When you hear this over and over again, you sort of feel like the repetitive warnings and having time to prepare oneself should somehow "soften the blow". After all, I've seen the pictures, I've watched the documentaries, I've read the books, heard all the stories and cried with the testimonies. And shouldn't three summers in a poor village in west Africa be considered somewhat of an inoculation to whatever I could encounter on a ten-day trip to Gandhi's dream?
The truth is, there is no real preparation for the reality of India. I think back now on those days and marvel at the imprint they have left on my life. I still find myself processing some of the experiences, trying to make sense of some of the scenes and marveling at every encounter. There have been a couple of times that I have gone over my travel journal to make sure that what I am remembering really happened and it is not just a distortion of the truth resulting from distance or my natural tendency to dramatize. Nope, it is all there, standing the test of time.
So, what do I write about? What sticks out in my mind? I could attempt to describe the striking beauty of the country with its unique presence of color, the archetypal images of saffron-dusty sunrises, the majestic palaces and mausoleums, the ubiquitous flowers, the bright-colored saris against the green sea of rice-paddies as the women gather to walk home together after a full day’s work... I could also write about the trip’s day-to-day agenda, or my travel companions and the workers we met: the fun, the laughs, their humbling dedication and strength, the daily display of their gifts at the service of their calling for the women of this nation.
And, of course, I could write about the dark stuff: the poverty, the misery, the pain. I see clearly the faces of hungry kids and desperate parents, the sickness, hopeless -ness and despair... But there are also in my mind the many faces of joy, hope and self-pride. Thanks to Sister India, these are the ones that stand out from the others.
In every class that we visited, there they were: different locations, different attire, sometimes a different language, but always the broad smiles, the sparkle in their eyes and the special air of pride in what they have accomplished. Many were the women who wanted to show us how they could read and even more the ones who wanted to share their stories. True, some of these stories have dark, sad and unbelievable beginnings, but they all end up there: in a small, bare, one-room classroom, women seated crossed-legged on the floor with their basic readers on their laps, taking turns between smiling at the camera and concentrating on their lessons. There is something so different and special in them: that sense of accomplishment that can be read in their eyes and their body-language. Even their neighbors and family members notice this in them and comment on it.
There is something extraordinary in being able to see first-hand the implementation of aid that is actually working, being eye-witness to the results and not just hearing about them. These women have so little, they have been through so much, but now they see a different ending to their stories, a hope—not deferred. And their hearts are full and their faces show it.
I am lucky—no, I am blessed to have those memories. A broader picture that most travelers don’t get to experience. A real taste of India... with a cherry on top.