by Shelley Seale
Women’s Travel Category Winner – Intrepid Contest
Lurching along the dirt road, I gazed out the window at rural Orissa in northeastern India as the car bounced over potholes, sending plumes of red dust billowing behind it. The small villages we passed were as familiar to me as if I had been there only last week. The shacks that lined the river, their plastic or tar paper roofs held down with rocks. The tiny sidewalk vendors, the mangy dogs and cows nosing at piles of trash, the rickshaw drivers pedaling through traffic alongside schoolgirls with their braided hair and backpacks. People seemed to fill every square inch of space. It was exactly as I left it a year ago.
I glanced at my daughter sitting next to me, looking out her window with eager eyes. It wasn’t the street life passing by that had Chandler enthralled; although it was her first trip to India we had been traveling in the country for over a week, and she had grown familiar with the scene outside the window. Like me, she was excited to be on our way to the orphanage, at last. The reason we were here in the first place — to spend a week with a hundred children at the Miracle Foundation home who had captured my heart the year before. My desire to bring my own daughter to this place, this experience, had led us to this moment.
I turned my head back toward the passing palm and ashoka trees, as questions ricocheted silently inside me. Would the kids have changed? Would they remember me? What would Chandler’s reaction be? Then we were pulling through the gates into the ashram. We climbed out of the car and started up the little pathway that led between buildings to the interior courtyard.
One by one, they began to spy us; I saw little brown faces peeking out around corners and through bushes. Slowly the ashram came to life. Word of our arrival spread and dozens of grinning, jumping children surrounded us on the path and poured into the courtyard. Within seconds I was engulfed by barefoot children grasping for my hands and clambering over each other to smile up at me. Ten feet away, yet separated by twenty bodies bouncing between us, Chandler also stood with small hands and arms clinging to her, her pale skin and long blonde hair almost lost in the sea of them. The amazement on her face made her look even younger than her fifteen years.
“Hello,” “Welcome,” “Good Evening,” the children greeted us. More hands reached for me. There was Santosh! And Daina, Mami, Sumi…I picked up the tiny ones like Salu and searched for other faces I hadn’t seen yet. Children ran up to show me small things I had given them the year before — stickers, crayons, hair clips. They displayed these cherished treasures; such simple possessions, so proudly owned and taken care of. They asked for nothing from me other than being there. In many ways they were just like other children with homes and families of their own — except for their neediness, their raw hunger for affection, love, belonging.
* * *
I had never expected to be in India. And without a doubt, I never thought once I had been I would return, again and again.
It wasn’t the exotic beauty that drew me back. It wasn’t the storied, ancient history of the country or its rich and varied culture. It was not the colors or the spices or the sounds or the spirituality of the place. India is all of these things, to be sure, and I have grown to love them all. But they were not what seeped into my being and pulled me close, becoming a part of me that I missed with a strange emptiness once I left.
It was the children.
They are everywhere. They fill the railway stations, the cities, the shanty villages. Some scrounge through trash for newspapers, rags or anything they can sell at traffic intersections. Others, often as young as two or three years old, beg. Many are homeless, overflowing the orphanages and other institutional homes to live on the streets. They had been imprinted on my soul forever.
* * *
From my first day in the country one year before, I had no doubt I would return. But in the months following that trip I also thought of taking Chandler. At dinner in our safe and cozy house I looked at my daughter, not really a child anymore at fifteen but still in need of a mother, a home. Her long hair partially hid her face she bent over her plate, not noticing my gaze on her. I thought about how it would feel to be unable to feed her, how either of us would bear it if I had to let her go because I lacked the bare necessities required to put a roof over her head and a meal in her stomach.
Then I wondered how she would possibly survive if that were the case and she was five instead of fifteen, left by herself on the streets in India or our hometown of Austin, anywhere. I simply could not imagine it, but knew many thousands of children were doing just that at the very moment. Although a typical teenager in many ways, Chandler already had a broader sense of the world than I had at her age, and a certain awareness of social justice.
I yearned to foster that seed in her. And so I returned to India exactly one year later, in March 2006, with Chandler in tow.
The first day I was worried. She was quiet and withdrawn, overwhelmed by the streets and the noises, uncomfortable with the staring — especially on the train, when the first car we boarded was filled with men who openly inspected our double blue-eyed blondness with fascination. She recoiled on the railway platform when a dozen rickshaw drivers besieged us, each wrestling for our bags and hawking their services. Then she went completely still as two small children, a brother and sister, stood in front of us with their fingers touching their mouths, silently begging. Her eyes grew round and wet, and I was afraid she was going to crumple.
I had tried to prepare her for it — the mass of humanity, the filth and smell of garbage, even the beggars; but it was an impossible task, like describing a painting to a blind person. I remembered well the culture shock of arriving in India for the first time. The complete differentness of it. I was afraid I had made a huge mistake bringing her. That she hated everything about this crazy, chaotic, often maddening country and was wishing she had never come.
But all of that was balanced in equal measure with the splendor of intricately carved temples, the majesty of ancient palaces, the smell of incense and curry that wafted on the warm breezes, carried along by soft chanting and the lyrical sing-song of Hindi conversations. There were the warmth and generosity of the people, like the family we met on the train after clumsily hauling our bags out of the car filled with men and into the next one. Immediately a middle-aged woman made room for us, rearranging her family and belongings so we could sit with them. They offered us blankets and shared their food with us, and soon we had learned all about their family — the son in Los Angeles and the architect daughter, the second home in Goa that they were traveling to.
“You are a visitor in our country,” the matriarch said, “and it is our duty to take care of you.”
That evening over dinner, the fans and night air cooling us, chai and delicious vegetable curry filling our stomachs, Chandler began to perk up. She became talkative again, excitedly recounting our day’s adventures as if she had not walked through them in a state of shock. Just as it had happened to me, India’s spell had grabbed hold of her and refused to let go.
* * *
When we finally arrived at the orphanage, the children poured over us. Ten-year-old Santosh squirmed with embarrassment when I hugged him and kissed his cheek in front of the other boys. Seven-year-old Daina squeezed between others as a chair was pulled up for me, to ensure her place pressed up against my side. She held my hand, her face tilted up to me with her sweet smile.
“Hello, how are you?” I asked as I hugged her against me.
“I am fine, thank you,” she answered politely. “How are you?”
Although she was a little taller, she was wearing the exact same pink dress she’d had on the last time I saw her. Every few moments she picked up my hand and held it to her lips, covering the backs of my fingers in little kisses. Smack, smack, smack against my skin, over and over.
The initial commotion of our arrival began to subside and chai and cookies were brought. The children circled around and sang for us. When the singing wound down the orphanage director, known to all simply as “Papa,” thanked us for coming. He asked if the children remembered me.
“Yes!” they screamed in unison.
Next he took Chandler’s hand. “Now, Shelley has brought her daughter,” he announced. “She is your sister now.”
Chandler smiled bashfully, embarrassed at the attention the way the kids here often were. Her chair was surrounded by the groupies she’d already drawn, younger girls like chubby-cheeked sisters Mami and Sumi, who crowded her lap and played with her hair. They pulled it between their fingers and brushed it; braided it over and over, securing it with elastic fasteners before quickly taking them out to refashion the style. They made me think of the hairdo Barbie I’d had as a child, the big doll’s head on a plastic tray that came with clips, combs and curlers for styling. Chandler had quickly become their real-life Barbie head.
Older girls, too, hovered nearby watching, much more interested in this girl their own ages than us adults. But they had outgrown the hand-holding and lap-sitting; by their ages it wasn’t cool to show such enthusiasm and so they stood nonchalantly by, missing nothing.
* * *
We spent the next few days just being with the kids, befriending them, playing with them. As we did, their “best behavior” fell away and they were normal kids, not always sweet and perfect but often mischievous as well. When they thought I wasn’t looking, they would shove each other out of the way or bestow thunks on one another’s heads in annoyance. They used the language barrier to their advantage, pretending at times not to understand when the adult volunteers said it was time to put a game away. Our days at the ashram were filled with games, reading, dancing and laughing. There were puzzles, English flash cards, hopscotch, frisbee and the hokey-pokey, which the kids wanted to do over and over. It felt a lot like summer camp.
After dinner one night the older girls grabbed our hands and led us into their dorm. Bunk beds lined the walls with foot lockers stowed beneath, and clothing hung from rows of pegs. Posters of Ganesh and Shiva covered the walls, along with artwork the girls had created. Haripriya hovered over Chandler’s arms with a henna tube while Sukru, a quiet older teenager who held her hands in front of her mouth when she smiled, began an intricate design on my left hand. Powders and lipstick and jeweled bindi dots were produced as they went to work on us.
Someone turned on a radio and a few girls sprang up to dance, performing MTV-like moves in unison to the Hindi pop music. It was just like a slumber party, with a couple of dozen girls laughing, dancing and playing with makeup. Chorus-line style rows were formed as the children performed complex, synchronized Bollywood dances. They shook their hips and twirled around, bent down toward the floor and then jumped up with their hands snaking together above their heads in time to the music.
Soon the boys trickled in to see what was going on. They jumped right in with frenetic energy, glancing over every few minutes to make sure we were watching them. Soon it was like a mosh pit in the room, the middle of the floor between the bunks packed with bodies, laughter and screaming and music drowning out everything else. All we were missing was a strobe light.
In the middle of all this, I caught sight of a house mother walking in at the far end of the room. She stood for a moment watching the disruption we had encouraged, lips pressed together and her brow knotted in consternation. Then she shook her head and just turned and walked away without a word. Much as she disapproved, she would still rather pretend she didn’t see anything than break up the fun.
* * *
The week went far too quickly. On our last night I looked around at the clear, innocent faces and memorized them, already feeling the absence of these children who had taken up permanent residence in my heart. The last song faded into the night sky and a silence descended. Whatever I might be leaving behind seemed such a small thing, almost selfish, because the return I had gotten was far greater. Here I was always awash in an outpouring of the innocent, true, powerful love they gave so easily and unconditionally, for nothing more than showing up. They broke my heart and made it whole again all at the same time.
At the car, taking our leave for the last time, the children were all over us. I worked my way through the crush to Papa to bid him goodbye. Some of the most reserved kids, those who had been reluctant to demand our attention, threw their arms around us for the first time and kissed our cheeks, told us they loved us. I squeezed Santosh and Daina in tight hugs, reminding them to study hard. I promised once again that I would be back.
Salu, one of Chandler’s most devoted fans, stood silently in front of her. Her eyes were cast downward as she offered up a bouquet of flowers tightly in her small fist. Her always impish smile was a flat line, too sad to look up at Chandler. Salu’s dejection was too much for my daughter, who started to cry. I hurried to get her and myself to the vehicle before the send-off became too unbearable. I shuttled Chandler into the car and we sat in the back seat, not looking at each other as she clutched Salu’s flowers.
“I don’t want to go home,” Chandler sobbed as we pulled away. Tears slowly leaked from her eyes and trickled down her cheeks as the ashram disappeared behind us. India had become hers, and she India’s.
This story is the winner of the Intrepid Travel Contest in the Women’s Travel category.
Shelley Seale is a travel writer living in the Seattle area. She is currently working on publishing her first book, The Weight of Silence, Invisible Children of India.