Thursday, May 26, 2011

some good ol' measuring in love

This post was written on May 25. 

My heart is just so full.

This morning, we had the 'send off' for the graduating class of nursing students. As I will be leaving Mandiram on Tuesday, it was a send off for me, too.

In front of the group of 100+ people, Thomas Samuel Achen, Mandiram's chaplain, addressed the outgoing nursing students. He spoke in Malayalam, but from the little I could catch, he was congratulating them on reaching this milestone and offering some reflections and advice as they move on in their careers.

Then, he addressed me, and spoke about the things I have been doing during my time at Mandiram. One committment that he commented on, in particular, was my tutoring of Monisha and Sunitha, which I touched upon in my last post. Thomas Samuel Achen's office is next to the room where we have our daily lessons, so our chatter interspersed with laughter has probably disrupted his afternoons on more than one occasion.

He mentioned how he just finished reading The Shack, upon my recommendation. I'm fairly certain that no one in the room had ever heard of the book, but he told the crowd how it portrays God and the trinity, not as a heirarchy from Father to Son to Holy Spirit but as a relationship of community, equality, and sharing between three who are equal and one. He went on to espouse the view expressed in the book that that is how God intends creation to function: just like the trinity--as a relationship of community, equality, and sharing, sans heirarchy. Furthermore, he echoed the idea that the notion of heirarchy is something invented by humans in order to impose our own sense of order on the world.

Now, this is a big deal coming from an Achen, in a church that is all about heirarchy and a society that is, too. And as Thomas Samuel Achen commended me (I didn't entirely deserve all of it, I might add!), he said that in overhearing and sometimes looking in on my English lessons with Monisha and Sunitha, he had seen that equality in practice; that I didn't approach them in a teacher-student fashion, but as friends.

There's no other way I would have done it, of course, even though, according to Kerala standards, I am technically Monisha and Sunitha's elder, not to mention a guest, which makes me doubly 'worthy' of respect and deference. So I'm glad that my time with the girls could reflect to them, and others , too, including Thomas Samuel Achen, that the most genuine relationships are based on equality and sharing, not heirarchy and positions of superiority/inferiority. 

I have so treasured my time here. If you've been keeping up with my blogs throughout the past few months, you know that when I first came to Mandiram in March, I wasn't thrilled. I missed Buchanan a lot. But now, three months later, I have come to love and appreciate Mandiram immensely. If I had been here from the beginning of my time in Kerala, I have no doubt that I would have come to love it just as much as Buchanan. I am so excited for next year's volunteer, who will be here from September onwards and get the full 'Mandiram experience.' As for me, I feel so blessed that I got to experience this community and the people here, even if only for a short while.

As I prepare to leave Mandiram in just a few days, I find myself reflecting on the most memorable happenings. I have many good memories of sitting around the dinner table with the wardens, especially during the few weeks Maggie was here, laughing about who-knows-what, and the moment when Jijo would always announce "ok, finished," as a way to signal that everyone was done and we could all get up and wash our plates and hands. Or how Jijo, to this day, persists in calling me 'Madison Aunty,' to which I promptly reply 'Aunty venda!' (meaning, don't call me aunty), after which he grins and continues on with whatever he was saying. I recall all the times that Manna, a 2-year old member of the balika (orphanage) would see me from impossibly far away and yell "Madi chechi!!!!"

I think of many Malayalam lessons with Thomas Samuel Achen (3 times a week for 1.5 hours each time), which more often than not turned into lengthy discussions on life, religion, current events, and more. I remember all the small conversations I've had with the appachens and amachees (residents of the old age home), each one, however simple, a small victory for my Malayalam skills. I think of how everyone from the cooks to the principal of the nursing school would dote on me; the many talks I've had with the first-year nursing students about topics from nurse-patient dialogues in English to who among us has a lover. I think of my favorite residents of the old age home, including RAJU, who knows all. 

Let me tell you about Raju. He has some sort of mental disability, although I don't know what it is. His speech is hardly intelligible even to those who actually speak Malayalam (aka, not me). But he is SO FUNNY. When Maggie was here we had this little ritual with Raju that involved, whenever the three of us encountered each other, pointing at each other and exclaiming each other's names, followed by laughter and more laughter. "Maggie...Raju...Madison....AHAHAHAHAHA!"

Raju is one who most would consider to not be 'all there' (sorry if that's politically incorrect--I'm not trying to be offensive at all, I love Raju!), but Maggie and I have a joke that Raju knows all. He would always seem to catch us when we were doing something that we wanted to go unnoticed (such as, not wanting to be insulting to the person who gave it to us, sneakily throwing a piece of fruit that was too bitter to eat out the window). Oh, Raju. I'm gonna miss you.

On Tuesday, it's off to Buchanan I go. But how lucky am I, to leave one place that I love, for another?

"In African language we say 'a person is a person through other persons.' I would not know how to be a human being at all except I learned this from other human beings. We are made for a delicate network of relationships, of interdependence. We are meant to complement each other. All kinds of things go terribly wrong when we break that fundamental law of our being. Not even the most powerful nation can be completely self-sufficient." -Archbishop Desmond Tutu

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

gender equality rant

 Note added on 5/27/11: Received some great email feedback about this blog that made me realize that my point may have come across differently than I meant it in my head. The phrase "we are a product of our culture" might have been a little strong for what I intended. What I really meant, and failed to express well, is that where we are born plays a large role in determining our world view (for example, what constitutes an acceptable standard of living, our ideas about basic rights, roles in society, etc.). Thanks to Kristen Kraemer for helping me to better express what was already in my head :) You and Reece Smith keep me on my toes!

We are all a product of where we come from. This is neither good nor bad in itself--it's just something that one must acknowledge. We are a product of where we come from, for all the good, bad, ugly, and wonderful that that might bring. In a previous post, I pointed out that I am a product of my culture. In that particular instance, I was commenting on one of the negative aspects of my culture: fully prepared to admit the harm that comes with overgeneralizing, we tend to overconsume. We are wasteful. We have the luxury of not having to always cut corners or find a use for anything that can't be burned. We live in a bubble filled with excess.

But I am also from a place where I was raised to believe that I can do anything. Where I have never been made to feel inferior to anyone because of my gender. I am from a place where little girls are taught: "You are a girl. You are just as good as any boy--you can do, aspire to, anything that a boy can. You are anyone's equal. You are capable and intelligent; walk uprightly and with confidence. Assert yourself--you are not subservient to anyone. Anything a boy can achieve, you can achieve. Any opportunity is yours, if only you reach out and take it. You can do anything."

...Let me backtrack. You are probably wondering where this rant on gender equality is coming from. Truly, I think it's been subconsciously percolating for a while. Maybe it started in October when I learned that it's not appropriate for girls to whistle. Or maybe on Fridays, teaching at CMS High School, where the classes are co-ed--it always struck me as odd that even though the girls spoke much better English than the boys (I know this from grading their papers) that they would never, ever speak up in class. Or perhaps every Sunday at church when the men get to take communion before the women?

The point is, it's been percolating. And I'm commenting with respect to both the church in Kerala, and Kerala society as a whole. It's been percolating to the point where at one of my Malayalam lessons last week, I decided to randomly ask my teacher, Thomas Samuel Achen, about his opinion on ordaining women in the church. (Thomas Samuel Achen is the Chaplain at Mandiram. He is a pastor of the Church of South India (CSI), which does not allow ordination of women).

Achen is a funny guy. Immediately after I asked the question ("What do you think about women being ordained?"), he broke out into a huge smile, fully aware that I had him cornered. Talking to an outspoken young woman who he knew would be starting Seminary in just a few months, he had to choose his words carefully. While chuckling, Achen took my hand in a very grandfatherly, I'm-about-to-tell-you-something-you-don't-want-to-hear type of way and said that personally, he sees no reason why women shouldn't be ordained. He feels that the practice of excluding women is archaic and has no basis in modern theology or society. BUT--his viewpoint represents the minority, and he doesn't foresee anything changing in Kerala any time soon...or ever.

The conversation with Achen was lighthearted; I had expected an answer along those lines. I have always been aware of Kerala's patriarchal mindset (and not just mindset--Kerala's patriarchal REALITY), and I suppose that that particular manifestation of it--not ordaining women in the CSI--had never bothered me because I knew that it was something that would never affect me. Also, while I don't agree with it, not ordaining women isn't all that shocking of a practice--there are denominations even in the US that don't do it.

Still, in the days following, I found myself thinking more and more about what it means to be a girl in Kerala. I found myself remembering Shilpa, a 10th grade student at Buchanan who, back in March, asked me to write her a message in her 'autograph' book. On the first page was her own 'about me' page, which will serve as a momento for her to remember her high school years, her likes and dislikes, who her friends were, etc. Among the statements with spaces for answers were "My favorite color is _____." "My biggest role model is _____." "My best attribute is ______." I was amused to read her answers and know something of her beyond the rigidity of the classroom.

One of the last statements was, "My ambition is ______." Her answer was: to be a good wife.

Shilpa's autographh book was the first of many that I signed. I quickly realized that her answer was a popular one: "My ambition is to be a good wife."

Now, don't get me wrong. I do hope to get married one day. I hope to be a 'good wife,' whatever that means. I hope my husband is a good husband. But is that my AMBITION in life??? Is that what I think of when someone asks me what the single greatest thing I hope to do with my LIFE is?? Would I say that now, or in 10th GRADE?

No, no, and no.

The real catalyst for this little rant on gender equality, however, took place just last Saturday night. I was helping to clean the chapel before Sunday morning's church service. Having just distributed the hymnals to each row, I went to climb the two steps to the raised area behind the main podiums, where the altar is located. One of the wardens, Jijo, was wrestling with the cloth to cover the altar and looked like he could use a hand.

I hadn't made it up the first step before he waved his hands, shook his head, and said no no no to me, abruptly stopping me in my tracks and leaving me to wonder what I had done wrong. "This is a holy place," he apologetically said. "No ladies allowed."

Caught off guard doesn't even begin to describe how I felt. Try not to cry was the first order of business. I know that sounds ridiculous, but while I wouldn't consider myself a sensitive person, times when I can be unexpectedly sensitive are situations when I'm rebuked without warning, especially if I thought I was doing something good at the time. All I wanted to do was help :(

I managed a smile and probably said something along the lines of "oh, sorry, I didn't know" and sat down. During the next few minutes I tried to look normal, but in truth I was deeply troubled by what had just occurred. Poor Jijo--I think he could tell I was upset. Which made me feel even worse, because it wasn't his fault. He is actually my favorite warden--he is always laughing and singing, and in spite of the fact that his English grammar is terrible, rambles on like only an orator could.

Like me--like all of us--Jijo is a product of his culture. He genuinely believes--and so does his church--that only men can be allowed in/near holy places, as if women were inherently worth less, or men were inherently more righteous, in God's eyes. Come on--I understand that no matter what degree I hold, you will never, ever let me serve communion. But I can't even go near the ALTAR? Not even to CLEAN it?? (Funny, you would think that was my place...).

Obviously, I have a problem with this viewpoint on a multitude of levels, one of many being theologically. Before I open that can of worms, however, let me admit that the altar incident was so minor, and I know that. But it was the first time in my life I have been turned away from anything because I am a girl. And the fact that a tiny episode that took place in a span of three seconds was so hurtful to me only made me think of all the people throughout history who have been made to feel inferior or judged or excluded merely because they belong to a certain group. If I got upset over not being allowed near the altar because I'm a girl, what would it have felt to have been black during the Civil Rights movement? To be an immigrant in the US today? To be gay?

One thing I have neglected to mention is that I was slated to give the sermon the next morning. "You are lower in the chain of the heirarchy of God's love and you are inferior to 50% of the population" is not what one wants to hear before such an event. Part of me considered telling Thomas Samuel Achen what had happened and that I was not willing to preach in a church that did not see me as equal. Another part of me wanted to ditch the sermon I had written the week before and churn out a new one replete with phrases like "God loves all of his children equally," "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female...(Galatians 3:28)", and "ARE YOU SERIOUS, PEOPLE???"

But let's face it: even the most passionate, rationally argued, theologically sound sermon from yours truly isn't going to revamp the patriarchal mindset of an entire state. Sunday morning rolled around and I went with Plan C: stick with the original sermon. Because I didn't come to Kerala to advocate for gender equality in the church or society--I came to be present. I came to experience another culture and learn from it, positive and negative aspects included. Standing in front of the congregation and harping about gender equality wouldn't have changed anyone's mind. What would change their minds--or at least get them to question their own viewpoints--would be to go up there as planned, speak confidently, and hold my head up high. And that's what I did.

Later that day, I was tutoring two girls, Monisha and Sunitha, who volunteer at the hospital and plan to start nursing school next year. Both are 18 years old; we meet every day, if/when we're all free, to study English. That particular Sunday afternoon, we practiced writing a letter to a friend and talking about activities that are done at different times of day. After about 45 minutes we closed our notebooks for the day and went to have afternoon tea.

Monisha, shy when we first started having English lessons about 2 weeks ago, is now a regular chatterbox. As we sat around the table with our tea and cookies, she commented on my sermon from that morning. "Madi chechi, your message was super. You know, that is my biggest dream: to one day give a speech, in English, to a huge audience of people. Like you did."

Monisha, you are a girl. You are just as good as any boy...You are anyone's equal...You can do anything.

Origami Emotion
Hope is 
folding paper cranes
even when your hands get cramped
and your eyes tired,
working past blisters and 
paper cuts, 
simply because something in you
insists on
opening its wings.
-Elizabeth Barrette

Thursday, May 12, 2011

all-india wrap up

Let's see, where did I leave you last? Somewhere around Delhi, I think. In the interests of wrapping up the "all-India trip" blog series and getting back to normal life, here's a brief (maybe?) summary of the highlights of the rest of the trip:

After Delhi, we went to Agra, where we stayed at a little place called the Shanti Lodge ('shanti' means peace in Hindi). The best part of our hotel--which was just your average, very basic backpacker place--was its rooftop restaurant. With an amazing view of the Taj Mahal, it was somewhat surreal to be eating rice and dal and every few minutes thing, look, it's the Taj Mahal! A couple minutes later...whoa, it's still there. A few minutes later...oh man, there it is again. Other than seeing the Taj at sunrise the next morning, one of my favorite moments of that portion of the trip was randomly getting lost in Agra. Trying to find our way through the maze of streets to our hotel, somehow we took a wrong turn. We ended up in a very interesting area that had a variety of sights, sounds, and smells, some more pleasant than others. But it was real. The everyday-ness of it was, in its own way, enchanting, and both eye-opening and refreshing after being in mostly 'touristy' places.

Following Agra was Jaipur, located in the desert state of Rajasthan. On a whim, we decided to visit the local astrologer. Maggie had her horoscope prepared, and Jim had his palm read. Apparently, Jim will not have a happy marriage. Poor guy.

Our second stop in Rajasthan was the city of Bikaner. We stayed at Vijay's Guest House, which guessed it...actually Vijay's house. Vijay was very welcoming and accomodating, and after having made the overnight train journey from Jaipur to Bikaner, we quickly settled in at his house and prepared for our next adventure: camel safari!! Accompanying us on the safari was a random traveler from Ireland, Kristen. She was quite a talker but the four of us got along well and thoroughly enjoyed our venture into the desert. Riding a camel isn't as uncomfortable as one would imagine...and camels are just such silly-looking creatures! God must have been in a comical mood when he created them ;)  I'll always remember going to sleep under the stars, a heavy blanket shielding me from the cold wind of the desert night, the dunes and scrub bathed in light from the full moon. And being amused to learn that the toilet was on the other side of the dune...any dune.

Last stop on the trip was Goa. After a whirlwind three weeks, a calm three days at the beach was PERFECT. We literally did nothing but play in the ocean, walk on the beach, and lounge around on floaties. Hakuna matata.

The evening of April 23, we boarded our train to leave Goa. We woke up the next morning in beautiful, sunny, hot, humid, familiar, wonderful favorite part of all of 'incredible India' :)

"Love builds up the broken wall and straightens the crooked path. Love keeps the stars in the firmament and imposes rhythm on the ocean tides. Each of us is created of it and I suspect each of us was created for it." -Maya Angelou

Friday, May 6, 2011

old habits die hard

After Amritsar, we went back to Delhi for a day en route to Agra. Having done most/all of our sightseeing the first time we were in Delhi (4 days at the beginning of the trip--really enjoyed it but nothing post-worthy), we decided that we wouldn't try to squeeze more things into our 'in between' day there, but rather use it as a day of rest and recuperation.

To that end, we hung around our hotel for a good while and eventually ventured out to use the internet. While at the internet cafe, we thought, "you know, what better to do on a nothing day than see a movie!" So we looked up movie theaters in Delhi, and it wasn't long before we found what looked like utopia: Saket Select Citywalk Mall.

According to the website, it had not only a movie theater but...a Hard Rock Cafe. TGI Fridays. McDonalds. Subway. CINNABON. Having been deprived of all of the above for the past 8 months, we quickly became more excited about the food at the mall than the mall or movie itself.

The Saket Mall was...more than we expected. It was easily nicer/more amazing/fancier than any mall I've been to in the US (granted, I haven't been to many malls outside of Florida). After finding that the movie we planned on seeing, Rio, didn't start for another 3 hours, we weren't worried. In fact, that might be just enough time--just barely--to visit all the restaurants we had already been imagining.

So, the YAV India Saket Mall Progressive Dinner was born. We had appetizers at Hard Rock...entrees at TGI Fridays...dessert at Haagen Dazs. By the time we were finished, we were too full to even consider the popcorn we had so looked forward to having with our movie. The movie itself was cute, and afterwards we headed back to our hotel. It was almost like we had spent a few hours back in the US.

And therein, my friends, lies the problem. How is it that one can walk from an average Delhi street, through a gate, and into uptopia? (a materialistic, consumerist utopia, that is). Why is it that the majority of the people in Delhi probably wouldn't even be allowed through security at that mall simply because they look too poor? (We looked like dirty travelers, of course, but the sad truth is that almost anywhere in India, white skin is an all-access pass). How can I just walk into a place that is inaccessible for so many? It might just be down the road from those living in abject poverty, but for them, it is a world away. It is a place they will never see.

Let's not even talk about how much money we spent. Appetizers, dinner, dessert, and a movie. Not something the average American would necessarily do frequently in the US, but not out of reach. The prices at Saket Mall were comparable to US prices. And yet, the amount of money that I thoughtlessly spent in a matter of hours would probably feed a family for a month in Kerala. I am a product of my culture, and that type of wastefulness/excessiveness is exactly why the US disproportionately consumes so much of the world's resources; why our lifestyle is not sustainable.

To be fair, part of the reason for our over-zealousness, if you can call it that, was that when you don't have pizza for 8 months, and then you have a chance to eat pizza, you just really want the pizza, no matter the cost. Except it does. It matters.

I live a life of privilege, and I know that. While by no means rich by US standards (not even close!), I'm rich by world standards. I'm "rich enough to be poor for a year," as one fellow-YAV observed at orientation in August. I've always thought that going back to the US in July would be a HUGE culture shock, bigger than coming to India in the first place. While I still think that will be true, to some degree, our YAV India Progressive Dinner taught me that maybe it won't be so hard. Maybe old habits die hard, or not at all. A depressing thought in the midst of a year that's supposed to be about transformation, simple living, and solidarity. But the tension of the rope between 'old me' and 'new me'--the space where I think these thoughts and ask these questions--the place where I experience cognitive dissonance over old, wasteful habits--that is where hope resides.

"I don't believe in charity. I believe in solidarity. Charity is so vertical; it goes from top to bottom. Solidarity is horizontal. It respects the other person and learns from the other. I have alot to learn..." -Eduardo Galeano

Thursday, May 5, 2011

the Golden Temple

One of our many stops on the all-India trip was the city of Amritsar, home to the Golden Temple. Our shortest stop on the trip, we were in Amritsar for a grand total of about eleven hours.

I didn't really know what to expect with regard to Amritsar. I had heard that the Golden Temple is quite possibly the best sight in North India, a claim that I found hard to believe given the infamy of the (at that point) still unseen Taj Mahal.

In hindsight, I can tell you that the Taj Mahal is perhaps India's most...impressive sight. In the sense that if I saw a picture of the Taj Mahal next to a picture of the Golden Temple, I might find the Taj Mahal more (insert adjective here. Striking? Stunning? Aesthetically pleasing?).

But the Golden Temple is more than a sight. It's an experience, and definitely one of my favorites from the trip, at that. From the moment one walks through the shallow water (to wash your feet) into the inner compound, one can tell that there is something holy about the place. It's an incredibly moving experience to see the devoutness and solemnity with which the Sikhs bow down and pray. Surprisingly quiet given the hundreds of people inside the compound at any given time, the Golden Temple is a place, unlike the Taj Mahal, that one doesn't simply feel in awe to look at--one feels in awe to be there.

I guess I should give you a little background info and tell you that the Golden Temple is a holy place of the followers of Sikhism, most easily recognized by the turbans they wear. The fifth-largest organized religion in the world, Sikhism is monotheistic and emphasizes values of faith and justice. The Golden Temple  is "considered holy by Sikhs because the eternal guru of Sikhism, Sri Guru Granth Sahib, is always present inside it and its construction was mainly intended to build a place of worship for men and women from all walks of life and all religions to come and worship God equally" (yes, I took that from Wikipedia :)).

We arrived at the perfect time of day; it was about 5:30PM. As we stayed for over two hours, we were able to see the Golden Temple by daylight, sunset, and night, beautiful in a different way at each time.

First, we took our time walking around the perimeter of the inner complex. We then noticed that there was a huge line of people waiting to get into the temple itself. Travel-weary and not relishing the idea of standing in an interminable line, we briefly debated skipping out on seeing the inside of the temple. But the I'm-only-here-once attitude prevailed, and we waited in the line. We creeped along with the masses until finally, we were able to enter the temple.

If it had been quiet outside, it was silent inside. Everything about the interior was lavishly decorated (not surprising for a building whose exterior is pure gold, right?). A Sikh holy man (not sure what the appropriate term actually is) was in the center of the room, reading aloud sacred scriptures from a giant, ancient book, unhurriedly and with unbroken concentration. People milled about with prayer books; people sat reading prayers; there were people everywhere. It was opulent--otherworldly--awe-inspiring.

And that was just the first floor. The second floor held similar wonders, and the third was an open rooftop. Photography wasn't allowed anywhere inside the temple, and for once it was a rule that I actually felt like respecting (come on, you know you've been places where photography 'isn't allowed' but snapped a few pictures, anyway).

There was also some type of ritual in which everyone offers a food offering as they enter the temple (it's all the same--some kind of sweet). The sweet is deposited into a common vessel. As you leave the temple, each person is given a small handful of the sweet from the communal offering. There's probably some really cool symbolism/meaning to this (beyond the obvious idea of sharing) but we weren't able to find out what it was.

After seeing the temple, we went to have langar. This was the part I was most incredulous about. Supposedly, any one, at any time, can come to the Golden Temple and have langar, a free meal. How could they possibly feed all those people? What stops the whole city from coming and eating three meals a day at the Golden Temple? Don't they ever run out of food? ...just a few of the questions that were on my mind.

One enters the hall where the food is served under a Sikh scripture that says: "The lord himself is the farm, himself he grows and grinds. Himself he cooks, himself he places it on a platter and himself he eats, too. Himself he is the water, himself the toothpick, himself he offers a handful of water. Himself he calls the men to eat, himself he bids them off. Yea he to whom the lord is merciful, he makes them walk in his will."

Under that arch with the scripture are volunteers handing out plates. After those who come to eat are ushered into the hall and seated on the floor in rows, volunteers come down the lines of people ladling out food. When we were there, the meal was chapatti and dal (lentils), and a rice-based dessert. Volunteers come around multiple times with seconds and thirds; there is enough for anyone to have their fill. After finishing, we handed our plates to the volunteers in charge of washing them by the hundreds. On our way out, we passed by the volunteers who were chopping carrots for the next meal. Total, there were a few hundred volunteers working to make that meal and the next meal possible. Anyone can volunteer, at any time, just as anyone can come and eat at any time. Our only regret about being in Amritsar for such a short period of time was not being able to volunteer.

It's hard to do justice to the Golden Temple in writing; it was an incredible experience of community, of giving and taking, together. Perhaps photos make the aforementioned descriptions more relevant. One of last year's volunteers, Sarah, did some really good writing about the Golden Temple experience, especially from a theological perspective. There's a lot that could be said in that regard but frankly my little brain is too tired right now to do any higher-level analysis :) To read Sarah's account, click here.

"Anyone can count the seeds in an apple, but only God can count the number of apples in a seed." -Robert H. Schuller

Monday, May 2, 2011

the girl who rejected my orange

One of our many train journeys was supposed to begin at 7:30AM. We arrived to the station around 7, and upon checking the status of our train at the inquiry counter, were told that it wouldn't arrive until 11:30AM. The four-hour layover was the first we had encountered on our trip, so we weren't that upset because we had figured that it was bound to happen sometime.

We later found out, of course, that our train actually HAD been on time. But by the time we realized the error--that our train had come and gone--it was too late. Luckily there really was an 11:30 train that was going to our destination, too. It's just as well, however, that we had to sit around and wait, because if our train had been on time, I never would have met the girl who rejected my orange.

Jim, Maggie, and I were sitting on the ground of Platform 3. Our bags containing all our worldly possessions were haphazardly strewn about us. The station was filled with the everyday hustle and bustle of hundreds of travelers, and we got to watch the train station world--that interesting intersection of people of every class and socioeconomic status--go by for a while. The family rushing to board a moving train. The man selling chaya, tea. The homeless woman staring vacantly into the distance, clutching an undernourished, naked baby to her chest. The woman in a burqa walking next to the woman in a skirt and heels. The young boys and girls going from person to person begging for money.

It wasn't long before one of the girls approached us. I confronted the inner battle that one faces any time one is asked for money: I want to help him/her, BUT--what is this money going to be used for? To meet legitimate needs? Or for harmful/destructive purposes, like drugs or alcohol? Am I playing a role in perpetuating this person's circumstances by making it profitable for them to beg?

Furthermore, in the case of India, it is known that children are oftentimes 'employed' (indentured? forced?) to spend the day begging for money. The money they get is given to their 'employer,' and perhaps the child is allowed to keep a few rupees. Or, if not 'employed,' the money is given to their parents, maybe for real needs, maybe not. Sadly, the bottom line is that if you give money to a're probably not actually giving money to the child.

As the little girl stood in front of me and held out her hand, saying something in Hindi, I was spared the ethical dilemma by the fact that I genuinely did not have any money on me at the time. I gave her my warmest smile and shook my head that no, I didn't have anything to give.

But wait--I did! I remembered that Maggie and I had purchased fruit earlier in the day, in an attempt to eat healthier (ha). It was the perfect solution: I could give her something that would be hers and hers alone to enjoy; I could give some sustenance, however small, to her tiny body.

I joyfully reached into my purse, took out the orange, and offered it to the girl.



She wasn't even very nice about it. She had to try real hard to stop herself from laughing, and gave me a look that said come on, is that really all you have to give me?

I found myself feeling rather disgruntled and thinking, well yes, it certainly is!

Now, I'm not saying that one should be skeptical of homeless people. There are so many needy people in the world, and I am 100% convinced that it is my obligation--your obligation--we are ALL obligated--to help them. This includes not only meeting their physical needs, but also treating them as known and valued human beings. I am reminded of the lyrics of a song by Joan Osborne: "What if God was one of us? Just a slob like one of us? Just a stranger on a bus, trying to make his way home?"

I don't for a second think that my orange would have made a huge difference in the life or well-being of that girl. But her refusal confirmed my suspicions that she was probably working for someone. It's just not fair--why doesn't she get a childhood? Why is she forced to spend hour after hour begging for money at the railway station; why does she feel that she can't take two minutes for herself to sit down and eat an orange?

The girl walked away in hopes of having better luck elsewhere. Inevitably, though, she came back (remember, we were sitting there for four hours); once again, I offered her the orange. Once again, she refused.

Again, she walked away. About an hour later, she returned. She held out her hand and for the third time asked, in Hindi, for money. For the third time, I smiled and shook my head no. For the third time, I offered her the orange.

Finally, she took it.

Mind you, she didn't look pleased. Perhaps she thought that if she continued coming around I would give her money just to leave us alone. She was persistent, but so was I.

I hope that little girl enjoyed the orange. I hope she was actually able to eat it herself and didn't have to give it to someone else. I hope she will somehow, some day, come to know something better of life.

It's interesting, when you feel like you're being generous, no matter on how small of a scale, to have your generosity refused. Although maybe what she needed, I just didn't have to give?

"Usually, our concept of compassion or love refers to the feeling of closeness we have with our friends and loved ones. Sometimes compassion also carries a sense of pity. This is wrong. Any love or compassion which entails looking down on the other is not genuine compassion. To be genuine, compassion must be based on respect for the other, and on the realization that others have the right to be happy and overcome suffering, just as much as you." -The 14th Dalai Lama

Just for fun...

Here's my notes from our first day in Srinagar, Kashmir. (I kept a daily 'journal'--the entry for April 3 follows):

Met the big burly poet, Amit, at the Delhi airport. Gave us his book of poetry for one rupee ("I never give away my work for free"). It was a legit book--tried to give him more than one rupee but he refused. Strongarmed his way to getting us a taxi to the REAL airport (the one we arrived to via metro and the one IndiGo departs from are 9km apart). He wore a beret. Can we be best friends? Was from a village 100km from Delhi--said they're like 2 differet worlds. "All we have in my village are farmers and soldiers...and one poet." Arrived to Srinagar. Airport looks like a war zone...and it's COLD! Beautiful mountains, people definitely not used to seeing tourists. Went shopping at the "Sunday Market" on Residency Rd. Apparently many of the items there (clothes, shoes, etc.) are 'used'--ha. Attracted a lot of stares for not wearing 'appropriate' dress (was wearing jeans and sweatshirt--AKA my rear wasn't covered with a long top). Out Muslim friends definitely didn't appreciate it. Bought a sweater to tie around my waist--problem solved. All bought cold weather wear (it's FREEZING!) and had lunch @ Mughal Darbar Restaurant. Kashmir kehwa tea=delish! Went back to Hotel Swiss to use the internet and be in before curfew. Guy at desk (Ruuf?) is super nice/funny/helpful. Gave us an electric blanket, so hopefully we will make it through the night without freezing...!

Our first task in approaching
Another people
Another culture
Another religion
Is to take off our shoes
For the place we are approaching
Is holy.

Else we may find ourselves
Treading on another's dreams.