June 11, 2013
God's own country is what they call this area of India and from the moment you arrive you can see why. It is lush with green palm trees, flowers, rivers, beaches, mango trees, wildlife and more. If you love nature, this is surely heaven on earth. June is the low season here as it is the beginning of monsoon season. It is much different than January, when the weather is a perfect 85 degrees with a sea breeze, you can stay all day outside and the streets are bustling. It is storming hard when I arrive and my dear friend Rafi (our main driver for the volunteer trip this winter) arrives with his friend to pick me up in a SUV. Thank goodness, because I originally said the tuk tuk is fine, I don't mind the 90min drive, but he insisted this was not the way to go. I quickly found out why as we wove through the flooded streets and had to take multiple detours taking us nearly twice the amount of time it should have. I still would have liked to have attempted the adventure in the tuk tuk though. Ha!
We arrived at SeaHut Homestay, an amazing real home stay that I was fortunate enough to come across in January. SeaHut is owned by a sweet family that of course has a strong practice of true Indian warmth and hospitality. it is located only a short bike ride from the center of town and our two volunteer projects. It was just me staying there with Hema and Antony (the owners) and their wonderful children Shilpa and Saraith. Shilpa was home from college break, where she is studying social work, and she even joined me for part of the volunteering. Saraith has just finished with college and was waiting to start an internship on a ship because he has to log 18 months at sea to finish his degree and become a ship captain. Their parents are the sweetest people and took me in as their own, it felt like home again in a way that you can daydream of just staying forever. I spent many of the nights laughing till my stomach hurt with the kids on the porch till the late hours of the evening just like they were my own brother and sister giving eachother a hard time and playing little jokes and swapping life stories. I really loved their stories about growing up in a home full of cousins, aunts and uncles and how everyone pitches in to help eachother all the time. I also really appreciated their in depth break down of how Kerala has worked so hard through the education system to bring up the literacy rate and start to desperate themselves from many of the typical struggles found in other regions in India. They have a very anonymous system for grading to try and rule out the cast system from effecting individual student placement.
On my second day there Rhaki, our in-country coordinator and avid yogi friend came to meet me for tea in the morning so we could discuss all the details of how to set up a new project in Kochi. So much behind-the-scenes work goes into each of these trips, and she is such an asset and wealth of knowledge. She was born in Bangalore but moved to Kerala a long time ago, raising both of her teenage children there. She's also a former school teacher, so she is wonderfully creative coming up with ideas for how to use the volunteers' time the most wisely at both of the disabled children's homes where we will volunteer. Our first priority was to visit the projects and sit with the main teachers and discuss the January trip, and also deepen our relationship with the communities to make sure we are supporting them in the most productive ways possible.
We started with a visit to Reksha to meet with the director Elizabeth. She is an infectiously energetic woman who is obviously living her dharma. There are so many programs running out of this one building, it is quite impressive. Elizabeth's dream to keep adding on and to offering support throughout each of their student's lives and even outreach into community awareness makes you want to follow her around all day and help in any way you can. There are over 100 disabled children attending the school, a physical therapy unit with 2-3 therapists on staff, a vocational school, and the beginnings of an outreach program to provide internships to the students after they have graduated. We sat as she explained how difficult it is to build awareness in the city that disabled doesn't mean unable and that the students need to find ways to be employed on some level so they can feel fulfilled and provide a little for themselves, as many are orphaned. The ones with parents have their own set of struggles as well. She told me a story about one girl in particular who is wonderful at henna and loves artfully drafting it on to people. This girl found her an internship at a nice shop for her to work, but the mother was to concerned that something could happen to her daughter during a work day and she wouldn't be able to tell her about it, so the mother didn't allow her to start working. This is a valid concern and it is a question we all struggle with over protection or independence - which one provides the best quality of life? Another thing about this school I am in love with is that they have a program to help acclimate mothers to taking care of their disabled children. They act as a support group and help them stay grounded and give hope. Many of these mothers are extremely young and from very poor fishing villages, so they strive towards keeping this program as well as all of their programs free or available for a very small fee. Elizabeth is also one of the employees who has worked there for the least amount of time (a short 14 years), so the whole staff is steeped in knowledge and extremely dedicated to this cause as they tirelessly work on a shoestring budget.
I started the next day with a 2 hour yoga practice with Abraham, your quintessential Indian Yogi master who speaks to the oneness of the universe in each practice. He has spoken at colleges around the world, been featured in magazines, and yet he still continues to offer donation-only classes 2 times a day on the top floor of his home, which is decked out in pictures of Jesus, Buddha, and Krishna. There are Om signs all centered around a giant stained glass sun that lets light shine through in streaming rays of gold (we will have a yoga class with him as well as a pranayama workshop this January). My favorite nugget of knowledge he constantly loves to remind the class is that there are sea turtles that live up to 400 years and they only breathe 4 times a minute, so we need to slow down are breathe and live a long time like the wise sea turtles.
After yoga, Rhaki and I went to visit Cottolengo, a disabled children's home run by a group of nuns. Sister Judy took us for a tour of the school. There are 62 students here: 28 board at the school and 12 of them are orphaned and are wards of the school. They offer the education for no cost and boarding for no cost or a donation if the family can afford it. They fundraise for every part of this school as they used to receive some government funds as well as some help from the Vatican, but due to some government corruption that one of the mayors is on trial for and the Vatican citing "lack of funds," that money is no longer available. At the same time that they lost funding, they had also established which resulted in a flood of students the Sisters didn't want to turn away. As a result, they have taken it on themselves to try to fund the school, boarding and public service physical therapy clinic themselves through donation requests. Each of the sisters calls the students their "little jewels" and you can feel the love between them. Everyone is constantly hugging and helping each other. The sisters invited me to come and teach a yoga class to the school at the end of the week, so of course I excepted the invitation even though I was unsure of what to teach exactly. I reached out that evening to my friend Christine who teaches yoga to autistic children and got some great tips. After the Cottolengo meeting, Rhaki and I set out to find a home stay for all of us in case our group is to big for Sea Hut Homestay. It is low season, so there was hardly anyone in any of the home stays, but in January every room will be almost filled, so many didn't want to take groups or didn't have a yoga room. Still, after hours of looking, negotiating and investigating we found 3 great alternatives.
The next day, I wanted to explore Anthripally Waterfalls where we will be taking an excursion in January. Rafi and his two friends came to pick me up in the SUV again and we headed out to the jungle. It was a 1 hour drive to the foothills, then another hour up into the mountains. One of his friends knew the area very well since he was a location scout for a Bollywood movie that is about to be filmed there called Masala Café (we will have to have a Bollywood night and all watch it together :) ). Once we reached the top, there were monkeys all around. They were as fearless as squirrels in Manhattan and would come right up to you. One came up and stole my water bottle then tried to get my purse. I wish I could bring one home with me so badly. We trekked out to the waterfalls followed by a stream of monkeys. The top of the waterfall is like a beautiful still lake where everyone is bathing and surrounded by trees. I was literally the only Western tourist here. I found it so ridiculous how the men were all bathing in their tiny underwear, while the women were swimming in their full saris. Just another typical only-Indian scenario. I sat on the rocks and soaked my feet with a gaggle of women who told me stories of this sacred river while my newfound friends went for a swim.
After the waterfalls my friends took me to meet a baby I had been reading about that was from a very poor family and needed heart surgery. I didn't even realize I was going to meet him, I thought they were just showing me the neighborhood but then all of a sudden I was whisked down this alley full of people and into this small crowded home and out came the darling baby in his mother's arms. The family was so kind and generous sitting with me and having their story translated by my friend. You could tell how nice they were, but also how genuine their exhaustion was. They still are going to owe about $2000 for the surgery and the doctor almost refused but the newspaper article raised enough for a down payment. I'd love to help this family and cut them a break - they surely deserve to be concentrating on letting him heal, not on bills.
My final day in Kerala was a perfect sendoff, going back to Cottolengo. Shilpa, my new roommate at my home stay :) , traveled with me to the school to teach a yoga class to almost 62 students, some English volunteers and a few nuns. The students had had a regular yoga class a few months ago and they remembered so much. At the end of a 30 min yin class I asked if any of the kids wanted to be teacher and this one little girl stood up right away. She was all smiles and so sweet, she couldn't talk very much and had been orphaned to the school, but she clearly in her own perfect way. She led us through 10 beautiful sun salutations, her favorite fish pose and rounds of Om then into a peaceful shavasana. The kids around me were giggling during shavasana and we all started to hold hands and the laughter was infectious. With all the struggles these children have gone through, they are pure light and are so happy it's unbelievable. Also the tenderness these sisters have with the children gave me so much peace, because they have completely adopted each other as family in their hearts. It is going to be such a privilege to spend time working side-by-side with all these inspirational people and I can't wait to share this project with everyone.
There are so many more stories to tell, but they will have to wait till we come back and I can make everyone a cup of masala chai (I am desperately trying to learn to perfect this recipe). Thank you all so much for your support, for spreading the word, and for being part of the Yogamour community. We are looking forward to having you join us and to bring your own experience to these lovely communities.
Lots of love and keep leading with your heart,