I’ve had India on my mind lately. A year ago this week, I boarded an Emirates flight from LA to Dubai. After a 36-hour whirlwind tour of Dubai (a fascinating and audacious city) I hopped on another plane and arrived in India where I spent the next ten days in Bangalore and Kolkata. I was there to see firsthand the development work Compassion International is doing with children and families living in poverty and to meet, Reshma, a child that I have sponsored through the organization for several years. The trip has taken on new relevance in light of recent news. More on that later in this post.
I love to travel and the more exotic the better. (When I say “exotic” I mean different from what I’m used to, not weird. America would be considered an "exotic" place for many people in the world.) It is not only the sense of adventure and the heightened awareness that tingles down my spine when I first set foot in a new place, but it is the chance to leave my world for another. It engages my imagination. As a storyteller, that’s intoxicating.
Travel has become an important part of my writing life. It forces interactions with people who see the world differently. It forces me at times to feel uncomfortable, to feel the weight of life - both the burdens and joys - press against my being in new ways. Yes, it’s about walking in another person’s shoes, but it’s more than that. It’s about going to places where the rules are different, and communication is hard, where at best I’m a welcomed guest and worst an unknown foreigner. Either way, I learn to trust, and in doing so I discover beauty in the world’s diversity. I always return humbled. My time here on earth isn’t about me at all.
I could write a series of posts about my trip to India. It is a compelling place that gets under your skin: the vivid colors, the spicy food, the acute smells, the way the old world survives while the new world emerges, the sheer volume of its humanity, and, of course, the poverty.
I found Bangalore to be a more hopeful place; the colors were brighter and the smiles longer. Yes, it was still India, but the growing number of high rises and the bustling city center had me thinking that if one could get an education, they might have a chance here.
I met young a young woman who was excited to meet an American. She asked, “Do you know Target.com?” Her smile beamed in anticipation of my answer. I told her, “Yes, I know Target.com.” She informed me her job was customer service for Target.com. I hear this and suddenly my world gets smaller and I become more patient when I call a “1-800” number and a person with an Indian accent answers the phone. This is why I travel.
I met my sponsored child, Reshma and her mother at a women’s center in Bangalore. She wiped tears from her eyes and in broken English said, “I’m so happy.” We exchanged gifts. I shared photos of my family with her and she shared pictures of hers. I told her I was proud of her. She told me she prays for me every day. After about an hour we boarded a bus and went to a park where we spent the rest of afternoon. At lunch, I noticed Reshma, her mother, and our translator were eating their rice and chicken with their fingers. I thought, “When in India…” I set my utensils aside and made a complete mess of myself finishing my meal with rice down my shirt and lap and all over the ground beneath me. I think they appreciated the effort.
At the end of the day, Reshma and her mother returned to their lives and to the daily uncertainties and struggles that face the poor. I went back to my hotel and my iPad.
My time in Kolkata left a deep impression on me. It is impossible to ignore the heaviness of life there. The colors appeared more muted and the faces wearier. Hope is not a commodity here. I visited Mother Theresa’s home and orphanage and I start to understand the incredible self-sacrifice this woman made. Truly humbling.
Which brings me to the news I received this week. It is very likely that by mid-march the Compassion programs in India, serving 200,000+ kids and their families will be closed. The Indian government is no longer allowing fund transfers from foreign countries to many NGOs operating in the country. It’s a turn inward by the government that appears to be targeting Western non-profits that work in the areas of human rights and the environment. Compassion, as well as organizations like Greenpeace, Amnesty, and the Ford Foundation, have all been affected. The highest levels of both the US and the British government have pleaded the case to the Indian government to allow Compassion (and other NGOs) to continue their work. But so far hearts have not changed.
I am grateful I had the opportunity to go to India when I did. I’m thankful I was able to meet Reshma and her mother. Their story is now a part of mine and mine a part of theirs. Our time together was not filled with lofty conversation (let’s just say our translator did the best she could). It was mostly us sitting together and smiling; a simple universal gesture that says, “I see you. And you are not alone.”
I hope I never lose my courage to cross boundaries, to sit with a stranger, and smile.
A WRITER AND TRAVELER KEEPING THE FAITH IN LOS ANGELES