India is a full-fledged blitzkrieg on the senses, in the most wonderful way possible.
From the colorful garments we so proudly bargained for in the buzzing Janpath Market in Delhi, that bled beautiful red and blue swirls of color in the wash bucket; to the undeniable pungent stink of the Indore train station, in which hoards of passengers struggled to carry everything from massive boxes, suitcases, chairs, etc, up and down perspiring platforms; to the dense breath of warm air that rose up from the baking red earth beneath us, running across our cheeks as our car barreled down a dirt road in Bagli…everything we’ve crossed since arriving here has been an overwhelming experience for the eyes, nose, ears, mouth, hands and mind.
And there was absolutely no way possible to have prepared for the incredible sights, sounds, smells, tastes and textures of India before departing; you just have to delve right into it with everything you’ve got.
I. Initial Shock and Awe
Sunday night: During the first 10 minutes out of the Delhi airport, I was welcomed by pedestrians nonchalantly occupying entire lanes on the side of the road while rogue auto-rickshaws, motorcycles topped with 3 to 4 passengers, and brightly painted trucks zigzagged in and out of traffic to the soundtrack of incessant honks and booming radios. And lanes…don’t even get me started! As if the concept of a personal bubble existed for cars (or people) in Delhi’s saturated urban landscape. Cars and rickshaws and motorcycles and bikes would be so close, inches away from you on the road that you could follow the contour of a stranger’s face next to you, close your eyes and replay the path of their curving lines and shapes clearly in your head. At first I was expecting somewhat familiar scenes like the noisy, crowded roads of Mexico City, but I quickly began to realize that quotidian life here in India was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. So it began, exciting and unfamiliar sights moved from initial delivery at my corneas to full registration of what was happening in my brain: culture shock.
But I settled into my temporary new home in Delhi at the Habitat Center quite nicely, as I sat in my room on Monday morning after my arrival with excitement pumping through my veins, flipping through my NatGeo travel guide, enjoying the delicious stuffed paneer parantha with sweet lime juice, listening to videos playing on MTV India, and wrapping my head around the fact that I would soon be on a train rumbling down to Indore.
Our time in Delhi was a whirlwind. From trying to squeeze in as much sightseeing as possible in between haggling for new Indian attire at markets and getting last-minute chores checked off, our two days there followed a general theme of rickshaw rides, never-ending sweatiness, and kind conversations with friendly, smiling people in their broken English and our limited Hindi vocabulary.
II. Sweating Bullets and Making Friends
Fast forward to Tuesday night: beads of sweat were endlessly rolling down the curves of my face, back, arms and legs as Carrie and I lugged our bags along the stopped train at the Mizamuddin Station, and I was frantically looking back and forth between the train ticket and the cabins for an idea of where to get on. I wasn’t sure what cabin to look for since everything was in Hindi, and my basic understanding of train reservations paired with an intense fear of being robbed or falling into a squat toilet on the moving hunk of metal only exacerbated my nerves. We hopped onto a cabin and carried our bags over legs and scattered luggage in the cramped compartment.
I found bed number 14, tucked away on the third tier, with just about 2 feet of space below the curved roof of the cabin. I climbed up with my bags hanging from my sides and had just set everything down when a small, gap-toothed and smiling face popped out from the other side and gave a big “HALLO!” Since we stuck out like sore thumbs, this adorable little seven-year-old girl with an insatiably curious mind (like all young children) began our conversation –and the beginning of our new friendship- with the obvious question of asking where I was from. She spelled out her name for me, “K-R-I-P-A”; and we shared info about our families, as she pointed to her mom, dad, and 5-month-old baby sister in the beds below. We talked about everything from school, favorite activities, and pictures (films) as she played with my hair and I sketched for her. When a hush fell over the cabin and it was time t sleep, she asked me to put my pillow on the same end of the bed on the other side of the wall, so that our heads were just inches away from each other and we could easily continue our conversation in the morning.
So I began the next day with some slow, groggy sips of chai as warm, orange hues peered in through the windows and lit up the faces of sleeping passengers around me. I continued my chat with Kripa, and met some charismatic young doctors who were some of the most hilarious and incredibly interesting women that I wished a sitcom would be written on their lives. The train rolled to a stop as I hugged my new friends good-bye and dragged my belongings out of the crowded, sweaty station at Indore, trying to keep up with a man who not only held a crinkled sign reading “SAMAJ PRAGATI SAHAYOG”, as well as the knowledge of where to go.
III. Work Builds, Charity Destroys
I smiled and braced the impact of the hot air hitting my face and entangling my hair to admire the colorful homes and shops lining the road as our car continued its hike from Indore through the barren, dusty landscape of the Madhya Pradesh countryside. The car groaned to a stop in a little oasis protected by the cooling comfort of lush trees, and we got out at the Baba Amte Center for People’s Empowerment in village Neemkheda, one of three SPS campuses. A young woman with a spunky short haircut approached our car and introduced herself as Kshiti, and there was finally a face to match all the emails and phone calls made prior to our arrival. She led us to the guesthouses, just a short 2-minute walk from campus, and we settled down into our new home for the rest of the summer.
The past few days here in MP have been jam-packed with tours at each SPS campus, brief introductions, countless names and faces to remember, and most importantly, dialogue surrounding the scope of the organization’s programs and impact.
Working from the adamant belief of the organization’s main guide, the highly venerated “Baba” Amte, that “Work Builds, Charity Destroys”, SPS has fostered the growth of numerous programs varying from livestock, watershed development, agriculture, Self Help Groups (SHGs), Right to Food (RTF), commodity aggregation, community media, and Kumbaya that have successfully worked to ameliorate life in the challenging tribal areas of MP by fully harnessing the abundance of available resources with innovative, creative solutions.
| SAMAJ | PRAGATI | SAHAYOG |
Three words join together to create SPS’s mission of Support for the Progress of Society; and in the short span of my first few days here, I have already experienced an endless amount of support. Between all the warm welcomes, the patience with our never-ending questions about India and pronunciation of Hindi words, to the comforting feeling of a delicious meal lovingly made from the bounty of the land, I feel excited to make this my home for the summer and learn as much as I can from the incredible people around me.