As we become immersed in the winter holiday season, my thoughts always jump across the ocean to my kids in India. It was just a year ago, November 2012, when I was there with them. It seems a lifetime ago, and so far away. I wish I could visit them many times a year; I miss them so much, and think of them constantly. It was these children who inspired me to write this book about them – their plight and their lives and their promise.
These kids first came into my life in 2005. From that first night I was there, they stole my heart with their laughter, their joy, their mischief, their love – they asked nothing from me, except to be there with them. The Sahoos, who run the orphanage and have dedicated their entire lives to these children, have become my Indian Papa and Mama. They are simply amazing. And in all these years, all my visits, they have never once asked for money from me. Not a dime. I have raised money and donated and bought things of course, but they have never asked anything of me except my love. Not once.
Over the past nearly nine years I have watched these kids grow, from toddlers into adolescents; from adolescents into young men and women. Some, like Santa and Rashikanta, have left the orphanage and gone on to college and work. My Santosh, who was taken out of the orphanage several years ago by his father, lives two hours away in Konark where he has a good life with a wonderful guardian, Pravat, and works in the market at the Sun Temple. He’s a young man now, and we keep up constantly on the internet and via skype calls. He is my son – only one who is too far away.
I will never turn my back on any of them. Too many people have already.
First, for many of them, were their own parents. Although there are true orphans here, whose parents have died – far too many of them are orphaned by poverty, given up by their parents, runaways, taken from abusive homes or even worse. Some were simply abandoned at birth, or victims of child labor.
They have also been abandoned by others who have come through and helped for a while, or promised help, only to leave along the way for various reasons. A lack of agreement over where the money is to be spent, a lack of understanding between American board members and Indian orphanage directors. Some people simply fade away and lose interest, or give up because everything doesn’t go exactly how and when they want it to. These kids get abandoned over and over, in different ways.
As long as I am alive, I will never be one of them.
Papa Sahoo takes nothing. You should see where he lives – at the orphanage with the children, in two simple rooms. He has very little. He wants and needs very little. Everything is for the kids; they are healthy, well fed, well dressed, and happy as one big family. Papa is someone I admire. He’s not perfect – I wish the kids could go to a better school, could learn English better. But they do what they can with what they have. And I will do everything in my power to add to that, to make their lives better and increase the possibility of a good future for these kids.
I love them all from the bottom of my heart. I won’t be one of those who abandon them yet again.
You can help – I’m raising money for my next visit, in 2014, to collect and take to spend on needed items such as books, clothing, school tuition, etc. We are also trying to start a longterm foundation fund that will provide a resource to help pay for better schools and college for the kids who are good students and pursue their education. Your donation will be taken and applied 100% to the Servants of India Society home where these children live, in Choudwar Odisha.
A little bit goes a long way in India. These kids deserve a future. Thank you, and happy holidays.
I am so lucky. In no way more or less deserving than anyone else, I won the lottery of birth by being born into a family who loved and wanted me — and even more, who had the ability to take care of me. While we never really had a lot of money growing up, and often had to scrimp and save, I never lacked for anything I truly needed.
I never went hungry. I never suffered, or had to worry about dying, from something like a cut or the water I was drinking or malaria. I never had to watch my own parents suffer through these things, or worse. I didn’t have to worry about being forced into child labor, being denied an education, or being forced into marriage at 8 or 9 years old.
My parents didn’t have to make the decision to feed their children or eat themselves; didn’t have to make the agonizing decision to send their kids to an orphanage or as household servants, just so they could eat. They weren’t subject to people preying on them to trick them into putting their children into indentured servitude, or selling them on the streets.
These things might sound harsh, and like something very few people have to worry about. But in fact, I have seen all of these things happen, sometimes many times over; and millions of people have to watch this happen to their children, have to make these kinds of agonizing decisions that can mean life and death.
Today, on Mother’s Day, I especially think about how lucky I am to have had not only a mother, but father and grandparents as well, who gave me everything I needed. More than that, they gave me love and encouragement. They gave me a childhood — something far too many children in the world are denied.
Then I think about all the weeks and months I’ve spent with “my kids” in India — kids who no longer have a mother. No one to tuck them into bed at night, to kiss their knee when they have a boo-boo. They are fortunate enough to live in an ashram with my Indian Papa and Mama, and a group of housemothers and other staff who care very much about them, who have dedicated their lives to making sure they don’t starve on the streets.
But still, they don’t have a mother.
Since the day I met these kids, 8 years ago on a day that truly changed my life forever, I have formed bonds with them that have created a second family. Family isn’t necessarily blood, or what you’re born into — and both them and I have been lucky that we have been able to make our own little surrogate family. I will never leave them; at this point it would be like leaving my own birth family.
And so today, I think about what we all could do for kids like this, to help them know that others care. To help them feel the love of a mother, of a family, even if it isn’t their blood.
Last year, I was honored to be able to finally take my own mother to India, to meet the kids who had become her sort-of-grandkids, sight unseen. The moment we walked into the orphanage and they surrounded her; the moment she met Daina and Santosh for the first time; the moment that my Indian Mama and my American Mama embraced….these were treasured moments, and remain priceless memories.
We are not without our own struggles here, in the “lucky” world. My mother, who has given me so much over the years that these kids have never had, was recently diagnosed with breast cancer. Four days ago, she went into the hospital to undergo a double mastectomy, which has hopefully removed all the cancer in her body. We will know for sure in a few days when the pathology report comes back, and on this Mother’s Day she is back at home recuperating. Happily, our entire family is together and surrounding her. I still could not be luckier.
Neither my mom nor I will ever forget or abandon these kids. We are determined, along with many others including my dear friend Jody who had been there numerous times with me, to do what we can to raise money to help them with their schooling and books, their needs at the orphanage for basics like clothes and sheets and lights, for medical care and assistance with their onward adult futures. Even if it’s not exactly how we experience it in America, even if it doesn’t go exactly our way or on our timing, even if it’s not exactly the perfect world that we would want it to be — we will not give up on them.
Would you like to help? It might be the perfect way to honor your mother, who perhaps gave you some of these invaluable treasures as well. The things these kids have never had.
Thank you, and Happy Mother’s Day!
I have a friend who loves India as much as I do; in fact, it was this mutual obsession with the country that drew us together as virtual friends, several years ago when I began reading her beautiful blog, Breathe Dream Go. After becoming good friends in the online world, as well as writing colleagues across the North American continent — I live in Texas and she lives in Canada — I finally met Mariellen Ward in person last November.
Fittingly, we met for the first time in India. In Agra, to be specific. And visited the magical, stunning Taj Mahal together (the fourth or fifth visit for both of us).
Mariellen has written an inspiring new travel book, Roll Out the Magic Carpet. A very unique cross between Eat, Pray, Love and the Lonely Planet India, the book will inspire you to overcome your fears, go after your dreams and travel safely and well in India and beyond. I would like to share my interview with her, so she can tell you about this book and her exciting IndiGoGo campaign to crowdfund its publishing — and, of course, her love of India.
What initially drew you to India?
When I look back, I think I have always been drawn to India. I was obsessed with the Arabian Nights’ stories as child; as an adolescent, I mooned over photos of George Harrison in Rishikesh with marigolds around his neck; as a teenager I loved to burn incense and try to read books on eastern spirituality (they mostly went over my head). But by the time I reached adulthood, I had deeply buried my dreams and passions. It wasn’t until I was faced with the biggest crisis of my life — a deep depression that followed the death of my parents and several other losses — that I resurrected the dream of India, and made it a reality.
Tell us about your first visit – what was transformational about it, and made you want to go again?
I left Toronto on December 5, 2005, and had a six-month tourist Visa, and a return ticket dated June 2, 2006. I had NO IDEA what would happen in those intervening months; whether I would even live through the experience. I truly felt I was throwing myself off a cliff … I needed to find out what would happen. Well, a net appeared of course, and in due time I realized the net was ME. Instead of a terrible travel ordeal, I had the time of my life. It was a six-month long magic carpet ride! I had been through many long years of loss and suffering, and India generously responded by holding out loving arms and giving me a wonderful welcome. I gained so much from that trip — trust, inspiration, a new family, a new career and perhaps most of all, belief in my self and my ability to manifest dreams and land on my feet.
What is the special relationship you’ve had with India through the years?
From the first day I landed in India, I felt uncannily at home. I had a very soft landing, staying at the home of an acquaintance in a really nice area of south Delhi. So that may have helped. But that soft landing set the tone for the whole trip. The acquaintance became a boyfriend, his family welcomed me, and I had a great home base to return to over and over again as I traveled all over the country and studied yoga. So, from the beginning, I was “inside” the culture as part of a family. I never felt like a tourist. A strong bond was formed right from the start. And I have been very accepted all over India, and by many people, including my readers and social media followers. I now have lots of good friends in India, I feel as home there as I do in Canada. But the affinity I feel for India and Indian culture still remains the central mystery of my life. I call India my soul culture. But I don’t know where the affinity stems from.
What is the most beautiful thing about India, to you?
Oh good question! I see beauty in India everywhere. I see it in the colors, the smiles, the sun-bleached landscape and the fabled architecture. I see it in the culture, the mesmerizing dance, the transporting music, the gorgeous textiles. India is a burst of beauty, even as it’s breaking your heart. God poured her soul into creating India, in all its rawness. India represents the knife-edge of beauty, the razor’s edge. You can’t see India’s beauty with your eyes or other senses, you have to feel it, experience it. This is why they say, India chooses you. “Once you have felt the dust of India, you will never be free of it,” as Rumer Godden said.
What is the most challenging?
It’s challenging in India to keep your feet on the ground. A friend of mine said that India sends you on a roller-coaster of euphoria and despair. And it’s true. I am an ultra-sensitive person, very susceptible to the nuances of atmosphere and energy; I have to be careful and work hard to stay centred. If you travel in India you often see very hard-bitten foreigners, especially in “hippie hangouts” like Goa, Dharamsala, Varanasi, places like that. These people look “off,” they are often quite filthy, and have a far-away look in their eyes that can be frankly scary. In fact, there’s even a name for it — India Syndrome. Some people unfortunately die from it; you do hear about people disappearing or jumping from a roof. I asked my teacher, Swami Brahmdev, about India Syndrome, and he said people should not come to India with fixed notions. I have found that staying grounded, and going with the flow, without judgements, notions, or expectations, works for me. I just embrace as much of it as I can, and close the door on the rest. And having a safe haven, a sanctuary, is essential.
Tell us about your new book, and the Indiegogo campaign.
I’ve wanted to write this book, “Roll out the magic carpet: How to travel in India and other life lessons” for a long time. It will be a cross between “Eat, Pray, Love” and “Lonely Planet India.” I want to help people travel well in India, and elsewhere, by sharing my story and what I’ve learned.
I’ve learned a lot about traveling in India, and all the various skills that it takes to travel well there — and I want to share my knowledge and information. It’s not just wanting to let people know how to buy a train ticket — any number of resources can give you that information. It is sharing what you need to know about the culture and the spiritual beliefs of India to be able to travel well there. These are the things that make it so challenging and rewarding for foreigners. For example, in India, you have to learn to let go of control. This is huge. If you don’t, you will drive yourself crazy. So, I want to talk about the inner process of learning to trust.
I also want to inspire people to go after their dreams.
Honestly, if I can do it, anyone can. I started late (in my 40s), I had no money, and no support; and I have had a life-long problem with lack of self-confidence. Plus, my dreams were somewhat odd and not very practical. None of that matters. What matters is believing in yourself and the abundant nature of the universe. The universe wants you to live your dreams as much as you do, maybe more. For every step you take, the universe will take two steps for you.
Platforms like Indiegogo help people manifest their creative dreams. Today, most writers and other artists pretty much have to do things themselves — publish their own blogs, their own books. That’s the new paradigm. So I need some help self-publishing this book, and by contributing, people can pre-order a copy. And get other great perks! I am offering magic rings, wish-granting mantras, Nirvana incense, even a guided tour of Delhi and the Taj Mahal.
Thank you, Mariellen, for sharing! I myself am going for the magic ring with my donation.
You might think that going to India time and again, immersing myself in this orphanage and the plight of these children who have no one else, over years and years — the poverty and never, never ending need — would be an exercise in sadness. Depressing. Demoralizing, traumatic even.
In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. What has been the most surprising thing, and meant the most to me, kept me coming back all these years, is how readily this family accepted me into their home. This family of 120-plus children, all taken in by one man and his kin, a hodgepodge of castaways who came together to create a home — they, who had so little, welcomed me. Joyously. And they never once have asked for anything from, other than simply my self. My being. My presence.
My Papa has never once asked me for money. The children never care what I bring them, and when I do produce stickers or toys or coloring books they are, of course, happy and enthralled as children would be anywhere. But they are, by far, mostly interested in ME. In the fact that I am there, with them. That this is where and how I choose to spend my time, who I have chosen as my family, halfway across the world.
Believe me, this means more than you can know to me, as well. Their acceptance, their unconditional love and joy with me.
They have let me into a world that is a hidden world — not because it is secret, but simply because very few people really choose to look. But once there, if you had that sort of curiosity, if you opened yourself to the experience and the love, if you decided to have an involved interest in the welfare of children for whom childhood has been discarded — well then, you are in a new world. One in which your own petty troubles are so easily checked at the door. One in which you quickly come to realize how little, how pitifully, inconsequentially little, it takes to turn the world around for one child here.
$20 a month is all it takes to send one of these kids at the Servants of India Society orphanage in Choudwar, India to a good English school. Education is the key. They have already come a long way with having the basics of food, shelter and basic medical care provided. What they need now is education — which equals future hope and opportunities.
My very first night ever with these children, back in 2005, I wrote the following:
There seemed no other world outside this place. Papa spoke as my eyes traveled over the faces all around me. I wondered when each of them had stopped wanting to go home, or if they ever had. As much of a loving community as the ashram seemed, it was not the family that most of the children had once known, now distant and ghostly memories for the most part.
Home is a fragile concept — far more delicate than those of us who have always had one can imagine. When a person no longer has a home, when his family is taken from him and he is deprived of everything that was familiar, then after a while wherever he is becomes home. Slowly, the pieces of memory fade, until this strange new place is not strange anymore; it becomes harder to recall the past life, a long ago family, until one day he realizes he is home.
Will you help me in giving these children, so brave to find a way in their new home, the possibility of a bright future through education? I am asking people to pledge $20.13 per month in a recurring donation beginning this year, 2013. Think about it — for less than the price of two movie tickets, or about five lattes at Starbucks, you can create a bright and hopeful future in one of these children’s lives.
At my home, in fact right above my head as I write this, hangs a beautiful woven tapestry that I bought in India some years ago, made up of scraps of dozens of sarees. Each small individual piece of material, before it was sewn into the final product, is fragile and insignificant. It is not anything except a torn scrap of cloth, beautiful but delicate, easily ripped or lost.
Yet, when it is stitched together strongly to the next tiny piece, and then the next, suddenly the pattern of the whole begins to take form. The finished patchwork, all these scraps of what was once discarded, together are strong. Together they make something. They have a purpose — to cover a bed, to keep a child warm or, as in my house, to simply be beautiful.
And so it is with these children of India — the orphans, the street kids, the world’s forgotten throwaways. They may be fragile and easily lost on their own, but held together with the thread of those of us who care, they can be whole again — strong and vibrant, and above all, simply beautiful.
Help me create a strong tapestry to hold these children together. Have you ever despaired at the state of the world and thought it was impossible to do a little bit, that would really make a difference? Now is your chance. You’ll be amazed at what a difference your $20.13 per month can make.
Can’t commit monthly? Make a one-time donation here.
I thank you. I will keep you updated on their progress. And more importantly, these kids and their future families thank you. Now is the time to stop the cycle of poverty.