My last week in India flew by. It started in the most unexpected way. My plan was to transfer from living at my cousin’s and teaching at the schools to living at my aunt’s and working at the hospital. Before coming I found out there was a hospital conference that weekend in Goa (which has optional lectures..but really is an excuse to explore the tropical, magical coastal region of South India). One of the doctor’s dropped out, so I said well okay I guess I could fill the gap. That day my two cousins (who both work at the hospital) and I left, and in the grace of all things good I got 48 hours of the cool, metaphorical night that my soul so needed.
Goa was amazing. The first day we went to 3 different water fronts. We water skied at the first one, swam in the Indian ocean at the second, and drank cup after cup of feni (a sweet, cashew fermented liquor) at the third. I spent the in-between hours at second hand bookstores, eating curry, drinking coffee or more feni, and wandering amongst the street vendors, tinkering with this felt puppet or that sandalwood elephant. I was even able to successfully barter! Also the doctor who skipped out was to have a personal shack on the beach. I said well okay again I guess I can take that as well. When handed the key I found it to be for shack #8- my lucky number. Yet, the gods of travel are oh so tricky. Last week I jived at how splendid it is to give in to the elements. “Get dirty, who cares!” I said. So I did that in Goa. And despite the relief of the weekend, I landed a 3rd degree burn from an allergic reaction to something on a log. That put me in bed rest for my last week, which I somewhat followed. Ain’t nobody got time for sleeping in India! The disappointing part was instead of continuing to help patients, I became the patient. Oh life you conniving little minx you. But I did get to do some other amazing things.
The final days.. I visited the grammar school my dad and uncle went to. It was surreal walking the same halls that they chased each other down as kids. The guards there did not like my photo taking so they sent an affable but not-so-secret chaperone after me. He did not want to follow me and I did not want him to follow me. So we smiled and waved at each other and he left.. allowing me to further explore and find my dad and uncles names on the wall which was wild. I also got to see the temple my family built! It was small and beautiful. I went with my aunt who was delighted to show me every detail. The temple was constructed around a tree growing in the center which was a metaphorical delight. Behind the tree I found 2 kittens and their mother. I died. There’s nothing like finding a cat when you’re looking for God.
I finally had to say goodbye to my kids at the school. That was incredible/awful. They could not understand why I was leaving them. I’m in such awe of their progress. The little girl who could barely read 2 sentences at the top of the month was tutoring others by the end. These kids are astonishing. I also can’t believe I had an effect. It’s terrifying to realize that power. But in truth these kids are so raw and wise, they easily taught me more than I could ever teach them. We took photos and shared lunch and reviewed for they upcoming history test. All I could think was how incredibly grateful I was for them..but also how I could not in my power allow these magnificent spitfires to grow up to become the beggars I encounter every day. Their supreme vivacity is so alive and well right now, but it will be too easy for that to slip away in their current economic conditions. Yet crazy enough being educated could be their ticket out. So I found a way to keep donating to the school, and while everyone needs to put their money where it befits them, if you’re ever looking for a cool charity to give a few dollars to this is a very worthy cause (http://www.sunbeamtrust.org/donate.asp).
Teaching and living with kids has been such a funny look on adulthood. I remember believing the world was my playmate, there solely to entertain and amuse me.. Being frustrated when it was not. I see that expectancy in all of these kids. It’s amazing the child’s lens of existence. But also, being a kid sucked. Having to stop moving, not getting to sip “adult drinks”, not understanding why I had to wait to talk. The world had so many rules and none of them were explained on the basis of my age, I just had to obey them. I hated that. I empathize with these kids. But also in being an adult..how much truth do you give them? Are we protecting them or underestimating them? Last night I stayed up sewing a costume for one of my baby cousins after she went to bed and was just like woah when did adulthood happen. But the funny thing is we’re all still children at heart. I know I’m still that nerdy, curly haired kid in the school yard, wanting to touch what I’m told not to, blushing at compliments, dying to eat chocolate before bed.
One evening I was in the kitchen emptying coconut milk into a bowl, and my baby cousin wanted to do it. My cousin (her mom) told her beforehand she could not as that was the base of our dinner and if she spilled it we would not have dinner. My cousin left with instructions of not letting her pour, and the little munchkin ran in after going to do it anyways. I stopped her and she screamed, “Juuuust oooone drop!!!”. “No”, I said. She begged, not understanding what one drop more would do. She probably wouldn’t have spilled it, and one or even ten drops would not have made a difference to our dinner. The point was the discipline. But the child’s mind goes to the difference, the outcome, the act of doing. What difference does the moral make if the action doesn’t make a difference? Perhaps dangerous territory to ponder too long, but I’ve been thinking about that one drop in all of our lives. I wonder how important it is.
The one thing you never expect while traveling is how your mind reconfigures. You expect ‘getting out’ to clear the mind and spirit. But somehow it scraps up every thought and feeling, allowing you marvel at the world but also become a sort of continuous, internal tangle. It’s like with free physical boundaries you ironically become trapped in a mental matrix. I don’t know how to quell that. Probably I should just eat french fries and watch Futurama and not think about anything other than the next episode once I’m in a country with Netflix.
Everything else said, the most amazing part of India is the generosity. Hands down. They give everything and then everything and then everything else left. To not accept what someone here gives you is deeply offensive, and they never want a thank you to be uttered. I was chided many a-times for expressing gratitude. The only way to retort then is to give back. But even that is not a big deal, it’s just the norm. To help and accept help. It’s deeply engrained. Easily the hardest part has been accepting that help. My last four years were all about independence, learning to cook, bank, travel, be on my own. Yet here, it’s all about letting people cook for me, spend on me, take me places, be there for me. All my self-sufficieny has had to unravel at the drop of a pin. Maybe it should be an enormous relief but it has been very tricky. I have felt the arrows point in for a while now, and after a while inward arrows become thick, self -indulgent heart sludge. I came here to turn them the other way. But I’ve had to learn that accepting help isn’t fighting the inward arrows, it is leaning into the cycle of giving to release the outward arrows. I came here to give, and instead am learning to receive. What a gag-inducing cliche I know, but it’s one I’m honored to learn. I want to come back to give back everything I was given, but that is impossible and I guess therein lies the lesson.
What a ride India has been. I got to have a dear aunt and uncle, wonderful cousins, 3 little sisters, and the most rambunctious puppy. I was taught some hindi, chess, how to make almond milk/ ice cream from scratch, and that silly cup game I’ve been trying to learn for years. I got to teach english, music, and my itty bitty cousin to say “Yo, I love pizza” (important American sayings must be shared). I consumed copious amounts of curry. One Saturday morning my baby cousin and I played all 6 boardgames in a set, and I spent the rest of the day drinking coffee and reading Neil Gaimon’s online journal. I traveled by bus, train, car, and rickshaw. I took a Bollywood dance class which was wonderful, and even though it was just me and women in their 50s it was great. I waltzed in thinking I had finally come into my realm (performing arts yeah!).. but my gosh they were incredibly good and way better than me. Never underestimate an auntie.
Beyond the dancing and festivals and family and learning new things was also the intensity. The poverty and sickness and shock and the lopsided mind that comes with all of that. India is the contained feeling of all moments in the history of the world, and yet the coolest part is appreciating home. I miss home, and I didn’t think I would. I’m surprised to keep thinking of CA as home. And yet right now I’m in a place where I feel every kiss, war, wedding, and death, which is incredible. I wonder how many of my reactions were based on actually being in India vs. how much was this just being the first place of my journey. Most of the time I didn’t know what to think about what I was taking in, or even how to fully take in what I was seeing. But not being present was not being grateful for that moment. It feels like I’ve been here for at least 6 months.. being at home in bed with pizza and my guinea pig feels like a lifetime ago. Yet it also flew by. For now I’m taking India with me, but I know I’ll be back. Until then, here’s to new worlds, gratitude, and the one more drop in all of our lives.
“Trust that life is giving you exactly what you need practice in.”