When I was in 8th grade my family decided to visit my brother in India. He, like I am now, was spending three months studying at an American program in Bodhgaya. Although I made countless memories during my time there, the most vivid experience was my trip to Varanasi. My family woke at dawn and hired a boat on the bank of the Ganges. From there we set off through the lotus-covered waters to observe Varanasi’s famous Burning Ghats. These Ghats are where Hindu families carry out public cremations of their loved ones. The smell, the smoke, the lighting, and the spirit in the air- all of these things were too much for my mind to handle. That moment stuck with me and was a major factor in my decision to study abroad in India. I could never quite grasp everything in that scene. There were so many things that were beyond foreign to me. Although, even at that age, I had been lucky enough to travel to many different places, I had never seen anything like the Burning Ghats. And because they confused me so much, because they challenged me so much, I needed to return to them eventually. I finally accomplished that goal last week.
To prepare students for their time on their Independent Study Project, SIT sends four groups of students off to “intern” at a nonprofit for 10 days. The choices were: a women’s empowerment group in Dharmasala, an education group in Udaipur, an environmental group in Delhi, and an education group in Varanasi. While each nonprofit seemed amazing, I couldn’t pass up the chance to return to Varanasi. So, after 8 years, and a 20 hour train ride, I returned to Varanasi and its Burning Ghats.
My experience there was incredible. I find myself drawn to the holy cities of India; The chaos that engulfs them, the diversity of the visitors, and the spirituality that serves as platforms to the whole ordeal all fascinate me. I am at once bombarded by my senses and at peace with my self. Each day was more exhausting than the next. However we were blessed with an ample amount of time to relax and digest. Literally digest: we found some delicious (and cheap!) Middle Eastern food and our dinners turned into a daily reprieve from the madness surrounding us. I found a great amount of time to read. It was bizarre to escape the world for a while through a novel only to look out onto the Ganges rushing past and hear the sound of cows and taxis consuming the city. We did find time to explore however. We ended up visiting the Ghats twice; the first time we followed a little boy through the skinny, shit-ridden streets of Varanasi to a building that overlooked the Burning Ghats. Even though we spent at least 30 minutes transfixed by the scene, we all were unsatisfied and we returned at dawn a couple days later via boat. Even though I found myself more connected/understanding of the families morning their loved ones, I found myself no closer to understanding what was in front of me. Varanasi was a great city accompanied by an atmosphere that is difficult to describe. I’ve posted some photos below that will hopefully capture what I saw in front of me (no photos of the public cremations.)
The Organization we visited in Varansi was founded by a Swiss woman 20 years ago and was named Kiran. It was a school (better described as a village) for kids with disabilities. The school was created for kids with physical, neurological, and learning disabilities. There were numerous programs offered by Kiran: a special education unit, an integrated education unit (which included kids without any disabilities), a vocational/skill training center, a rehabilitation unit, and a teacher-accreditation unit. We spend 5 days visiting each of the units and it was an amazing experience. I have always been interested in education and I’ve even had the opportunity to volunteer at a special education summer camp, but I’ve never experienced something as educational about this field than my time in Kiran. I have included an excerpt from the journal I kept during my time there that hopefully portrays the environment I was surround by.
“We arrived at the same time as everyone else. After meeting the Director’s personal assistant, who was confided to a wheel chair, she escorted us to the main meting hall for daily prayer and meditation. Students fill the room. Some were confided to wheel chairs- they sat at the edge of the room- others relied on crutches, which they left at the door, relying on friendship to reach their seats. Some differences we obvious some were not. Many students sat on-stage with a staff member seated in front of a harmonium. When the room reached capacity the harmonium began to hum and the crowd commenced in devotional song. After a couple of minutes, the room fell silent and we began mediation. I was immediately jealous of the students for having the chance to start their day with such mindfulness. The students seemed sincere as the room seemed unusually still considering the diversity of life it held. Following another song and what I assume was the pledge of allegiance; the woman we met earlier took the microphone for announcements. She introduced us, along with a French couple and their two younger children. The couple must have been supporters as they were greeted with a garland of flowers. The students dutifully clapped- a strangely routine procedure considering the ongoing stairs of bewilderment we seemed to be recipients of.
What stood out most at first was the sense of community that permeated the room. The group seemed more like a dysfunctional family than anything; accepting and proud of each other’s differences. Next was the sense of foreigner that I felt. I’m sure each of those students was suffocated by a feeling of foreignness throughout their lives. However, here at Kiran, WE were the foreigners; this was their home turf. Unlike the people who had subjected them to this feeling of otherness, the students at Kiran were extremely willing to accept us into their community. Our foreignness and all of our differences only added to the community. In fact, in many ways I felt more comfortable at Kiran than anywhere else that I had visited. The stairs seems more friendly and forgiving and more often then not transformed into a smile or a booming, “Namaste!”
The rest of the was exhausting; Along with the French couple, we received a tour of each program and each of their subsections. We visited the vocational training center where students were busy making jewelry and scarves, canning food, and taking classes on henna painting. We visited the wood workshop where skilled carpenters were hard at work manufacturing the same toys that they themselves had enjoyed as kids. We visited the Human Resource Training Center (HRTC) where Kiran trained the next generation of teachers and administrators for special needs children. We saw the various classrooms- each one distinctly different from the others. Two were for hearing impaired children. Their smiles and play seems even more expressive than that of most people. Their lack of hearing in no way slowed their connection with other classmates or the outside world. We visited the special education unit where students of differing ages and abilities aided each other in their common mission. We visited the integrated education unit as well where we watched one student with polio assist another student with Cerebral Palsy into her wheel chair. I couldn’t help but think that Kiran had accomplished what the American education system had always struggled to do: teach compassion and empathy to its students.”
This week was a lot to grasp. I frequently find myself thinking that these situations are too difficult to describe accurately, at least by me, which discourages me from blogging about them. I hope photos can suffice where I may fail and I look forward to telling these stories (with some more Masala) when I’m back!