Monday, January 24, 2011

India: Part 2-Building

Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will.
-Mohandas Gandhi

He's so wise!

I arrived at Narita airport in Tokyo early on Christmas Eve morning and scoured Gate 23 for Denise, my flight partner, travel buddy and roommate for the next two weeks. We had talked via email and tried to skype the previous day to finalize our plans, but that was the day skype wasn’t working. Of course. I had no idea what she looked like or sounded like. I knew she had been in Japan 3 years, spoke great Japanese as her position in the JET Program is slightly different than mine, and I knew she was American. Needn’t worry. We obviously we found each other at the gate and boarded the plane together. It was weird to have a conversation with someone you’ve never met, all the while thinking, well we’re going to be inseparable for the next two weeks. She was amazing, and we were a great team. Couldn’t have asked for a better buddy!

We flew Malaysian airlines every leg of the international trip, HIGHLY recommended. I was obsessed with the food and service. I am also obsessed with Kuala Lumpar`s airport, also, HIGHLY recommended. It was like hangin on
5th Ave
in New York. Classy shops, Starbucks AND Coffee Bean, English book stores AND a mini rainforest that opens to the outside. Right in the middle of the airport! I spent a total of 9 hours in that airport. I can give you a to-do things of must see things if you ever have a layover there. Between the service, the airport and the little video they show you before you land, I was sold. I am seriously considering Malaysia as my next vacation spot. Evidently it doesn’t take much to convince me to go to your country. English books, good coffee and nice weather and I’m there.

Then it was another 4 hour flight to Chennai. A far cry from the Malaysian airport. Denise and I powered through the airport, into a taxi and to the hotel. Arriving at about 11pm. A solid 18 hours or so of traveling and we had just enough time to shower and take a power nap, as we were set to get up at 4am and meet the rest of the group to drive to the train station for our 6am train. Getting up at 4 am became a theme on this trip. I saw the sunrise no less than 5 times over the course of the two weeks I was there.

We arrived in the hotel lobby to meet the other volunteers in our group. Meeting new strangers that you are going to be inseparable with for the next week is always an experience, just add jet lag, serious sleep deprivation and a sunless backdrop to the mix and you’ve got yourself a partaaaay.

We hopped in the car and got acquainted for the hour or so drive to Chennai train station. Ravi, our leader who founded ARV and served as our all around link to India, was with us the entire time. And I was ever grateful for that. He had booked our tickets and made sure we were there safely. No one dared talk to us, hassle us or ask to take our pictures with Ravi around, though it wouldn’t be long before we all got a chance to experience that. He led us to the correct platform and train car. Something that sounds so simple yet is far from it in India.

The train stations are crazy hectic, so much so that I never took a picture because I didn’t dare stop in the middle of all the madness. Travel books had pre-warned us that display information is often incorrect (ummm what?!) and when asking for help make sure to ask a legitimate person. All of which made me slightly nervous, and I was beginning to worry about the day Denise and I were going to have to do this on our own. With valid reason I would later find.

We were sitting in First Class India. First class meant we all had our own seat, the car was air conditioned and there were even outlets for us to charge stuff. The trains also had sleeper cars which we were advised against when traveling alone, and general class, aka cattle car status with benches instead of seats and about 3 times the amount of people in the car than there should have been. We were most grateful for our 1st class status for the 7 hour train to Vijayawada. Where we then stopped at the ARV offices for a brief orientation and then it was off to lunch at a restaurant for one of the best meals I’d ever had. Then it was another 2 hour drive to Gudiavara, where we stayed in a hotel for the entire work week. Driving about a half hour every morning to Cheveru village, our Indian home.

The first work day, the 11 volunteers and Ravi piled into 2 cars, the majority of us riding in the bed of the truck, a favored spot, and drove to Cheveru. We passed tons of people in beautiful colored clothes, dodged emaciated cows in the middle of the road, drove on whatever side of the road was convenient honking to let people know we were passing, all while blasting Indian music. I loved it. I was incredibly nervous the first day, but after about a day I learned to exhale during the car ride, and the drives to and from the village became one of my favorite parts of the day. 

The first day we drove to the village, I was taking in all the scenery and wasn’t really paying attention to where we were. The cars came to a stop and became surrounded by people. Apparently we had arrived. They popped the back of the truck and we all hopped out. Immediately kids started yelling hello, we were handed massive, intricate flower necklaces as kids took our hands and led us down the street. Other kids threw flower petals on us as we walked and there were drummers in front of the pack leading the way. It was absolutely amazing. A whirlwind of colors, sounds, smells, laughter and languages. Hands down the best welcome I have ever been a part of J

Welcome to Cheveru!
We walked through the village until we got to the village volleyball court and then we all stopped. The drummers played a bit longer and we all started to take pictures and tried to absorb our surroundings. It was a lot to take in. When the music stopped, Ravi spoke in Telegu, the native language of the town, and we all went around saying our names and a short sentence. Basically we all expressed how excited we were to be here and what an amazing welcome that was. This was technically December 26th, but I think all of us made it Christmas in our minds. It was such a memorable day.

Then it was off to breakfast.

We ate all three meals at the village. All three consisted of some type of curry and all three were always delicious. The people who cooked for us only used bottled water and had been trained in how to wash vegetables etc. It was even more delicious to eat knowing weren’t going to get sick, and none of us did.  

Chai break
Every morning after breakfast we were split in to work groups and headed off to the different areas around the village. We all rotated between whitewashing, smoothing cement, assisting the masons and carrying bricks. During our down time we played with the kids, who constantly wanted us to come meet their parents and families. It was great to see so many people and the inside of so many homes.

The people in the village were some of the most beautiful people I had ever met, inside and out. Pictures are worth a thousand words, enjoy. 

 Faces of Cheveru

As a surprise gift we all received sarees! We chose the color we wanted and the tailer came the next day to take our measurements. On our final day in the village, which happened to be New Years Eve, we all put on our sarees and got dressed for a final village farewell party! The ladies of the village decorated our hands with henna and helped us put our sarees on. I added some mascara, which was then pass around the group. 

Being that we had been hot, sweaty and covered in paint all week and now had beautiful clothes and minimal amount of make up we looked like brand new people. The transformation was amazing!

We had the most amazing time in Cheveru, and experience I know none of us will ever forget. There were definitely some tears from all angles as we parted ways and the final car ride back to the hotel was silent as we all tried to process everything that happened. Even as I write this, 2 weeks later, I am still not sure I have a full grasp on what we we did, the difference it made, or how it has effected me. It seems everyday since I've been back I reference something that happened in India to something in my day to day life.

Our time in Cheveru ended Dec. 31 and come January 1st we were on our own. Everyone was going different directions. I was set to travel India independently with Denise, Brittany and Beth, other volunteers from the group. Next stop Taj Mahal.

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