Happy Birthday to Me!!

I have a strict policy of ignoring my birthday, except for every ten years. And this was the year. The big 6-Oh. As in “Oh my god.”

Luckily, here in India, a woman’s 60th birthday is a big deal. Maybe because not so many people make it that long. Now I can be revered as “an elder.” Oh my god.

And it’s the custom here to mark one’s birthday by giving things to people, not the other way around. I had fun giving Cadbury chocolate bars to the few families who we’re close to. AND, at Rajan’s suggestion, we did a “sadhu feeding.” Sadhus are the holy men who wander around here, living on the mountain in huts or on the streets, spending their time “with God.”

We ordered 60 breakfast meals–“to go”– from Satya’s Cafe. Below, Rajan and Dhakshinamoorty are loading the food into the rickshaw.

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Meanwhile, Lakshmi is putting flowers in my hair.

Dhakshinamoorthy and Ramesh showed up at our house at 6:30 in the morning and surprised me with a birthday saree and flowers and fruit. AND they had a new dhoti and shirt for Richard. How totally sweet of them. It was important to Dhakshinamoorthy that we wear these new clothes to give the food to the sadhus.

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Here we are, below, on the road.

Rajan handed me the packets of food to hand to the sadhus and beggars who approached. And Richard took pictures. You’re not supposed to give anyone anything with your left hand, so I could only take one packet at a time.

Rajan started us out at a sadhu-hangout-temple near Ramanashramam and we went up the road from there, along the “Hill-Round road.” But we didn’t get very far before we ran out of food. I wish I had been celebrating my 120th birthday. And even that wouldn’t have made a dent. So many sadhus, so many beggars, so few birthdays.

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And then we headed off to Pondicherry

We stayed at the Park Guest House. Great location, right on the ocean. Here’s me in the surf.

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Here’s Richard, blowin’ in the wind by the sea.

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And speaking of hot, these young men loved it that I was watching them play and taking their pictures.

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These guys below are making a boat, by tying together logs. We didn’t see them, but it looked like they were actually going to go boating on this craft. This part of the beach had a bunch of these log-pairs lying around, so it must be a common way to get out on the water.

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Here we are at the Rendezvous, our favorite restaurant in Pondy. I had a seafood platter to die for. And we like having Foster’s beer when we’re here.

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This is the first Indian woman I’ve ever seen drinking beer. You go, girl! She was with her husband and her baby.

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This place has a great rooftop space, attractively painted in green. This photo doesn’t capture its charm, but you get an idea of the structure.

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The Park Guest House is one of several nice-but-less-expensive hotels owned and run by Sri Aurobindo Ashram. We stayed at another one the last time we visited, but the Park is the best. They have a meditation garden that just had surprise after surprise, little nooks with sculptures and nice plantings.

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This monkey was “taking five,” relaxing in the meditation garden on break from his performance gig on the beach, on the other side of the bars.

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Here he is back at work. Aw, isn’t he cute? Actually, his owner was annoyed that we didn’t give him more money for more photos. And then the monkey attacked Richard’s leg, either to bite it or to mate–not sure which.

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And here I am back in the garden in my new favorite saree. No one can tell me this isn’t the best way ever to dress. And don’t you love the matching hat?

So this will my last birthday report until 2018. Oh my god, how can this be happening? I feel like I’m 25!

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India from Our Roof

Many of you know that we live in the most wonderful house in the most wonderful location in Tiruvannamalai, facing Arunachala mountain. It’s Gina and Vasu’s house, and we are so blessed and grateful to call this home for now.

We spend a lot of time up on the roof. It’s our second living room, meeting hall, and Temple. I wanted to share some of the scenes we see every day from our beautiful parlor in the sky.

All the photos below were shot, with various degrees of magnification, from our rooftop paradise.

The young Brindavanam orchard, and the neighbor’s house

The property was named Brindavanam by Vasu. “Brindavanam” means “Flourishing Orchard.” It is also said to be Krishna’s birthplace, and so a very auspicious place.

The first view is into the orchard/garden towards the southeast. So far, we’ve eaten mangoes, bananas, guava, and papaya. There are also young coconut, pomegranate, almond, citrus, and other fruit trees whose names we still don’t know. The larger trees in the raised circle are neem and bodhi.

The small yellow building on the left is the caretaker’s cottage. The pink house on the right, on the other side of the barbed-wire fence, is our neighbor’s. Next to his house are other structures: An older house, the pen that houses the herd of goats, and the thatch-covered cot where Grandpa sleeps every night so he can make sure the goats are OK.

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Below is another view into the garden, more toward the east. The rock formation was created by Vasu, and we see it as a microcosm of Arunachala. We had the white-painted brick-edged path put around it to highlight it. Now we can do “pradakshina” around it–a clockwise walk around the symbolic holy mountain.

The yard lingam

The view below is looking east, into the fabulous coconut grove that someone planted long ago. We know a man who lived among these coconuts for two years in a now-falling-down one-room mud brick hut in the middle of the grove.

We have found we can locate this grove using Google.earth, and then find and see our house and grounds from the satellite view.

Below are the young bougainvilleas that are planted all around the fence. Richard started training them and caring for them a while ago, and they are doing beautifully.

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Living Off the Land: The Bean Field

One thing we see here is that the village people live off the land in various ways. For maybe 2,500 years, since the iron plow came to South India, they have been farming in the way it is still done today. The villagers also know all the plants that grow locally, and how to use them.

Below, the view towards the north east shows the adjoining lot that Gina and Vasu also snagged as part of their amazing “estate.” There are three different kinds of beans, or “pulses” growing on this land.

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Harvesting the Beans

For several weeks a while back, Viria, the wife of our gardening/caretaking family, spent every waking hour harvesting the bean crop. It was really interesting to see the process as it has been played out for thousands of years.

After cutting the plants down, Viria brought them into our yard for “processing.” First she dried them. Then, in a room off the back porch, she pounded armfuls of drying plants into a table, causing the pods to fall off and partly open. Then she dried them some more. Next she brought everything into the driveway. To winnow them, she held up handfuls of partially thrashed pods and dropped them in the wind to let the wind separate the beans from the pods. Finally she dried the them some more.

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Above, and below, you can see some piles of beans Viria has recovered. There is further processing involved for some of the pulses, where they get coated with a red-colored mud. This prevents them from sprouting. The mud is easily removed by washing before they’re cooked. (Better make sure you wash your beans!).

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More Scenes from Rural India.

We also see the villagers carrying on the same kind of animal husbandry that has been done all over the world for the last five to ten thousand years.

The calf is grazing in our yard. Even today, if a family owns a cow they are thought to be pretty well off. The proceeds from milk that one cow gives can support a small family.

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Farming the Old Way

The view below is the back of the house, facing west. There are several different farm plots that are planted multiple times a year. You see the farmer preparing the field with two bullocks pulling a metal plow.

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Below are neighborhood women planting a rice field just behind the plot pictured above. They have leveled and flooded the field. In the background are clumps of rice sprouts. These are separated into individual seedlings and planted by the women. There’s one man out of the picture at the edge of the field, standing around supervising and ‘watching for snakes.’ (Anyway, that is what they say he is doing.)

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The Ancient Job of Animal Herding

We’ve all heard about the “shepherds tending their flocks at night…”, yadda yadda, but I had never considered what their job actually entails.

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Our neighbor, the one who sleeps in a thatch-covered cot near his goat pen, seems to be quite old. He takes the animals out in the morning, each day, seven days a week, every week of the year, moving his flock to graze from field to empty field. He knows he can’t graze for long in any one area, otherwise the goats will destroy the fields by overgrazing. His only tool is a stick. Sometimes he throws the stick at an animal that is not moving the way he wants. He doesn’t even have a dog to help. He is on his feet all day, keeping a constant vigil against the animals wandering away. He has about 30 goats and 4 cows.

Notice how he’s dressed, wearing only a loincloth and a cloth over his head and shoulders to shade himself from the ever-present sun.

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The Modern Land Rush

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The view above was taken shortly after we moved in. Notice all the nice trees in the background.

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The photo above was taken a couple months later. It shows the “bean field” in the middle ground. On the other side, notice the bare dirt. That’s where those trees used to be. Since we’ve been here, this plot of land was sold and prepared for subdivision into smaller lots. Below is a shot after they created a road through the property. Not liking the direction this is going.

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Our First Cyclone

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The shot above shows the garden after the December cyclone hit. Rained for a couple of days. No electricity for well over a day. Everything got really, really wet and soggy. Thousands of frogs came out and croaked so loudly we had to go inside the house to talk.

And, of course, The Mountain, in all its moods and glory

Arunachala, a mountain considered holy in India for thousands of years, seems right in our front yard. This mountain, we have learned, as what is left of the oldest mountain range on the planet.

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Parvati Hill

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The photo above shows the section of the mountain known as Parvati, an extension of the “main” part of Arunachala, known as Siva. Parvati is Siva’s female half. In the foreground you can barely see two drummers who are marching up to a house where a wedding is being held.

Our Roof as Our Temple

We have created a small altar on the roof, with a lingam, which is a shrine to Siva. We also have a statue of Dakshinamoorty, the priordial guru who taught only in Silence. Richard recently ordered a special Ganesh statue from one of the local stone carvers, but we haven’t gotten it yet. The pictures below show only the rooftop lingam. lingam at dawn

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Richard and I continue to revel in our blessed lives. From this rooftop perch, it’s a half-hour walk to reach the base of Arunachala. We have been exploring it by foot, and Richard has posted some really interesting photos and stories about these forays on his blog at www.luthar.com.

Stay tuned, also, for my next blog about the many incredible bird sightings we have daily from this very roof.

I love sharing this continuing amazing journey with all of you. Please stay in touch! Write me at carol@infinitepie.net.

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Our V.I.P. Night at the Quality of Life Trust

With our abundance of good fortune recently, Richard and I find ourselves volunteering to help The Quality of Life Trust, a truly noble and touching effort by local villagers to do something good for their community.

Dhakshinamoorthy, the main guy, comes from this village, about 2 km. from Ramanashramam. He had no experience in running any business or project, but he wanted to help his neighbors. He befriended some Westerners coming through during tourist season, and they helped him establish this trust.

The first project of the trust is to build ecologically-responsible toilets for every household in the village that wants one. The second project is to organize feeding and care for the village elders who have been abandoned or neglected by their families.

Dhakshinamoorthy and Ramesh, his “second in command,” are politically savvy, and they organized a celebration and ribbon-cutting for the “inauguration” of first round of toilets that have been completed. They invited a few “dignitaries” from the local government.

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The enterprising Dhakshinamoorthy runs Satya’s Cafe, a restaurant that boasts a wonderful mix of Western and Indian clientele. It’s located out Perampukkam Road, where a lot of Westerners live, especially in the “high season.” We live farther out on this road ourselves.

The photos above and below show Satya’s Cafe all decked out for the inauguration celebration.

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Another new sari

Here I am in my new favorite sari. Right before the ceremony started, Dhakshinamoorthy’s wife, Lakshmi, along with her friend, pulled me into the kitchen and re-dressed me, since I still don’t know how to get this garment on with the requisite pleats and tucks.

Shevani being welcomed

This is Shevani, a Westerner and Tiru resident who has been instrumental in helping the Trust off the ground. Dhakshinamoorthy’s oldest son is sprinkling the guests with auspicious water as they arrive.

Poongalay

This is Poongalay, one of the women in the Trust’s “Elderly Project.” She is 80 years old.

Women get to a certain age and they stop wearing the blouse under their sari.

Natarajan

This is Natarajan, another member of the Elderly Project. He is 65 years old, one year older than Richard. Dhakshinamoorthy and Lakshmi found him near death in a field one day, brought him home, patched him up, and fed him. That started Dhakshinamoorthy’s quest to start a place for the elderly to eat and keep each other company. Of the six seniors in the program, Natarajan is the most social. Hangs around the cafe to see what’s happenin’.

Village kids

These are some of the village kids who came with their mothers to the celebration.

VIP table w/ Ms. Anu George

It surprised Richard and me to learn that we were part of the V.I.P. slate. Here we are sitting with the main guest of honor, Ms. Anu George, a young woman whose title is “The Collector.” She has responsibility for managing affairs with the local villages. It was amazing that Dhakshinamoorthy and Ramesh managed to get her to this function. The Collector turned out to be really sharp, responsive to the projects, and she got teary-eyed when the Elderly Project was discussed.

Lighting the lamp

Richard is lighting a wick on a ceremonial brass lamp. The Collector lit the next one, then me, then Vishni, another Westerner. She and Shevani were responsible for connecting Dhakshinamoorthy to the non-profit group that donated the initial funding for the toilet project.

Presenting a shawl

At these functions with “important officials,” it is the custom to present them with a shawl of good quality cloth. The presenter puts the shawl around the shoulders of the recipient, who quickly takes it off. The more important the official, the more shawls they are presented with. The Collector was felicitated (that’s a word you see in the newspaper accounts of events like this.) with about 10 shawls. As she removed them she put them in back of her in the chair. By the end of the ceremony she was falling off her chair because she was sitting on a big pile of cloth.

Poongalay with her new sari

In addition to presenting the “important officials” with shawls, the old people in the Elderly Project were given new clothes. Here is Poongalay with her new sari.

By the way, the entire ceremony was conducted in Tamil, so we have no idea what was said. The Collector did address a few comments to us in English. And then Ramesh asked Richard to speak to the group. No one translated what he said. But everyone could feel his sincerity.

DM and Satya

Here’s Dhakshinamoorthy with his daughter Satya. (Yes, Satya of Satya’s Cafe fame.) She’s a smart-as-a-whip Daddy’s girl. She wouldn’t let me take her picture all evening. I finally got her.

Dhakshinamoorthy is really a hero. He has very little experience in business and very little education. But he had the desire to help, and this organization is growing up around him. There are immense challenges to keeping the Trust projects going, but Dhakshinamoorthy is handling the task valiantly.

With Ramesh and Lakshmi and the other QLT employees, he pulled off a huge coup by creating this successful village event.

Village gathering

Here are the villagers gathering after the “important officials” spoke. We’re on the way to the ribbon cutting for the newly completed toilets.

Fancy wheels

This is the fancy car that brought The Collector.

Inside the Eco-San toilet

Here is The Collector standing with Ramesh as he shows her the completed Eco-San toilet.

This is an amazing invention for villages like this. It is a toilet that doesn’t use plumbing or a septic system, and instead creates rich, clean, usable compost.

They’re standing by one of the large “poop holes.” In the foreground, in shadow, is the small drain hole that collects urine and wash water. On the other side of the “pee hole,” not in this picture, is another “poop hole.” After you poop, you put a scoop of ashes on top. This prevents smells and helps the compost “cure.” Everyone has an abundant supply of ashes because everyone cooks on a wood fire outdoors.

You use one “poop hole” for 6 months, then seal it up and use the other. In another 6 months, you end up with clean, non-odorous compost to add to your crops. It is very high quality fertilizer. The pee gets mixed with the washing water and goes out a separate pipe into the garden that you have planted nearby. Plenty of nitrogen for the plants!

Richard and Shevani cutting ribbon

Here are two of the “dignitaries,” Richard and Shevani, cutting the ribbon on a finished toilet. “The Press” is capturing the event from behind.

Finally, the women in the village get a private place to do their business. The unit also has a separate bathing room. Everyone is really excited and proud that people in their village are finding ways to help themselves to improve the quality of their lives.

Poongalay cutting the ribbon

When it was my turn to cut the ribbon on one of the new toilets, I asked Poongalay to help me. She had never done anything like that before. In the photo above, Dhakshinamoorthy and I are helping her, with backup assistance from her grandson (?)

Bonding with Poongalay

Poongalay bonded with me right away. This whole evening she was so excited that she kept following me through the village from one toilet inauguration to the next. She grabbed my hand and was chatting away, even though I had no idea what she was saying.

Vishni w/ proud Eco-San owners

It’s dark now, and the last ribbon has been cut by the last “dignitary.” Everyone goes home with the feeling of accomplishment at helping alleviate a sanitation problem, giving villagers a safe and private place for their bathroom needs, instead of an open field. It was a good night, and there is pride in the grass-roots action that got this project off the ground.

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Welcome to our India Adventure!

Richard and I have been here in Tiruvannamalai over 5 months! The time is flying by, with wondrous adventures almost every day. I am happier than I’ve ever been in my life. We live in a beautiful home in a newly planted orchard. Our lives are full with new experiences, new sights, new tastes, new ideas…. India is an amazing country, just coming into its power. I am so blessed to be able to learn “from scratch” about this ancient land and its people, the Tamils.

For this inauguration of my blog, I wanted to show you pictures of some of the sights and people that have shaped our experience.

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My big change in the last month is that I’ve started wearing saris instead of western clothes. When we were visualizing this move, I was planning to go with salwar camise outfits. They’re Indian, so you fit in a little bit, but more comfortable than I thought a sari would be. But it turns out that 95% of Indian women wear saris, and the other 5% are way younger than I. The first time I wore a sari out, to a funeral, everyone was SO grateful that I had “honored” them in such a way. The reaction was astounding. Most Western women here will never experience such a reaction, because they don’t even consider learning how to wear a sari. So I’m having a blast now, choosing from the infinite variety of colors and fabrics, looking for the perfect garment.

There I am, above, in my best (so far) sari. On the billboards, all the models stand with the cloth draped over their arm. The more practical way to wear it is actually to gather the drape-y part up at your left shoulder and pin it. The loose fabric hangs down the back. The “working” position is to bring the drape back around front again and tuck it into your waist. It won’t fall off that way. Women work construction jobs in these garments.

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Here’s Richard and me on our front porch, with Arunachala in the background. Richard is wearing his dhoti, which I got him as a birthday present in December when he turned 64. We had a party and all the Westerners sang the Beatles song to him. He’s very handsome in his dhoti, especially in its floor-length position. Men in skirts are hot! And cooler, too, I understand.

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This is Rajan, our driver and all-around helper. Rajan is a huge part of our life. Being an autorickshaw driver is demanding but not the most high-status job, but Rajan is very smart and his English is very good and he acts as our translator and business agent and negotiator. And he brings us chicken and beer on Saturdays. I took this photo for him to use on his new business card.

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This is Rajan and his family. Daughter Janani, son Raam, and wife Jananki. The kid in the front left is a neighbor. Raam has his cool glasses on. This was taken on the first day of Pongal, a really important holiday in January that celebrates the rice harvest. Rajan has adopted us as his parents, and he invited us to join in the special Pongal breakfast that his wife cooked.

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This is Rajan and his family after they came back from a family trip to a very famous temple in Andra Predesh, the neighboring state. Tens of thousands of “pilgrims” go there every day. They stand in line for hours for the chance to get a glimpse of the gold-and-gem-encrusted statue of Lord Venkatashwara, “Bestower of Boons.” Part of honoring this god is offering one’s hair to him. If you give up your hair you are giving up a part of your ego that wants you to look good. Rajan says he won’t make his daughter do this again, since she’s approaching puberty and it wouldn’t be so cool to be bald. Rajan is totally devoted to his kids. He even named his “auto” after them.

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This is me getting a cooking lesson from Viria, the wife of Veraswamy, our property “caretaker.” She is a fabulous cook. Here she is showing me how to prepare a dish made from a banana flower. There are about a million undeveloped bananas in each flower. You have to separate each one and pull out a central stem. A lot of work for one meal, but probably incredibly nutritious.

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This is what a banana flower looks like.

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We couldn’t move into our house right away, but we went to check it out the first chance we got. Here I am on our amazing rooftop with Mohan and his father Veraswamy the first day we met them. Veraswamy and Viria live in the 10 foot square gatehouse across the property. Mohan is supposed to be the chief gardener and errand person, but his dad has to prod him a lot. I’m wearing one of my salwar camise suits from our first trip. There is a problem photographing the Tamilians. Their skin is so dark that the camera doesn’t easily adjust for their faces. Frustrating.

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We spend a fair amount of time hiking up and around Mount Arunachala. It’s making us more fit than ever before. Walking on the uneven surfaces and climbing up and down rocks is FABULOUS for one’s balance, in addition to the usual cardio benefits. So, we’re feeling great and looking (a little) slimmer!

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We’ve recently visited some locally “famous” caves while exploring the mountain. The well-known teacher Papaji spent time living and meditating in a cave on our side of the hill. We found the place, not really a cave, but more “open-air.” Papaji or someone who came after him created an “alter.” It was very peaceful sitting and meditating here.

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We joined a group of village ladies on a bus trip to the town of Cuddalore, a 4-hour drive from Tiru. The group went to see finished “EcoSan Toilets,” a plumbing-less composting toilet being furnished to their village by the Quality of Life Trust. Richard stepped in as the Project Manager. I call him the Toilet King. The men in the picture above are the founders and employees of the Trust.

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Here I am standing in the Bay of Bengal, where we stopped on the way home from the Cuddalore trip. This was the first time that the ladies above had ever seen the ocean.

There’s so much more I want to share with all of you! I’ll be posting more photos and comments real soon! Also, Richard has been writing about our adventures, and posting lots of pictures, at www.luthar.com.

I’d love to hear from all of you!

Love, Carol

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