Final Reflections on Miracle Foundation Trip to India

My Passage to India

I just returned from an amazing two weeks in India with a local nonprofit, The Miracle Foundation, which adopts and supports orphanages in India, home of 25 million orphans. I was part of a team of eight ambassadors or volunteers. Everyone said this trip would be life changing, but I’ve traveled some and was a bit skeptical.

Despite the fascinating culture and eclectic mish mash of everything under the sun, which is India, what affected me most were the children in the two homes we visited. I came to help them, but I came away with the lessons they taught me.

I didn’t really know what to expect. I guess I thought I’d be sad, and the children would be sad, and I’d feel sorry for them. From the beginning, they were so open and welcoming. They speak their native language, at the Savalee Home it was Marathi, similar to Hindi, but they can speak a little English and write their names. Somehow the language barrier miraculously lifted over time, and we were able to play and communicate.

One trouble I had at first was interpreting the Indian head bobble. The nod from side to side, kind of like our No, but tracing an infinity symbol (sideways 8), for Yes or Okay, threw me at first. My group began by writing their names on the headscarves we gave them as nametags. As they wrote their names, they’d draw an asterisk on either end. I called that a star, and so we named our group the stars, or Chandani. But then they drew trees on their scarves, and the word, chandhil, so I’m not really sure. Still, throughout the four days I was the day camp counselor for eight children, three girls, five boys, whenever I’d call, “Chandani,” they’d come running and respond with the same shout.

One of our activities was for each group to paint a mural. I was impressed by the way the children immediately took ownership of the project. Laxmi and Krushna emerged as natural leaders, and our wall began to fill with large lotus flowers and trees. At one point, a hose in the courtyard belched and blasted water all over a section of the just completed mural. The paint ran in a big blur, and my reaction was “Oh no!” As I readied to comfort the children, there was a long pause. Suddenly, Laxmi and the other children let out a great laugh, “Ha ha ha,” and then immediately worked to repair the dripping wall. I thought of my own tendency to panic and make a big deal out of setbacks. The current phrase of “first world problems” came to mind. These children are healthier in some ways, psychologically, than I am.

This happened again the next day when we were flying kites for the beginning of spring festival, Makar Sankranti. It was truly a scene out of the book, The Kite Runner. When one kite’s sharp string cut loose a rival kite, the children went racing to claim the fallen kite as a prize. The kites were made of thin tissue paper, and when they’d rise and swiftly dive to the rocky, thorny ground, the kites would often tear. My first reaction of “Oh no!” was again met with “Ha ha ha,” as the children ran to get a replacement.

The children taught me that, although they were harmed in the past, they are resilient and adaptable. Although I feel for their emotional pain and abandonment, I rejoice in their exuberance, their curiosity, the way they care for each other and form a beautiful community. Rather than depressing, visiting these homes fills me with hope.

On the last day at Savalee, after our goodbye ceremony, at which we were given scarves, woolen vests, the bindi (or dot between the eyes) and even a coconut, the director of the home, Nitesh, gave a farewell speech, translated by the English tutor. He said that he could see tears in the eyes of the children. We couldn’t see this, as we were sitting behind them. As his speech concluded, the children turned and, on every face, fat tears dribbled down. We immediately began to bawl, and they came running to hug us as we comforted each other over our departure. We’d known these children for only four days, but I will never forget them. Still, were we to leave on this sad, heart-rending note, abandoning children who had already been abandoned as orphans? Barbara, our Miracle Foundation leader, knew better. Suddenly, loud, stacticy Bollywood dance tunes blasted from old stereo speakers, and we all began dancing together in that wonderful, free for all, Indian exuberance. We literally danced off into the night, with the children calling out, “Happy journey! Come back soon! I love you!”

These children have more than many, and their lives will only improve as their homes continue to rise to the Miracle Foundation standards, which mirror the UN Rights of the Child. At the ceremony for the new playground at Savalee, as the children rushed to climb on the new equipment the Miracle Foundation provided, I had tears in my eyes. Never have I been part of something that mattered so much, that did so much good in the world. I’ve worked with young people my whole career, but nothing has been as meaningful as visiting these two homes.

A last memory I will share, from both homes, was witnessing the children singing Hindu prayers before their meals. The children, sitting in rows on the ground with their round plates before them, close their eyes, with hands folded in prayer, a gesture originating in India, and sing with beautiful, fervent voices. Their thanks remind me to be ever grateful.

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Old Delhi (Shahjahanabad)

Today we met our pedicab driver guide, and he rode us around Old Delhi. It’s such a startling mix of new and old: dirty, crowded, fascinating. At times he parked and took us to the top of an old complex that was once a mosque and then a stable for British horses. We entered a Jain temple and were guided by a priest to see all the ornate, golden mosaics, onyx idols, etc. In all the beauty, there was an old, dusty, rusted fan, and the chandeliers were covered up with cheap, worn sail-like material. We had to read the rules first, leave all our things, take off our shoes, and if we had been in menses, we would have been forbidden!

We went to the largest mosque in the world as well, but you couldn’t enter it. I figured out that the congregation stood outside in the massive courtyard. We bought some spices at an Afghan spice market, the air pungent with the smells of saffron, chiles, cardamon. Outside the temples, women threaded leis of marigolds and roses for the worshipers. We particularly noticed that narrow, pot-holed streets, the near misses when every kind of vehicle tried to honk and get around us, and the knots of live electric wires above the intersections. We ate at Karim’s, a Muslim establishment since 1913, run by five generations of the same family. It was delicious, and they baked the bread out in the courtyard. When we came out, all the school children in their uniforms were loaded into pedicabs and auto-rickshaws to go home for lunch. I tried to get a picture of it.

After Old Delhi, we went to Kahn Market, an upscale market in New Delhi. We especially wanted to buy new tops at Anokhi, the shop with beautiful cotton fabrics.











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Taj Mahal, Red Fort, and “Baby Taj”

Today we had a guide and driver and saw the main sights of Agra, listed above in the title. Jain was our guide, and he is a Jain. They are not allowed to kill any creature, including ants or mosquitos. He was so knowledgeable and knew all the best spots for photos. We took a lunch break at a Thali restaurant, where they serve the food in little bowls and keep refilling the puri, puffed bread.

I can only say the Taj is awe-inspiring. The Taj Mahal was built over 22 years in the 1660s by Shah Jahan, as a tomb for his beloved wife, Mumtaz, who died while giving birth to their fourteenth child. It is absolutely stunningly beautiful in its grandeur, proportions, and the way the white marble takes on the light at different times of the day.The semi-precious stones inlaid throughout the exterior and interior by Persian artisans, sparkle as the sunlight moves across the surface. The “Baby Taj” was actually built before the Taj by Nur Jahan.. She was married to Jahangir, who was an opium addict and a wastrel. She ran the country behind the scenes since he was unable to. She built this amazing tomb in white marble for her father. It was the first white marble tomb built by the Mughals.

The Agra Fort was first built by Akbar, the second Mughal emperor,and then added on to by his descendants. It takes up a huge area, and is surrounded by what was once a wet moat, filled with crocodiles and a “dry moat” filled with lions and tigers! Now it is occupied by monkeys. We saw where Shah Jahan lived the last years of his life imprisoned, or really under house arrest by his evil younger son who resented Shan Jahan’s favoritism of his oldest son. The evil son imprisoned his father and served him the head of his favorite son on a platter. We got to see the balcony, from which the imprisoned, elderly Shah Jahan, viewed his greatest monument to his departed beloved wife, a bitter reminder of his tragic fall. In the end, at least he was buried next to her inside the Taj Mahal.

Of all the bizarre cultural habits that we had trouble getting our heads around, the most astounding is about the eunuchs. Originally, eunuchs, or what we would called hermaphrodites, were considered specially touched by the gods by the ancient Hindus and called upon to bless new babies and newly wed couples. The Mughals employed forcibly castrated eunuchs to watch over the many women in their harems. After the Mughals fell, certain men “chose” to be castrated to carry on the eunuch tradition. However, now they extort people to pay them to go away. For instance, our guide, Jain, had to pay them tens of thousands of rupees when his son was born, the first male in his family in seventeen and a half years, to keep them from making noise and dancing lewdly in a group outside his house. We kept asking, “Why did you pay them?”
“Because it is shameful to have them dance lewdly before your home.”
“But why don’t you call the police?”
“It doesn’t matter. The superintendent of the neighborhoods informs the eunuchs of births and weddings.”
“But that’s extortion!”
He shrugs.

Later, in Delhi, we learned a new expression: TII, which stands for: This is India!
















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Reflections on visiting two children’s homes in India with TMF

I’m on the plane in Kolkata (Calcutta), waiting to take off for Delhi. Then Barbara, Woody, and I will drive to Agra, four hours. This is the first time I’ve been solo, but I feel comfortable in this country now. What’s interesting is how the airport security works. The men and women are in separate lines, and we are body searched by a female attendant behind a curtain.

I’ve now ended the Miracle Foundation portion of my adventure and will visit no more children’s homes. I’m sad about not getting to see and hug and play with the children, but I’m excited to see the Taj and other sights, including Old Delhi, Shahjahanabad. And KA and I want to do some shopping! I love these comfortable, bright cotton, Indian clothes and leggings. I want to wear them at home.

I haven’t really had time to process all the experiences I have had, especially with the children. I didn’t really know what to expect. I guess I thought I’d be sad and that they’d be sad and that I’d feel sorry for them. Although I feel for their emotional pain and abandonment, I rejoice in their exuberance, their curiosity, the way they care for each other and form a beautiful community. I so admire their caregivers. These children have more than many orphans, and their lives will only improve as their homes continue to rise to the Miracle Foundation standards.

The children have taught me that, although they were harmed in the past, they are resilient and adaptable. They are learning English. At Anwesha, the children study dance, art, and music as well as their school subjects. Rather than depressing, visiting these homes fills me with hope. At the ceremony for the new playground at Savalee, as the children rushed to climb on the new equipment, I had tears in my eyes. Never have I been part of something that mattered so much, that did so much good in the world. I’ve worked with young people my whole career, but nothing has been as meaningful as visiting these two homes. I am so thankful to my friend, Kerry Anne, development director, Barbara, our Miracle Foundation travel guide, and all the staff, volunteers, donors, and all of you who are following this blog. Many thanks!

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Day 2 in Tripura state

This morning we went to Sree’s office, and then I had a private guide drive me about 40 kilometers out of town to the Kali temple. The ride through the city had a lot of traffic, but there are so many different kinds of vehicles on the road, lots of honking and passing into the oncoming lane. We had several close calls, and all I can do is surrender. The seatbelts never work. I love the way Indian women in their saris ride motorcycles behind their men, sidesaddle. There are pedicabs everywhere. One young man was walking a bike with a bunch of twenty-foot bamboo poles tied on at the seat! And then there are the cows that just hang out along the side of the road, sacred in the Hindu tradition. Our guide in Dharavi joked: “The Hindus don’t eat cow; the Muslims don’t eat pork; the two meet with chicken.” But most Hindus are vegetarian, as I have been since I got here.

Kali is the goddess of power, and this shrine was out in the countryside. We could see the border with Bangladesh, a high wire security fence. My guide, Sin, answered my many questions. We removed our shoes, entered the outdoor pavilion temple area. The goddess statue was inside an inner sanctum, and I offered the priest, dressed in red robes, several of the sweet dough balls I purchased from a stall nearby. Then for a donation of some rupees, I knelt, and he made a vertical stripe on my forehead with red paste. When people entered the temple area, they pulled on a large bell. It was particularly interesting at noon. A drummer played his drum as the priest banged his cimbal. Then the priest closed the door to the shrine, bowed to it, circled the entire shrine building, bowed, and opened the door to Kali again. The petitioners returned, offering gifts and prostrating themselves before the goddess.

On the way we saw many rice paddies and bamboo groves. All along the roads are political flags because an election is coming up. The Communist party flags dominate, followed by Congress party flags that are like the flag of India but with one hand in the center. My driver says the Communist party always wins in this area. Maybe that’s why it reminds me so much of the Soviet block countries. We also visited a temple to Krishna. We walked around and viewed the painted statue displays, like store window fronts, that tell the story of Krishna.

I returned for lunch at the offices to join Sree, Kerry Anne, Sandia, and Kajal. So, I got to witness the signing ceremony for the fifth Miracle Foundation orphanage: Anwesha. After lunch, the driver drove Kerry Anne and I back out there. The children were just coming home from school in their uniforms with their backpacks. They hurried and changed, and then I played KA’s lion game with the kids. They absolutely love it. Then they turn into lions and chase me. When they catch me, I hug them all, and they are so happy. The littlest boy is Akash. He is absolutely adorable, but he cries often, when things don’t go his way. He told his house father he was upset because I didn’t chase just him! Later I noticed the other children teaching him his numbers. The children also made formations as cheerleaders do, or rather, human pyramids until the child on the top falls off.

KA took their pictures, and I went with the children to the library. They brought out their English books, and they could identify many English words, such as umbrella and zebra. What they can’t do is conversational English. Next they started putting down mats and sitting in rows. It was time for the late afternoon snack, and they sang their beautiful Hindu prayers in unison with such earnest fatih. Their snack was bananas from their property and puffed rice cereal, which they dipped their bananas into. Then they performed some songs for me, such as Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, and the wonderful anthem, We Shall Overcome. The children sang that song at Savalee, also. It is very popular in India. I don’t know if it was borrowed from Martin Luther King, Jr. during the Civil Rights movement, or if he borrowed it from them.

Here’s a video of the girls singing before their evening snack:

The girls asked KA how old she was. When she said 56, they all starting pantomiming an old, hunched over woman with a walking stick. It was so funny. The children are so happy and delighted over any love and attention at all. This amazes me because of what most of them have suffered, some very recently. You can tell there is a lot of love in this home. Just before the signing ceremony, Kajal said, “I can’t believe I get to help these children. I am so lucky.” I feel the same way: so fortunate that I could play with them and give them love and attention, even if only for a short time. I will load photos once I get to Agra tomorrow evening.



















For more info on the Kali temple, click here:

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Last Day at Savalee

Once again, I met Barbara at six am for an excursion. We wanted to go to a Hindu temple and to the flower market. We got in our auto-rickshaw and said, “First, chai.” The driver nodded, drove fifteen feet across the road, and parked at a little chai stand right across from the hotel! It was hilarious.

The Hindu temple was dedicated to Ganesh, a large statue of him, the elephant god, in bright orange. The priest gave us a sugar dough ball, and then we were led to the inner sanctum with an altar to Krishna, oil dripping onto the shrine. At the flower market, mounds of marigolds, red roses, and other flowers were piled on the floor. One friendly woman invited me and Barbara to scoop up some marigolds and then let them fall through our fingers back to the pile in tandem with her. We took pictures. We are quite the celebrities at the market.
This morning we went to Savalee. The children and staff had us sit before them for a thank you ceremony. This country loves rituals and ceremonies. Before the ceremony, the children sat before us and praying Om in their beautiful voices: a long hum. Then we were presented with coconuts, roses, a heavy woolen vest, and a scarf around our necks. And of course the obligatory bindi or dot between our eyebrows, with rice grains stuck to the rouge.

After the ceremony, we loaded the bus for our field trip. The children rarely go anywhere except to school, so this was a real treat for them. The bus did not have enough seats, and so I sat with three other children in a seat for two, Mauli on my lap. Many were standing in the aisle. As we headed out, the driver put on that loud, staticky Indian dance music, and the bus erupted in dancing and cheering and yelling. It was hilarious, our big party bus. At one point, a trailer/tractor transporting hay, swerved in front of our bus, the bus screeching to a halt. All of us went careening forward. Thankfully, no one was hurt.

Here’s a video of our crazy dance party:

We arrived at the mango grove park. I guess I’m acclimating to India because all the trash on the ground didn’t bother me. There is no lawn per se but just dirt with a little brown grass. The mango trees have several mats in the lower branches, and we took them down and spread them under the trees. There was an old carnival ride– a kind of Ferris wheel at a tilt. The children were so excited. They all rode and then ran after us and pulled us to ride, shouting, “Didi! Didi!” That’s what they call us all. It means: older sister. So, I rode, and there was a nice breeze, and the children laughed and waved at us as we rode by. The ride was operated by an old, sputtering generator, and a man runs it from the center of the base. There were also little merry go rounds for the children to ride on. We jump roped, swung, had a cricket match, and just relaxed under the mango trees and the open pavilions. We had our picnic under the pavilion, sitting on netted beds, served by the staff, who had brought the food with us in round, metal tins. Some local women roasted millet over an open fire, and we ate that. We also read, to our groups, the letters written to them from children in the U.S. The English tutor came around and translated for them. They will write back with his help.

It’s funny what the children have picked up in one day. They say, “Wow,” when looking out of our sunglasses. They point to a henna drawing on your arm and say, “Beautiful!” They beaded friendship bracelets for us, and just ran around, relaxed and joyful. The ride home was another crazy party bus. Next, the hard part: saying goodbye.

An aside: These children are amazingly well behaved. When we arrived at the park, Nitesh said two words in a normal voice, and the children immediately lined up in two rows, one for girls and one for boys. I’ve never seen such well-behaved children in my life. Occasionally, they would shove each other while waiting for a chance on the new swing, but over all, they were so compliant and yet not shut down or afraid to be spontaneous and happy. It’s hard to explain. I will be interested to see how the children are at this new orphanage, which we are visiting today in on the outskirts of a city in Tripura state.

We all sat down again. Barbara gave her thank you speech, translated by the English tutor, and then Nitesh. At one point he said, “I can see how much these days have meant to them because I can see the boys crying.” (He translates “children” as “boys.”) Their backs were to us, but when they turned around, we could see that they were all, even the boys, crying, fat tears spilling down their cheeks. And, as you can imagine, I lost it. So, we all hugged and cried and said goodbye, and I didn’t know how we could ever leave. Then Barbara had them put on dance music, and we danced like crazy one last time, although some of the girls held back, too sad to really dance. Suresh asked his English tutor how to say something, and then they all went up to us, saying, “Come back” and “Happy journey.” Barbara then shooed us out, the children running out to the auto-rickshaws. For some reason, Mauli kept pointing to the muscle in his arm, like a muscle man, so I did the same and laughed. I hugged them all and told my group, the Chandini, to study hard and read books. They assured me they would.

When we got back to the hotel, we ate up in the Italian restaurant on the roof. I covered my face with a scarf on the way home, and so my eyes weren’t stinging from the exhaust and dust as usual. Then our drivers drove us two more hours to our hotel in Pune. We went to bed at 11:30 pm and got up at 4:15 am to catch an early morning flight to Argatala.







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In Tripura state, northeast India

Before this trip, I didn’t even realize that India continued east of Bangladesh, but there are 8 states in the east, with many different tribal people and other ethnic groups, and of course, many more Indians.

Yesterday we took four planes in nine hours to reach the city, which is way off the tourist map, two kilometers from the Bangladesh border. We flew from Pune to Bangalore, to Hyberbad, to Kolkata, to the city.

This town reminds me of the old Soviet Union or Communist China before commercialization. Everything is old, a bit “off,” broken, out of style. Our Hotel Ginger, the nicest in town, hasn’t had Internet for a week. Still, they are so friendly and gracious in their service. We are the only westerners we have seen since we arrived. Last night we went to the City Center, a “mall,” and bought more Indian clothes because we can’t wear western clothes in this traditional society. About six shop girls and a tailor helped us choose some kurtas or tops and leggings in bright colors. We were an odditiy, and people were taking our pictures! This part of India is so different. Unfortunately, the air quality is horrible, especially during rush hour. We saw a van with six men standing and riding on the back bumper! We also saw our first pedicabs with eyes painted on their backs and bamboo poles on the side. We saw women crouched on the side of the roads, breaking rocks, and then carrying the rocks on baskets on their heads. We also saw men transporting sand in two baskets hanging off of a pole, like scales for weighing, hoisted on their shoulders.

Today we met Sree Lekla , or Sree for short. She is the founder and program manager of the home. She’s a lovely woman from the area, who has her doctorate and is married to a doctor of Anthropology. It took us too long to figure out they were married. First, Sree took us to their offices. Their organization has been operating for twenty-five years. It works to help children with disabilities and rescues children from abuse, child trafficking, and abandonment on the streets or in the temple. There is a hotline for child abuse and abandonment in India called Childline.

Anwhesa is a home for these rescued children. There are currently 36 girls and 14 boys. Some of the children are tribal people. You can tell because their features look more Chinese than Indian. We rode out to the orphanage, which occupies six acres on the edge of town. The facility has several buildings and rents out space to an eye hospital, where doctors come for three days each month to do eye surgery. The rest of the time the orphanage can use some of their space.

Sree introduced us to Janti, the woman who runs the home. She is beautiful with a long braid that goes down her back. There’s also a woman security guard, who stands in uniform in a little house next to the metal gate. We went upstairs, where the children were waiting for us, the boys sitting on the floor on one side, the girls on the other, some dressed in costume. There were some musicians in the corner, a harmonium and bongo drums, and a loud speaker. We were greeted as “esteemed guests” and offered bouquets. The children then began to perform for us. Seven boys and girls, dressed in school uniforms, each had a letter taped to their shirts. They stood up and tried to spell “welcome,” but the W was on the wrong end, and one of the E’s was upside down. They sorted it out with a little help, and then sang and danced a welcome song. A couple of dancing girls from the community, dressed up more than our girls, performed some solo dances, all celebrating the coming of spring, Makar Sankranti again! Then girls from the orphanage performed dances. One older, tribal girl, performed twice and changed outfits. Then we were all served sweets: tapioca and some other sweets made of rice flour and coconut meat. Afterwards, children took down the balloon decorations they could reach, and then I stood on a chair and took the ones off the ceiling. Imagine balloons bringing so much joy.

Here’s a video of one of the dances at the welcome ceremony:

Then we went outside and started playing with the children. As in Savalee, they love getting their picture taken and then looking at themselves. There are no mirrors in the homes in India, so they love that. Then I started to try to do one of the rhyming slap songs I learned a Savalee, and the oldest girl knew it and did it with me. They thought it was so funny I knew one of their chants. Kerry Anne, in the meantime, was charging the kids as a lion after they counted: 1, 2, THREEEE… They squealed and laughed, and then I took a few turns and caught some of the younger ones, who loved it! One boy showed me their new baby calf, so proud of it and their other milk cows. They have named them all.

We had lunch next with Sree and her husband. Again, delicious vegetarian food, and most dishes were not too spicy to eat. Then we rode back to the hotel for a small break before returning at five pm with the other Miracle Foundation India team who are flying in shortly.

This evening we met Sandia and Kajal, the Miracle Foundation India reps. They are lovely and fun. We went to the home for the orientation of the staff. Kerry Anne and I were able to follow the Hindi by reading the English Powerpoint. At one point, they were discussing the rights of the child, and one of those rights was to clean water and electricity. The staff was asked about their electric power, and they told how it went out during monsoons for an hour or so at times. Just at that moment, all the lights went out, and they brought out a solar lantern. Power was off for about thirty minutes and then came back on. This is common in many parts of India. We had tea and then a lovely dinner with a chili omelette. Tomorrow, while they go over the books and business details at the office, I will have my own private English guide to show me the sights. I particularly want to see the Hindu temples and shrines along the roads.




















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