Monday, December 30, 2013

Love and Lepers, Happiness and Compassion

"If  you want others to be happy, practice compassion.
If you want to be happy, practice compassion."
 ~ The Dalai Lama

I'm writing from my third annual "Loads of Lepers" work retreat here in Anandwan, Maharashtra, in mostly-middle-of-nowhere India. It's near Nagpur if that helps - maybe not. OK, it's not called Loads of Lepers, but I have so much affection for the people here I think I can get away with calling it that. Stories are accumulating and I've been procrastinating and the non-results have been frustrating if not illuminating.

This year I'm back to working with lovely Mousie doing basic wound care in the old folks home. They're a beautiful and sorry lot, depending on your mood and when you look. Pretty filthy place, understaffed, short on resources, some very sick people, some who have died since we've been here. But when people are in a good mood and laughing, the old women sitting in the sun and doing each other's hair, it can seem like everything is OK in the world. Both divergent views are true, simultaneously.

There is one room near the (only) nurses station for patients who need extra care, and when Mousie and I walk towards the door I get a little knot in my stomach. One old fingerless beauty of a guy looks like he's 80 years old and needs his mangled foot bandaged daily. Another younger man looks relatively healthy but recently had about half of his foot amputated. Pictures not coming - thank me now. They didn't leave a flap of skin for some reason, so the end of his foot looks like beef brisket. (I don't know where the bones went, but you can't see any.) Another guy had such congested lungs that he sounded like an animal whenever he made a noise. He was kind of out of his head, and in typical Indian fashion, when he wouldn't stay still for bandaging, another patient was yelling at him and slapping him in the face. That's not helpful, Rocky. The next time I saw the old man he was tied to his bed because he was flailing around so much. The following day: passive and docile. And the following day: an empty bed. The nurse indicated by waving toward the sky that he was gone.

In the afternoons I'm spending time again with beautiful bed-bound Jyoti, 25 years old, radiant, smiling and with crippling arthritis. She lays on her back all day every day with her legs pulled up into a fetal position for 11 months a year, only going out for toilet and shower. When we come we take her out for wheelchair rides to the chai shop because she and I share a love for chai and ice cream. I discovered on this trip that I'm able to pick her up myself and put her in the wheelchair. These rickety crap wheelchairs with hard plastic wheels are rough and I'm tense as I push her along the street. Jyoti has taken to calling me Father, (I'm Father #2 and she's Daughter #1) and I earn that name at the chai shop. Like beleaguered fathers everywhere, she asks for something and I act perturbed and then give in. In fact, I've never NOT given in. You want it, Daughter #1, it's yours. (What wouldn't I give her, I wonder?) And I have to buy some bribes for Baby, the powerhouse of an attendant who rules the roost back in the old folks home. Now Baby is calling me Father, and today Oogi Moogi, who has to be 10 years older than me, also called me Father. I've been called worse.

Today is yet another good day, lovely people, to be thankful for what we have. We had LOADS! The lucky among us have Loads of Lepers.

Too much love,

The annual eye camp was in full swing when we arrived. Something like 2,200 people were given free cataract surgeries this year, curing or preventing blindness. Mostly I like it because of all the colorful grandma's! (It is getting hard to ignore that I'm the same age as a lot of them...)

Helping Grams to her seat.

With 3,000 people in Anandwan, and all of them insisting on food every day (the nerve,) kitchen work is a big industry here. Most of it only looks about as complicated as this, though.

We visited the weaving factory, which is a combination of hand-woven fabrics, like this guy's, and machine-made, in the following photos.

Monitoring his weaving machine.

The machines just mechanize what the old looms do manually. The two layers of thread running through the machine alternate up and down, KAH-CHUNK, KAH-CHUNK, KAH-CHUNK, while a bobbin holding thread whizzes back and forth sideways. Mesmerizing and deafening.

This is one of the adorable deaf girls.

She tagged along with us on the tour of the mill.

The workshop, where they're working on a big order of three-wheeled bicycles with hand-cranks for people with leg problems.

I imagine she still says "Moo!" even though she's a water buffalo. They milk these gals and make some great yogurt from the milk.

Walking through the nursery area, maybe the quietest and prettiest area in Anandwan.

A couple of people are volunteering in the nursery, and apparently this resting-against-a-tree posture is not uncommon.

Handsome guy. He looks like he should be holding a scimitar.

This lovely man speaks perfect English and would be great to talk to, but he's deaf as a post. I heard him calling out the other day and saw that he'd fallen out of bed and couldn't get up. He had somehow ripped the skin off the back of one hand. He summed it up: "Bad luck!"

Leprosy attacks cartilage and can result in the sunken face look that this man has.

Some of the volunteers getting introduced to the old folks home for the first time.

Poor, wretched creatures having to carry their own firewood... oh, hang on - those are volunteers. Nevermind.

Anandwan is 65 years old. Some of the buildings have been painted since then.

One of the vision-impaired sweeties.

Sweet kids!

Two of the deaf girls.

I don't know how to spell the noise I make when see a cute kid. Something like an enthusiastic "UH!!" So cute.

Two deaf beauties.

On a silent walk with the group on our meditation day, every Wednesday.

Late afternoon light.

A man and his two adorable kids relaxing on the bench near our guest house.

My boss and wound-dressing mentor, Mousie, tending to the wounds of an ancient old guy with about half a foot remaining. He really moans and whimpers when his wound is cleaned. It's hard for me, and I rub his shoulders and hold his fingerless hands, for what it's worth.

This is the guy who sounded like a bear when he made any noise, from all the congestion in his lungs.

Lovely Jyoti, now 25, still smiling and beautiful. The sty on her right eye seems to be getting better.

We call this wing of the building "the dark side" because it's so dingy and dark, with windows only on one side of the rooms.

The long corridor in the dark side. The other wings have rooms with windows on three sides.

I wasn't happy to see my friend tied to his bed, but he was out of his head, so I guess it was necessary. I think this was the last time I saw him.

I went to town to buy some supplies and told this very funny guy that he was a good salesperson. He said, "Will you write it down?" So I wrote him a reference on the spot. "Prakash Arjun is an excellent salesperson!"

The hip-hop dance group that performs with the Anandwan orchestra. I spend a lot of time with Prasad, in the glasses. He speaks English pretty well, helps with translations, and comes out with me and Jyoti.

I really like this photo. It's taken with the HDR setting - High Dynamic Range.

One of my favorite ladies. Her foot is so tiny, and I don't know where the bones went, but the end of her foot just wobbles, held to the rest of it with flesh alone.

Jyoti at the chai shop, our favorite destination. Shachar from Israel has been bathing her and changing her diaper (not easy, I'm told!) Jody is from England and is holding chai for Jyoti to drink. Jyoti's legs can't straighten and she has almost no use of her arms and hands.

I'm getting used to being treated like a movie star. In fact, if it's not too much to ask, I'd like it to continue when I come home. Come on people - I'm not home that much.

This young woman can't use her arms, but sews greeting cards with a needle and thread, using her feet. Hard to imagine. The card in the lower right is one of hers.


Shachar and I didn't have proper white gloves for tea, so we had to settle for surgical gloves. I need them for wound care and she needs them for poop!

Two of the grandmas sit for a chat.

(The End)

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

"My civic, moral, Jewish, humanitarian duty"

"It is my civic, moral, Jewish, humanitarian duty. Our job is to make sure that our society doesn't run away from our responsibility, and doesn't cover up the ramifications of this reality."
 ~ Yehuda Shaul, co-founder of Breaking the Silence, ex-Israeli soldiers speaking out against the occupation of Palestine

"Don't exaggerate when you tell people of this place. Just tell them what you saw. That's enough."
 ~ Omar Hajajeh, Palestinian resident of al-Walaja

Of the many great mysteries in my life, here is the latest: how is that it's become socially unacceptable to have a frank and honest discussion about the Israeli government and their policies? Over these last few weeks I've talked about Israel to quite a few people, and invariably they lower their voice to make sure no one overhears that they're talking about, (shhhhhh...) Israel! 

When I left Israel/Palestine a month ago I was feeling oddly optimistic, for the worst of reasons. It seemed blindingly obvious, from my limited experience, that Palestinians are being treated so badly, in so many ways, by the Israeli government that it's completely unsustainable. It just can't continue. I think that no reasonable, thinking person would spend time in the occupied territories, hear their stories and come away thinking, wow, the Israeli government is doing a great job. Keep it up! They've been "keeping it up" in the last month by threatening to build 20,000 new settlement homes, and they're in the process of forcibly resettling 40,000-70,000 Bedouins from their "unauthorized" villages.

But we're not "allowed" to talk about it, somehow, for reasons no one is sure. And it's uncomfortable anyway, so we don't really want to know OR to talk about it. So the injustice continues. Which is just how the government wants it.

Don't be that guy. Learn about it, talk about it, express your opinion. Be brave, and be true to your ideals.


This lovely man is Issa Souf, a Palestinian who was paralyzed after being shot in 2001 by an Israeli soldier as he stepped outside his house. Two years later he wrote this to the two soldiers involved: "I remember you. I remember your confused face when you stood above my head and wouldn't let people come to my aid. I remember how my voice grew weaker when I said to you, 'Be humane and let my parents help.'" Later he wrote: "My resolve to continue living is also a desire to reach others with my message to understand that life is a gift that should not be tampered with, and that all people are equal on this earth, and that power should exist to protect justice and defend it and not to create oppression or to dominate other weaker people." Read an article from 2001 about when he was shot.

Speaking of lovely, Moran listens to Issa speak. Moran is in Ethiopia right now volunteering for three months in an orphanage. Lucky orphans.

Zohar Lavie, who formed SanghaSeva with her partner Nathan to promote "meditation in action" retreats around the world. This was the eighth "Being Peace" retreat in Israel and Palestine. They also run the leprosy work retreat in India where I'm heading next week for the third year in a row. I'm so happy and grateful for the work they do. Inspired, even!

Hadar, from Israel.

Palestinian kids on the street as we walk from one village to another.

This is the Palestinian village of Deir Istiya in the West Bank, where we spent six nights. Something like 4,000 residents, and they're all made up of 14 extended families. It's interesting to look at it on Google Maps streets:, where no roads are shown, versus the Google Maps satellite, where you can see roads aplenty: What do you suppose is up with that?

Cute kids trying to figure out what we're doing. Hint: we don't know what we're doing!

My wise younger brother Assaf, who I spent a lot of time with in India last year, speaks pretty good Arabic as he hangs with the local kids. He was the only one in the group who knows Arabic.

Donkey jail, perhaps.

Oddly, (he says conspiratorially,) there are no signs to Palestinian villages. But every Israeli settlement, it seems, regardless of how small, has a sign. Yizhar is the name of the settlement with the hard-core Israeli settlers who had attacked olive farmers and their foreign helpers the day before. We came on this day to try to keep it from happening again. On Google Maps, the streets are included for this settlement:, but none for the much larger Palestinian villages nearby. What do you suppose is up with that?

The settlement is at the top of this hill, as they almost always are. We're walking from the road up to the olive groves that we'll be helping with. According to Wikipedia, "The inhabitants of Yitzar have a reputation as being among the most extreme Israeli settlers and regularly clash with local Palestinian civilians. The settlement is at the forefront of the settler movement's so called "price tag" policy which calls for attacks against Palestinians in retaliation for actions of the Israeli government against West Bank settlements."

This young Palestinian farmer came flying across the field on his horse, bareback, and we were sure he was about to run us over before he stopped on a dime and greeted us. He showed us the wounds on his leg where he was attacked the day before.

Those are Israeli soldiers, sent to keep distance between the Palestinian farmers, who are picking olives on their own lands, and the Israeli settlers, who think God gave all of the land to the Jews. This was taken from our "lookout" spot, where we had someone posted all day watching to see if any settlers were coming down the hill. Armed with metal poles like the day before. To beat us with! Surreal, even though they didn't come this day.

Recently burned olive trees, owned by the Palestinians, burned by the settlers.

Back in Deir Istiya, we're entertained by neighbor and his full-of-it son.

Our host is a wedding singer with a booming voice and outgoing personality. Someone said he looked like Tom Jones and that's how we referred to him the whole week.

Our last day of picking olives was with gentle Zuhir, who was in previous photos. His wife is quite ill and his teenage son refuses to do anything but play video games, so we did our best to help him out with the trees down this line.

The economics of these two smooshed-together entities, Israel and Palestine, are so different. You'd hardly see a donkey in Israel, and here it's just a normal way of getting around.

As we wait for our ride at the end of the day, a Palestinian woman walking down the road stops to have a look.

Electricity, olive trees, and the sun.

A proud looking kid from near our house in Deir Istiya.

Tom Jones' son again and his sister, in their super-hero pose.

Do you remember Shaul from the previous newsletter? He was the settler that we all wanted to dislike, but couldn't, dang it. One of the rabbis from Rabbis for Human Rights just had Shaul perform his marriage ceremony. Generally speaking, settlers and Rabbis for Human Rights are working for opposite goals, and they had a settler perform his marriage. Beautiful. (Yes, by the way, those are dreadlocks.)

OK, last story. This Israeli settlement is near the Palestinian village of al-Walaja, and the Israeli authorities decided to completely encircle the village as part of the "West Bank Barrier," a tall security barrier, sometimes made of stone and sometimes of wire. After protests, they agreed to reduce the circle to 330 degrees instead of 360.

Before we headed into the village, our hired driver, who we didn't know, bought us a bunch of this amazing fresh bread. He said he was happy to see that we were doing the work we were doing.

This calm and steady Palestinian man, Omar Hajajeh, owns a small house outside of where the government wanted to build the barrier. He steadfastly refused through immense pressure and periodic harassment, and the government ended up building a tunnel that goes only to this house. According to this UN article-that-you-should-read, a gate will be installed, and "the family’s guests will have to coordinate their visit with the Israeli authorities some 12 hours in advance of their arrival."

Omar told us, "Don't exaggerate when you tell people of this place. Just tell them what you saw. That's enough." When asked why he put up such a fight to live in this isolated little house, he said, "Even if you have just one tree that you planted with your own hands, it's not a prison. There's a deep connection with the place, and if you don't have it, it's hard to understand."

FOFOP: Future Olive Farmers Of Palestine

This kid was such a doll.

People have told me that I frequently have photos of beautiful women in my blog. I don't know what they're talking about. (Jess from England.)

The Being Peace work retreat comes to a close. See you next year, me hopes...

(The End)