India forever changed me.
My first visit was as a journalist, to a community development program and what I experienced then led me to return on another trip, that time to volunteer after I retired. Initially, I expected to be wary of the food, but I was not concerned about my personal safety. After reading about India's deep, pervasive poverty I did not expect to make more than a dust mote of difference.
P.Y., the president of the program, met me at my plane with a welcoming smile that will never be forgotten. While I expected a good experience, I did not expect the experience to resonate for decades to come. He took my suitcase and escorted me to a tuk-tuk, one of those Asian open-air vehicles that seat four and is powered by a loud, smoke-belching diesel engine. He followed me in his motor scooter to the organization's building. It had offices on the second floor and a beat down guesthouse on the third.
Upon entering my room, the biggest safety concern was an invasion of bugs through the screenless window that had been left open. P.Y. was proud of the accommodations, pointing out a small refrigerator, a two burner gas stove, and even a television. He explained that my room was one of the few rooms with its own bathroom. The shower was not enclosed, and I would quickly find out that bathing would also mean drenching the entire bathroom floor—every time. Finally, he said the colorful area rug was new and as was the mosquito netting over the bed.
He left me to rest from my long flight, and I stretched out on the bed. The mattress was a thin barrier to the wooden frame. Jet lag conquered the unfamiliar mattress. I woke to a knocking on the door. Vasanti, a local helper who would go on to become one of my lifelong best friends, informed me of a banquet in my honor that was being prepared. She helped me unpack and select an outfit for the banquet.
I entered the dining room in a drab-colored dress and Birkenstocks. No jewelry, of course. I had been warned it was too tempting for thieves in airports or on unfamiliar streets. Staff members and their families gathered as guests, the women sparkled in saris wearing long, dangling earrings and sandals that were more decorative than utilitarian. P.Y. presented me with a garland of fresh flowers, and the guests sang a heartfelt song of welcome.
The next morning, staff welcomed me in the office with presents: long, dangling earrings, a pair of decorative sandals, and a sari. At tea time, I went to my room and changed into my gifts. When I returned to the office in my new wardrobe, they were greatly honored and continually thanked me for showing such appreciation. Now, I was fit to do the good I had come to do.
The charity I worked with specializes in micro-lending, which is making small loans so people can start small businesses. I was amazed at what a hundred dollar loan can accomplish. Women had opened beauty parlors, tiny grocery stores, and catering businesses. Men had acquired carpentry tools and repair tools and were running a variety of other small businesses. One man was doing a brisk business ironing clothes with an iron heated by hot coals. These businesses modestly supported many families in the area. And, they were repaying their loans with interest at a rate of 98 percent.
After visiting countless families living in one room with a dirt-floor, I saw how my guest room was a palace. As for having my own bathroom, what luxury! Most used a community toilet cleaned by women within the neighborhood who had come up with their own rotation system. What was different than I could have ever imagined? The dignity and pride that these families had for what little they had. They appreciated it all—and most of all—their families. They welcomed me with an overwhelming sense of pride that hooked me in and had me wondering what more I could do to help the incredible people of this region.
Returning to India
My week passed too quickly. My work never brought me back to India, but I kept in touch with the organization, particularly with P.Y. and Vasanti. When I could, I sent one-hundred dollars for a microloan. That is not much of a donation to a U.S. charity, but in India, it changes a family's life.
When I retired, I asked if I could return for three months as a volunteer. They eagerly accepted my offer and insisted on providing room and board. After 15 years, I was back in my little room with a shower that produced about ten drops a minute. I had remembered to bring lots of cheap jewelry and my sari. I learned to enjoy bucket baths and how to cook on a two burner stove. Vasanti helped me shop for groceries at outdoor markets from vendors who displayed their produce on blankets beside the road.
She taught me how to cook India-style, and she told me how she had worked her way out of a hutment, a slum with tarp dwellings, into a home she owned. It was a simple, two-room home with a cement floor and one sofa that also served as a bed. She cooked on a one-burner gas stove that sat on the floor and had running water when the well was not dry: about half the year.
I enjoyed working with the women's groups who were learning business skills and how to raise healthier children. But, I learned more than I taught. I learned to make do with what I had as they did. I learned to find joy in flowers, sunsets, friendships, and other free things abundant on this earth. I learned how important community is to people who have very little and wondered why we, in our abundance, have a lesser sense of community. I learned what it is to pray for your daily bread in a land where tomorrow's sustenance is a hope, not a given.
All the children called me "auntie," and I liked feeling their closeness to me. Without a common language, we played simple games where laughter was more important than the rules. I shared their joy in their few treasures: a used book, a crayon, a piece of metal they could write on with chalk and take to school when the budget could not bear a notebook.
All are welcome
India is only two percent Christian, yet I was welcomed by people of all faiths. They respected my faith, and I respected theirs. The organization has a Christian mission but does not exclude anyone because of their chosen faith. I felt that was the best expression of Christianity: all are welcome. I brought that feeling home with me and was given the grace to welcome all people into my life.
India continues to change me. I do not feel guilty for all of my first world possessions, but I do think before I acquire them. The money I save on frivolity is better spent by women and men who are developing little businesses with loans as low as $25.
I have been to India eight times now and I have not seen the Taj Mahal. Admiring a marble monument surrounded by other tourists holds little appeal when I can be part of a caring community. They accept what I have to offer and overwhelm me with love and gentle guidance into their world of struggle and triumph.