I always gain something and leave something behind when I visit India. My love for this country knows no bounds. My heart expands each time I have the chance to go here. I went into the country crying this time, and I left crying, both times for the deepest of loves a human can know. One could call it an affliction, and I have at times. But all in all–pieces of my heart will always reside there and I have no regrets.
There is so much to say about Sikkim, the Himalayas, people who inhabit those spaces, and the amazing group of folks I journeyed with. In time, I am sure I will have more to say, but for now–this is the most pressing to share.
All the same, I could not be more thrilled to be home. Even though I was privileged to have the opportunity to experience a part of the world most people will never see, the trip was bittersweet in many ways. Having been to India twice previously, traveling alone with a fearless heart, I had zero reservations about joining the program aside from being in close proximity to others at pretty much all times without reprieve, introvert I am, being treated like I needed protecting, or directions on a constant basis. I am a grown woman with grown children, who has managed being on her own since I was just sixteen years old. I thought I knew everything then, and apparently still do.
Little did I know, on this trip I would need people, in ways I could not have imagined or prepared myself for. While I have always held that people in general have good hearts and mean well most times, my general disposition towards trusting them not to disappoint sooner or later, and lack of real expectation for more, has usually kept me safe from emotional fallout. All life struggles aside, and because of, I have spent the last several years working to raise awareness and trying to help facilitate change around what we Americans call social justice and equality. This trip would teach me so much about people in general, that it was not necessarily the downfall of those in the West, or the Buddhist way in Sikkim, India, or status of the people, that determines their characters.
Towards my second week in India, I fell sick in ways that had me hanging my head out passenger windows, or jumping out of cars not yet in park to vomit, as I stood toes to the ledges of cliffs that had no end in sight. There is no way to tell if it was something I ate or drank, if it was altitude or motion sickness, or viral. I was in the car when it hit me, with a driver who no more knew my name than I his. The first time I jumped out, he was out of the car and around to me before I could bend over to vomit good, standing there with tissue in hand saying, “Here, here.” This happened every 2-5minutes for what seemed like a never-ending drive through those mountains. If I failed to reach out for the tissue, as I squatted over sick, he would help wipe my hands and face. I will never forget the look of genuine care and concern on his face. While I adore my car mates, they all sat in the backseat, likely horrified, as I faced what felt like the brinks of death on a curvy washed out road in those mountains, every few thousand feet for miles. Even one of our hosting guides got out and walked it with me when I simply could not be in the car.
My professor, also a mother and living with her own health issues, took over once we reached the hotel and at times, sat vigil watching over me. I remember her rubbing my head, thinking, not even my mother had done that as far as I could recall when I was a child. I remember stammering into the hotel lobby only to make it to a nearby seat and someone suggesting I eat something (I cannot recall what), and her snapping back, “NO. Only BRAT–bananas, rice, applesauce or toast.” She was literally mothering me. It was comforting, and my gratitude for her going above and beyond the call of duty to ensure my speedy recovery, is unending. Someone who struggles with her own health, and had literally stated early on in the trip, “It was not her job to check in on us, mother us, or be our psychiatrists,” quickly contradicted herself in cases where those very things were warranted, with me and on a number of other occasions. While it initially did not set well with me, I realize now it was spoken of her own frustrations with some nonsense she had to deal with our first week there.
Every day I had to get in the car and travel post my bout with sickness, I made sure to secure the same front seat with the same driver who had taken such care beyond his own call of duty to make sure I was as comfortable as I could be on those rides. More than a few times they resulted in a great deal of motion sickness for me. Any time my driver would hit a bump in the road without ability to avoid, he would look at me immediately and say sorry. He took great care, considering those roads put you in the mind of what we call creeks here, to avoid every large dip or protrusion in the road. While he is by far and large a wonderful and mindful driver, I know he went out the way to make my remaining journey easier. Towards the end of the trip, we were told the drivers would be able to eat dinner with us, something customarily not done otherwise. There is a hierarchy in India, wherever you go. People accept their roles in society with little pushback, because it just makes life easier they say.
When that dinner together never happened, I–the American social justice warrioress–felt bothered and asked the driver the next day in the car, why they did not join us. He held out his hand, palm up and told me to look at his fingers. He said, “Those fingers represent people, and no people are equal.” He went on to say it was ok, and everyone has a place in society. My driver later told me just before we left, when I finally got to personally thank him and have a real conversation, that it was his “duty to protect me as my driver.” He said he did not understand “why my friends did not get out to help me,” imagining himself having been sick and knew he had to be the one. He described himself as a small man in the world to me a number of times when I would compliment him, as we did become what I would like to think of as friends, customary or not. In those moments, I knew he was a giant. Status does not mean stature. Positioning on the totem pole of an ancient hierarchical system does not reflect a person’s heart or integrity.
As I journeyed home, I fell sick once more on my flight. I had flown home on a different flight than my group, and was hospitalized in Chicago until I was stable enough to fly again. So many complete strangers came to my assistance, people who here would be considered lower status, mere service people. A young African man handling baggage as I came off my flight vomiting in a bag and leaning against the wall, took notice of me and immediately found me a wheelchair. He got me through customs and all the way to my next gate where he stood by until I was loaded on my connecting flight. As I departed that flight, I was sick again, and a young woman of Spanish descent came to my rescue, pushing me all over Chicago airport, through customs twice, under mixed demands from the manager of United. When I was finally sent to the airport’s adjoining University Medical Center, she stayed with me until her shift was over. The PA there, also a woman of Spanish descent, took me under her wing and came checking on me every few minutes between her many other tasks. When I was finally able to fly home the following day, yet another airline employee came for me with a wheelchair, a man of color as well, to see me to my gate. He went out of his way, taking me to get water at a nearby food stand. The cashier, yet again an African American woman, looked up at me sitting in that wheelchair, appearing as frazzled as anyone without a shower in two days, who had vomited her life up and been on IV’s the past 24 hours could, and said, “You’re almost there pretty lady.” She had no idea where I had been, or where I was going.
The point of this post is this—no matter where we go in the world, it is most often the people who think themselves the smallest, or are thought of as such, who will come to our rescue in a crisis. It is not the two white men sitting on both sides of you on a plane watching you lean forward to vomit without uttering the smallest, “Are you ok?” It is not the white flight attendants who knew you were sick on not one, but two entire flights, and never once came by to ask if you needed anything. Sometimes even your friends with the best of hearts will fail to jump out when you need someone. Maybe your own mother struggled to show love when you were a child, and at 40 years old, you finally get a moment to experience what that should have felt like. The Himalayas are vast and there are literal giants there. And, here in the U.S., the most marginalized populations are the ones who will rise to the occasion and hold your hair as you vomit.