3.27.2009

intensely india

Since Art of Living really was its own experience I figured it deserved its own blog entry, not to mention the fact that you deserve not to read a zillion pages of blog at a time.

The morning after Dakshinachitra my friend Hannah and I decided we really wanted to get on one of the service visits that SAS was doing the next day. We got up early and were able to make it on the bus for the visit to the Samarpana handicapped home and orphanage.

The Samarpana visit was great but heartbreaking at the same time. We arrived at the home and there were about 55 mentally and physically disabled people ranging from small children to adults. We all went into a large square room and were given time to just hang out and play before they ate breakfast. The entire room was full of excitement as we played catch, hand clapping games, and just hung out. The highlight for the kids though, was seeing cameras. They loved them and wanted to take a million pictures. They loved to take a picture and then run over to have you show it to them on the screen, laughing and smiling whenever they saw themselves in a photo.  I took pictures with three little kids named Vijay, Lakshmi and Priyanka and played catch with my friend Taylor and another one of the kids.

After playing it was time for everyone to have breakfast. We passed out big tin plates to everyone and they were given scoops of rice and a sweet that I can only describe as really thick cream of wheat but sweeter. We all sat back while they ate their breakfast and then we split up into groups to do work around the house/school. People did laundry, cleared dishes, and took rags to start dusting. They needed people to clip fingernails so some of my friends and I volunteered. Everyone eats with their hands so it’s important that their nails are kept short and clean so no one gets sick. None of the kids or adults spoke English but we communicated with charades and everyone was very sweet while we cut their nails.

After all the nails were clipped I played some cricket with the kids in the front yard. Basically we just had a ball and a big plastic cricket bat and it reminded me of playing baseball in the backyard with my dad as a kid. I would pitch and the kids would hit, with some helping me field. I played a lot with Vijay and he was hilarious, responding to jokes and striking poses whenever I would pretend to wind up too much or take too long to pitch.  After cricket I went inside to play with a few more of the kids and everyone eventually filtered back into the big square room to play more before it was time to go.

Almost all of the kids we met had some kind of mental or physical disability but there were a few kids that the people who ran the home called “flappy children”. They didn’t speak, were unable to move their arms or legs and their limbs were so small and frail. One of the little girls, Swetha, was 7 years old but she looked like she couldn’t have been older than one or two.  My friend Hannah spent almost the entire morning holding this one little boy named Suresh. Even though he couldn’t really move or speak you could tell that he was totally aware of his surroundings and when he smiled his whole face lit up like a light. When the kids were dusting the grate above the square room Hannah pretended that dust was going to fall on their heads and would pretend to scream and run and spin in order to avoid it. Suresh absolutely loved this game and was smiling from ear to ear the whole time.

It was really great to get to visit the home, play with all the kids and the adults, and to hold the children. Everyone we met was well cared for and all of them were so sweet. But at the same time, all of us left feeling a little helpless. The people who live at Samarpana are the ones who no one in society wanted. Their families abandoned them, the hospitals said they were lost causes and wouldn’t treat them, and they were just given up on. The home gives them a nice place to live, clothes and food and schooling, but there’s just so much that they need and so little that can be done. There are 55 of them and only 5 people who work in the home.  The people who work there provide wonderful care, but they’re spread so thin. Even something little, like clipping fingernails, is a task. Between that and bathing, dressing, feeding and teaching everyone it leaves very little time for things like playing cricket or holding the kids like Swetha and Suresh. It really impressed upon me how much people need each other and I was reminded of Veda's lecture on responsibility. There is so much that needs to be done and I hope that I can at least do something.

After leaving Samarpana we headed back to the ship for lunch before heading out to explore Chennai. A group of us decided to get into some auto rickshaws and check out the city. Auto rickshaws are these little three-wheeled taxis which are basically a motorbike with a three person backseat, covered top and open sides. The six of us piled into two rickshaws and headed out into Chennai. We had heard that the traffic in India was crazy and we were not disappointed. There were motorbikes everywhere, other rickshaws, cars and buses. There are lanes but no one really uses them and driving through the city is a symphony of horns. Unlike in the US, car horns aren’t just for when you get cut off, but rather a way to let other drivers know where you are and what you’re doing. You honk when you’re passing, coming up next to someone, moving over, and just like home, when you’re pissed off at the other drivers. The horns are all different tones and pitches and you hear them everywhere. I loved riding in the rickshaws though and kind of really wish I could take one home. It would be great to cruise around Middlebury/Woodbury in the summer with the sides open and the breeze coming in. India is so hot and the breeze in the rickshaw felt so good.

After our adventures in traffic we arrived at the Pondi Bazaar. We walked around and bought some bangles, henna paste and took in the sights and smells. More than any other place I’ve been, smell was the sense that captured India. Walking through the city is a mix of sewage, jasmine flowers, fruit, garbage, food cooking at street stands, car exhaust, henna, smog and spices. We wandered around, stopped to try some Indian sweets (everyone really liked the ghee), and then went back to our rickshaw drivers. Taylor and Jess wanted to get some henna done so our drivers took us to two guys on the street just outside the bazaar. The men worked so quickly and the henna was absolutely beautiful. Even though Hannah and I had gotten some on our palms at Dakshinachitra we sat down and got the other side of our hands done because their work was just so intricate.

We had heard of a great place called Mocha to go for dinner but we still had some time to kill so the rickshaw drivers took us to a few shops downtown. They way it works is that the drivers have certain stores and if they take you to them then they get a kickback and if you buy something they get even more. The problem starts when you have a destination and they keep making unwanted pit stops. People wanted to see some handicrafts so we let the drivers take us to the stores they knew. There was one store that had really funny salesmen and we quickly made friends. Most of the guys working there were around our age or a little older and we had a good time joking around with them. Hannah and I ended up buying Christmas ornaments and they said that if we bought one, we could have one of the salesmen for free. We ended up just getting two ornaments but we stayed for a soda and a picture before heading back out.

At this point we wanted to go to Mocha but the drivers told us it didn’t open until 5:30. We let them take us to one more place, popped our heads in and left. We asked them to take us to the restaurant and they said it didn’t open until 6:30. At this point we realized that we were being “given a haircut” as my dad likes to say and we adamantly insisted that they take us to Mocha.  After some more stop attempts and more insisting we finally made it to the restaurant, which we found out had opened at 11am. After some terse words with the drivers, we went into the restaurant. We were all a little shaken up by our tension with the rickshaw drivers, but after we walked into the restaurant we immediately felt better.

The place was really cool. Completely outdoors with lights everywhere, comfy booths, long low tables with pillows and a river flowing down the middle, one table and chairs covered in Astroturf and just a really neat atmosphere. They had a menu full of really tasty sounding western food and a huge assortment of hookah flavors. Plus, free wi-fi. We settled into a booth and spent a while reading over the long menu. They had whole pages for milkshake flavors, kinds of coffee and lots of sandwiches. We ordered  a whole bunch of sandwiches, shakes, teas and some blueberry hookah. We smoked our hookah and joked about our rickshaw adventure until the food started to arrive. Everyone got theirs but mine hadn’t come out yet so I told them to just eat figuring it would be out soon. We asked someone and they said it was coming but pretty soon everyone else was done and I was still sandwich-less. Bummer. Everyone ordered dessert and eventually I got a hold of someone and explained that it was really no big deal but can I please have some food? Finally once the desserts had been consumed, my sandwich came and I think I made my chicken and pesto croque-monsiuer disappear in record time.

After inhaling my dinner I decided that I wasn’t quite ready to head back to the ship for the night so I ended up staying with some of our other friends from Art of Living who had been seated at the booth next to us. We smoked some more hookah and I had some really tasty masala chai. On the way home the five of us squeezed into a rickshaw and decided to play the rickshaw game where you try and touch as many other cars and rickshaws as you can while you’re in traffic. Double points if you high five someone and a million points if you can switch places with someone driving a motorbike and no one notices. We had a great time all smushed into the rickshaw with Hussain trying to high five people and no one knowing why he was sticking his hand out at them.

The next morning was our last in Chennai so we decided to go see the Shiva temple and then get some last minute shopping done before heading back to the ship. The Shiva temple is a Hindu temple in the middle of the city and it’s so colorful and beautiful. All of the Hindu temples we saw were so intricate and just exploding with color. The tops of the temple towers were covered with carvings of gods and goddess and stories from the Ramayana and the Gita and its almost overwhelming to try and take in all the imagery.

 We walked around and over to one side in the temple and saw that there was a wedding going on. I’ve always wanted to go to an Indian wedding so I walked over to get a closer look. A few people came over to my friend Disha and I and it turns out they were the brother and sister of the bride. Apparently Indian people really like to have tourists at their weddings? Or so we had heard, but they asked us if we wanted to take a picture with the bridge and groom. We jumped at the chance. A bunch of younger girls at the wedding must have gotten a kick out of us as well b/c they walked up shyly and asked if we could take a picture with them too. We did and talked for a little while before piling back in the rickshaws and heading out.

All of us brought our laptops and went to Mocha again for omelets and free wi-fi and then headed over to Spencer mall for last minute shopping. I bought a bunch of silk scarves as gifts and we browsed the book stores and silk shops before heading back to the ship.

After India you could really sense a change in everyone on the ship. We all had a lot on our minds and if the trip had started to change us before, it was really starting to show now. My friends and I all went to the post-port reflection meeting where people get up to share their stories from the port and everyone had something to say about the children, the cows, the poverty and the garbage. But we also had so much to say about the kindness of everyone we met, the beauty of the country, the awe people felt when seeing the Taj. We had been put in the middle of a place so different to what we were familiar with and it was both wonderful and overwhelming.

I know that my experience in India will inform the rest of my travels and will stick with me long after I arrive back in the states. I want to return as soon as possible and see the rest of the country – Agra, Jaipur, Varanasi, Kerala and Delhi – and experience their strong regional identities.

In the meantime though, the travels continue, and as we race through Asia I know that I will continue to be changed by my experiences. I’m looking forward to it and look forward to sharing it with you.

1 comment:

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