India proved to be a spectacular trip that I won't soon forget! First time I've ever had such an extensive trip with no internet opportunities to add to my blog! Though I'd be lying if I said I didn't love every moment of this, because I enjoyed getting to be in the moment, committed to the courageous kiddos and wonderful women and men I met during my travels through India! The time change is certainly rough going West, and I've been rising at 4am but have taken to reading, or going to gym before work to not just lay in bed any longer.
Before going on, I feel I must give some context as to how I ended up going to India - as I was not initially a part of the original plan for this trip, which was to reunite past service trips through Champlain. Although I felt 100% welcomed and part of the group, it was originally just going to reconnect those folks who'd gone on service trips through their undergrad with either the Center for Service, or a Service Learning course. How I became a connection involves an email I got two summers ago to meet a woman name Sister Lucy, (over lunch) who was visiting from India to do a presentation about the Maher Ashram organization that she had started nearly 18 years prior. I didn't fully understand then what her organization was about, and didn't really feel that understanding until I was standing among the women, children, and staff who make Maher, Maher. Needless to say, I was very grateful for the request to join, and eager to experience a culture I might otherwise not experience on my own.
Now I will get onto our trip! I'll be honest I don't like to fully know the length of flights over five hours, because well, that's already a days' worth of time I'll likely be crammed in a seat in a close proximity to: a baby, open mouth snorer, fully reclined seat to my front, or airplane bathroom just steps away. I've gotten decent practice and expertise with sleeping on planes, now involving the fully committed "eye-bra" mask, ear plugs or headphones, inflatable neck pillow, and a blanket of sorts. I've found I can make it through most flights comfortably though walking past first class, and even business class makes me curious as to whether my butt and legs would fall asleep if they could be stretched out on a foot rest, or even ever so elevated with those little foot holds in business class. (The economist in me also wonder why they haven't made a 100% economy-seated international flight, thus fitting twice and many folks of equal standing into a flight... though Ryan Air seems to be well on their way towards this!)
Anyway, we had something like 7 or 8 hours of flying from Boston, to Germany, and then 6 or 7 (or so) to Mumbai to get us there around midnight local time. During this second flight, our row was graced with the presence of a little baby girl, just six months old, flying to India with her family to see their extended family for the first time since she was born. Turned out she was not a fan of flying, or sleeping. I was thankful to have a window seat and opted for some music and movies during the first part of the flight. Once the sun started to set I was pleased to have such a seat as I was positioned just over the wing with a spectacular view.
As anyone with glasses could understand, trying to give yourself time with and without glasses, can be helpful for resting ones' eyes. However, I found it hard take them off once the night sky began to reveal itself above the wing of our plane. It was as though we were above a giant mirror. Constellations glittering above us in the sky, and down below a unique site to behold. It was as though the stars themselves were tucked down in the hills and valleys of the earth, though in reality it was tiny pockets of houses and dwellings with thin threads of white light connecting them to each other. It was a unique sight I've never seen before when flying and really gave me a strange sensation. It was clear through the window a mile or so up in the sky that although these small pockets of light were separate entities, they were connected--their separate glows pulsing gently in harmony, making the land appear to be living and breathing. It's amazing how the absence of formalized city grids and highways can reveal much more life than the view of an overwhelming bustling city.
After landing we had a five hour drive to Pune, where we arrived before the sun to smiling facings eager to help us carry our bags, and drape us with hand cut cloth, floral leis, and of course, the Maher Welcome Song, which is to the tune of Happy Birthday, with a few variations, claps, and dance moves! (There is also a We Will Miss You version, but that's for the end of our journey.)
|One of the dozen or more lovely welcomes!|
It's an odd thought, as I sit writing to you, I think of where so many people sit at the same youthful age of 24. Nearly a quarter of the way through life (if one is lucky enough to see three digits,) so many of my friends, classmates, family, and coworkers within a few years myself are getting married, having babies, getting dogs, separating, moving in together etc. Isn't it funny what experiences lead us to such unexpected places? It's hard to say I love being on my own, but in the same breath, what would I have traded for these opportunities that I could have been blind to? These past few years have given me so many opportunities to learn more about myself and test my limits and challenge myself to pursue projects and ideas with my whole heart. One of my favorite expressions, "They say searching for love, is like searching for yourself. When you find yourself, you find love, because they are the same" is one that I carry with me where ever I roam.
I mention this as India presented a whole new realm of emotion, purpose, and value for the traditional marriage and dating systems which so much of American life revolves around. It's interesting to think even from a young age, we see love and romance as being a journey to find this one person to help us with our issues, bring us happiness, and enjoy life with us as we fall deeper in love. It was such a stark difference to hear not just about arranged marriages, but to think of the concept of not bonding or dating with someone before marrying them. For so many of us (Americans) it was hard to fathom success in a marriage without the precursor of love, but for many of the folks we met, marriage was a coming together of two people to form a team to provide for, and raise their family. What's more, some explained that they believed they would never fall in love with someone in the way we do.
I think one of my favorite parts of traveling extends beyond the sights one can see and includes not just the diversity of peoples ideas, but trying to have a greater understanding of their motivations and perspectives. I find so much of the emotion that drives us to be excited to return home stems from our own ideals and views butting up against that of the culture we're confronted with. Once you recognize this and embrace the 30°C sun shining down on you as cows, cars, and trucks rush past with horns blaring, smoke thick in the air filling your lungs, you have identified this internal struggle. I think to my return flight where I had my bags searched. Looking to this past summer when I had the same thing happen, I felt so shaken and targeted. Ironic right? Well, the next time this happened (in India,) I changed my perspective. I had five hours until my flight, so plenty of time. I had nothing to be concerned with in my luggage, and within moments I was on my way, off to find a coffee!
This perspective shift, allowed me to see a different side of this opportunity than I otherwise might have, though mosquitos included, I still did have some personal struggles! So without further distraction, back to tea time on day one, we toured the Vatsalydham facility and met not only the women and children, but also grandmothers and men who take refuge at the facility. The women, grandmothers, boys, and kiddos all stay at the main compound and the home for men is about 3/4 a mile down the road.
Throughout our touring we were all struggling to adjust to the smoke in the air, mainly a result of people in local dwellings burning trash and manure for warmth in the winter months. Though it was quite warm to us, only about 50°-60°F at night, those temperatures were much colder to folks there, especially when you remove down, or other materials we wouldn't think twice of leaving behind in cold weather. When visiting the main office to finish up our touristic papers we met a lovely little girl who is now four and quite proficient in English, though she originally arrived to Maher after being found as a baby near death with her mom who was just eleven at the time. For those who've followed my travels through time, you might recall during my time in Italy I had a student who had a glass eye, and how I had a hard time understanding his resilience and positive outlook despite his past and the events that ultimately took his sight.
It was quite heart-wrenching to hear these stories and know that many of the women and children who now call Maher home have similar stories to share. Harder still was how familiar the words seemed to folks, obviously not out of choice, but just as "the norm." And further still, to think of how many more women, children, boys, people were out there living those realities. Later in our stay, I worked in the main office helping with design work, and Sister Lucy handed me an article over her shoulder, and I saw it was dated that day. I started scanning the page and quickly understood it was about a girl who'd been raped, beaten, and killed not more than an hour or two from where we were, with the perpetrator(s) still out there. I could see how much it hurt, as Sister Lucy said while still looking over the files at her desk "We couldn't...get to her in time." This is perhaps the toughest reality no matter what kind of organization you're in when you're helping people, or helping living creatures, and things for that matter. It seems at times that there is so much hurt, evil, and suffering in the world. It can be hard to remember that all the good you do cannot be undone by that which you can't control, even though it can feel that way at times.
That evening as we all began to feel our energy fade, we joined the women and children out front before dinner as the stars began to emerge for the evening prayer. As it was only the 27th or 28th at that point, we were still celebrating the fast approaching New Year. We gathered close to the little altar arranged out front with twinkling lights and ornaments all over the trees and shrubs. Little hands looped around us and gentle heads tilted over to our shoulders as everyone began to sing. It's always humbling to hear singing in another language, especially when the kiddos are half your size, and the women twice, and some triple your age. It restores your belief that although languages can be tricky to learn, and in many cases prove to be barriers between understanding, some of the most genuine communication comes from just being with others and sharing that human connection--even if that's just existing together for a moment, acknowledging each other with our presence.
Though I can't say we all slept well what with the huge time change, we were all ready to give it a try! The sun rose later than I expected, though I didn't actually know the time. I hadn't changed my watch, and my phone was still on German time having not sunk with any networks, so I felt as though I really had no place of time!
|Rising with the sun!|
|Note the red and white stripes|
We next stopped off on the side of the highway in the slums to see a one-room classroom. The intent to bring the classroom to peoples homes is to give the children a place to learn and reside while their parents work, requiring no travel, and no extra expenses. It also keeps the children from working, or being an extra burden for parents while they work.
|When the bus has to stop for the goats to cross|
|A brick layer community|
Our next stop was at a more formalized school, just to say hello, and then to another Maher home where we enjoyed a wonderful lunch together before departing once more to visit a temple.
|Can you spot the face?|
|Watch your head!|
|In the main temple|
The bricklaying community was difficult for many people as I think beyond the tiredness, we felt not as welcomed here. We learned later this would be an example of a place that is in the very early stages of forming a relationship with the Maher program. Many of the children, and parents, young themselves have no reason to trust outside groups to help them, and it takes time for organizations like Maher to prove their trust and commitment. Hard to think this was just Day 2!
Well I will end this post one here, as this was a huge day, and the New Year festivities are soon to follow! :) Stay tuned for the next segment!