For as long as I can remember I have been captivated by India, a country I romantically envisioned as a spiritual place of vivid colors, capricious deities, squint-eyed snake charmers, multi-hued temples, and fiery food. Growing up I devoured novels about the tumultuous history of Hindustan, a land ruled by sultans and emperors whose names included “the Great,” a vast almost-continent where hennaed women in saris danced sensuously, noble-looking men wore jeweled turbans and rode elephants, and hump-backed cattle roamed freely along dusty, narrow streets.
Mark Twain called India “the cradle of the human race, the birthplace of human speech, the mother of history, the grandmother of legend, and the great-grandmother of tradition.” Even in the twenty-first century, India, whose national bird is the peacock, still seemed to me to be remote and exotic.
So last winter when an email unexpectedly showed up advertising a trip to northern India with the tantalizing subject line: Are you ready for the experience of a lifetime . . . I was. I called my husband at work and persuaded him that he was, too.
The email, which had been sent by Unbound, a Kansas City, Kansas charity that we have supported for many years, stated flat out that this wouldn’t be any ordinary trip. Instead they promised “an adventure you would never expect.” Participants wouldn’t stay in luxurious hotels or visit the usual tourist sites. We would probably have hot water in our hotels, but it wasn’t guaranteed. We needed shots for yellow fever and pills against malaria. It was advisable to spray all clothing with Permethrin against disease-carrying mosquitoes since we would travel to rural areas; our neighbors thought we were having a massive yard sale when we strung pants, shirts, socks, and pajamas on clotheslines tied to a couple of ladders in the driveway.
Unbound (known for many years as Christian Foundation for Children and Aging, or CFCA) was founded in 1981 by three brothers, a sister, and a friend who wanted to do something to change the devastating poverty two of them had witnessed working in Latin America as missionaries. What started as a small outreach program to friends and relatives who were on their Christmas card lists is now an international nonprofit connecting American donors who sponsor more than 300,000 children and elderly individuals in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. Thirty dollars a month provides a child’s tuition to a local school with enough money left over for birthday and Christmas presents, recreational activities, and access to a health clinic or covers the housing and medical expenses of an elderly person. Donor money also contributes to vocational training programs to help generate family income for the mothers of sponsored children. What especially appealed to me as a writer is that Unbound actively encouraged sponsors and the individuals they supported to correspond with each other; if your child or elder didn’t speak English, local staff translated their letter before sending it on.
The ten-day trip in late October and early November, known as an “Awareness Trip” in Unbound lingo, would be an opportunity to travel throughout northern India to meet local staff and the people they served. Best of all, it was a chance to meet our sponsored children in their homes. As gung-ho as I was about going, my husband and I spent a lot of time talking about what would be a challenging trip for us. To begin with, he was recovering from major reconstructive foot surgery—the result of contracting Guillain-Barré Syndrome in Moscow twenty-five years ago—and there would be a lot of walking on rough, uneven terrain as well as sprinting through airports as sprawling as small cities. We also planned to take our twenty-seven year old autistic son with us to the world’s second most populous country. Notoriously social–everyone was his friend–we worried he might wander off in a crowded bazaar. Or maybe accidentally drink the tap water while brushing his teeth and end up in the hospital. Friends and family either thought we were out of our minds or envied us and said we had guts. My father, who was truly worried, sent a barrage of emails about the wretched pollution in Delhi or the new outbreak of dengue (break bones) fever, along with links to the CDC website. Nevertheless we had our hearts set on going. The Unbound staff assured us we’d be okay.
By late spring the trip was full, capped at twenty sponsors and two Unbound staff members from Kansas. We paid a fee to cover hotels, meals, ground transportation, internal flights, and translators and were asked to arrange airfare to and from India, arriving in Hyderabad, an ancient pearl- and diamond-trading center and now a big IT hub, and departing from Delhi, the capital. Two weeks before we left the final itinerary arrived; the staff in India had added a weekend trip to a third city, Allahabad, most famous as the location of the Sangam, the sacred confluence of the Ganges and Yamuna Rivers, as well as a third mythical (invisible) river called the Sarasvati, where thousands of pilgrims came to bathe each year. Since Allahabad was 350 miles from Delhi, we would be flying there; I later learned there was only one flight a day and the airport was a military base.
Our whirlwind visit with its jam-packed itinerary was everything I hoped for and nothing I expected, just like the Unbound brochure promised. The poverty was as soul-destroying and devastating as you’ve always heard, the pollution, especially in Delhi and Allahabad, so fierce you could chew it, the traffic was appalling, and driving was a noisy, perilous adventure (horn-blowing is a national past time) not for the faint-hearted. One guide book promised—or warned—that India was a place that evoked extreme, passionate reactions. We loved it. My son didn’t want to come home.
We especially loved the people, their wonderful, extravagant hospitality even in the poorest home or local Unbound center, their delight in showing us India through their eyes, and their kindness and gentle way with my son. At each place we visited we were showered with flower petals, garlands of roses and marigolds were draped around our necks, our foreheads were dotted with vermillion powder in the place between the brows where wisdom is concentrated and the spiritual, or third, eye is opened. Lighted candles floating in shallow bowls of water were waved before us to ward off evil spirits. (When I asked one of the local Unbound project coordinators about these rituals he said, “Oh, just Google it. You’ll find everything you want to know there.”)
The days began early—usually the Muslim call to prayer over a loudspeaker near the hotel woke us at five—and ended late, long after the hotel had turned off the hot water for the evening. (Full disclosure: only in Hyderabad. We did have hot water all the time in Delhi and Allahabad). Usually we were too tired to care and simply fell into bed, dusty, grimy and with complete sensory overload. Though they were all unforgettable, two days, especially, stand out for me: the day we finally met the two girls we sponsored and their families at their homes in Hyderabad and our final day in that city before we flew to Delhi at a “festival of talents” called Prathibhotsav.
The home visits had been heartwarming and wonderful, but also eye-opening. Both girls lived with their families in a single room in a warren-like concrete-block complex with no running water where they slept on mats on the floor, cooked on a small gas stove, and eked out a living on $100 a month or less. What was especially tough was that we would also be saying goodbye to a child we supported for the last seven years who had failed her chemistry and physics exams which were required if she was to continue her studies to become a nurse. Although we encouraged her to repeat the courses, at Christmas we received her long and rather sad letter informing us that she had left school to get married. What we didn’t know until we met her and her new husband in Hyderabad was that he was also her uncle, the youngest brother of her mother, who had arranged the marriage. I still can’t write about this without a pit in my stomach; the social worker that accompanied us spent a long time talking to us about “in-law marriages” in the cab back to the hotel.
The Prathibhotsav festival, organized by the Unbound staff was a Bollywood-worthy production involving singing, dancing, award presentations, and a luncheon. It would also be the final opportunity to spend time with both girls. No small-scale event, it brought together 6,000 mothers of sponsored children in an enormous hall on the outskirts of Hyderabad. (I had been sure the number was a typo; actually this year’s festival was downsized from the previous one, which hosted 8,000 women). Told by our hosts that we were expected to dress for the occasion, two Muslim women showed up at our hotel a few days earlier and briskly took everyone’s measurements. A day before the festival, the men were presented with kurtas; the women received charidaar kurtas (pajama pants, a fitted tunic, and a long chiffon scarf called a dupatta) as gifts from the staff. The aunt of one of our Indian children had painted my left hand and arm with an elaborate henna design called mehndi during our home visit and someone had given me a wrist-full of glass bangles. I felt like Cinderella going to the ball.
In the weeks since we returned from India, the international news has been grim: the awful events in Paris, Mali, Beirut, Chicago, a Russian plane blown up in the Sinai desert, a worldwide warning to Americans not to travel. Watching television is as nightmare inducing as it was in the days following 9/11 as we are constantly reminded what a scary place the world has become, full of faceless people we don’t know or understand who are motivated by hate.
Maya Angelou once said that perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends. The night before we left Hyderabad, the director of the program said something very similar to us. “Now when you watch the news, India won’t just be a place on a map, but memories of people you know and places you’ve been,” she said. “You’ll see our faces, you’ll remember us. You know us now as friends.”
I think about her words a lot these days.