Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Photos from India

Day 1 - Travel

Met my brother and father at the Newark airport during my layover for lunch. My father happened to be visiting my brother in NYC from Seattle.

I later arrived in Deli as scheduled. Smooth traveling and the 14 hour flight from Newark to Delhi wasn’t bad at all. The Indian dish served during the flight was probably the best food I’ve eaten on a plane. A car picked us up at the airport and took us directly to the nearby hotel so I didn’t see much of Delhi. As expected, there were bike rickshaws, auto rickshaws (motorcycle/rickshaw), trucks, old Ambassador cabs, scooters, cattle and people walking all over the roads as we weaved our way to the hotel.

After an Indian feast at the hotel, it’s off to bed. Tomorrow we fly from Delhi to Ranchi (1.5 hours or so). We then take the train 3.5+ hours through rural India to Rourkela, the first children’s home we will visit.

Day 2 - Ranchi

Woke up to another excellent meal – breakfast at the hotel. Then off to the Delhi airport for our flight to Ranchi. When we arrived in Ranchi, it felt like we were really IN India. We drew attention. The misplaced Americans with all of their baggage, fumbling around to find their passports. Amy in our group is blonde so she received extra stares. Silent eyes that would quickly dart away when your eyes met theirs. Our driver picked us up at the airport and off we went…into downtown Ranchi. This is when India became vividly alive to me. The colors…women dressed in beautiful saris walking with baskets on their heads, brightly colored shirts whizzing by on mopeds, brightly painted buildings. The smells…not neccesarly a bad smell as I had come to expect from what I had heard, but the smell of life. The floating aroma of the street vendors, spices, incense, of humanity going about their everyday life. Children getting off school, walking proudly in their uniforms. As the driver sped through the streets, sometimes on the wrong side of the road, dodging bikes, trucks, cars, rickshaws, animals and people walking on the streets, I realized that the horn in India is not a tool to utilize AFTER something has happened (i.e. someone cut you off) but simply a means to let others know you there…you are coming up behind them and you’d better move your ass over an inch or two so I can squeeze by. The rules of India driving are simple: the bigger you are, the more leeway you get. As you can imagine, the hierarchy is simple: big trucks rule, then it goes down from there…buses, vans, cars, auto rickshaws, bikes and then people on foot. Oh yeah, cattle are considered sacred in India so they can do whatever they want, including plopping down in the middle of the street and stopping traffic.  Watch the video of our drive here.

Our first stop was an indoor bazaar. As our two cars stopped in front of the 3 story shopping complex, the busy street seemed to momentarily come to a halt to take a look at us. Who were we and what were we up to? Within seconds we were surrounded by onlookers. A young girl, no older than 5, begged for change with her outstretched hand. Giving to the children on the street does not help the children. Their receipts typically go directly to their keepers. People exploit these innocent children as the front line to seek money.

Inside the bazaar were groceries, household items, clothing…just about everything. I snapped a couple of photos and shot some video from outside, much to the amusement of the locals. Barbara, the Miracle Foundation Travel Coordinator, caught my attention and asked if I wanted to go on an adventure.  Before I knew what was happening, she put 20 Rupees (about 40 cents) in my hand and pushed me onto a rickshaw saying she’d meet me with the rest of the group for lunch and gave the driver directions. I had told myself I wouldn’t take a rickshaw, simply because I am familiar with the high level of traffic accidents and fatalities in India…rickshaw versus overloaded bus does not have a good outcome. Nonetheless, there I was, zipping through the downtown hustle and bustle of Ranchi loving every second of it.

After a buffet lunch and my first Kingfisher (local beer), it was time to catch the train to Rourkela. Another fast and furious car ride ended at the train station. A little boy, all of 4 or 5, followed me all the way down the platform, tugging at my hand with his little fingers, begging for any change I could spare. It’s not easy to look away and ignore the children on the streets and train stations but I understand that by giving to them, the problem is only made worse and the child does not benefit. These are the kids we are here to help but giving them money on the streets is not the solution.

The train took us through the beautiful countryside. Fields of rice and vegetables, cattle, families living in very modest shelters. You could see very young children tending the cattle and working in the fields. It was peaceful. The people out here don’t know what they are missing. When you’ve never had, you never want. I found it interesting when I would see a woman out in the middle of a field, surrounded by nothing but countryside, but she would be dressed to the tops in a colorful sari, her hair made up perfectly.

Day 3 - Rourkela

Finally saw the kids today! 45 minute insane drive to the orphanage. It's hard to describe the roads until you see the video (the the video link at the top right of the page). There are 111 smiling faces at the Rourkela childrens home. We played games, read books, drew pictures and wore each other out. We brought candy (tootsie rolls, lolipops and jolly ranchers). It was like Christmas. It's the simple things....Tomorrow, we are going to try to take the older kids (10-13yrs) out to see a movie. They have NEVER been to a theater! They are going to flip out. Now if I only knew how to fit 12 kids into a 5 passenger vehicle....(those are nothing but simple formalities in India).

Day 4 - Rourkela

Returned to Rourkela. The kids were happy to see us back. Now that the kids know us a little better, their personality is starting to come out. More of them are also becoming very “clingy”. They just want to be held and loved. There is a 10 to 1 child to housemother ratio. With that being the case, the children just simply don’t receive a ton of 1 on 1 parent time with affection. It’s evident that this is what they crave. Many of them would just walk up to you with hands outstretched begging to be held. Simple affection…to be squeezed and hugged. And we gave it to them.

Sambhu was always around me. Vikram wanted to be my best friend. Pawan wouldn’t leave my side and always had hands outstretched. Sumatra with her undeniable smile. Krishna, the inquisitive one. Alex, with his furrowed brow always slightly suspect of the situation. And then there is Sourab…unfortunately Sourab still has the blank stare. The not quite present look. His this arms and legs very thin and weak. I spent a lot of time with him today. He slipped off a step and hit his head 3 steps down and left a big welt and a little cut. He later had a high fever so I gave him to the house nurse to tend to. I am anxious to see him tomorrow. Deby, is always smiling. Joseph just turned 4 but is still in a crib. My understanding is that his mother tried to end his life right after he was born. He was found several days later on a river bank and brought to the home 8 days after he was born with brain damage. Anna is a little sweetheart. And how can you talk about the Rourkela home without talking about Deepak? Deepak arrived at the home erased. The blank stare of a child abandoned. He showed no emotion. He now is the liveliest kid in the bunch. Always smiling. Willing to try anything. Always in the mix of things. An irresistible prankster with a heart of gold.

We had hoped to take the older kids to the movie theater for the first time today. Unfortunately the 4-plex now only has one theater and the movie was not suitable for children. We instead played with bubbles and introduced new games (Uno, Simon Says, Hot Hands). I brought a soccer ball for the boys that we played for a couple of hours. I either broke a toe yesterday running around or tore something in my foot but I tried not to let it slow me down. The chance to play with these kids is short and my opportunity for healing is long.

Just outside the ashram’s doors, the local outdoor market was open on Wednesday and bustling. Selling herbs & spices, vegetables, jewelry, clothing and shoes, it’s was where the locals go to shop. Again, as the only Westerners in town, we drew a lot of attention as we walked trough. It’s a nonthreatening non-obtrusive attention but nonetheless, a little unsettling at times.

A couple of local stories of note:
In the town of Biramitripur, just outside of Rourkela where the home is, there has been a ramped rumor that the town has been plagued by demons. According to the rumors, the demons have been stealing babies after dark, taking them to the riverside, and gorging their eyes out before killing them. As a result of the rumors, the town’s people have been retiring early with fear. The stronger, braver men have been patrolling the streets with sticks to beat off any demons that they may see. The unfortunate result is that several locals have been beaten to death simply because they were thought to be possible demons. As has been advised by the local elders, we’ve left town a little early each night as to avoid any confusion that we may be the “demons”.

Additionally, the anti-government activity of the Naxals has caused a number of strikes in the area. Power was shut off for most of the day in the area. This costs the government money. Additionaly, the truckers have been striking and parking their trucks on the roads. This has caused huge traffic jams resulting in long delays in getting back to our hotel (the 45 minute drive taking 1.5-2 hours).

Each evening has ended back at the hotel, sipping on a Kingfisher beer, eating another splendid meal and reflecting on the day past. Recalling our experiences with the children and the special moments that we had. The hotel restaurant TV shows a cricket match. In fact, every TV I’ve seen is tuned in to a cricket match…in the airport, in the hotels, in the villages. It’s certainly the equivalent of American Football in India if not bigger. I never had a chance to play Cricket with the kids. I was hoping to learn how to play.

We have one more day at Rourkela. From there we take the train and car back to Ranchi and on to Sooch Village, the second home we will be visiting. My goal for tomorrow is to spend even more time with the older boys. They have no father to interact with in their lives. They seem eager to engage and excited to talk about the things that they are learning in school and what they want to be when they grown up. I also hope to be able to visit a local tribal village in the area. Most of the Rourkela orphans come to us from the nearby villages…very primitive areas that I hope to explore.

Day 5 - Rourkela

Last day visiting Rourkela. I now have 111 new children. We bought nail polish for the housemothers. The housemothers are the only parents the children have....10 children per one housemother. We pulled them all aside for chai and sweets and handed out nail polish. You should have seen the grins as they polished their nails. Such a little gesture meant so much to them. Later we decided to go buy ice cream for the kids. This is only the second time that most of the kids have ever had ice cream so it was a huge hit! The older kids put on a show of song and dance since it was our last night. Such pride went into the performance. It's amazing how attached the children and volunteers got after only 3 days. I am called "Uncle" and the girls in the group are "Auntie".

The drive home was filled with reflection about the kids. After only a couple of days, the chaotic drive home didn't even seem out of place. The bus overstuffed with 60 people or the full dump truck that almost hit us head on...par for the course. The water buffalo on the road that our car literally skinned, no big deal. The motorcycles and people walking on the road that we nearly knocked into the ditch...all part of the drive. Such a different feeling from the first time we drove this road. All of a sudden, the chaotic nature of the road had organization. A strategic structure. Thy type of horn pattern or headlight blink began to make sense.

Each evening has ended with a huge meal back at the hotel talking about the day we just experienced. Dewali fireworks in town have begun. The train horn continues to echo through the night.

Tomorrow we catch a train back to Ranchi and then hop in a car for the 30 minute ride to Sooch Village, home to 140 more Miracle Foundation children. We spend a couple of nights there, sleeping in the orphanage before we head back to Delhi.  Unfortunately, since the anti-government group the Naxals have have been active in Ranchi, we probably won’t go outside Sooch’s walls.


I noticed little Sourab off in the distance, watching the other kids play so I walked over to him. He had stayed away from the rest of action with a blank stare. His arms and legs were stick thin and lacking muscle tone. His small hands and feet almost felt like they didn’t have bones in them. Although he is 3 ½ years old, he looks all of 2. I picked him up and held him for a while, walking around and talking to him. He barely acknowledged me. I tried to get a smile out of him…acting goofy and tickling him but barely got a reaction. When I put him down, he stood there looking off into the distance. Later in the day, I found him on the steps with a bunch of other kids. He was trying to get a piece of the candy we were handing out but slipped down 3 steps landing on his forehead. His soft cry was barely heard above the other children’s voices as his housemother carried him away. Throughout the 3 days at Rourkela, I tried to engage Sourab with little reaction.

On our last night, after saying goodbye to the children, I went looking for Sourab. When I found the group of toddlers, I picked Sourab up and told him that I was leaving. For the first time, he held me tight. As I tried to put him down, he clung onto me. I finally loosened the grip of Sourab and the other 5 children hanging onto my arms and legs, told them I had to go and walked across the yard back to the main house heading towards our waiting car. The other toddlers followed me, some of them calling “Uncle” Uncle”. Probably 10 of them, all except little Sourab who remained across the yard, sobbing. I had to go back. I held him tight in my arms and carried him with me towards the car in front of the house, finally kissing him on the head and passing him off to a housemother. Sourab is in a home filled with love and will be just fine, but he is the one that will stick with me.

Little Hands Everywhere

Little hands everywhere, holding you, pulling you, begging for attention and affection. Outstretched arms, hoping for a lift into the air and a big hug. “Uncle” “Uncle” coming from every direction, vying for a little piece of love. Every time you lean down or sit, 10 little ones run to jump into your lap or try to climb onto you. Some affectionately rub your arms and legs, admiring the hair not seen on their bodies. There is genuine concern about the slightest scrape they may find on you. There is never too much affection to share.

Day 6 - Arrival at Sooch Village

Today we checked out of the hotel in Rourkela and took the train to the Haiti station (Ranchi) on our way to Sooch Village in Hatia. At the Rourkela station, we again saw men, women and children living on the rail platform. A boy, probably 8, was begging for money. Both of his feet were turned upside down and inward and he was walking on the outside tops of his feet. Although there is no way of knowing for sure, many children seen begging that have physical deformities (burned, missing limbs, missing eyes, badly scarred) have been purposely injured in order to garner more sympathy from passer bys and thus generate more money for those who they report to and pass along their collections. It’ hard to imagine and even harder to look at.

The train system in India is extensive, connecting nearly every part of India. The view from the train is beautiful. Plush green rolling hills, rice patties, people working in the fields and kids playing. We pass villagers walking on small foot trails that meander seemingly aimlessly. A woman rides her bike through a field wearing her bright orange sari with a bail of hay strapped to her back. People are on the banks of the rivers, bathing, washing their clothes and their pots and pans. Our driver picked us up at the train station in Hatia for one of the more uncomfortable drives we have had. 45 minutes of dodging the now expected (cars, bikes, walkers, buses, trucks, motorcycles, goats, chickens, cows, water buffalo and children walking home from school). There were many near misses, which to the driver were most definitely just part of the drive. No wonder he makes the sign of the cross and blesses himself before he begins driving.

We stopped in Ranchi for a little shopping and lunch. I continued to be impressed that for the most part, those selling their wares on the streets do not bother us when we walk buy, even knowing that we likely have Western money, and a lot of it in comparison to them. Out of nowhere, we stumbled upon a Baskin Robbins. Throughout the trip, I have rarely seen Western influence whatsoever except for the occasional McDonald's in Delhi. Ice cream sure tasted good at that point. A scoop of Oreo and another of caramel cashew with hot fudge. Thanks for asking.

As we headed back to the car, a woman approached me with her wrapped infant in her hands and begged for money, saying she needed to feed her child. It’s another one of those situations that is very hard to look at.  It's hard to know for sure, but many woman like this are sent out to beg by someone else, possibly someone for whom she owes a debt. By offering her money, we are only feeding into the problem. This sort of site has been common throughout our travels.

As we headed out of town,we made another stop the to buy Dewali (pronounced deep-wali) lights and fireworks for tomorrow’s celebrations. We walked up to a stand selling fireworks. The boy, probably 12, was intrigued and probably a little confused by our presence. I started picking out the things we wanted to buy. The look on his face when he realized how much stuff we were going to buy was priceless: a grin from ear to ear. The dozen of other smaller children who had gathered looked on in amusement. We were again the center of attention as people gazed from across the street.

As we left the town of Hatia and Ranchi, we began to see the beautiful countryside we had seen from the train. The last 10-15 minutes of the drive was on dirt road, even further into the country. Finally, Sooch Village was upon us. Sooch is the model Miracle Foundation home. There are 20 separate homes. Eleven are currently being used with each housing no more than 10 children and a housemother. Each home has it’s own kitchen, bathrooms and dining/common area. The model is set up to resemble the way a family would typically live. There is an area for prayers and activities, cricket/futbol field, playground and several gardens including a vegetable garden. The Miracle Foundation hopes to build and modify each of their homes into this model and eventually, after any modifications or tweaks are made to the orphanage design, TMF will make the model available throughout the world as the standard orphanage model for others to emulate.

Sooch had to wire electricity from the main road into the countryside where the home is. There are electric poles running along the rough road about 2 kilometers to the home marked with “Sooch Village”. As is typical in India, the poles have been tapped/spliced into by the local villagers. Each pole has smaller runner wires running off of them where a local has climbed up the telephone pole and rigged a spliced wired running down to their home. Although not in the original plan I am sure, Sooch is helping bring electricity to the enitire village!

When we arrived, we introduced ourselves and gave Tootsie Rolls to the children, played futball (soccer to you) with the ball I brought them and taught them how to play Simon Says which they had never played. They never quite got the part about not doing what I say when I didn’t say “Simon Says”, they just imitated my every move (see the video link at the top right of the page "India Trip - Part 3"). We ran around until our sandals fell off playing “Bulldog”…a game the kids love where they all line up on one side of the huge field. A couple of us on the other side call out “Bulldog” and they all come racing to our side of the field. Or job is to run after them and catch them before they reach the other side. Those caught are now on our team. The last one that goes uncaught wins. The toe I likely broke our first day at Rourkela is still swollen and the top of my foot bruised. I’m limping around and can’t run as fast as I would like but it’s not going to slow me down. I’ll deal with it when I get back to states. The opportunity to run around with these kids won’t come again soon and the look on their faces when you chase after them is more than worth it.

It was then time for snack and evening prayers. Tonight was movie night. The Little Mermaid had 150 children entranced. The lights would sometimes turn off for several minutes, as is common here, before the generator was cranked up. As the movie started over at the beginning, you would have never known that the children had not just watched the same first 15 minutes.

8pm was dinner then time to retire.

It’s very peaceful here. I could see the belt of the Milky Way through the thousands of stars last night as I tried to keep my eyes open.

Day 7 - Sooch Village

We spent part of today taking videos of the volunteers talking to the individual children to send back to each child’s sponsor. We thanked the sponsor and give them a little update about their child. The children weren’t quite comfortable with us yet so it was hard to get them to open up. We then rounded all of the housemothers up like we did at Rourkela and after thanking them for their tremendous work with the children, we gave them each nail polish. Purple seemed to be the favorite color but the women were so gracious, insisting the house mother next to her choose her color preference first. Most of them immediately began putting the polish on with big grins on their faces.

I got to know the kids more today. We brought out the coloring books, stickers and pipe cleaners we had bought. The kids go crazy over what may seem like little stuff like this. I was instantly surrounded by dozens of kids begging for a simple pipe cleaner. Hands outreached, begging “Uncle” “Uncle” and pulling at my arms. Funny thing was, they had no idea what to do with them. I made a quick pair of eyeglasses out of them and put them on. Big mistake. The kids now all wanted me to make them a pair. The idea was to get them to be creative and make things out of them. Instead, I was like the guy who makes balloon animals at the country fair as the kids lined up to have me make something for them. Every one wanted spectacles. We also had temporary tattoos which were a huge hit, especially with the boys.

I brought out the several pair of drum sticks I had brought with me along with a couple of egg shakers. I made a makeshift drum set out of a two liter water bottle mostly filled with water (the bass) an empty plastic peanut butter jar partially filled with water (snare), a steel kettle, a steel plate (china symbol), plastic bowl and I set it up next to two PVC pipes running out of the building and a plastic trash can that I could beat on. It made a pretty decent set. The children really had no idea what I was doing at first as I set it all up. As I started playing, about 60 of them crowded around in amazement. I handed out a couple of pair of the extra sticks that I brought and a shaker and got the children into the action. Eventually, I handed all of the drumsticks over to the children and stepped back to watch the chaos. It wasn’t long before they had a pretty decent beat going. I left the sticks behind for the kids, likely to the dismay of the housemothers who will now have to deal with the kids beating on everything in the house!  Video here of them playing.

It was time to start preparing Sooch for Diwali. Lights were placed around each of the 11 home doors as well as the main admin building. We then filled 100 small clay pots with oil and a wick. The pots are placed at the highest point of the house so all of the rooftops were lined with them. The village looked great after dark with all of the string lights and candles. Next up: Ice Cream and sweets time! We brought in ice cream from the town 30 minutes away. As the kids were chowing down, I snuck off to set up the firework display. After they all ate, they were escorted to a field next to my set up. We handed out sparklers to everyone….they loved it. It was then time for the “big” show. I used sparklers to beginning shooting up bottle rockets. The fuses were almost non-existent, each only about half an inch long. Just as I touched the flame to the fuse, it shot off, shooting sparks right by my head. The housemothers came over and got into the action, lighting off fireworks with laughing uncontrollably. The closer the fire rockets came to hitting someone, the harder they laughed. It was so great to watch them cut loose tonight.

Later on after the fireworks, I was walking down the walkway to the main gathering area and noticed 5 girls sitting in a circle singing a song (in complete darkness). I quietly took a seat next to them and listened. Their little voices were perfectly harmonized. I pulled out my camera, flipped it to video and began to record the sounds. I then closed my eyes and let their soft Hindi verses take me away. Beautiful.

Over at the prayer hall (an outdoor gazebo where a lot of the home gatherings take place), music and dancing had ensued. The younger girls showed off some contemporary moves as the housemothers enjoyed classic Indian line dancing. Everyone was having a blast.

This trip has emphasized more than ever that with a loving, nurturing environment, happiness follows. Material possessions don’t factor into the equation. There is happiness all around here. A one year old playing endlessly with a bottle cap he found, another boy running around with a piece of thread tied to a kite made out of sticks and a plastic bag, hoping for just a little gust of wind to lift his creation into the air, even if just for a second. Another, with a well-worn matchbox car, tied to what looked to be several threads of material joined together, pulling the car through the dirt. All enjoying themselves, as all children should. Such a different life than living a day-to-day existence because of poverty, begging on the streets, laboring for a few rupees a day or worse yet, lured into child trafficking or prostitution.

The woods surrounding the Sooch Village home are filed with tribal villagers. As Sooch quieted for the evening, I could hear them beating on drums in the dark night. All around us, invisible in the night except for an occasional flashlight, were thousands of villagers. We had hoped to head into town to check out the local Dewali celebration. Unfortunately, we were advised to stay within Sooch’s walls due to the Naxal activity in the area. Many of them live just outside of the ashrams gates.

Day 8 - Sooch Village

As we have seen at Rourkela and Sooch, the older children take on a parenting role. Ravi is the oldest boy at Sooch and is an example. At age 8, he has become one of the leaders. Without prompting, he quickly steps in as a father figure, retaining order, disciplining the younger ones who are out of line, assisting the staff and housemothers with every request. Santosh, also one of the oldest plays the same role. Today he and half a dozen other kids were building goal posts for their futbol field. After digging holes with a stick tied onto a spike, they used three long branches, to create a regulation size goal.

After some more quality time with the children, it was time to say our goodbyes. All of the children came out of their individual homes walking in a straight line over to the main admin building were we were preparing to get into our car. Silently, all 150 of them stood in front of us, some with a few tears in their eyes. We said thank you and goodbye and we were off, waving hands fading in the distance.

Today, we are to go back to Delhi. The Naxal influence is affecting a number pieces of the communication and transportation infrastructure in the areas in which they are active. A strike by the airline workers caused our original flight to be canceled. Barbara (our travel coordinator) quickly had us on another airline a couple of hours later. Barbara is a travel star. Throughout this trip, she coordinated everything: Every flight, every car, every hotel, every meal, confirming reservations and booking new ones when flights got canceled. From a travel logistics standpoint, this is the easiest trip I have ever taken. I didn’t have to think about a thing when it came to the travel. Barbara made what could have been an uncomfortable situation in a very foreign country very easy.  We split with Barbara in Ranchi and Amy, Susan and I hopped the flight back to Delhi. Barbara is staying India for another week completing work at some of the homes.

Day 9 - Delhi

Tonight, I sit in a hotel in Delhi…my last night in India. Susan and Amy are catching a late night (early morning) 4am flight back to the states so they stayed in the Delhi airport. As I sit in the Delhi hotel restaurant after once again an amazing meal, it’s 1:30am. I am alone and able to begin to silently process the last 9 days. All of the children I have come to know, the extraordinary house mothers and home directors who make this all possible, the amazing people I have met throughout my travels. This trip has been everything I hoped and more. Chai tea in the states will never be as good as the one I currently sip. I will miss the great India breakfasts, the Nescafe coffees (I don’t even like coffee!), but most profoundly, the hundreds of children that I have come to know and the amazing house mothers at Rourkela and Sooch Village.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Day 10 - Delhi

Delhi, like all of India’s large cities, tells two tales.  That of economic advancement and prosperity and that of utter poverty, living literally side by side.  Outside of my relatively posh hotel window, an untouchable woman sweeps the adjacent alley, as a monkey walks across a fence behind her, a rundown and abandoned apartment building sits empty except for the squaters living in its shadow.  Tall skyrises look down on slums housing millions.

I had breakfast in the hotel before heading out to explore.  As I sipped my chai and ate my uttapam and aloo bhaj, my eyes scanned the room.  Europeans and Americans tourists milled about, fresh stringed marigolds placed around their necks, fanny packs and cameras in tow, picking out the most Western food they could recognize from the buffet.  Western businessmen prepared for a day at the office.   I found myself yearning for the home cooked breakfast of the housemothers, the smell of the open fire heating the morning coffee at Rourkela, the children peering into our dining area waiting for us to come out to play with them.   I missed the cities of Ranchi and Rourkela, where a Westerner was not to be seen for days, the locals going about their business while we peered in on their world.  I wanted to go back to my room and go back to bed rather that visit the markets I feared would be populated with Westerners trying to haggle, or the sites I had on my list to check out that would likely be filled with tourists. 

As I hit the streets, it felt like India again.  Busy, congested, full of color and life.  I walked several blocks around Connaught Circle towards a couple of large markets that I had heard about.  Along the way, street vendors filled the air with the smell of spice.  In Delhi, I got approached more often by someone trying to get me to go into their store, use their taxi or cut me a special deal “just for me” than I had in the rural cities.   I purused Janpath, the Tibetan Market and the underground Palinka market, which sold handcrafts, materials and saris, jewelry, shoes and clothing.  I also went into Central Cottage Industries Emporium, which has all fixed pricing (versus haggling at the street vendors).   I picked up some dresses, bindis (beaded stickers that Indians stick on their forehead between their eyes) and anklets for my girls, a couple of scarves from some hard bargaining tribal woman lining a back alley, a hand carved drum that I was pretty impressed with (got him down to $16US).  I think I did pretty well with haggling which is not only accepted, it’s expected and part of the process.  Both parties in the transaction need to feel satisfied with their efforts and the outcome.

After a quick lunch, I headed back out towards The Red Fort only to find it was closed on Mondays so I had the driver take me to South Delhi to Hauz Khas, a relaxed setting of thin alleys sided with contemporary Indian art galleries, upscale boutiques, antique shops and rooftop cafes.  Also in the area are a set of ruins and tombs from the thirteen hundreds which was pretty cool to walk through.  I wound down with a beer at a contemporary hip bistro and some dinner before my waiting cab took me back to the hotel to grab my luggage and on to the airport for my 11pm flight back to the states. 

What an amazing trip this has been.  To see and interact with such smart and positive children in a truly humbling environment, to see such diverse Indian culture, from the cities to the hillsides, from the traditional to the tribal, crossing many religions and cultural boundaries, the bright colors and ornate dressing of the woman regardless of class or status, the chaotic roads, filled with cars, trucks, pedestrians, rickshaws, motorcycles, cows, chickens, water buffalo and goats, the train through the country, the added unknown of the Naxalites activities and the celebration of Dewali “The Festival of Lights”.

I’ve heard people say “You can leave India but India never leaves you”…now I know exactly that they mean.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Why India? Why Miracle Foundation? What made you decide to do this?

Understandable questions. 25 million orphans are living in India—a number equivalent to the population of the entire state of Texas. An estimated 31% of children in India surviving past the age of one will die before the age of five. Children shouldn't have to suffer due to the environment that they were born into. Every child deserves a chance...from the basic needs of survival: food, shelter, health care and a nurturing environment continuing through the chance for education and opportunities.

The Miracle Foundation is local to Austin, transparent and doesn't profit on "voluntoursim". Their low overhead and track record of success means they are truly making a difference.

From a personal perspective, in addition to the impact of making a difference in a child's life, I expect an experience such as this that is outside of my comfort zone to not only be a challenge, but to be a life changing experience.

When most of us, including myself, see a movie such as Hotel Rwanda, or Slumdog Millionaire; watch a news story about an earthquake in another country that may have killed thousands and displaced tens of thousands more or the devastation of the 2004 Asian tsunami; or when we view a program about the poverty and despair in parts of Africa, how do we feel and how do we react? At best, we may think just for a few minutes how horrible it must be to be affected by such an event or how impossible living through such a situation must be. But as quickly as those thoughts emerge, they disappear. The fact is, most of us have never experienced anything close to the magnitude of this level of tragedy, desperation or despair. It is simply unimaginable, and incomprehensible to us and understandably so. We often almost subconsciously deny in a way, the fact that the event or scenario is even reality. As a result, such scenes in truth-based movies or horrific news stories are easily dismissed as we quickly go back to our own reality, to our own way of life, our own struggles. This, I am not comfortable with and is one of the compelling reasons to go on the journey I am about to make.

Toddlers sleeping alone on busy street curbs, just feet from the traffic rushing by, children that should be playing or in school, instead begging passersby for money, kids digging through trash cans in the rail station that they call home in the hopes of finding anything of value. Girls sold into the sex trade at age 12. Living conditions for millions of children and adults consist of a propped up piece of tin as a shelter, no running water and a ditch running down the street that serves as a bathroom. These are realities I will likely see within the first hours of arriving in India. Although I realize that, it is still hard to truly grasp. I think that to see such a different environment, such a different way of life, such a different kind of struggle than we face every day, is important and will impart an ability to view the world in a different light: To truly understand a little better the struggles that so many people go through.

I am not referring to a need to put my life into perspective, or to make me feel better about my surroundings. It’s also not about returning home and feeling guilty for what I have. Although I will undoubtedly benefit from this experience, this is not simply a self-serving excursion. There are a lot of things both in our communities as well as in our world that we can affect, even in just a small way. The more we understand, the more we have experienced and the broader views we develop, the better enabled we are to both comprehend and influence the world in which we live. I expect to return with both this new found perspective, but also knowing I have made a difference in the well being of a child’s life.