Friday, March 29, 2013

Wishing You a Colorful Life

When I found out I would be coming to India, one of the things I was looking forward to was Holi. Last July, my best friend and I traveled to Kentucky to participate in the Color Run, which is a 5K that donates most of its earnings to a local charity. While you are running, you get doused in a paint-like substance and covered in color. They advertise this as “the Happiest 5k on the Planet,” and that it is. I do not know this for sure, but the idea MUST come from Holi, the happiest day on the planet.

Photos from the color run (summer 2012). 

Holi marks the beginning of spring and is celebrated on the last full moon day of the lunar month. The religious meaning behind Holi can be found in ancient Indian mythology, and there are many such meanings, but suffice it to say that now the holiday is celebrated simply to have lots of fun. It is a time to say farewell to winter, to welcome spring with lots of colors, and to celebrate good harvests and fertile land. Although this is the least religious holiday, Holi is the most exciting one.

In a nutshell, Holi involves powdered color and lots of it. You literally run around with packets of color in your hand, rubbing the color on peoples' faces and saying, “Happy Holi.” And then once you get really into it, it escalates. Without asking permission, you begin tricking people and pouring color all over them, not just their faces. The worst trick: spraying liquid color. That stuff stains your skin for a couple of days. The clothes you wear on Holi should be ones you no longer want, as they will look totally different when the day is over.

In Guwahati, Fancy Bazaar is the biggest place to celebrate. Over 10,000 people come together to create a color-powdered storm. I should point out that this is not particularly safe for woman. On Holi, a popular drink is Bong, which includes all types of powerful things, so I was advised by many friends that it is best to celebrate within your apartment building or at a friend’s house. I recently received an e-mail from my dad of a news article in the Times of India describing how the Kamrup metro here tried to ban such crazy Holi activities.

Holi lasts two days (March 27 and 28, but the main day is March 27). Men are allowed to touch women to rub the color on their faces or arms. In most of India, men touching women in public is not acceptable. But on Holi, everybody is playing with everybody. Men are rubbing color on women's faces. The poor are rubbing color on the rich. Ethnicities are crossed. Presumably religious lines are as well.

I celebrated by going to Pinky’s house (of course). We ate (of course) and played around with the family going CRAZY with color. We ran around the village screaming Happy Holi. People would come out of their houses so that we could dip our hands in our packets of color and streak the color across their faces. By the end of the morning, I actually had so much color on me that I looked black. The drive home was so much fun because every person on the street was covered in color. It was hard to spot one person NOT covered in color. (Even Pinky’s cows had color on them). Once I got home, there was another Holi hour at my apartment building. And then, after that, I rinsed off and went to yet another Holi festival on the river. It was more of the same thing: playing Holi and dancing.

Pinky's family and friends (Pinky's mom is in the front). 
Even Pinky's cows had Holi color thrown on them! 
People have asked me what my favorite Indian festival is because there are so many. So far, this is my favorite. I loved running around throwing color on people and people throwing color on me. This holiday represented the excitement and craziness of India. It was a day filled with screaming and laughing and tricking.

Sending smiles and a “Happy Holi” from India,

LOTS of photos from Holi:



Pinky, her sister, 
Holi hurkie!
Pinky's brother
Pinky all colorful. 
Too colorful. It took way too long to try and take this all off. 
Riding home from Pinky's (Me, An (Olivia's friend), and Olivia).  
Color everywhere.  
Cheesing on the Bhramaputra River. 
A Holi dance party. 
Covered in color! 

Monday, March 25, 2013

Renuka's love keeps growing

Yesterday, Menakshi (the child life assistant) and I traveled by bus and train to Nagaon, an area three hours east of Guwahati. The purpose of our trip was to visit Renuka. Remember Renuka? She is Guwahati Comprehensive Cleft Care Centre patient whose story is one of abuse and determination. (Click here to read the first story I wrote about her.) 
Menakshi, Menakshi's cousin and me holding Renuka in the nearby tea plantation.
Menakshi and I both got very close to Renuka before and after she came in for surgery, so we decided to go visit her again in her village. I have written many times about the brutal simplicity of village life. You grow the food you eat, you own two t-shirts and two pairs of pants, and you have a roof over your head if you're lucky. At that point, you are living the life. Renuka falls in this category.
The view from Renuka's house

Renuka's house
Menakshi, Renuka, and Menakshi's cousin
Renuka's house sits in a jumble of six to seven other houses. A five-minute walk away is another cluster of six to seven other houses. And the pattern continues. Prior to our visit, Menakshi called Renuka's neighbor to get the word to Renuka that we would be arriving between 2 P.M. and 3 P.M. Renuka had communicated back that she would DEFINITELY be there. In fact, when we arrived, she was waiting outside ready to greet us. After we hugged her and looked at her repaired lip, I noticed that a crowd had gathered. Everybody from the tiny neighborhood was in front of Renuka’s house: Menakshi and the foreigner had arrived!

Best friends forever. 
Renuka's neighbor
The crowd quickly showed up. 
Renuka's neighbor
Renuka’s uncle helped her by taking Renuka away from her abusive father. But her uncle could not fix Renuka’s relationships with other kids her age. The uncle could only do so much to make her life as normal as possible while living with a cleft lip. When Renuka’s Uncle took her in, everyone in the neighborhood thought of her as “the girl with the weird lip.” Kids tried to play with her but they always stared at her lip.
Renuka's village friends
Renuka’s life has totally changed since the surgery. It is evident that the neighborhood children play with her because they love her energy, spunk, and playful nature. They do not just play with her
because they feel sorry that she has a deformity. When they do play, they do not pay attention to her face. It's just not a big deal.

Renuka is now going to school and that is such a big deal. When I asked what she has learned, she said, “ABCs are my favorite but math, singing, and reading skills.” Wow, go Renuka! Her friend status at school? “I have a lot.”

Renuka and friends
Unfortunately, we were unable to visit with Renuka’s uncle because he had to work. However, her aunt was there with her baby boy. Renuka’s uncle and aunt are now her dad and mom. Her “real” mom or dad have not visited her since she had surgery and they do not plan on seeing her in the near future.
Renuka’s uncle and aunt support her in everything she does. Her aunt’s loving nature towards Renuka clearly shows that the aunt and uncle do not regret taking her in one bit.

Renuka, her aunt, and her baby cousin.
Renuka in her new dress
We brought a couple of gifts for Renuka, including two new dresses. She can be a girly girl when she's allowed to be one. She changed into them for the photos that we took. It was really special to see someone whose life in her natural habitat has totally changed because of the cleft lip surgery. She has
so many things to look forward to now. She is sharing love like it is nobody’s business.

The visit was such a positive one. And while we were in the area, Menakshi and I decided to go visit Menakshi's aunt and uncle and their family who live in a village near Renuka's. We stopped by their house and quickly decided we would just stay the night and not rush our visit. We walked around their
chicken farm, their sugar can farm, and the village itself. In this family, the everyone lives together (Indian tradition). There's the grandmother and grandfather, their one daughter and three sons, two of the sons' wives, and two grandchildren. The third son will have an arranged marriage by the end of this year. (This new wife will also move into the house). As for the daughter, she will get married in the next year or two and will move out.

Chicken hut (they had three of these)
Sugar cane
Sugar cane anyone? 
Menakshi's incredibly nice and welcoming family.
Girl photo!  
While on our visit, we journeyed into the “city” and bought some ice cream for a treat. When I returned to her relatives' home, people began to flood the house to see the foreigner. Saying it is rare for a foreigner to come to this area is an understatement. After two hours of people streaming in and out to
meet me, I was asked to go to houses to meet peoples' families and have tea and snacks. So off I went for three hours to five houses to have five cups of tea, five cakes and so on. Boy did my stomach feel disgusting after it was all over.

Menakashi's relatives' house only gets power from 6 P.M. to 10 P.M. And sleeping that night was so easy. It was so quiet that it was almost creepy. And with everything so dark and clear, you could clearly see the beautiful stars. When we were walking from house to house on our “people want the foreigner to come to their house tour,” I thought to myself that this life seemed so lonely. The creepy quiet, the constant working on the farm, your life so tightly bound by the ways of the small village. But the truth is that everyone's priorities seem so much more perfectly in place. Everyone spends way more time with family instead of watching television. Everyone spends way more time taking care of their fundamental needs instead of running around constantly stressed by things that really don't matter.

Getting water from the well to wash the dishes. 
Eating dinner by candle light, no power after 10 P.M.
Cleaned my plate :)
 When Menankshi and I were on the train the next morning going back to Guwahati, she said to me, “You and I going to visit Renuka means more than you can even imagine. It means the absolute world to her that we care that much.” Then she said, “And having five teas and five cakes is exhausting, but those people now feel so special inside. Just for us to visit this village excites them so much that they probably could not sleep last night.”

Love man. It matters more than you can ever imagine.

Sending smiles from India,

P.S. Our parting gift was a chicken from the chicken hut. They tried to give me an alive chicken but I polilitely declined as I told them I would not know what to do with this. Instead, they gave me a cut up chicken. Menakshi traveled on the train with a living chicken (talking and moving and everything).

The living chicken is about to get on the train.

More photos from the short visit: 
Can I move here please? 
Menakshi and the neighborhood
Train ticket booth
Riding the train home! 

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Glass Half Empty

Sometimes, we get confused with ourselves, with others, and, frankly, with the world. We mix up whether what we are doing is for ourselves or for others. We get so deep into our work that we lose track of what the goal is and if there is even one. As we work and love and care, we simply forget that what we want might not be what others want.

Most of the time, you hear about all the success stories of helping orphans, slum children, village kids, and child laborers. You hear about how we feed them or clothe them or get them into school. Most of the time, you do not hear about how hard it is for this to actually happen. And you might not even hear about the failures.

We started with seven girls regularly going to school from the Lakhtokia slum, but the number quickly fell to five, and then after three weeks dwindled to only one. Kasitan, the star student, is cleaned, dressed, and ready to go every day at 3:00. With a backpack on her back, and shoes on her feet, she comes from a house hidden behind the other slum dwellings. Stable, with a clay built toilet, and wooden bed, Kasitan's family house never gets knocked down by the government. Her family may very likely pay the government so that they do not knock down the house. As I've said before, it's all about the politics.

Last week, after the government knocked down the houses again. Kasitan became the lone child going to school. You have to ask yourself: how can anyone feel the desire to go to school after their own government knocked down the only stability they had? Instead of sitting in a classroom for two hours, these kids probably understand they need to be out picking up trash to make money for their next meal. Explaining the opportunities they could have by going to school goes in one ear and out the other. To say the least, nobody is around to convince them otherwise. Their parents and elder neighbors are not the best role models.

When we take the girls—and they're usually always girls—to and from school, other questions arise. Whenever we walk with them, they beg for chewing gum or a new pair of shoes or even a phone as we pass various stores. At this point, you feel that you have become a source of giving stuff rather than providing opportunities. You get frustrated and confused.

At the beginning of this week, the number of girls going to school went back to five. Their houses are built again and thus they are more willing to go to school and keep trying class out. Three of the girls (including Kasitan) are regulars. The other two come every now and then. We tried something new at school this week: at the school, they changed clothes, and then after class they changed back into their old clothes. We encouraged them to do this, because this way they can have a school uniform that stays clean and well kept.

The first day, they totally understood what was going on. They willingly changed out of their clothes, not begging or asking to keep the school outfits. Some of them even folded the outfits up and put them back where they belonged. Simple and easy as that. When I dropped the girls off in the slum after school that day, I was so happy I did not want to let go of their hands. I just wanted to whisk them away and take them with me.

But the second day was different. After finishing their day at school, and running to me saying in Assamese, “I like school, I like school,” they ran off to the changing area. But as I was getting their regular clothes out, four of the five girls sprinted off outside with the school uniforms on. They ran in all different directions as I sprinted after them almost in tears. I was only able to grab one girl and get her to change. Kasitan, the star of the bunch, was the only one who had not run off.

They can lift your heart up and they can tear your heart in two. They can prove to you that they want more than the life they have been given, and in one second they can blow it up.

Sending smiles from India,

Below are photos from this week:
Kasitan getting all ready for school. 
Kasitan tying up her shoes in front of her house.
The school bus is moving. 
Some cuties I ran into while picking up the girls from school.
New "uniforms!"

Eating dinner.