All the feelings

 few weeks late, but here’s my final blog post!!10565092_10152625008589133_9057591901745781504_n 10310520_10152625012714133_4122010957082351397_n 10592806_10152625012349133_3730518682542637031_n 1654336_10152625018209133_3760734156352271770_n

As I write this slowly making my return to America after 3 months, a process which includes a sleeper bus, 6 planes, and a detour in Europe. In one of my first posts I referenced India as wild, and the more I see of this place the more that thought has been confirmed. I have never been somewhere that is so equally overwhelming and beautiful.
After working with my organization for 2 1/2 months, I decided to leave two weeks early to travel some. Half of the nursing students had switched to a different center to do their practical training, and with 3 volunteers at the center, there was less for me to do during the day until the evening school students arrived. The kids seemed to be confused about my leaving and kept telling me “No Allison America.” When I explained to Umamagaeswari (Dhandapani’s 10-year-old sister) that I had to go back to America because that’s where my family and friends are, she just bobbled her head and then later came back to me and said, “You daddy, you mommy, you friends, all India coming.” We all said goodbye that night and I got lots of hugs and cheek kisses and was told to dance in the street one last time. After that I went back and laid on the floor for an hour, moping heavily and only getting up when I was promised poori and 3 mangos by the other two volunteers for “all my feelings”.
As I was walking out of the bathroom  the next morning from one of my last bucket showers for (hopefully) awhile, I saw Uma walking down the street on the way to school. We both ran towards each other and hugged for a few minutes until she looked at me and asked “America?” When I said yes she went back to hugging me and started crying. So we sat on the porch for a hot minute, hugging and crying and wiping each other’s tears and promising we would be strong girls and that we would see each other again.
It is strange to go from that to here, where I am boarding my flight to leave India. This place that has challenged me and confused me and loved me so well. When I first arrived, got off the plane, and went to the train station, I was terrified. I clearly didn’t belong and all the warning stories people told me before I left were running through my head. I avoided eye contact with men, clutched my things close to me, and paced a lot. I sit here now with conversational Tamil skills, traditional Indian silver anklets with bells on them, fading henna on my left hand, and soles of my feet that are hardened and cracked from walking barefoot so often. I sang my Tamil song to the man who made me my fourth cup of chai for the day and he laughed and told me to go back to America. I slept curled up on top of the engine of the bus in the middle of the night when there were no seats and only moved when I was elbowed by the driver as he changed gears. I have held baby goats and coerced donkeys out of the house with mango peels and been told “don’t worry, be happy!” by a man as I was being followed in a park by a vicious monkey. I have ridden down village roads in the back of strangers’ trucks, side-saddled a motorbike with two other people on it, and ridden the bus so many times that only a few stand out and are referenced as “that time with the fight” or “the one with the goat” or “when the cute bus driver stopped the bus because I was running after it and said ‘Hi Allison’ and laughed when I got on” (swoon).
As I was sitting in the airport today,I met a guy from America who told me I was brave for coming alone and I just laughed and said that wasn’t it really. I think I was more just hopeful of what could happen. Of the beauty that can occur when you rely solely on the grace of strangers you have yet to meet. Was I disappointed at times? Sure. But that’s life. Was I pleasantly surprised? That’s a understatement. 60 giggling and honest children, 7 driven and caring girls, a thoughtful and receptive yoga teacher, a creative and level-headed German, a ridiculous and chivalrous Englishman, a strong and beautiful cook, a boisterous and deep friend, and countless others. So many people that have taught me such different things. I am sad to leave this place and these people but I know it’s not the end. I believe that once you know what’s out there waiting for you, you’ll always want to find it again. All my love!!

Coming to an end.

As my time left in India is getting shorter and shorter, it is becoming more evident to me how this place has become my home. I walk down the street at night and people I don’t know call me by name into their home to come eat with them, I ride the bus back from the town and a boy who knows me from evening school comes and sits next to me and points out every word he knows in English on the 30 minute bus ride (“Hello, cow! Hello, ground! Hello, temple!”), I walk down a wrong road to find mangos and I spend 45 minutes trying to slowly back away from the 75 children that have swarmed around me as they hand me flowers and babies (not fighting it). This week we finished most of the construction on the home for the mentally handicapped children and I was able to return to the other center. When I came back, the other volunteers laughed and said that the kids would be happy because they had asked for me every day and had written things like “I miss Allison” in their school notebooks. It was a beautiful homecoming and we all screamed and laughed and kissed each other on the cheek and told stories about the ten days that we were apart. Dhandapani thought I had already left to go back to America and told me he was “very missing, very feeling”. But he also scored 15/16 marks on his English test in the time that I was gone, and we were both very excited about this and split an Oreo in celebration. I was pretty impressed that this kid who couldn’t answer a simple question in English two months ago is now scoring high grades on his test and is able to translate when other kids need to tell me something but don’t know the English. Very proud, very feeling.

                Being a woman in India is a very hard thing. It is extremely difficult to watch the way other women are treated and to see the opportunities boys have that girls are never given. It is one thing to hear about these injustices, another to see them, and a completely different thing when it happens to you personally. I cannot describe how ironic it felt to be sitting in India on July 4th while an older Indian man yelled at me and blatantly told me he did not have to respect me or treat me the same way as men because women are inferior. I understand that I am living in a society right now where this is the overwhelming belief. However it is impossible to accept these things when I have been raised in such a way that I believe my gender has no effect on my capabilities as a human being. This was probably one of the most frustrating things I have had to deal with so far.

                I have had very good happy moments in this place and hard ones that have tested how I view the world and myself and other people. One thing I have become fully aware of is the love around me. How Preetika blows on my face when we are lying on the ground after jump rope “two skipping” because I’m so sweaty. How my new German friend  scoops me out of the road before I get hit by an oncoming bus (this has happened too many times). How Deepa shares her cookies with me and tells me all the good gossip. I have been angry and frustrated and challenged in ways that I never expected, but this is what I will remember the most. The fact that two months ago these people didn’t know I existed and they are so willing to love me and care for me and feed me the best snacks. 

With a little help from my friends

My internet connection went from being predictably unpredictable to being non-existant, so I am a few days late with posting this week! The past two weeks have gone by so quickly and it is crazy to think that I have been here longer than I have left. When my dad dropped me off at the airport about a month and a half ago, I was very upset because I knew that for the next three months, everyone I saw would be new. This is something I laughed at when I was moving centers and having to leave my girls.The ones who came in to my room appalled one day and cleaned it, the ones who fed me noodles with their hands as I was peeling onions so I could still eat them when they were hot, and the ones who were considerably worried the day I traveled into town alone, knowing my directional problems and fear of autonomy. I am hoping I will be able to see the girls again before I leave, but I don’t know for sure. As I was packing up my things, one of the girls told me “enjoy you life, sister” in English, to which I replied “I’ll kill you…” in Tamil. It is crazy to me to see how important these people have become in my life in what seems like such a short period of time.
I was unable to say goodbye to the evening school children, and this was really hard for me. A week ago, Dhandapani asked me when I was leaving for America and when I told him that I would be leaving at the end of July, he didn’t talk much for the rest of the class. When I asked him what was wrong, he said, “Allison America, very feeling.” My heart broke a little. My brutally honest little nug who tells me when I need to relax and share my snacks he knows I have and reminds me so much of my best friend. One thing that made it easier to leave them though was that a French couple came to the center and they are amazing and will be staying for a month. I felt better leaving my Nisha and my Dhandapani and my Rakesh and all my other little friends knowing that there would be people who would encourage and love them the way I believe they deserve.

At the new center, we are part-way through the construction of a residential home for mentally diabled children. While it was unbelievably hard to leave the girls and kids, it has been nice to do physical work as well. The workers have been three male masons and one lady, who is incredibly strong and does almost double the physical labor for 2/3 of the cost, and she does it all while wearing a sari. The first day of the construction, the masons would tell me things like “Not so many many” and “only take half” in reference to the cement or bricks I was carrying. As a woman, they believed that I was not as capable. Therefore, I took more than I would have normally and cut my breaks in half. While I was in substantial physical pain the next day, the satisfaction of hearing at the end of the day that I was a hard worker and only responding with the Indian head bobble and a grunt was far greater. Also I quickly learned how to carry cement on my head, which is a fun new party trick.
After weeks of living a rural Indian experience, I have eaten pizza and called my mom and met another volunteer who is from Germany and we have been able to talk about things like cultural differences and reggae music and peanut butter, which has all been really great. There are so many things that I miss about home, but an equal number of things that I love here and it will be incredibly difficult to leave not knowing the next time I will be able to come back. My heart is full and my friends have been telling me I’m larger these days, so apparently so is my stomach. All my love!!

Very strange. Very wonderful.

Today marks the end of my 38th day in India. 38 days of mangos, 38 days of flowers in my hair, 38 days of bucket showers (the last one is pushing it though because I’m pretty sure I’ve skipped more of these than I should have). I have been overwhelmed by the love I have received from people I have only known for a short period of time. Rajeswari brings me flowers for my hair every morning and gives me three cookies when she has four. Ramya makes my favorite foods and doesn’t judge me when I eat 8 poori (deep fried tortillas, basically) in one sitting. Dhandapani (I know the spelling is right this time because he wrote his name in big letters on my notebook this week. I think the inaccuracy of last week comes with the fact that head bobbling is the universal sign for no and yes in India and I have not come to grasp the difference yet) spends extra time at my favorite Hindu god in the temple because he knows I love elephants. I am living in a place where it is socially acceptable to hold strangers’ babies at bus stops and where children follow me around to ask me the name of every member of my family and where my tiny friends split the snack cakes they buy a few houses down with their grubby little hands and watch happily as I eat my half. The language barrier is still a difficult thing, but I have learned a few songs in Tamil now which I pull out when I can. No one actually teaches me what they mean though, so a few days ago I accidentally serenaded a man at the post office when we were getting water and Sasi shushed me and put her hand over my mouth and said “Sister, no!” before I could get very far. I am trying my best to be patient and receptive and loving to the people around me because they have done nothing but the same to me. I understand that since I am only here for three months, it is highly unlikely that I will transform the education of these kids, however I try to listen and tell them they are smart and kind and important as often as I can. I revel in the small victories, like how Charulatha stopped saying “nice to meet you” whenever she leaves school at night and instead emphasizes how it is nice to “see” me. Or how Sasikala now understands that “small tired” is not a replacement for “a little tired” and now only says it to spite me. Or how Mathi actually made an effort to learn English this week and didn’t copy anyone else’s homework. A major victory though is that the cutest bus driver in the village waved at me this week and we all squealed at the bus stop and one of the girls excitedly elbowed me in the ribs.

                One of the best and equally most hectic parts of my day is sending the kids home at 7:30. The problem comes in that the center is facing a main road and saying goodbye to sixty children who demand you do the handshake they taught you with each of them while also trying to keep them from getting hit by oncoming traffic. Eleverasi makes me kiss her on the forehead before she will walk down the street, Logaskana has to shake my hand, and Rakesh always just talks and confuses both of us by saying things like “Your home! My home! 8:00! Temple! Next day!” So far so good though, there have only been a few close calls with some motorcycles and a cow.

                This weekend was very eventful. The nursing students were practicing giving shots on Saturday, which is about as terrifying as it sounds. I was told to give one and I refused, therefore also getting me out of having to get a shot because someone established a “You get a shot from the person you give one to” rule after Nithya gave an extremely painful looking shot to Mathi. We were all just crowded around her as she was yelling in Tamil saying how it didn’t look like that was right. After that excitement, we left in the afternoon for a nearby village temple festival. Thousands of people were there and 500 goats were sacrificed. There was a parade of sorts that went through the village of priests, women holding pots of food and flowers on their heads, and goats that we followed through a dirt road in between fields of banana trees that ended at a temple. I missed the sacrificing of the goats part but got to see them all this morning skinned and ready for eating. Speaking of goats, I woke up this morning to my hair being chewed on by one baby goat and another goat sitting on my stomach. Also speaking of goats, I’m about 94% sure I had goat testicles for lunch. I’m not sure which one of these things is more concerning. I was talking with Gracie last night, who is the wife of the director of ISSI and a beautiful and loving human. She was telling me how they usually don’t have volunteers come in the summer because some have complained in the past because they take breaks for the holy festivals and sometimes not as many children come to the evening school. I love this part about it though. I understand that people’s lives don’t stop just because I am coming in to them and I am happy to be so accepted and loved and embraced by these people. She said they decided to invite me though because I seemed “so eager over the Skype-y” and she wanted me to see the real India. She said this all to me as we were sitting barefoot in the dirt surrounded by coconut trees next to a herd of soon to be sacrificed goats as we were drinking tea and eating some type of spicy rice (per usual). “Welcome to the real India, Alice. Very strange, very wonderful.” All my love!!

No pains, no gains

 To say that this week was challenging would be an understatement. I am nearly to the one month mark for my stay in India and it has been a hard, frustrating, exciting, and beautiful experience and this week was no exception. Since the summer vacation has ended, most of the projects are starting back up so there has been a lot of work and stress due to lack of funding. Wednesday, I was informed that the children who live near me and I have gotten to know over the weeks are forbidden by their parents to come to our evening school. This is because they are of the highest caste in the village and we allow children of the lowest caste to attend, and many parents do not want their kids interacting with the lower castes and do not allow the other children to enter their homes. This upset me tremendously. I was frustrated because the kids don’t understand why they aren’t allowed to come play and learn here. Although I knew about the caste system before arriving, I had no idea the extent to which many people abide by it. Up until ten years ago, those of the lowest caste were not allowed to wear shoes in the street or go to the same temples as the higher castes. I also didn’t anticipate that the line between the highest and lowest castes would be so unclear to me. The highest caste children still are living in what I see as extreme poverty, yet they are in the top percent of society because they have houses made of cement and are able to afford private school tuition, which costs about five dollars a month per child.

Also on Wednesday, I ate bad fish (surprisingly not borderline street food this time) and spent most of the night wishing I has only eaten 2 pieces instead of 5. A donkey ate through the armpit of one of my shirts, I ran out of bugspray, and I made a baby cry from my “whiteness”. It was a rough day. Dhanduboni (I got a lesson on how to spell his name last week “DEE-YACHE-YAY-YEN” etc) had a rough day as well because he and all his siblings got freshly shaved heads for the first day of school and he had this great hair that was his pride and joy. We recovered surprisingly well though and Thursday was a much better day. My new friend Rajeshwari who recently started working at the center gave me henna and taught me how to make chapatti, my favorite Indian food. My girls are getting better with their English and my Tamil is improving, so it is easier for us to communicate. The attendance for the evening school is up to about sixty kids, ranging from ages 5 to 14. It is sort of wild because the ratio doesn’t really work in my favor, but they are all great and energetic and very easily excitable. A man came to the center a few days ago and said that his 11 year old son really wanted to learn English. So, Thursday I met Logeshkana who wants to be a doctor and is so eager to learn English it is unreal. I told him to write a few sentences about his favorite things and he came up to me beaming with a piece of paper that said “My name Logeshkana. My favorite food rise. My favorite animal goat.” I laughed and told him he was in the right place if he loved rice and goats and he just smiled and nodded. It is hard to know where to begin teaching them because most of the lessons the kids have for homework are things that I was learning in English class when I was their age, but the majority of them say “Sure!” when I ask how school was today. Yesterday I had to read and explain this very detailed story they had for homework about the “detrimental effects of pollution on our planet” after teaching what a noun and a syllable are. The younger girls are probably the most precious humans ever. They come to school early and bring me flowers for my hair and teach me secret handshakes. I am pretty proud of myself that I have learned about 75% of all their names in three days, which is not an easy thing when Prishina, Boomika, and Pothumponi are considered common.

Thursday night Dhanduboni invited me to the temple with him and his friends after the evening school and I walked there with half a dozen 7-14 year old boys holding my hands and arms and talking constantly in a mix of Tamil and English. At the temple, there are different statues of different gods, and you walk around counter-clockwise either one or three times, stopping at each god to pray and light a candle or put holy powder on your forehead. One of the groups of statues represents the planets and you circle around then nine times. At the statue of another god, you hit the ceiling, walls, and floor three times while praying. Apparently I was very fast at this and everyone clapped for me after.  They took turns blessing me and putting holy powder on my head and walked me home, only dropping my hands to kill a snake in the road.

I’m not sure the term “struggle” could accurately depict how my week went. Each day there were at least 5 things that frustrated me, but also 500 things I found that I love. If someone had waved a plane ticket to America and a sausage dog in my face Thursday morning, I highly doubt I would have turned it down. Thankfully, these things were not presented to me, because I wouldn’t trade my temple adventures with my 6 small Tamil boys for anything. As someone articulately wrote in both Tamil and English on the notice board at the center this week, “No Pains, No Gains.” All my love!!

Week 3 in India

Before leaving for India, many of the people I talked to assured me that the first two weeks would be the hardest but then I would adjust and become more comfortable with the people and culture. In many aspects, this is very true. As week three is coming to an end, I like to think I have adjusted quite well to Indian ways of living. However, the struggles are still present. I thought I had doing my laundry down to a science, until I dropped my packet of Tide for Bucket Washing into the well and spend a hot minute fishing it out. I also found my sports bra in a bush three days later. I was proud of myself for being promoted to Head Stirrer after peeling vegetables for three hours in preparation for the last day of a week-long village festival. However, after setting my skirt on fire, I was quickly demoted back to my original position. I am surrounded by many people who laugh at me though and try to help me when they can (“Alice, stop eating that mango, it’s for the gods!!, etc.), which makes me happy.

I arrived in the middle of summer vacation, so even though the girls and children still come to school, it has been sporadic due to religious holidays. This has been nice because I have enjoyed going to festivals and trying to cook and meeting many new people, however I was eager for school to start back up again regularly this week. I was told I will be moved to a different campus a few towns away starting June 10 and working at the school for mentally handicapped children as well as an evening school. I am very excited for this because I know that the need a lot of help with these projects, and I never turn down the chance to play with tiny humans. I have enjoyed getting to know the girls here and will be sad to leave them, however I understand that there is only so much I can teach them due to my lack of Tamil knowledge. Since their nursing exams are all in Tamil, it is hard for me to teach them any more than English. It will be hard for me to leave the children here as well. They actually like the games we play, we have mastered opposites in English, and I now know a song in Tamil that I am required to sing at least ten times each class. Dhundaponi is one of the kids I will miss the most. He has been making me work on my hand-eye coordination by making me play “ball catch” until my hands turn red with a tennis ball we purchased for 30 rupees last week. (I supplied the rupees, he bargained until we got the bounciest ball the shop was selling). We still don’t understand each other, and everything either one of us asks is answered with “Sure!!”, but he has agreed that we are best friends.

One of the coolest things so far has been observing all the religious practices in the village. The village I am in is predominantly Hindu, and the past week has been a huge celebration for a goddess. A few nights ago, they dug a huge ditch in front of a temple and filled it with hot coals and hundreds of people walked over them on the way to the temple as a symbol of their faith in the goddess. It was terrifying and great and I debated on whether or not I should join in, but then realized I had no way to explain it to my father if something bad happened (“Well, Thomas, I was willingly walking over 10 yards of hot coals, because India….”). Today I went with my friend Mathi to Trichy, the nearest town, and we climbed up a rock tower to a temple. Mathi keeps introducing me to people by saying, “I am Allison, my village is America.” It was about 105 degrees outside and we, along with hundreds of other people, were doing this barefoot because shoes cannot be worn in temples. The view was beautiful. All my love!!

My sweet seven sisters

There are seven girls who come for the nursing program every day but Sundays from 9-4. They come from neighboring villages and their families can not afford to send them to college. The organization I am working with trains them to be nursing assistants so they can get a job and not have to get married immediately after finishing high school. During the day, I teach them English and try to teach them nursing subjects as well, but the language barrier makes it extremely difficult, so we are working on it. The first few days I was here, they would always turn the fan towards me, give me extra snacks, nod when I asked them if they understood what I was saying, and serve me lunch at the table and then go sit in the kitchen to eat their meal. I am happy to report that I now get no preferential fan treatment, my snack rations are equal to everyone else, I get very loud “NO”s when the girls are confused, and I now eat with them in the kitchen (I followed them around when they would leave me enough so now they just nod at me and say “sister come” whenever they change locations). They also introduced me to the “cutest bus driver in the village”, and I’m pretty sure that is how you know a friendship is real.
The kids who come to the evening school are mostly around 14 years old. My new bestfriend is named Dhundaponi and he comes to school an hour early so we can make bracelets and listen to the Beatles and he can teach me dance moves. When the other kids get to class, we practice English and math and play games. Whenever we get frustrated or can’t understand each other, we resort to playing hangman or picking someone to lay on the floor and hurdle-ing over them. My teaching skills might need a little work, but we are working with what we have for now…
The hardest thing for me so far has been adjusting to the way women are seen in this society. 99% of marriages are arranged, and with that comes high rates of abuse and suicide. In rural villages like the one I am in, many parents can not afford to send their children to higher education. If the parents have sons, the sons are given more educational opportunities than the girls. I was talking to Ramaswamy about this, who is the director of the organization. He was explaining to me that while the organization itself promotes equality, in order to work in the society, we have to accept that the society itself is one of inequality. I knew about this coming into this situation, but it is much harder for me to see it firsthand. To know that in less than 3 years, my 7 sisters will most likely all be married off by their parents, even though they are given access to an education for job opportunities. To know that my sweet Hameletha who dreams of becoming a doctor will most likely not be able to go to college because her older brother will be sent before she would. To hear a 14 year old girl tell me for twenty minutes all her dreams and ideas and aspirations end with “but those are just my dreams and all that matters is what my parents say”. It is hard for me to accept that all the things I want for these sweet girls are not as attainable to them as I would like them to be. I am happy though to be working with an organization that is trying so hard to do good for these girls.
It has been a crazy two weeks in India so far. Monsoon season came early (there are holes in my bedroom roof), I successfully peeled onions for 2 hours as we cooked for 75 people at a temple festival, and I ate fish someone fried for me at a park with cows and monkeys and goats roaming around (not sure if that counts as the “street food” everyone tells you not to eat, but I’m still kickin.) All my love!!