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Digging in and Staying Put: An Orphanage, an Ashram and an Island

An old friend of mine, upon returning from her year-long backpacking honeymoon, gave us some great advice for both saving money and having a more powerful trip: Slow Down. For the first two months of our travels in India, Tal and I gobbled up cities like they were candy – quick, juicy morsels of beauty and intrigue. Only in three spots did we stay put for longer than 4 days. Now, when you’re on a sightseeing vacation for a week or two, four days can seem like an eternity. But knowing that you’ll be at it for almost a year can make that pace exhausting. So in Gokarna, the gorgeous beach town from where I wrote my last post in October, we decided to slow down a bit with three very different experiences: we would volunteer in an orphanage in Tamil Nadu for about two weeks, then get all zen in a yoga and meditation ashram for about three weeks, then jet over to Sri Lanka and chilllllll the fuck out on a beach for two weeks. It was no big secret to us that the three segments tied together three themes, and we’d lined them up back to back. We’d spend some time doing work with, and for the benefit of others; then spend some time doing work for the benefit of our bodies and minds; then spend some time doing the flip side of both 1 and 2 by indulging in tropical fruits and snorkeling. When your life consists purely of doing whatever it is you want to do at that very moment, giving ourselves a bit of a plot to stick to felt good. We’d be saving some money while digging into just three places, instead of 30. So: my time volunteering at an orphanage in India. I know, I know, I know. I am fully aware of thegrievances and parodies that the Western world has made of white people volunteering in places like India, Central America or “the country of Africa.” And for the most part, the world is right. I, too, was a student years ago on a ‘humanitarian’ trip to Guatemala, where I ‘helped’ build a library, which actually translated to: I paid lots of money to usurp local laborers from their day’s pay while spending most work hours playing soccer with cute Guatemalan kids. I even wrote a university newspaper column about it! Christ, I was so serious! The fucking thing was called “Understanding Poverty in Guatemala.” Regardless, here’s my rebuke. The orphanage is the home for about 30 kids who themselves suffer from, or are parentless because of, HIV/AIDS, and when we got in touch with them to inquire about volunteering, we were told that they had need for people with experience in fundraising, marketing, grantwriting and the like. Or, what I did at JDC for two years. Add Tal’s experience as an English teacher, and we decided to go. I’m happy to say, without any jaded attitude, that the experience was pretty wonderful. The orphanage is run by Blossom Trust, a nonprofit in Tamil Nadu that has launched a handful of programs educating, advocating and treating Indians with HIV/AIDS and tuburculosis. Serious stuff. The orphanage was an outpouring of that work – these sick kids are the tragic result of so many HIV/AIDS cases in the state. During the mornings and evenings, we were at the home; when the kids were at school, we worked in Blossom’s office in the nearby city Virudhunagar.

It was no surprise that our time with the kids was great. How could it not be? Unless you are a real grinch, hanging out with beautiful, playful, joyous kids is a blast. With little English to speak of, Tal and I were “brother” and “sister.” Most of our conversations were pretty much just present tense verbs. “Brothah, eating!” meant “It’s time for dinner.” “Seestah, coming?” and so on. Our time at the home was sobering, as well. You can’t escape poverty when you travel in India. I’ve seen all sorts of horrific shit here – quadruple amputees begging for money in oncoming traffic (Delhi); bus stations that doubled as jam-packed, piss-stenched homeless shelters (Palani); dirt-caked mothers holding passed-out babies (Everywhere). But when you’re living, eating, playing and (barely) speaking to a kids with nothing everyday, naturally you feel something deeper. The home was bare-bones. Kids with a few sets of clothing. The most basic meals of rice and a scoop of lentils. Fifteen kids in each room. Shoes if they were lucky. But (and I know I’m veering into ‘aw-shucks, white person volunteering’ stereotypes) seeing the positve energy these kids had every day, amidst a tough, thankless existance, was inspiring. And the outpouring of jumping and smiling when we brought home some fruit or played some music and threw a dance party was overwhelming. Awesome would be the right word.

And yet we knew that when we left, another few volunteers would come in and do it all over again. New brothers and sisters. The impact we could really have on these kids was minimal. And so, in our work in the Blossom office, we tried to dig a little deeper. We wrote a volunteer manual for future volunteers and introduced a weekly, regular activity to help create some sense of momentum. We pushed the Blossom staff to create an internship position to bring in a long-term development intern to raise significant funds for the orphanage (contact me if you’re interested…). Little things that could grow. When I look back now, I know we didn’t change the world (no shit), but we did a little something – and that feels pretty good. And on to the ashram, certainly another ‘white person in India!’ thing to do that draws eye-rolls from many a cynic. Thanks, ‘Eat, Pray, Love.’ But if you’re interested in yoga, meditation and Hindu philosophy, and you have the time to kill, why not dive in all the way? Ashrams are, by and large, exactly what you picture: endless yoga classes; spiritual men in orange robes walking around; purely vegetarian food, eaten in silence; chanting about Hindu gods for several hours at a time; ‘Om’ uttered several thousand times a day; and a clientele that is hilariously, touchingly, relatably out of their minds. Ashrams are for people searching for something. I arrived at ours looking to get better at my yoga poses, focus on quieting my mind a bit and eat some good, healthy food. But lots of folks are on much heavier journeys, and you’ve got to let each person weird out as much as they need to. Sticking to a strict schedule of chanting, meditation, yoga, philosophical lecture, yoga, chanting and then, you guessed it, meditation, is designed for people to let this search take over their lives during their stay. But the constant mentalworkout brings everyone’s freakier qualities to the surface – a few of our ashram friends just about cracked; a few packed up and left without saying a word. Such is the nature of a refined, focused and intense spiritual quest. I, too, had my share of troubles. First off, I forgot to lock up my assortment of snacks one night, and woke up to find that a monkey had not only unwrapped and eaten my peanuts, but also shit on my folded underwear just to rub it in. A few days later, a rat chewed through the bottom of my backpack to find a cookie wrapper. But those are problems that are easy to deal with.

More difficult was keeping myself sharp and motivated. The benefits of an ashram only hit you if you make them – meditating for hours a day without focus is really just sitting, and uncomfortable, cross-legged sitting at that. So while Tal had some serious meditation breakthroughs (the ashram’s resident Swami loved her, while he was more inclined to make fun of me for sitting on too many pillows), I slowly trodded along. But amongst all the wonderful weirdo-seekers we met at the ashram, it was a teacher who left the biggest impression on me. A 67-year old Canadian who went by Shiva Joti, our afternoon yoga teacher blew my mind. In our three daily yoga sessions, I found myself racing ahead. On day two, I was holding a headstand – something I’d never done before without a wall. Then I was balancing my whole body on my wrists. Then I was raising my body on only my forearms. I’ve always been a competitive person, and my ego was jumping up and down like a child. I did it! I did it! But something wasn’t right.

My flexibility wasn’t moving as fast as my strength. I was sore everyday, forcing my way through the poses. And while I smiled and patted myself on the back, Shiva Joti knew better. A small, short-haired, retired teacher back in Canada, she was teaching at the ashram to giver herself some balance after a set of difficult circumstances. Her delivery was unmistakably that of a teacher; perfect cadence and flow, simple explanations, always eye-contact. And balance she found – enough that her calmness, steadiness and focus spilled from her in abundance. “There is no competition here,” she said to me quietly one morning, after she’d spotted me shaking while struggling to hold a ‘bend yourself in half’ pose. “You may get there in a month, and you may get there in a year. And you may never get there. But if you’re shaking, well, that means you’re doing it wrong.” She smiled. Direct, blunt, but warm. And simple as it sounds, it was the first time I stopped looking at yoga like running or weight-lifting, and began looking at yoga for what it is: a meditation. And there’s no reason to shake during a meditation. As a good spiritual teacher is meant to do, she took my form and my thinking and tweaked them just a bit, realligning me. And while I now accept that I won’t be bending in a pretzel anytime remotely soon, I’ve joined the throngs of backpackers here who travel with an awkwardly big yoga mat sticking out of their bags. Annoying to carry, but important to have.

We left the ashram feeling amazing, and boarded a plane to Sri Lanka – literally a 45-minute flight. India and Sri Lanka are so close, in fact, that a landbridge nearly connects them – the bridge that Hindus believe was built by an army of monkeys under the command of Rama to go do battle with the King of Lanka and save Rama’s wife Sita. How cool is that?

I’ll spare you too many details of Sri Lanka – it had far less of an impact on me than our first two stay-put spots – but just know that yes, it was utterly gorgeous, and yes, the beaches were perfectly white, and yes, we saw blue whales (holy shit they are big) and swam with a family of dolphins in the Indian Ocean miles off the coast. Tal and I stayed in a bungalow in the beach town of Mirissa and ate tropical fruits we’d never heard of (Woodapple? Lemon banana? Circular thing that tastes like sweet potato?) for breakfast. We trekked off to our own private beach in the mornings, where I snapped on a snorkel and saw a crazy array of neon-colored fish. We’d laze in our hammock overlooking the sea for hours at a time. Then we’d hop on a scooter and head up and down the coast until we found a town or beach that called to us, camp out and bake in the sun. Whew, it was hard work.

Three different, back-to-back spots to dig in and stay put, each uniquely wonderful. And I’m thankful that Sri Lanka’s endless relaxing was last – because now Tal and I launch into the next leg: first her siblings visit, then her parents, then a jaunt to Nepal to meet an old friend. Here comes the rush…

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