Beginning where we ended:
(the final blog entry whilst on tour)
Friday 3 January 2014
This is a story. It is a story about 25 people. The story involves one country. It has been written over 26 days, however it is easy to argue this story commenced long before 8 December 2013. Whether the origins of this story go back 18 months, or alternatively 15, 16, 17, or 18 years is up to the reader's discretion. Likewise, whether the story finishes in just over 36 hours is again open to interpretation. The story is a colourful one, not without its trials and tribulations, but none-the-less full of triumphs as well. And my job within this context? I was the historian who edited this story.
The pages of the story comprise of the words that 22 young men uttered, thoughts that the same 22 individuals bounced around in their heads, and emotions that the chosen 22 felt simmering deep in their core and running wildly through their veins. My task was to attempt to capture these moments and convey them to you in a way that challenged you, the loyal reader, to formulate your own imagery to accompany the narrative.
Tonight I sit with one final, simple, yet agonising, task. As the 22 young men take their last hours of sleep in this, the most turbulent of societies, I will seek to provide some finality, possibly even some closure, to this immersion experience. I fear in advance I will fail though.
It is said that the most powerful histories of the world can be discovered in the collection of stories detailing the lives of good men. The job of an astute historian therefore is to glance back in time and draw out what made the moments these 'good men' walked the earth so relevant to the world today. I was extremely fortunate to be given the ability to observe the lives of 22 subjects for one month, and from the outset I can conclude that they are not good men, but rather, great men, and as a result I am in no doubt the contributions they will make to the world around them will be incredibly influential in the times ahead. So as I seek, for one last time, to convey where we collectively are at as a group right now, along with a sense of where we might venture towards in time to come, please walk with me. And although I sense that I will not lead you to a position of unearthing any grand revelations as you digest the below, I do sincerely hope this final blog provides each of you and your sons with the stimulus for further conversations when he returns into your loving arms within a matter of hours.
Finally, in advance please be aware that the combination of below perspectives, frameworks, and quotes are not mine. In an academic setting I would footnote everything I am about to record, for the world has played witness to an abundance of intelligent minds, most of whom have now come and gone, and I most definitely am not one of them. But I will forever consider myself lucky that I have journeyed alongside 22 very talented individuals who will be the future generation of great minds tasked with further unpacking this world we all live in.
Over the last month we have stepped outside the world which we knew so intimately and were transported into a completely different realm. This has momentarily made each of us outsiders in both worlds. The beauty about being an outsider however is that you can physically and mentally wander through both old and new realities, accumulating values, customs and traditions from each. In doing so you then have the capacity to morph together new definitions of yourself from the realisations you come to. But now that journey is over and we must return. As one participant put it so aptly, "This year I go home".
But where is it that we are returning to? We are heading home; not just to a place where we sleep, but moreover to a place where we stand. Not so much to connect with a piece of soil, but rather to a piece of our soul. We are returning to what the Indian youth would call their 'para', their hood. We are returning to a place where we belong, to our awaiting families, to our paused lives. And as the United Nations formally celebrates the 20th anniversary of the Year of the Family over the next 12 months, what a wonderful time it is to be coming back.
And how do we feel about returning? We are relieved and scared, elated and worried, at peace and confused. But you, our blog readers, already have a sense of this, as these 22 young men have risen to the challenge of transforming this blog site into a maze of emotion over the last month. To this end, I sincerely admire each of them. Experiencing India is in itself not an easy undertaking, so when there is an expectation that you will grapple with your own conflicting emotions in such a public blog forum, the pressure intensifies significantly. Therefore such noble efforts in communicating one's inner struggles should be recognised for what they are; an authentic display of courage. Thus my heartfelt appreciation to the boys for having the strength to bring this blog site to life.
While over the last few days we have had the ability to sit individually and collectively mulling over how to share what we have seen with those whom we adore back at home, the answers to such questions have been laboured and incomplete. After all, in a society where hope sits alongside despair, how do you summarise what India was like? When compassion dances to the same song as corruption, how do you begin to work out what it all means? In a place where tolerance and fear meet together, how do you formulate your own learnings about people, relationships, and life? And finally, when you observe genuine love and apathy converse as one, how do you answer the question 'where to from here?' None of these questions are comfortable, possibly they are unknowable, but your sons have been asked to sit with them, and importantly to open their web of thoughts and feelings to you. We want these young men to peel away at these questions, whilst fully understanding that this process will take a lifetime, rather than merely a week or a month to digest. It is crucial though that they never peel too hard, nor for too long at a time, as ultimately sometimes the very best end point one can get to is simply to be aware there are questions, and then to smile at the reality of not knowing the answers.
So, as your boys return home with many a question, I want to remind you all of the motives for why we came to this foreign landscape in the first place. To do so I wish to call upon the wonderful framework of Brene Brown, who as an accomplished Professor of Social Work has really captured my attention with her research into whole-hearted living. I hope the following articulates our Programme's aims effectively:
We wanted the young men entrusted in our care to understand that . . .
1) In our modern world we try to perfect life . . . however life is messy
We often run around trying to make the uncertain certain. We often stand back from the chaotic mess of life, opting rather to ‘see’ it from a distance hoping our own comfort won’t be displaced. We constantly desire clear-cut definitions and answers to everything. And we continually attempt to deny that sometimes our private worlds fall apart. In India we were surrounded by uncertainty; dodgy food, dodgy accommodation, and dodgy transport, to name a few. Moreover, we couldn't distance ourselves from the onslaught of millions going about their daily activities with an inspiring industriousness and rigour. We constantly toiled, to no avail, reaching imperfect definitions to explain the meaning of phrases such as 'it works'. And most definitely each of our private worlds fell apart. Through immersing ourselves in all of the above we came to understand that living involves suffering, it demands discipline, and it requires friendships. India taught us that life is messy, but also completely beautiful.
To understand that . . .
2) In our modern world we often pretend; we pretend that what we do doesn't impact on others . . . however, it always does
We are often told life is a process of self discovery, but we needed to see that our own journey and actions will definitely impact on the lives of others. We needed to witness cases of brilliant individuals doing the most incredible forms of outreach. In India we meet many of these characters. Whether it was through our interactions with the Jungle Crows, or Freeset, or Future Hope, or Khelo Rugby, or Don Bosco, or ASHA, or the Magicians, we had the privilege of gaining a snapshot into the drive that stirs deep inside the likes of Paul, Zaff, Tudu, Dan, Dave, Sam, Mark, Kiran, Vijay, Anwar, etc (the list goes on). The purpose of these interactions was never to push any of our boys into feeling an obligation to return to India (for many never will), nor was it an objective to make our boys throw away their current realities and head off into the wilderness in search of serving noble third world operations. The opportunities to interact were simply designed to illustrate that people matter, and that we as gifted people should stop pretending that the world is too big to have a real impact on others. In short, India deepened our desire to be accountable of our actions, or lack of actions; to grow in the knowledge we can have an immensely positive influence on those around us.
To realise that . . .
3) We need to grow more courage; courage to tell the story of who we are with our whole heart . . . even if that makes us feel vulnerable
We often numb vulnerability, the very thing that is necessary and makes us beautiful. We are slow to want to awaken and challenge deep within ourselves. We don't often want to commit too much into entering the lives of others as it scares us. In India we were forced to talk to everyone; the chai wala, the boisterous street stall owner, the young children (who in turn always showed us a glimpse into our own humanity), the beggar, the fellow tourist, the ultra-proud 'I love my India' bystander, and the puzzled onlooker who struggled to comprehend why one would travel to his country on 'holiday'. We meet these individuals daily, grappling to accept their views of the world, sometimes even finding it difficult to cross the language barrier. However, where possible we made links, built bridges and expanded our perceptions of the world. The purpose was not to convert our boys into some religious doctrine, or to become complete experts in the field of Indian history or politics, but rather to ensure we got to hear stories, and then after having listened that we shared our stories and beliefs to strangers in return. In becoming story tellers we became open and vulnerable to others judging us. India taught us to have courage; not the contemporary term referring to a sense of being heroic, but defined rather by its Latin origins related to the concept of telling one's story with our whole heart. And we did speak up, leaping forward like lions in pursuit of this gallant trait.
To realise that . . .
4) We must return home and let ourselves be seen; to love with our whole hearts . . . even when there are no guarantees
This is the unwritten chapter that will follow upon our return home. In India we found connection; connection with the children in the community of Brooklyn, with auto rickshaw drivers in Jaipur, with the Jungle Crow players in the Maidan, and with many more delightful individuals. Connection has the wonderful ability to give purpose and meaning to our lives. A sense of connection results in us "fighting for what matters" as one of our boys noted in the final debrief. As we leave India we will each be forced to consider our relationships with those in our New Zealand communities. Are we authentic with those around us? Do we practice love; the sort of love that leads to joy and gratitude? Do we accept that our lives are much more than our memories, and that we truly are powerful? If India has 'done her thing' within each of us there will be a burning desire to be more, to give more, to love more; even when there are no guarantees that those around us will do the same. For in reaching out to our own families, our own close knit groups of friends, and our own neighbours who live next door but with whom we rarely communicate with, maybe, just maybe, we could transform our small worlds to be places where those who are walking with despair and disconnection can begin to know what it is like to fly. All of affirmative developments require us to be seen though.
Therefore, as we head home with many of the objectives from above having been 'achieved', we will hug each of you once again. Please don't expect us to necessarily be changed. Yes, we each now have a burning desire to see other places and meet other people in the world face-to-face; to see them, to know them, and to value them. Yes, we will talk a little more initially, but will still not know for certain who deals the cards in life, or whether the role we are playing in and/or around the stadium that houses the 'game of life' is the right role. Yes, we will have more personal confidence and seek to love ourselves more, despite the ease in which mankind can lean towards the opposite. And yes, we will be passionate about finding our own voices, hoping to evaluate our lives not by what we do for a living, but rather by the successful pursuit of things we ache for.
We will not be giving up on tertiary education, nor forgetting our goals of becoming doctors, lawyers, engineers, and the like. Nor will we be spending too much time dreaming or thinking. For each of us is aware our own book must be written. A book full of vibrant chapters; this immersion programme being one of them. A book where the reader should marvel at the colourful experiences and actions we have taken in our lives. After all, this is not a finished story, it is a jigsaw puzzle still being put together, and each new block will need room, requiring other blocks to be modified or discarded along the way. Importantly though, we are both the main character and author in this book, so we stand ready, pen in hand, and although the vast horizon guarantees nothing, we walk towards it feeling a deep sense of gratitude for the blessed lives we have experienced to date.
So, in the wee hours of this morning, I sit here again, back in the same place I have been on January 3, both in 2010 and 2012. And I sit here with tears running down my face. Soon we walk away from this country, a nation that leaves you feeling so empowered and inspired, yet also so hurt. My tears aren't reserved for India though, but rather for our group. For this was a story about 25 people, written over 26 days. The one country it involved was India; a land and a people that guided us into a more complex world. Attempting to thank 22 young men, 22 bloody proud young New Zealand men, 22 incredibly rich young men by way of the parental love and family support that they know, and 22 young men of great promise, who will one day lead careers, communities, countries, and most importantly, families, to realise cultures of wonderful love and value, is impossible. Thus I can only humbly and sincerely say thank you. The honour, the absolute privilege, has most definitely been mine.
We are all here to know and love life. Never forget boys, that in times of despair, when you are frantically searching, yet still you cannot find the answers, realise that 'You Are Enough'.
O God, thy sea is so great and my boat is so small.
Safe and blessed travels in 2014 and beyond.
It doesn't interest me what you do for a living
I want to know what you ache for
and if you dare to dream of meeting your heart's longing.
It doesn't interest me how old you are
I want to know if you will risk looking like a fool
for your dreams
for the adventure of being alive.
It doesn't interest me what planets are squaring your moon
I want to know if you have touched the centre of your own sorrow
if you have been opened by life's betrayals
or have become shrivelled and closed from fear of further pain.
I want to know if you can sit with pain
mine or your own
without moving to hide it
or fade it
or fix it.
I want to know if you can be with joy
mine or your own
if you can dance with wildness
and let the ecstasy fill you to the tips of your fingers and toes
without cautioning us to
to remember the limitations of being human.
It doesn't interest me if the story you are telling me is true
I want to know if you can disappoint another to be true to yourself
If you can bear the accusation of betrayal and not betray your own soul
If you can be faithless and therefore trustworthy.
I want to know if you can see beauty
even when it is not pretty every day
And if you can source your own life from its presence.
I want to know if you can live with failure
yours and mine
and still stand on the edge of the lake
and shout to the silver of the full moon "Yes."
It doesn't interest me to know where you live or how much money you have
I want to know if you can get up after a night of grief and despair
weary and bruised to the bone
and do what needs to be done to feed the children.
It doesn't interest me who you know or how you came to be here
I want to know if you will stand in the centre of the fire with me
and not shrink back.
It doesn't interest me where, or what, or with whom, you have studied
I want to know what sustains you from the inside when all else falls away.
I want to know if you can be alone with yourself
and if you truly like the company you keep in the empty moments.
As 7.30pm ticks by here in New Zealand and as families sit down to enjoy a hearty meal to fill their hungry stomachs from the busy day of activities, it ticks over midday in India. Just like every other day in Mumbai, at 12pm two little kids will be begging pedestrians for a few coins. We all came to know these kids while passing through Mumbai for the few days we were there. To us they will always remain unnamed as we never got their names out of them. To me however they're Baskin and Robyn, named after the ice cream store where we met them each day.
However their stories didn't start when we arrived in India, and they won't end just because we've returned to NZ. They were begging there well before we arrived, well before this trip was even in fruition, and they are probably still going to be begging outside that store to get the few rupees a day well after we finish school, university, or wherever our lucky lives take us. This might go on for years, day after day, month after month until they end up dead on the street like the kid we saw in Kolkata, or perhaps Robyn, the little girl, will be sold into the sex trade. It's disgusting, it’s horrible, it’s heart wrenching, but whether we want to forget it or not that's Baskin and Robyn's life from here on out. This will be their lives, along with the thousands of other street kids in Mumbai alone.
Why am I telling you this story? Because this has been plaguing my mind ever since my arrival back in NZ. And it has got me asking three simple questions; 'What am I going to do about it?' , 'What are you going to do about it?' , 'What are we going to do about it?'
As Bono once said, "It's not about charity, it’s about justice", and that describes it perfectly. There is no reason why those two kids suffer so much and my family and I have so many blessings in our lives. That's just how the dice were rolled, for we haven't earned this luxury and definitely do not deserve it any more than they do.
This obviously puts me in a difficult position. Is it then my responsibility to follow Mother Teresa's example and abandon everything my life has given me so far to go and work with the people of Mumbai or Kolkata? As noble as this may sound if everyone in Auckland decided to drop their jobs and pursue such a path we would find ourselves in a very odd situation. Therefore one must find a balance between selflessness and selfishness. To me it comes down to two things; we have a responsibility to love ourselves, our friends and our families, but furthermore, just as importantly we have a responsibility to love those in the world where justice isn't being upheld, where living day by day is a struggle, and where love is missing. And if one thinks that this second responsibility can only be achieved by overseas missions they only need to travel five minutes south of Auckland to learn that many of these problems are a lot closer to home than we think.
So a month on from India where do I sit? To be honest I'm excited; not only because I have another month of New Zealand summer, or because I'm finally getting to start university this year, but mostly because I'm excited about knowing where my future is heading. I can't wait for my sixth year of medicine when I plan to spend my elective back in India, I can't wait to finally get my doctorate and start giving back after having being given so much, and I can’t wait with the excitement I feel towards the awaiting journey to these goals, and the challenges, joys, and sorrows I’ll face every day from here on out. Although it should never be my place to try and answer the question, "What are YOU going to do about it?", I am now sitting comfortably with myself and what I have personally planned out for the future; a future where I will give back through my medical career, letting India shape my decisions and always being present in the back of my mind.
As part of our preparation for the India Immersion Programme, we were shown a TED Talk by Dr Brené Brown titled 'The Power of Vulnerability'. At the time I felt totally unable to understand her message, which was that to connect more with the world and the people we live with, we need to be prepared to be vulnerable. Vulnerability scared me as it would mean letting go of the tight control and privacy I had in my life. I have always liked to be in control of what happens, and to keep my feelings to myself, but as it turned out, spending a month in India didn't allow for either of those.
India really doesn't do 'control'. From the lack of road rules to the inescapable sound of the Muslim call to prayer and the overpowering smells of incense, human waste and petrol fumes, it was clear that in regards to being in control of my surroundings I would struggle. For the first three weeks of the trip I couldn't understand why sometimes it is important just to let go - to take off the watch, to stop thinking about the timing or safety of the next meal or activity, and to just live in the moment without a plan for the future.
The turning point for me was Christmas Day. Phoning home and hearing familiar voices set my mind at ease for the first time, only for my total outlook on life to be jolted a few hours later by a visit to the Mumbai slums. I could no longer control my reaction to what we were experiencing and I broke. The reality of the living conditions of millions of Indian slum-dwellers hit me. This was real life, this would go on, and on, and on, and at last I appreciated just how lucky I am. From that afternoon onwards I started to try and accept whatever came my way, to smile, and to simply say “ok, ok, ok” whenever someone asked me what might happen next. By the time I reached the end of my time in Goa, I had tried to make sure I didn't have to know what would happen every day, so that instead I could just appreciate the opportunities that came about from not being locked into a pre-conceived schedule. Back home now, I still like to have control and make plans, and it was almost a relief to get some sort of a routine again, but India taught me it is ok to let go sometimes.
I have no problem being honest with people and talking about topics I am passionate about, but very rarely do I feel comfortable telling people how I feel. I have always felt, and in all honestly do still sometimes feel, that sharing my innermost thoughts is a weakness; that I should be able to deal with my thoughts and emotions myself. However as Dr Brown says in one of her seminars, “Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren't always comfortable, but they're never a weakness.” India taught me that although New Zealanders may be very organised and ordered with infrastructure, politics and social welfare for example, we haven't yet understood that vulnerability, and the courage to display it, is a real strength. People we met in India throughout the trip opened up and expressed their raw emotions to us the whole time. They were not afraid to yell when they were angry, smile when they were happy, or bathe naked on the street when they couldn’t find anywhere else to wash. At Don Bosco Ashalayam in Kolkata, I was humbled by the children who insisted that we visit their homes and showed us such sincere kindness and hospitality.
The last thing that I want to acknowledge about my month in India is the group of people I travelled with. In India I had the chance to open up to 21 other Grammar boys and 3 teachers, some of whom I knew before, and some of whom I didn't. They all were the best part of the four weeks away. The hardest thing about returning to New Zealand has been the absence of not being able to knock on the door of a mate and ten minutes later be laughing, or crying, or trying to work out how to fix the world with someone who had seen what I had seen that day. I'll miss India, but what I value most came home with me.
Before my time in India I thought I would be able to dictate the experiences I had, the emotions I felt, and the lessons I learnt upon my return. I thought I would be able to specifically choose what would have an impact on me and what wouldn’t. After months and months of meetings and preparation I thought I had a pretty accurate idea of what it would be like once over there. I was wrong.
We had copious amounts of completely contrasting experiences during the immersion that ranged from standing around in a circle participating in a laughing club/intense aerobics class, to standing on the edge of a slum in Mumbai crying our eyes out. We experienced the hope and inspiration of numerous NGOs such as ASHA, Future Hope, the Jungle Crows and the Magicians to name a few, and we experienced the complete opposite such as the stark reality of places like Brooklyn in Kolkata. We truly went through, for lack of a better cliché, a roller coaster ride of emotions. For the good times and the hard times, I would not change a single one.
There’s no way that any of us would be able to get all our contemplations down on this single last blog entry, or be able to perfectly summarise how we feel and what we’ve gained from the trip. But it’s never going to be perfect and it’s never going to be finalised. After all, life is messy, constantly changing, and is not meant to be kept in perfect little compartments.
I don’t think we are even able to comprehend just yet what we all have learnt and what to make of the entire month ourselves let alone explain it all to others specifically. But as I was advised, we will have a mid-life crisis every day for the rest of our lives where we will think about deep stuff; and so far that has proven to be a rather sound statement.
India gave me a completely new perspective on a variety of things that I feel I had overlooked before. As I said in one of my later blogs, the local people were the saving grace of a country that would otherwise pose as too difficult to bear. The act of acknowledging the fact that each individual, in the population of over 1 billion people, has had an upbringing just as intricate as my own puts into perspective just how small I am in this world. After meeting such wonderful people and being thrust about by a country that you struggle to be alone in, and of course after losing to an 11 year old in chess, I can’t help but feel less ‘special’ than I did before. I once felt as though I could take on the world and do anything I wanted. The truth is there are billions of other people that are just as special as me.
It now feels like the month went past in the blink of an eye, and I strongly believe it has actually changed me. Not in any radical way in which I am now determined to shave my head and go off to work in the slums for the rest of my life, because that clearly isn’t true. But I think it has changed my way of thinking and opened up a world to me that I ‘knew’ was there but never really understood. This experience will influence who I am for the rest of my life; I have been humbled by it. I’ve taken away so much but also have realised how little I know and how much more there is to experience. Understanding now how much of the world there is to see and learn from, to understand rather than just know, is one of the truly exciting outcomes for me.
By no means do I believe I am even close to understanding India, and honestly I don’t think, even after I return there, which I very much hope to do, I ever will, but as Mr Skeen made perfectly clear “hey that’s ok”. After all, as a wise slogan on a rickshaw once said “life is a process of self-discovery”.
Thanks Aunty Rachel, Captain Shane and of course Mr Ben Skeen for an experience that won’t be forgotten or undervalued.
Well over a year before we embarked on this adventure I was nervous about leaving my daughters behind; how my heart would break and how much I would miss them. But in those four weeks away, my heart didn’t break because I was missing my girls - I was comforted knowing they were safe in New Zealand, eating good food, drinking clean water, sleeping in comfortable beds. Instead my heart broke for the mothers who were begging for milk for their babies. My heart broke for the children, no older than five, begging for money, food, whatever they could get their hands on. My heart broke for entire families who slept on cardboard boxes on the footpaths we walked along. My heart broke for the young boy who lay dead on the side of the road, whose mother probably had no idea where he was.
But my heart also broke when four incredible weeks came to an end. Because in India I fell in love with a country that has affected me like no other country ever has. I went on a journey of a lifetime that took me on more emotional lows and highs than I thought possible in such a short space of time.
India has made me appreciate the importance of a simple smile. It has reconfirmed that genuine happiness is infectious, and reminded me just how good sidesplitting laughter feels. And it’s made me realise that even though as individuals we may not be able to change the world, if we can make a difference in even one person’s life, it is possible for the snowball effect to occur.
Being in India also highlighted that our world is full of remarkable young people doing incredible things. I felt greatly inspired by the kids at Future Hope. One bright little girl, who’d had a number of tumours removed from her brain, was excited about her future - her dream is to become a doctor one day to help children like herself. I felt a huge amount of respect for the kids at Asha who already have huge responsibilities and are making a real difference in improving their community. But a special mention is the enormous admiration I felt watching a magnificent group of 22 young men maturing before my eyes. Daily, they demonstrated the importance of communicating even the most vulnerable of feelings, and handled very challenging situations with grace and sensitivity. This was humbling to see.
This journey also reminded me that on so many levels, we are all the same. The afternoon we spent in Brooklyn community in Kolkata will forever remain a special memory. It was exciting to meet twin girls, young teenagers, feisty, fun, happy; and with a zest for life I can only hope my own twins have when they reach their age. I also met a beautiful little girl the same age as my daughters who did not leave my side the entire afternoon. She took me into her tiny home, so proud and excited about showing off her foreign guest. The smell of the smoke in this small room was overwhelming but at least it masked the unbearable smells outside. She introduced me to her mother, and we chatted, not understanding a word of what the other was saying, but connecting nonetheless. We hugged when I left. My heart felt full.
We have all experienced a different India. We all saw India through different eyes. Some of us will return, some of us not, but we will all hold a piece of India in our hearts forever. So, India - from me to you - I will see you again. Although I feel a huge gap in my heart now I am no longer with you, my heart also feels full for having met you. I’ve got you under my skin, I’ve got you deep in the heart of me, so deep in my heart you’re really a part of me. Frank Sinatra - I couldn’t have worded it better myself.
The Second Assimilation
Coming home was something I was really looking forward to. Although India was a joyous rollercoaster of both highs and lows, and sights and sounds, during the final days of Goa and Mumbai I had a chance to finally look ahead to when our flight touched down in Auckland, and to our ‘Second Assimilation’ back into our normal lives.
Although I still have not been able to process all the information from our month of adventures, my thoughts over the past three weeks have gone like this:
Heading straight down to the family bach, at Lake Tarawera, I saw some peace and quiet for the first time since leaving for Singapore at 1am on the 9th of December, 2013. I was finally hit by reverse culture shock, and soon the pressures of normal life, such as university applications, shattered the tranquillity of my peaceful hideaway. These pressures also brought back both the stresses and worries that are simply just not present in the small piece of India we were privileged enough to see.
From that point onwards, I started to slip right back into my old routine, my old self. This was fine, until Dad asked me why I hadn’t gotten around to doing my urgent university applications earlier. He asked why I had put them off until the very last moment, just like I used to. Dad also pointed out to me that I was being quick to judge both strangers and friends, just like I used to before that day of departure last December. These things were not something that I was happy to sit alone with.
These were the exact habits that I thought would be broken by the journey we undertook. I had believed that I would return a different person. I believed that I would have changed in some virtuous way. What I failed to realise however, is that this change would take a lot of conscious effort on my behalf.
India has made me realise that I can be so much better than I used to be. I really used to be afraid of the light, not the darkness. What the trip has not done though is automatically start the implementation these changes. India has put the idea of growth in my head and now I must work to achieve it, as I will not grow without effort, as I had previously believed. And while this is now something I am working on, I realise that it will not be completed in one day. Nor one week. Not even one year. The road to being good, being better, even better than what you were yesterday, both to others and to yourself, is a never ending battle; a lifelong commitment. If the soft options that present themselves are taken, then mediocrity is achieved. And a mediocre society is not one that expands, nor pushes boundaries; and that society would be a waste of the small amount of time we have in this life.
Overall, the 2013-2014 India Immersion Programme has been an experience that will be not easily forgotten. The journey opened my eyes to both new ideas and new beliefs. I can only hope that the lessons learnt from that harsh and beautiful country accompany me for the rest of my life, regardless of what career ambitions or life goals I wish to pursue. And while there are so many ways to sum up our month in India, I will end with this: Per Angusta, Ad Augusta.
Thirty six hours after our return from India I found myself in an environment that couldn't have been more different from the place where I had just spent four weeks. I found myself at the family bach in a tiny town called Raurimu, five minutes north of National Park in the central North Island; the place which I had said was my home at the pre-trip meetings. A polar opposite from India: there it is quiet, peaceful, green and spacious. During the trip, some guys had been counting down to Goa; I was counting down to the moment when I could say that I had finally returned home. The next day, I remained at the cottage, alone, while my family and family friends walked the Tongariro Crossing. I was far too tired to go with them so I slept in and spent the day thinking about my experiences over the preceding weeks as I looked over the swamp behind our house. I went for a walk up a hill to a spot where you can see the whole village and sat there for half an hour thinking.
This spot is one of my favourite places in the world to be. It sounds oddly specific, but over the past few years when we were at Raurimu I would wake up early and go up there and think about things. Raurimu was my dad's family bach and it has acted as a link between me and him during my life. There again, I looked over the town, a beautiful view to my eyes, and surprisingly felt the same as I did as I watched the sun set over the Maidan in Kolkata as we walked off the rugby field. I thought about all the things I had learnt about beauty and the line from a poem we were given in Varanasi, "I want to know if you can see beauty, even when it's not pretty every day." I thought about my family and friends who were out tramping and I thought about all the things I had learnt about the value of family and people in your life; I thought about how in the past I had tended to push them away, when I should have been inviting them in. When I was sitting there I felt tired, I felt happy (to be there) and sad (to be missing out on the walk) all at the same time. But mostly, I felt the same as I did when I was in India and that made me realise something.
One of the things I had really struggled with in India was the fact that I didn't feel different. I felt how I did normally, under normal circumstances. I had expected to feel completely different, like somehow the place would take over me and change me. In discussions since my arrival home, I found my mum had felt a similar way when she first went to Paris, expecting to somehow feel like a new person. When we were in Varanasi, Mr Skeen posed a question to our debrief group, "Who am I", and we had to try and say who we were without saying what we did, a task to try and separate us from our hobbies or jobs. I struggled for a long time with this question, and I still don't have a clear cut answer, but it did help me understand one thing about myself.
In the past I had seen myself as a generally unhappy person. I struggled in my primary school years with feeling unhappy and angry. I was introverted and kept to myself. When I went to intermediate, I told myself to change my attitude, to consciously become a happier person. One of the things discussed on the trip was the idea of masks, hiding your real self behind a mask (in other words acting differently) so that people can't know the real you. I hid myself behind a smile. I tried as hard as I could to be positive so that all the new people I met thought I was a different person. It worked for me. I made lots of new friends but when I went home I still felt like an act. After six years of this strategy, it became second nature to me. It stopped becoming a conscious decision and became my attitude. I rarely thought about it.
However, as I mentioned before, when I was in India I felt the same as what I did when I was at home, at Raurimu. India boiled me down to the essence of me and even when I was tired and anxious, hungry and scared, I still felt the same as what I did when I was at my bach with some of my best friends. That was when I realised I'm not the same person I once was. When travel, exhaustion and the sights I was seeing stripped me back to my purest self, I wasn't sad or angry or introverted. I was happy and positive (this is of course a generalisation; I felt sad and angry many times but at isolated moments). I'm no longer that person, I'm now fundamentally a happy person, and realising that feels amazing.
I guess in the end it was the reality of not feeling any different in India that taught me my biggest lesson. I know it sounds clichéd, but I suppose you could say I found myself in India and that is an experience I will never forget.
Q. Do you think you will go back there?
This is the question that everyone I have talked to has asked me. I have never been able to give a straight answer because I have yet to decide on it. However, with time to think to myself and nights to reminisce on our journey that began nearly 2 months ago I can put in words why I loved this place and what I have learnt.
The country has so much to tell and there is never a second where something is not happening. From the first step out of the airport into a taxi we were immediately put into chaos. Driving with the accelerator put to the maximum, we weaved in and out of cars moving in every direction, coming as close to crashing as possible. Something about the Indians is that they seem to not fear life. To me this seemed like a good way of approaching life. Not the fact that they are narrowly avoiding crashing into the back of another taxi and not fearing death, but rather that they are taking the front seat in their journey of life. They take their chances, and even with the little that they have, the smiles on the children’s faces prove how much they are loving life. I realised how many of them took their opportunities and tried so hard to make them count; because in a country filled with well over one billion people, there aren’t many given out. Whether it was the hundreds of kids practicing cricket, or the teenage girls who are nursing the elderly, they are all trying to make a difference.
But a question has been stuck in my mind for some time - ‘What happens to all these smiling boys and girls when they get older?’
It seems as though they disappear into an unhappy man on the side of a street, or into a woman peeling off the shells of shrimps with dozens of other ladies around her. Then one question after another question begins to roll in. Why do they deserve to live like this? Why can’t they live with the freedom they had as a child? It is so unfair that they can try so hard to become something and then come away with nothing. Why does this happen? Yet, one thing I know is that as long as they have family they have enough. For I have taken away with me how important the value of family is.
When I walked round the 5m x 5m slum houses, a simple block that housed 10 people, I was immediately shocked at how people could live in such a confined space. It was then that something clicked in my mind; they, our hosts, just did not seem to worry in the slightest. Instead they had smiles on their faces and they showed you around because they were proud with what they had. They had their family and friends amongst them and the whole slum acted like a big family for everyone. It was this reality that made the smiles appear on their faces; not forgetting as well that they can go down to the nearby Maidan to just enjoy life at any time.
It seems funny how we can complain over the smallest of things and that we want more than what we really need. Now I can understand to appreciate the small things in life. People always say to appreciate the small things in life, and I used to, but it isn’t until you have been to India, until you have seen India, that you can really appreciate the beauty of life and the small things that make it up. Now, I cannot believe how after 18 years I hadn’t realised how lucky I was living in New Zealand. We have far more opportunities given to us than those in India, we have next to no crime in comparison, and our living conditions could not be much better.
For one month I was completely immersed in the Indian culture. Not just going around sight- seeing, but walking around the streets, chatting to a random person walking by, laughing with an Indian, and putting a smile on a child’s face. It is true that just making a person smile can go a long way; it can make their day.
A poem called ‘I Want to Know’, given to us on the trip, stays with me and will be pinned up on my wall. The words I felt connected most with me are:
“Let the ecstasy (of joy) fill you to the tips of your fingers and toes
Without cautioning us to
to remember the limitations of being human”
and “I want to know if you can see beauty even when it is not pretty every day.”
There are so many questions still to be asked and I still don’t have answers for them, but as the years go on the answers may slowly unfold themselves to me. So, I am coming to terms with the notion that I do not have to know how everything works in India because that is what makes the country so extraordinary. As Mr Skeen told us, “It’s alright not to know.” There will always be questions to ask of the place and although there may not always be answers, “the teaching will go on.”
As for now, this is the simple answer I have formulated from my question at the beginning:
A. I’m not sure when or if I will go back to India but I know I would like to.
I've found, probably like many others have since we got back, that it is true what the staff and boys from previous trips have said about the India experience being hard to articulate to friends and family. The sheer magnitude of experiences, emotions and moments that we were exposed to on a daily basis makes it a very personal trip that is difficult to put into words, but that inability to explain it is also a big part of what makes the programme so special.
For this reason alone I will just give my favourite experience, and why it was so important to me. The entire afternoon and night spent with the Future Hope children and staff was my favourite experience from the entire trip, and also is the one that seems to stick out the most when I reflect on the things we did. There were several events that made that night so cool. The events, now memories, included; getting to the school and having a net with their school's cricket team, where I taught a young leg spinner how to bowl a wrong-un, much to his amazement; the 45 minute walk to their hostel which was spent talking about everything under the sun with an inspirational 15 year old boy who had just been picked in an Indian age group rugby team, even though three years ago he had been living in a slum with no idea about rugby or the concept of organized sport; playing my new favourite game, Carom, with the king player in the village; and Fletcher being laughed at due to his unbelievable un-coordination when trying to eat with his hands. These moments, along with many more, made that night one I will never forget. It left me feeling inspired that these boys, and their staff, who all have different backgrounds, educational backgrounds, and values, can all live under one roof and create a family that is so happy and positive. It also made me grateful for the opportunities given to me by my parents and I realized how hard so many people would work for the privileges I have been given; and that I must make the most of them. It also made me sad knowing that as we ate dinner there were millions of people living in the slums around us that would never get the opportunities that the Future Hope children were getting; sadly they would be confined to the slums for their entire lives.
This is what the Immersion Programme does; it makes you feel a number of conflicting emotions at the same time and allows you to process them in your own way. This is why the trip is so hard to describe to friends and family, but ultimately what makes it so worthwhile, because your personal experiences are so different, even different from everyone else in the tour group.
I think the most important thing that I got out of the month in India was that when we were faced with difficult questions regarding many of the problems we encountered, it didn't matter whether or not we had the answers, it was only important that we were asking the questions in the first place. For example, with questions such as "How can we help?", no one person has the right answer, yet what matters is that you are taking the time to think about it and formulating your own solutions.
I hope that I never forget my time in India spent with an amazing group of people that all made it so fun and interesting. Without them the month would have gone a lot slower and the emotional strain would have been a lot tougher to deal with. I also hope that I continue to grow and develop as a person as I now truly see that stepping out of your comfort zone is an eye-opening, scary, and exciting thing to do. I'll finish with two quotes that mean a lot to me, the first being my quote that I used on my application form for the programme which has become more and more powerful as I reflect on this experience, and the second being an Anthony Robbins quote that has struck me as being very powerful since I've returned home:
"When all is said and done, have you said and done enough."
“Life is a gift, and it offers us the privilege, opportunity, and responsibility to give something back by becoming more.”
One of the hardest parts of coming home was that question. It came in many forms: "How was it?", "How was your exciting month?", or simply, "How was India?". Over the past few weeks I have tried my best to deal with that question through a combination of annoyed grunts, sighs, and approximations like, "Oh, it was great".
The fact is, my India experience can't just be put into a sentence. Or an essay. Or possibly even a book. Yet here I am, trying desperately to compile all my thoughts into one final blog post. And, like Mr Skeen told us when he was about to write his final reflection, I'm scared. This one has to mean something. There's no going back now, no time for stupid jokes about $4 pants or facial hair. Somehow, I have to put down how India impacted me, not even a month after I have got back. How, I do not know. All I know is that after a month in the craziest, worst, best place I've ever been, I see New Zealand differently.
I'm sitting at my computer, which cost a few years' salary for most of the people I met, in my office, which is the size of a house for ten people in the slum we went to in Mumbai. This all used to seem so normal, and now it just makes me feel guilty. I wish I could go back to how it was, but I really can't. I can't help but think that my frustration at how my phone is deciding not to charge pales in comparison to the poverty I witnessed. I'm angry about my first world problems, but I can't shake the images in my mind.
One in particular sticks out: we were in Brooklyn and a lady was taking us to her house. It had no lights, damp concrete walls and a few small rooms. Despite the fact that this would have seemed like nothing back home, this lady was so proud of what she had. Her smile was infectious and she was so happy to be bringing us through her home. The hardship she must go through really struck me and after our tour I went downstairs just wanting to leave. I didn't like the way that affected me and, like many times in India, I wanted to run away. I wanted to get away from the guilt that whole experience made me feel. Instead, we were thrust back into it again and again. That was the worst and best part of the month I spent in India.
India isn't over for me, and I doubt it ever will be. I made lifelong friends with some great guys who will always be the only ones who understand. I still remember little moments which didn't seem important while they happened, but have been magnified with hindsight. India really put everything into perspective for me, and I think it will shape the man I will become in the future. I can't wait.
“I want to know if you can see beauty
even when it is not pretty everyday.”
Christmas Day was the day I felt betrayed by the world. On this day, we were in Dharavi slum, and I stood in an area once destroyed by a fire, not paying much attention to anything anyone was saying. Instead, I looked around and my eyes drifted to the towering skyscrapers which, had there not been a fire years earlier, might not have been as visible before. I cursed under my breath. It’s not fair, I thought. Why should those who work the hardest have so little? They spend their entire lives in a room about the same size as my own. And why are these kids smiling? How hypocritical of me. For the first time, an unjustifiable feeling of misery swept through me. I felt a sense of guilt, and a longing for the comforts and luxuries of my home in New Zealand. To be honest, I was sick of it at this point, sick of India. The truth is I was afraid of seeing this reality; a real person’s reality. Because I looked so hard for answers, for reassurance of my own life, I never really saw what India was trying to tell me. On this day, I saw hopelessness, yet in that, hope. I saw people who endured more pain and hardships than I ever have, yet in that, the most natural smiles. I saw beauty in a country I thought the most ugly.
India, I feel, has given me chance, to carefully rethink how I want to do things in my life. The very first question asked jokingly by my friend the next day after returning, “Did you return a changed man?” led to a recollection of the events of Christmas, a normal day to everyone else. When you have talked with, had a meal with, watched a movie with, people who work the hardest just to put food onto the table, you find more to life than working for materialistic possessions. When you have shared these important and special moments of your lives together, you gain a sense of duty for the people – for your people. Simply spending time with them was the best gift we both gave and received. To answer my friend’s question, yes, I do feel changed. And now it is up to me to use this change to make a difference. The four simple lines, “Life is hard. You are going to die. You are not that special. Your life is not about you” are ones that have stuck with me; four lines whose meanings have changed throughout the trip. Spending the past few days or so trying to express in words how those lines have changed however has been something that I still cannot write down. I know that I do not understand enough about life to quantify it so easily, “but that’s okay.” There are still many more years to come.
I have been inspired by a smile. I saw that something as small and simple as a smile makes life worth it. I am privileged to have been able to see whole-hearted smiles of those in Future Hope, the Magicians, Freeset workers – those who have no need to keep up appearances. I have realised that I want to be one to put those smiles onto people’s faces, even if I have to start off small.
“No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.” – Aesop