India 2019 – Ahmedabad: Trial by Fire
By Tour Updates
The train shot out from our sun-drenched, oceanside training ground at a terrifying velocity, its bounty of passengers packed tightly and us with more luggage than should ever be allowed on a train. On we rode, facing courageously toward the experience for which we had all been anxiously preparing for months individually, and for weeks together. We left behind some of that anxiety in Gokarna, replacing it with an eagerness and confidence built upon the solidarity of our party. When we reached Ahmedabad and departed from our iron chariot we collectively realized that this new, dusty megatropolis would be something to contend with indeed.
The city is truly a sight to behold, leaving each of our minds blank in our attempts to relate it to something familiar. It seems to come at you from all directions and embed itself into all of your senses at once. The incessant honking of tuktuks, mopeds, and cars is a cacophonous assault upon your ears that ceases only for a few sweet hours of the night. The thick odour of the burning trash and exhaust from legions of unregulated engines wreaks havoc upon your nose and dries your tongue even as it stings your eyes. By the end of the day your body and clothes will have mysteriously accumulated an alarming amount of dust and various other particulates, which pour off of you in thick layers when you wash. We oft longed for the comforts of our hygienic routines back home as we delved deep into the dirt to do the work set before us.
Our home for the month resided nearby the Sabarmati Ashram, founded by and home to Gandhi for over fifteen years. Our fortune was palpable upon first sight of the Ashram, beset, as it was, upon all sides by a loving and peaceful air – and separated by river, wall, and trees from the chaotic symphony of the city! In this calm haven we found sanctuary, often fed from the bounty of its gardens and humble kitchens, soothed by the inviting gatherings of song and prayer and community, protected by armies of green parrots and chipmunks and faithful who call it home. It was here that our partner organization for that part of our project, Manav Sadhna, was begun. The network of public schools that they operate is over 200 strong, and they are principally in the hearts of the vast neighborhoods of slums. We were there to visit and hopefully leave a dazzling, empowering, loving mark upon the students of as many of those communities as possible.
Each day would begin with the sounds of women washing clothes in the street, which apparently involves beating the fabric senseless with a stick, as the birds cheered them on and the sun dressed the Earth with the day’s new light. No sooner than we broke our fast, a pair of trucks would arrive and whisk us dutifully away to the children that we had the pleasure of working with that day – the journey usually weaving endlessly through elaborate mazes of homes of questionable yet ingenious construction, various animals wandering freely, and people – people everywhere. Upon arrival at the school we would, more often than not, be immediately swarmed by a hoard of children unanimously entreating our hearts to open for them with just their smiles and eagerness. And so it would begin: our brief, hurried meeting with the relatively few teachers would initiate the process of splitting the kids into groups by seemingly random categories, and one or two our brave team assigned to each to entertain, engage, and teach their skills for between twenty minutes to an hour before rotating – another overwhelmingly chaotic endeavor. Bear in mind our barely cursory knowledge of the Hindi language at this point and perhaps you can imagine, albeit barely I’m sure, the level of trust we had to have in the universe. Once the workshops were finished we would engage in a short break with the teachers and staff of Manav Sadhna wherein we drank chai, a tea sweeter than ice cream. Properly reenergized, we began preparations for our performance as the children were shepharded into neat rows and virtually the rest of the entire neighborhood poured in to fill anything that could be called a space. Our costumes donned, backdrop assembled, and sound checked meant it was showtime! I am elated to say that our show was a resounding hit with the kids and adults alike, sending waves of uproarious laughter, audible gasps, and stunned silence throughout our audiences as we poured out our hearts and talents onto the stage. With a final spectacular group pose and bow we exited the stage, never in doubt of the effect we had upon our viewers – namely because of the familiar and immediate swarming of children that followed as we rushed to change and pack everything away in order to give out an endless onslaught of high fives, secret handshakes, and group photos. With our bodies wiped of energy and hearts spilling over we then ate graciously of veritable feasts of delectable Indian cuisine; our efforts to turn down seconds or even thirds were easily overridden by the demands of the persuasive elders who prepared the meals. Thus would end the day’s work, and we would sail back to our homes in shining triumph, ready to relax, reconvene on the events of the day, and go about our personal activities before a heavy and well-earned slumber.
In this manner the days progressed, each as chaotic and marvelous as the last. Our experience varied from school to school with the age, temperament, and amount of children. Some of them absorbed our knowledge with ferocity, giving us their complete attention. Others…well they were less predictable, being kids after all. But with each new class we gained insights necessary to more fully engage them and effectively hold their attention. We also had some of our team fall ill at various times, forcing us to swiftly adapt our teaching methods and our show, having various among us take on many more roles than they had previously prepared for! I am proud to say that we all excelled particularly in this regard and our malleability will certainly serve us well in the future.
Our time in Ahmedabad also brought us close with many new and unforgettable friends. First among them being Wiggles, the infamous lady pupper whose wiggling ability knows no bounds. Second and third were Shuffles and Skuffles, a pair of best puppy friends with a total of 6 legs between them. This incredible trio would welcome us home every day after work, wiggling, shuffling, and skuffling their way into our hearts! We also befriended the various other volunteers working with different programs around the city, sharing meals and car rides and gladly welcoming the familiar company and culture of other foreigners. Throughout our time there we became close friends with many of the key players in the Ashram and its surrounding projects, learning indispensable lessons about the many ways one can achieve a positive difference in the world about them.
The weeks passed in a fantastic whirlwind of experience, blending together a vibrant mixture of things we expected and even more that we never could have imagined. Exposure to the ancient culture of India and its beautiful open-hearted ways has required our own hearts to expand significantly to keep up! We have completed the first real project of our trip and come out on the other side feeling not only more alive but more confident and eager too. Our work was truly a resounding success and there is no doubt left in our hearts that we touched Ahmedabad with a kind and open hand, giving all that we had to offer and receiving graciously of all that was offered to us in return.
Logan “Kaa!” Goethe