Monday, August 16, 2010

Now what? Of encouragement and unity.

Over thirty hours in airports and airplanes -- and I'm finally home. Hooray!! A hot shower in my own bathroom felt wonderful, washing away the bedraggled feeling of traveling in the same clothes for two days. I also washed away the not-quite-clean feeling of having walked the streets of India, breathing in the exhaust of the vehicles and the stench of garbage and sewage.

Now what? What do I do with this experience? Thinking about it as we flew home, I came back to the fact (one of those repeated things I come up against) that I really don't know what tomorrow holds but God does. If I seek Him, He'll show me the next step. That's true for everything about life, whether the daily experiences or the once-in-a-lifetime ones. The song "God is God and I Am Not" is apropos here.

Two central themes keep rolling around in my head. One is basically what I have been doing for the last couple of years: I need to continue to encourage people to do SOMETHING to fight modern day slavery on a regular basis such as sponsoring a child, buying products that are fairly traded and slave free, or donating to rescue groups like International Justice Mission, etc. Along with this message I now have pictures and stories to share, visually showing the need and putting real faces to the message. The stories of Mother Teresa and Aloka underline the power of one life, rich or poor, to make a difference. I think we don't really understand how much difference even small efforts can make in the life of another.

Secondly, it hit me that another message that I have to share is that of unity against the common enemy of slavery and grinding poverty. The group that I was part of was very diverse. Some very liberal, others very conservative. Ages ranging from 18 to 55. Many team members had traveled the world while others, like me, had not. The differences didn't matter. We were focused on the task of touching the lives of girls who have no one else in the world to care about them but their housemothers and other shelter girls. Our hearts were united in this effort. Other concerns were let go.

Our society, too often, focuses on what's adversarial instead of what we have in common. We waste time fighting each other about this or that, the cares of the world crowding out the seed we started to sow. Can we not come together more as Mother Teresa did, seeing the need and choosing to serve all regardless of their status, their faith, etc.? In time, after establishing relationships of side-by-side serving and caring, we can still discuss the issues that we disagree on. But issues don't have to keep us so far apart that we forget that all of us who are blessed with much are called to help "the least of these."

Lord, please open my eyes and lead me.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Personal stuff

Just gotta share a few things about personal "stuff" that you really have to experience to fully understand. If you're a diehard out-in-the-woods tent camper, you have some of this perspective. But that's not been my experience and these things made me laugh as I tried to figure out exactly how to do things this way.

First - Western toilets may or may not be available wherever you go in India. The "normal" here is a squat version of the toilet. Hmmm. And if you want to be sure that you have toilet paper, you need to take it with you!

Second - The electricity goes out here just about every day. It may be out for a few minutes, an hour, or three hours. One just goes with the flow, sweats a little more, and sooner or later it comes back on.

Third - Bucket showers are a quick way to refresh. Since there's not great water pressure in the regular shower, it actually is better in some ways. Difficult to actually wash your hair, though. I'd have to practice to get that down pat. Oh, and have you ever used a squeegee to push the water off of the floor and into a little hole in the wall (at floor level)?

Fourth - I really don't like bugs in my living space. Outside, yes. Little ants crawling in my suitcase, on the sink, in the shower/toilet area, not so much. I happened to see spray to ward off bedbugs in Bed, Bath, & Beyond before I left home so I bought it. I'm SO glad. Don't know if there were any bedbugs but if so, they were held at bay and the spray kept the ants under control, too.

Last item - The smell of raw sewage in the street is not my favorite. Makes the smell of manure sprayed on the fields at home seem not so bad. At least the fields are sprayed only occasionally so you don't have to smell it every day.

Ah, India. I realize that I've just gotten a little glimpse of life here. Just a snapshot. There is a wealthier India, a cleaner one, and maybe a less chaotic one. But the wealthier people that drive to Park Street to eat at Fire and Ice and Flurry's and shop in the expensive stores still have to go through much of the city, if not the poorest parts. What I have seen is real life for millions of people in Kolkata -- a hard, dirty, poor life. And I haven't even mentioned the corruption of government, police, etc.

I so appreciate my own family, my own home, my own little community, and life in the US.

Random Kolkata impressions

The environment:
Garbage everywhere
Slums, shacks, poverty
Man-powered rickshaws pulling up to the four level glitzy mall
Honking, honking and more honking
Exhaust in your face

The people:
Market vendors hound you to buy wares
Five people to do the job of one
Illogical inefficiency
Manual labor
No concept of personal space

Odds & ends:
A family of four riding a motorcycle
The car wash: A rag and a huge roadside puddle after a monsoon downpour
Requests to take pictures of us, the conspicuously white foreigners
Sweat dripping down inside my clothes
Spicy Indian version of KFC

The Emancipation Network and the shelters:
Safe places for children alone in the world
Sweet smiles, beautiful girls
Excitement over nail polish and making paper boxes
"Auntie, Auntie!"
TEN staff: Paul, Sally, Doel, and Soma - making a difference in the lives of so many
TEN founder Sarah: A whirlwind, a go-getter, cares so much

This experience:
Great group of volunteers
Heart wrenching
Wonder how God will use this in my life

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Someone cares at Nijoloy

It's been a privilege to visit Nijoloy Center this week. It's a shelter for about 80 or so girls, ages 5 to 20-something. Krishna is the woman in charge with another 4-5 women assisting her. She's a sweetie! So gracious and loving -- and the shelter reflects her manner.

The children are very excited to see us. They quickly gather when we arrive, smiling and saying "Auntie, Auntie," as they try to get our attention and grab our hands. We begin the day by sitting with the house mothers, having an unhurried cup of tea and a cracker before going on to the day's project.

The little ones are darling. The older girls are beautiful. Some are quiet, others are mischievous. All are alone in the world or at least they were until they were brought to Nijoloy. Krishna, whose husband died in 1999, says that these girls are her family. It is a loving place and the girls are fortunate to be able to live there.

I'm so glad there are places like this for the unwanted, unfortunate waifs of Kolkata. They're not throw-away children like so much trash tossed out and forgotten about. They're sweet children in need of food, shelter, and love -- just like every other child in the world. Bright, inquisitive, creative and inventive, they are so happy with simple things like drawing with paper and markers or "doing the hoky poky."

I have been blessed by them.

Cardiovascular workout with Rajah

Ok. It's our 13th day in Kolkata and we think we've become somewhat adjusted to the way that they drive here but tonight's ride home from the shelter house proved to be an altogether new level of craziness. Rajah, our driver (who is the nicest and most helpful guy) drove like a race car driver out to set a new record. Our eyes got bigger and our hearts beat faster as he sped up and proceeded to wind his way through the crowded streets as if it was a deserted road.

For example: we zipped around a car then swerved to miss a bus only to find a cow in the middle of the road, nonchalantly looking around. We honked -- of course -- but the cow didn't move an inch (and didn't bat an eyelash) so we did a quick maneuver around it and sped on. At one point we were going 112 km per hour (is that around 60-70 mph?) With so many cars, trucks, busses, motorcycles, animals, bicycles, rickshaw drivers, and pedestrians on the road, it seemed inevitable that we would crash into something or someone, but we didn't. Hooray!

Our guardian angels must have been hard at work 'cause we made it back to the hotel without a scratch, dent, or case of whiplash. I'm not at all sure how or why. One other plus was that it was definitely a cardio workout. I think I'd rather raise my heart rate some other way, though!

Monday, August 9, 2010

Her father murdered her mother

At age 6, her father murdered her mother - in front of her. He was sent to prison and so was she .... simply because there was no where else for her to go. She stayed there for several years, a child being raised in women's prison. I can't imagine what she saw and experienced there. At age 12, she was taken to a shelter but was so out of control (wouldn't any child be after what she'd gone through?) that she was sent back to the prison. Bouncing back and forth for a year, she finally was taken in at Child Care House.

I met this beautiful twenty-two year old young woman this past week. She's intelligent and artistic and according to TEN staff, a little sassy. Now married, she has trained in the silversmithing program at CCH. She's a rescued life. Thank goodness someone cared.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Sightseeing in 98 degree temps & 98 % humidity

Whew! It's HOT.

We rented cars and drivers for sightseeing on Saturday and Sunday -- the cars were air conditioned -- hooray!! Besides Mother Teresa's, we visited Victoria Memorial, a temple, and botanical gardens. It was interesting to learn of India's history at Victoria Memorial and the period of British rule in order to take advantage of the resources. Fits right in with the repeated history of the world: the conquerors, the conquered, and the unquenchable desire for independence and self rule.

Sunday's trip to the temple involved crowds of people and HOT, HOT feet! We had to leave our sandals outside and walk on the clay tiles of the courtyard in our bare feet. It was like walking on hot sand or hot blacktop. You just wanted to hop along until you found a little square of shade to stand in! I hadn't realized that the bottoms of my feet were so tender. Of course the Indians were much tougher, even the little children walked about comfortably.

The botanical gardens were a real treat -- a peaceful green, lush oasis away from the honking traffic and crowds. Birds chirped while families strolled along or had a picnic. It also seemed to be the place to go for couples to walk and talk or sit on a bench and look into each other's eyes. The Banyan Tree was a main feature, covering several acres. Thousands of air roots hang down to the ground and take root, forming what I'd describe as additional trunks of the tree. So it's a forest but actually all one tree at the same time. Amazing to see.

Whether sightseeing or volunteering at the shelters, we sweat through our clothes every where we go. It's monsoon season so each day there's a downpour or two and afterward it's generally a few degrees cooler. I feel spoiled to have air conditioning in our cars and rooms and this isn't even the hottest time of the year.

Lives rescued at Child Care House shelter

Eighty girls - ages five to twenty something - alone in the world. No family. No one to take care of them. No one to care about them. Various circumstances, none of which are good, have brought them to Child Care House. Here they have food, shelter, and house mothers to care for them. School is expected, helping out is required, and life has structure and safety.

Right outside of the front gate traffickers gather to lure away the unsuspecting girl. Enticement sometimes succeeds for one wants to believe the lies with which the traffickers groom their victims. But most are kept safe to grow up, marry (after a suitable courting period and with strict scrutiny of the young man's suitability), and lead a productive life.

We had brought donations of shampoo, lotion, soap, hair ties, brushes, lip gloss, toothbrushes, and toothpaste. Frankly, it seemed a little crazy to lug two large suitcases full of these things, each weighing just under the 50 pound limit, halfway around the world. But it was worth the effort. Eyes shone as each girl was allowed to select a few items from the table. They took their treasures away and soon reappeared to show off the new hair clip in place and lip gloss applied. Such pleasure over such simple things.

A small group of creative and talented girls, better known as the "jewelry girls," has recently been trained by The Emancipation Network in silversmithing. We were able to see sample designs and practice products, with final products to be available (hopefully) this fall.

We spent four days getting to know the shelter girls -- hanging out, doing crafts, watching them dance, having them teach us how to make jewelry. They're beautiful girls. Some sassy, some quiet. Some with a servant's heart, some with a poet's soul. Full of life and laughter. All amazing survivors of hard circumstances.

Why are some of us so blessed while others get such a raw deal in life?

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity

Five of us chose to volunteer at Missionaries of Charity in Kolkata today. What an amazing place! In the midst of this dirty, crowded, noisy, impoverished city is this peaceful oasis of caring and compassion. Talk about a light shining in the darkness -- this is it. It's a clean, well organized place with a spirit of love permeating throughout.

Jenny went to the building housing the dying and destitute while Tania, Coleen, Petra and I decided that might be a little too intense for us so we asked to be assigned to Shishu Bhavan, working with children that suffer from a variety of handicaps (autism, blindness, physical deformation, and more). We spent four hours in this building -- playing with the children, feeding them, doing laundry, helping with therapy, and changing "nappies."

People from all over the world come to volunteer at Missionaries of Charity. We personally met volunteers from Australia, Germany, Japan, Italy, and the USA. Elizabeth, a retired music teacher from Germany, began a two-months in Kolkata, two-months in Germany plan of volunteering about a year ago. She loves it! Short term, long term or just one of the four hour shifts available on Saturday or Sunday -- Missionaries of Charity welcomes all volunteers. And it was a privilege to help even if it was for just a few hours. God's love shines here -- in gentle touches, kind words, sweet smiles, and an atmosphere of caring "for the least of these." To be even a tiny part of it was a great experience.

The Mother House, where Mother Teresa lived and is entombed is a short walk from Shishu Bhavan. Besides seeing her tomb, we spent time in the Exhibition Room where her life is documented with many original writings and documents from Mother Teresa herself. In them you can see that her love for the poor and discarded was about as close as any human can get to loving as Jesus' loves.

At Mother Teresa's death in 1997 there were 3,842 sisters serving in 594 houses in 120 countries. One person really can change the world.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

The beggar

Yesterday on the way to Child Care House, all traffic came to a complete stop for a few minutes. People took advantage of the moment to cross the road without being hit! A beggar also chose to meander between the vehicles, begging for money. He was truly an unfortunate teenager, having only a stump at one shoulder and the other arm ending at the wrist. A bag for holding any money that was given to him was hanging from his shoulder. He stood right by our open window and said "Auntie, Auntie (a common term of endearment)," over and over in a soft, sad voice. I wanted to help him but had to say "No" and look the other way while he continued to say "Auntie, Auntie." It broke my heart to keep turned away and not give him at least a few rupees but I knew that I couldn't. We had been warned that beggars were likely to have their trafficker close by watching and if we gave money to them, we were really supporting trafficking. The beggar wouldn't get to keep anything.

So the young man was in the awful situation of having to beg for money -- AND he was severely handicapped -- BUT EVEN WORSE than knowing both of those things is the fact that it is common for traffickers to maim their victims so people will feel extra compassion for them and thus be more likely to give them money. He very well may have been born with both arms & both hands but had had them cut off by his trafficker. The hard cold truth of man's inhumanity to his fellow man was staring me right in the face.

Traffic started up again and we drove off. I cried.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Destiny Center

Beautiful jewelry, flowing silk scarves, embroidered pillow covers, handmade journals, small and large purses and totes -- these are just a few items made by the women working at Destiny Shelter. But the handicrafts aren't as beautiful as the women who create them. With sweet spirits and broad smiles, they work diligently to produce quality products. Their goal is to succeed as businesswomen -- meeting both their own financial needs as well as consumer desires.

Destiny Center is nuturing and caring. It is also a place of accomplishment. Designing and creating, working together as a team, and earning a fair wage are satisfying undertakings. Destiny Center gives hope, in fact I think it is the very definition of it.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Kolkata: First impressions

Cows and dogs in the street. Bicyclists, pedestrians and rickshaws going every which way. And cars driving pell mell, as fast as they can on the left side of the road. I'm so glad I don't have to drive around here 'cause it's more than a little crazy. See a tiny spot over there that your car may fit into? Head for it and amazingly enough it often turns into just enough room -- but not an inch more -- for you to travel another block or two. Keep going and a bus may cut you off but that's what brakes are for. And one must definitely have one hand on the horn while the other is on the wheel. Honking at someone every minute or so is definitely a required part of the driving experience.

Lots of people & traffic -- shacks for homes -- high rises being built -- big brown eyes of the woman begging outside of the airport -- contrasts in rich and poor.

Welcome to Kolkata!

Monday, July 26, 2010

Almost ready

Malaria meds - check. Passport - check. Donated items - check. Book to read on the plane - check. I've been checking off things on my list and am about 90% packed. My suitcases are full to the brim with donated lotions, toothbrushes, toothpaste, soaps, hair brushes & ties, etc. Thank you so much to all who donated items or $$. Your generosity helps the shelters care for the rescued survivors.

I've had conversations about India with just about everyone I run into these last few days. How hot will it be? (80's - 90's) Is it humid? (Yes, the 10 day forecast is for thunderstorms every day) Do you think you'll get sick? (There's a good chance of getting traveler's stomach/intestinal illness though I'm not planning on it!) Having never been out of the country except as a tourist in Canada and Mexico, this is a a whole new experience.

Some people look at me as if I've lost my mind to even think about traveling to India and wonder why I would go halfway around the world to volunteer when there are lots of needs right here in the U.S. Actually, that's kind of hard to answer. I just know that I need to go. After being involved with The Emancipation Network for a couple of years, it's time to take this step. It's time to put more action in my actions.

There are many needs in the world. God calls different people to respond to different needs and with different actions. There's a song on Christian radio with a line that says (paraphrased) "Why not me? Why not now?" This is what I need to do right now.

If you are reading this and you're a praying person, I'd appreciate your prayers during this trip. Blessings!

Monday, July 19, 2010

Who'd have thought?

What do you expect to do when you retire? Take it easy...sleep more time for your favorite hobby...spend more time with family...volunteer more...? I guess I thought all of these things were possible - and more - but I didn't expect to have a tug on my heart for victims of human trafficking. I didn't even know about trafficking until the winter of 2008. When I began to understand the scope (millions of people are trafficked) and horror (forced prostitution, forced labor, degradation, desperate living conditions, violence, coercion and more) I was compelled to "do something" -- but what?

No one should be enslaved. Every person in this world is worthy of respect and dignity. But what can a retired woman do about human trafficking from her home in small town USA? The answer came from another woman, Sarah Symons, featured in Family Circle magazine in February 2008. She and her husband had been touched by the topic of trafficking and decided they'd get involved. They formed The Emancipation Network, assisting shelters that helped victims of human trafficking. Sarah invited women around the US to host an event, a "Freedom Party," to educate others about trafficking and give them the opportunity to purchase items made by survivors. Anyone can do it. Everyone can do it.

So I hosted a party, then another one. Friends and family with a heart for trafficking victims decided to buy gifts and items for themselves from The Emancipation Network. All money went right back to The Emancipation Network to purchase more items and so it's been going for the past couple of years. A craft show here and a party there -- purchases that benefit both buyers in our corner of the world as well as survivors in over 15 different shelters around the world.

Who'd have thought that God would bring this cause into my life? I don't believe in coincidence. I do believe in His leading. And now He's leading me to volunteer at some of these shelters in Kolkata, India -- more than just a little bit out of my normal realm and comfort zone.

And now it's only 10 days before leaving for India....