Saturday, June 4, 2011

Island in the Storm

The first time I went to the island was an adventure unto itself. A 17 hour train ride, followed by a 3 hour van excursion, which ended at the shore of a gorgeous river where we were greeted by a canoe with a small motor. The canoe took 2 hours to get us to the shore of the island (mainly because the motor quit working half-way there).

But we weren't done yet. A newly fashioned bullock cart, pulled by two massive water buffaloes, met us in the water so we could step directly from boat to cart.

We rode for another 30 minutes across the dunes dotted with tall grass into the jungle.

A journey I will never forget and cannot wait to do again.

The people of the island are cautious, welcoming, curious and beautiful. I have always thought that Indians were some of the most beautiful people on the planet. The purity of living in this remote place shows on their faces. Especially the children. Unmarred by X-Box and IPods, they live and work, play and learn in the elements.

That day, after the long journey, we were treated to a welcoming ceremony. There are about 400 people who live here and almost all were there to greet us with a shower of marigold peddles, songs and hand shakes. Followed by an incredible meal of fresh fish curry and bananas for dessert.

We spent the day admiring their crops and sitting with the elders to discuss their needs. India Partners, the organization I work for, sent me to learn more about extending our partnership with this community. We had already built a 2-story community center, helped with agricultural projects and they had been great partners.

These people are hard workers. They were seeking help and improvements to ease their daily living. They had been devastated by recurring floods that wipe out their crops and livestock and destroyed their simple mud and stick homes. I asked why they did not leave the island and find a new home. Their answer was quick and simple.

This is their home. They own the land. Their ancestors have lived there for centuries and being from the untouchable caste, they had no other options for property ownership. They had no choice but to make it work, or live under a tarp on the side of the road in a town 60 miles away. No, they were not interested in moving.

After a wonderful afternoon of conversation and brainstorming about a passenger boat, a new school and water pumps for their crops, and some not so practical ideas, it was time to leave. I had 10 pages of their thoughts and dreams tucked away in my tote bag, and a great sense of responsibility in my heart.

One of my fondest memories of the visit was the children. We had such fun taking photos, singing action songs and making pantomime communication. The girl in the red sari and the laughing boys are etched in my mind.

As we pulled away on the bullock cart, the sun beating down on our backs, I felt a sudden urge to burst out "Just hear those sleigh bells jingle and ring-ting-tinglaling too!" I got to laughing so hard at myself singing 'Sleigh Ride' in the middle of the jungle on an island...I'm such a dork that was hilarious watching the islanders laugh with me and probably at me while I sang a 'good-bye' song.

One week after we left, the monsoons hit. I cried when I got the news via email. Their gorgeous crops were destroyed, mud and stick huts washed away and 9 children perished. I wondered about the girl in the red sari and the laughing boys. Were they still there?

In 3 weeks I will find out.

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