March 14, 2017

#52 - India - Part 2

Dear Dubrovnik,

It's been an interesting few weeks to say the least since I last wrote. I've found it tricky to write with enthusiasm when I'm not in a relaxed headspace so to speak. I sometimes find I have so much interest in so many things I get stuck trying to choose where to commit my energy next! One piece that is already determined is that I'm back in school again! Technically I should say back in class, as it's just one course, but it does feel good to have some formal structure, especially in a subject that I really dove into without much help! Yes, Italian of all things! It's quite overwhelming to go in reverse, having learned the back-alley out of necessity 'Italian' and to now go back to square one and learn my epsilons from my silent h's.

Recently I went to wait for the bus after work and found myself among the commuter busses. They typically pick up only a couple folks from our stops so they tend to linger for a few minutes to make sure they pick up anyone who might need to catch their bus. I had been basking in the sun as I leaned into the frame of the bus stop when my sunlight was blocked by another commuter bus pulling into the stop. He parked the bus and when I didn't make any moves, proceeded to check his phone, mirrors and other bus related bus things. After a few minutes I could see his glanced over as he started the bus and prepared to depart without any passengers. He opened the doors and asked if I was going up Pine Street, to which I replied yes and hopped aboard. It wasn't often the commuter busses let local commuters on because their ticket counters were tracking people using the busses to go to those specific destinations, not just five stops away. But I was happy for the offer as I know these busses from my trips to Maine, and they have nice seats and a lot more space.

I took a seat near the front of the bus. As we began to dip away from the curb I started in about the weather and sun to make some small talk. Immediately I noticed an accent that I guessed to be Bosnian, and after hearing his thoughts about the snow and temperatures asked if he was from the area. He responded that he'd been in the area for 15 years, but was from Europe originally. Sure enough, after I didn't say anything for a moment, he continued on and said he was from Bosnia. I smiled and asked where abouts in Bosnia. We then chatted about various sights and cities after I said I'd lived not too far from there in Dubrovnik only a few years ago. He looked in the mirror and asked if I missed the weather from Croatia, to which I replied with an Italian hand gesture shaking my pinched fingers and he laughed. He said that he would like to go back one day as his older relatives were still there, and I could only sympathize and agree. Luckily the stop near my place had a passenger waiting to get on so I didn't leave him without conversation for long. I have since been unable to stop thinking about klepi and borek, and how I didn't have either the last time I visited Dubrovnik in 2014 as the Taj Mahal (restaurant) was closed during the early spring. It's a funny thing to think about. Having the willingness to communicate with people you don't know can draw out connections that would make you think that perhaps you'd once walked in the same footsteps, just at different moments in time.

Anyway, back to where we were in India! This post has taken me a bit longer as I unfortunately closed a page which hadn't completed saving and lost all my writing for this post...! But no matter, I still have my note book and should remember stories just as vividly! :) The next day of our journey we all stayed local at the Vatsalydham facility and spent the late morning with the women dancing and playing pass, and coloring with the children. They were out of school on vacation due to the holiday so we had a little more time to spend with them on a few of these days. After making up moves to songs I didn't know, I went to our room to rest for a little and to talk with some of the other folks on the trip. I didn't know it, but I missed walking around the area with a small group from my trip and decided to head out for a small trek of my own in the afternoon. I'd seen many beautiful sights from the different windows and through the fences and wanted to get closer to better experience them as we'd really only been seeing things through windows of various buildings and busses. After slipping past dozens of wound-up kiddos and women eager to examine my person I walked along the fence to the front gate and turned to walk back along the fence from the outside. I didn't make in but 50 feet before I met the memorable Ayush. He wrapped his fingers through the holes of the fence and began to climb it as asked if he could come take photos with me. After convincing him to climb down and walk around (this was the only time of many that I convinced him to do this,) I met him at the gate and we turned to walk down the road toward a brick laying community.

He outstretched his hand and asked if he could try to take some photos with my camera. I had a brief moment of hesitation as anyone who has ever saved up money for an expensive item has whether it be a computer, camera, car, or fine bottle of wine. But in the end, I took the camera off and looped it over his head, which turned out to be one of the best choices I made over our time in India. Ayush, as well as some of the others were able to capture a unique perspective in India that even I couldn't see for myself. 
As we walked down the road he would walk off the side and hunker down among the wheat and sugar canes for a moment before returning to the road to walk with me. To my relief he spoke English exquisitely as well as Marathi and some Hindi. We began to talk about school and things he wanted to do later in life. It literally stopped me in my tracks when I asked him if there was a place he wanted to see in the world (a question I always asked my students in Italy,) as his answer was so different than what I had expected. He said the place he would like to see most in the world was the White Temple in Pune. I looked at him and said, "but we're in Pune now, right? It's in this city?" And he smiled and nodded.

This furthered my desire to help people attain their dreams and desires, but I'll return to that later as there's so much of India left!
As we walked down the road we came across a large group of goats and sheep mixed in with motorcycles, bikes, and people on foot. Most people beamed big smiles and asked Ayush to talk their photo. He would squat down and frame his shot and then check the photo before turning the screen to the people who would smile and exclaim about seeing their photos. We had a few great photo ops from the walk including three boys squished onto a tiny motorbike, a father and his two kids, and of course selfies from Ayush. *I've been working to get a gallery here in VT to host some of his photos, which is why you won't see most of them here. I'd like to keep them as originals to be appreciated in a more formal setting as I feel they are fit to be! 

After meeting all of these various folks, we paused in the entrance to the brick-laying yard as Ayush pointed to the mountains in the distance and explained the Sunburnt Festival was taking place there. This explained the ferris wheels, balloons, and platforms we could see from where we were. He went on to explain the controversy of the event as many feel that it would be an opportunity for profit, but the organization brought in all of their vendors, and their methods for getting an event atop the mountain, involved scraping a road around the mountains edge, which was not a popular solution. As we talked, I could sense people approaching and sure enough, people ranging from little babies up to great grand mothers started to peer from behind clay huts, and slide down from dirt mounds caked in red and brown clay. A man no older than me approached with his children following nervously behind him, shuffling their order noticing we had been talking about the festival. He didn't speak much English, but between that, my minimal Hindi, and Ayush's Marathi, we were able to have a chat. Turns out he was very excited about the festival and dreamed of attending such an event with all the music and foods, and events. His eyes lit up as he talked about the artists he had heard of which reminded me there is typically always another side to perspectives and opinions.

We said our namaste's and headed back to the compound, as the sun was getting closer to setting. We met out front for another prayer and proceeded to dinner before slipping of to sleep around 9, still heavily exhausted from the time change. This night I was ambushed by mosquitos as I neglected to tuck my netting into my bed as both arms had been done up with henna paste. 

mosquito nets galore

Regrettable mistake as I still (three months later) has little scars from the buggers, and needless to say, that night was not the end of the annoyance...! The next morning we awoke and headed out to see various schools and villages that were receiving help from Maher. I wrote down Apti, Kendur, Thakar Basti, and Shirur, but I'm not positive which places were which, as I know we shuffled our itinerary around a few times. This day was New Years Eve, and we received blessings at each place we visited (I believe 5 in total) so needless to say we had tika dust running down our foreheads! Through our travels this day we learned how some of the towns were working to bring together the parents and towns people to form groups to pool their funds and chip in small amounts to be able to make small loans for those among them who need it. Additionally, as a group they are much more legitimate when approaching a bank for a bigger loan for animals, feed, etc.

The first place we went to on this day was a house that they hope to expand within the next few years. It's currently being rented (for free as the land-owner graciously offered the building up) but they hope to own in it the future to better establish themselves. We then drove off into the hills to a distant village where it became clearer what they had meant by helping the villages to advance. We saw small huts that were scraps and piles of rubble, then thatch shacks, then ones constructed of mud and brick, and finally the school building, which was made from cement. This village was a prime example of how they work with the townsfolk to give them the resources to change their situation, not by giving them solutions, but my giving them means to solutions. Maher installed a well water system at the school, and also built a kindergarten, which serves as a place for young kids to be so there parents can go work, and the kids can learn rather than be with their parents, or working. They also provide bikes for the older children who could then attend the high school and higher education schools outside of the village, which would normally be too far to walk. They also worked to get food (fruits, veggies, grains) closer to the village in the form of a market to help save people the strenuous commute to the nearest town.

We also learned about various social workers that work with families and children throughout the different towns to help follow their progress and ensure they are known and cared for. One fact I learned this day when we were visiting the foundation for a new girls home was the cost of the college nearby. This home was being built to save the girls the cost of commuting hours by bus from their homes to go to school, because school is expensive as is. The cost for college at the school where some of the girls were attending comes to just about two dollars per day, which by standards here, would easily be covered by someone's tax return. It's quite astounding to put that into perspective when you think about the cost of education here, and how many people I recall during my college days who didn't have value or worth for their education when so many people would travel half the day, and save all their money to have the opportunity to learn if they could.

After traveling around we headed back to Vadu where we would spend the rest of our New Years Eve, leading up to the New Year! We enjoyed fresh coconuts, as well as watching mandala art creations and other preparations for the festivities. We visited the store at Maher that sells products crafted by the women and children who live there. The products serve to teach skills for women who may not have many, and to teach new trades to those who would like to learn. This also gives them a small income and potential craft for those who will transition from the Maher program in the future. 

After dinner we attended mass and fended off mosquitos by the swarm before heading back to the main building for year wrap-up awards, announcements and dancing! We learned that boys always dance first, and I would honestly call what I saw, moshing as they were all jumping as high as possible crashing into each other, but they were all laughing and smiling so it was good!

We set out for Vatsalydham before midnight due to the heavy traffic expected as a result of the Sunburnt Festival and got to hear s few funny stories about Lucy's travels and first experience with western foods, trains, and toilets, as well as Hira's experience staying in an American home where the dogs sat at the dinner table and slept on their own beds....! We were all in bed before midnight and welcomed sleep with open arms, ensuring we all tucked our netting in properly!

The next morning was an early rise as our facility was hosting different events to celebrate the New Year including dances by the children, and Birthday celebrations! Later we had at last found tasks that needed completion in an effort to help prepare for their 20th Anniversary Celebration a few weeks later. I was tasked to help repaint the sign about the building entrance and I was excited to put my perfectionist design skills to good use! Over the next few days we cleaned, painted, rested and debriefed on all that had transpired. The kiddos were back in school so we'd often wait on the steps for their arrival back home. Then after dinner we'd get together to draw, read, and help them with studying. Having an accountant along helped quite a bit! 

Maggie and Mangesh

The following are some photos of the kids and women of Vatsalydham with our group!
They look ready to drop the next big hit
Fletch helping with math homework

Our henna coloring book coming to life!
Hand tracing the maps for the coloring book!

*If you have interest as you read this into acquiring a coloring book of the kids art do let me know! I'm getting close to sending it off to print and would love to share them with all who'd enjoy them! :)
I ended up taking a trip to the hospital on one of these days to get something for my hand that was swollen and numb due to my bites. Mangesh was crucial in helping to translate all of my specifics, and offer up some humor during the whole experience. Oddly enough, we accessed the hospital by stairs on the second floor, and when I was taken to a different room to be seen, there was a man getting legit, old style dip in water, plaster wrap for his broken leg. After explaining I really just needed something for the itching, I met with a specialist and physician who wrote all my instructions out in Marathi...! Back at the front desk I was ready to settle my bill and asked the cost. The woman said 100 and I was thinking, "sounds about right," and then she said 200, 100 for the physician, and 100 for the specialist, and I began to take out my card and asked whether they accepted them. She slid the bill across and I noticed she meant rupees not USD. Coupled with the cost from the pharmacy we visited after this where my four medications came to 98 rupees, my whole visit was just about four dollars US. On the way back I was explaining the cost of my appendectomy to Mangesh and our driver who both exclaimed "WHAT?" to my cost summary of just over $30,000. They both agreed if that happened to them in the US, they would fly to India to have the surgery, and still have much more money left over! 
This night we celebrated a few Birthdays at Vadu one from our group, and one boy from our compound. Before dinner and the celebrations we watched the kids play cricket, martial arts, and dance. It was a nice, mellow evening that felt so much like a mild July night. A unique tradition I really loved about Birthdays is that the one being honored is to give a small gift to all in attendance. So Dave and the other boy handed out candies to each of us there. It's a pretty unique idea to be selfless on a day all about you. This night I got to talk with Lucy briefly about my profession at home and they were eager to have me help if we could pick some times that worked.

Our next trip was to have a day of shopping in Pune, over two hours away, but still in Pune! Our first stop was to a sari store, and it was a very interesting process to see how saris are made. There were multiple floors full ceiling to floor with bolts of fabric yards upon yards in any color and patter you could fathom. Another big difference compared to the US, the floors in this type of store are mattresses and you are expected to wear no shoes. The salesmen also wear no shoes, and walk on the counters barefoot tossing different patterns and cuts aside until they better match what you're looking for. Also, they are phenomenal at folding. Each store we entered, no matter how small had about 20-30 employees crammed in there, but with a group as big as we were, it worked out perfectly!

In between stores when we were waiting for our group to assemble I got to meet Sanip who was a boy from Maher close in age to all of us. We talked about colleges and his desire to study abroad and his doubts despite knowing three languages. It always makes me laugh and smile a bit when people from other countries say they're not smart enough to study abroad. I always have to present them with the joke about knowing multiple languages. What do you call someone who speaks three languages? Trilingual. What do you call someone who speaks two languages? Bilingual. What do you call someone who speaks one language? American! I feel that knowing another language makes you so much worldlier, and shows a willingness to immerse in another culture.

We literally sweat our buns off for the remainder of this day as it was full sun and well around 90°F as we darted across busy streets, ran among some bulls, and sampled new foods and treats! This night upon returning home we were saddened to learn that Hira one of the women who helps all the different part of Maher function so well lost her mum. It is hard enough to loose someone, but equally hard to see loved ones, and those we care about go through such hardship. That night all the women and kids gathered before dinner in a big spiral and said prayers for Hira and her family. It was very moving and we all sent our positive thoughts and blessings to Hira during her difficult time. I feel it is during times of great difficulty that we get to re-evaluate the true importance and value behind how we spend our time, and with whom we invest our energy.

Due to not having screens, we had to strategically plan shower times around when we didn't need lighting, as to avoid attracting mosquitos into the bathrooms. I would like to share with you the experience that is showering in India. There is a water heater we shared in our room, and it works quite well, though as you can imagine, it's a small amount of water. Due to the high calcium and metal content of the water, they're all taps on the walls, and you take the hot water (6-8 cups) into the stall with you and do as much washing as you can stand with cold water, and follow up with hot water (at least that's what I did.) They also had 3 Turkish toilets as I knew them, and one American style one. This didn't bother me at all as the schools I worked in in Italy had the same, but some folks were quite alarmed. Interestingly enough, the company I work at in the US has implemented footrests in bathrooms to simulate the same positioning one would have when using an eastern toilet. It's funny to think of the money for the toilet, and fancy stool when it's basically just trying to be a hole in the floor...!

The next day we were slated to visit an English medium school and Marathi school as well as a temple, but at breakfast I was asked to join sister Lucy and the others at the main office to help with designing some materials for their up and coming program. Additionally, Gian (another volunteer at Maher with us who was a brilliant photographer) joined me for the trek to the office to attempt to find a printer for his photo project. They ended up being $1.20 per 3x2ft print! Incredible. This was a hot, sticky day in the office, and after much fussing with the computer we got it up and running, though it took some adapting having come from a zippy computer running 2017 programs. I think the most challenging part was trying to convey thoughts about what was desired in the work, though I suppose that is even hard for the car dealers we work with here.

One funny thing this day reminded me of was someone noting that I was willing to try pretty much all of the foods I was offered. I even tried spinach before I knew that it sometimes get folks sick. I was fine, but found it interesting that people were so hesitant to try other foods. I feel food is for so many cultures a true connection to something they value and appreciate, and when in that locale, it's as authentic as it can get, so why not? I've certainly carried this quality back home where I always accept food offerings, though my mom may argue I have my 'favorites' at certain restaurants which is true. If there were places that served the foods I love from other places, rest assured I'd have some new favorites! :)

Anyway, I ended up venturing to a nearby store with Gian on this day to get a water, though they were out so I got a coke, and they only had a size that was perhaps a liter? It came to 37 rupee, which is around 50c. After wrapping up for the evening, we piled into a car to return, four piled in the back, and two folks up front. It was very humid to say the least. And we had one car guest who was feeling the ill effects of food-illness...! Once back home we unveiled the portraits and peoples eyes welled up to see how beautiful everyone looked. 

Gian's idea was to post the photos up around the area and have the children and women decorate their own photos and they were looking great by the time I laid down for bed. The next day I awoke to be summoned back to the main office to help with a few more projects, but today marked a new experience, taking a scooter in India! I didn't tell my mom about this until I got back home, but it proved to be incredibly thrilling. I did managed to get some video, though after Mangesh explained people might grab my hand as I pointed to sights, I was basically velcro'd to the seat clinging on as tight as possible loosing feeling in my knuckles as we zipped between dump trucks, busses, tractor-trailers, cars, bikes, cows, and rickshaws horns blaring everywhere.

This day we managed to get through quite a bit, and because there were no plans to have guests, I got to have a true, India meal, and needless to explain, it was the hottest meal I've ever had. As far as work, I was able to help compress some reports, layout templates for certificates and begin to help with the reception note, though we were missing some content so I helped with a few other things in between. Another challenge was picking photos. I just instinctually pick one that works and move on, but everyone in the office knew of five other photos that might work better, so that was a long process, but interesting to watch. I spent the end of the day with the little girl I mentioned earlier who arrived with her eleven-year-old mom, and she was so funny and smart. We sat looking over some photos I had brought and she asked what things were, and would have learned it by the second time we ran through the stack. After a few more deliberations as the sun was setting, Mangesh and I set out again this time, clad with another giant roll of portraits for Gian's project. Everything I said in the previous paragraph about scootering through India is relevant, and amplified at night. Traffic was incredibly heavy and I've never witnessed such a ballet of boldness and finesse. We stopped for more henna pastes on the way back, and I had to smile, as the vendor didn’t have any, but excused himself from his booth and hopped on a bike and returned five minutes later with boxes. Not only would someone not do that in the US, but also they'd never leave their store and just peace out for a bit. 

Upon returning we arrived into what I refer to as puppy-gate. On the day I was gone, some of the boys found a group of puppies inside the compound when a farmer was mowing the fields. Undoubtedly, the mom knew they'd be safer inside the walls, but the kids didn't want them to get hurt, and it was an ordeal. Gaus dealt with it all in a very fatherly manner talking about responsibilities and boundaries and sure enough the next morning I got to see the little puppers. Our final day was spent packing, washing clothes, and trying to prepare for saying our goodbyes. A group of us went for a walk to a tree I'd been meaning to visit and it was quite magnificent to see up close. We tried some sugar canes, and the boys with us manned my cameras and got some unique perspectives, including some clips and shots that I don't think they even knew about. I nearly screamed with excitement when reviewing my videos noting one of the boys left the video on for minutes on end, but by doing so, captured himself declaring what he wanted to do most when he grew up. It was adorable and really renewed my desire to use my design skills to help people make those dreams realities, because most of the opportunities we get in life are really just connections and good people.
Our lovely ladies

The tree I was looking for!

I'm not one for big goodbyes, so I'll be short with this part as it was tough. All the women and children gathered to sing, pray, and some even preformed dances for us as a tribute and thank you. Those of us who'd gotten any sort of traditional clothes took this as a chance to sport them, and rumor had it that I was pretty authentic...! They also sang us a goodbye song, and it was much harder to hear than the welcome one. We wrote them a song too, and a few of us had prayers and stories to share. We then shared all the hugs we could as little tears trickled and they whispered not to forget them. We then had our last dinner and got re-henna'd for the last week of our trip.
We rose at 3 or 4 in the morning to get to our flight to Delhi and said goodbye to all the staff we'd gotten to meet and become close with. It's never easy, but I always like to think of goodbyes as opportunities to instead say "see you soon."
Not fog, but smog.
The pilot says as we approach the airport "We should be able to land...!"
Well I obviously couldn't summarize enough so the last touristic leg of the trip to see the famous sights will be in yet another post, but I feel some thing’s are better left unrefined.
Until next post!


December 26, 2016

#51 - Off to India - Part 1

Dear Dubrovnik,

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. 
I also saw an area so lit up it appeared as though it was spelling something out, however after scouring over my Hindi grammar book, I can only conclude it's not fully lit (all the letters I saw similarities in are a bit more intricate) or perhaps it's another language, or not even meant to be read...! Perhaps one of my friends from around the world can enlighten me if they see something I cannot. :) 

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!
We didn't so much as graze our pillows before we were seated for our first oh so yummy meal and tea, to which we became quite accustomed to sipping on five times a day between three meals, and two tea times respectfully. That's all assuming you didn't go anywhere new or visit someone's home, as that would add at least one more cup of tea!

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!

Eventually we grouped up for breakfast and headed off to see an array of Maher facilities, homes, schools, and kindergartens. One thing I noticed this day, as well as our first night driving in, was that all the trees within close proximity to the highways had a red-orange and white stripe painted around the trunks, no matter what size. After observing it a bit more I can only surmise those colors are picked with intent (the flag) with the leaves making up the green portion. Perhaps that's the just the designer in me...! I do know that the numbered trees in bigger cities are accounted for with intended use of being CEO (Carbon Emission Offsets,) so perhaps the striped ones are also just being accounted for, and perhaps marked so people can see them. 

Note the red and white stripes
Our first stop (going off from my notes, apologies if I mix the names and places up!) was Dayasagar Children's Home, in Bakhori which was quite close to Pune. Here we had our first, of many Tilak, or Tika of the day, which is when you get a blessing/greeting in the form or a red vermillion paste of turmeric, alum, iodine, camphor, etc., applied between your eyebrows, generally in a dot for women, line for men. The point between ones' eyes is the seat of latent wisdom, and where mental concentration is suppose to reside. At this first place we met a tiny fellow who we were guessing to be around three, only to find he was eight and had been very small at birth, and was malnourished in his youth. We also saw a young girl who was dressed brightly and determined it was her Birthday. Which of course meant we had to sing for her! She was beaming with delight and knelt down to touch the feet of her teacher/ elder as a sign of deep respect as he wished her a happy birthday.

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

We next went to a beggars community to see a school which also served as a place to help provide food and water for bathing the children. As we walked among peoples houses and dwellings it was hard to not feel as though we were parading through their homes to see them as a spectacle, though we learned later through debriefing with many others, this isn't shaming in the manner we see it. It's an opportunity for us to see where the organization starts when it finds a new location in need, and how far they are able to progress with the acceptance of the communities they work hard to help and engage. The beggars community received funding for a well which meant they had access to water there, where in other places, they would have had to walk and carry water.

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. 

When entering the temple, you step over an eerie face which is meant to ward off bad entities from entering. 
Can you spot the face?
Then as we approached the central temple it's clear the door is too small to walk through. This is with intent, so that one not only symbolically bows, but also physically bows, abandoning self-righteousness, and self-centered thoughts. 
Watch your head!
The next room houses a huge bell which one is suppose to ring (loudly) before entering the next room, to alert the gods because just like people, the gods are busy! We then went up more stairs, through a smaller door, and down stairs to the main temple where we gathered on the floor, all knee to knee in tight space. 
In the main temple
We then practiced deep-breathing and our Ohms which are suppose to help connect our heads to our hearts. We then did a loop around the outside of the temple before joining together to head to our final stop.

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!