A Visit to an Orphanage
Passage to India
Band members of the U.S. Grammy-award winning Latin Hip-hop music group, Ozomatli, watch children perform during their visit to the Arya Orphanage in New Delhi, India. (Photo: Manan Vatsyayana / AFP-Getty Images)
The author began sponsoring orphans in India in 2003, and has traveled to India twice to work in the Miracle Foundation orphanage, through www.miraclefoundation.org. She is currently writing a book about the plight and social issues confronting India’s orphan population.
The plane starts its final descent toward Bhubaneswar, India, and my heart begins to race. I have been traveling halfway around the world for nearly two full days on a volunteer mission, to work at a Miracle Foundation orphanage. When I first met Caroline Boudreaux in 2003, my mind was filled with images of traveling to India to meet the children who had clearly captured her heart and fueled her passion. A year later, after I had been volunteering for her foundation and we had become friends, she invited me to go. I immediately said yes. Caroline has asked me several times in the last six months if I was sure I wanted to go, almost expressing disbelief and amazement that any of us would want to. A difficult trip; hard on the body, hard on the heart. I never had a moment's doubt. And now here I am, having been inoculated half a dozen times and visa-stamped, about to actually be there.
As the plane touches down, my stomach tightens, and I wait impatiently for the exit doors to open. Eleven dazed Americans emerge and walk across the tarmac to the small terminal. I am beyond tired, but excited and a bit apprehensive to finally be here after two days of grueling travel across three continents. After much waiting and confusion — two things I am beginning to understand as the standards of everything in India — at long last our luggage is crammed into one car and tied to the roof of another jeep-like vehicle. We zoom down the main road of Bhubaneswar, which is dirt peppered with potholes, narrowly missing bicycles, pedestrians, cows and mopeds. Our driver, like all the others around him, merely lays on his horn continuously — I assume to warn those in his path that it will be their fault if they are struck, having been given adequate warning.
India is everything I had imagined it would be, only more so. More colors, more noises, more smells, more people, more everything. It is an assault on all my senses at once. The wonderful and the abject co-exist here side by side, for the most part peacefully. There is what everyone, myself included, expects of India — poverty, ugliness, despair, filth. But there is also much beauty in the midst of it. The warmth and shyness of the people, the colorful saris, the upscale shops next to the street vendors, the swaying trees surrounding it all.
I have learned something new already — that beauty is not its own thing which can be separated out, sanitized, and kept apart for its own sake. That is the American version of beauty, which becomes diluted in that very process. It cannot be fully seen and appreciated in that realm, so far removed is it from anything to compare it to, to cause it to fully stand out and be vibrant. The true measure of beauty lies in its imperfections; to see it, one must embrace it all. The American version of beauty seems remote, generic, anesthetized; requiring an ever-higher standard before it can be realized.
The simple truth of it is overlooked, but not here. In India, beauty is in one raindrop, one golden sari, one flower in a tiny hand. I see beauty in the way a perfectly tended dog is lovingly held in the lap of his well-dressed Indian mistress. I see beauty in the brief glimpse of the interior of an ornate Hindu temple, candles glowing and people bowing their heads to the ground in prayer. Above all, this is India.
And in the children beauty seems to come alive, almost making me believe it is a living entity I could capture in my hands.
Night has fallen, as our vehicle lurches along and then, without warning, turns into the ashram. In a second, the cars have stopped and 110 children are lined around the drive in a semi-circle, waving and chanting "Welcome" over and over. I climb out and they are all around me, touching my feet in blessing. I am overwhelmed and unsure what to do, blindly following behind Papa and Caroline, who are moving into the ashram. The children are shy at first, obviously excited to see us but reticent, staying a few feet behind. One little girl, about seven years old, summons her courage and touches my arm, then takes my hand. "Hello," she says softly, looking up at me and just as quickly dropping her eyes, giggling. As soon as she does this, the crowd of surrounding children shed their reserve and instantly moved in close, putting their hands out for me to shake. I do, over and over and over. There is a never-ending supply of hands raised in front of me, and as I grasp each one I bend down to look in their eyes and smile widely at them; in fact I can't keep the smile from my face. They are precious, so sweet and beautiful and they are overjoyed, almost beyond belief, that we have traveled halfway around the world just to see them.
"Hello," we tell each other over and over, as the throng of us slowly makes our way into the compound. It is almost surreal, and happening so quickly. I don't have time to look around, to get any sense of where I'm at in the darkness. There are just the children, all around, and my feet moving forward until we're in a courtyard. The children, as one, leave our sides and begin climbing a staircase in an orderly fashion. We follow, removing our shoes at the top of the stairs and entering the prayer room. The children are already lined up and sitting on rugs on the floor. We are escorted to the front of the room where we, too, sit cross-legged. Papa walks to his brand-new podium and microphone and speaks, alternating between English and their dialect of Oriya. He welcomes us, calls us friends and Caroline his "daughter." We are each introduced one at a time, and girls bring us bouquets of marigolds and touch our feet. Then the prayers begin.
The children start with a simple chant: "Om....om..," their small voices resonating deeply. Finally things slow down enough for me to begin to take it all in, to look at the kids clearly and in light, to start to feel my heart slow down. The chanting gives way to a song, the children's voices rising lyrically and filling the room. A soothing peace fills me, and I breathe out deeply. The past 40 hours fall away as if they were nothing. I have never felt such an unconditional, overwhelming love pouring out and over me, for simply being here. For nothing more than merely showing up, I am awash in such an outpouring of innocent, true, powerful love that these children give so easily. They break my heart, and make it whole again. There is no need for sadness or pity for these children, because I have never been in the presence of such peace and happiness.
This essay was originally published in the October 2006 edition of Raving Dove.
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