Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The next step...

Being in India I realized how much power I had over someone’s livelihood. I recall many times where I would bargain and end up buying clothing and beautiful sculptures for less than three US dollars. But now that I'm home, I wonder if after these shopping trips had I even helped the seller in any type of way. Had I just provided rent for the month or dinner for the week? Had I really done anything? At times I felt like I was doing a great civil service by giving my money towards the goods that were being sold, but now I am doubting myself. I think that’s how I feel about all situations when it comes to serving the world and making a difference. Does what I do even matter? I became a social work student so that I could make a difference in the world, but after studying for three years now all I wonder is if I made the right decision. It seems to me that the number one thing that is needed for change is money. Should I have become a business major or a political science major? After a lot of assessment and thinking back I think that my questions and doubts were answered when visiting the Tong Len hostel. The key to successful change is educating the children. Children want nothing more than to have their dreams come true. It frightens me that children are taught as they get older that they need to get rid of their dreams. I plan to let children know, where ever I go, that they can reach their dreams. I plan to tell them that education is very important and once they understand the importance they will know what needs to be changed. My actions do matter, and even if it is something small I can only hope that the people I help pay it forward and create a chain reaction.

"Difficult Situations"

Before going to India, my perception of a difficult situation seemed pretty normal for my surroundings. A death in the family, a divorce, etc. . While in India, we had many difficult situations that were nothing like those examples. My difficult situations were running out of water, not being able to find shade, or the power going out. While in America these things don’t sound too bad, but in India these were all VERY difficult situations.Some of my more memorable difficult situations were the fact that I had a cockroach in my pants, the power went out while I was in the bathroom, and I left my shower shoes back in the third city we stayed in. This allowed me to become more aware of other people in their difficult situations. I learned that just because I don’t see something as being difficult, doesn't mean that it isn't. There are many moments in peoples' lives that they perceive as difficult. It isn't up to me or anyone else to try to tell them otherwise. 

Thursday, June 19, 2014

I Left a Few Fears in India

      People at home that knew me before this trip would probably never believe that I survived India. I was the girl that hardly went outside because of a strong disdain for bugs. The same girl that collects shells at the beach since she never quite learned to swim. Not to mention the girl that cried on the way up the Kitty Hawk Sand Dunes because she was petrified of heights. To sum it all up I am afraid of just about everything and it is no secret.India decided to place every one of those fears in my way and forced me to simply get over it.        
     There were bugs galore among other critters crawling everywhere. I had to accept them because thanks to the Jains (a religious group completely against violence even in regard to the smallest of creatures) my conscience would not allow me to squash them as usual. You know when in India...do as the saints do. One night Zoe and I even had a small vistor in our bed. A lizard. We were sure this little guy was harmless but he still was not welcome to roam the bed while we slept. Zoe was so inspired by the saint she used her book to escort our friend outside. I still  am not a fan of bugs but thanks to mother India I can contain my shrieks when they come my way. I can't swim so my initail reaction to rafting was not the same as my classmates except for Charon. I did not think it was possible but Charon had me beat with her fear of water. Everyone tried to reassure us that the life jacket would protect us and there was no need to worry. It was enough to get me on the raft but not enough to stop my legs from trembling and my heartbeat from amplifying as we prepared to leave the shore. Sure enough we were safe and Charon and I both made it in the water BY CHOICE. Not only did I conquer a fear but I had an amazing time doing it. I don't think I could have forgiven myself if had I missed that opportunity it was well worth the panic. Of all of my fears heights is the biggest and baddest. I don't know why but it has always been that way. One may wonder why in the world I would chose to go to India knowing a portion of the trip would be in the Himalayas aka high in the air! My answer is simple, I was tired of being a wimp. So I went. The mountains were tolerable and honestly most of the time I was oblivious to just how high we were. The most challenging day for me was probably the day we traveled to the waterfall because I did not see a clear path, just unsteady rocks. I won't lie I whined on the way up but nevertheless I made it and I even got in the water. It was refreshing and in that moment I felt free. I'm not sure if I am quite ready for Mt. Everest or anything but I certainly think I left a few fears in India.

Slow Down, Stay Grateful

Near the end of trip, we made two visits to Tong Len. Tong Len, as you have read in previous posts, is a hostel for kids taken out of a local slum. What with all of the poverty and unhealthy conditions in India, Tong Len truly gave me hope for educating and caring for children in India. It was very motivating to see what a change the organization was making. The kids at the hostel are healthy and excited to interact and learn with other students. We spoke with a few older students who were in the founding class. They were well-versed at describing their past experiences and big future plans. School was not the only priority: we got front row seats to a dance recital as well.

In a matter of minutes after our arrival, each of us was holding at least two or three small hands of the children from Tong Len. After an hour or two, they were in our laps or pulling us along to the beat of their favorite songs. These quick connections contributed to our difficult departure. After leaving McLeod Ganj, we made our way back to New Delhi. After spending a day exploring and buying a few gifts, we boarded our bus and made way for the Indira Gandhi Airport. From there we went to Frankfurt, Washington, and before we knew it, we were at baggage claim in Raleigh. I can imagine us being a rough-looking (and smelling) crowd.

These past couple days have been part of an odd transition. Initially, I lounged in the air conditioning, ate sweet and sour chicken, and drank water from the faucet. Slowly, I have come to realize that these are not things I truly missed about home. Yes, I did miss my family and friends, but those material desires were quite superficial. I am starting to miss the things in India that were foreign and made me somewhat uncomfortable initially: communicating with people who do not speak my language, getting lost and finding my way in a new place, and learning about a deeper part of myself in the context of other religions. Sometimes I get sidetracked and caught up with many tasks and responsibilities. I learned many things in India, but two of the lessons that come to mind are to slow down and stay grateful.
This was a market in Old Delhi.

 Ganesh graffiti in Pushkar.

 My friend Usha.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Phenomenal People

     We were graced with the presence of many extraordinary people in India from the travel agents that welcomed us at the airport to the hotel hosts that never seemed annoyed with our constant demands for water. I know that our trip would have been much less meaningful without each and every person we encountered including the beggars because they taught us to appreciate every one's contribution to the human experience.
      Again I hold many people in India dear, but I must say that some people touched my life in a major way, a way that my heart won't forget. For instance when Bagdro laughed the world seemed a little smaller and lot less scary. Bagdro was tortured, jailed, and beaten by the Chinese government before he was able to escape Tibet and enter Northern India which was a thirty day ordeal for him. I couldn't find the humor in that situation had it been me. Somehow Bagdro does  though and he spreads peace and love at the same time. He mastered the art of patience and has learned the best fight does not have to entail violence. The Dalai Lama taught him to use his words to fight and helped him find freedom in forgiveness. Now Bagdro is pursuing justice in a different and much more effective manner. When he spoke he used the word happy the most. Even if he had never said it I could sense his happiness and inner peace through his laughter. I was almost confused by how he could tell us this gruesome story about what happened to him and still be laughing in between sentences. I began to think to myself how can I ever call myself "angry". I'm sorry if anyone disagrees but we really have nothing to be angry about if this man can be beaten within inches of his life and still smile. I was reminded how we allow minuscule things to dictate our emotions and cause us to hate. Bagdro is my inspiration because he taught me there is no reason to allow anyone to steal your joy no matter what they may do, you can not allow anyone to break your spirit. He never did.
     When speaking of inspiring people there is no way I could forget the staff and children of Tong Len. They literally welcomed us with open arms. They held our hands and gave us a tour of their rooms with great pride. They wanted to share their world with us and they were so proud of everything they had. I couldn't help but think of how ungrateful we can be here in the states while these children were content with so little. The way they give love so freely and easily is something this world could use more of. They unknowingly challenged us all to recommit ourselves to service and making sure children understand the value of education because that is exactly what Tong Len is committed to.

Goodbye India

McLeod Ganj was our last stop in our trip and it was definitely the perfect way to end this trip. The Tibetan atmosphere found in McLeod Ganj is so peaceful and extremely different from what have encountered. We had the honor to go to a lama teaching and have a monk talk to us about his hardships in Tibet and making his way to India. Before this trip I had little knowledge about Tibet and their people but now I know the hardships they faced, and are still facing, in Tibet due to the Chinese taking over. While the monk was done talking to us I kept thinking how little I knew about this issue and couldn't imagine who else in the world has no idea about it. I definitely will be mentioning this when talking about my India experience and hope that the world knows more about it and gets involve in saving Tibet.

While in McLeod Ganj we visited the Tong-Len hostel. The Tong-Len hostel visit is definitely one of my favorite parts of this trip and an experience that will forever stay in my heart. On our second visit we listened to the stories of  how thankful the senior kids are for this amazing opportunity and how they want all the other slum kids to prosper in their life starting with their education. The enthusiasm in their faces when they talked about their future life and the things they would do to help the other kids was amazing to see. Tong-Len is doing an amazing thing and providing great opportunities to these kids that one day I would love to become a part of.

After an awesome five days in McLeod Ganj it was time to head back to New Delhi in time to catch our flight back to the states. Arriving to America and adjusting back to my daily life is such a strange feeling. I find myself inspecting all my silverware and cups when I get served dinner at home and automatically laugh at how this has become a habit since we always did it in India. As I'm telling all my friends and family the stories about India I have the biggest smile on my face and realize that I can sit there and talk to them for hours about my experiences but they will never truly know how amazing and challenging this trip has been for me. I feel so blessed to have been a part of this opportunity to go to India and grow as a person. India has definitely opened up my eyes and made me look past the things that I once thought were important in life. It has also taught me that I have a lot more strength than I once thought I did (not just physically but emotionally). This India trip and the people who experienced it with me will always have a special place in my heart and I wish everyone the best! Until next time India!

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Back in the US

India has become familiar, and the United States has become strange. I didn't expect to have to adjust in North Carolina similar to my first days in New Delhi. India is on my mind every waking moment of the day, reminding me of all the heartfelt moments. I've cried tears of sadness realizing how simple and authentic life was in India. I didn't fully understand how content I was with having little connection to materialistic means and how much I let myself be at one with the people and the environment until I was looking in the rearview mirror. I've cried tears of happiness realizing the depth of my experience and how it has broadened my perspective of the human experience in ways that I could have never imagined. I knew I was evolving on the surface but there was an evolution stirring much deeper within myself that I was not entirely conscious of until I had been placed back in a contrasting environment. I find it strange that I came back to find fleeting happiness in having a hot shower, air conditioning every where I go, 24-hour access to wifi, faucet water clean enough to brush my teeth with, and clean raw fruits and vegetables. I appreciate these resources, but the lack of them in India seemed so important at times that it diluted my reality. Now that I'm back home I recognize how insignificant it was, but “With every lesson we must be learning.” (Beatles Ashram graffiti)

I had accustomed myself to a culture so far from what I knew that coming back to the United States seemed so small. We are living so extravagantly on the outside but so shallow on the inside. I believe we have lost touch with real human interaction and we have lost touch with living in the present moment. There is a misconception that life is only vivacious on the television, but it's not. We have gotten disconnected from everything that makes us alive and as a result we are searching for truth in all the wrong places. My compassion extends to myself and to those who suffer this way because I understand why we often feel empty and lost despite the fact that we have everything else we think is necessary in life.

As a result of my developed awareness, I aspire to grow through making a difference in my life that will be of positive direction for myself and of service to others. I am inspired to keep learning and to keep digging deeper. I am inspired to live for something bigger than myself and I am most of all inspired to share my story with others so they can become inspired to do the same. Joseph Campbell once said, “I don't believe people are looking for the meaning of life as much as they are looking for the experience of being alive.”

See Truth for Yourself

As the days pass by, I find myself becoming more comfortable with my surroundings by averting my eyes less and accepting more. The sky is the limit in India. Anything unusual goes. Having to move out of a cow's way in the street or hearing honking constantly has become the norm. There's no way to really wrap your mind around it. That's just the norm in India like norms anywhere else.

India never ceases to amaze me. There is something magical about the city of Varanasi. We arrived here a couple days ago and I have felt the peaceful emanations ever since. Riding on a boat on the Ganges river felt like a blast from the past. For the first time I saw people performing morning rituals, washing clothes by hand, and bathing for purification purposes. I knew it was prevalent, but to see it in person awakened a lost truth within myself. It was as if my mind was saying, "Yes, this exists! Don't you remember? This is a reality as well!" Around the world we are all living simultaneously but so vastly different. I feel like I'm in a movie half the time I'm in India. It feels like a dream, it doesn't feel real.

I have come to the conclusion that if I want to see truth for myself I have to see it in with my own eyes, or else I'm never going to believe it. I can know it but to experience it is much more rewarding. Cultural submergence is a part of growth and I don't mean vacationing in the finest places. I mean being in a place so far from what you know that you have no choice but to accept it. Going off of a perspective that isn't your own doesn't give you the understanding that you would find yourself. So, I suggest you plan a trip now.

The Ganga

We arrive to Varanasi, one of the holiest and sacred cities in India. Varanasi's architecture is beautiful and every building along the Ganges river has its own unique touch to it. The city is along one side of the river only due to flooding that occurs during the monsoon season. Our everyday itinerary was packed with temples and amazing site seeing. I have never seen a city in India, up till now, with temples located in every corner, on every street, where ever you walk you are guaranteed to see a temple. When we went to these temples I noticed the reaction and rituals the Indians would do. In every temple it amazed me how much affection they had towards the God or deity that was under the temple. They would ring bells, throw money, and give gifts at the temples as part of their worship. It amazed me to see so much faith and it was so heart touching to see people having such a strong belief that when everything else failed their faith is what kept them motivated and allowed them to move forward.

Every evening there is a ritual along the Ganga the natives preform to say their goodbye to the sun. Every single night a HUGE crowd forms along the river as people sit on boats in the Ganga and watch this beautiful ritual. When we first arrived to the Ghat this ritual is performed we were bombarded with sellers. Most of them were little kids trying to sell anything from face stamps, postcards, to inflatable blow whistles that they would blow in your face to grab your attention. When we were on the boat a little boy named Khudar got on and used his charm to sell us his products. Little did we know he sure did charm us and got a few of our business. I looked at his postcards but did not see any that I liked but he was so cute that I wanted to give him money, so instead of buying a postcard I offered him some rupees. He caught me by surprised and said "Money no Ma'm just buy something, money no." Khudar was so determined to sell his products which made me realize how important this business is to this eleven or twelve year old boy. I thought to myself at 11 or 12 years old I was concerned about my Polly pocket dolls or whether or not I could stay past my bedtime to watch one more TV show. While I was concerned with silly unreasonable things, this boy was concerned about selling his products in order for his family to provide food on the table and live to see another day. Luckily we ran into Khudar another day and we had the honor to hang out with him all day. He sure did make that day very interesting and hilarious. I thank Khudar for opening up my eyes and making me realize how much I want to help out the kids in India to prosper in life so they would not be stuck being a seller or beggar for the rest of their lives. I wish him the best of luck and hope he grows to be an even more amazing, loving person than he already is.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Arriving to India

After a few complication we finally left Delhi's beautiful airport to the streets of India. I remember preparing myself to smell the worst when I walked out the doors because everyone who I talked to about India they always mentioned how horrible it smells. Now that I look back to that day I laugh because there really is no way to prepare yourself for the smell of India. I do not think you ever adapt to the smell, I think one just accepts the fact that that will be the smell you will be smelling everyday whether you like it or not, there's no way to escape it.

I could not stop looking out my window on the way to Hotel Relax and seeing all the people sleeping on the streets. I remember thinking to myself what did I get myself into and if I am prepared to go through with this adventure. We get to the hotel and first thing I notice is how incredibly hot it was in our room. I remember looking at my roommate Katie and just bursting out in laughter. Katie and I laughed a lot that night because it was better than crying. Thankfully I quickly drifted into sleep and rested up before our first full day in Delhi's 117 degree weather.

We wake up to cows mooing, cars honking, and people talking which I quickly adapted to since its quite the norm here in India. First step of the day was showering. Let me just say showering is a long process since you have to be extra careful to not splash any water in your mouth. Not only was the shower difficult imagine brushing your teeth. Lets just say I managed to get toothpaste on my towel every time and wasted a lot of bottles of water during this process. After the shower comes the sunscreen and bug spray. Two things that saved me from feeling sunburnt and uncomfortably itchy with bites. After this process everyday I was ready to roam the streets of India and embrace their culture all while avoiding stepping on poop or spit and avoid getting ran over by motorcycles, rickshaws, or cows.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Back to the Beginning

       Time seriously flew by and many moments we shared in India became a blur. Now that I have the opportunity to sit and absorb each experience I am able to find the value in each even the ones I was once to shallow to find depth in. I laugh at myself as I remember the very first night in India. We were riding through the neighborhood and we stopped. I remember thinking there was no way this was our stop. Of course it was. That night was hilarious because Zoe and I (who barely knew each other at the time) just stared at each in other awe and blind fear until we finally managed to fall asleep. We can laugh at ourselves now that we realized we were fine and were simply adjusting to this new way of life.
      We must have visited at least twenty temples all of them beautiful and special in their own right. However, the one that I am constantly thinking of is the Baha'i Lotus Temple. Not only is it aesthetically pleasing but it is one of the most peaceful places I have ever been. The Lotus Temple, in my opinion, is a symbol of unity because they invite people of all religions to join together and worship there. I am now
grateful for places like this because too often we let our varying beliefs seperate us, since most religions are based upon love and service religion shouldn't create as much dissension as it does. The inside of the Baha'i temple was filled with people praying to whatever diety they believe in. I certainly can't speak for everyone else but I know I recieved the blessing I needed by being there. I opened my heart and my mind. I was able to forget that I was a Christian in a room with Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, and others but instead I focused on the fact that we were all people with faith and there's hope in that alone.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Well our journey in India has come to an end. I think it's very ironic because up until Rishikesh and Mcleod GanjI think many people wanted to go back home as soon as possible. But now I feel like everyone's attitudes have changed, and everyone is finally starting to enjoy India a lot more. India takes a little getting used to, and 27 days is just to little time to spend in India. This county has so many great things to offer, and this trip has just shown us the tip of the iceberg. One thing I learned on this trip is to be very appreciative for the things I have and not to take things for granted. In America we have running water and safe drinkable water very out of our garden hoses, but here it's a different story. Food is also safe to eat anywhere you go in America but in India you must be careful about where you go out for food. Now of course for the local people everything is mostly safe cause their bodies have adjusted but it's still something to think about. I'm also very thankful that America gives every student the chance at an education because education is very important and that is something we are taught since age one. However many kids here don't realize what education can do for them and also don't have access to an education. It's the little things like this that most of us will never notice how nice it is to have until one day we are without them.

Friday, June 13, 2014

The Best Day Ever

It seems like Dr. Maher saved the best for last when he arranged this trip for us. This entire study abroad experience felt worth it after spending five days in McLeod Ganj and Dharamsala, where cooler temperatures reside. To enhance the already wonderful surroundings, our hotel provided us with an amazing view of the snowy Himalayan mountains. The great atmosphere there made it much easier to enjoy the entire day compared to hotter areas such as New Delhi or Varanasi.

Immediately after we settled into our hotel in McLeod Ganj, we set off on a late afternoon trek to what Dr. Maher referred to as a "wonderful place." It really was a wonderful place, as it was the residence of the Dalai Lama and its associated temple. Although we weren't able to enter the Dalai Lama's residence, it felt surreal to be standing less than a hundred feet away. What occurred the next morning still seems unbelievable to me... I actually got to see the Dalai Lama in person! Unfortunately I was unable to snap a picture of his Holiness as his car drove by us on the way to the airport, but I guess all that matters is that I saw him with my own eyes. Although the moment only lasted a few seconds, I felt a certain holy and spiritual energy in the air as he charismatically held up his hands to his audience as he passed by. I am eternally thankful to have had the once in a lifetime opportunity to see him.

As if that day wasn't already the best day ever, we proceeded to visit the Tong-Len hostel later that afternoon. This turned out to be one of the most meaningful experiences I have ever had. All of the children there smiled from cheek to cheek when we arrived. Listening to the stories of the children who gained the life-changing opportunity to receive an education and exit the slum life allowed me to realize the stark difference between poverty in America and poverty in India. Impoverished children in America attend school through compulsory education, by which they must attend school from age 5 until age 18. No such taxpayer funded system exists in India, which is why I have seen so many poor young children here begging on the streets. Most of the children at Tong-Len used to beg to help their families before being chosen by the grace of God to come to the hostel. Seeing these eternally happy children made me feel happy as well. I was delighted to meet all of them and truly hope that they make a powerful and positive impact on the world. They have already left a lasting impact in my mind with their influential stories. It would be a blessing to return to Tong-Len, a place that truly changed my perception of life, in the future.

Monday, June 9, 2014

"...And Everyone Should Try."

Think about poverty.

Picture a woman. She has no shoes and her clothes are torn and dirty. She carries a baby in her left arm. The baby wears no clothes. She extends her right arm out for passersby to give her spare rupees. She has no luck so she motions to her mouth and then to the baby's mouth to show the passersby she needs money to feed her baby. Further down the street two children, one boy and one girl maybe a year a part, are begging the same passersby for money. These children belong to the beggar woman. The woman has 9 children in total. No place to call home, except a makeshift shelter out in the slums of India - no running water, no electricity. Not even a blanket to wrap up in during the winter nights. The beggar woman was a child herself on the streets. Begging all her life. She never learned to read or write. She never learned a craft or way of living. When asked why she has so many children her tired eyes hold no hope as she replies simply that people give more money when there is a baby she needs to feed - no education and no critical thinking skills, mixed with the desperation poverty creates only allows this woman to think in the short term. Never mind she now has 9 mouths to feed next to her own. But the poverty is so much, all 9 mouths do not get bread each day. When she has baby 9, baby 8, who was being breastfed, stops getting milk. The baby stops eating. At 17 months the baby girl is shriveled up, back to her birth weight. She doesn't cry. She doesn't respond at all. In addition to her poor health, her mother sells her into a child marriage in exchange for a bottle of liquor - when she reaches puberty, if she survives, she's to be married to an adult man. The little girl does survive, but she doesn't have to live the life of a beggar on the streets, married as a child, having children of her own. This little girl is given a chance.

The founder of Tong-Len Hostel in Dharamsala had to pay the little girl's mother to bring her to the medical tent of the hostel to receive care, but the little girl was brought in every day and little by little life returned to the little 17 month old. Today the little girl, Sangita, is one of the beautiful faces of the children living at Tong-Len. Her small stature is the only clue to her undernourishment and neglect in her early months here on Earth. She's an animated five year old, with a smile that will melt your heart.

In fact, all the children at the Tong-Len Hostel will warm your heart and put a smile on your face. When we arrived on Sunday the children ran out of the dormitories to greet us. They all wanted to shake our hands and ask us what our names were. One of the first girls to greet me had her black hair in a low bun and wore light purple that looked beautiful next to her warm complexion.

"Hello, my name is Jutie. What is your name?"


"No, Jutie. What is your name."

"My name is Kayla. It's nice to meet you." Jutie smiled at me, and I smiled back.

"How old are you?" She gave a quizzical look. Jutie didn't understand. "What is your age?"

"No more English." She didn't know much English, but it didn't matter. Jutie took my hand and led me around the hostel. She showed me the girls' dormitory, the boys' dormitory, the school room, the kitchen, the little kids' dormitory, and the playground. When we got to the playground she led me to the swing, still holding my hand.

"Sit. Ma'am sit." She gestured to the empty red swing. I sat and she pushed me in the swing. After a moment, I asked if she wanted me to push her in the swing. I stood up and motioned to the swing. Jutie sat and let me push her in the swing for just a moment. Then she took me back into the little kids' dormitory. There another girl took my empty hand. Jutie told me to go with her. This little girl had short black hair and wore a brightly colored outfit of green and pink. Her pants were too long and she would stop every so many steps to pull her pants up where they slid under her feet in her blue flip flops. She took me upstairs in the dormitory. While we were walking up the stairs I asked her what her name was.
"Likshma. What is your name?"
"My name is Kayla. It's nice to meet you, Likshma."
Just like Jutie, Likshma led me around holding my hand. When we got upstairs she showed me her cubbie space. She pulled up a chair so she could reach it and pulled out a small bag with "MiMi" on it. For a second, I thought it was candy. It wasn't candy, but a snack of dried, ready to eat noodles. Likshma opened the bag, took some pieces out and ate them. Then she held the bag open for me to have some. I took some and ate them with a smile. Likshma then took a little packet out, climbed down from the chair, moved the chair to its original position and took me downstairs again. Jutie was waiting where we parted. Likshma offered some of what was in her packet to Jutie, but she told her no. Likshma then grabbed my left hand and put powder in it - it was yellow and I could smell the spice. She then poured some into her own hand and poured it in her mouth, demonstrating how I should eat it. That was a lot harder to eat and maintain a smile, but not impossible as I couldn't help but smile while in the company of these children. Likshma was a dare devil - she would jump multiple steps and climb over hand rails - the adrenaline rush fueling her airy laugh.

We again went to the playground and I started taking pictures. Jutie loves taking pictures. I let her take some with my phone. She also took a picture of me and Likshma on the swing. After a few minutes Jutie discovered that the phone has a camera on both sides and decided she needed to take a selfie with me! Likshma kept wanting to hold my water bottle. After the selfie with Jutie, Likshma had run off. Minutes later she returned with a juice bottle filled with water - she wanted a water bottle so she could be like me with my water bottle!

While on the playground, kids kept calling out to get their picture taken.

"Ma'am, just one picture?!" After I would take one, they would repeat their little line and change poses. Then they all wanted to see. Their desire for attention shining out like a beacon in the middle of night, signaling us to them to create a sense of home with additional love where their parents are not present. Jutie pulled back when a crowd gathered - I don't think she likes too many people in one space. During the little stretch of wondeful chaos with the commotion of the children, Likshma decided to braid my hair. She gave up before she was done, so another girl, Shoba, took her place. Shoba wore green and gold. Her black hair was in a low ponytail and her dark eyes popped as they were lined with thin black make-up. While taking pictures of the kids and letting Likshma/Shoba braid my hair, I made another friend - Sangita. I didn't learn her story on how she was before or how she came to Tong-Len until much later. The kids had scratches and cuts and some even had infected piercings, but there is medical care at the hostel. There is food at the hostel. There is safety at the hostel. There is education at the hostel. There is hope at the hostel. These kids come from poverty most people in developing countries can't even fathom; the hostel is giving them the chance to break this vicious cycle of generational poverty. By educating children across the world, we can give them hope.

The last part of our visit was spent in the school room. I sat with Sangita to my left holding my hand, and with Shoba and Jutie to my right. Some of the children performed dances for us. They were wonderful! They were having so much fun! Then it was our turn to join in. Sangita and Likshma wanted me to dance with them, so I did. It reminded me of playing "Just Dance" with two of my favorite kids back home. :)

When it was time to leave, I walked over to Jutie to tell her bye.

"You go now?"

"Yes, we're leaving now, but we'll be back."

I was expecting to part ways then, but she gave me a hug and took my hand and led me out of the school room and down to the gate at the entrance. She gave me another hug. Then an older boy was saying all of the names of the visitors - she walked over for him to learn my name too. Jutie walked me all the way to the car. I didn't want to tell her bye, but I get to see her again before we leave McLeod Ganj to return to Delhi. I can't wait to see her again. I can't wait to see Jutie, Likshma, Sangita and all the other kids again! These children have my heart. I fell in love with them with that first visit. I want to stay in touch with these children when I get back home to North Carolina. I want to see them learn and grow and become the amazing adults amazing children can become. I believe in the work of Tong-Len and I believe in these children.

The following day, Monday, we went to a slum in Dharamsala, the slum the children at the Tong-Len Hostel are from. We walked down the rocky path, passing makeshift houses as we went. Tarps, pieces of cloth, even trash was used to create the walls of the homes there. Every step we took our feet crunched on small rocks, broken glass, and small pieces of any and all cans, bottles, shoes, and anything you can think of. Children gathered all around us wanting to shake our hands and tell us hello. Most of the children walk barefoot. Most have clothes, but many only where one item - if they have a shirt, they have no pants. If they have pants, they have no shirt. Those with and without full outfits have tears in their clothes and the stains and wear and tear reveal these are the only clothes they have. The slum does have access to water now, thanks to the efforts of Tong-Len. The children also have access to schooling, again thanks to Tong-Len. We first stopped at the little tin building where the four-years-old and younger children have school. The teacher was making playdough that each table could play with. The teacher explained that there are over 40 children in the slums. Some, very few, but some, of the kids go to government school. When they get out at three they go to the tent schools in the slum. The rest of the children, and the majority, stay at the slum for school. There they are safe. They aren't exposed to the dangers of begging on the streets with their parents. Next we walked to the school tent for the next age group of children. We watched the children work. The children were erasing their work after completing it so the next child could use the workbook. While I stood there in the heat on the rocky, trash-covered ground peering in the school tent I fell in love again. One little boy in plaid was tickled with me smiling and making faces at him. We even played peek-a-boo. His smile was so sweet, and he had a sparkle in his eyes that could light up a night sky. He was happy - untouched by his poverty, his spirit shown bright behind his eyes revealing that his heart was light, open and ready for the world. Almost two hours passed before I even knew it. I could stay with these kids for hours; a part of my heart wants to stay forever. These children need me, but I can't stay here -however, that doesn't mean I have to leave the children. I can be a voice for them and raise awareness for not only Tong-Len and these children but for the importance of education and how we can help children around the world break out of the vicious cycle of poverty. Some of the group members were talking and we want to have a school supplies drive for the children of the Tong-Len Hostel and the slum. Until our school supplies drive begins, I urge everyone to learn more about Tong-Len through their website and to strongly consider making a donation. Every penny is one step closer to helping a child stay safe, receive an education, and have a happy future.
                                 Links: tong-len-usa.org

This week in McLeod Ganj really has been an experience. Not only do I see how blessed I am and how I should remain thankful for what I have, but I also recognize the need to give back. My time here has lit a desire in my heart to find ways to stay with the children here and also help children back home. I hope that with sharing my experience, you too may feel the desire to give back. In the words of John F. Kennedy "One person can make a difference, and everyone should try."

Today we visited a slum. Visiting the slum really put some things into perspective for me. We take a lot of stuff for granted. For many of us it’s hard to imagine, a life without drinkable water, living in tents that are at least 20 degrees hotter than the temperature outside, and not having food to eat. But many of the people we saw today are living in conditions like this. They live in tents made out of bent bamboo, covered with black tarp. None of the homes have running water, and it wasn’t until very recently that they got access to water. Because of recent donations and contributions, a local charity was able to provide the slum with a well. The charity also provided the slum with a medical tent and trained some people in tending to basic wounds. What was really amazing to see in the slum, was that everyone was so happy. All the kids were enjoying our company and were oblivious to how poor their living conditions were. It was also cool to see the kids learning how to read and write. I really hope that conditions for these kids get better even though they are not sad at all.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

India !

India ! What an amazing place. There is nothing I can compare it to. A land of poverty, wealth, and culture. Since arriving a few weeks ago, my senses have been continuously heightened, along with some i was never aware I had. I have completely changed my ways since being here. The importance of a shower is contemplated a lot more when it is now common knowledge that you will be dripping with sweat once you walk out the door. There is more strategy used when choosing clothes for the next day than attempts to match. No longer am I wondering if the shirt matches the pants or if it came from the clean clothes pile. The more important question is if it smells too bad or if it is appropriate enough for the temple we will visit tomorrow. We have visited many MANY temples. Most I cannot pronounce. We have travelled throughout northern India by bus, car, and train. There is nothing like being the only group of Americans in an area where people may have only heard of an "American". As they stare at me unashamed I stare back (with more and more confidence every time) and wonder what they are thinking. The number one question, and in one occasion an assuming statement, that I've been asked is if I am African. They cannot believe that such a diverse group of people are all from the same country.

Today was an amazing day in McLeod Ganj. Waking up in the Himalayas is unlike waking up anywhere else. Although it is a bit hotter at 100 degrees by 9am, there is some nice shade and breeze that makes the heat bearable. Our day started with a trip to the cafe up the street from our hotel for a quick breakfast. Unfortunately quick needed to be real REAL quick because we left the hotel at 9:15 and we needed to meet the group,at 9:45. Of course it took us a while find the entrance of the cafe
and the language barrier did not help us keep to our schedule when attempting to order. After
canceling the majority of our orders and receiving cold pastries we had four minutes to get back to
the hotel to meet the group. Our morning was full of learning about the Tibetan culture and my attempting to meditate. I realized today that I have no attention span and was ridiculously distracted by the sights and sounds. We soon had a nice surprise by beating able to watch the Dalai Lama leave the city. There was so much excitement among the Tibetans as we waited to see him pass by in his heavily guarded car.

After a great lunch after so much excitement, we took a cool ride to a hostel named Tong-Len. We spent hours and hours playing, dancing and talking to the children that live there. It is so refreshing to see that children are the same no matter what country. Our day ended with some much needed food and shopping in the market (India version of retail therapy). I can't wait for the next adventure tomorrow.....and some more shopping.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

So Much Fun

If someone asked me to describe Rishikesh in a few words, I would simply reply with “so much fun.” Being here has truly been a blast and I wish we could stay here longer than just three days. Yesterday, our journey through the winding streets alongside the Ganges River led us to several fascinating sites, including the Beatles Ashram and a series of waterfalls in the mountains. Although walking around in the blazing heat became tiresome, it all felt gratifying when we reached the Beatles Ashram. For me, it felt unbelievable that I was standing on the same property where the Beatles had written some of their best music. Later that day, our hike up the mountains led to cooler temperatures and even the opportunity to finally touch clean water (as opposed to the dirty water in Varanasi) flowing from the mountains into the Ganges River.

Today, we went rafting in the same water. This was the best (and only) rafting experience I have ever had! Better yet, this was undoubtedly the most entertaining thing I have done thus far on this trip! I'm even proud to say that I faced my fear of water and jumped in the river. It felt refreshing to escape the torrid heat by floating in the seemingly freezing cold water. While traversing the ups and downs of several areas of rapids in the river, I couldn't help but relate the situation to our entire trip. I've experienced several high points, such as adventuring and sightseeing. I've also encountered low points, including dehydration and sickness. I'm sure my classmates can attest to this as well.

Overall, I have enjoyed my time in India and feel grateful to have been able to experience this melting pot of religion and culture. So far, rafting in the Ganges has undoubtedly been the highlight of my trip. But maybe this will change once we arrive in Dharamsala...


"Wow!" is all I can say about Rishikesh. Everyone has thoroughly enjoyed their time here and definitely does not want to leave (although this is a common theme of each location). Today we woke in the early morning in order to do yoga on the mountainside while it was still a comfortable temperature. Following yoga and a great breakfast we drove further into the Himalayas to get upstream of Rishikesh on the Ganges. Somehow all of us students managed to muster up the courage to raft all the way back to our location. Many of us, including myself, had never rafted before... thrilling! In the past couple of days we also visited a very large site of Jain importance. Jainism is a very interesting religion: extreme nonviolence (ahimsa) and a very strict diet. 

My thoughts always seem to wander back to our train ride to Rishikesh though. We were situated beside a family from Haridwar. There was a mother, father, and son who spent their time sleeping, eating, and playing boardgames. After many polite smiles and initial hesitancy, the mother, Yogita, and I began talking. We spoke about the US, where her sister is an engineer, and about India. I hadn't had many extensive conversations with many Indians yet, and  it was my first informal one with an older woman. By the end of the conversation I knew how to exchange pleasantries and the numbers one through ten in Hindi. Conversations like these prove very valuable to me in understanding how we can get past our differences to see that we are so much more alike than we realize; even though age, race, religion, and thousands of miles would usually separate Yogita and I. 

Other sites we have visited include the Beatles Ashram and a waterfall. We are learning a lot and excited for wherever the journey physically, spiritually, and mentally takes us next.