Wednesday, July 25, 2012

India calling

I wish I had been better about blogging while in, or immediately upon returning from, India. Already the most of the memories have faded and only the ones that are documented with photos have been firmly implanted in my mind.

I wanted to be able to take every person I know on my journey, to be able to recall every single detail: every smell, every smile or stare from people in the slum, every heart racing car ride through the major cities. But I also know that there is no way I can put into words what I saw and felt because I have no context in which to place it.

I went to India, a land that, as one woman on the trip said, "was just a place on the map before." Seeing that land alone would have overwhelmed even the most seasoned traveler, I am convinced. But on top of that, I also saw a part that many would consider rude to talk about in polite Indian society; the slums, the Dalits, the poverty that was so extreme, yet so much a part of the country, that it wove in and out of even the most wealthy neighborhoods in a way that could not go unnoticed unless it were intentionally ignored.

How do I categorize this trip in my life? I have nothing else to compare it with. As my 10 days there drew to a close, I convinced myself that my journey would be a starting point, a foundation on which to build my life. Somehow, I thought, I would get back to India and make a difference. Either as a journalist or a missionary or a teacher, but the more days that wedge themselves between then and now, the less that thought seems like it could be a tangible reality.

I promised myself that I would make people care about what is happening over there. People who could, in turn, also make a difference. But now, I find it hard to even care myself. In a country that is so addicted to comfort, I am sadly, very content continuing on in my life as it was before India.

I can see friends and family, and even myself, growing tired of talking about India. And for that I feel like a failure. I have not been able to fully describe what I saw in order to get people to care. I am even beginning to doubt myself about what I saw. Is there really an entire group of people who are treated as garbage because of they fall outside of the caste system? How could it be that a country that is growing so rapidly in business and commerce could still hold on to such archaic ideas?

And then I find myself questioning how I, as a foreigner, could be qualified to pass such a judgement. Didn't I only spend 10 days there? How can I be informed enough about their culture to even be able to make such an observation? How do I know I wasn't just listening to the rants of some pseudo-political/religious NGO leaders?

But then I am faced with the images of the young men on the street corner who had a look that I had never seen on anyone's face before. They must have been close to my age, but they already looked as if they were facing death. Their lives had no value. Or the little girls who clung to my fingers in the slums, who I had to peel off my hands and place back with their parents before I could leave left. Or the old man who gratefully accepted the small piece of fruit from me as if it were a precious jewel.

This is desperation, this is hunger, this is heartbreak. And while I know that it exists in every shape and form in every corner of the globe, I saw how it takes exists in India. Now that I have seen that, I have a responsibility to God and those people that I may never see again to do something about it.

I just need to figure out exactly what that means.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

A simple gesture

Let me tell you about (one of) my favorite experiences from India.

The first night in Hyderabad, I was determined to be bold and courageous. Obviously, that meant hiring a car from the hotel to take me to Mass at the local cathedral the next morning.


Would've been more impressive than the other Honda I rode in.
I walked down to the front desk (why would I call down? I was in freaking India!) and asked  the concierge if it were possible to have a car take me to Mass at a church I looked up while in the U.S. 

"Not a problem, ma'am," said the head-bobbling concierge.

"Really? Uh, so, does this place exist? I've never even been in India until tonight," I said, convinced that my request would be as difficult to pull off as a covert military campaign.

"Yes. Not a problem, ma'am. You want a car to take you to the church in the morning?"

"Yes ... But, is this church here? Does this address even make sense?" I said, looking at the words, St. Joseph's Cathedral, Gun Foundry, Hyderabad. (What the heck kind of address is Gun Foundry?)

"Yes, ma'am. If you need anything else, my name is Daniel," he said smiling and side bobbling his head.

I went back up to my room feeling empowered, but also quite intimidated at the task at hand (ie: getting into a car the next morning to go to church).

The next morning I came downstairs, and was greeted by none other than Daniel himself, smiling brightly and saying, "Good morning, ma'am! Praise the Lord!"

I should have guessed that an Indian named Daniel probably wasn't Hindu.

Indians are badass multi-tskers.
He showed me to the car and I got in, still uneasy about going off by myself the first day I was in a totally foreign country. Fortunately, I was in good hands with Ramen the driver, who turned around to talk to me and show me pictures of his family about 6 times during our 10 minute drive. Did I mention this was while he was weaving in and out of traffic, trying to avoid commuters on motorcycles and attempting to not run over pedestrians?
Ramen lives in Hyderabad with his wife and two girls, but made trips back to his village to build a bell tower for his church, "so everyone will know when Mass is." He said he wanted to be able to finish building a lighted cross in time for Christmas.

"If I can get that finished," he said, "I will be so happy."

While still wondering what exactly a "lighted cross" meant, we pulled into a large side street filled with at least 60 people walking to work at a large IT building just down the way. I was amazed at the trash that filled the gutters and the women who bent over it sweeping it out of the street (definitely Dalits). I was worried that maybe I was entering an "unsafe" part of town, especially with all the stares I was getting from people outside the car.

We pulled up to the cathedral, which was surrounded by a concrete wall topped with shards glass. I asked Ramen to stay since I'd only take about half an hour and because I didn't want to get stranded at a cathedral that was surrounded by a concrete wall topped with shards of glass.

Walking into the church, I realized that I got the time wrong and was about 15 minutes late. And about a foot taller than everyone else. I also noticed that most of the statues were surrounded by what looked like LED Christmas lights and realized what Ramen meant by a "lighted cross."

Ramen, was this your doing?
After Mass, many people stayed behind to pray and kiss the various statues that inhabited the church. It wasn't for show, but seemed like a very simple gesture acknowledging that that person was in Heaven praying for us, and they were thankful for it.

Walking back to the car, I saw an old man who looked about 70, but was probably younger than that, sitting cross-legged at the bottom of the stairs leading up to the church. We made eye contact, but I didn't have any food for him and had been told that it was unwise to give out money. All I could think to do was give him the kiss of peace the way the people and Mass had done. So, I pressed my hands together and touched them to my forehead while bowing, indicating that I acknowledged his presence. He smiled and returned the gesture, and I continued on my way back to my comfortable hotel. I couldn't shake the thought of "What if that were my grandfather sitting in the street in ragged clothing, reduced to begging for his livelihood?"

Ramen strikes again!
I got back to my hotel and wished I could have done more, so I prayed and wept for him.

That evening, I went down to the lobby to ask my new bff Daniel if he could arrange a car to take me to Mass again. Inspired by the warm greeting he gave me that morning, I practically yelled across the lobby as soon as I saw him, "Daniel! I prayed for you and your family at Mass today!"

He looked a little sheepish in front of his co-workers and I realized maybe that wasn't the best thing to yell at someone who worked lived in a country that was 80% Hindu.

The next morning, I was determined to help the man I saw in a more tangible way so I stuck a banana in my purse. However, when we pulled up to the cathedral no one was sitting at the bottom of the steps.

A simple, genuine faith.
That day I arrived in time to pray the Penitential Rite with everyone else and was floored by the words, "I ask the Blessed Mary, ever Virgin, all the angels and saints and you, my brothers and sisters, to pray for me to the Lord our God."

Here I was, in a totally foreign country, praying the prayers that I had known since childhood with total strangers and yet, we had all be praying for each other for as long as we were all Catholic! If that's not a fruit of the Universal Church, I don't know what is.

As I left Mass, I saw a man sitting at the bottom of the steps who was different than the one I'd seen the day before. He was about the same age and just as skinny, but his bright white hair stood out against his skin in a way that actually reminded me of my Grandad who passed away a few years ago.

I crouched down and handed him the banana, hoping that he wouldn't be offended that I was giving him food instead of money. His eyes brightened as he took it and clasped my hands, touching them to his forehead.

All I could think was, I hope we get to spend Eternity together.

He was so happy to have some food and I was so grateful to have been so accepted by him.

That evening, I looked for something to bring him, but all I had in my room were apples and I knew he wouldn't be able to eat that with the shape his teeth were in, so I grabbed a bottle of water.

He wasn't there when I went in to Mass and I worried that maybe something had happened to him.

I felt a surge of joy as I saw him at the bottom of the stairs waving to me. Not only was he there, he recognized me!

I handed him the bottle of water and he laughed a little, then touched his lips and made a chewing motion. I held my hands open and shook (not bobbled) my head to show him that was all I had. He graciously accepted it, even though I could tell he was probably more hungry than thirsty.

We left for Bangalore that afternoon, but I wonder if he came back the next day to see me. I know that he will probably die soon, as the life expectancy in India is about 63 years old.

I am privileged to have met him.