One week in India and already battling a nasty cough, runny nose, fever and travelers butt. I was so disappointed in myself. After six nights sleeping in the cold winter nights of Harike, Punjab, and having traveled 24 hours to the other side of the world then hopping on a 12 hour bus to Amritsar, plus a local bus to rural Punjab, it’s no wonder my immune system gave up on me. Luckily I’m happily back in Gajner now house hunting for the management team whom will be living here for the next few months. I was obviously thrilled with this decision - my home away from home.
Arriving in Delhi, I was running on autopilot. My exhaustion had pushed me into robotic mode, running solely on the fuel from the last meal I had eaten aboard the plane (and possibly the McChicken I had when leaving JKF on my connection). While waiting to cross immigration, there was a Middle Eastern family crowding the officers, waving their forms at them and looking extremely confused. The foreigners behind me grew frustrated and irritated at the situation as it slowed down the line. I stood there staring into space; my eyes glossy and my lips dry from dehydration. When I finally crossed and grabbed my bag, I met Harmonie at the Costa Coffee, my new partner in crime. The two of us will be taking on the role of operations for the organization, assisting B, our wonderful and hilariously bearded Project Director who proudly wears my “We The North” Toronto Raptors hat as if he is a basketball expert. Harmonie is a very tall and blond Swiss-French gal with a beautiful smile and big blue eyes. The two us traveled up to Harike almost immediately after landing to join the rest of the team for our end of year meeting, a success in all our eyes. Also part of our little management team is Daniela, a gorgeous Colombian with the most beautiful energy radiating out of every pore on her flawless skin. I think of her as our guru, giving wise words of wisdom when needed most and balancing the energy within the organization. Her actual role - Experience Manager. Her background in psychology and the spirituality she brings to every word she speaks will be extremely beneficial for the organization when it comes to mediating conflict and ensuring interns make the most of their time with EduCare.
Following the meeting, the three of us, along with Rachael, currently the Assistant Project Director who is sadly leaving us on sabbatical for the next year or so, travelled to Pushkar for a management meeting and of course to enjoy the camel festival! Arriving in the cute little town brought back such a overflow of emotions and memories I hold so dear to my heart – Holi, Alicia, drinking chai in the center, coconut lassies, good looking Israeli’s…sigh. The place was packed upon arrival. Most streets were closed so we took my secret route next to Chacha’s Guesthouse to journey over to Kanak Guesthouse, a tall and narrow guesthouse owned by a married couple and their small child who had graciously given myself and Alicia their personal bedroom over Holi when they ran out of rooms. “Jazzmine!” the husband Tyagi exclaimed when I walked through the door, embracing me in a hug. It’s amazing how in India after two visits you suddenly become someone’s best friend.
The two days spent there we went over job roles and responsibilities for the year ahead of us. We also enjoyed the fabulous Pushkar “special” cookies and of course some much needed sleep, which was actually very difficult with all the noise throughout the night. We also came across an actual fair one night while walking down one of the main roads. Like a real fair - ferris wheels and those swinging ship rides. They were massive, moving extremely fast and full of flashing lights. I was so confused and memorized. In the middle of this holy and traditional Rajasthani town were the most North American-made machines and yet I didn’t see a single camel while I was there. It kind of terrified me, so I went to bed. It may have been from the cookie though…
My travel to Gajner from Pushkar was via local bus to Merta City then on to Bikaner, a solid nine hours of travelling. I spent the first two hours crammed in the front with the driver and three older Rajasthani women and their husbands. The women sat touching my hair and attempting to scrub off the tattoo on my back. One of the older men could speak a little English and was curious about my work here in Rajasthan. I explained to him how I work for a grassroots organization and the work we do in marginalized communities with women; developing microfinance projects, Hindi classes, etc. He repeated this all in Hindi of course for everyone else to join in on the conversation. His wife took my shoulder and smiled. Her paan stained teeth only filling half her mouth. She giggled and commented in Hindi. Her husband translated. “She thinks women situation in Rajasthan never change.” I was actually quite shocked. No one had ever said that to me before. So I naively replied, “yes it will”, but how else could I explain? I felt helpless. I wanted to explain our projects and our work to develop empowered women in marginalized communities, how our projects bring responsibility, motivation and aspiration to women. But how could I?
I jumped out the bus in Merta City feeling defeated and exhausted after travelling two hours to only go 60 kilometers. Merta City, I would guess, rarely sees foreigners. I was like a brand new piece in a museum with my pink backpack and curly hair. I wonder what the artist was thinking when they made this one. I was a unique mirage in a sea of women veiling their faces and looking down to avoid the gaze of strange men. My appearance also definitely sparked some testosterone. One man even asked for my hand in marriage. I very sharply replied “NO” more than once, slapping his hand away from my bare arm.
Sleeping that night in Gajner was like a dream come true, especially when I discovered the new puppy living among us, Delhi! He’s a biter though, which is becoming a nuisance for the leggings and wool socks I wear around the house. My first house visit was of course Rekha’s. I was greeted with the biggest hugs, especially from Harseet, who leapt into my arms giggling away. I almost burst into pure joyful tears when I learned the eldest sister, Anju, is due next month with her first born and Harseet is soon to be a big brother! Papaji is in bad health though now, he suffered a heart attack a few months earlier from family stress on his side between himself and his brother. He had stayed home for a while to rest but is now back to running the tracker all day long, which really raises a red flag in my mind. I’m going to be continually checking in on him. Rekha is a busy scholar, studying at college twice a week and teaching math and Hindi at the local schools here in Gajner. I’m so proud of how much she is succeeding and can't wait to spend more time with her over the next few months.
Over the past few days, I've thought back to that old woman in the bus and how I could of and would of helped her see my side. She of course looked at me with fondness, almost as if saying well, thank you for trying but that's not good enough. How do we move forward and help women and men in rural settings understand that change is like a seed? Women empowerment may be a very large tree but each day if we water it and continue to nurture it and provide support, some day it will stand strong. The work we do here is like a beautiful, blossoming willow. Right now it's small but each day, with the right support and enough water, it will provide plenty of shade for the future to come.
Now after a few days of rest and nursing myself back to health, I will travel yet again - 18 hours to Naddi, up the mountain from Dharamsala for yet another meeting.
Good thing the coffee there is worth it.