My neighbor and I used to play this game where we would spin in circles as fast as we could until one of us fell. I lost often and I can recall the sensation of laying on the damp grass in the humid Michigan sun and feeling my world spin in circles around me. My final week in India felt like that. I was suddenly down to a mere 7 days and I still had all of these things that I wanted to do and to see. It felt like the longer I was in India the longer my "to do" list became. As I checked one thing off it felt like 6 more would pop up. My final week was an attempt to do all of those things blended with a sharp feeling of loss. Aaruran, Matt and I flew into Bangalore from Goa at around 3am. Upon exiting the airport I had this sudden surge of confidence, like we were on my home turf. It was an attitude that quite possible annoyed my travel partners, as I began to walk faster than usual and doing without much dialogue. I woke up to several texts from Aruna asking when I would be coming to the shelter. I wanted my exact arrival time to be a surprise, so i didn't text her back and instead hurried the boys out of the door. I was antsy the whole way there. My left leg was bouncing up and down in excitement and I could hardly sit still. Walking back into the shelter was a lot like the first time you come home from college. Your mother freaks out and hugs you and is vaguely impressed that you didn't die. I took my shoes off and practically burst through the door. I was greeted by all the girls screaming "Madi ma'am you're back, you're back!" Even Aunty gave me a huge hug--something everyone, including aunty, seemed genuinely surprised by. It felt like I was coming back to my real life. I knew where everything was, I knew everyone's name, I had inside jokes, I was no longer a tourist. I stayed the night at the shelter because I could not bare to leave. I kissed each and every child on the cheek and told them I loved them before we fell asleep. Basama slept next to me and I woke up the next morning surrounded by 45 children eating breakfast. I had slept through the hustle and bustle of all 45 children waking up, playing, sweeping, bringing out massive pans of rice, and talking amongst themselves. I was shocked and a little embarrassed. I looked as Basama and said "dude, why'd you let me sleep?" And just as I should have expected she said, "you were tired, we let you sleep." It occurs to me now, 3 weeks later, that I slept so well because I felt safe and at home. The last time I can remember sleeping like that was through Thanksgiving dinner on my uncles shoulder my first year of high school. Leaving that shelter was one of the most painful things I have ever had to do. I got handfuls of letters thanking me. And gifts that I knew they couldn't afford to give. Before I left the kids were all seated in rows for a presentation. Each and every child (even the 15 new kids from a recently closed shelter) stood up and gave me a hug. I told them I loved them and they said they loved me too. A few began to cry and the once distant rows seemed to blend together, as if seeking comfort in relative proximity. Aruna kept reminding me not to cry, but I couldn't help it. Malika asked me again to take her home and every inch of my body ached. There is nothing more I wanted in that moment than to take her with me. It's been three weeks and I have been thinking about this blog post since the start of my trip. How will I wrap it up? How will I ever be able to articulate this? I've decided that I can't. I don't know if the words will come with time or if I'm destined to carry around this feeling that I can't articulate for the rest of my life. Leaving India feels to me like a loss. There is an overwhelming sense of missing them.I've spoken with the girls since being home and I look at the photos often. That's why it is impossible to articulate. This feeling that sits just below my chest is a concoction of loss, hope to return, and a drive to continue to pursue that level of emboldened happiness again. Perhaps I should invent a word...
I left for a week of travel on May 28th. I am still uncertain if the party that ensued upon this announcement was due to a lack of understanding that I would only be gone a short time, or a desire to enjoy the ice cream I brought. Either way, I was privy to a flood of dancing and singing and a steady stream of gifts. The evening began with my being grabbed by several girls and told to sit still while Aruna found the henna and began to adorn my hands. After the henna was completed to her satisfaction I was pulled into a chair in the back of the room. The kids performed several dances. Narsama choreographed several of the dances and one was a traditional dance of Karnataka. As the dance portion of the evening finished I was relocated to the center of the room and told to close my eyes. Ashwini handed me what appeared to be a picture frame. It was concealed by gold wrapping paper. She had drawn a portrait of me. I wanted desperately to hug her but my hands were seeping in henna. The girls wrote me letters and made me had crafted flowers and even broke out a massive stack of hand made earrings. As I began to tear up at the sight of all of the gifts and kind words the girls began to yell, “No! No crying! No crying! If you cry it means that you will not miss us. Only if you leave with a smile on your face will we know that you won’t ever forget us.” That’s not me paraphrasing, they are sincerely that well spoken. My tears subsided at the humor of being scolded by an 8 year old and I began to pose for the dozens of pictures that followed my face (hopefully) unscathed by the salty tears. I couldn’t sleep the whole night. I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to bring myself to leave. To further complicate the issue, I was sleeping next to a 7 year old who has taken to sleeping horizontally, rather that vertically, in a manner that resembled a starfish. Despite my anxiety and lack of sleep I woke up at 3 am, bathed, and left for the airport. We traveled for one week: I saw Delhi, rode the metro, thought my third travel mate was lost in India, found my third travel mate 4 hours away, took a taxi to Agra at 4 am, gawked at the Taj, held several babies and took lots of photos, drove to Mathura to see Temples, spent too much money on clothes, drove 4 hours to Jaipur, almost threw up on the way, saw a massive fort, took pictures in front of the fort (part of which happened to be covered in glass and gold), went to the markets, spent too much money on gifts, rode an elephant at 12am through the streets of Jaipur, woke up early to drive back to Delhi, got stuck in an airport, arrived in Goa, ate, cooked, saw a beach, ate a pizza, got kicked out of a church, bought some books, ate some more, left at 1 am for Bangalore, saw a woman pee in a street, arrived to a friends apartment at 4am, slept, went to see the girls. *The above paragraph is an accurate description of the last week of my life. Time, my friends, halts for no tourist .
I am in my final week as Sparsha. I am both deeply saddened and ready to begin my travels. I have come to care more about these children than I knew was possible in such a short period of time. I have seen them progress academically and learn to love to read. They are SOOOO excited to bring me a book and say "I read, I read!" I wanted to read them a story and I didn't get through the first sentence before they had began to shout "I want to read now!!" I have always been passionate about education. My mother taught me to love to read and write, she gave me a yearning to learn. My father taught me to work hard and quietly pushed me to work hard and be tenacious. I have always been passionate about education, but it was not until India that I truly understood the value of education. Here is the difference between slums and survival. Not just survival--success. One of the oldest girls, Kavita, just finished her 10th standard exams (comparable to our senior year). She scored incredibly well. In fact, she scored above students from more affluent backgrounds. She was interviewed on tv and a short story was published in the newspaper. Her education began years later than it should have because she went to the construction sites with her mother. She worked when all I did was play and she was still able to achieve success leaps and bounds ahead of her peers. Continue reading
I went to the Bannerghatta National Park yesterday. There were lions and tigers and bears, oh my! (sorry couldn't resist). There were also elephants. I absolutely love elephants, so that was definitely the highlight of my trip. I went with three other volunteers. We navigated the buses and managed not to get too lost. The national park was pretty cool. There was a safari, and a zoo, and a butterfly garden. I have to admit that the constant staring is kind of getting to me. I felt like I was the main attraction. There were rare animals roaming within a few feet, but people preferred to look at me. Most of the time I can ignore it, but yesterday it really got to me. I was glad to return to the shelter and see the kids. I only have one week left and the thought of leaving makes me tear up. I wish I could bring everyone home with me, especially Malika. She us only 8 and hugs me constantly. This week she fell and badly hurt her eye--it was swollen shut. I went with her and some of the older girls to the hospital and I have been taking care of her for the last three days. I worry that the other girls won't wash their hands thoroughly enough so I take care of applying the ointment, despite blood making me nauseous. I just adore her. She is one of those people you meet in life and never forget. I have also really bonded with one of the boys at the shelter, Raju. He is only 6 and speaks very little english, but he loves to yell "Madi" from across the room. I play with him (which mostly involves me running in circles and flying him around like superman) and try to work on his English. He mostly just repeats everything I say. I'm not sure how successful I am, but he sure is cute! The attached picture is Raju asleep on my lap, apparently the book i choose was not up to par!
In the second full week in Bangalore I felt like I’d really found my, as only my father would say, groove. I was no longer surprised to see a cow walk across a main street and I was able to eat more than just white rice. I was, however, feeling like I need a little break from the shelter. I was missing adult conversation and personal space. Just as I was beginning to feel a bit overwhelmed I am invited on the trip on a lifetime. The heads of Sparsha trust, Gopi and Chitra (they're married) offered to take me and 4 other volunteers on a trip, along with their two children. We went to Coorg for 5 days, it the home of Chitra’s family and far more rural than Bangalore. The trip was even more beautiful than I could have anticipated. The food was amazing and the people were so incredibly accommodating. The forests, or jungle as Gopi calls it, is absolutely beautiful. I am from northern Michigan and the tropic flowers and fruit left me in awe. We hiked and swam and experienced a side of this country that I never would have been able to see as a tourist. We also experienced some aspects of Indian culture we would not have been able to alone. We went to a naming ceremony and a festival. We were late to the naming ceremony and missed the actual ceremony, but came in time for food and good conversation. A couple of days later we went to a festival at another temple in a smaller village. I am still unsure what the meaning of the festival was, but we went inside of the temple and we saw a man dressed as a god. I was to grab the rice, which served as a blessing, place the red powder between my eyebrows, and give the god money by placing it on his forehead. It did not happen to me, but for some of the other volunteers they received a blessing. The god told them what would happen in their lives, such as marriage in the near future. I loved the festivals and experiencing the culture, but I was frustrated by constantly being stared at. It was as if I had grown a third leg or I was walking around naked. There were maybe 100 people at the naming ceremony. We walked in and everyone began to stare. I was so uncomfortable I walked to the back. I kid you not, at least 50% of the people turned completely around to continue to stare. One young girl took pictures of us from across the room for at least 5 minutes before we asked if she wanted a “selfie.” It was incredibly unnerving. We returned to the shelter after 5 days and 20 girls all ran and gave us hugs. They told us how much they missed us and how happy they were to see us. In that moment I began to realize how hard it would be to leave. And with that week 3 began….
I'm still waiting for that "why did I do this?" feeling. Every one i talked to warned me that I would experience an overwhelming culture shock. I don't think it was at all luck. I am surrounded by the most amazing children and supportive fellow volunteers. It's not luck--it's them. I'm volunteering with Sparsha in a girls shelter. The girls all speak English, which is again not a miracle, or luck. It is the work of Rupa Madam. She comes everyday for hours on end and teaches the girls to read write and speak English. One girl said that when she wakes up in the morning the first thing she sees is the face of Rupa Madam. She works tirelessly and takes such good care of the girls. They don't get sweets or stars for progress, they get hugs and kisses. Some of these children don't have parents but there is such an incredible feeling of family. I can't bring myself to feel sad or indulge in missing home because I can't get through five minutes without smiling.
One of my good friends forwarded me an email about this fellowship at the end of August. I looked at it and thought, "wow what a cool idea," then it fell to the wayside as school began to pick up. As I was scrolling through my email in late October I ran across it a second time and really began to think seriously about applying. Initially the idea of going alone was intimidating, but as I sit alone in the Frankfurt airport I couldn't me more ready to experience this by myself. India has always fascinated me. Elephants are my absolute favorite. I can remember being young(er) and mesmerized by their role in Indian society. India has a long and beautiful history with Elephants. As I got older my interest in India became less based on elephants and more on how Indian culture differs from American culture. I am so excited to experience a new culture so intimately! I really tried not to get my hopes up about this fellowship. I didn't want to be let down. As soon as i got the email from Janelle, I was completely ecstatic! It felt so good to be able to email Sparsha and tell them that I was definitely coming. Realizing that this abstract application would soon become a reality was both thrilling and terrifying. I chose Sparsha because they are a large organization that seeks to reach numerous facets of society. Nisarga Grama is just one branch of a very large organization. I am in the Elementary Education program, so I knew that I wanted to do something with kids. Sparsha does this in a lot of different ways, but the permanent shelters really peeked my interest. They facilitate residential education programs for underprivileged kids. It's a concept that I think is really awesome and could be adapted in the US. Most alternative Ed programs in the US aren't residential. It will be interesting to see the difference a residential program makes in terms of academic success.While at Sparsha I am working to understand the relationship between residential programming and educational progression. Many of the kids Sparsha works with were engaged in child labor or come from homes that did not facilitate access to education. They are far behind in terms of grade level when they arrive and the shelters do an incredible job of bringing the kids up to where they need to be. Continue reading