Friday, January 30, 2009

Thank you for my India Trips of a Lifetime

Thank you all at Global Volunteers so very much. I had a wonderful time serving in Chennai again this year. I have Stephen and Sheeba and the Hosts to thank for my experience. Stephen is a most remarkable, patient, generous, kind and wise man. He and Sheeba care very deeply for the children and all the people who host the volunteers and help them to do their work. I am again so impressed. I think of Stephen and Sheeba and Stephen's whole family as my "Indian" family! I was so sad to say good-bye to his parents and neighbors and relatives. We have become so close.

I also am grateful to Stephen and Sr. Rose for making a dream come true: together they worked for three months to locate a little boy I met last year at Assisi....Augustine. Stephen helped me make arrangements so that I could go see him and play with him again. Holding him has been my biggest wish of the past year and I feel that now I have established a connection with his family that we can stay in touch.

There were so many wonderful moments; children who have hearts as big as the country to play and sing and be held....they even loved just touching my arms and smelling my hair. From lives that could be about sadness - these are remarkable, resilient children.
They have so much to teach about true meaning in life. I am grateful to them for the lessons I learned. You get out of the experience - what you put into it. For me, personally, I go, give, and get back 100-fold.

~Joelle Imholte

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Millennium Development Goals

Achieved by this Team from January 5-9:

18 Hours of Class room instruction in computer skills by 2 volunteer and 18 Hours of preparation time.
10 Hours of childcare by 1 volunteer
25 Hours of Construction Labor at SEAM's Children's Home

One school, 2 children's home and 90 students impacted

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Today was our first day as a group in India. We are a very small group—from what I understand, as two persons, we are the smallest ever. I am very pleased with both my team leader, Stephen, and my fellow team colleague, Sue.

We started the day at working on team-building, and setting goals. Three goals were determined: to share with and to work for the local community, to learn about the local culture, and to meet other persons interested in service. We also identified qualities essential to successful team-work: we identified patience, flexibility, communication, tolerance, fun, discipline, and punctuality.

In the afternoon, we walked to see the site at which Sue will be working during the day helping to carry cement to finish the first floor of a new dormitory at S.E.A.M.’s House, a boarding school/orphanage for 38 boys and girls, aged 5 to 18. Many of the students were returning from the vacation and were helping to clean the classroom for the new school term. For the moment, the students study, learn, sleep and eat in a large one room, airy classroom.

It’s been a day full of generosity: smiles, food; Stephen and Sheeba have spent much time speaking to Sue and me about Indian culture and answering the many questions that we have.

The quote that I have chosen for today comes from V.S. Naipaul’s India, A Million Mutinies Now. Naipaul is speaking with/interviewing “Pravas, an engineer” whose Brahman father “would practise the hard-core Sanskrit”. He comments on change: “Change is a continuous process. […] And yet they [my sons] are perfectly at balance in the local surroundings. If you get too attached to your roots in an old sense, you might actually become unrooted, fossilized. At least in form, at least in style, you must get into the new stream, get the new roots.” (Vintage 1998, 168-169)

Alessandra Benedicty

Monday, January 5, 2009

Alexandra and I started the day with yoga from a local yogi. Great way to start the day. After breakfast and the journal, we were off to our first day of work. I went to SEAM Children’s school and spent the day hauling sand and concrete, and moving bricks for the new dormitory. Hard work. I was really glad when lunch time came and I got a break. The workers were working very hard. They did a great job with very simple tools. No wheel barrows, only a bowl to carry the material. Alexandra’s morning was spent at Assisi Illam with the very young students. She enjoyed working and playing with the kids. After lunch I returned to the same job, and Alexandra went to Grace School and worked with the fifth graders on computer skills. She was really impressed with how easily the kids picked up how to do something like an Excel spread sheet. Children seem to have an innate ability to learn the computer. Or maybe they are not afraid so learn quickly.

We came back at 4pm got a little rest, and went out again to the SEAM School for an hour. We shared some pictures that were sent by a previous volunteer. The kids really enjoyed them. Alexandra and I then worked with two kids on the computer, showing them simple word processing skills. They pick it up sooooo fast, it’s amazing. Alex asked Stephen how their English skills got so good. Stephen said this has happened through the Volunteers. Nice to see so clearly what the volunteers have accomplished.

Sue Travis

"Those who sow kindness gather Love" Author (Unknown)

Tuesday, January 6th, 2009

Today Sue and I proceeded with our regular schedule: she went to S.E.A.M.’s home and I went to the various schools. Sue said that her day was slower than yesterday, since the downstairs dormitory rooms at S.E.A.M.’s are almost completed.

So as to log “what I did” today, I thought I’d give the activities:
• Assisi: We started with “Jump, jump, jump, sit, sleep”. They love the jumping and mimicking sleeping. We sang “ring around the rosy”, “patty-cake”, “hokey pokey”, “Brother John”. These were all songs that they asked me to sing, and there were a few other melodies that I did not recognize, and for which their words were approximate. We also did the vocabulary for the face and traced our hands on the black-board. We sat in a circle and did “up, up, down, hold hands”. We also learned to kiss our hands and then place the hand on Manigendar’s foot since he had hurt himself badly over the vacation. I worked with Manigendar, Santosh, Anisa, Afrina and Simba. Santosh and Afrina are strong little personalities, and today both were extremely obedient. I also realized that the activities need to change every 3 minutes; but an activity that charms Santosh or Afrina, may last even 20 minutes. I spoke with Father Christu and Sister Rose for a few minutes. The atmosphere brings me back to my Catholic school days and the extreme peaceful beauty of those mentors who marry religion with service and spirituality. Father Christu told me that he’d been offered many positions in the United States, “but there is still too much to do here; I must serve India first.”
• The Grace School: I continued to work with the six, 5th graders, dividing them amongst the two computers in a girl team and a boy team. The girls are: Priti, Ashvita, Vaishnavi and the boys are Yesprerit, Kavi, and Mirmar. Yesterday, we turned the computer on, opened a 5th Grade file folder, created a Microsoft document and an Excel document. On Microsoft we worked with font color, size, spell check, copy, paste, clip art. They love the colors and clip art. We also learned to save (very important  ) and file away a document. On Excel, we created a spreadsheet of a budget for a party with multiplication formulas and sums. Their math skills and conceptual skills are excellent, so the application to excel was simple and “magic!!” they exclaimed over and over again! Today, we reviewed the Microsoft skills using “My favorite film/song/actor.” I learned all about the stars of the Tamil film industry, and they loved trying to write out their favorite stars’ names using the English alphabet. They impressed me with the respect for each others’ space and the patience and respect with which they help each other out.
• S.E.A.M.’s: With Sue, we set up the two computers again and worked one-on-one with a student. Again, the students’ ability to pick up the computer skills is incredible. We do the exercise twice or thrice and then they have it down.

On a more personal level, I have developed a soft-spot for Arun. He is eight and lives at S.E.A.N. He is very slow and meticulous in speaking, only speaking when he is sure he is correct, and he is shy in groups. However, yesterday as today, he came to me and dragged my book bag to me asking me to give him a book. Unlike the other students who quickly goes through all the pages and abandon them; rather, he picks one book and slowly goes through it alone. He doesn’t ask me for anything but a crayon and with the single crayon he begins to color in the figures. Initially, I did not want him to color the books, but when I noticed how carefully he paid attention to shading, and slowly went through each figure, I let him be. He is the most sweet little book-loving artist. Stephen told me that he got into trouble for being late to school today, and I found it adorable: a little artist with his head in the clouds. So quiet, so respectful: he packed up my bag just as meticulously, making sure that his crayon went into the pack upright and in the right order. Precious!

The evening ended with books: we went to downtown Chennai to the bookstore and perused the shelves for at least an hour, and I returned with many new books! Now Sue and I are just hanging out; she is a splendid and fun conversationalist, and Sheeba, Stephen and Roshin are superb hosts.

My quote is from an author whose elegance matches that of little Arun: “…beware that you not cross your arms in the sterile attitude of the spectator, for life is not a spectacle, a sea of pains is not a proscenium, for a man who cries is not the man who dances…” Aimé Césaire, Cahier d’un retour au pays natal
«[…] gardez-vous de vous croiser les bras en l’attitude stérile du spectateur, car la vie n’est pas un spectacle, car une mer de douleurs n’est pas un proscenium, car un homme qui crie n’est pas un ours qui danse… »

Alessandra Benedicty

Wednesday, Jan 7, 2009

We started today again with yoga. This is getting more difficult. I implore the yogi with a look that my body is not a pretzel and will not bend that way, but I continue to try. Alexandra’s grace is beautiful. We are alone today because Stephen and Sheeba have gone to their home for the night. Breakfast and then off to work. Again, Alexandra to Assisi this morning and I went to SEAM. When I first arrived there were only to two workers and they were working in an area where a helper was not needed except a load carrier. I asked the head master if there was work to do, and he consulted with the workers, and I was set up with the job of sifting sand. A screen that was nailed into a wood frame was set up against a wall, and I poured sand over it, so that the finer sand could be used for plastering the walls. The worker showing me how to do the job, came by to watch, and corrected me several times. He seems very solicitous and does not want me to lift too much sand at one time. Concerned about my back, and all of this is conveyed with no language. I assisted him by providing bug repellent because the mosquitos are ferocious today along with the humidity.

Alexandra’s morning at Assisi was spent entertaining the children with games and song, which she seems to enjoy immensely. After lunch we returned to our respective assignments. The sky was very threatening and within an hour it was raining. That ended my assignment of sand sifting since wet sand cannot be sifted. My fellow worker insisted that I just sit down and rest. After about five minutes of that I was fidgeting, so I got out my camera, and started hunting down prospects. The grandmother was cooking out in the open and the fire was smoking in the rain, which made a nice picture. The workmen were all too happy to stop for a moment and pose. Because of the laziness of the day, they chatted a bit, and Rebekah acted as translator. Two questions they posed, “How old are you?” And “How much does that camera cost?” They couldn’t believe the answer to either question. I got a great unposed picture of Swathy with a somewhat pensive look. She is such a beautiful child. The boys were all too anxious for a “photo”. One in particular was insistent at least 15 times, and he pointed out to the other boys that I took 15 pictures of him. They love looking at the picture after it is taken.

When I returned to the guest house Alexandra had cabin fever and was out wandering in the rain. When she returned we chatted for awhile, and then returned to SEAMs for the computer lesson. She is again enchanted with Arun. He is an adorably sensitive child, and one wonders what life will be like for him.

After SEAMs we went to Stephen’s parents for dinner. On the way the traffic was horrendous. It seems the prime minister is in town for a special dedication of a highway section, and things are backed up everywhere. Dinner was delicious, and it was fun meeting Stephen’s family. We are driven everyday by his brother, so have met him before, but met his wife and child, and his sister who is visiting from Kashmir along with her husband and son. Lots of interesting conversation about what we all do in “real” life. It was a delightful evening. Tons of pictures were taken and we promised to provide copies before we left.

On the way home the traffic was completely stopped for five or ten minutes. The prime minister needs to go back home.

Our problems are man-made, therefore they may be solved by man. And man can be as big as he wants. No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings. ……..John F Kennedy

Susan Travis

Thursday, January 8, 2008

“For me the fact that something is secret and personal and internalized gives it a new dimension and a strength. The fact that you can’t perform or express it, what you feel, heightens the experience, the power of that.” (Amir in V.S. Naipaul’s “The End of the Line” in India, A Million Mutinies Now)

The “power of that” is what I feel often in my life, but now I have another nuance to what I feel as “that.” Arun points simultaneously to the A in the ruler of a Word document and to the first letter of his name and smiles a very slight smile when I clap. The fifth graders at Grace School exclaim with large smiles and huge enthusiasm “magic!” when the items of a house for which they plan a budget are summed up in Excel, but with the same exercise, Shivamprakash says nothing, asks me to show him again, erases the entire one hour exercise and reproduces it in five minutes. I kissed Arun goodbye yesterday, on his cheek, and I put my cheek out, but he did not kiss me back; this morning, he kissed my cheek, and this afternoon he carried my bag to the car. This afternoon, he came and drew again, but he brought his brother and three friends, who rambunctious this morning, followed Arun’s example: they would not compromise Arun’s privilege to sit in the office near the computers with the older boys and draw. I wonder if it’s fair to make friends, and then just leave, but then again, there are many of us volunteers, with many styles, and that makes for many friends.

Just beauty: marigolds, Susan’s incredible ability to charm those near to us so that they pose for photo after photo, Roshin’s big eyes with black olives as pupils, cashew-paste pastries, Shiva’s laugh, Stephen’s “yeah”, which quietly, but non-judgmentally confirms our curiosity (and repetitive, simple questions).

“In poetry I am never satisfied with what I write, and especially because the type of poetry I write can only appeal to a few people like myself. But I find that helping others is something that I can tackle, although I make mistakes. I keep on learning from them.” (Dipanjan in V.S. Naipaul’s “After the Battle” in India, A Million Mutinies Now)

Alessandra Benedicty

Friday, January 9, 2009

Today is Alexanadra’s last work day, and she is sad. So am I, because I will miss her. We change the routine today, so that I can go with her. We have yoga again today because it is no longer raining. We missed it yesterday. It is so refreshing to be on the roof early in the morning. We go to Assisi together. The little ones are so adorable, and soo tiring. They have such energy, and Alexandra is good for them because she also has the energy to “jump, jump, jump”. There is one little boy and girl that are apparently new to the school and still cry when they are left by Mom and do not stop crying or looking for mom to come. Children are the same all over the world.

We go to lunch at Father Christu’s. The location is beautiful, up on a hill with a view of the city below with wonderful breezes. The Father is very charming and outgoing. He plays the drums for us, and another priest Father Sebastian, sings. The drums have a great sound and the rhythm is infectious. Lunch was very good, a new dish we haven’t tasted with radishes.

The afternoon is spent at Grace school teaching computers to the 5th graders. The lesson is on how to create a graph from an Excel spreadsheet. Then the kids are shown how to use the drawing on Word. They loved it. After a break we go to SEAMs for more computer lessons. I used the drawing as something different for the boys to learn. Before we leave there is a small going away party, with the children singing for us. There was a birthday party in preparation with the Birthday Girl being dressed up in a bridal dress. Quite stunning. The children were very sad to see Alexandra leaving and we got a picture of Arun with Alexandra. After dinner we had Indian ice cream. This ice cream was vanilla with pistachios in it’s own little hand made pot. Very unusual, and good.

The children are our future. We must invest in them, if we are to survive. Author Unknown.

Susan Travis

Monday, January 5, 2009

31 December 2008

31 December 2008

Today at Assisi, we twisted the morning away while listening to Elvis. The kids had fun for a while but quickly became more interested in the psychedelic computer screen than dancing. It made me think of how many American kids prefer TV and computers to physical activity…it made me glad that these kids don’t have such easy access. Then again I felt sad that they don’t have more opportunities to advance. I quit dancing long before Joelle who danced and danced and danced. She has endless energy for kids, dancing and singing. Harshall worked hard on math and reading skills with several kids…and read the paper.

George allowed me to hold him for quite some time today. He has rarely slept so long while I held him. It made me sad to realize that we only have 2 more days to share with these incredible kids.

Tomorrow we go to the circus! I think I am more excited than the kids!

“Success is the maximum utilization of the ability that you have.”

30 December 2008

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

“I think that travel comes from some deep urge to see the
world, like the urge that brings up a worm in an Irish bog to see the
moon when it is full.”
Lord Dunsan

How rare, how lucky, we truly are to have had this opportunity to see the world to enjoy the moon, crescent as it hung over us tonight. I was struck this evening - how this moon is the same that shines upon my family, my friends back home and this land so distant and so different from my own.
When I came to India this time my bags were crammed full of toys and clothes for the children, art supplies and learning materials, and even a few “comfort” items to give me a sense of home while here. I also have to admit I shoved inside my suitcase a set of expectations…..even a hefty “to do” list that I could never accomplish during my three week stay. That is OK. Really, I’m fine with that…..I have learned long ago it is best to leave some things undone when you visit a place so there is a greater reason to return in the future. But in packing those expectations there is always, always room for disappointments too. On this trip I had to deal with some loneliness….some sadness…..some misunderstandings….and although difficult, that is OK too. I believe it is how we grow. But my overall goal has been undaunted. It was to return here to the children I love and continue loving them. And so I did.
My greatest joy comes simply from hugging and holding the children…..or just sitting back and watching them play. It is seeing the anticipation build as I set-up a painting studio and find, well, the children of Assisi make great Abstract Expressionist painters. It is the joy I find from watching John crawl under the furniture to retrieve and eat that one last bean that escaped from another child’s plate. It is the joy I feel when I see children go to Harshal and Cynthia with books to read or solve math problems together – their desire to learn is great. It is joy that comes with dance, with singing, with games and outings. Now that my suitcase is considerably lighter – I wish I could pack these children up and take them with me back to the States. I just might have a bit of trouble clearing customs. But once home, I will think of the moon and remember it shines on them as it shines on me. I will think ahead of new adventures to come. This urge to travel and know the world will follow me and the moon will be my companion.

28 December 2008

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Today is the last Monday that we will have in our Global Volunteers experience. It is now down to Harshal, Joelle and me. Yesterday Enid, Miriam, Joelle, and I went to the indoor outdoor flower/fruit market with Steven. It was an incredible feast for the eyes but much too short of an experience. We had to hurry to ensure Miriam and Enid made it to the airport on time. I’m glad that they were able to experience the market as we all seemed to enjoy it. As we wandered through, many of the vendors gave us flowers…I wasn’t sure if they gave them so we would buy their flowers, or if they were being kind. I chose to think they were being kind. I ended up with many flowers in my hair. This seemed to amuse the locals. It was fun. This was my highlight of the day…except for the excessive sweating!

My challenge was the realization that the team and the visit is dwindling down to a minimum. I’m filled with sadness, happiness, confusion and many unknown emotions. I know that I will be permanently left with a place in my heart for the children, the sisters, Dr. Sister Excellence, the unknown but frequent smiling faces, the cars and all forms of traffic, cows, sounds, smells, colors, beauty and overall mysteries of India. It is definitely a bit lonely with fewer people since the team dynamic is inevitably different. I think now those of us left have become more introspective.

I look forward to today and seeing Steven and Sheeba’s new house. Though they will not live there it will provide an extra source of income to help bring their lives closer to what they wish it to be.

I end with this quote: “Truth is what is. Truth is neither good or bad, ugly nor beautiful. Truth is just what exists—it is reality. The successful are realists. They are not trapped by false appearances. They see the world as it is.”


27 December 2008

Saturday, December 27, 2008

It is now 2/3 of the way through the program for me, and it is a good time to reflect upon the goals of the program, what we’ve accomplished for ourselves, for the children and the community we have served.
With our team greatly diminished – Chris, Nicky – the first to leave and last night we said a fond good-bye to Molly as we stayed up late to see her off – and anticipating the loss yet of two more Team members tomorrow – Enid and Miriam – a sadness settles upon us. Thankfully the banter of Harshal and Cynthia, dueling tongues will keep us entertained and in stitches. Stephen is happy because the Team has been a good one, and a great way to end 2008 and welcome in the New Year.
For myself, the story of my being here began a year ago; this is the story I now share:
One year ago, on my first day at Assisi Illam, I spotted one twinkling-eyed boy among the multitude of day-care children. It wasn’t until after most of the day-care children left that I noticed a rather serious boy, isolated and withdrawn. I learned his name was Augustine. I also new Augustine needed to be “tamed” – certainly not in the sense one tames a wild beast, but rather as Antoine de Saint Exupery spoke about “taming” in the Little Prince:

‘Dejected he wandered on until he heard cries from a small fox saying "Tame me." The little prince asked "What is it to tame?" The fox replies, "It is to establish me, you are nothing more than a little boy who is just like a hundred thousand other little boys and I have no need of you. ....But if you tame me, than we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world."

"One only understands the things that one tames...if you want a friend tame me..." Finally the little prince agrees. The fox then details a procedure in which he will come everyday to the spot in the woods and the fox comes also. There they would view each other from a distance of safety for several days. Over time they would draw closer and closer until they had built a bond of trust. Then they would have tamed one another.’

The day I knew I had tamed Augustine, sitting side by side, not saying anything at all, he reached over, tugged my earring and rolled his eyes and looked away. What a tease! From then on I knew I had him eating out of my hand, sitting on my lap, engaged with the other children – playing. We became inseparable. Often I would hear staff and children at Assisi say, “Augustine is a bad boy….” How can anyone at “3” be all that bad? Augustine was an underdog, and I root for the little guys – Obama before he became well known, and now our president to be, Andrew, the ex-con, artist with bad teeth and custodian for the Loaves and Fishes where I serve meals once a month, and the runt of the 6th grade litter who gets picked on at school.
My favorite times with Augustine came in mid-afternoon after lunch had been eaten and the children and Aunties had been “played-out”. We would lie on the bare floor facing each other. Talk gently to each other – he of course in Tamil and I in English, and yet we knew perfectly well what we were saying to one another. He then, knowing my limited Tamil vocabulary would switch into English for my benefit and say, “Shhh, sleeping, sleeping,” and as I would rub his back. He first, then I, would drift into a peaceful sleep.
The day I had to say good-bye to Augustine was among my life’s saddest. How could this one child in three weeks, who I thought I had tamed, actually in the end, tamed me? Would it hurt any more to have a limb ripped from its socket as I was being dragged to the van and as I handed-off a sobbing boy, who, in the end knew that this was a long good-bye? How long would it take for a broken heart to heal - his heart, my heart? I worried for some time about all the disappointments and sadness this little boy would have to face, and was I just another in a series of people who let him down? What could I do for this little boy living so far away?
Once home and after a month of ritualistic crying – early mornings, late evenings I checked into the possibility of adopting Augustine. It seemed on several fronts the answer would be no. No, too old. No, single. No, the boy has a mother. No way. Believing as I do things happen for a reason, I decided then, if Augustine couldn’t come to me, well….then I’d return to Augustine. Almost immediately I began to plan for my next trip to Chennai to do my second Global Volunteers, connect with all the people I grew to love in such a short time and to hold Augustine once more. But as soon as I started planning my return…..I learned the news from Stephen and Sheeba, “Augustine’s mother had come for him and had taken him home.” So then, what do I do – go or stay? I decided that I would go and pleaded with Stephen… there anyway you can find Augustine in the haystack of one-point-six billion people? Stephen’s answer to me, “We will try.”
Somehow I had an odd notion that Augustine would be nestled away in some small back-alley of Chennai. I thought, perhaps if I walk the alleys and call, “Augustine,” or sing “Old MacDonald” long and loud enough he would pop his head out of one of the thatched dwellings and add a “wolf, wolf here, wolf, wolf there….” and the fairy tale would have a happy ending. Not so. It was never meant to be that simple. Stephen and Sister Rose worked for three months trying to discover Augustine’s whereabouts. The good news arrived. Sr. Rose said she knew someone to call who could contact Augustine’s uncle in Pondicherry, and then his mother.
The set-up was decided. Little Stephen would drive me to Pondicherry where we would me Uncle Christopher at the Gandhi statue and he would lead us to a meeting point for the reunion. Anticipation… the day before summer break, like waiting for the first drops of rain following a drought, I waited for the first sighting of “My Little Heart.” And then, I saw him. This was real. He looked so different, yet he was Augustine. His hair shorter, he – taller, but the eyes, well the eyes were his. I worried that he wouldn’t remember me, but as an auntie who wanted to be remembered, plying with gifts of monkey, book, and chocolate seemed to help. When asked if he remembered me….his answer was, “Yes, I do remember.” Still, he wasn’t yet, my Augustine and I knew the “taming” process would have to begin again. With mother’s permission I had the next four hours to spend playing with Augustine at Little Stephen’s in-laws home in Pondicherry. Augustine waved to mom good-bye, blew her a kiss and was glad to go with Auntie. Then, for sure, I knew the veil had been lifted and he was mine once more. How to stretch these four hours into something that will last a lifetime – maybe his, maybe mine? Imprinting the image of a boy, now four, arms opened wide to embrace all the love overflowing from my heart, kisses planted on cheeks and forehead as one might kiss a sacred relic - this I shall not forget. As four o’clock approached, knowing we’d soon be leaving for another hand-off and another good-bye, I steeled myself. This time however, it didn’t seem so difficult because for whatever reason Augustine will be part of my life in the future. Perhaps it will mean that I will again visit him in years to come. Maybe it will mean that I will support him in his education. Perhaps, and this is a long-shot, but maybe, just maybe he will be with me in the States to learn and grow at some future time. You see, this story has no ending. Most true love stories don’t. But this much I know is true: One little boy entered my life. My heart has been “tamed”…..and I shall never be the same.


26 December 2008

Friday, December 26, 2008

Today is the last day of my Global Volunteers adventure in India. As I pack up and begin to prepare myself for my long journey home, I have a chance to reflect on the many people and experiences that have made this such a special and unique trip. I think of my days of construction with Harshal (include today – SURPRISE!) and think about how much more quickly and efficiently the local craftsman work than us. I am grateful to have had as good natured a partner as Harshal and hope he survives next week on his own!
I think of Enid singing “Marly, marly,” Chris recounting her massage experience, Harshal in his Santa suit, Cynthia wandering through the streets taking photographs and nearly walking into every bike, van, and auto-rickshaw that passed. I think of Joelle’s incredible joy and devotion to the children of Assisi, Miriam’s tears as she said good-bye to her sweet little friends at SEAMs, Nicky’s incredible, seeming endless array of sparkling, colorful outfits. I think of Roshan’s smile, Sheeba’s kindness and Stephen’s incredible patience. I think of our amazing Christmas dinner with Stephen’s entire family, Roshan’s baptism, I think of the gathering of pastors singing at SEAMs while we worked, The many Christmas pageants we got to attend, many times as guests of honor. I think of the cows and dogs and women wrapped in their beautiful sarees and bikes and auto-rickshaws and trucks and families of five on their motorcycle and men driving mopeds with their helmet in their lap talking on their cell-phones, all sharing in the tumultuous street life of Chennai. I think about Roni’s delicious cooking and that even with the physical labor, I will be returning home a little larger than I came here. I think of Barnabas’s 1000 watt smile, Little Stephen’s incredible nerves on the crazy road and the extraordinary welcoming we have received from all of our neighbors here. But most of all, I think of the children. I will carry their guileless, genuine, heartfelt smiles in my heart for years to come. They have taught me that it is possible to be extremely generous with very little, to be sincerely happy despite sleeping on the floor and not having a mommy or daddy to hold them or sing them to sleep or comfort them after a bad dream. They have reminded me what is at the core of all of us – the possibility of enjoying life amidst all the challenges the world can throw at us. I will take this lesson with me and treasure it. I couldn’t ask for better teachers.

“We cannot tell what may happen to us in the strange medley of life. But we can decide what happens in us –
How we can take it, what we do with it – and that it really counts in the end. How to take the raw stuff of life
And make it a thing of worth and beauty that is the test of living.”
Joseph Fort Newton


25 December 2008

Thursday, December 25, 2008

“If I am not for myself,
Who will be for me?
If I am not for others,
What am I?
And if not now when?
Rabbi Hillel

The morning and early afternoon were devoted to the first part of this quote. I decided after I woke up I needed to nurture myself. I spent the morning back at the guest house as the rest of the team went off to the baptism of Stephen’s son. It was so different to sit on my bed room floor where I do my writing; the house was completely empty and quiet.
After the group returned and took a short break, some of us went to the hospital to have lunch with Dr. Sr. Rexline. The children from Assisi were ether playing in the grassy area. As usual they were happy to see us. We made a short visit to Sister Rose who has been in the hospital most of the time we’ve been here. Then the kids piled in one van and the adults into another to head to Assisi. I enjoyed seeing the kids. I feel I now know a bit, as well as my new school age friends. After playing awhile, Santa (Harshal) and his helper (Joelle) passed out gifts to all the children. We ended the day with a lovely meal at Stephen’s family house. Their smiles and generosity was enormous. I think it’s safe to say, we were touched by their amazing spirit.
My personal goal when I set one of this trip was to give back to the children of India in thanks for all my daughters have given me. I know I have given a tiny bit, but it seems so small in comparison to what the children at Assisi and SEAMs have shared with me.


24 December 2008

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

“Tis a gift to be simple…..” Shaker Hymn

I think we all anticipated that today would be bittersweet; our last day with the children at SEAMs. We spent the evening before preparing gift bags for the children and exclaiming over the individual photos of each child and our favorite quips about these children who wasted no time in making their way into our hearts.
We were eager to arrive at SEAMs – with Harshal in a hastily-fashioned “Santa” costume. The kids went wild – dancing about and grabbing our hands. We played games, gave hugs and then took our seats for an extraordinary set of performances by the children: songs, dances, each more entertaining then the last.
And then we gave out the gift bags – enjoying the looks on the children’s faces as they saw their photos and goodies. This was followed by sharing lunch with all of us arranged around the edge of the room. The older children served the meal and everyone waited patiently and quietly. These children have a maturity beyond their years. They have a generousness that speaks to their life experiences. But most remarkable to all of us, they have a generosity and joy that all of us have learned from.
When it was time to leave, many of us had tears in our eyes, an ache in our hearts and questions in our minds as to what the future holds for these children. I have not the slightest doubt that none of us will forget the experience we had in India. The simple gifts given and received have changed our lives and, we hope, those of the children, as well.


23 December 2008

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

I started this second week at St. Joseph Catholic School where the students have been taking their midterm exams for the past few days. I am grateful to Sister Erokiya Mari for allowing me to spend time with the upper kindergarten class assisting a couple teachers administering their exams.
Having been in Catholic School throughout my educational life, the whole environment brought back some childhood memories seeing the tiniest student dressed up so formally in their school uniform is heartwarming. I was the attraction for the day where many of the older children came and introduced themselves to me – One of the students even guessed that I came from the West Indies which is exactly the location of Haiti.
Ms. Mutsy shared with me the curriculum content they’re using for the following subjects: English, Science and Math – all in one book. I was so surprised to see such an advanced curriculum for 4 & 5 year old kindergarten students….and what they must master or memorize in both Tamil and English by the end of the school year. More than have of them passed their oral exam with flying colors. I have forgotten to mention that this class has 48 students. From a professional experience I know how challenging to reach every student’s needs even in a classroom of 20 students since many have a variety of learning styles.
I have great respect for these teachers who have to work in this condition with barely any materials and must improvise at all times.
In the afternoon we went back for a spectacular holiday performance by the students of St. Joseph’s Catholic School where we were treated as V.I.P.’s.
In the evening, many of us in the group went holiday shopping for the kids at SEAMS and packed for them a gift bag to take home. I just can’t wait to see the excitement in their faces tomorrow.
It’s just been an unforgettable experience and a new found appreciation for everything I have in life.


22 December 2008

Monday, December 22, 2008

Unbelievably it’s been ten day since arriving in India and the experience has exceeded my expectations especially on an educational level. The Grace School experience, Stephen’s insights, all the wonderful people we meet, my teammates along with the sights and sounds have opened my eyes, expanded my mind, and certainly touched my heart.
Helping the Grace School 4th graders prepare for exams taught me a lot about India, here’s just a sample:
- The names of the 4th grade students – Ajin, Denish, Bale, Arun, Mohan, Proba, Kierenan, Rubin, and Keeika
- The children take their exams in English
- There are 7 territories and 30 states in India
- Parsees pray at the Fire Temple
- Mother is queen of the house and should be treated with great respect
- Jute is the kind of fibers

Sadly, just 60% of these bright students are likely to go on to the university. In public schools, only about 25% of the students go on to the university. In India, children go to school 6 days a week and take week long exams twice a year even the kindergarteners. The biggest exam comes in 10th grade. If you don’t pass you will either start working, generally in some family run business or if you’re lucky you’ll attend a trade school. If you are fortunate enough to pass you go to school through 12th grade. At that point you’ll take another exam to see if you’ll be able to attend the university.
Per the class text booklet: “This is an age of competition so only those with understanding and with intelligence will be able to avail limited opportunities.”
We’ve all learned so much from Stephen.
- Roshan’s Christian name is Emmanuel.
- Ganesh is the god of good luck and resembles an elephant
- Whenever two gods are in a competition you can guarantee there will be some form of cheating
- How to eat chapatti using only your right hand
- Native Indians (and faux natives with their shirts buttoned to the top) receive large discount entrance to tourist sites
- The reasons you don’t wear shoes inside a Hindu Temple:
*your shoes are dirty and the temple is pure
*shoes are often made of leather and cows are sacred
*the bumpy stone floor is like acupressure for the feet, relaxing
you before you enter the inner temple for worship
- is even more revered than Gandhi because he fought against the caste system
- Money (spelled Mani) is the name of a little boy, not a plea for cash
- The joy of a children’s Christmas pageant
- Restaurants cannot compare with Rani’s cooking
- The personal ads can tell you a lot about what’s valued in a culture
- How to do laundry without a machine
- Barnabus has 3 children and an amazing smile
- Little Stephen plays popular India music in the van if you ask
- Anklets are to be worn one on each foot otherwise people will tell you, you lost one
- No matter how hard you look, how many lovely ladies you see, how many textile stores you visit – you’ll never find two sarees that look alike
- A large truck carrying “only kerosene” is also labeled “highly flammable”
- A knee length skirt is entirely too short
- There’s a special thrill to an auto rickshaw ride
- White lines on the road are a mere suggestion of where to drive as one can easily fit a bicycle, 2 motor cycles, an auto-rickshaw, a bus in your typical 3 lane road. Thus enabling anyone to read the fuel gauge in the vehicle next to you
- The smart cows lay along the center of the road because the fast moving traffic keeps the flies away
- A family of five can easily fit on a motorcycle if tow of the children are relatively young
- Sista or Brother is a polite way to address anyone, not just siblings
- Hello – vanakaum
- Thank you – Nandri
- Nose – Mookoo
- Goodbye – poy tu wa
- See you tomorrow – Nalikipakalam

Finally, we learned a little bit about our teammates:

Miriam – adopted 2 Indian girls long before Angelina and nursed them back to health.
Enid – learned a modified version of “Row, row, row your boat that ends with a huge smile, arms waving overhead – Marly, Marly, Marly….Life is but a dream.”
Joelle – has such a love for India she is here for the 3rd time, 2nd time with Global Volunteers.
Nicky – an amazing woman, not only wrote a book about her native Haiti but each morning I find myself anxiously awaiting what beautiful color combination she’ll be wearing.
Molly – her lovely spirit is sure to leave an impression on the people she’s met – whether its supporting the small businesses, the photo’s she’s in, or children who can now dance the hustle.
Harshal – whenever he decides he wants to marry, the woman who answers his personal ad will be a lucky lady. While just a tiny bit gullible, he’s an intelligent and kind man with a great laugh and enough food photos to start a cookbook.
Cynthia – I can’t imagine having a better roommate. She’s shared her mosquito cream, lets me see all the amazing photos she’s taken each day, and can make up new words to familiar songs that made us all laugh.
- All wonderful people that I’m fortunate to spend Christmas with this year.

Quote for the day – Richard Bach, Hindu Metropolitan – Dec. 17th
“The best way to pay for a lovely moment is to enjoy it.”

21 December 2008

Sunday, December 21, 2008

I woke up today at the Lotus Hotel in Pondicherry – soon the music and sounds from the streets below reached my ears. After breakfast, we took a short ride to Sri Awiobindo Ashram. I was amazed by the peace and serenity I felt enveloping me as soon as I entered the doors. Complete silence. Beautiful plants and flowers. The noise of the world outside the Ashram melted away. Everyone was either walking around in silence or meditating.
From the Ashram we drove to Auroville. Forty years ago this community began; since then, the members have reforested 2,000 acres of land where hardly a tree grew before. They have created a school and health care system among many other things. In a leaflet I read, their goal is “to be a place where human relationships, which are normally based almost exclusively on competition and strife, would be replaced by relationships of emulation in doing well, of collaboration and real brother (sister) hood.” It was an inspiration to be there and to learn about what they have created. One of their core beliefs is in human unity.
As we drove on throughout the day to visit different sites we passed through many small villages. We had lunch at a seaside resort in Mamallopuram and of course, some of us snuck off down the street to do some shopping. Then we visited the temple nearby on the beach and later 2 others. Sorry, Stephen, I don’t remember their names as I write this, but the wealth of your knowledge about every site we visited and the countless number of stories you told us is incredible.
The only downside of a terrific weekend came during the moments I thought of the children I have had the pleasure to know – even briefly – this past week. How were they spending the weekend?
Beyond a doubt this past weekend has increased my understanding of Tamil Culture. I also thought it was a terrific experience for the team (minus Joelle) to share together.
I found this quote accidentally in my bag a few days ago:
“Peace cannot be kept by force, it can only be achieve through understanding.”
It reminds me of the GV’s “slogan” – Wage Peace and Promote Justice.


20 December 2008

Saturday, December 20, 2008

“Don’t tell me about your education, tell me about how far you’ve traveled.”

I didn’t have a quote and came across the above in a book I’m reading – it seemed apt. Travel is such a broadening experience – especially if you let yourself be immersed in another culture. I feel fortunate to be able to experience India not only as a “tourist.” I feel fortunate to have the opportunity to share and process the experience with our group. And I feel fortunate for the generosity, wealth of knowledge and insights of our Global Volunteers host – Stephen.
Today was very special for me. As someone who has practiced yoga and meditation for many years, to finally see, with my own eyes, some of the temples of Southern India and to see the people on pilgrimage was something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. The experience surpassed my expectations.
With Stephen’s wealth of information I learned much about the temples of Kanchipuram. My favorite was the temple of the Mango tree with its many splendors and the fact that as a place on the historic register, non-Hindus are allowed inside. Earlier at the Kamashi Amma temple – many of us got to experience an elephant ride. As usual – we all took photos galore.
What made it all extra-special – was our first extended down-time as a team. All of us found ourselves thinking about the SEAMs children – which tells me that the program is doing what it should – not just improve the lives of others, but also make each of us more conscious participants in our global network….so that we carry on after we leave the program by sharing our experiences and finding new ways to make a difference.
Speaking of global networks: a personal high point for me as having Harshal figure out why my cell phone hasn’t been working! Yea! I’m connected again.
Stephen was patient, as usual, in indulging our desires to take home tokens of our India experience (i.e. – shop). And we got to learn about some of the little details about each other (worst jobs ever) over dinner.
All in all – a long and very satisfying day.


19 December 2008

Friday, December 19, 2008

Anonymous Quote:

“The measure of a truly great person is the courtesy with which they treat a less fortunate person.”

India – close to my heart. The warmth in the air – the friendly people – the hustle and bustle of everyday life to make ends meet – the colorful fabric – the open markets – the curiosity in the children’s faces remind me of my native land Haiti – thus fill in a small space in my heart from the nostalgic that I sometimes feel living abroad.
Today has been a rewarding day for me in many aspects – Pretit – a name which fits her just right – such precious little girl whom I have noticed the minute I stepped in Assisi Children’s Home – so shy and withdrawn – a painful reminder of that little girl inside of me so many years ago forced to live in a strange and cold environment. Today we constructed a tower together again and played patty cake. I looked into her beautiful wide brown eyes. I find myself wondering, what is she thinking? Is she crying inside? What would she say to me if she could? Will this caterpillar get to develop into the beautiful butterfly which she deserves to become? Only time will tell. But today Pretit and I had a beautiful connection – she puts her arm in the air for me to hold her for the first time – I picked her up and we actually held each other for awhile.
Another rewarding event is that under the instructional leadership of Joelle, Cynthia, Miriam, Sister Carolyn and I crafted a masterpiece of a crèche for the children’s holiday performance. It was great to see the camaraderie while the rest of our group worked together on the colorful gold and silver angle wings for the common goal of doing our part to make the day a special one for the children. The whole performance was spectacular – it was so heartwarming to see the children dressed up in their Sunday’s best and just enjoying themselves.
I am filled with gratitude to be a part of their little world even for a short amount of time – their faces will forever be imprinted in my memory.


17 December 2008

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

“It was a good day.” GOD

Today began with the smiling faces of the children from Assisi. The sisters were kind to us today and only gave us 10 children…..yesterday it seemed that we had 20! Today they even provided toys…..this really made things much easier. By afternoon we brought the kids down from the 2nd floor….or I should say they brought us down. They then continued their wildness for awhile before their afternoon nap. The nap’s an amazing site and comes just when you think you’re going to pass out from sweating, dancing, singing and picking up and putting down so many of the kids. They nap. We eat, and then we worked on the Manger. This gave me a 2nd wind as I watched the manger grow into psychedelic colors and beautiful tissue flowers. We made the bus driver wait until we finished Sister Rose’s final flower. Sister Carolyn was so proud she asked us to take her picture!
Return to Global Volunteers quarters: Everyone had a great day. Enid felt spoiled by biscuits and juice, Molly was frustrated because everyone’s name starts w/an “S”, Miriam loved the little angel faces, Chris felt frustrated because she wasn’t sure if she should tattle, Joelle was glad that Cynthia learned how to make a flower and Stephen was thankful that we all had a better day!
As God once said, “It was a good day.”


16 December 2008

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.
The courage to change the things I can;
And the wisdom to know the difference.

The serenity prayer seems very apt for the day our group had today! Harshal and I returned to SEAM to continue working on the dormitories. We finished knocking out the bricks (Hooray!) and moved onto sifting sand so we (or someone) can make concrete a little later in the project. It was a welcome relief from the brick breaking but I found myself exhausted by the process none-the-less. However, amidst all of the hard work, we had a wonderful treat. The local Christian leaders all gathered for their monthly meeting, and this month was at SEAM. The meeting is only at SEAM once a year so we were lucky to get to see the group of local leaders as well as hear them sing their devotional music. I must say, their songs made the work go much more quickly and easily. We will be hammering the ceilings to prepare for the concrete application tomorrow
It seems like everyone in the group had a day of ups and downs. Lots of children are beginning to recognize and connect with the volunteers and things at both schools seem to be more structured which made Enid and Chris’s days run more smoothly. Our evening at SEAM ran a little more smoothly than last night and it seems we are moving in the right direction. Those kids sure are great.
After dinner, Stephen gave us a wonderful but heartbreaking explanation of the caste system here in India. It is an extremely complex issue which I think is hard to comprehend, especially for Americans. It sounds like those in the lower caste must contemplate the serenity prayer often. My wish for Stephen and his family is that they get to see major improvements in the rights of all Indian people, in practice not just on paper, in their lifetime.

Molly Luetkemeyer

15 December 2008

Monday, December 15, 2008

“If we really want happiness, we must acknowledge that it comes about by taking care of people.” The Dalai Lama

How do you corral the wind?
How do you blast a tunnel through a mountain?
How do you walk a tight-rope without directions?

This day at our sites we tried, we tried, we tried to do these things. No matter how successful or unsuccessful in our tasks it mattered not. What mattered is we cared, and this care brought us joy and happiness.
Sr. Rose’s skillful lasso tamed the wind in two perfect lines of twenty children each in no time at all. How does she do it? We, on the other hand had to be content with arms aching from lifting children (Cynthia), books wrestled from hands (Nicky), tears brimming in gratitude because of the excellent care given to the children (Miriam), and games of “I’m going to get-you, get-you, get-you” and “hog-pile” (Joelle). The wind eventually settled to a gentle, peaceful breeze as sleep overtook the tightly lined bodies of children on mats.
The heavy-hitter work was left to the hands of Harshal and Molly as stone and cement was chipped away to make ready the door frames of the dormitory rooms for the SEAM Children’s Home. Perhaps this is how Michelangelo started his career as a stone carver….and eventually worked his way up to: ‘Seeing an angel in the stone and carved to set it free…’ These two, however, seeing angles – carved. The mountain tunnel starts when the first stone is removed. Bravo.
The tight-rope act was performed by the amazing duo – (drum-roll please…) Enid and Chris – Tada! The balance in check: memorization vs. true learning, judgment without criteria – not being supplied with all the information, yet being required to deliver a verdict….the walk was indeed precarious….How did they do it? They walked gingerly along a cultural divide and somehow managed the expanse. Openness and willingness of heart were the skills they used to cross. (Applause.)
The Wind, The Mountain, The Tight-Rope were the “best parts” and the “challenges” of our first day. We look forward to the happiness we will find this day in caring for others.


14 December 2008

Sunday, December 14, 2008

What a wonderful day!
We spent the better part of the day with orientation – getting to know each other and what we hoped to gain from the program. Things like a better understanding of Indian Culture and helping children were prominent themes. Stephen is doing a great job leading us along our journey and providing cultural insight to our many questions.
After orientation was completed we had a little free time so Cynthia and I ventured out into the neighborhood for a walk. Everyone we came across was friendly and full of smiles, especially the small children who enjoyed having their picture taken so they could see themselves in the digital camera.
After our walk we all went to SEAM Children’s Home – What a joy to see the bright smiling faces of the nearly 40 children at the home. After introductions the children sang two songs. I tried to concentrate on their faces realizing this was a pretty special experience. After the songs we paired off in small groups. I had four very bright young boys who all knew their ABC’s and numbers in English. We sang a song and played a hand slapping game with numbers and the alphabet. Mani (sp?) was the winner proudly pumping his arms in the air. Sanjay displayed some acrobatics when he lost his turn just after I did. 2 other children were a little more reserved but all four wanted their photo taken so I obliged with just one group shot.
We ended the day with a wonderful dinner – food and conversation, finally each taking a turn to say what the best part of the day, a challenge, and what we were looking forward to tomorrow. A great idea by Molly and I help we do it nightly in an effort to be grateful each day for this experience.
While I’m sure common, it seemed fitting to start with a quote from Mohandas K. Gandhi:

“Our ability to reach unity in diversity will be the beauty and the test of our civilization.”