he said that he wished us well.

Jasmine and I had now less than one month to prepare for our marriage. Contrary to Filipino tradition of lavish marriage and incurring debt ,we decided that it was going to be a simple wedding and we were not going to start our new life with debt. We were going to pay for everything .She appreciated my principle . She said that our wedding was going to be unique because we will not seek sponsors . It was the Filipino tradition to round up as many sponsors as possible who would then contribute financially .

We did not need sponsors .Whatever money I had managed to save from my IRRI stipend had to suffice. I had a gown made for her that I designed including the embroidery which a gifted lady in Ba Ao town made for her. She also made a Barong Tagalog for me and embroidered a sheaf of wheat in the front that I had drawn for her . We had promised that our wedding will be unique in every respect .

So we carefully planned everything. Now I understood why she wanted us to get married in the middle of the week instead of traditional Sunday  because in a Sunday wedding many people would have showed up invited or not . We restricted our guest list to 100. Her father was worried because he knew that we had no sponsors . Whoever got married without sponsors ?

Jasmine and I designed a very unique wedding invitation card that simply said that my mother  invites you to the wedding of her son to Jasmine, daughter of Mr.Luis at the  Pili Church on July 23rd 0f 1975.

Nothing else. There was to be no flower girl and maids except Myrna who carried the veil and Subroto who was my best man carrying the rings. No one had seen a wedding card like this. It was simple and elegant but it broke all the rules that no Filipino could dare to break.

Jasmine carried a bouquet of rice plants showing the golden sheaf of grains that my farmers had made for her. It was a total departure from any tradition local or not but we were ecstatic. She had insisted that I shave off my Ho Chi Minh beard and mustache so on the appointed day I showed up at the old Pili church in my Barong with wheat sheaf embroidery and she came in her dazzling white gown holding the bouquet of rice  . The peeling paint and leaky roof of the church with its shabby furniture and plastic flowers faded away as I had my eyes only on the beautiful girl in white who showed heroic courage to marry me.

She came in on her father’s arm and did not look at me .She was lovely. She walked slowly to the altar where I waited for her and together we kneeled in front of her classmate priest .The ceremony was not very long although it may have seemed that way to us . Finally we were pronounced man and wife. At this point I took out a pearl necklace and put it around her swan neck .The cameras clicked and she beamed with smile . Jasmine was my wife at last.

I think it was the best achievement in my life . To find her and marry her in six month’s time when in January I did not even know where Pili was in itself nothing short of miraculous. Everything changed forever from day that day for both of us. She was the dream girl I waited and searched for so long.

They tried to get me married in India. My sister Annapurna was persistent but I said that I was not ready . I said that someday I will find my dream soul mate I do not know where but she will be everything I wished for in a life partner. They laughed derisively hearing my daydreams .Jasmine would prove them all wrong in time.

Our relationship was founded on trust and understanding .We instinctively felt that we were right for each other so waiting further was a waste of time.  Her friends were surprised.

The day after our marriage we took the train to Manila from where we took the bus to Baguio up in the highlands. The  week in Baguio was the best part of our life full of romance and love. We went to see the beautiful sites , took endless photos and bought some souvenirs spending all of our money. I was confident that the IRRI will soon give me the stipend .

But when we arrived in Los Banos, the IRRI cashier had a surprise waiting for us. He said that the stipend would be delayed due to bank holidays. Now we were in trouble because I did not have enough money to return to Pili. At this time Subroto started passing the hat around to collect whatever the poor scholars at the end of the month could come up with and somehow collected the train fare. He was really my best man.

By the way , Subroto would soon finish his doctoral program and return to India where he would later become the vice chancellor of the famous agricultural university in Bengal.  He would rise very high indeed. But sadly I have lost contact with him.

Dr.Singh welcomed Jasmine and gave a very nice party at his house in her honor . She looked lovely in the pink embroidered gown that I had designed for her and charmed everyone with her beauty and sweet nature. We were very warmly received by everyone although at first some people had shown some reservation .

But I was the third Indian to marry that year. The second person to marry was a close friend of mine called Surendra who married a nice girl from Los Banos . The fourth person was an American who had arrived in the Philippines at the same time as I so in that sense the year 1975 was a remarkable year for the IRRI scholars .

I had only begun to understand a wonderful girl called Jasmine. She lived up to every challenge we encountered and did it with grace like when one day I told her that I wished to continue studies at the University of the Philippines for a doctoral degree with or without IRRI support, she agreed and said that she will find a job to support me .

I was getting disillusioned with IRRI at that point .I had worked for over one year with them doing extensive and very promising research in rice but it did not get me anywhere professionally . Surely I had picked up some valuable experience but no one cared for just experience. One had to have a degree like Ph.D. to get anywhere. In September of 1975, IRRI asked to me help in the training of some people in agronomy research for a month.

So Jasmine and I set up our first rented house , just a one room affair with big spiders and cockroaches thrown in to liven up our shabby room in Los Banos. We just had a small one burner hot plate, an old bamboo bed and a rickety table to begin with but we were happy. She took everything in stride and set out to find a job immediately.  I had been in the mean time accepted by the graduate school to start my coursework in November of that year.

I knew that Ph.D. was a long struggle and probably longer when we had no sponsor to pay for all the expenses but there was no backing off now. Dr.Singh at IRRI had closely followed the developments and was worried. One day he asked me how I was doing and how I was going to pay for a Ph.D. degree with a new wife and all the responsibilities that entailed.

I just shrugged and said that somehow we will try to manage it all although I really did not know how. I was determined not to ask for anything. I had never asked for IRRI to send me to Bicol and did not ask for any extension to my fellowship so I was not going to ask now. It was my pride.

But Dr. Singh was a very kind hearted man and genuinely believed in me and what I could achieve as a researcher. He had seen the excellent research fields in Bicol where I had toiled under the hot sun for months and he wanted to do something so one day he called me back to his office and said that IRRI was very pleased with my ability to do superb research and was ready to offer me a full fellowship for a Ph.D. program.

I was naturally very surprised because I was not expecting anything from IRRI so I asked if there were any preconditions . Dr.Singh smiled and said that actually there was a condition. IRRI wanted me to go back to Bicol to continue the excellent work that I had started there after I had completed my coursework at UPLB . I was very happy. This is what I loved most .I loved to work with farmers and was eager to return to Bicol region so I gladly accepted the IRRI offer after consulting with Jasmine.

Soon she found a job at a bank in Los Banos and I got very busy with my graduate studies .We were newly married yet I found little time for her because the graduate studies were very demanding. She was also busy with her new job in the bank. We by the dint of luck found a better house and a good maid and were very glad to leave that rat, spider and cockroach infested room . Things were certainly looking up for us .I still consider 1975 as the best year in our life .

We set up the new household soon and put up colorful curtains . She turned out to be an excellent homemaker .We bought a TV and IRRI loaned us a big refrigerator and stove. It was really nice to live on our own .I found the load of a graduate student heavy but managed to get good grades and made steady progress .

Surendra was also a student now and made quick progress in his doctoral studies. Others had left for India and one fellow went to Nigeria as a post doctoral fellow so only Surendra and I would be left at IRRI . We had a great deal in common. We came from the same state of UP in India and we both had married here and now were studying for our doctoral degree under IRRI sponsorship . We bonded easily and would form a life long friendship . We both ended up living in Los Banos thanks in no small measure to him but I will get to that part later in the story.

There is not much to write about those days in Los Banos except that we made a few friends like the Rosenthals of Germany and others but mostly we were busy doing our own things and did not have much time for anything else. I did not get to spend as much time with her as I would have liked ,busy as I was with studies but she never complained . We knew that each semester was bringing us closer to our goal.

Then the day came for my comprehensive exam. My American friend Robert Springstein had warned me that the comprehensive exam was the most difficult part of the program so I should prepare for it well. My soil science professor who was also a member of my advisory board suggested that I ask for a written test from each of the board members and then go for the viva . It was an excellent advice . Although only three out of four members agreed ,it was not bad at all.

I took the exams and did as best as I could but it was not good enough for one of them. During viva he asked me again the same question to which I promptly answered correctly this time and showed the equation on the blackboard. He was surprised and said how come I did not answer in the written test .  I just smiled sheepishly and said that the exam was a few days ago and I had enough time to find the answer since then.

All the members broke up in  great laughter. The rest of the viva was a piece of cake . They all congratulated me and  said that the great hurdle for me was over . Jasmine soon showed up with a huge can of ice cream to celebrate. This was also the tradition in the scholar’s room . She obviously had more confidence in me than others and said that she knew I was going to pass my exams .

Now I was free to go back to Pili and start the research for the dissertation . Jasmine began to have a glow on her face and one day confided that she was going to be a mother . It was the most thrilling news we could have had. It was also high time for her to quit her job and return to Bicol where she could get complete  rest.

So I returned to Pili and soon found a nice house to rent. She was happy to have a nice house and more rooms in a quiet neighborhood. I fixed up the mosquito screens on the windows and hired a maid. Soon I put up a fence around the house and planted some flowers and fruit trees. It was a lovely house compared to the rat holes we had lived in Los Banos .

Soon I started in earnest the grinding routine of field work but luckily IRRI had provided me with a jeep this time so it was easier to move around. The farms were quite far from each other and I did not have to stand by the roadside with my sprayer and sack of fertilizer  for the buses.  I thoroughly enjoyed the work although it was tiring. This is what I loved doing in Vietnam and Algeria and now here in the Philippines . It is no secret that one does a good job when he enjoys doing it. The results were superb making everybody happy most of all IRRI. I felt very happy with my work and blessed because of Jasmine.

Then one day in June of 1977, she went into labour and soon our first child was born . We called him Ashis. He was healthy and perfect . He was long for a child and had silky brown hair. Mind you I said long because we could not measure his height yet but later he will grow into a 6 feet 2 inches lad .  It was a new experience for both of us and often we just looked at him while he slept. He did not look like Bill Cosby’s lizard at all and grew steadily into a lovely child day by day.

We called him Ashis, an unusual name for a male child in the Philippines but it meant a blessing. My folks back in India did not like his name and said that a child should be given another name but for us it was Ashis.

He grew almost too rapidly but he was lucky to have a full time mother  and unlucky to have a part time father . My work was very tiring but I got excellent data that somehow made up for the hard work. From planting to harvesting to data tabulation to planning for the next season was an endless cycle that drained my energy but I kept going . The terrible heat of the scorching and relentless sun made it worse but I found very good laborers who worked often late to finish the job .

Without these boys ,I would have never been able to do so much work .They worked hard and seldom complained .IRRI paid them low wages but I fought hard to get them a raise . My farmers were the main partners .They worked hard and were very pleased with the high yielding rice varieties that I was testing . They were my friends and had  greatly enjoyed being invited to my marriage  .

In the month of March of 1978 , I went back to Los Banos to begin the arduous task of data tabulation and the writing part of three years of field data but first I had to find a suitable house to rent. This time I was lucky and found a decent house in San Antonio part of the town. Soon Jasmine came and was very pleased that I had found a nice house so soon and got busy setting up the house again. She did not know that this will be the trend for the next 25 years and we would often uproot from one place to settle somewhere else.

Ashis was beginning to stand up in the crib and say a few strange words but mostly he played by himself and seldom cried . The maid knew the trick to play Andy William’s Moon river  or O Danny Boy on the tape and soon the kid would be fast asleep. Infact Moon river made me sleepy too .

I had arrived back at IRRI at a bad time. Dr.Singh asked everyone to pitch in to complete the annual report that was overdue so I helped although I had my own work to do. I had bought an old motorbike and stayed late in the department writing the draft of my dissertation on an old electric typewriter until the wee hours of the night. Often Jasmine came and read the draft or dictated the tables or figures.

She cross checked the data and helped me hour after hour while I labored . She looked over my shoulder to correct spelling mistakes and I was grateful .I knew it would have taken longer without her help. She could be defined in two words as the ideal partner.

One day the Filipino  staff of the department decided to organize an excursion to Dagupan beach and Pangasinan up north so we were happy to get out of Los Banos for a change. We needed a break from the monotonous and boring work of writing scientific theses. Dagupan beach was clean and very nice but the hot sun burned my skin that later peeled off like a big handkerchief . The hundred islands were also very nice . There one could have his own island for the day if only a boat was available. The water was blue and clear. On the way you would  meet the divers who brought up conch shells of various kinds and sold them to tourists.

Then the next day we went to Pangasinan where the farmers raise fish in their backyard ponds .One pond was drained for us to catch some fish but we caught more mud than fish as the Filipinos pelted everyone with mud. It was like Holi but more messy. Still it was fun . The Pangasinan farmers kept neat houses and planted all kinds of shrubs and decorative plants around their houses . They are very hard working people like in Bicol.

Back in Los Banos  I invited some of my colleagues to an evening of fun which was fine except that a thief walked off with my motorbike while we were  toasting each other . There is an epidemic of thievery in Los Banos and I had my expensive Tissot stolen twice , first in Pili and recovered but this time it was gone forever. Now it was my motorbike.

Jasmine went to the police station and reported the theft although I had little hope of seeing my bike again . But the next morning a fellow showed up with my bike and said that the thief had hidden it under a culvert where some kids had spotted it and reported. It was amazing . I was glad to give the fellow a case of beer .

Jasmine gave me the wonderful news one day when she said that our second child was on the way. We knew it was a girl and named her Jayanti long before she was due.

Soon a telex arrived from Ottawa . I had applied for a position as an agronomist so an organization in Canada now invited me to go to an extended tour of West Africa where I was to visit Mali to see for myself the living conditions and meet the Malian counterparts .This was in July of 1978 when I was getting ready for the final defense of my dissertation so the timing was bad. I just could not  go anywhere at that time .They were gracious and said they will wait for a more appropriate time .

Now the day arrived when I defended my research work  successfully and was pronounced a doctor of philosophy although believe me when I say that an agronomist is far from being a philosopher. We all rejoiced  that day because it meant an end to years of studies and hard work, term papers and exams . Now  we could get on with our lives properly with a job and a decent pay. The Canadians obliged and soon I left for  Dakar ,Senegal.

But my first stop was Nairobi where I had to spend two days to catch up the Pan Am flight to Dakar . Upon arriving in Nairobi ,I was told that they had left my luggage behind in Bombay by mistake .I had no change of clothes or even a tooth brush but found a hotel room on the road to Kampala for the night. If you have never been to Kenya then you will only think that it is the safari country which it is  but there is abject poverty everywhere .

The hotel provided a plate of mashed potato mixed with boiled dent corn, hard peas and slices of raw onion and called it their main dish . The dent corn is not called dent corn for nothing .It will dent your teeth even if you boil it for hours . So I had a miserable dinner. The dirt hovels where they sold foul smelling beer in dim light was not very inviting either so I went to look for some food downtown and found a place selling samosas .

This was another mistake. They gave me a plate of  french fries dripping in oil and a few beef filled  samosas also dripping in blackish oil so I left the whole plate to someone who appreciated it more. It was disgusting.

The very next day as I was walking somewhere , a fellow suddenly dropped a bundle of something that landed near my feet and walked away so I put my foot on it and called the fellow .Perhaps he did not know that he dropped something. The something turned out to be a huge bundle of bank notes wrapped in dirty rags. A kid of indeterminate age suddenly appeared and grabbed the bundle but I was faster and grabbed the kid instead. Now a tussle began and a crowd began to form around us. The kid kept on saying that I should let him go because today he got lucky.

All of this happened very fast in a matter of seconds.  I still held on to the kid and called again the fellow who was now distant. The kid said that he will split the loot with me if I cared to go with him to the public toilet so I did some fast thinking . Whoever carries so much money and casually drops it ? If I called the police ,they will arrest me for complicity and pocket the money . It was probably stolen and passed on to the gang members in passing. I just happened to be on the scene.

If I got greedy and went to the toilet to share the loot, I probably would meet others waiting there who would promptly shove a knife in my stomach. This was Nairobi and I was an Indian. The Police did not like the Indians. So I let the kid go .I did not want the money .It was probably the wisest thing I did . Who knows what would have happened if I had become greedy?

The Nairobi to Dakar flight is a long one but I was able to get on it with my luggage that had finally arrived after a few terse telexes saying that the passenger very irate ,please expedite etc. One could see the vast lake Victoria and dry African savanna from the air. The stops were many like Lagos, Robert’s field in Monrovia, Conakry , Gambia and finally Dakar.

This is where I was the meet the representative of the Canadian firm and travel to other parts of Africa with him. He arrived punctually and together we started on our first leg of this long journey. Bamako is the capital of Mali where they hoped to set up a farming system’s project in  the south east corner of that country and I was supposed to be their agronomist .

So one day we drove from Bamako to Sikasso which is the project site. It is a 400 km long road but one must remember that Mali is a big country. We drove through featureless brush country with a few villages here and there until we came to Bougouni nearly halfway on the road to Sikasso.

Bougouni is the only town between Bamako and Sikasso so we stopped here for a few minutes . It was a shabby and dirty town with a few shops and a poor restaurant run by a Lebanese  .People in rags wandered around or squatted listlessly under trees to get some shade. I began to wonder what Sikasso was like .I was to soon find out.

Sikasso is a small town near the border of Upper Volta which they now call Burkina Fasso . The Ivory Coast border is some 70 kms away and just south of Sikasso is the border of Guinea . I would have more time to know Sikasso and its inhabitants  later but from what I saw in a day, it was not very reassuring and I started thinking if it would be wise to bring Jasmine and  two kids here.

From there we went to Ouagadougou and on to Niamey in Niger .We met and talked to a lot of people who did agricultural development work there. All these countries looked miserable with dirt roads  and poor people in rags. Only a few foreigners drove around in fancy cars but the locals just sat around under the trees to escape the heat or swam in the Niger river that looked inviting but full of larvae of a fly that caused blindness .

Women wore tie dye colorful clothes with embroidery but could not hide their goiters or signs of malnutrition. Men wore homespun cotton robes. In Dakar, Bamako, Ouagadougou or Niamey one always saw Africans selling small handicraft  near the hotels where the foreigners stayed. They even called me blanc to my surprise but to an African you were a blanc meaning a white person if you did not have kinky hair.

There were some women in provocative dresses lounging in hotels and looked at guests suggesting they too were selling some thing .I was a bit discouraged by what I saw in Senegal, Mali and elsewhere but that is why there was this project that would bring some help to the poor . I had lived in poor countries before so misery was nothing new to me. Only the scale appalled me .

In Montreal I found that once again my luggage was left behind by the airline ,this time in Paris . It was cold in Ottawa but I had to stay a few days to complete the formalities of appointment and medical check up. The Canadians were thorough on formalities and legal size contract papers but finally all was done except that no one bothered with the fact the salary was very low and well below the international standard for a Ph.D. I suppose I had to start somewhere so I signed and flew back to Manila.

Back in Los Banos I made preparations for us to leave for India where Jayanti was to be born . Some of my luggage was sent to Bamako and we soon left for India . My stay of over four and a half years in the Philippines thus came to an end but think of the accomplishment !

I came to the Philippines only for six months and ended up staying four and a half years, met Jasmine and got married, obtained a Ph.D. degree in agronomy under scholarship and had a beautiful boy named Ashis and  waited eagerly for our daughter Jayanti to arrive in January of 1979 . My parents would have been proud of me .My dad died a long time ago but I was not so sure about mom and others . I was to soon find out.

This was the first time for Jasmine to travel abroad but she adjusted well in spite of her pregnancy .Now she was visiting the country of her husband and was about to meet with his relatives. I did  not know how she felt but I am sure she was apprehensive not knowing anything about India or Indians.

My concern was to give her as must rest as possible before Jayanti decided to arrive and provide her with best medical care available because Jayanti had decided to come to earth with her feet first as the ultrasound photos showed. So one fine day we landed at the small municipal airport of Sri Ram Pur.

The reception at my parent’s  was restrained by Indian and certainly Bengali standard specially for a new bride. Clearly mother was disappointed that I had decided to marry a foreigner and outside my religion  but soon they were all charmed by Jasmine except the sister in law Sabita . She became jealous because Jasmine was now getting all the attention in the family where until now she had reigned supreme .

Jasmine was magnanimous to her and tried to help her in the kitchen but she remained aloof and often compared  Ashis with her daughter saying that she had better potty habits and eating habits. But Ashis was adorable and people could not have enough of him. His puffy rudy cheeks and his effort to speak a few words charmed everyone to no end . He also had very good potty habits and ate his food without any fuss whatsoever.

He became the darling of the family but this did not endear him to Sabita. I was not expecting a miracle because after all I did marry a non Bengali and a  non Indian so a bit of upheaval was expected . I assuaged Jasmine by saying that soon after the birth of Jayanti we would leave India for Mali.

Sabita was a very ignorant woman and did not believe Jasmine when she told her that we knew long time ago that Jayanti was coming and that she had a breech position. The Filipino doctor had calculated almost precisely the day she would be born but had warned that breech delivery was a bit dicey.

She would laugh to the face of Jasmine and said that no one could tell the sex of the baby until it was born and that the kids must “ cook” inside for 10 months and 10 days before coming out. She had never heard of ultrasound and other developments in the medical field. We often encountered such attitudes among Indians. What they did not know, they did not believe because they believed they knew everything there was to know.

I told Jasmine not to say anything . Sabita was a classic case of ignorance, superstition and low education . It was a bad combination . Jasmine was a college graduate with extensive experience in accountancy but I admired her humility . She was everything the other woman was not so the contrast was not lost on others. However, this created more problems than it solved.

My mom was an astute politician and seldom said what she felt or felt what she said . On the surface of it , she welcomed Jasmine and gave her a gift of gold bracelet and a necklace. Jasmine was surprised because in the Philippines such gifts were considered luxury but the Bengali tradition called for the gold ornaments for the bride. She also received several exquisite saris that she gradually learned to wear but never could manage well reverting back to her long gowns.

The language was the main barrier because no one spoke English except Nirmal although Sabita could somehow express her feelings through broken language so Jasmine felt lonely and isolated. My job was to get her out for a walk every evening even though she hated it but went along anyway. The exercise was necessary.

Finally on January 6th of 1979 , baby Jayanti decided to come with the help of an expert lady doctor . We were delighted that she was so perfect with pert nose and curly wisps of brown hair . She was a bit underweight but she puffed up rapidly . The comment of Sabita was very predictable. She said that the kid is dark and may not turn out to be better than average looking . This was a very cruel thing to say to new parents but she was a cruel woman who had decided long ago that she did not like Jasmine.

She also said that she did not like the fact the Jasmine came to Sri Ram Pur pregnant because this meant extra work for her . But we did not impose in anyway on the family. I paid for all expenses and took care of her and the babies. I gave them bath and made them sit on potty and fed them spoon by spoon the baby food . They never cried in the middle of the night as most babies do and were wonderful and perfect babies. No parents could be prouder. Jasmine was regaining her health and looked lovelier.

Jayanti had  aquiline  nose and a wide forehead. She was a very pretty baby with pencil sharp eyebrows and tulip red lips .Her hair was curly and became darker after a month and her fingers even at that age looked slender and long . Ashis was no less and already a pet of the family. Jayanti slept a lot and took to bottle feeding when she got lazy to breast feed. She gained weight rapidly and was something to watch .

But our time in SriRamPur was not exactly pleasant due to constant

clash of culture. I found the atmosphere stifling that I had broken out of a long time ago. I went alone to work in a dangerous country like Vietnam , had gone on to get more education in the United States at my own expense, had worked in Algeria they knew nothing about and had now returned to Sri Ram Pur with a doctorate degree and a beautiful family and a job waiting in a country they had never even heard of called  Mali. I could not readjust to Sri Ram Pur again.

They also knew that I made my own decisions and decided what was best for us . I could not ignore the nasty comments of Sabita but we were going to leave soon and perhaps not to return so it made little or no difference. I tried to protect Jasmine as much as I could  but often I found her misty eyed.

Annapurna liked Jasmine  but insisted that the kids must be called Buntee and Milli . I explained to her one day that there was nothing wrong with their name but she sulked.  She had vowed to make a Bengali out of Jasmine and insisted that she wear sari and put on sindoor which is a  vermilion powder Hindu women put where they part their hair. She said to me that I should buy her more jewelry because a wife reflects the wealth of her husband but it was not Jasmine’s style . She is a simple girl and I love her for it.

Likewise mom started calling Jasmine by the name of Jyotsna which means moonlight but Jasmine could never pronounce it so Jasmine she remained. Her first visit with my folks lasted three and a half months and I can not honestly say whether she enjoyed it or not but she did get good medical attention and Jayanti did arrive without any problem. This was my sole comfort. If Jasmine was a mismatch for the  traditional and superstitious Bengali society, it was no great loss on our part. They missed the chance of getting to know a wonderful girl whose heart was pure and who only wanted to be accepted.

So In the month of February we flew off to Paris and then on to Bamako. Jayanti was 40 days old but an angel. She slept in the hammock in the plane most of the time. Ashis was too young to enjoy flying such a long distance but did not give any trouble. Jasmine had regained her strength and braced herself for the new life in a new country trusting solely her loving husband.

On the plane I began wondering how she will cope with the primitive life in Sikasso taking care of two infants but I had underestimated her gift of adjustment and sheer resolve to live through almost anything. She did manage Sri Ram Pur so perhaps Mali would be better. I certainly hoped so.

 

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Chapter six: Transition period-India-1973-1974

 

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Transition period : India- 1973 to 1974

The flight to Paris was smooth . I was offered champagne and excellent food being  in the first class but I was thinking of the country I just left behind perhaps never to return to again.  There were many friends there and I began to reminisce about my two years there.

The country was very beautiful with majestic snowcapped mountains, green meadows and Roman ruins . The beaches were so beautiful and the water so blue and clear ,you could see the deep bottom .

But the country also had so many problems , some of them man made and others not. I began to think about the man made problems of wastefulness in agriculture and social repression of women . There was also problem of racism that was quite naked . They hated the black skinned people of the desert and sometimes refused me a hotel  room thinking I was a Touareg. They also disliked children who were shooed out early in the day and were allowed in only at meal times.

I had written about the children earlier. I was amazed at their destructiveness and total lack of supervision from their parents . When I tried to show affection to these children ,they over ran me and my affection very quickly. They were not used to affection and became vengeful when I would not play with them any longer.

I knew I was never going to go back to Algeria where I spent so much time working and knowing so many people but I was not sad to leave as I was when leaving Vietnam . I looked forward to landing at Orly. The Charles de Gaulle airport was still under construction at Roissy.

At Orly the first thing to do was to ship my stereo equipment to Delhi so I grabbed a push cart and took the big box to the cargo section of the Swiss Air . Having completed the formalities, I took the metro to the place where Catherine lived.

Catherine and I had gotten along splendidly since we met in Ghardaiia so it was a joyous reunion of sorts. She was very happy to receive the Beni Yenni silver jewelry I bought for her. Beni Yenni is a village in the Djurdjura mountains near Tizi Ouzou where they make very unique and nice silver jewelry studded with coral or lapis lazuli .

She took it upon herself to show me Paris the way only she could show like taking me to Les Halles where Sorbonne students hung around or to the FNAC record shop where I picked up a Jean Ferrat LP . We met many of her friends at the Halles in the smoke filled place where they all smoked the stinky Gauloise or Gitanes . I do not know why the French can not produce good quality cigarettes .

The  French also liked to kiss each other’s cheek a lot. Once I saw a girl who was obviously going away somewhere and her 20 or so friends stood in line to see her off. Kissing each one three times took a while  I watched from a distance quite fascinated at this aspect of the French culture.

However, the Sorbonne students were a bit more liberated and often just shook hands and offered their foul smelling cigarettes. I had to sometimes buy Gitanes or Gauloise for Catherine. She one day brought me to her mother who lived alone with a cat as company in a Paris suburb .She was happy to finally meet a Hindou and learned that Indira was not the daughter of Mahatma Gandhi. I had to explain to many that to call Indians Hindou was wrong because not all Indians were Hindous but the French are stubborn people and can not be corrected.

Catherine was a sweet girl who had traveled over land to India from Europe which must have been quite an adventure. We had some good time together in Algeria and in Paris but my time in Paris was very short so one day I said au revoir  but I doubted very much if I would ever see her again . She wrote to me once in India but would soon join the list of lost friends . I do not know what happened to her .

I still had over six months before going to the Philippines so I decided to spend it in Sri Ram Pur. At this time Nirmal was expecting me to start the construction of the second floor of the house for which he had gathered materials and gotten the building plan approved. My plan was to build the upper floor for rent which would give my mother a lifelong source of income because I could not send her money regularly.

Nirmal was busy with his office work so it was very convenient that I had some time on my hand to take care of this important work. The construction of a house is a messy job and required someone to always look for cement and other materials .I was glad to help and gave Nirmal many new ideas which were then incorporated into the plan . It was hard work to look for cement, logs, bricks, iron bars and many other things but soon the walls started coming up and the masons started the preparation for the roof .It became a massive undertaking to the wonder of many onlookers .

During this time I got to know my sister in law Sabita little better. Her baby was small and she was not too busy with her household chores so we often talked. She said that she had a rough time adjusting to the family because Bengalis were a fault finding lot but now she was doing better.

I gave her a silver necklace from Beni Yenni but she ignored it and left it here and there like a cheap trinket. Indian women do not appreciate anything that is not gold . I was learning a great deal about the likes and dislikes of Indian women which had a great deal to do the way they are brought up and led to believe in certain things . Art for the sake of art had no value for them.

My mother was very helpful at this time and gave me many ideas regarding the construction and spent hours sewing up yards of curtains to be hung in the new rooms.  My time in India was well spent and the house completed in six month’s  time although Nirmal would continue improving it for many years to come. A  new tenant soon occupied the ground floor .

So I prepared to leave for Thailand where I would spend a month before arriving in Manila but soon received a cable from Stephanie who wanted me to go to Bangladesh to see a fellow who was being considered for the post in Algeria that I had just left.  There is nothing remarkable about the trip to Dacca and Comilla although I did get to see the flat featureless farmland of rural areas when I went to Comilla riding a motorbike. AIso I met the gentleman  and later found him unsuitable for the job in Algeria.

Now I was ready for some free time in Thailand . My vacation in Thailand began with Bangkok where I spent many leisurely days looking at various wats , pagodas and Imperial palaces.  Often I just sat near the Chao Phraya river and watched the incessant river traffic. One could sit there all day and not feel bored. The Thais used the river as the main highway and brought their farm produce like fruits and vegetables, flowers and lot more on small boats . One could buy anything from one boat to another so it was quite lively. Near the river the huge market sold food and drinks.

I tried unsuccessfully to look for Wiriya , a gentle Thai girl I had met long ago in Bangkok but the phone numbers had been changed . Soon I got to the Atlantic hotel which was a favorite of people living on a budget .It was a lot better than the hotels near the railway stations where the prostitutes sat on the stairs or knocked on your doors and gave no peace of mind.

Here in the Atlantic hotel the atmosphere was more polished and the residents more international. The joke at the Atlantic hotel was that one could not drown in their swimming pool because it was like Dead sea, so full it was of chlorine but on the whole the hotel was a lively place where you met many young people from all over the world. I also tried to look for my friend Hubert who I heard was somewhere in Thailand but I could not find him.  Bangkok was also the right place to apply for a visa to enter the Philippines so one day I found the consulate  to complete the formalities.

The Philippines consulate people were friendly and said that the IRRI scholarship letter was enough to grant me a resident visa but they needed a complete medical check up and suggested the Camillean hospital nearby. The Camillean hospital nurses were very efficient and gave me a thorough check up right away and the results the very next day.

Having obtained the visa, I was now free to go to Chiang Mai .It is a long overnight bus ride but the buses in Thailand were good and comfortable. Chiang Mai is well known as the center for art and handicraft specially silk weaving and carved furniture making.  I also saw an artist make beautiful paintings by colored sand.  He first brushed some glue on paper and then sprinkled colored sand on it to develop a painting. It was very unique and I had never seen anything like it.

Chiang Mai was also known for its jade trade. The most valuable jade came over on mule train from Burma and sold to Hong Kong traders here . There are some of the most notable wats of Thailand here as well. There was a great  deal of silverware here in Chiang Mai. They sold embossed silver lighters and many such things by the roadside.

The YMCA was located in a quiet neighborhood where you could stay for only a dollar a day and the Thai food was delicious and cheap. In the restaurants I overheard some people talking about a trekking trip up north so I signed up. I wanted to see how the mountain people lived in the north .The Thai guide knew the hills and trekking routes very well so soon we made a group of 12 or 13 people mostly Americans and Australians and one Indian.

After taking a long bus ride and then a long motorboat ride on a mountain river , we arrived at a point from where we started uphill trekking for many hours to reach an isolated tribal village . Here the women were bare breasted and men smoked foul smelling tobacco in their home made pipes. Some smoked opium as well judging from the smell. Women wore interesting jewelry made mostly of silver coins .Men worked on primitive looms to make very colorful strips of clothes.

We spent the night in their bamboo hut and ate some gruel they prepared for us .The wood fire burning in the middle of their long house filled the room with acrid smoke that stung the eyes but also kept the mosquitoes away. I took some slides that turned out very nicely but life for these people in these remote hills was harsh to say the least. There were very far from medical facilities or schools or any road here . People although colorful, looked undernourished and lived a hard life.

Men and women in our group mostly Americans and Australians stripped naked to bathe in the mountain streams in plain view of the natives who were more modest but the foreigners showed a lack in sensitivity to locals and their culture. They splashed in the murky waters oblivious to their stares.

Then we trekked some more up the hills to the northern part of Thailand that were the abode of drug traffickers. This was the part of the golden triangle where most of the poppy was grown and opium made out of .It was also a dangerous territory where gun toting soldiers were seen lounging under the trees. I had no idea why the guide brought us there but I was glad to move on. Often we had to get off the boat and push it through shoals or take a short cut through the jungle to catch up with the boat downstream.

In one of the stops by the riverside, one Australian disappeared into the village. We found him soon enough in an opium den where he was lying senseless .There were opium dens in all these villages where scores of people smoked the drug and slept on the dirt oblivious to their misery.

It was very shocking to see such degradation of human beings. We had to drag the Aussie back to the boat somehow . The effect of opium on the locals was devastating. Their hollow cheeks and emaciated bodies told volumes about the misery the drug was causing but opium was cheap here and the future bleak. It was a powerful combination .

I knew of the drug problem in Vietnam where thousands of American soldiers took the drug . Hashhish, marijuana, opium ,one could find them all in Vietnam where the supply was brought in  from neighboring countries and even sent to the United States . The Orient Express was not a train but a supply chain that brought drugs to the United States during the war.

In Thailand these people were destroying themselves and no one seemed to care. I am sure some Thai Farmers made some money by growing poppies that produced opium but they also ran the risk of getting arrested or hurt. The opium lords were the ones  making money by exporting it to other countries. The drug problem was very serious here to say the least.

We returned after  a long journey to Chiang Rai and to Fang. I had never trekked in my life but I learned a lot about the mountain people during this arduous journey but the sore muscles and mosquito bites were the price to pay . I was happy to return to Chiang Mai .

I went to see the silk factories outside the town where young women were dyeing the silk in bright colors and some were weaving the silk in simple looms. The factory was small where mostly women worked. It was interesting to watch them wind silk threads onto spools and do other chores. The quality was not as good as that of Indian silk but it was silk just the same and the colors were really very nice. I bought some silk shirts although I do not wear costly shirts as a rule.

The wood carvers I saw on the roadside shops were very young girls who were deftly carving flowers and leaves on hard wood .Some were making paper umbrellas while others painting flowers and other designs on them.

I remember going up the hill to see a famous wat in Chiang Mai but the name escapes me .There are many such wats in the area. But the most ornate ones are in Bangkok  . The reclining emerald Buddha of Bangkok is really astonishing . Most Thais are Buddhist and many wear jade miniature Buddhas around their neck .They paste gold leafs on sacred shrines and Thai children are often seen in the saffron robe of monks .By nature Thais are very gentle and sweet. I remember how a very sweet Thai girl in Bangkok once showed me the sites voluntarily .

But the Ashok pillar and the four lions that is the symbol of modern India could also be seen in Chiang Mai reminding you that Thais were Hindus long before they became Buddhist. In fact , their capital was called Ayuthaya and their King  Ram  after the Hindu God  Ram and his capital of Ayodhya in India.  Now Ayuthaya is in ruins but a major tourist attraction .

Emperor Ashok as the history tells you, was remorseful after the battle of Kalinga where he won but saw the Kalinga people annihilated. He then vowed to renounce violence forever and spread the words of Buddha around the world. His daughter princess Sanghamitra was then sent to many countries to bring the words of  peace and love that are the basic tenets of Buddha’s teachings . Thus Buddhism spread  to Burma ,Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, China, Japan, Korea ,Indonesia and many other countries.

I had seen in Vietnam what human hand could destroy but here in Thailand I could see what they could create .Thai architecture is unique, their temples ornate ,their handicraft superb and their country is blessed with natural beauty . Of course the Vietnamese could also be very creative given half the chance but  no one gave them the chance yet.

I remember the Cao Dai temple in Tay Ninh that was so ornate and beautiful where the silent monks showed you around the premises. Later that beautiful temple was damaged in the war .It is hard to understand why anyone would destroy a peaceful and beautiful place of worship but such things happened.

The Australian girl from New South Wales whom I had met in Chiang Mai was also staying in the Atlantic Hotel in Bangkok which was a nice surprise. I think it was she who was surprised when I treated her with dinner and movie called “The sting” on her birthday . But nice people came into my life and disappeared without a trace all the time.

My next stop was Hong Kong before reaching Manila. I will just briefly mention that Hong Kong is always fun and a good place to visit . I went to see my old friend Kam Fat in Sheung Shui who drove a taxi there and had once invited me to his place for a superb Chinese dinner. I took the boat to Macau but the officials there did not allow me to disembark so I returned to Hong Kong in the same boat full of Chinese people playing Mahjong . I still do not understand why they have to bang the table with mahjong so hard .  Nevertheless ,it is a popular game among the Chinese.

The Chinese were a noisy people no matter what they did. Sometimes it would appear as if they were fighting but then they would smile through their gold teeth to completely throw you off. They also appeared to sit in their underclothes or perhaps their clothes looked like underclothes to me because I was so ignorant of their culture.

But among them one could find the most generous and friendly person one could meet anywhere. A simple taxi driver would befriend me and invite me to his home for dinner is an example .This world is full of surprises. I had accidentally met many such delightful people in my life and cherished their friendship. Most people visiting Hong Kong would never get to meet the common and good people there because they think there is nothing there but shopping  but I was always more interested in people and not shops.

I always welcomed an opportunity to get to know the people and how they lived. This gave me the feel for the country as nothing else could because no one could educate you more than the Kam Fats in any country .

There were many Indians in Hong Kong but I was not interested in meeting them. I stayed away from them because I had a few bad experiences with the expat Indians.  I remember once I was approached by an Indian at the Manila airport who wanted a favor. He said that it was very important that I bring a package to Hong Kong .I did not know what was in the package but I took it innocently. A stern looking Sikh came and picked it up without even saying Thank you which seemed odd .

When I mentioned this to some American friends , they were surprised and said I was very naive indeed to accept a package from a stranger .Had there been drugs or other contraband inside that package, I would have been thrown in jail for life  unable to prove my innocence . I was very scared and did not understand why would anyone try to harm me this way .

Of course it was always easy to harm an unknown person than a friend but it took me sometime to realize that there were many bad people in this world and some of the worst characters came from your own country who took advantage of your trust in them .

Nirmal was also a victim of such people once when his quick thinking wife saved him from disaster. A fellow came to the house claiming that he was my friend in Nigeria and wanted Nirmal to keep a package for the time being . His wife Sabita got suspicious when she heard the word Nigeria because she knew that I had never  been to Nigeria and said Nirmal should not accept the package.. Soon afterwards some plainclothes policemen appeared and asked if Nirmal knew this fellow .

They said that this fellow was a known drug trafficker and they were tailing him from Bombay to catch him red handed . It was a close call. So I learned my lessons and vowed not to trust foreigners implicitly and specially Indians. Many Indians tried illegal means to get a toe hold in a foreign country and were not afraid to do so. If they were caught and deported then they tried again somewhere else . It is the same as the Mexicans trying hard to enter the United States .

Such Indians were many and often dealt in loan sharking, black marketing and such to establish themselves .The locals disliked them and thought all Indians were like them which is unfortunate because such people tended to discredit their countrymen by their behavior.

No matter where you went ,people told you that they had heard of great poverty and misery in India . Why else they would come in such numbers and look for opportunities elsewhere ? They heard that millions of cows roamed the streets and poor people slept on the sidewalks in India. Part of it is true but India was not a starving country at all and was self sufficient in food production. It even exported food to other countries.

It was a giant in industrial production and emerging as a leader in technology in many fields with tremendous growth in the GDP but the image of India in the minds of common and ignorant people was negative thanks to western news media that harped on the negative and rarely on the positive side of any country . India was no exception but this would change later . At an annual growth rate of nearly 10%, the Indian economy was the fastest in Asia . The middle class counted in hundreds of millions and growing . But I am writing about  1974 when ignorance about India was widespread  and most Indians did not know anything about others.

Most people did not travel and lived within the narrow confines of ordinary lives .Within India , people did not know about how other people lived in other parts. I tried to share my experience with them but they showed little curiosity about other countries or people. They were not interested. They were only interested in themselves and their photos . A slide show on Japan or Algeria was boring to them but they showed great joy when their photos appeared .

People in India lived in isolation and cared little about the outside world. This has not changed a bit in 40 years since I left although the CNN and BBC comes to every home through cable TV now. My family was no exception . They bragged endlessly about how great India was and her independence from foreign domination. Often the most important question of the day was what to cook.

I felt alienated and kept quiet . My desire to share my experience with photos ,slides or other means slowly declined . The topic of weather or food  did not take more than a few minutes so my family remained ignorant .I could often talk to my German friend from Hamburg for hours  but at home silence prevailed  .

I slowly began to understand another dimension to it.  I felt that people who isolated themselves knowingly or unknowingly felt threatened when they encountered something alien like information, photos, music or anything that they identified as not their own .This defensive attitude was automatic and without reason so no one could argue with them. The sense of ethnocentrism was very very strong indeed.

Now the time had come to leave Hong Kong and move on so on a nice sunny day in July of 1974 I arrived in Manila . This visit to the Philippines was going to be like no other I ever made and very profound changes were about to take place in my life that I was not even aware of.

 

Note :  My blogs are also available in French, Spanish, German and Japanese  languages at the following links as well as my biography:

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Chapter five : Remember Djamila -Algeria -1971 -1973

88077f6d06b493ae64a9f3097355d875Remember Djamila  : Algeria- 1971 to 1973

Arriving at the Dar El Beida airport of Algiers one afternoon in September of 1971, I found the custom’s officer a bit paranoid about the things foreigners brought in to the country .He wanted to charge me hefty duty on my slide projector and the camera but Stephanie who was the country director of the IVS said that I should say ” pour déménagement”.

This was not working well but I slipped out quietly when the fellow was distracted by something or someone. Stephanie was a model  of efficiency, spoke French and Arabic and knew Maghreb well. I was the first agronomist to arrive so she was excited and chattered endlessly on about what the IVS could do in Algeria given the possibilities.  I listened on but did not pay much attention. I was curious to find out what happened in the next few days and most especially where I was supposed to be stationed.

In Washington, D.C. I was told that I will be posted in Setif which is an extensive wheat growing area in the eastern part of Algeria but my experience told me that on the ground things were often done differently.

So the next day we went to see the personnel officer at the Ministry of Agriculture in Algiers who turned out to be a mean fellow.. He ranted that the country will soon have its own agronomists and will not need any foreigners etc. It did not bode well for a person of my experience and education but the mood in the country seemed to be nasty and he was simply mouthing the unofficial line .

I began to wonder if I had not made a mistake to come to Algeria after all. They did not seem to be very friendly .But the deputy director of the ministry was more polished and probably a well traveled person. He received us warmly and said that it would be better for me to go to Tizi Ouzou in the Kabyle mountains not too far from Algiers. He felt that the isolation in Setif would be too hard on a bachelor like me .

So I went to Tizi Ouzou . It is about 100 km east of Algiers and very mountainous. It is a small town surrounded by hills and higher mountains that were always covered with snow in the winter .This is  a part of the Atlas mountain chain that sort of goes east to west. The southern side of the DjurDjura as the Algerians called it is the start of the massive desert of Sahara but the narrow land between the mountains and the coast was very fertile and green.

This is where winter wheat, barley, oats, corn and a variety of other crops were grown often with irrigation. In fact the agricultural land was in millions of hectares and certainly adequate for a small population of Algeria. I began to wonder at the wisdom of sending me to Tizi Ouzou where they mostly grew olives .I was to soon find out.

In Tizi Ouzou lived a couple called  Stan and Cathy Winters who taught English at the girl’s school .They were helpful in settling me in but in Tizi Ouzou it meant a dreary hotel room because there was a shortage of housing. They were staying at the French Foyer culturelle but I was put up elsewhere.

My office was just down the block where I was coolly received by my Algerian counterpart  and very warmly by a French fellow called Jean Claude .  Soon I met a Tunisian fellow who invited me to share his studio.

Stan and Cathy were in the meantime given a nice apartment but they forgot about me so I stayed on with Mohamed hoping that one day I too will have my own place. But this was not to be. The housing problem will dog me for a long long time in Algeria.

Mohamed was very fond of TV which he played until the station signed off so I had to pretend to sleep. I disliked the shrill Arabic music but I was just a guest .Had it not been for this kind fellow ,I would still be in that flea infested hotel room with peeling  paint so I put up with his TV and Arabic music .We did not talk much although my French had improved substantially .I was forced to speak French all the time because no one spoke English which made my progress more rapid.

There were a few shops with not much to sell and a few restaurants where the menu remained the same but it did not matter. I had lived in far worse places in Vietnam. Here at least I had a nice corner of a room to myself and the office was just a walking distance away. There were a few French cooperants who were doing their alternate service and a few other nationalities like Canadians, British, one Spanish, One Belgian and now one Indian. Algerians liked Indian or rather they liked Indian movies but there were no Indians in Algeria except perhaps at the embassy.

I liked the cold crisp mountain air of Tizi Ouzou and used to get up at 6 am,  put on my shorts, tennis shoes and gloves because it was so cold in the morning, run down 4 flight of stairs and down the valley where I practiced some calisthenics and other morning exercise. The Algerians watched but soon got used to this routine . Then I would buy a liter of milk, run upstairs and shower, eat a hearty breakfast and go to my office .It felt good and my hollow cheeks started to fill out.

I started going out with my counterpart in his tiny Renault 4 and got to know the province well in a short time but all I saw was mostly olives . Why did they send me here? I was a field agronomist in a mountain province. It did not make sense. The Algerians did whatever their ministry asked them to do. This turned out mostly to be collecting data by phone on how many barley fields  planted that week.

The province was divided into districts and each district had so many state run farms run by managers who depended on their supervisors who in turn depended on their laborers for ploughing, planting, harvesting etc. So when the agriculture office called the districts, they called the farm managers who then called the supervisors who told them that approximately so many hectares of wheat or barley were planted. The fact was that no one really knew so it was just a guess work.

At the office this data would be meticulously compiled to be sent to the Ministry every week .All the provinces in Algeria were required to do this every week tying up thousands of people in useless unproductive work .No one knew what the ministry did with this massive amount of data. The sheer stupidity of it all appalled me. But woe to you if your data were not ready when the Ministry called.  Everyone was scared of Algiers including the director whom they called patron.

There were many Bulgarians, Yugoslavs and few other east Europeans I never knew from where but these people were often seen with the patron rubbing their palms together and drooling. They tried to create the impression that they were working hard but when I went out with some of them due to car pooling, I found them  collecting anything they could get for free from the state farms . A crate of oranges, or roses that some farms grew were put in their cars.

They also told everyone that my travel stories were mostly made up and perhaps I had just passed through an airport to claim that I had visited a country. I never understood their meanness as they never spoke to me and try to get to know me. I never reported their scavenging either. In my spare time I practiced my French with Jean Claude or read my lessons but one day someone stole my French lesson book that Nicole had given me.

The loss was great as I could not buy that book anywhere but my French improved dramatically with Jean Claude as my de facto teacher. I could now read, write and speak French perhaps not like a Frenchman but better than an Indian. But more and more I was getting disenchanted. Sure I made a lot of friends among the foreigners and a few Algerians and sure the climate was nice and grapes cheap but I was an agronomist in this mountain province where they grew olives and little bit of wheat and barley.

People did not care if we did nothing so most people did nothing and read news paper when the Patron was not around. He would often ask why the so called experts did not know the answer to this problem or that while the government was paying them a good salary. The East Europeans would grin and try to hide their embarrassment .I began to form a low opinion of them.

One day the Tizi Ouzou sports council organized a cross country run of several kilometers .There were many professional athletes who came to run so when I showed up to join, they thought I was great runner from India.

I warmed up with a lot of calisthenics and started to run along with a crowd of runners. Soon they all left me behind but I continued on determined to finish the race no matter what. I followed the flags and ran through the mud and water because it really was a cross country run.

The whole town had lined up on both sides of the only street to watch the show and they applauded heartily when I returned last panting and nearly exhausted.  The next morning some of my French friends who had watched the tail end of the show congratulated me being the first to get in. Why would the Algerians applaud if I was not?  Apparently they did not understand the Arab sense of humour.

I was from then on eagerly sought whenever there was a cross country race organized anywhere .I enjoyed this sort of physical activity that I had never done before .People were amazed to know that I had never run before I took up cross country racing but I often did things like that and enjoyed doing it.

One day I received a summon from the police in Algiers to report to them although I did not know why. Stephanie and I went to find out. It turned out that they did not like the Vietnamese stamps on my passport and wanted to know what I was doing there. I said that I was a volunteer agronomist there so they said ” Thank you . you may go” . It was silly. I had traveled 200 kilometers just for a one minute interview but they did not care.

Policemen in Algeria were arrogant and were rough with the locals. Even with the foreigners, at times they were rude and often stopped me on the road in a discourteous  manner simply to ask where I was from but people were not bad .Some of them were actually very nice to me.

I at this time started to plan on how to get out of Tizi Ouzou so I wrote a letter to the Ministry to ask for a transfer to an area where rice was grown. I had a lot of experience  in rice research and could be useful to them. To my surprise they agreed and after six months in Tizi Ouzou, I was transferred to Mostaganem province in the west where a great deal of rice was grown. Stephanie was happy because usually the Ministry did not listen to anyone.

Suzanne wrote more and more infrequently now although I counted the days for her letters. I invited her to Algeria and would have wired her a ticket but she wrote that she was busy with the mobile unit of the anti war protest team visiting many places. She could not come but promised to write more often. The letters became rare and one day stopped all together. I knew then that the chapter of Suzanne was closed forever.

I was soon to leave Tizi Ouzou but I had liked the snow capped mountains of Fort National and Azazga. I even went to a Berber marriage in the mountains where smart Berber girls who wore no veils but short skirts invited me to dance with them  . Berbers are not Arabs and have their distinct culture and language apart from the rest. They are a very handsome people and wear long white djellabas of finest camel wool .It looked very elegant on them and quite warm.

But the poverty was also apparent. They lived in a mountainous country where there was little hope for jobs because agriculture was limited. Sure it was very scenic where you could look at the Roman ruins and the blue ocean beyond but such scenery was not enough for people who looked at them all the time and did not have the same fascination  as the foreigners. They had other pressing needs like schools, housing, electricity, potable water, roads, dispensaries and clinics and mostly jobs.

Thousands had immigrated to France to work in their sweatshops to send home money and more were going. The exodus was great from these beautiful hills where young were few and old many.

One could see the wrecks of planes and tanks wedged in the ravines to remind you that only 9 years ago they had fought a devastating war that had claimed a million lives of Algerian men, women and even children. The film ” Bataille d’Alger” is worth seeing .

When I said that I knew the story of Djamila Boupacha ,they were surprised but Djamila was greatly admired in India for her bravery and articles on her appeared in popular magazines in vernacular. She was an 18 year old lass who had fought against the French occupation and was tortured  by the French secret police. Algerians had fought the French tooth and nail and paid a heavy price for it.  Now I began to understand their reluctance to talk about the past.

To understand Algeria better , one has to know its bloody history. The war lasted from 1954 to 1962 and was as brutal as any war can be. The French had just been booted out by the Vietnamese after their defeat at Dien Bien Phu so they were adamant that they as a nation will not be humiliated again, not by some fellahins whom they disdained. Algeria was not a colony. It was a part of France or a department as they called it. It was French soil so they were not about to turn around and leave. It could have a domino effect and people in Martinique or Polynesia or elsewhere could start getting the idea. They could not handle that .

So they killed the Algerians at will and tortured them. They blew up their homes in Casbah and all over Algeria. There were many Djamilas whom they raped and tortured but the brave Algerians fought on tooth and nails and paid a very high price . The guerilla leaders like Boumedienne, Ben Bella, Bouteflika and others led the fight and millions joined. It was the first time in their history that the women threw away their veils and grabbed the guns to fight along with their men.

But it must have been very rough for many and I wondered if that lame man was born like that or was he tortured ? There were many telltale signs all around you. It made them edgy and somewhat secretive. The scars were raw and not properly healed yet but all over Algeria one could see the past or what remained of the past. The abandoned villas of the French colons or pieds noirs were everywhere often used as warehouses.One could still see the blown up houses in Casbah in Algiers .

But they did not hate the French now. Cooperants like Jean Claude came to Algeria to do their alternate service. They were the nicest French people I would meet anywhere .

When de Gaulle started the talk of Algerian Independence, the disgruntled army officers plotted to kill him and nearly succeeded. The Day of the Jackal written by Forsythe is worth reading . France had fought bitterly during the world war and was occupied by the Nazis. They fought long and hard to keep Vietnam as their colony and source of rubber and minerals but were defeated. Now there was this problem in Algeria but de Gaulle was wise and he correctly read the mood in France .

When people read the account of Djamilla Boupacha and how the French police has beaten and tortured her for days, the public opinion went against the occupation and the pressure mounted on de Gaulle to do something .The rest is history.

I had arrived barely 9 years after the war ended and they gained their freedom but I could see that the wound was still raw and people edgy.

We too had fought a long and bitter war against the British since 1857 but the Algerians did not know anything about India except that the movie actresses were always pretty with white skin. They liked Indian movies that had kings and queens, romance, fights and clowns ,lots of songs and dances and wondered aloud why I never went to see any. They also called all Indians Hindou which I explained was incorrect. Not all Indians were Hindus but they had learned it from the French .

At about this time just before I was about to leave for Mostaganem, Stan and Cathy invited me to their all girls’ school where the girls were presenting an evening of songs and dances. I shaved clean and put on my suit with a matching tie and showed up at the school.

This was my first experience to meet with the Algerian girls in close quarters because in town you could see only their veils and not the faces. I had arrived a bit late. The show had already started and the auditorium dark but the usherettes noticed me just the same ,took my hand and guided me through the narrow passage to the very front row where some girls were pinched and pushed aside to make room for me.

Now the girls noticed that there was a stranger dressed in a dark suit and started whispering .Soon there was a scuffle among them to decide who would get to sit next to me. I was nervous and waited to see what happened next. I did not have to wait long. Soon a pretty girl appeared and with a triumphant smile secured the next seat and whispered into my ears that she was going to be my official interpreter . The skits were in Arabic.

She also said that she knew where I lived and worked and perhaps I was an Ingenieur . I realized how small Tizi Ouzou really was.

Other girls pinched her to get away but she held her seat while I watched from the corner of my eyes ,this sideshow. I do not remember the name of my self appointed interpreter but she spoke beautiful French and explained what was going on . Stan and Cathy were nowhere to be found.

Then the intermission lights came on and 800 teenagers noticed that indeed there was a Hindou among them whom some of them had seen elsewhere. This news was catastrophic for me . Literally I was mobbed and many surrounded me chattering and pushing or shoving each other.

Now mind you ,in an all girl’s school like that they only saw their male teachers .They were not allowed to be seen with boys on the street or even their brothers lest someone misunderstand . But here they were in their elements , in their own domain or world where they did whatever pleased them. These girls were really wild and I began to be afraid of them.

They asked if I was married . When I replied “No I was single” they misunderstood me and shrieked in unison ” Oh monsieur you are a singer? Please sing for us” and started dragging me to the stage.

I was in big trouble and looked for help but luckily at this time the lights went out and the show resumed. But the girls seemed to be more interested in me than the show and waited for the show to end . I dreaded the show to end because I did not know what was in store for me or how I could escape now.  Finally the evening was over and I got up in a hurry to take the wrong corridor to the squeals of laughter but they were not through with me yet.

A girl and a very pretty one at that introduced herself as Oultache and wanted my address in Mostaganem so I wrote it down and quickly left the premises .Outside I found Stan and Cathy waiting and smiling. They had seen what had happened .

One day I arrived in Algiers to meet Stephanie who would drive me to Mostaganem . It was some 400 km west of Algiers but the road was excellent. It was a bigger town and on the coast .The nearest big city was Oran further west and some 80 kms away. Mostaganem was flat unlike Tizi Ouzou and the beaches were lovely. But first I had to find a place to stay.

There was an American English teacher who let me stay with him but he turned out to be on drugs. The Algerian authorities did not like this and tended to come down hard on drug users . I was very uncomfortable and started to look for an alternative desperately . The help came from a Yugoslav fellow in my office who said that a room was for rent in the house where he lived. He lived in an Algerian home where I thought women were secluded and foreigners not allowed but I was wrong.

In the house the women wore short skirts showing a good deal of their legs and other parts as well but that did not bother me. What nauseated me was the squealing kids or crying kids I could never tell which doing their toilet on the floor anywhere they liked. Their mothers cleaned up only once a day.

I had to always look down because I never knew what I was going to step on and  millions of flies attracted to the feast made life very difficult indeed for me. I could not go to the roof  because  a fat neighbor thought that I was looking at his ugly wife although why would anyone look at ugly women perhaps never occurred to him . Again I started to look for a place of my own. But I was in for more miserable months ahead.

This time a place was found for me in the dressing room of the local stadium where the janitor let me stay but his son broke in and stole most of my money and ransacked the suitcase. But it was not an airtight case so the son got off scot free while I started again my search . In desperation I went to the housing office and said that it was not fair that I did not have an apartment while others lived comfortably.

The officer showed sympathy but said that nothing was available that would suit me. I wish I could show him my dressing room or the other room full of flies and said that I must have my own place. Finally he gave me the keys to an apartment saying that it was substandard but I could go and take a look if I wished.  The apartment turned out to be a studio with a long room, one nice bedroom, kitchen and a small bathroom fitted with hot and cold shower. One whole wall was made of glass and overlooked the green vineyards and the ocean beyond. This was paradise .

Now that my housing problem was solved ,I turned my attention to another problem no less vexing. It was the problem of transportation. The office did not have enough vehicles for all the ingenieurs so often I could not go out to work in distant locations .Car pooling  helped somewhat but not much.

So I asked the IVS to buy me a motorbike . It was a  big black and red and chrome beautiful MZ bike made in East Germany .  I loved it. I also got black leather jacket, helmet, leather gloves and goggles to go with it and would zoom past amused Algerians . Algerians did not like motorbikes and told me that I will fall down, catch pneumonia, it was not fashionable, it was not suitable for an ingenieur etc. etc. but it really did not matter. The kids loved my bike and always clapped their hands whenever I passed through their villages. Only the gendarmes rode motorbikes in Algeria.

I started to work earnestly and covered vast distances on my bike . My work at this time included rice research in the Oued Rhiou area, soybean, forage crops like trudan and fertilizer trials in Mascara and other districts.

The deputy director appreciated my efforts and asked me if I could oversee the aerial fertilization program in the Mascara district. The vast state owned farms of wheat and barley had to be fertilized from air using Antonov planes so I used to go very early before sunrise during  the winter and supervise loading the hoppers with Urea . Then  the pilot flew in between two flags on the ground .

To prevent catching pneumonia I covered my breast with thick newspaper  before putting on the jacket but still could feel the cold. The winter is very rough there . Once I fell off my bike in a village on the road to Mascara because my fingers had become numb . I could have fallen into the deep lake off those sheer mountain roads to Mascara but I guess I was lucky . The deputy director sent me gas coupons for my bike but some of my colleagues pocketed some of it . Still the work was good and satisfying. I obtained excellent result sowing pre germinated rice seeds using a seed drill.  The fertilizer trials were also doing well.

 

Soon the time came for me to go on a vacation. I opted for a ship to take me to Marseille and from there to  Paris. I had heard that one could get cheaper airfares from there to many places  . My French cooperant  friend Yves brought me to Oran one day where my misadventure was to begin shortly. This was my first sea journey but little did I know what was in store for me.

The ship looked very old and rusty like a slave ship. It did not look very seaworthy but they were loading cars and people so finally I got on and found an easy chair on the deck. It soon left the port of Oran with sea gulls following us quite a ways . I watched the blue water and the receding shore line while one Algerian fellow started lambasting the government that kept everyone amused for a while .

Late at night the ship started rolling and pitching in a such a way that made me very sick . We all went down and tried to get into a comfortable position but it was useless . The rolling continued and I soon became very sick vomiting . There was no water to clean myself so you can imagine the misery. I knew I had made a big mistake but I could not get off now so tried to endure it with gritting teeth until we came to Alicante in Spain.

I jumped out to get fresh air and some water but dreaded the rest of the journey that was to last whole night .It was a nightmare . The next day when we arrived in the port of Marseille, I had no energy to stand up. The custom’s officer rubbed salt on the wound by saying that my luggage looked like the airline luggage . He also  asked a nurse to give me a white powder that she poured into my mouth and gave me a glass of water. I felt better after some time and vowed never to board a ship again.

The French trains are fast and comfortable although a bit expensive but then everything in Europe is expensive compared to India. I did not mind. The night train zipped past Dizon and other cities and arrived in Paris the next day. I had been to Paris a few times before and knew the city reasonably well. The Metro was old but reliable and had a route map near the entrance that lit up when you pressed the button of your destination and showed where to change the train. It was very ingenious.

The travel agent at the Place de le Danfert Rochreau told me that I could fly to Delhi and back for half the regular fare .The catch was that you could not choose the date and time or the airline .I did not mind . I had also to be a member of a flying club for at least six months but the kids who ran the outfit  were very street smart. They produced a certificate for me back dated six months and voila I was a standing member of a dubious club. It was hilarious . Soon they called me and said that I was to report to the Le Bourget airport in the evening for a flight to Delhi.

I was happy and finally going home but at the airport there was a surprise. The flight had been cancelled and would leave the next day. I did not know if it was a con job so I went again the next day and found a gleaming Iraqi jet getting ready to take off. I was to pass through Baghdad but that did not matter. In the air I asked for the real reason for the cancellation of the flight the previous day and was told that the Israelis were bombing over Syria so the pilot did not like to take any chances .

The Baghdad airport lounge was full of black burka clad women reminding you that you were passing through an Islamic country. I lived in Algeria but there the women wore white shiny silky veil that looked quite nice. Here it was all black and like a tent with two peepholes. Anyway I got back to the plane in a hurry and the rest of the journey was not very remarkable.

When I flew back to Paris , I went to the shipping company office and said that it was a shame they operated the rust buckets like the one I took the last time and there was no way I was going back to Algeria in that slave ship. They said that I was in luck and could take the most  modern ship called El Djejair back to Algiers . The  ship was to leave the next day so I rushed to the Gare de Lyon with only a few minutes to spare and got on a train to Marseille in the nick of time. But the train was a sleeper train where a reservation was required .

Soon a young chap showed up and said that I had got on the wrong train. Well wrong or not I was not about to get off. The  Istanbul train ride had taught me a few lessons so I said that he should look for a sleeping berth for me . In France it helps a lot if you speak French.Sure enough  he came back a bit later and said that a berth for monsieur has been found and would cost me an extra 18 francs. No problem.

The French girl in the lower berth  and I talked for long hours until the sleep came . She started shaking me early in the morning and saying Monsieur Monsieur  Get up please. Your station is coming soon .

The taximen in Marseille  are not so nice as the ones you find in Paris because they are mostly Corsicans and look like they on parole and probably are. Their meter never works when they spot a foreigner and charge whatever takes their fancy . You could not ask the policemen to intervene so I paid the fare and got to the port. Marseille is a tough town. You have to look like a Corsican to live there or an Arab. They don’t mess with the Arabs because many carry knives .

This time I was not disappointed .The ship was huge and gleaming white. They gave me a nice bed with clean sheets and blankets so I was very happy. The ocean crossing this time was quite uneventful so to speak. I was not really ready for any “events”.

I had worked in the Mascara region very hard during the winter and gained the confidence of the deputy director but my real interest was rice so I moved to a village called Oued Rhiou 100 km east of Mostaganem where I found a storage room for fertilizer on a farm as my temporary shelter. But the farm manager called Mohamed said that it was not right for an ingenieur to live in a storage depot and insisted that I move in with him.

It was very kind of him and he really was a very nice person. It was also very rare for a foreigner to be invited to live with a family but he called me his brother and welcomed me. His young wife was very pleased when I took some photos of her with the baby with my zoom lens and gave her some copies. The photos were very good thanks to my good camera . The work on rice progressed well and I spent a very productive time there

The pre germinated rice seeds planted with a seed drill came up nicely and a mechanical weeder could be used in between rows instead of herbicide. The work on soybean, forage grass and corn also progressed well. The French professors of the Institut Technologique Agricole or ITA of Mostaganem came out one day to photograph the plants in my research plots to use them as teaching materials . I felt professionally satisfied but an Angolan fellow in Tlemcen was not . He had a lot of trouble with his counterparts so one day I decided to see him. My big bike could take me anywhere in Algeria.

The gendarmes often stopped me on the road because it was very rare for them to see an Algerian in a djellaba riding a big red and black motorbike so they stopped me to check my papers. Imagine their surprise when the djellaba clad rider turned out to be a Hindou speaking French. They would laugh and send me on my way and often would salute me zipping past.

Tlemcen is near the Moroccan border and a small town where my Angolan friend was having such a hard time . So I gave him a few ideas that he took seriously and stayed on to complete his tour of duty.

The work I enjoyed most was working with private farmers .In Algeria the private farmers were doomed. The state acquired the best land everywhere leaving the fellahins the unwanted poor land  where they planted  wheat, barley or other crops.  But my heart went out for them because they so appreciated any help I could give them in their agriculture.

The government mostly ignored them but I started working with an FAO expert who was working with the private farmers in Mascara and helping with the fertilizer trials. I often worked  very late in the field with the farmers who realizing that I had not eaten the whole day brought bread and olives or invited me to share their couscous .Often they would put some eggs in the  hood of my camel hair djellaba that I always wore.

I loved these simple folks .They were proud people who did not accept favors easily . They lived in mud houses and wore tattered clothes and plastic shoes full of patches but they were the nicest people I ever met.

The land reform program of the government was heavily against these poor people because their policy was to continue to expand the state owned farms due to their socialistic policies.  Many such displaced farmers ended up working as laborers in the state owned farms but there was a fierce opposition building up that resulted in one attempt at bombing the ministry in Algiers. The bomb did not cause much damage and its coverage by the state controlled TV and radio was minimal but people knew through the grapevine.  While on the subject let me write about the state of Algerian agriculture at that time.

The state owned farms were huge meaning one farm could be of a few thousand hectares .Many millions of hectares  of vineyards were being uprooted to plant wheat because Algerians did not drink wine so there was no market for it. Most of the wine was exported to France where they mixed the stronger Algerian wine to blend theirs and I often saw the Russian ships in Mostaganem that loaded up wine and oranges .In exchange they gave tractors or other farm machinery so the barter worked well.

But the Algerians discarded expensive farm machinery that broke down for the want of a simple part. Often they ordered wrong tire size for their tractors or wrong parts . So the result was that their machines were in sorry shape often held together with bailing wires or ropes. One could see huge piles of discarded farm equipment in massive junkyards outside the towns. Clearly this was a tremendous waste of resources but no one cared. Earlier I had written how the ministry tied up thousands of people collecting useless data on how many hectares of wheat was planted each week.

The grains harvested were often stored in conditions where they spoiled or rats infested the warehouses . In this country of a small population and so much agricultural land ,they wasted tremendous resources . The agricultural offices employed thousands of technicians who rarely went out to solve problems because they were ill trained to do so. The few Russian made Fiats cars the office provided were inadequate and often had  problems of overheating .

But there was also tremendous progress towards public housing, rural electrification and roads. I was told that they were building a school room every five minutes nationwide. One could see this progress everywhere. The roads were excellent and the bus and train service very good.

People wore plastic or rubber boots but everyone had shoes of some sort. Fruits and vegetables were plentiful in the market and prices low. Obviously some government departments were doing a good job but the agriculture ministry was not one of them.

The ITA in Mostaganem trained the future agronomists but my French friends teaching there complained that the students were not very much into learning and some very cocky and  boastful because their jobs were assured. The personnel officer at the Ministry in Algiers had made it very clear that soon they will get their own people to run the agriculture and will not need the foreigners any more.

The small town of Mostaganem was I suppose like any other where everything shut down after 6 pm and where the favorite pastime for men was to go to small cafes and drink very sweet mint tea . The overwhelming body odor and stinky cigarettes smoke was enough to deter anyone to enter those cafes .It certainly deterred me. Besides I did not like sweet mint tea .

But there was very little else to do unless one counted the endless Brigitte Bardot or Louis de Funes movies or the awful Italian cow boy movies . This changed when there was an Indian movie. Then the crowd fought with the police to get in such was their ardor for the Indian movies. I stayed home. Our pick up van passed each morning by the posters and one could hear all the oohs and aahs whenever Brigitte Bardot or BB movies were shown. I found BB boring but the Algerians did not agree. She was the sex symbol.

I also observed a curious phenomenon . Sometimes there would be these people going around a particular block in town wailing at the top of their voices. I was told that they were the professional wailers that one could hire if wailers were in short supply . These people worked extra hard to prove their worth . I pitied the people who lived in that block.

Many  Algerians went to sauna once a week so every town worth its name had a sauna or two. Curious as I was , once  I ventured into one and found a steam room full of people some of whom were getting a massage and others simply sitting around. Now a sauna in Asia is usually associated with massage girls who often did more than massage but  here in Algeria it was not so. Here people went to sauna to get a good cleaning . So I roasted myself in one corner in the steam room and came out but a masseur wrapped me in huge towels head to foot and asked me to lie down.

One could get very sick indeed  coming out in the open without first bringing down the body temperature so the Algerian knew what he was doing. The sauna was reserved for  Women always on Fridays.

The French cooperants in Mostaganem were a delightful lot and many became my good friends . Yves used to pick me up at my office often .He lived on a hill and the winding stairs brought you down to the most exquisite small beach one can imagine where I could swim in the azure blue ocean.

There were many such beaches but never very crowded .The Algerian life guards patrolled in motor boats and stopped anyone going out too far .

We often caught baby octopi that squirted ink when scared and spear fishing was also fun but simply lazing in the sun on the white sand with warm water lapping at you was like being in the paradise . Yves and his friends also made meshui which is slowly roasting a lamb on charcoal fire. I did not mind the smoke and the hard work to turn the lamb and sprinkle salt water on it because it was so much fun. Later we would dance to some cassette music and drink the red Algerian wine until the wee hours on the terrace overlooking the blue and later dark Mediterranean . French women were never too far whenever there were French men to liven up the party.

Yves was fond of me and I genuinely liked him.  We kept up correspondence for over thirty years . He lives now in Limoges  with his wife and kids .  He once invited me to go with him to Constantine and at another time to look for prehistoric sites in Fronda . He loved adventure and once went in his 2 CV to a very remote part of Sahara and got stuck . I was not so daring so took a bus to Ghardaiia which is a desert town . I will tell you the Ghardaiia story a bit later .

In El Asnam lived a Quebecois called Louis who was very fond of riding my motorbike . Once we went to Oran where we ran into some Algerian girls .The invited us to a couscous party but we did not go I do not know why. We really did not want to have anything to do with Algerian girls because they did not invite you to their homes and those who did were not the right people . Oultache would prove to be different so perhaps she was an exception. Correction. Oultache was an exception.

She kept writing to me and our night watchman would always smell the envelope before handing it to me with a wink . She said that she was now studying in Algiers and would like to see me again. Once I sent her a telegram saying that I will meet her in front of the Grande Poste in Algiers so she came and was about to leave when she looked at me again. I was  in my djellaba with a hood over my head so looked like any Algerian. Then her eyes lit up with recognition   .

She had grown taller and more alluring than I  remembered and had in tow the same small girl I had met in Tizi Ouzou except that she was not so small now. Oultache did not wear veil and looked like any French girl out on a date. She again invited me to meet her parents who were very educated people but I never found the time or the opportunity to do so. Oultache was a very sweet girl but I regretted that we lived so far from each other .How often I could go to Algiers? Her last letter to me was in India when she wrote that she may go to France. I have very fond memories of Oultache .

I often visited  Louis in El Asnam and got to know many French Canadians and French cooperants there. A  French girl I will call Christine was one of them. She always managed to sit near me or look at me when she thought no one was looking. Louis said the she did nothing else one evening and perhaps wanted to be my friend. It was a strange way to develop friendship. All she had to do was to ask my name and shake hands which she later did.

I once told her that I found it to be boring to repeat my life story to every Tom ,Dick or Jane and should perhaps carry a tape recorder and just play the tape.  We never became good friends.

However, closer at home I had many friends among the French residents of Mostaganem. Near my apartment lived  Pierre and Monique who always looked for me if I did not see them for a few days. Once Monique came over to find me with fever and nursed me back to health . No one else would have cared. Certainly not the Algerian neighbors. Living alone had its disadvantages .

Another couple  who lived nearby were also very good to me and always invited me to their place. We would sit with some scotch and listen to Jean Ferrat or discuss the problems of the whole world including that of Algeria of course. Christian worked in our office and was always ready to help anyway he could like the time a friend broke down outside the town and had to be towed to a garage. The Bulgarian chap in our office refused but Christian came right away and brought my friend and his car to town.

I never could understand the East Europeans . They were shameless and would ask me for dollars but never helped in any way.

Near Oran lived  an American fellow called  John  in a magnificent villa named Clos Veronique. He was a funny fellow who would often wrap his arm around a gendarme and talk him out of giving him a ticket. John liked to invite young people to his villa for elaborate parties complete with square dance and good food. His English wife told us while we were sipping tea at breakfast one day that John was quite a prankster during his bachelor days in England where he once made a cardboard fin , stuck it into the river and took a photo saying that he had spotted a dinosaur.

This hoax spread far and wide in England  until it reached the Royal Society of this or that so some experts started to take the fin rather seriously and set up a vigil in case the dinosaur decided to show up again. The monster didn’t but its giant footprints were seen on the riverbanks confirming John’s story until some reporters got a bit suspicious and followed the trace to John’s dormitory where they found the cardboard and plastic contraption.

The funny part was that even after the hoax was revealed, some village folks were seeing the monster or hearing it breathing down their necks for weeks.

John, Yves and I had one thing in common .We often talked about the mess in Algeria where often in the name of development, huge sums of money were squandered by the ministry of agriculture. The harvests were poor in spite of massive mechanization, fertilizer and many new wheat varieties Dr.Norman Borlaug had brought from Mexico because the soil was poorly prepared by ill trained tractor operators ,seeds planted at wrong depth or the fertilizer applied at the wrong time .

I had earlier written about the colossal waste of manpower in collecting useless data  but there were many such examples. The system did not permit any meaningful change and initiatives were ignored. The agricultural director of the province had the most boring and thankless job of holding office when the state of agriculture was in such a dire shape and he  unable to move people to do something about it . They were stickler for the forms and one could not go  anywhere without the “ordre de mission” that had to be signed, stamped and entered in a log book .

I also found out that the Ministry was substantially underpaying me although I had a Master’s degree so I started writing to them and demand a remedy. After almost 18 months they agreed and said that all my back pay will be paid to me .This was only partially true because Tizi Ouzou ignored this directive. Still partial justice was better than no justice so I waited.

My  vacation was not going to France in that slave ship I had written earlier about but to Italy. I was taking some time off and travel light which meant just my backpack and a camera. At the airport the officers smiled and said that I was indeed a light traveler but I did not want to carry heavy luggage to spoil the vacation.

In Rome I found my way to the international youth hostel near the Tiber river but the hostel was overflowing. Summertime was the time for travel in Europe so thousands of  young people hitchhiked or traveled by train across Europe and many stayed at the youth hostels. But at the hostel they could not keep a close watch so I sneaked in ,took a bath and ate in the cafeteria and

went out to spread my sleeping bag on the hill near the hostel. Only the shower part was illegal but I did not feel too bad about it.

It so happened that I was not the only one who did not find a place in the hostel that night. There were four girls I do not remember from where in the same predicament so they too spread their sleeping bags near me hoping that I will be their protector from bad Italians. The poor girls sat up very late when I went off for a walk and said I should not leave them there but I was really not their chaperon .They could take care of themselves.

But Rome is full of crazy people .All you have to do is to go to Piazza Espania where you could see the amalgam of derelicts some on drugs, some peddling contrabands and others busy kissing Rodin style  totally oblivious to others . No one really cared a great deal. The Carabinieri or the local police chased them off but they were like sparrows that could not be kept away from the wheat field. Usually they posted a look out for the police and whistled if trouble was on its way. You never saw people pack their wares so fast and disappear . A few wares that fell off were collected minutes later because there was a camaraderie among these people that the police could not break.

Then there were the ubiquitous Japanese with their cameras ,giggling and snapping photos of overflowing gutters or the casanovas. They always traveled in  groups with flags and a guide who often read from the travel book aloud while the group gawked and photographed furiously. Be a Roman in Rome but that meant crossing the streets anywhere en masse while the Italian drivers in their miniscule Fiats honked and screeched their tires shouting insults to the crazy foreigners but the Japanese just smiled.

I went around holding my camera tightly because there were many thieves in Rome . You had to be particularly wary of the gypsy women near Termini who would often bare their breasts to distract you while their urchins picked your pockets . They had many such tricks up their sleeves .One was the ketchup trick when a woman would “accidentally” spill some ketchup on you and try to clean it up while the kids worked your pockets.

One day I found the strap of my camera cut with a sharp razor blade but not all the way through. I was lucky .They did that sort of thing in the buses, catch the camera and get off while you looked and could do nothing.

The youth hostel was cheap and clean. I was given a membership card for five dollars which allowed me to stay at any youth hostel in Italy. There were many nationalities but it became a joke that the Dutch girls were always  from Utrecht and every German was called Heidi or Wolfgang .Two of them noticed me and said hello so I said hello and nothing more.

I had miles of museums to see and catacombs to explore so I started on my own . The Vatican museum, the Vorghese  garden and museum, Colliseum, Caracalla baths and Roman forum were all visited .I saw a place full of skulls and bones that were artfully arranged by the monks but grotesque just the same. The catacombs near via Appia outside Rome were not something to rave about either but I saw them all. Often photography was not allowed in some places but I suspected commercial reasons behind it.

The funny part was the youth hostel itself where one could sit all day on the wide steps and exchange information with the Heidis or Wolfgangs. Often such exchange paid off and you learned of a cheap but good restaurant or a place to stay in Florence. Girls sat brushing their hair or scribbled the new information in their little book and the boys sat around trying to figure out which girl could be the companion for the day. In Italy it was important to have a female companion on the road otherwise one never got a free ride.

The trick was to post the girl at a strategic location and hang back. As soon as a car stopped ,you showed up.  A girl could stop a car lot faster than a boy specially if she was dressed for the part. This meant tight skirts and blouse that the girls learned to unbutton a bit .

I used to just sit and watch  the show because I did not need a female companion. I had purchased a 3000 km train ticket at a discount and could travel anywhere in Italy. They  gave you a booklet and the conductor deducted the kilometers from the 3000 km credit until it ran out. It was a very good system that freed you from buying ticket each time.

Now at the youth hostel you could always see the Italians with unbuttoned shirts showing their huge gold cross and  an unlit cigarette dangling from their lips. They never carried matches and went up to the girls and  said “you have fire ” ? If the girl was smoking, she would hand over her lighter but it really did not matter whether she had “fire” or not. It was the ruse the Italian casanovas used to start a conversation .

It often worked like this. These  Italians always worked hard at girls. They were not interested in boys. So they used the “you have fire” trick a lot but there were other tricks as well. They tried to make out with girls by asking them if they were interested in seeing Rome that only they could show.

They had  motorbikes and could show all the interesting places. Usually the girls said “No thank you ” but once in a while there was one who went with them.  But a firm no did not often dissuade these pests.

If nothing worked and the girl started brushing her hair again then they would pull out folded plastic sheets full of cheap slides or post cards that they offered at a very special price. Fake Rayban, watches small souvenirs etc. were numerous items they could produce at the drop of a hat.

They did not quit easily but eventually wandered off to try the same game all over again . I enjoyed these shows and said to the Dutch girl that the fellow approaching her will ask for ” fire” . She said that she had been approached already but to the Italians these north Europeans maybe looked alike .

My first stop was Sienna which was an old town full of interest and worth visiting. I came from a country where old meant several thousand years old but this was Europe where two hundred years was very old. Nevertheless, Sienna did not disappoint me . It was a medieval town built in a haphazard way but had a church with zebra stripes that I had never seen before  and a very good museum.

The center of the town had a plaza and a fountain where in ancient times , boys fooled around and got killed in sword fights over girls

but now the square was empty save for a few Palestinians who found me a trottoria to stay in . The trottorias in Italy are cheap boarding houses where the mamasans are a bit strict about the hours but otherwise ok.

I stayed in Sienna and looked at the art galleries or just sat around in the open air cafes sipping beer and soaking up the sun. From Sienna I went up to Verona where a crowd in front of a drab looking house told me that it was the house of Juliet whom Romeo found so attractive. There were I suppose the Romeos and Juliets in all ages except that perhaps the style has changed a bit . Now the Romeos ask for “fire” .

I then went up to Bolzano near the Swiss Alps where most people spoke German and where Dolomites are famous . It is a pretty place full of mountains, vineyards and ruins of what looked like fortifications and towers from ancient times  .  Then the next stop was Florence or Firenze . The youth hostel in Florence is very nice sitting in the middle of acres of garden outside the town and had electric doors like in banks. The two Dutch girls I had met in Rome were here as well and said hello again.

Together we saw a lot of museums, Boticelli’s venus and Michael Angelo’s sculptures like David  that stood naked in one of the plazas. The girls giggled at his nakedness but the birds were indifferent and pooped all over his head and shoulders that no one bothered to clean.

Tired from looking at endless art galleries, we often sat in parks watching the  tourist buses pull in with loads of old people. Judging from their Kodak instamatic and dangling chains ,they were probably Americans but there were many nationalities .This was the tourists season after all.

The Dutch girl was from Utrecht and told me that she was going to Switzerland to be a nurse. In India girls from good families did not become nurses as Indians looked down upon this profession but in Europe it was just like any other profession. She was surprised but then the Indians had many hang ups ingrained in their culture that she did not know about.

Florence is also known for its gold jewelries, leather goods and many other things to lighten the wallet but the rule is to always bargain. Drop the price by half and just walk away. They will soon catch up with you.

In Venice I met the same Dutch girls and asked if they were following me all over Italy. They just laughed and said that in fact they were leaving that day and forgot to pick up a bag full of clothes at the hostel . Could I please please pick them up and leave a note ? The receptionist asked me what was in the bag and handed it to me with a knowing smile .It was some bikinis and bras  that the Dutch girls had left behind and could not go to the beach without .  They were not that liberated.

Venice in summer overflows with tourists . They ride in gondolas, sip beer in the open air cafes and swarm through the souvenir shops that sell cheap glass works and other tourist paraphernalia. The Piazza San Marcos is where they all gather and revel at the filthy canals and Italians singing bawdy songs pushing their gondolas . The cafes hire American girls to sing to attract American tourists .  The vagabonds abound as well who spread their  open guitar cases to get a few coins and the artists sit by the canals to draw charcoal pictures for a fee .

But on the whole Venice is quite nice where there is no traffic and one can walk around the narrow alleys or just sit and sip beer in numerous cafes. Just don’t mind the smell of sewage that the Italians dump into the canals. It is part of the charm of Venice.

My next stop was Naples where the youth hostel was near the famous bay and you could see the hydrofoils plying to Capri all day long . The Vesuvius in the distance reminded you that it was an active volcano that had buried the town of Pompeii nearby so one day a whole bunch of us trooped to Pompeii. Luckily Pompeii was closed that day so a look out was planted while we helped each other  up the wall to jump inside. We had the whole town to ourselves which was great fun.

The plaster cast of bodies found under the ashes and a chained dog that tried in vain to get away were a few of the ghastly exhibits we saw but the mosaic works in some of the houses were interesting . The Hercularium next door had a huge amphitheater  .

Near Naples is Paestum full of ruins so this time I had to have a companion to find a free ride. An Irish girl obliged and together we explored the endless  broken pillars of buildings without roof . Now that I had seen enough ruins to last a lifetime, I headed off towards Sicily .

At the Reggio the ship takes the entire train to the port of Messina where the train slides back on track effortlessly . But my destination was Mt.Etna so I went first to Catania from where a bus took me to Etna. It is the most active volcano in Europe and erupts from time to time devastating the villages but the Italians did not care. They put  up hamburger stands right up the slope.

The cable car takes you way up the moonscape but not quite up to the crater. Only hardy folks go up there with great risks. I was never hardy so decided to come down. This was now easier said than done because all the Italians had the same idea and shoved and pushed to get into the few cable cars leaving me stranded. I saw with dismay the last bus leaving the parking lot but could not fight the Italians.

Finally I came down and saw the same German couple and their small child I had met in the cable car going in their VW beetle. They gave me a ride and tried hard to get me a hotel room in Catania .This was not possible being the tourist season so I ended up staying at a camp ground .They sat with me until the wee hours of the morning just talking .Can you believe this?

They also kept writing to me for twenty years or more from Hamburg where they lived. Such are the nice people I got to meet everywhere .

In Messina I got to a camp ground that was meant only for the Italians but I did not know that. I found the camp full of children who surrounded me and started asking all sorts of questions. I could only say ” non parlare Italiano” in response but in the end I started playing with them to their great delight .I taught them a few new games that they learned quickly and from then on would not leave me alone. They had never been given so much attention by a foreigner so they showed great love. Some would stuff cheese into my mouth and others brought melons and other things to feed me.

Their mothers were also amused. One of them took my shirt off and very patiently fixed the  broken buttons while I took a nap under a tree. I had never known such hospitality except in Japan that I wrote earlier about. One rarely got to see this side of the Italians but I guess I was lucky.

The kids were in tears when I got up to leave. They begged me to stay but I had to go on .They kissed my cheek one by one . It was sad to leave. I wish the Algerian children were so lovable. I had promised to write about them so here it is.

The Algerian children up to a certain age had a very tough time growing up because they were unloved. Their mothers would boot them out of the house to have some peace and time for their washing or cooking routine so these unloved kids went out looking for trouble. They broke car antennas, scratched paint, tried to slash tires and make all kinds of mischief to occupy their time. But what bothered me most was their favorite pastime of torturing tethered animals.

No one told them that it was wrong to torture animals or do other bad things so they grew up wild . Near my apartment lived many such children who looked like angels but were real devils . I found this out the hard way because at first I thought they were lovely children I could play with .

But soon I was overwhelmed because more and more kids started to appear from nowhere and they all wanted me to play with them. When I could not do this, they turned against me and became angry.

It was the first time in their life someone had shown some interest in them so they were not about to let it go because they craved attention.  They poured sand on my motorbike engine and scratched the paint in frustration.  But the Italians loved their children and showered them with attention so they were so sweet .

My vacation was ending but not before making a last stop at a place called Sapri . This was a beach camp where some Italian students came over and asked me to join their group. They said they were from Milano . They passed the hat to collect some liras for a party that evening .We bought spaghetti and wine and needed to make a camp fire so some fence posts went missing . We sat around the fire strumming guitar and singing while one fellow showed  me a few yoga postures .He had the same high forehead of Kamal and wore thick glasses .I kept looking at him.

I stayed there only for a day or two but it was great fun. One big girl was afraid of the water so we carried her to the water like a swinging sack of potato and dunked while she squealed . They all wanted me to stay but I had to return to Mostaganem so they made sad faces and signed my bag with pentel pen one by one.

Soon I was back in Mostaganem and tried to put aside the nostalgic memory. Behind my house lived a few Cubans who worked in the local hospital . They always played baseball but they  did not look friendly and did not speak anything but Spanish so I watched them from a distance. The Algerians tolerated these Cubans but said that they were not very good doctors because often they forgot  spoons and forks in the stomach before sewing the patients up. Perhaps this was an exaggeration and the Algerian way of saying that they were not up to the standard. Besides I do not know of any doctor who uses spoon and forks during surgery.

But  standard or not they were there because of Cuban Algerian friendship treaty and made a great show to the extent of inviting Fidel Castro to inaugurate a new wing of the hospital. The town was scrubbed clean and the sidewalks whitewashed  for days. Finally Castro came with the Algerian president in a long motorcade of  black Citroen DS . The security people had arrived and blocked off most of the streets halting all traffic.

I decided to take some photos with my long lens and approached the presidential car . In Algeria the policemen will obey you if you speak with authority . My friends were watching this charade from behind the fence and wondering if I will be arrested soon. But the policemen did not bother me. The tough looking Cubans were a different matter. They asked for my pass so I said I was a reporter from ABC and did not speak French or Spanish. Nothing doing . Anyway I got some great photos .

In Algeria the policemen kept a watch on everyone and collected registration cards from all the hotels to know the movement of foreigners. One always needed an “ordre de mission ” to go anywhere to work that the gendarmes frequently checked at road blocks . The No Photography signs were posted in many places even if there was only an ugly wall behind a fence. They frequently interrogated Algerians who mixed with foreigners to know what they talked about and they scrutinized passports to check if it carried some undesirable visas . They intercepted mails to see who was writing to whom.

This sort of situation made Algerians aloof although some people like Mohamed in Oued Rhiou were really very good and caring people. Once I was asked in by a couple who saw me getting wet in the rain on my bike and fed me couscous and some of my office mates invited me to their home  in another town during the Id ul fitr celebration after the Ramadan .

But Algeria in general was a tough country . The separation of sexes did not permit a free mixing which reminded  me  of the Bengali society back home.

This gave rise to a lot of perversion among men . Prostitution was prevalent among women to some extent .The Algerians could not bring women to hotels because the police kept a close watch so they looked for private apartments . Once a fellow whom I did not know well showed up at my place with a woman .I was shocked at such blatant liberty and forbade him to come again. But they were living in frustrations and took advantage of every opportunity they could get.

But the women were no less aggressive. They somehow found your telephone number and called at odd hours to chat .I was lucky I did not have a phone but Monique used to get calls like that and put down the phone quickly.  Their favorite trick was to find out who you were they had called by mistake so you learned never to identify yourself .

The hassle with the Banque National d’Algerie or BNA was a never ending problem every month but they openly suggested that your problems with them would disappear if only you could…  You just fill in the blanc. One therefore learned to be wary of them quickly and treaded carefully. I was lucky to get to know Oultache the way I did but I would have never met her on the street.

I was particularly bothered by their habit of never telling what they were thinking. If they promised to do something on Monday, they did not mean it at all which was I learned an Arab trait . I once asked a technician to fix my slide projector that he promised to do within a week but kept me dangling for over six months . Every week he told me that it will be done next Monday and I was stupid enough to believe him.

At about this time I decided to go to Ghardaia in the Sahara desert just to see what an oasis town looked like. The long bus ride can be very uncomfortable because they never stop for  people to get  down to pee.

Ghardaia turned out to be beehive of a town built on a mound with narrow lanes and overhangs to keep out the relentless sun. At the top of the mound is the mosque. I found the architecture interesting because it was my first time to see a desert town . Otherwise it was a dirty, dusty and very dry place where  most people kept indoors because of the heat.

There were some groves of date palms to break the monotony and lots of goat and sheep and nothing else.  But the French Canadian girl from El Asnam was also visiting Ghardaia and we were like long  lost friends again. She had in tow a French girl from Paris who introduced herself as Catherine.

This Catherine was quite a girl who giggled all the time and made a scene at the open air movie that we went to watch. They were the only two females in the crowd so everyone started looking at them. Besides Catherine could not keep her mouth shut so we left and went back to the hotel to do more giggling . Soon the manager arrived and said that he ran a clean establishment and did not wish any hanky panky by weird foreigners.

All we wanted was to sit around , sip coke and talk but this was Algeria and a desert town to boot.  They also did not like the dark skinned Touaregs from deep south and often refused me a hotel room thinking that I was a Touareg.

I found it to be difficult to get to know the Algerians specially the office mates .It was not easy to break the ice although some of them did invite me to their home one time during the Id festival. But near my apartment there was the family of the janitor. The youngest daughter was fond of me and asked me to visit them. The mother was an ample woman who spoke some French so I learned from them a little more about the Algerian culture.

The eldest daughter who had problem with her husband  lived with them and wanted me to take her photo so one day she came out with all the gold jewelry she had to pose. She would not smile as photography was a serious matter to them . The janitor was a smooth operator .He said that he wanted to buy my things but could not pay much because he was so poor. He got everything for a throw away price and immediately sold them to a merchant for a high price. He told his sob story to all foreigners this way and made a killing each time.

I had to often go to the Hotel de Ville or the mayor’s office to get some permit or some papers. There was another Mohamed who worked there. One day he invited me to his wedding but would not say where he lived. Later on  I did get invited to a wedding in Mascara so it is worth writing about it here. The Algerians did not know that I was a part of their motorcade so they honked their horns to get me off the road .They had never known a djellaba clad Algerian riding a big bike.

They liked to honk their horns a lot reminding me of the American custom of tying beer cans to the bumper to make a racket. The idea was the same. But the Algerians did not quit there. They brought a band to play inside a small restaurant where they made so much noise that you could become deaf. Then they went around and around the town honking horns for quite some time. Even the poor had to have many cars in the motorcade.

Soon I found myself in the company of djellaba clad and turbaned Algerians who paid scant attention to me until they started asking me questions. I do not speak Arabic so they now realized that there was a foreigner among them and became very curious. It was rare for them to have a Hindou attending a traditional wedding.  Some of them pressed me hard to eat some oily food that I kept on refusing but finally accepted. This was a mistake.

Soon I felt my stomach heaving and came out to get some fresh air. Outside a completely wrapped body was being lowered into a car so I thought someone must have fallen ill because people were so serious. I was stunned and felt sorry for this disaster to happen on this festive occasion .

But a companion said that no one was ill. It was the custom of the father to carry the bride to the car. She had to be completely veiled as the tradition demanded. Now it was my turn to feel awkward. I was so ignorant about their culture although I had now lived in Algeria for quite some time. It was time to leave quietly.

The oily cookies took time to get used to. Once I was traveling by bus from Algiers during the month of Ramadan when at 5 pm the mullahs announced on the radio that the fast was over. All the passengers then took out their food to eat. Some noticed that I did not have any food so they thought I was a very pious Moslem still bent of fasting so they pressed me to eat.

Looking at my djellaba, they could not tell that I was not an Algerian. Again eating those oily cookies made me very miserable indeed.

Thus my stay in Algeria came to an end. I had gained some experience and learned a great deal about this beautiful country and its agriculture. I had also spent nearly 18 months in Mostaganem and can say that my time was well spent. But the time had come for me to move on.

A delightful surprise was waiting for me one day when I received a letter from IRRI in the Philippines in which they renewed their offer of a scholarship they had previously made. So my future looked bright and I decided to leave Algeria. The deputy director who had found me to be a very serious agronomist urged me to stay on but I said that I had to leave.

Just one week before my departure, the government paid me the back pay of 18 months which was considerable so I went on a spending spree. The Dinars could not be taken out of the country but it could be used to pay for the airfare and so on. I used the left over dinars to buy a stereo and other things. I must say that the Ministry of Agriculture had treated me very well and fairly and I in return had done my best to serve.

The flight to Paris this time was first class which was a bit of indulgence on my part but who was complaining?

 

Note :  My blogs are also available in French, Spanish, German and Japanese  languages at the following links as well as my biography:

Mes blogs en français.

Mis blogs en espagnol

Blogs von Anil in Deutsch

Blogs in Japanese

My blogs at Wix site

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Medium.com

Anil’s biography in English.

Biographie d’Anil en français

La biografía de anil en español.

Anil’s Biografie auf Deutsch

Anil’s biography in Japanese

Биография Анила по-русски

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