It’s been just over three years since I was last on the continent of Asia. As I become an older traveler, I realize that time can just fly by faster and it’s good to pursue the opportunities for adventure/discovery/opportunities abroad when they just seem too good to pass up. My philosophy regarding traveling has been simple over the years: Listen and follow your heart.
Sometimes we worry about our commitments, responsibilities, finances, pets, “cross-cultural ineptness” and so on and we end up not pursuing that opportunity to travel. I’ve learned though that any of these worries can be shelved temporarily and that your inner circle of family/friends/community is willing to help you if you’re willing to ask.
So, why am I back in Asia? The last time I was here was when I lead a tour group through South East Asia, going to Thailand, Cambodia and Bali. Then I went to India to go to my friends wedding and checked out the beaches of Goa as a conclusion to that trip. That was in October – December 2015.
Now this trip has a few purposes: The main one stems from a Whatsapp message I received about three months ago from a friend I met in India on my first trip to the country in 2004. His name is Apen and he is from the Northeastern region of India, commonly known as the “Seven Sister States.” His state is Nagaland and his tribe is Konyak.
I met Apen through a study aboard program I participated in back then 15 years ago. I haven’t seen him since, but thanks to Facebook (after inputting a email address I had of his) we have been able to keep in touch. A few months ago he told me out of the blue that he wanted to create a classroom for the children in his village who don’t have many opportunities and come from low income families. He invited me to help co-create this project.
Initially, I told him that I would be happy to provide the funding for this project while he can help identify partners/educators in the local region to create the program. I attempted a few times to setup a video call for us to discuss the plans yet Apen was insistent though that I come to Nagaland to meet in person to co-create the project and that I come for his tribes most celebrated gathering; their Spring Festival.
This Spring festival is not only about celebrating the coming of Spring and the planting of physical seeds but also symbolic of new beginnings and new relationships. While Apen and I met 15 years ago, we are embarking on a new relationship and a new project together. I find this invitation strikingly human and something that has permeated throughout the course of human history. It is a ritual of sorts that just doesn’t nearly exist as much as it used to. Friendships and relationships can begin as simply as a click and there aren’t too many indigenous tribal gatherings too as the world becomes more globalized and connected.
While we can do the planning and project managing all online for this project, it seems the best way and the next step is to celebrate life together in the highlands of the Himalayas, meeting the Konyak tribe and participating in their gathering.
So, here I am… In a guesthouse in Bangkok before getting up to NorthEast India, a region of the world I have wanted to visit ever since Apen invited me 15 years ago (and telling me he would get permission from the chief for me to come). I haven’t done travel blogs for a few years now and it seems due, even though blogposts have been replaced by podcasts to some degree. Either way, hope you enjoy the next posts for the following few weeks. There are other purposes to this trip too and I’ll share those later.
It’s nice to be back…To experience the smells, the kindness, the sounds of the street and even the humidity…More to come…Enjoy the reading 🙂
It has been a while since I posted an update. Sometimes, when I am moving so fast from place to place, there isn’t really much time to reflect. I have learned more and more to live in the present and experience the days fully. Only now do I really have some time to give an update on the past and what is happening now.
Some have requested a new post and to keep blogging, so here it is and thanks as always for the support through reading and commenting, whether online or in person.
When I posted last, I was in India and it was the month of May.
Now 5 months later, I am back in India in the the city of Kolkata. My last post highlighted my experience with this Mother Teresa figure I have been friends with for 10 years. His name is Francis and shortly after I posted on his life, he sent me an email requesting me to come fill in for him while he is gone in Europe for the Fall.
Well, can one say no to Mother Teresa if she asks you to help? Haha, after some short reflection, I felt it was time for me to do some volunteer work again. It had been years since I last was involved in such work, yet it felt right to do it. So here I am.
But before I go into the details of this work, I will quickly update on what just happened for the past 5 months.
After Darjeeling in May, I flew to Israel for a month. It had always been a dream of mine to visit the land, and it was one of the more amazing experiences I have had. I loved Israel and the Israeli people. I was welcomed with open arms everywhere I went and made some amazing friendships. I was also there when the tension began with the unfortunate killings of the teenagers, and I left right before the Israeli Defense Forces were mobilized. Many I met did not want conflict at all, but what would you do if your home country was attacked? Conflicts aside, Israel has a special place in my heart and I will continue to go back as the years go on…I recommend everyone to visit and have a good time there. Let me know if you want contacts to meet.
After Israel, I flew to the Balkans and traveled around Romania, Serbia, Montenegro and Croatia. In the month of July, this region is beautiful. I had visited Romania in 2000, and now 14 years later, I visited friends I had made back then. The same family that hosted me back then, hosted me again. I love how with the help of social networks today, I can keep in touch with my friends from all over the world.
Then after the Balkans, came that thing in the desert and this year was nothing short of spectacular again. I was there in the Black Rock Desert for two weeks and had a nice time there.
Then it was off to prepare for India and this is where our story continues….
Francis works with the children and youth that have grown up in the massive train station called Sealdah in Kolkata. It is one of the busiest train stations in India and indeed the world, with hundreds of thousands of people in and out everyday. It is bustling with porters, people going to work, street merchants, and from 6am-11pm, there is a sea of people that take some keen navigation to move through and along. Being back in India, one always has to be aware of where you walk.
The boys of the Railway station are a tight crew. They look out for each other and some do little jobs to make some money, such as carrying luggage or goods. They sleep at the station, just on the ground, some live with their families, some have no family. Some are married (because it is common to get married at a young age) and some are fathers at age 18. Some have a wife that is expecting and some have mental and physical disabilities.
The list goes on. But like any boy, they like to have fun, and they like to have freedom. Most of their lives, they have had no formal education and the local government has not been able to assist their lives in any relevant way. This is where Francis and his Pilgrims of Charity Friends Organization comes in.
The work of Francis’ work involves just being present like a big brother or father to the boys. He provides them food, his smile and is there to help with any problem that they may encounter. For instance, one of the boys fathers had passed away and the mother had no where to go. Francis was able to arrange accommodation for her and a place to work.
Besides, being with the boys and giving them education twice a week, Francis also has a host slum where he provides basic first aid to the occupants of the slum. Most of the people who live in this slum are Bangladeshi and don’t have the same type of opportunities in Kolkata. They are slightly discriminated but the situation for them in Bangladesh isn’t much better, so they live there near a river (picture the water black) and the train station.
So, I have been here for a week already and I have been the new “Big Brother” to the boys. They all met me in May, and were all happy to see me again. They enjoy having an American as a friend and are curious about all sorts of things. I also have visited the slum and have been addressing the medical needs. There is everything from common lacerations and abrasions, to skin, eye and ear problems. For more serious matters, I bring the person to the local hospital and with my NGO card, I can get them in right away for treatment. I have seen some pretty bad skin issues, because the fact is that the people don’t take as much showers as they should. Common hygiene is not really practiced or known, and with the treatment I administer, I also educate as best I can.
Besides, the slum and Train station work, I also visit the local government hospital a couple times a week and it is still is as difficult to see as it was for me 10 years prior when I came as a student. Yet even though the conditions are difficult to see, the simple human to human connection is still needed. And the very simple action of going to an old man, who is looking dazed and to hold his hand and look him in the eyes with a smile and respect can bring even him to some grateful tears. It is sometimes the most simplest actions such as these, that can spur life into the temporarily broken bodies and spirits in the hospital.
I am grateful to be here, but it is also another one of the most difficult experiences in my waking life I have ever experienced. To see so many on the street, disabled, hurt, diseased. After so many people, it sort of becomes commonplace and one can just accept that everyone in this environment is struggling to eat but that somehow no one is really starving. The Bengali people do look out for each other, but can only give so much of their own resources.
Now for these boys, they can live in the train station their entire life. And to be honest, some of them probably will. They love the station, it is their home, their identity and family. Yet, it is not the best place to raise a baby or a family, and of course there can be exploitation or even kidnappings, as it happened to one of the little babies of a young man we know.
When I visited the boys earlier this year, I got an idea to bring more education resources to them through the use of laptops and technology. I felt they were more than capable to interact and learn programs, and that with the right initial directions, they could self teach themselves and add to their own livelihoods.
Just a couple weeks ago I proposed the project to the boys and asked if it was something they wanted and they all raised their hands enthusiastically. When I asked them a good location for them so they can all walk there easily, they gave me the best location and district.
Next week, my friends arrive and soon the classroom (titled Avasar Shala) will begin in addition to the existing work of the Pilgrims of Charity. I am writing from an internet cafe now where I pay 15 cents an hour and listening to some deep house music. It is the weekend, and I will definitely take some needed rest after my first week here.
Thanks for reading, for the continued support at this time. I launched a small campaign for the project and if you want to contribute financially, you can. Or if you want to visit me while I am here, come. I will stay till Dec 20.
Cheerio and Connect with me on FB if you ever want to chat more deeply.
All photos used with permission by Tara Beth Currah
I have a heart warming story to tell you my friends.
It involves my family that was able to help another family out. Hope you enjoy it~
Every year my parents have gone out to the streets of San Francisco to hand out gift packages filled with food and candies to the homeless. They also give out socks, sleeping bags, scarfs and other clothing to help them in the Winter season.
My parents, along with my good friends parents, the Clausons, approached their first homeless person of the day. He was disheveled, a bit confused, without shoes and looked beat up. With no possessions on him, my parents and friends asked “Would you like some food?”
He said a hearty “Yes” and then was asked “What happened?”
He said he had recently been beat up and had all his stuff stolen. His name was Tom Cronin. My parents then asked if he would like to have them contact anyone for him, and he pulled out of his pocket a card with his brother’s name on it. What happens next is a crazy adventure.
After getting him new clothes and giving him a sleeping bag, my Mom came home and told me about Tom. She told me to look up the name of his brother and within a few minutes I had found the information of his brother in Big Sur. My Mom contacted him and after a day, brother Dan came to San Francisco to try to find Tom, whom he had not seen in 14 years and who lost any contact with him this last November.
Tom Cronin didn’t choose to be homeless on the streets of San Francisco. He suffers from epilepsy, and can be helpless when attacked with seizures. Likely being deported from Japan (where he lived for over ten years) for overextending his visa, Tom found himself in San Francisco and upon suffering a seizure, became very “basic” and unable to take care of himself. In the process, any possession he had previously was stolen and he was left to suffer and just fade away.
Dan came to the city, and together with my Dad and Bill Clauson searched the streets. They visited the shelters, looked in the Mission district where Tom was seen last, and contacted friends who worked daily with the cities homeless population. For a few days, there was no luck. Dan filed a missing persons report and posted fliers all over. Still, no luck. Then a writer from the San Francisco Chronicle by the name of C.W. Nevius picked up the story and wrote an article about finding Tom. A website was subsequently created by Dan called Findtomcronin.com
What happened was magical. People started calling and emailing both C.W and Dan. They said they would be looking out for Tom. Here was a situation where a helpless homeless individual wanted to be found and his family wanted to find him. The family had everything ready for him, including social services and the medical attention he needed.
Through the searches and a little less than two weeks later, it came to be that police officer Rodney Barrera identified him and immediately brought him to the emergency room to be cared for. He looked further beat up and without anything again. The hospital contacted Dan and the family. He was lost and now he was found!
The family was overjoyed. Tom’s sister in Florida flew over the next day, crying most of the way over and his parents were so happy to hear he was alive and that they were going to see their son again. Dans efforts had been successful and he took Tom to a hotel room where he could care for him. Tom was first confused when he saw his brother, but when his brother told him who he was, Tom looked at him and started to tear up.
With the efforts of so many, a family was reunited. I’m happy I played a small part in this and wish a Merry Christmas to the Cronin family.