In Bolivia, we have a saying. Normally, gente means “people.” When you refer to an individual as gente, you are emphasizing the depth of one’s character. Typically, it is a validation of one’s integrity.
In Goa, I met some gente.
Throughout our stay in Goa, we slept in classrooms. It just happened that a boy’s hostel was placed within the school, in the classrooms next door. There were kids ranging from 5 years old to perhaps 15 years old.
At first, I didn’t know what to make of it. These kids were making quite the sacrifice. I was made aware that most of them lived in rural communities- some of them coming from different states. They lived in the hostel as a means to receive a good education. During holidays and sometimes on the weekends, They would go back home on holidays and sometimes on the weekends.
In the beginning, they were shy and thus, kept to themselves. With the little Marathi that I knew, I attempted to talk to them. With the training taking place, I was left to fend off on my own…so let’s just say, it was not a very successful first impression.
On the second day at Goa, I made it my goal to join their game of kabaddi. The game basically consists two teams in one box –each having their own square within the box- where one kid would enter the enemy lines to tag as many of them as possible. The other’s, defending their space, would join hands and uniformly shift left and right to trap the intruder. Their goal was to either tackle him to the ground or throw him out of the square. Teams would take turns tagging people out or successfully defending their turf.
Although it sounds violent, it is not. The game requires a great amount of strategy.
After our day of training was over, I jumped into a pair of shorts and ran into the field. Originally, my goal was to enter into the ring with my coworker Dnenyshwer but when the time came, he magically disappeared. As such, I had to awkwardly explain to some of the kids that I wanted to play. Without hesitation, they let me in.
Did I mention they played on the dirt *without* shoes?
I stepped in and everyone’s eyes were on me. We were defending. The kids around me were maybe 10 years old so they were counting on me to take the intruder out. Our first intruder was easily 15 years and well built. He didn’t know whether to take out the easy target (me) or the kids around me.
For some reason, none of us were holding hands so my team probably looked like it was in chaos. I tried to flank the kid but he was agile. After much hesitation from both sides, the whistle blew and the 15-year old ran out of time. It was now our turn.
Who to send to the other side? Of course, my team insisted I go. I did.
This is when the adrenaline kicked in and everyone got loud. This is when somehow, a mix between acting skills, years of soccer and wrestling came in handy. No matter what, I wanted to look like I was agile and could shuffle my feet well (everyone was skipping like boxers do). At least, I would look like I knew something.
First, they flanked left. One kid made a move to push me. Then they flanked right and thought they could take me by surprise. I reached for one of the kids on the right, missed and retreated. In a matter of seconds, three of them came at me.
I pushed them back, one of them coming at my legs and two of them coming head on. Sprawling, I shoved them all away- one left standing- and ran back to the line to officially “tag” them all out.
Everyone laughed. No one told me that they had a rule where if three people tag you, you are out. As a result, these poor kids were now lying on the ground probably thinking that some American savage just wanted to get rough. It was surreal. They just laughed.
Shortly after, the whistle blew again and the game was over. The kids lined up in ceremonial fashion to honor the Indian flag. It was a strange transition from rough/quick play into quiet observance. Everyone, including the School Headmaster, paid silent attention as a short kid marched to fold the flag.
This was the start of an amazing friendship that I developed with these kids.
From then on, they were no longer shy. They knew my name so, whenever I passed by their rooms or classes, they would shout “JON!” without hesitation. It became almost a ritual to play with them after the training and join them in the post-game showers. The cleaning was a science of its own; with boxers on and a pair of sandals, one stood by the walls of the school building to get water from the faucets into a bucket. There were no actual showerheads. With a bar of soap and wet rag, you had to wash off the battle scars. Imagine doing this with 30 other kids who want to have water fights every other moment.
Did I mention I got injured from that first game of kabaddi?
Since that faithful day, I had to limp because I had a deep cut in my toe. Throughout my stay there, I had to bandage it, clean it, re-bandage it and hope it dried. Let’s just say that my toe didn’t actually recover until after I left Goa.
Given my toe, I opted out of sports the day after. This is when I really got to know them better. Because I didn’t play sports with them, I began to interact with them outside the field. This led to me playing Ping-Pong with them during their recess, joining them in their rooms when the power went out to start chants and drumming circles and joking round with the older boys (instead of learning their real names, nicknames became the norm. The 15-year-old I mentioned above, his name is Suzuki).
What I realized in time is that all these kids were like brothers to each other. I was simply making my way into their group. They were not afraid of displaying affection (they were huggers!) or speaking their mind. One time, I remember one of them commenting on gender relations in their school. This kid basically told me: “They make us think that it is not okay to play with the girls. That’s wrong.” To no surprise, the older boys led the younger ones. However, this did not take form in a bullying fashion. Their general attitude was “Hey, I need to look out for you, follow me.” The younger kids were beyond kind and welcoming. They remained shy but were very always willing to offer a smile.
Although they were all curious about my origins, I attempted to not sell them the typical “America is the way to go” lifestyle. They wanted to know how to make muscles like the wrestlers they saw on TV, if everyone in America is really rich, how different India is from America, and more importantly, will I return to India.
I began to realize that the routine I developed with the kids was going to come to an end. I wanted to leave them a message, something to remember me by, but it became that much more difficult when everyone kept asking you: when are you going to leave?
On our last night, all of the trainers and instructors in the training decided to have a “LAHI Has Talent” night. Because everyone was leaving the day after- we decided to have some fun. One by one, people went on stage and did what they do best. Some sang, some danced, some did both, one person sang backwards and everyone clapped along the way. Since I was learning so much about their culture, I wanted to share my own. As a result, I tried to teach them how to dance *bachata.* It was incredibly difficult- especially without the proper music.
I cannot emphasize enough that the folks in the training were NOT used to dancing with the opposite sex. Men danced with men. Women with women. Bachata is not only typically between a man and a women (of course, open to any arrangement) but also, very seductive. My goal was to take out the seductive component and make it a fun exercise for couples. I managed to get 4 married couples on stage to try it. The fact that they even got on stage to try it was revolutionary.
In the midst of all this, the kids came out to see the spectacle. They had been hearing the music throughout the night but finally came to participate. At least one did; he broke it down.
When all the adults had their turn in performing, they encouraged all the kids to get on stage. All of them were shy and scared to dance in public. I decided to encourage them by getting on stage with them. At first, they were all grouped unknowing of what to do. I tried to get them all going by dancing. I guess my Western moves were not enough. Out of nowhere, two of them jumped in the circle, hopping and waving their arms-simply not caring. The domino effect commenced. Everyone jumped in, hopping, swinging and showing off.
This little moment, this short period of collective expression was happiness. With the music loud and the kids literally jumping for joy, I never had I imagined myself being so trusted and welcomed. Never did I imagine that they would show me what friendship could become. Never have I felt so in place.
Towards the end of the night, I almost broke down into tears. They asked me the inevitable question: when are you leaving? Tomorrow, I answered.
It was surreal to tell them goodbye. I felt like I knew them since birth. I felt like I was somehow destined to have met them. They didn’t understand me. They didn’t need to. They became a part of me. When we all gathered for the last words, it felt so strange. We should have been playing, celebrating those waking hours we shared. But instead, we just looked at each other. In those last minutes, I realized that our common language was action: this entire time, an exchange of affection and an inescapable humor connected us. “Goodbye” was not muttered. Even with my last words translated by the older boys, I knew what they understood. Hugs and smiles. I wondered in my head if they will ever understand what they meant to me. If they will ever understand the parentless reality we shared or just how much I wanted to stay with them. If they understood how much more human, how much more alive I felt as an individual. These kids changed me.
These kids were not just gente, they were my brothers.