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Ancient Treasures

Far-off India beckons Tigard tourists
by: BARBARA SHERMAN, A family visiting the Meherangarth Fort in Jodhpur invited Mary Feller of Tigard (front row, second from left) and Barbara Sherman (front row, far right) to hold their babies and pose for photos.

'Incredible India.'

That is how the Indian government promotes tourism, but in reality the poverty, lack of sanitation and environmental pollution far outweigh the occasional ornate temple or palace.

In February, Tigard residents Mary Feller and Barbara Sherman spent 2 1/2 weeks on a tour of western India in areas where tourists don't often venture.

We saw both incredible wealth - we had lunch with a maharaja's son in his palace - as well as the most dire poverty imaginable. One unforgettable visit took place at salt marshes, where workers and their families live in small tents right next to the salt flats where they have no shelter from the blistering sun and are doomed to die at a young age due to the toxic environment.

India is a country of magnificent color - most of the women, whether rich and poor, no matter if they are shopping, begging or digging ditches, wear beautiful saris in all the colors of the rainbow.

Nineteen of us went on a Craft World Tours trip that focused on textiles and handicrafts in the states of Gujarat and Rajasthan. Leslie Robin, a British woman who moved to India in the early 1970s and still lives there part of the year, led the tour.

Cheap labor produces beautiful, intricately embroidered tie-and-dye garments plus block-printed and woven scarves and shawls - all sold at unbelievably low prices.

And as interested as we were in the local people and their crafts, they were just as interested in us. Many of them had never seen Westerners with our fair skin, blonde hair and unusual clothing, so they found everything we did -walking, talking, shopping - a source of fascination, and a few even took our photos!

Our group came from all parts of the United States to the huge city of Mumbai on the west coast of India.

Mary and I took a city tour on our first day there, which included the house (now a museum) where Mahatma Gandhi, who led the country to independence from the British in 1947 and worked (unsuccessfully) to end the caste system, lived from 1917 to 1934.

A trip to Mumbai would not be complete without stopping at the men's commercial laundry. Three thousand men, who have inherited their space in the laundry from their fathers and grandfathers, wash clothing from dawn to dark.

Their families live in small enclosures next to the concrete vats, which are filled with water that is changed only twice a day. Clothing dries on outside lines except during the monsoon season when it dries in the workers' homes. Their wives do the ironing, and the turn-around time from pickup to delivery is three to four days.

After a one-hour flight to Gujarat, we met an impressive American woman named Judy Frater, who has lived for decades in this area. She formed the Kala Raksha Trust, which works with 600 artists from seven ethnic groups who embroider in their homes on hand-woven and hand-dyed fabric purchased by the trust.

The trust now operates a sales center and a school, where the women, who are their families' primary bread-winners, learn about marketing and how to embroider designs that will sell while still being true to traditional patterns.

We also visited Ali Mohammed Isha, who in his workshop creates beautiful tie-and-dye shawls where each dot is created by hand.

In another village, we watched craftsmen do block printing, standing over a table in a hot, airless room moving the carved wood blocks from ink to the fabric, expertly lining up the design row after row.

At the port of Mandvi, we watched large wooden dhows being constructed out of Malaysian teak. Each cargo ship takes two years to build before they begin plying the waters between Africa, the Middle East and India.

In the teaming city of Ahmedabad, after a week of staying in quite primitive, dirty, bug-infested accommodations that did not always have hot water or air-conditioning, we stayed at the five-star Le Meredien Hotel. While we enjoyed the marbled splendor (and hot water!), literally 30 feet out the back of the hotel was a squatters' camp, where families lived in ramshackle huts surrounded by sewage.

In Ahmedabad, we visited the peaceful Gandhi Ashram on the Sabarmati River, where Gandhi meditated and planned his non-violent campaign to free India from the British. We also took a walking tour of the old part of the city, where (as was true everywhere) cattle, donkeys, goats and dogs roamed the narrow streets (we had to watch our step!).

In contrast to the city-dwellers, there are still a few nomadic Ribari tribes who move around the countryside, changing location every few days so their camel herds can graze. Their way of life will come to an end within the next few years when they no longer have access to open land.

We visited a tribe one morning who had been staying on land that belonged to the owner of our safari camp. As the women packed their few meager belongings - tents, pots and pans, food and water, and a few items of clothing - on the family cot, the men stood or squatted as they watched their camels graze.

We visited small villages of mud huts with no sanitation, as well as cities where open sewers ran alongside the streets - pipes from the houses led directly from toilets to the open sewer.

Crossing the border into Rajasthan, we were only about 50 miles from the Pakistan border and had to undergo a lengthy process of surrendering our passports, filling out forms and finally getting an official stamped permit for our bus. Meanwhile, while the government tracked us law-abiding tourists, the fundamentalists and insurgents crisscross the remote border at will on camelback.

Jaisalmer, once an important outpost on the trade route between India and Central Asia, is dominated by its Golden Fort, carved out of sandstone, as are other beautiful temples and shrines in India. And speaking of temples, the main religion is Hinduism, but those practicing Islam, Christianity, Sikhism, Buddhism and Jainism seem to all live together in harmony.

Traveling on yet another one of India's poorly maintained roads, we happened on a town celebrating its once-a-year, weeklong chili pepper festival. On the outskirts of town were mountains of red chili peppers with turbaned men wheeling and dealing as they bought or sold large sacks of the spicy vegetables.

We got out of our bus and walked the length of the town, where the highway was lined on both sides with people selling housewares, garden utensils, raw or cooked food, plastic toys and many things I couldn't identify. Children work hard in India, selling wares for their parents or dancing while their dad plays a musical instrument, all to earn a few rupees a day.

Traveling along the highways and byways, our bus often had to grind to a halt as herds of sheep, goats or camels crossed the road.

Our final stop was Jodhpur, known as the Blue City because many of its buildings are painted that color. Meherangarth Fort, which now houses a museum where visitors can see how the sultans lived in opulence, dominates the city from a high bluff.

We then took a one-hour flight from Jodhpur to Delhi, from where we flew home.

India has 1.2 billion people, with 700 million of them under the age of 25. Every two years, India creates another 300 million people (the population of the U.S.), and every 10 years, the population doubles. Seeing the huge families with no opportunities for education or employment for the upcoming generations, one can only conclude that this huge population will keep India from achieving a real presence on the world stage despite its well-educated middle class that numbers 400 million.