The Widows I met in Vrindavan

“A woman is the full circle. Within her is the power to create, nurture and transform.” ~Diane Mariechild

Sunday night I felt like a kid on Christmas Eve. Since my first week working for Maitri we have been trying to organize a trip to visit Maitri’s widows project in Vrindavan as well as Agra to see the Taj Mahal. Several times we’ve made arrangements that only fell through for various reasons, but finally the plans were set in stone and the car that would take us first to Vrindavan and then Agra would be at our apartment in 5 short hours.

 We reached Vrindavan around 9:00 am. The streets were already bustling due to a festival going on in honor of Krishna. Stands were scattered everywhere, where women, dressed in brightly colored saris, and their children sat on top of wooden planks stringing bright orange flowers into necklaces. We slowly made our way through traffic to Maitri’s center where the widows stay. At first the place looked completely empty, just a large concrete building with cut out open windows and doors. Laundry hung in between the columns and monkeys played near by on top of a concrete fence. As we approached a younger woman came out, wearing a black and white kurta with her hair in a bun. Her smile was warm, and after a few words with my coworker, Anita, she led us into one of the rooms where the women sleep. Immediately I felt like I had 10 new grandmothers! Each woman approached us, smiling so sweetly, they pinched my cheeks, hugged me, kissed my cheeks and one woman even braided my hair.

The woman who braided my hair

The woman who braided my hair

After visiting for a little while, we left the center to go and see Maitri’s plot of land where they will be building their Aging Resource Center. Once it is completed they will provide housing and vocational training for 200 widows. Afterwards we visited an ashram where 70 widows stay. At this particular ashram they were not only feeding the widows who stayed there, but are accepting of others who stop in. Near the doorway were 3 small children who were also given food. I assume it was a young girl and her baby sister and toddler brother. The young girl smiled up at me with fire in her eyes and ushered her small brother to waive and look at me. She showed me her baby sister and laughed as she picked up her small hand. I wanted to sit and eat with them, but just as soon as we got there we were being directed to continue on our journey.

 

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It was mealtime when we returned back to Maitri’s Center. The widows sat in 4 lines, barefoot and cross-legged on the floor with their sectioned metal plates before them. Three of the women scooted large metal containers full of rice, curry and some other Indian dish. They heaped piles on each of the widow’s plates. They dug in, and I was amazed at the quantity of food their tiny frail bodies were able to hold. I was able to help distribute the bananas once they were close to finishing their main course. As I placed each banana into the warm hands of the recipient I felt an overwhelming sense of peace and happiness.

 

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 It made me smile knowing that they are all well fed, and I enjoyed watching them chat and laugh as they ate. While I watched I realized India’s Holy Cities are set apart from other areas because they are places of gathering. I remembered a quote from Maitri’s website about widows.. that they “face a triple jeopardy: that of being old, of being women, and of being poor”. These beautiful women, who have spent their lives being wives, mothers, and grandmothers, escape situations of torment and abuse. They are often abandoned by their own families, have their homes and lands taken from them (even by their own children), and are viewed as “cursed” because their husbands passed before them and are therefore ostracized and cast out from society. I knew they were at Maitri’s center because they had nowhere else to go. At a first glance, their living conditions may look bleak, but as I walked around the center and sat on their beds as they proudly showed me their few belongings, smiled for photos, and sat eating together, all I felt was warmth and a sense of belonging. As our car pulled away I realized that I didn’t want to dwell on their pasts….I wanted to focus on the hope and life they have found in Vrindavan. Like leather, the wear of life's struggles and experiences has left them softer, more aware of the world and compassionate to those in it, and that with age they have only become more beautiful.

 

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 They have found refuge in Vrandavan…safety in its Ashrams…comfort and solace among its people. Ultimately, they have found family and community in a place where they can love and be loved in return.

 

For those who know no freedoms

Some of them are tiny and ancient, with toothless smiles and slow shuffles.  The hands that meet in "namaste" are knotted and wrinkled.  Others' hands still seem quite young, their hair long and black and their smiles still white.

But all of these women's faces harbor a mutual pain, or at least the memory of it.

These women are the Widows of Vrindavan.

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 One of the holiest cities in India, Vrindavan is home to over 15,000 widows.  Often, losing a husband as a Hindu means losing the rest of one's family, security, and dignity. "Widow" is synonymous with bad luck, sexual threat, and financial burden.  So when their husbands pass on, widows lose the respect and compassion they were once shown by their families.  Sometimes, they journey to Vrindavan as an escape from physical abuse or emotional degradation from their children or in-laws.  Other times, these same family members force their mothers and daughters to Vrindavan, where they spend the remainder of their lives, long or short, begging or earning small sums singing in Lord Krishna's temples.

I don't know which hurts my heart worse - the women weak with age who have no one to support their last years, or the women who've barely entered adulthood and have half a lifetime of struggle ahead.

Nopur has lived in Vrindavan for over 20 years.

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In sharing her story, she claims proudly that she is educated, a feat unobtainable by many women of her generation.  Because of her education, she knew she didn't have to endure the abuse from her family, so on a visit to Vrindavan, she decided to make her stay permanent.

Maitri supports an ashram for a number of these abandoned widows and is currently building a resource center that will house 100 women.  Though I've had the opportunity to be involved with their project for the widows, I feel very small in comparison to the depth of abusive tradition and the immense number of its victims.

It isn't just the widows that make me feel small.  It's the abuse and violence endured by women across the globe, especially in developing nations where long standing customs and power struggles leave no room for equal rights.

Just last year, Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head by the Pakistan Taliban for claiming her right to education.  In her recent speech to the United Nations, she stated, "We call upon all communities to be tolerant – to reject prejudice based on cast, creed, sect, religion or gender. To ensure freedom and equality for women so that they can flourish. We cannot all succeed when half of us are held back."

A Pakistan Taliban commander responded with a letter that claims Malala was shot not for her attendance at school, but for her "writing that was provocative."  Malala was 15 when they boarded her school bus and lodged a bullet into her head.

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A woman visited the Maitri office a few weeks ago to speak of her battle against child trafficking.  She told of girls as young as two years old being stolen from or sold by their families into the slave and sex trade.

"I have rescued some of these girls, but even then I have nowhere for them to stay," she admits.  "Their families will not take them back - they are 'shameful' to society."

A teenage girl stayed at my apartment for ten days this month.  She was taken from her family at an age too early for memory and traded as a maid until she ran away to seek help from our organization.  Efforts to find her family have not yet been successful.

I just heard a story of a girl in Dubai who complained of her rape to the police.  She was sentenced to 6 months in prison for committing adultery.

About 140 million girls and women worldwide are living with the after-effects of female circumcision.  Usually this procedure is done for non-medical reasons and in remote, unsanitary locations with razors and other household tools.  It usually happens between infancy and 15 years.  The cultural, and sometimes religious, purpose is to make a girl "clean" and discourage her from committing "illicit sexual acts."

If current levels of child marriages hold, 14.2 million girls will continue to become child brides each year (World Health Organization).

In Saudi Arabia, a woman's testimony in court cannot be regarded as anything more than presumption.  The reasoning behind this is that a woman's "emotional nature" and "tendency to be forgetful" make her testimony invalid.

These are only a few examples of the injustice that glares from all corners of the world.  The pain is not limited to women, but I speak of them because my current work brings their struggles close to my heart.

In the book Princess, which tells of the oppressive and violating conditions faced by women in the Middle East, the source of the story makes this plea:

"We Saudi women have few possibilities for genuine change.  We Saudi women need your help.  Many of you live in countries where you can insist that your governments demand change from one of their economic and political partners, Saudi Arabia."

It is up to the individuals whose births have allowed them freedom to speak for those who have been born into veils and silence.

I'm proud to say that Maitri India, the NGO for which I've had the fortune to work this summer, is taking strides to demand the change so many victims are unable to demand for themselves.

This month, we've launched a campaign to eradicate violence against women on a global scale.  In order to spread the value that violence against women is never acceptable, we will collect one million signatures from men and women of all ages, pledging to never commit or allow such violence to occur in their lives.

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Our goal is to present our cause, supported by one million signees, to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon by March 2014.  We will implore his support in further expanding the mindset that does not accept violence.

To take your own pledge, visit http://www.change.org/en-IN/petitions/count-on-me-my-pledge-to-end-violence-against-women.

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My time in India is spinning to its close.  With only three short weeks remaining, I'm just beginning to comprehend the things I've learned.  It's hard because, as you read this, I want so badly to make you understand.  I want to make you see the struggles people endure in this country and other developing parts of the world.  But I know I never could have understood without watching it firsthand, and still a lot of things are impossible to truly process.

I'm not saying it's wrong to be removed, and I don't think there's shame in not understanding - because how could we, really? Half a planet away doesn't feel like real life, as much as we may sympathize.  I think though, that at some point in our lives we have all known what it is to be treated unjustly, even if only on a small scale.  In these instances, most of us take action to defend ourselves, to speak up for what we know we deserve.  But what if you had no voice with which to speak? No position from which to defend your rights? 

I don't ask you to understand something you've never experienced, but I do ask you to recognize how fortunate you are to have never known such feelings of helplessness in the event of injustice.  And then I ask you to refuse passivity and employ your freedoms in the service of those who know no freedoms.  Make a donation to a cause you believe in.  Sign a pledge or a petition that speaks to you.  Raise awareness about things that should not go unheard.

Be a force for change in the face of those who fear progress, and do not abandon those members of humanity who need you.  Their pleas for help are shouted by their silence.  Hear them.

 

It's Real

All of it is real. It isn’t just something I read about anymore; there are real problems in this world. It’s my friends.  It’s my co-workers. It’s the children I tutor.  It’s my housekeeper.  It’s my neighbors.

Women come into Maitri daily to seek help for abuse they’ve suffered; the children I tutor are way too skinny; the families I walk past on the way to work are living underneath highway overpasses; the children that stop my auto rickshaw to beg for money dig through the garbage piles for food.  The “real” world is pressing down on me everywhere I turn.  My smallness and inability to do anything significant is pressing down even harder.

It was a nice bubble that I lived in.  Hearing and reading about the problems of the world, but still getting to retreat into my secluded, safe space.  Yes, it’s comfortable to be ignorant and unaffected, but is that really a good way to live?  While people were suffering around the world, I was reading their stories from the comfort of my large, clean home or researching their problems in a university classroom (and I didn't have to walk miles to it or fear for my life while at school).

I can choose who I want to marry. What I want to do.  Where I want to live.  How I want to be treated.  Where I want to go.  These choices used to be classified as “rights” in my mind; however, I am now realizing that they are privileges that so many women in the world do not enjoy.  I am not going to waste these privileges that I have been given—if I am lucky enough to have options, I am going to make the best decisions possible.  I do not have to fight for myself, but I will fight for others because it is wrong that so many girls throughout the world do not even know that there are other options.  It is wrong that a girl was shot in the head for trying to go to school.  It is wrong that 67 million children do not go to school, and more than half of them are girls.  It is wrong that 7 in 10 women around the world are victims of physical and/or sexual violence during their lifetimes.  It is wrong that 14 million girls are married before age 18 each year. It is wrong that medical complications during pregnancy and childbirth are the leading cause of death in women age 15-19.  It is wrong that around 3 million girls each year are victims of genital mutilation or cutting.

If any of these facts make your blood boil, like they do mine, then we must take action. Knowledge brings responsibility.  We cannot sit idly by while, around the world, these very real problems are affecting very real people.

 

Independence Day

This year on the 4th of July, I was flying from New Delhi, India to Katmandu, Nepal.

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 Ironically, I spent Independence Day in two countries – neither of which was my own, but my thoughts have been more focused on my appreciation for the U.S. of A. than ever before.  July 4th marks almost the exact halfway point of my time in India.  Though I am loving my time here and I hope to return someday, the experience has instilled in me a deep love for my home country.  Not for the clean streets, or the reliable electricity.  I truly don’t care about the convenience of supermarkets or the clarity of traffic markers.  It’s the freedom guaranteed to all Americans that makes me so proud, and so so grateful, to call the U.S. “home.”

So many things I’ve grown up with, things that seem so basic to me, are never attainable by people in India and other developing areas around the world. And though I’m envious of all my family and friends joining together to BBQ and light things on fire, my thoughts of today’s holiday center on liberties of a much larger significance.

To name just a few:

Attending school is not even an option for many children here.  Yet, for Americans, not attending is never allowed.  How lucky I was to learn to read, to have been taught math and science, to go to college.

Additionally, I get to choose the person I marry.  I get to choose who I don’t want to marry.  For more than one of my friends here, their marriages were arranged, or forced.  One of my best friends is in hiding from her whole family to escape a marriage she doesn’t want.  In the U.S. our liberty would never stand for this.  I can walk down the streets holding whoever’s hand I want.  I can insist on marriage; I can refuse it.  I always saw marriage and love as a right.  But I’ve realized it’s a privilege – the most valuable privilege, at least in comparison.

I have never seen a child begging on an American street, I have never heard of a policeman refusing to answer the call of a woman.  All kids are taught to read.  There are no slums – no neighborhoods made from only tarps and tree branches. There is no caste system.  We would never stand for laws that require women to cover their face, or men to grow their beard a certain length.

So as fun as it is to claim our love for ‘Merica” and yell “U.S.A! U.S.A!,” Independence Day is about more than potato chips and sparklers.  It’s more than loving our soldiers and hating terrorists.  We are citizens to the best nation, the most fortunate nation in the world. That should never be taken lightly.  With such privilege, whether it’s financial, academic, or purely the freedom to choose, we were born the lucky ones.  Americans were born the lucky ones.

I believe such fortune should never be wasted or taken advantage of.  So as our nation is celebrated, I would ask you to acknowledge the civil and human rights you’re promised there, and I would ask you to never let them go to waste.

Being in the presence of the Dalai Lama

Outside the Dalai Lama's Temple

Outside the Dalai Lama's Temple

It was our second day attending the Dalai Lama's lectures at the temple complex where he resides in McLeod Ganj. We were much more prepared than the previous day, where our admittance into the temple was only made possible through jugar. You see, the reason we decided to travel to McLeod Ganj in the first place was to see His Holiness, and we had a contact that told us they were going to get us an audience. We ended up arriving at the temple gates without copies of our passport photos, with cameras that weren’t allowed in only a half hour before the first lecture started. With a few frantic phone calls, I saw my rescuer walking towards me while instantaneously hearing his voice through the other line of the cell phone. His name was Mr. Singh, and he is the head of Police in McLeod Ganj. I was completely relieved and hopeful that this man I had just met would be able to help me. Just 10 minutes ago one of my friends had ripped along the edges of the only extra photo I had, which was off of a paper passport copy, to use for my registration card. I showed Mr. Singh the torn paper photo and explained my dilemma. The man in charge of administering the registration cards was obviously a bit perturbed at having to bend the rules in order to allow me in (photo copies aren't allowed), but whatever Mr. Singh told him made him comply.

Mr. Singh then proceeded to escort us up to the main hall of the temple where we sat and listened to the lectures. The temple is a big open building with a pretty garden area on your left as you walk in and a seating area on your right. I was impressed at how simply it was decorated, painted in golden yellow and beige on the main level. There are two steep staircases that lead up to the 2nd level where the Dalai Lama sits and the actual temple of worship is located. Where his Holiness sits is in an ornately decorated large chair with a gold and red tapestry on his back. Behind the throne is a large Buddha with a haloed arch surrounding its' form made up of gold, emeralds, rubies and sapphires. We were unable to understand his teachings the first day, because we didn't have an FM radio to translate, but the experience was still powerful and I was able to see where his Holiness walked down the steps and went over to spectators to greet them as the lectures concluded. This was where we made sure to get a seat for the second lecture. 

 

Tibetan Prayer Mills 

Tibetan Prayer Mills 

We arrived at about 6:00 AM. The three of us sat cross-legged on our cushions while we waited for the complex to fill up with the hundreds of people just as excited and eager to hear the Dalai Lama's words. We had our radios as well as little bread loaves we'd bought from the charity bakery for the nunnery just outside the temple entrance. The room was full of positive energy and reverence as everyone waited for the Dalai Lama to arrive. I had butterflies and was determined to soak up everything I could. 

I have been reading about the Dalai Lama, and between the books that I've read and our experience at the first lecture I have come to realize just how loving of a man he truly is. Before we went, we had asked a Tibetan who owned a restaurant in town what we should wear. He'd told us to come exactly as we were, because his Holiness is accepting of everyone. It gave me goosebumps reflecting on this advice as I looked around and saw just that. People from all over the world, dressed in every manner of attire, were there to listen, and everyone was accepting and warm towards each other. There was a mutual understanding that we were all part of something bigger than ourselves for these few hours, and everyone acknowledged the desire in each and every person’s heart to soak in the experience at having the chance to see and listen. I saw younger men carry an elderly man and an elderly woman, which age had made frail and incapable of walking, up the stairs in a chair. It was beautiful and heart warming to see that instead of objecting the crowd began to part and make room for the men to ensure that these elderly were granted the same opportunity to participate.

 

Where the Dalai Lama sat

Where the Dalai Lama sat

The lectures started and I was soon writing notes in my journal with one hand while holding my ear bud in with the other. As his Holiness read through the material, he’d rock slightly side to side and during each translation period he sat peacefully smiling at everyone. I had notes all over the place, one page designated to notes on the lecture specifically, another where I was writing down my own personal thoughts and feelings, and others full of observations etc.

We were fortunate enough to sit amongst a crowd of elderly Tibetans. We had met several Tibetans at this point of our stay in McLeod Ganj, and I'd learned that they are some of the most genuine and kind hearted people I've ever had the honor of meeting. They are genuine in their conversation and take the time to get to know you as well as remember you.  It's tradition at the lectures for the temple monks to bring around Tibetan bread and some sort of soup for everyone listening. Once again, we were unprepared and hadn’t brought any bowls or cups. I felt a gentle hand tap my back. As I turned around I met the kind eyes of an older gentleman. As his quivering hands untied a plastic bag and removed two small plastic cups, one yellow and one green, I noticed there were permanent crows-feet bordering his eyes from years of smiling. He placed them in my hands and ushered for a monk to come over and pour soup in each of the cups for my friend and I. As the monk was walking over, the beautiful woman next to me was motioning down a long aisle of Tibetans for them to have the monk passing out bread come back. It reminded me of the game you play when you're little, where each person tells the person to his or her right a secret, and the goal of the game is to have the same secret passed around the entire circle. The message reached the monk, and he came over and gave us some of the bread still warm from the oven. As I set the bread on my knee I looked around truly touched and appreciative of all those around me. I was so honored to sit with them and felt blessed that they took care of the three of us. They weren't looking at us as "foreigners" or "white Americans" or “intruders” because we obviously weren't Buddhist. Their eyes only emulated of love and compassion, and they welcomed us as fellow human beings, and ultimately as a "human community". 

Outside the gates that separate the main complex from where he lives

Outside the gates that separate the main complex from where he lives

I noticed the security moving the crowd behind gates signifying the lecture coming to an end. We picked up our things and made our way to the bottom of the right staircase. I had butterflies as I neatly unpacked my white silk scarf from my bag and stood their holding it across my forearms with my hands in prayer. The procession began coming down the stairs. The two lines in the front of the Dalai Lama were holding white scarves and incents, and two monks were at his sides assisting him down the stairs. As he passed people would bow with their hands in prayer touching their foreheads signifying highest level of respect. He is the most adorable man who laughs and smiles all the time (He even calls himself a professional laugher)!

As he stepped off of the bottom stair my heart leapt. He was only feet away from me. and I could barely breathe. There was a Russian family to my left, and one girl yelled out something in Russian. At first her loud voice breaking the reverent silence seemed completely disrespectful, but his Holiness looked at our group and made his way over. He spoke in English, asking her to translate and began touching peoples hands. I went to put my hands in prayer to my forehead to bow in respect when he reached me, placed his warm palms over the outside of my hands and gazed smiling at me. He slightly bowed his head before he moved onto the next person. I couldn't even breathe; all I could do was grin ridiculously back at him with tears in my eyes and warmth in my heart. It was so powerful, and I was in a sort of daze for the rest of the afternoon! As he got in the SUV that would drive him through the gate to where he lives, he waived with both hands at the crowd smiling the entire time. 

I have pages and pages of notes from the lectures, but here are a few of my favorite points that he made: 

  • Love is the result of practicing      compassion, and having peace and compassion towards all people leads to a      beautiful life.
  • "Love and compassion open our      own inner life, reducing stress, distrust and loneliness"
  • We need to have the motivation and      confidence to help others, and they must feel that they can trust our      intentions as we help them. There is a transparency between our      motivations, our actions and the consequences.
  • Happiness is derived from this      motivation- through love and compassion for others because we have an      understanding that we all have the goal of avoiding suffering and being      happy.
  • We need to strive to make our      lives meaningful 
  • "All different religions of      the world are needed to enrich human experience and world civilization.      Our human minds, with all their variety, need different approaches to      peace and happiness"
  • Religion is like medicine- each      person identifies differently and there are specific medicines that are      better for different patients ailments. We need different religions      because there are differences in people, but all religions bring something      positive to this world. 

And finally, this is my favorite quote I've read so far from his book How to See Yourself as You Really Are

"Developing a kind heart, a feeling of closeness for all beings, does not require following a conventional religious practice. It is not only for those who believe in religion. It is for everyone, regardless of race, religion or political affiliation. It is for all who consider themselves to be, above all, members of the human family, who can embrace this larger and longer perspective."

 

Free Tibet Memorial outside of the Temple

Free Tibet Memorial outside of the Temple

McLeod Ganj is such a wonderful place because there is no such thing as a "misfit". Everyone comes and goes exactly as they are, and this is why so many people end up staying much longer than they expected. Visiting this place has left a lasting impact on how I see the world and how I desire to interact with others...and I will hold this experience close to my heart for the rest of my life. It was refreshing and inspiring to be surrounded by so many people with a desire to make the world a better place. I have a new item on my bucket list to strive to live with this same love and compassion towards others. I definitely have a long way to go in being able to inspire and love in the way The Dalai Lama professes. Practicing compassion is definitely difficult for me at times when I find myself being hypocritical and passing judgment without any thought. I really hope that one day I'll be able to stumble onto a path where I am able to enrich the lives of others and be able love unconditionally. 

One, One, One

A glass wall separates the area where the interns and several staff members work from the tiny room where Winnie ma’am consults and listens to the women. These women come in often to share their stories. Each story is different, but they all have one thing in common; They’ve made the courageous decision to leave an abusive relationship.

Tuesday I spent hours researching violence against women for an upcoming workshop. Winnie ma’am saw 3 women that day. My throat tightened as I read a BBC article that revealed haunting stats on crime against women.. one crime against women every three minutes, one rape every 29 minutes, one dowry death case every 77 minutes, one case of cruelty by husband and relatives every nine minutes.

The number of cases continues to rise and the government and authorities continue to push such cases to the back-burner. The husbands often bribe lawyers and court officials to deem the complaints illegitimate and quash the case leaving. Perhaps the most disturbing fact is that according to Unicef’s “Global Report Card on Adolescents 2012”  57% of adolescent boys and 53 % of adolescent girls believe domestic violence is justified.

As I continued my research, the articles containing testimonials of women who had experienced domestic abuse for years was never ending. Even women who come from wealthier families and have lawyers, doctors, and pastors as husbands have come forward. I had put off reading up on the infamous gang rape in Delhi that occurred just this past December. After I read the graphic and violent case description I couldn't read anymore. I felt completely sick that something so terrible existed outside of horror films and other forms of fiction.

As the last woman left Winnie’s office, she tidied a stack of papers and let out a sigh. I smiled as I glanced at the plaque tilted against the glass that reads "well behaved women rarely make history". Her eyes were tired and wary behind her tortoise shell cat-eye glasses. This woman has shown me just how much one individual can do. I realized that organizations like Maitri are here to help solidify these women’s decision to leave. They let them know that despite what cultural factors have taught them to believe, they deserve a life without fear.

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I continue to meet women who were victimized and are survivors of such relationships.  Removing themselves from these circumstances takes much more strength than I’d previously recognized. Making the decision to leave is the most tremendous first step, because for so long they have had their decisions made for them. Leaving is not only making the conscious decision to stand up for themselves despite of cultural norms, but they also have to make these decisions and navigate their lives feeling completely alone. This decision more often than not puts them at odds not only with their husband and in-laws but even their own parents and siblings. These women inspire me and are reminders of the strength within each individual.

As I sat in my chair brewing over everything I’d just researched I remembered my favorite quote.

 “I never look at the masses as my responsibility; I look at the individual. I can only love one person at a time- just one, one, one. So you begin. I began- I picked up one person. Maybe if I didn’t pick up that one person, I wouldn’t have picked up forty-two thousand…The sam thing goes for you, the same thing in your family, the same thing in your church, your community. Just begin- One, One, One”—Mother Teresa

With such daunting statistics it’s hard for me not to become overwhelmed and feel “responsible for the masses”, and discouraged when I recognize that combatting the most difficult issues takes years and years of changing cultural mindsets. But I need to remember the power of the individual. I need to remember the women I've met who are survivors and look for the women like Winnie and other at Maitri who are creating tremendous change. In the end, each person helped is one more person whose life was changed for the better. One individual can produce just as astonishing statistics. “Just begin- One, One, One”.

 

The Same Sky

As my experience of India grows, the breadth of my past experience seems to narrow.  In every figurative and literal sense of the term, I truly am on “the other side of the word.”  I keep having to tell myself, “Yeah, this is real life.  You are actually living in India.” Then I smile a little bit and think, “Yeah, I’m in India… That’s sick.” (Cool-sick, Mom; not gross-sick.)

Here are the Top Funniest/Worst/Best parts of India (so far):

1. The clothes.  Do you think we can wear pumps with these pants at home?

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2. Auto-rickshaws.  The concept of driving in India’s rush-hour with no doors and an engine barely equivalent to my childhood go-cart is pretty exhilarating. Especially when your rickshaw breaks down in the middle of an intersection and you have to run and weave through moving traffic to get to another… Yeah, that happened.

3. We have to put broken egg shells all around the house to keep the lizards away.  I’m not sure exactly what the reasoning is behind that, but it seems to mostly work.  Some still sneak in, much to Kaitie’s terror.  We usually name them different variations of “Little Foot” and “Lizzie,” depending on their size.

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4.  Milk is sold in a bag, refrigerated if you’re lucky.

5. Every time we enter any public space, people take pictures of us.  Sometimes they ask if we mind, or they ask to be in the picture with us.  Most often, though, they just take the picture… And by that, I mean they pause in front of us, hold up their camera, then walk away.  Even better, lots of guys sort of follow us with video cameras, or walk past with their camera nonchalantly pointed in our direction.  At first we were pretty shocked.  Now we just sort of laugh and try to keep our heads down. (Or stick our tongues out at the not-so-stealthy cameras…)

6. You can buy a single bag of Lays that contains every flavor… But try to find a simple bag of potato chips and you’re out of luck.

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The organization we're working with, Maitri India, is in the beginning stages of their campaign to eradicate violence against women.  The campaign centers largely around a pledge to never participate in or allow violence against women to happen to any individual in your life, including yourself.  Right now, we’re conducting research within the general public of India to best strategize our communicative approach.  We’ve spoken to several people, but one man’s words made my heartstrings pull especially tight.

He was sitting alone in the food court of one of Delhi’s largest malls, drinking a small cup of coffee and reading a book.  We asked for a few moments of his time, and he invited us to sit at his table.  We introduced our cause, and he nodded with understanding, telling us he’s an attorney who’s done much research on the lack of legal representation for women in India.  Even without knowledge of his career, it was clear to me from his intellectual enthusiasm and informed opinions that this man had been highly educated, and I concentrated on absorbing his insight.

He said violence against women is an urgent issue in today’s society, perhaps more so in India than anywhere else.  Fueled by a mindset of agressive male dominance, India has not been able to make the progress past such violence that other nations have achieved.  He attributed this lack of progress to a widespread inability to accept change.  According to him, the call for change will only be heard if it comes from religious or political leaders.  Political leaders, however, will advocate for nothing that does not fall within constituent popularity.  In India, constituents are driven most deeply by religion, thus their favor is granted on religious terms.  And religious leaders will never relinquish their patriarchal power.  He tried to explain to us the resulting mindset – tried to help us understand what we are up against.

“To many men here, women are objects only – not human beings,” he said.  ”One cannot feel sympathy for an object.”

If a girl is not human, what reasons exempt her from abuse?  An object cannot feel pain.  It is not destroyed by domestic violence, its body and emotions are not scarred by rape.  Its cries are empty and its suffering irrelevant.

But women are not objects, and their pain is not irrelevant. This man theorized that whatever haze of culture, religion, or tradition distorts the eyes of these men must be cleared.  Women must be recognized as members of a shared human race.  Yet many women are unaware even of their most basic human rights – the right to feel safe, the right to a life without abuse.  So they never speak up, because to speak up would be unfaithful.  The reality of such destructive beliefs makes my teeth clench together and my eyes burn, and to confront it makes my head spin.

Our friend in the food court did not soften his thoughts with any false optimism.  But he also expressed hope.  ”If we are patient, and we continue to push, making women aware of their rights and helping men accept change, progress will come.  As progress always does.”

 

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The first rains came today.  The air was so heavy this morning, I should have expected it.  But when the skies turned gray and the all-too-familiar pounding of falling raindrops (I grew up in Seattle) surrounded the office, I quite literally jumped out of my chair and ran to the door.  Mintu, one of Maitri’s employees, and a volunteer were standing in the doorframe, looking on at the heaviest rain I’ve ever seen.  Within moments, the dirt road was a river of mud, the few installed gutters gushing water from their drain pipes.  I looked at Mintu, for some reason feeling like I needed permission to step out from cover.  He sort of laughed and stepped aside to let me through.

Hopping down the steps I stopped in the very middle of the street, where awnings couldn’t interrupt my claim to the sky’s falling gift.  My feet rooted in the mud, I turned my face up to the clouds, breathing in the smell of wet earth as deep as my lungs would allow.  I must have been giggling like a little kid because Mintu was laughing at me and the volunteer found me so odd she snapped a couple pictures.  Unlike the complaints that always accompany rain at home, the showers bring smiles to Indian faces.  All of a sudden the street filled with people, the kids screaming as they scooped up whole handfuls with which to splash one another.

For me, though, the rain brings more than mere relief from the heat; it brings home.  It brings familiarity, and it brings a reminder that we all live under the same sky, which delivers the same elements, no matter where on Earth’s face you might be standing.

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A country of contrast and a belief in beauty

Lodi Garden

Lodi Garden

I have realized that my time spent in India will be a mental, physical and emotional rollercoaster. One moment I’m marveling at the beauty of the architecture and the history and the next I’m stopped at a traffic light peering into the empty hands and eyes of a child beggar. Each new day presents its challenges and exciting adventures, and the past few days were no exception.

Friday we visited Lodi Garden, which was one of the most peaceful and beautiful places I’ve been. We leisurely walked around admiring the ancient tombs and majestic architecture. The restaurant located in the park reminded me of the Secret Garden tucked back and surrounded by flowers, vines, and twinkling with lights. We lost track of time because the evening was so enjoyable.

Saturday began with promise and possibility. A trip to Kahn Market provided a few great purchases, and great food where we ordered form menus as long as my torso. We relaxed in the same coffee shop we’d gone with Mr. Jolly where we read and wrote in our journals. Once we decided to mosey out and make our way over to Delhi Haat the day started taking a turn in the opposite direction…literally.

We were mislead by a rickshaw driver where we ended up on the worlds worst and longest rickshaw ride that got progressively worse each passing kilometer. First, we ended up in an area of Delhi that was so sketchy we were too afraid to leave the auto. Next, while on the way back we were stopped at an intersection where a tall husky woman approached our rickshaw. I quickly realized she was in fact a man and for the next little bit he stared at me licking his lips saying  “baby give me something”. I sat clutching my bag to my chest staring at the floor. I thought the worst was over and was able to laugh off my terror when our driver said “that was not a woman” as we drove away, but my hopes were dashed as our auto started to make creaking noises and put-putted to a dead stop on the side of the road. Turns out we were completely out of gas, and we decided that our safest option, rather than remain stranded, was to just pay the current drive (who was demanding way too much) and quickly find another willing to take us the rest of the way home.

We finally made it back to our apartment and were in much better spirits as we began our girl’s night with one of our new friends from the office. We ate pizza and breadsticks while watching ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’. Once the movie concluded we were chatting and laughing. As the conversation moved along I was once again reminded of where I was and the hardships that people face. The issue of violence against women became personalized as I listened to the beautiful girl in front of me recollect how Maitri saved her. I won’t be sharing the details of her story, because it is not mine to tell, but as she finished my stomach was in knots and I was straining myself from crying. I felt upset, hopeless, frustrated, sad and overwhelmed.

I couldn’t shake the negativity, and I woke up Sunday morning fatigued both mentally and emotionally. While sitting in a coffee shop and writing in my journal I stared indifferently at my last sentence. I’d written, “I knew there were going to be days like this, and I knew that they would suck, but it doesn’t make them any easier or less frustrating”. My daze was interrupted by the sound of an espresso machine. After talking to one of my roommates I felt better knowing I wasn’t in this experience alone and more optimistic towards the rest of the day.

I made the decision instead of obsessing over the details that were making me unhappy I was going to shift my focus to being more observant to those presently around me. We decided to check Lotus Temple off of the bucket list, and as I caught my first glimpse of the temple I clapped my hands with excitement. The stunning white curvature of the temples 9 points contrasted wondrously with the surrounding landscape. We anxiously waited in a line surrounded by hundreds of Indians attending the temple to worship. As we moved closer towards the entrance I looked around appreciating all of the different colors and designs of the women’s best saris and the little girls beautiful dresses. I had assumed that the Lotus temple was a Hindu temple and was surprised to find out that the temple was a Baha’i House of Worship. Learning about Baha’i faith and way of life was inspiring. Some of their principles are: Oneness of mankind, independent investigation of truth, equality of men and women, universal education, universal peace, common foundation of all religions, and elimination of prejudice. The words stuck out to me and filled me with a sense of hope and gratitude. I was more at peace and once again felt more optimistic about humanity.

As we made our way back home I remembered one of my favorite quotes.

“Be soft. Do not let the world make you hard. Do not let the pain make you hate. Do not let the bitterness steal your sweetness. Take pride that even though the rest of the world may disagree, you still believe it to be a beautiful place”—Kurt Vonnegut

It’s easy for me to be overwhelmed and to fall into a trap where I focus and dwell on the many problems and hardships that exist in India. It is a country of great contrast, and I came here to learn how I could be an instrument of an organization that sheds light into darkness and is overcoming some of these issues. I need to remember that beauty, serenity, peace, love, compassion and kindness are everywhere. They exist in the architecture and the faith. They exist in the warm laughter and smiles of the children at the tutorial center. They exist in all of the people I work with at Maitri, and most especially they exist in our new friend. All it takes is a shift in focus.

 

Aashirwad and a Birthday Party

Today we had the opportunity to visit Aashirwad, an old age home that Maitri helps support.  The home itself is wonderful--it houses up to 12 senior citizens and provides meals, cleaning, and care.  But even more wonderful are those who live there.  Getting to interact with them and hear their stories was amazing.  One man, a former professor, explained to me the need to educate children about all religions with no distinction as to which is right or wrong in the context of his life in Kashmir.  In 1989, he had to flee his home and everything he owned because of the violence over religion and the lack of religious freedom.  He will never be able to return to his home.

We also had the privilege of visiting with a very frail and feeble woman in her room.  She was genuinely interested in our well-being and success--we had to bite back tears as she blessed us with success and prayed that God would watch over us and help us achieve everything we wanted.  We have come to realize that all Indians (except for the mean rickshaw drivers who for some reason don't like us) are that way--so hospitable, kind, and completely concerned with making sure their guests are happy.  

The whole point of us being at Aashirwad was for a birthday celebration for the General--there was a cake, presents, and a big lunch.  Unfortunately, at the last minute he couldn't make it to his own party!  So we--the Maitri staff and the residents of Aashirwad--sang Happy Birthday and blew out the candles without him.  We were not going to let a cause for celebration go to waste!

The Maitri staff and the manager of Aashirwad. 

The Maitri staff and the manager of Aashirwad. 

Pahalā Sāhasika (First Adventure)

This weekend was an adventure, most definitely.

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We took the metro to Chandni Chowk, one of New Delhi’s largest and busiest bazaars.  So far, the metro is my favorite method of travel.  The cars are air conditioned and the first car is always reserved for women, a standard which guards constantly enforce.

As soon as we stepped above the metro, we were hit with this overwhelming wave of people, sweat, dirt, trash, animals… people make beds in the dirt, under awnings, sleeping as flies swarm their all-too-visible rib cages.  I gripped my bag as vendors called to us and rickshaw drivers promised to give us tours.  One bike rickshaw driver even followed us down multiple roads, begging to take us to Red Fort.  Needless to say, it was a relief when we entered the gated courtyard of Red Fort.

Red Fort is one of the most remarkable things I’ve ever seen.  It’s essentially the palace where the emperors of India (then Hindustan) lived and conducted royal business.  The whole thing is built out of red sand stone and white marble, and the grounds go on forever.

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Now, everything is chipped and dirty, and the fountains and ponds no longer flow with water from the river.  But the majesty of the fort is still very present – the detail and elegance of the architecture can still be seen, if only in a shadowed form.

After the Red Fort, we ate lunch at a place called Karim’s that some American tourists recommended.  The naan was amazing, but I’m pretty sure they cooked our food outside in the alleyway… And after just witnessing the cages stuffed with starving chickens and the skinned (and un-skinned) goat heads that line the streets, we did not order any meat.

After lunch we walked back to the metro… That walk is something that will never leave me.  There is a stretch of covered sidewalk that must be taken to reach the metro entrance.  That 40-foot stretch has rooted this gnawing pit into my stomach – one of those things you wish you could forget, but know you must always remember.  A little boy, maybe ten, kept yelling something in Hindi, reaching his hand as far as it would go toward the passing crowd.  His left leg ended in a mangeld stump at the knee.  A tiny girl sang songs while a baby lay asleep on the ground in front of her, wrapped in a dirty blanket. Another boy of seven or eight begged for money while he held onto the feet of an infant that kept trying to crawl away.

More than anything, I wanted to pick them up and bring them back to my apartment.  I wanted to promise them everything would be okay.  But that would be a lie.  So I averted my eyes, and I walked away.

If everyone  warns that it’s wrong to give to them, wrong to feed that industry, then why does it feel so wrong that I gave nothing?

Tex Mex, 90's R&B, Indian cowboys and wooden revolvers

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Only in India will you be able to get Dunkin’ Donuts, Starbucks, handmade Indian textiles and eat Tex Mex while being served by an Indian cowboy listening to American rap, 90’s and 70’s music all in one location! Today was a much needed day to splurge and make us feel a little more at home.

I felt a sense of relief as our auto rickshaw approached Connaught Place. Just being able to recognize various logos of retail stores and eateries made me feel a sense of home and loosened the knot in my stomach that had been lingering from the weight of yesterdays adventures. I felt like a kid in a candy store when we walked into Dunkin’ Donuts. Although Indian food is delicious I had been craving something the Indian diet seriously lacks- sugar.

My 500+ caloric indulgence at Dunkin' would have been enough, but I was even more excited for the long awaited visit to Starbucks. Before I begin to describe just how amazing the Connaught Place Starbucks location is, I need to fill you in on my Starbucks obsession. The reason I’m such a big fan is not because I think their coffee is the best (although I do enjoy it), but mostly because Starbucks never lets me down. Not even in India. I’m not someone who tends to collect many things, but the one thing I do collect is Starbucks mugs! You better believe I had already researched whether or not there was a Starbucks in India and if they had the ‘India’ Starbucks collector’s mugs even before I’d booked my flight. I was completely giddy as I reveled in the chilled sweetness of my caramel macchiato. The C.P. location is uniquely decorated. There is a large globe on the wall with India dead center. The color scheme is a mixture of natural tones and the photographs, light figures and artwork are reminiscent of India. 

As we wandered about the various stands we found two beautiful Indian textile shops. The beautiful fabrics draped along the walls like tapestries and each item of clothing was truly a work of art.  We each bought a pair of intricately printed pants, and I also purchased a silk scarf decorated in a design of deep purple, teal and magenta. 

The real cherry-on-top was our evening dining experience. We'd already planned to eat at Rodeo, because we'd been told that the Mexican food was not only delicious but also safe. As I made my way up the winding staircase into the main dining area I knew we had made a very wise decision. The restaurant was decorated like a saloon complete with Indian waiters dressed as cowboys! I giggled as we sat down in our booth next to the bar that had saddles as bar stools. When we were perusing the menu Usher’s “Yeah” began playing on the radio. This place was simply to good to be true.

Eating my chicken enchilada ended up being a multi-cultural experience. The enchiladas tasted Mexican, the beans were Tex Mex and the rice was definitely Indian infused. Once I was finished and completely overfull I couldn’t possibly pass up the opportunity to take a photo with one of our new Indian cowboy friends. I was elated when he removed the wooden revolver from his holster and placed a white cowgirl hat on my head! Overall the dining experience was even greater than expected and Rodeo is now our designated splurge location for when we need to feel more at home.

Tonight I’m feeling rejuvenated and excited to start getting into a real routine for the rest of my time living in India. It's great to know that nearby there's a little slice of home and more importantly that I have amazing roommates to share this adventure with. 

Real Jobs and Rickshaws

I’m becoming acutely aware of how sheltered, clean, and maybe even dull life in the United States is.  There’s just so MUCH of everything here.  So many people, so many different smells, trash EVERYWHERE, tastes that entirely overpower, colors from every end of the spectrum, and huge volumes of people that all occupy the same space.

 At first, everything seems like total chaos; just a jumble of faces, cars, and moving bodies.  Driving in a car for the first time, one has to wonder how so many vehicles avoid collision in the absence of traffic lights and lane direction, and without crosswalks and sidewalks, traveling by foot seems equally unwise.  Somehow, though, the chaos makes sense here.  The throngs of people and cars and shops and stray animals coexist.  They move through and around one another with no more visible conflict than what I’ve observed in the United States, even with all our laws and structure.  Part of me misses that structure, especially when it comes to clean city streets and food regulation.  But another part of me appreciates that life is allowed to just happen here, devoid of rules and restriction.

Today, we started work at Maitri!

I spent the first part of the day getting accustomed to the different projects within Maitri’s organization and the correct format of grant proposals.  The last part of the day was spent downstairs at Maitri’s Children’s Tutorial Centre.

I could have spent my entire day here…

Annu and Shiska taught me how to count to ten, and Mamia taught me how to write my multiplication tables.

 Mahima, Riya, and Shristi taught me colors – my shirt today was “pilla” (yellow) – and how to write my name in Hindi!

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They younger kids don’t speak much English, but the older students are pretty proficient, and they’ve all promised to help me learn Hindi if I help them learn English!

When I try to say things in Hindi, like “Mera nam Lisa hai,” which means “My name is Lisa,” or when I stumble getting all the way to ten (“Ek, do, teen, caar… shoot!”), they giggle like crazy.

When they finished work in their notebooks, they’d call, “Lisa ma’m!” and scramble for me to check their spelling or the accuracy of their multiplication.  They have such big smiles and wide eyes, and as they skipped out the door there was this awful twinge in my stomach as I noticed how skinny their little legs are and how the tiny bottle of milk they each got upon leaving makes up a much too large percentage of their diet.

I feel really lucky at the prospect of spending my summer with the kids I met today.

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Maitri (Sanskrit): Loving-kindness, compassion and friendship

This is my new dōsta (friend) Rajul Chandra. He is 7 years old and the most adorable and happy boy! I taught him how to write and pronounce several new words today. Each time after I told him good job and gave him a high-five he’d smile and laugh and then repeat everything he’d just said to me all over again really fast! He was part of the second group we were able to work with today of kids ages 7-9. He made me hasinah (smile/laugh) a lot(: 

Tucked back in an alleyway you'll find Maitri's office. The red-orange exterior is both inviting and stands out from the other apartments next door. When you open the large golden door on the left you'll walk up a few steps where you're greeted with warm smiles from some of Maitri's employees. The office is full of ornate Indian artwork and previous pieces from Maitri's projects and campaigns cover the walls. 

I was both nervous and excited as we walked in. It felt good to feel like the real adventure was starting. Sonal and Nandini went over more in depth about the specific projects we'll be working on during our time in India. We'll be assisting Maitri with four projects. The two smaller projects are helping them improve their website and writing grant proposals for fundraising. The bulk of our time will be working with Monica to help them get 1 million signatures for their pledge to prevent violence against women that will be submitted to the UN Secretary General at the end of the financial year (March 2014) and working with the kids downstairs at the Children's Tutorial Center.

 Around 4:00 Nandini told us that we were welcome to go and help Deepika with the kids downstairs. I was excited to meet them and was even more elated when we walked down the stairs to their warm smiling faces! For the next two hours I stumbled and stuttered trying to learn Hindi words with the older kids, and laughed and smiled teaching little Rajul how to read and write some english words. Three little girls taught me how to say blue= nila, eye= āṅkha, nose= nāka, lips=hōṇṭha, mango= āma, yellow= pila, purple= baiṅganī, hair= bāla and fingers=uṅgaliyōṁ.

The biggest trial of the day was a failed attempt to walk back to the apartment alone for the first time. After realizing we were lost we took our first rickshaw ride through rush hour traffic. Although I was slightly worried for my life when we almost hit a man on a motorcycle, riding in the 3-wheeled rickshaw without doors was an exhilarating experience I'll never forget. 

Overall the first day at the office left me with a sense of purpose. It's rewarding to feel like I'm in the right place at the right time. I'm excited to experience India. I relish the chaos because it makes me feel like each new day has endless possibilities, because life has no rhyme or reason here.

Until next time, Namaste.

Katrina

Outside of Maitri