Wednesday, December 1, 2010

thanksgiving, retreat numero tres, and harry potter (...)

At a Jain Temple in Wayanad
In India, Thanksgiving was on November 24.

Let’s backtrack: In India, Thanksgiving wasn’t at all. Except for at Achen’s house, that is. And we celebrated a day early due to the fact that we would be traveling all of the next day. Our destination would be Wayanad, the location of retreat number three.

The aforementioned Thanksgiving celebration was much anticipated by us India YAVs, especially since there was rumor of pumpkin pie.  Luckily, the rumors were true!

In accordance with my question-asking nature (I’ve been told I ask a lot of questions. 1) this is accurate, and 2) I own that title with pride :)), I asked the Thanksgiving table the following—What are you most thankful for? –and made each person answer. While we each had several things to mention, what resonated with me most was Maggie’s reply: laughter. So obvious but so true. I was reminded of Bill Cosby's words: “Through humor, you can soften some of the worst blows that life delivers. And once you find laughter, no matter how painful your situation might be, you can survive it.”

After a hectic morning and the long journey to Aluva, there was something very simple and wonderful in sitting around the table and enjoying each other’s company, remembering the things for which we were thankful, and laughing a lot, too. Although there’s nothing really profound about all of that, since isn’t that what Thanksgiving’s supposed to be about, anyway?

We awoke early the next morning to take the train to Wayanad. The main purpose of this retreat was to learn about tribals, a group of people who have faced similar struggles as Native Americans in the US. In the context of India, like dalits, tribals are often poor, discriminated against, and have little access to quality education, etc.

At one point the government had a big initiative to give land to tribal people. The tribals, however, were given the land without any accompanying education about such matters. They were in turn taken advantage of by people who offered them a little money and a lot of alcohol in exchange for their land. Not knowing the value of money, they fell into the trap. The result has been tribals working land they don’t own, and widespread alcoholism.

Speaking of which, we spent the weekend at a de-addiction center, which is also the home of a Mar Thoma achen, his wife, Anjana Kochamma, and their adorable 1 year old son, Aaron. (By the way- ‘Achen’ is the title by which one addresses a pastor; ‘Kochamma’ is the title used for a pastors’s wife. 'Mar Thoma' is the name of a Christian denomination here in Kerala). Anyway, they live at and are in charge of the de-addiction center.

One night, we accompanied them to an AA meeting, where two men were celebrating one year of sobriety. It was actually incredibly moving to be a part of that event. One by one, each person spoke about their experiences, the length of their sobriety, their triumphs, and their challenges. Some could boast over 50 days of sobriety; some over 300; some over 1,000. Some could merely stand and say, ‘by the grace of God, I have not partaken of alcohol today.’
Beautiful Wayanad

The vulnerability, trust, and support that we witnessed in that community was really amazing. At the end of the meeting, Jim, Maggie and I were asked if we wanted to say anything. I stood and told everyone that I admired their strength and courage to be there on that day; that there was no bigger gift that they could give to their families. Achen translated all of this, of course, but one didn’t have to speak Malayalam to sense the profound sense of not only struggle, but also community in that place.

On Monday, Jim, Maggie, and I were to return to our sites. We decided that on the way, we would make prolonged stop in Kottayam so that one of our dreams could finally come true: seeing HARRY POTTER. Let me tell you, a lot went into putting this plan into action. We took an earlier than necessary train from Aluva so that we might arrive in time for the 11AM showing. We were worried that the train would depart Aluva late, but much to our delight everything appeared to be on schedule and at the designated time, we were on our way to Kottayam.

The train ride to Kottayam is two hours long. Strangely, however, three hours passed and there was still no sign of Kottayam. We thought this was maybe due to the greater than usual number of stops the train had been making. After a while, however, we began to get nervous, and as the clock ticked past 11 and 11:01, it became obvious that we weren’t going to make the 11AM showing. We quickly devised a Plan B—we would see the 2PM showing—and Jim went to ask someone if we were nearing Kottayam.

He returned to Maggie and I with some interesting news: we were on the wrong train! Apparently, just because the train we were on had arrived at the time OUR train was supposed to leave didn’t mean that it was, in actuality, our train. Having no idea where we were, we disembarked at the next possible stop, Haripada (which is curiously pronounced just like Harry Potter, but without the ‘r’ at the end), and, learning that we were about 1.5 hours diverted from Kottayam, made it our next mission to reach Kottayam at all costs by 2PM. To this end we hired a taxi, which cost a ridiculous amount (in rupees…it wouldn’t be considered that much in dollars, especially compared to taxi prices in the US), and off we went. A little late, sure—a little detoured, sure—but Harry Potter was in sight.

We arrived to Kottayam a total of five hours after we originally departed Aluva. It was 1:50. Having no time to leave our bags at Jim’s place, we rushed to the movie theater with all of our bags in hand. We knew that as soon as we were seated in the air conditioned movie theater, hearing the beginning sounds of the Harry Potter theme music, the crazy journey would be worth it. Full of joy and anticipation, we approached the movie theater.

Harry Potter was no longer playing.

We weren’t sure who to blame—India? Harry Potter? JK Rowling???—and found ourselves relying on that time-tested cure, laughter. And you know, the whole debacle just might have been worth it for how funny the Buchanan teachers found the story the next day.

Tuesday, I was walking around Buchanan and was approached by a group of 5th graders. Shyly, they held out a card. Puzzled, I opened it—it was a Happy Thanksgiving card that they had made themselves. This was primarily amazing because it means they actually understood my Thanksgiving lesson!!  Also, it was very thoughtful of them to make me a card for a holiday they don’t even celebrate, and whose knowledge about said holiday is limited to the fact that it has something to do with being thankful and a turkey.

Totally not Thanksgiving-looking, with two hand-drawn parrots on the front, lettered in tropical colors, and covered in flowers—it’s probably the best Thanksgiving card I’ve ever received.

"Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend. Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow." -Melody Beattie

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