India Trip 2015

Jill Turner and Barbie Breneiser

1/26/15  Letter from India

Sensory overload is the only way to describe our experiences!  We've awakened to sounds of wedding voices faintly starting at dawn, listened to discussions about community development and education for girls, went to church at a Protestant Church of South India where the parishioners sat on the floor, men on one side and women on the other, and heard the sermon in Telegu. Afterwards we took photos of monkeys scampering on the brick wall out back!

We are staying in dorm type rooms on the campus of BIRDS, which is a non-profit community development project with a boarding school, health clinic, agriculture and cottage industry primarily working with the Dalit people, who are the untouchable caste.

Today is India's National Republic day, which is a big holiday.  The boarding school kids put on a 3-hour program with speeches, dances, awards, and flower garlands for us American visitors – the third garlands we have received in 3 days! They are beautifully made and are the Indian welcome symbol.  Lots of talk was about friendship between our countries and the fact that our President and Indian Prime Minister Modi are celebrating together today in Delhi.

After the program we served lunch to the kids who sat on the floor of a thatched roof open-air lunchroom.  Lunch consisted of a large scoop of brown rice with a spicy potato curry, and my job was to pour water into small metal cups for several hundred kids sitting on the floor.  

The women and girls wear bright colorful clothing, either saris or Punjabi tunics and pants.  Women in our group have been asked to wear Indian dress, so I have been making good use of my Indian clothing from my visit 46 years ago.  

Now that I'm getting adjusted to India time, which is 13 1/2 hours ahead of PST, I'm feeling good, learning lots and having amazing new experiences!

Keep sister Jill and me in your hearts and prayers as we continue this journey.

Love, Becky (Jill Turner’s sister)


Becky's second letter

Travel in rural Southern India is unbelievable.  The roads are single lane paved wide enough to pass only when one vehicle cart or group drives off on the unpaved shoulder to let the faster object by.  There are no traffic signs or lights and our drivers honk frequently to let others know we are coming and want by. The roads have bullock carts, bicycles, herds of goats, motor rickshaws, villagers and wandering chickens and any manner of conveyance you can imagine.  

Yesterday morning our group of 10 was driven to visit a couple of Hindu Temples in the nearby mountains.  The temples were 3000 years old, and we were blessed with holy water and several "namastes" by priestly gurus.

In the afternoon we visited a farm cooperative seed bank and visited with community health workers who work on many of the same issues of Maternal Child Health that we work on in WIC at home.

Tomorrow we will be driven back to the big city of Hyderabad where we will visit for about 36 hours for touring before we fly north to Delhi.

After school hours today we will visit the boarding home where orphan and semi-orphan (kids with one parent unable to care for them) children live. Some of them are in need of sponsors to pay for their room and board, and Jill and I will get to meet the children we have agreed to sponsor.  US $300 per year pays for one student.

The schools are on site where we are staying and we have had several opportunities to see them studying, doing calisthenics, and sitting quietly in rows on the floor in their uniforms. I'm really impressed with this organization's commitment to education, especially for girls who have traditionally had far fewer opportunities than boys

I'll try to send a few pictures.  Our wi-fi is sporadic (just like electricity and hot water) so not sure how well things will come through.  I have been able to get e-mail so responses from you are encouraging.  I have a phone plan for unlimited free text messages while here, so that's another way to connect.

Hope everything is well for you.




Delhi, India

January 31, 2015

Hi Everyone,

Our days have been oh-so-full of many things, so it's hard to know what to write about.  We left rural Southern India and the Community Development Program and school two days ago.  It was an all-day drive to the city of Hyderabad which has about 11 million people, with amazing traffic, animals and buildings crowded beyond imagination.  On the way to Hyderabad we stopped at a place where there are large numbers of people living in a tent-city.  It was really eye-opening to see numerous people living partially in the open, partially under tents with families, animals, cooking over fires.   One young mom had a newborn baby, likely only 1 or 2 days old, and was standing in front of a very humble abode.   Faucets every few blocks supply water, which they carry home in very large plastic pots.  No sewage is provided.    

In Hyderabad, we spent one day touring where we went to a money exchange to change our dollars to rupees, and had our first experience at successful bargaining.  We were told we should get 61.5 rupees for each dollar.  There were several possible businesses to do the transaction, so Jill and I went into one while others in our group went to other vendors.   At our vendor the lady offered 61 rupees.   When I said it should be 61.5 she shook her head and said 61 rupees.  I told her that our friends said 61.5 at the other places, and we indicated we would go elsewhere when she said "Okay, 61.5"!   Bargaining like that is the Indian way, and very much expected!   

At Hyderabad we also visited Golconda Fort, an historic site at the top of a large hill where a 12th century royal dynasty had a sophisticated compound with five levels of surrounding walls to keep out the enemies.   Our tour guide told us how the royal family was carried to the top with two short people at the front of the carrier and two tall people at the lower end.  There were places with guns and cannon balls, large halls for conference gatherings and a sophisticated water system of many levels of wells, which took the water to the top with water wheels powered by elephants, camels, etc.   The walls resembled what we all think of as the Great Wall of China, built to keep the enemies away. 

Last night we flew to Delhi, population 16 million, where we are staying at an apartment near St. Stephens Hospital, a 600-bed institution which has a huge community health program.   Our host, Dr. Amod has a role kind of like a public health officer in the US, and they have  many outreach clinics, homeless projects, and feeding programs.   This morning we had a hospital tour, and Jill and I spent some time with the dietitian.  She mentioned that one of her accomplishments in the past 10 years was developing the ability to prepare food for the patients on site.   Prior to that, families of the patients brought their food in, and there was no quality control or ability to provide therapeutic diets.  For the next couple of days we will be touring some of the community projects, and we will have an all-day trip by train to see the Taj Mahal.

Though tired, Jill and I are both feeling good and really appreciate this totally amazing opportunity.  Please keep us in your hearts and prayers!




Taj Mahal, a magical day

On Wednesday our group met at 4:30 AM for transport to the Delhi RR Station.  It was the beginning of an unbelievable day!  We had a 2 hour train ride through the countryside and villages to the city of Agra.  We were met by a charming Indian guide who expedited the rest of the day with good humor and amazing skills.  He hired motor rickshaws for a ride to a bus which took us to a Costa Coffee House, the Indian equivalent of Starbucks.  The bus then took us to The Agra Fort where we were given an explanation of the Moguls and Indian History.  The fort with 12th century architecture, is made from red sandstone and is complete with air conditioning, heating and hot water, all using breezes, sun and water from the river.  Amazing to find a palace with all those amenities centuries ago.

After lunch we went to watch authentic Persian rug makers work and an opportunity to purchase.  Rugs with choices of wool with cotton backing, silk with cotton backing and my favorite were silk on silk.  If I wasn't at the life stage where I don't want more belongings, I would have been tempted to buy, as prices for this quality were much cheaper than in the US.

In the afternoon and evening we visited the Taj Mahal.  I was there 46 years ago and this time it was much more spectacular.  It is now a world heritage site and a lot of money is being spent to maintain it.  To keep from acid damage cars cannot go nearby except electric cars so we changed to an electric bus which took us to the gate.  Anytime all day we were on the street even for a minute we were accosted by begging mothers and children sometimes hawking trinkets. 

Words cannot describe how fabulous the Taj is.  It was built by Shah Jahan as a tomb for his favorite wife.  Made of white marble with rare stones inlaid, the architecture is out of this world.  And as we spent the afternoon and evening with the setting sun, it became the most mystical place I have ever seen.  I'm  amazed again about the artistic architecture of these 12th century visionaries.

Our return from the Taj to our gasoline powered bus was by a camel cart then after visiting a couple more craftsmen, a delicious dinner, and a return trip by a late train, we arrived at our accommodations exhilarated and exhausted at 12.30 AM!

Days since then included a visit to a community health center, a vibrant market,  a visit to one of Delhi's most impoverished slums.

Writing with my I phone is a bit tedious since I'm not fast on it like the youngsters, so will end this now and hope to write more later.

We are now in Varanasi where the stories are even more amazing!





I have already described the traffic in India and Delhi is by far the worst!  Last week our group was in Delhi and had reservations to fly to Varanasi, leaving at 10:40 Am for a 1.5 hour flight.  Our group leaders, who were totally on top of everything arranged for a bus to pick us up at our accommodations at 8:00 am with plans to have  breakfast at the airport after we got our boarding passes.  But.......our bus arrived 40 mins late which made us a bit nervous because of traffic, but we still had a good chance to make it.  

As we drove through the awful Delhi traffic we discussed that India seems to have few driving rules and whatever they have must not be enforced because we had seen no traffic cops.  The traffic moved faster as we got nearer the airport and we started to breathe a little easier when we came to a stoplight which just turned from green to yellow. Our driver started through the intersection (perfectly legal I know because I was in the front seat) when a car crossed illegally in front of the bus, the driver slammed on the brakes  to avoid a crash, and we were stopped in the middle of the intersection when the light turned red.  Next thing we knew a traffic policeman approached, pulled us over, and a 15 minute discussion ensued.  When we finally got on the way again, our leaders were really worried about making our flight, but we finally arrived and unloaded in record time.

To assure that only passengers enter the airport,  India requires something that indicates you are a passenger.  On our previous flight an official took all our passports at once along with flight info, but at Delhi they said that would not be acceptable.  From this point on I lost track of exactly the process but we finally got in the airport only to be told that they only took passengers who checked in 40 mins before flight time!

There was a lot of discussion between our leaders and an official before a higher up was called and we were given boarding passes!  We hurried through security as quickly as possible considering lines and Indian procedures which require separate lines for males and females, and boarded the plane at the last minute- success only because the plane was late! The little white bread tea sandwiches we were served on the plane, tasted better than usual, and our leaders, Bill and Barbara could finally breathe!

Just one more experience in our Indian adventure.




Varanasi is one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world.  It is on the banks of the Ganges  River and is sacred for Hindus and near the birthplace of Buddhism.  It is teeming with people, with a labyrinth of narrow alley - like streets with tiny shops opening to the walkways barely wide enough for a cow and motorcycle or pedestrian to pass.  Along the river there are many Ghats which have steps to the river where many rituals of life take place.  We took boat rides at dusk and dawn to see fires where devout Hindus come to cremate the dead.  We saw teenaged boys in red clothes training to be Holy Men at an ashram doing their morning yoga, people bathing and washing clothes, cows and dogs and vendors hawking trinkets and snacks and too much to describe.  From the boat we saw the moon set as the sun rose over the river and viewed the ancient buildings and Maharajah Palaces along the banks.  For me it was very meaningful to light my candle in a tiny clay pot surrounded by marigolds and float it away on the water along with my prayers.

One of the most interesting experiences was a visit to a Doctor of Ayurvedic Medicine.  We walked through the narrow streets where he lived and had his business of selling essential oils and spices.  We walked through a very low doorway to a central courtyard where we encountered cows and a 4 day old calf, then through a low doorway where even I had to duck to go through! In the business room we sat on benches as the owner had us smell samples of his products and in excellent English told us about the medicinal properties of each.  The fragrances were fabulous and I decided to purchase a small bottle of oil from the lotus flower which is supposed to be good for stress, and others made purchases also. When it was time to pay he said he would take my Visa which I thought would be a good idea since my rupee supply was limited. There was only one caveat and that was that his credit card machine only worked in the courtyard area where someone was milking the cows!  So we stood out there and ran my card purchase.  Seemed totally incongruous!

After Varanasi our team members other than Jill and I flew home and after 2 nights in Delhi Jill and I came by train to Chandigarh.  We are now at the home of my host mother from 46 years ago and it was fabulous to see her.  She lives with her son and grandchildren who are young adults, and we are enjoying our time here before we leave on Thursday to visit cities of Armritsar and Shimla before we return home.  We are both feeling well and enjoying our adventures.




Monkey trouble 

We are still in Shimla and one of the "do not miss" tourist experiences is to hike steeply up to the Jakku Temple (monkey temple honoring the Hindu  monkey God)  which is at the highest point in this city at the top ridge of mountains at over 7000 feet elevation.  So this morning after one uphill hike from our hotel to a pedestrian mall, Jill and I decided to attempt the climb to the temple.  The trail is roughly paved and very steep through the forest with some gorgeous views of snow-capped Himalayan Peaks in the distance and many layers of steep horizons fading into the haze.  The Lonely Planet Guide and others had warned us that the monkeys can be very aggressive, so be sure to keep things packed inside.  I tucked everything, even my earrings and camera inside my fanny pack and zipped it all inside my fleece jacket.  Jill put all her stuff inside her backpack and zipped and latched every pocket.  We rented walking sticks from a little vendor along the road to chase away the monkeys and give us a walking boost.  At the temple we spent a few minutes looking around taking in the views of surrounding mountains, watching the pilgrims ring the bell and enter the temple.  We had noticed monkeys around, but they seemed less aggressive than we expected.  Jill and I each took a moment to enter the temple where we were blessed and given small candies/raisins.  Afterwards we were putting our shoes back on and I took out my camera to take a few photos and in the blink of an eye a monkey grabbed my temple treats!    So we were warned!  We had just started down the trail with everything tightly packed away when without warning a monkey dropped from a tree above, grabbed Jill's new prescription glasses off her face and ran off into the forest!  At that point I quickly zipped my glasses into a pocket, grabbed some peanuts to try to lure the monkey with the glasses back, and before I could blink a different monkey grabbed the peanuts along with my glove!

Just then some Indian guys came up the trail and Jill excitedly explained what had happened and I tried to find the monkey with the glasses or at least find the glasses. Jill and I were about to give up hope when one of the Indian fellows came back down the trail with the glasses!  He had tracked down the monkey and traded an orange for the glasses!  Apparently these monkeys are habituated to grab things and hold them ransom for food.  The Indian fellow asked for 20 rupees payment (about 32 cents) which Jill was happy to pay and we continued on down the trail with glasses and everything else zipped tight.

Other activities today included attending part of a Hindi church service at ChristChurch which dominates the skyline at the top of the city, lunch on an outside patio in bright sunshine with amazing views, and a drive to a super fancy hotel about 8 miles away where the English Viceroys who ruled India went on vacation.  We didn't stay for high tea as we weren't in formal enough clothes.  Tomorrow we will return to Delhi for a night and day before a nighttime flight home.  Our trip has been fabulous in many ways, and now we are looking forward to our own homes!


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