Ode to India

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I started writing this piece on a shuttle ride to the Denver airport. It was the first time I had been on a bus since India, and my brain flooded with a horrible nostalgia; I sat on the bus and let memories of India entice my brain into a dreamlike state and transport me back to a bus ride in India….. Suddenly, the cacophony of blaring bus horns awakened me out of a moment of…well…. Not silence. Never silence.

I gazed out the window at the extensive rows of faded blue tarps, which hung over shoddy frames of twisted sticks and scrap metal… India’s substandard suburbia. My nostrils reeled as they whiffed the pungent odor of burning trash. India is an all out blitzkrieg in the form sensory stimulation; bulging eyes and gag reflexes can be triggered at any given moment.

I got flustered hearing the continual snarls of the bus driver as people haggled their way onto the bus, even though it already soared over capacity. The TV obnoxiously blared Bollywood shows; I witnessed melodramatic performances that could put even telenovelas to shame. The changing scenes casted light down the main aisle of the bus floor where sleeping bodies folded over each other like ragdolls.

We would arrive several hours late, right on time. And before stepping of the bus, I would mentally prepared myself for that immediate, loyal tribe of mangy, naked children who would latch onto loose articles of clothing and any tipoff of conveyed emotions. I would feel little hands pulling on my shirt, and heartstrings, and delicately touching my arm in a practiced manner…

I had always believed that one small act of kindness could help the world, and I still like to believe that… But sometimes it was not feasible to make a difference in India; one small effort always became mute when I subsequently looked into pair after pair after pair of vacant, pleading eyes, day in and day out.  Their eyes probe into yours, instantly assessing the extent of your soul, and this judgment will determine the extent of their efforts. It killed me to never be able to give selflessly in place that needed it, but giving became too physically and mentally exhausting; I came to terms with the fact that I was not emotionally capable, nor did I have the resources to help the endless abyss of people who could claim only one thing: nothing.

As a resident of India, I was there long enough to have this poverty-provoked powerlessness haunt my thoughts and weigh like the world on my shoulders. It began as a little seed, which I could just shove to the back of my mind, but it grew and blossomed into a devastating reality. Several times, upon seeing the throngs of people in their wrenched conditions, my body would literally become fatigued; I though I would collapse with the overwhelming sensation of helplessness. It’s a heavy burden, which chokes up your throat, and at night the faces that you had to turn away crawl into your dreams nag and at your composure.

And lets talk about composure: on top of my already volatile emotional states, there was the heavy, unwavering stares of Indian men who, un-discreetly held camera phones up my face,… sometimes I wanted to scream and rip out my hair. Sometimes in defiance, I would stare back, but frankly Indians excel at staring… and at my peak of irritation, I taught myself to laugh because… how senseless of me to actually host the idea of Indian losing a staring contest…

Then my heart would experience violent upheavals of forgiveness and renewal, as I was soothed to sleep by the rattling metal on the long train rides. I would listen to my ipod, which always created a personalized soundtrack of the passing sights, but it never overpowered the reverberating, nasally song of the chaiwalla offering ‘chaiiiiii, chaiiiiiii coffeeeee’.

And that train ride, every train ride, would prove that nothing ever ceases in India.

Women’s curvaceous bodies danced in sync with the flowing movements of their saris, and the items teetering on their heads mimicked the way Indian heads move in an, infinitely indecisive figure eight.

And on the trains I would realize that the poise of India lies in its obvious paradoxes. Dirt and trash juxtaposed amidst the radiant fabrics and jewels. Filthy rich and filthy poor. Yet India is refreshing in that it’s disgustingly honest, relentlessly raw, and always uncensored. It was a screaming lull of organized chaos.

A man’s traditional, dominant position was never compromised, even if he was parading around in a fuzzy pink sweater-vest. India is a big, fat oxy-moron.

Hindus, cows, Muslims, monkeys, Christians, elephants, Sikhs, peacocks, Jains, foreigners, etc. run amuck together, undeniably connected by the verve in their spirits. This high degree of spirit originates from the never-ending cycle of being pushed to your limits and then being renewed by people who were pushed past their limits long ago, but can still smile and produce profound gratitude for the littlest of things.

 As Keith Bellows, Vice President of National Graphic Society, so eloquently writes, “There are some parts of the world that, once visited, get into your heart and won’t go. For me, India is such a place… It was as if all my life I had been seeing the world in black and white and, when brought face-to-face with India, experienced everything re-rendered in brilliant Technicolor.”

India is a land where nothing ever comes together, but nothing ever quite falls apart either. Everything is constantly on the brink of careening and colliding yet somehow in a cosmic moment… harmony ensues. Even though every day was an incessant love-hate relationship, looking back I can remember nothing but feeling that India felt more like home to me than I had ever known.

I woke up. The huge bus, which carried me to Denver housed 3 measly people, and it was dead quiet. The visions of saris dancing in my head had the power to make even the beautiful Colorado colors look bleak and grey-toned. Yes, something was definitely missing.

Or, maybe I was just missing India again. 

Photo Credits to my traveling companion and roommate in India,  Sarah Fiske Phillips. 

Her blog about India can be viewed atwww.sarahfiskephillips.wordpress.com

First World Failures & Haiti

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Americans came to Haiti expecting to change lives and to supply the students with material goods, which they are ‘deprived’ of. Silly, because people here are deprived of absolutely nothing, in fact, they are teeming with enthusiasm, gratitude and youth. Embarrassingly enough, we came with bags of pencils, paper, string, markers, and every possible medium of coloring and crafting. We had beads and parachutes, and yes, it was beyond exciting to partake in crafts with these kids, but in all honesty, the most practical and repeatedly used item I had brought was my Leatherman pocketknife.

We came into this experience expecting to make a difference, and maybe we did. But we learned more from the Haitians than we could ever expect to teach them.

Hey Americans, jokes on us; no Haitian needs a lesson about life, love, goods or work. Even if I made a difference in my children’s lives, they taught me a better way to live mine, and for that, I am eternally grateful.

People come to Haiti with deficit modes of thought. But, it would be so disrespectful, degrading, and pointless to pity these people. Sure, compared to our standards, we can feel bad, but our perceptions, tainted with un-necessary and extravagant material things prove to be a poor judge of fulfillment. Every day I remember that my children in Haiti are choosing today whether they want to use their ration of water for bathing or for drinking. Then I have to ask the age-old question, why do Americans, who have so much, seem so deprived, when societies like Haiti who have ‘nothing’ are so happy and fulfilled? Does it take nothing to truly appreciate? If this is the case, America is surely going about fulfillment in the wrong way.

Their pencils and paper will eventually run out, but they will still walk barefoot over the rocky terrain for 2 hours just to be able to sit in a broken school desk for a little while. The bracelets that we all made together will eventually fall off and disintegrate into the dirt, but that won’t fade their shining smiles, energy, and zeal.

I miss, most of all, the rolling velvety green hills, which span the entire Vallee, and wrap people into Haiti like a hug. America practically steam rolls down our hills and any other imperfections in order to have a completely flat land on which we build cookie-cutter houses, with fences to keep the neighbors out. And I wonder, when the land is flattened out like this, does it teach our kids not to climb mountains? Where kids learn on the rocky terrain in the rolling hills in Haiti, they are not afraid of climbing, or falling; their caution is thrown into the wind, and they boundlessly chase soccer balls across drops and rocky areas. I can only imagine that ones imagination, inspiration, and willpower for life is embedded in the land they grew up in. And our children in America who walk on sidewalks and who can only play on manicured lawns without so much as a rock out of place may never be able to learn how to climb over obstacles or push themselves to higher places.

As I lay in my comfy bed I think about how I would give anything to be back on the concrete floors with our dusty, lumpy thin mats listening to Haitian and American voices combining in a sweet symphony with the strumming of guitar chords and the tsk tsking of nearby cockroaches coming through the windowless windows.

It’s the ripple affect; I don’t know how far our impact will go, but I do know that it starts with educating our children. And our children recognized the love and passion we came with, which makes my volunteer work a success.

But our passion is minuscule compared to the passion and perseverance of these kids, better yet, the whole country, which is destined for great things despite the physical environment.

I believe that the ways we gauge success are skewed. America likes to measure success by the amount of resources we consume; with our consumption of materials, resources, and unnecessary things, yes, we are number one. But, as Haiti taught me, what if a country was defined as successful when everyone felt belonging in a community? When everyone you cross paths with lets you in with a smile and a wave, which raises up every soul in the country with unconditional love … What if we measured countries in terms of the love they share and their ability to support each other despite life-shattering conditions?

Then, for the first time, Haiti would be first world.

Haitian Encounters

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My First official Post! Enjoy reading, and feel free to leave comments/feedback! :)

 As the plane dipped down lower and created that euphoric falling sensation in stomach pits, the entire plane erupted into loud, hearty laughter and then subsequent, jubilant conversations. And this is where the old man next to me, who had no teeth, and couldn’t read or write, smiled at me and handed me his passport and customs documents so that I could fill them out for him. From just these few moments, I knew that Haitians were young at heart, and while they possessed a quiet poise, they were never too proud to ask for help.

Haitians are the most genuinely friendly people I have ever met, and I love that the bonds immediately transcended language abilities. In fact, language itself broke the language barrier. Waiting at the airport in Port Au Prince, I discovered this in less than ten minutes. With my trusty Haitian Creole phrasebook and our new Haitian friend Jameson, I tested out my broken creole, and he would respond back in broken English. We lightheartedly laughed at each other’s silly sentence bits, but praised each other’s efforts and abilities (or lack thereof).

Late that night, we arrived at CODEHA’s home base, the site from which over the next month we would span out into 5 schools across the region of ‘La Vallee.’ It served as the site to which all volunteers return on the weekends to reflect, build fences, create gardens, and work on other projects.

CODEHA is a grassroots organization of Haiti, which grounds volunteer and community efforts in educating the children of Haiti. CODEHA stands for Corde Enfants Haitian, which literally means ‘a rope of Haitian children’.  In a larger sense, when we all work together to educate our children, we climb the rope that pulls communities, and the country, to higher places.

The home base of CODEHA completely reflected this vision. It was a miniature, thriving community with energy of electrifying proportions, complete with guitars and slack-lines. This oasis hosted a rainbow of international volunteers and Haitian leaders, children and families who came together to play, work, love, teach, learn, and to share.

Gody, a middle-aged Haitian man and the passionate leader of CODEHA, immediately and vehemently shared with us that we are not here to ‘help,’ but share in the experience. CODEHA was well known and highly respected because of Gody’s relationships with the community. Although his candor and childlike attitude pushed my buttons so many times, his ever-radiant energy and poignant enthusiasm proved him to be the epitome of young at heart.

He shared with us CODEHA’s motto: Konstwi ak sa nou ye kote. In Haitian Creole, this means build who you are, where you are, and I made this my mission while in Haiti: to build solid connections with those around me, and to relish every experience. Gody, in part, inspired me to do this. He was (is) a role model for being fully dedicated and present to those around him, and he lives for the relationships he so easily creates with people.

He always said, “You are not my friend.” I was taken aback the first time he said this to me, but he continued, “you are not my sister, either, or my brother…

…you are my existence.”

And he said this with such extraordinary authenticity that it took my breath away every time.  This is a true testimony to his character, and it completely embodies the spirit of the Haitians.

They let you in, swiftly.

This held true when we helped the older Haitian women cook. It’s amazing how the little things here can be a great bonding experience. We sorted through bags of grains and corn and picked out bad pieces for hours on end. Very quickly, I learned that this was a delightful afternoon bonding experience rather than a mundane chore.

Haitians can joyously engage in seemingly tedious tasking while completely enjoying life.

While doing this, we became fast best friends with the young Haitian girls by singing Bieber’s hits together. Eager to break the cultural bonds and transcend language barriers, we came up with cool handshakes, braided each others hair, painted nails, and they taught us ‘peche,’ a game similar to jacks, except it’s played with rocks- the Haitian twist. And when we ran out of international pop hits to sing together, it was never awkward to just be silent and bask in each other’s peaceful presence.

It was about being who you are, where you are. It was about sharing in the experience with each other.

Church further exemplified these cross-cultural capabilities. As the Haitians sang, their voices carried a mellow sadness but an even more powerful undertone of hope and optimism, which seemed to cleanse the air of the surrounding rubble and turmoil. Their dark eyes penetrated our souls as the priest openly thanked us for our help and support. His attitude was neither a plea for more help nor an insincere thank-you-but-we-can take-it-from-here. There was no underlying power struggles, no arguments of authority, no ‘us versus them’ mentality. It was an honest moment of the community appreciating that we were willing to share in the experience with them.

I am so grateful that they were willing to let us share in their frustrations, efforts and struggles. Although I may not have carried a burden as heavy as they do, not a day goes by that I don’t think about these vivaciously happy, enduring people with indestructible spirits.

I miss walking in town and continually uttering a friendly “bonswa” to everyone I see. It was always said in return with a genuine, large smile and an excited wave. In Haiti, greetings were always reciprocated with an unparalleled openness, optimism and excitement. (I fear that here in the states, the process of saying ‘hi’ to everyone you saw would be a very daunting and discouraging task.)

At one point, us volunteers and fellow Haitians even shared a bumpy 3 hour ride packed in the back of a cattle truck. The young American volunteers mixed with the older Haitian generation made for a youthful combination of never-ending sing-alongs consisting of nonsense creole phrases. I laughed as the oldest mama sang her heart out to these “joy” songs. Her voice, though wildly off key and hoarse, radiated her lively, youthful spirit. My heart felt so full as I belted out call and repeat songs in Creole, and to think that this is an everyday occurrence in Haiti…

Many people have an erroneous notion that you would have to pay money and attend a fancy spiritual yoga retreat in order to have these insta-connections, but there are some places in the world where duets of fast connections and ever-friendly exchanges are an everyday, ordinary dance.

Haiti is one of these few places.

As Gody would preach, it’s not about “bringing” anything; it’s about the gift-less exchange, sharing in the experience a junto, together.

Always while traveling, we must embrace and cherish the raw, heart to heart, cross-cultural connections; we all have something to share with each other.