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 the East, natives often associate significant mountains in their regions with deities. For instance, Mount Kailash in Tibet is considered to be Shiva by Hindus, and Padmasambhava by Buddhists. Mount Kangchenjunga in Sikkim (Northeast India, bordering China and Tibet) is associated with a mountain deity called Dzo-nga. People believe there is a valley of immortality hidden in its slopes. Natives of the region consider themselves small, insignificant. I have to disagree. I found them to be vast, rich in heart, Giants if I am being honest. My experience in the Himalayas was profoundly life changing. My eyes beheld some of the most beautiful landscapes I will likely ever see again, yet I felt the ways the terrain itself was rejecting us. As if to say outsiders had no place there.
Privileged as I was to experience a part of the world most people will never see, the trip was bittersweet. Having traveled to India alone and fearless several times prior, I had zero reservations about joining the study abroad program to once again delve into Buddhist practice and the paradox of “post-colonial” realities. Being in close proximity to others at pretty much all times without reprieve as an introvert has its challenges, coupled with being treated like I needed protecting or being given directions for every second of a day. I am a grown woman with grown children, who managed being on her own since just sixteen years old. To say being infantilized was an adjustment is an understatement. But to say we all have room for growth as long as we are living and breathing is a greater truth.
Little did I know, I would actually need people on our trip, in ways I could not have imagined or prepared for. I have always believed people as being well intentioned in their hearts. But I learned early in life humans fall short. It is a natural phenomenon, with the Earth itself being formed by opposing forces. Still, I have spent the last several years working to raise awareness and helping to facilitate social justice and equality in the U.S. This trip taught me a great deal more 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.
During my second week in the country, 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, standing toes to the ledges of cliffs with no bottom 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. We were traveling by 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 good to vomit, standing there with tissue in hand saying, “Here, here.” This happened every 2-5minutes for what seemed like a never-ending drive through the Himalayas. As I squatted to vomit, he was right there helping me wipe my hands and face. I will never forget the look of genuine care and concern on his face. My colleagues remained in the backseat each time, likely horrified, as I faced what felt like the brinks of death on curvy washed out roads on the sides of mountains, every few thousand feet for miles. At one point, even one of our hosting guides got out and walked with me when I simply could not be in the car. But not my American comrades.
My professor, also a mother living with her own health issues, took over once we reached the hotel and at times, sat vigil watching over me. I remember thinking to myself as she rubbed my head, that I could not recall a time my own mother had shown me affection as a child. I remember stammering into the hotel lobby after that first car ride incident, only to make it to a nearby seat and someone suggesting I eat something (I cannot recall what). The professor snapped back, “NO. Only BRAT–bananas, rice, applesauce or toast.” She was mothering me and I felt safe, even in what was the sickest moment of my life. My gratitude for her going above and beyond the role of professor to ensure my speedy recovery is unending. Someone who struggled 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. I look back now and realize, she understood not just how to mother, but what it was to be ill to the point of needing care from another.
Following the first bought of sickness, every time we had to travel, there was a good chance I would be sick. I made sure to secure the same front seat with the driver who had taken such care beyond his own call of duty to make sure I was as comfortable as the altitude and terrain would allow. Many more times before the program would end, I would fall ill with motion sickness for the remainder of a day. When the 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 to avoid every large dip or protrusion in the road (consider those roads comparable to rock-bedded creeks here). While he was a safe and skillful driver, I know he went out of the way to make my remaining journey easier. The last two weeks he even brought me snacks, candy and juices with his own money for each traveling excursion, as a way to potentially offset my nausea. 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. Caste systems are dead in theory, but still alive and well in terms of recognized status. Yet, the people accept their roles in society with little pushback, because it “just makes life easier” they say.
When the joint dinner between our group and the drivers never happened, I–the opinionated American social justice warrioress–was beside myself 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. He later told me just before we left, when I finally got to personally thank him and we had 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.” He described himself as a small man in the world a number of times when I would compliment him, in the humblest, most genuine of ways. We became forever friends before the trip ended, customary or not. In those moments, I knew he was a Giant. Status does not mean stature. And 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. Many complete strangers came to my assistance, people in the U.S. who are considered lower status, essential service people. A young African man handling baggage as I came off my flight vomiting in a bag, leaning against the wall, took notice 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 Airlines. When I was finally sent to the airport’s adjoining University Medical Center, she stayed with me until her shift was over. The physician on call, also a Hispanic woman, took me under her wing and kept vigil over me every few minutes between her many other tasks and patients. When I was finally able to fly home the following day, yet another airline employee came with a wheelchair, also a Black man, to see me to my gate. He went out of his way, taking me to get water at a nearby food stand. The cashier, also a Black woman, looked up at me sitting in my wheelchair, as frazzled as anyone without a shower in two days who just flew home from having been in India all summer, sick for a good part of it, and said, “You’re almost there pretty lady.” She had no idea where I had been, or where I was going.
The take away from my experience—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 come to our rescue in a crisis. It will be the people who have often times suffered the most or experienced their own struggles in life. It is not the two white men sitting on both sides of you on 19 hour flight watching you lean forward to vomit without uttering the smallest, “Are you ok?” It is not the white flight attendants aware of your sickness on not one, but two entire flights, who never come by to ask if you needed anything. Sometimes even friends with the best of hearts will fail to jump out when you need someone. Maybe your own mother struggled to show affection when you were a child, and you get the chance to re-experience that at 40 years old halfway across the globe. All in all, the Himalayas are vast. There truly are Gods in the mountains. And Giants roam the lands and drive for tourists. Here in the U.S., the most marginalized populations will rise to the occasion in crises, hold your hair as you vomit, and your heart as it breaks. Because compassion is born of the deepest struggles, and those least privileged are inevitably always the richest in heart. Gods and Giants.