Throughout this journey we've been able to spend some time in Kutch (aka Kachchh), Gujarat- a creative, lovely, beautiful place. Lots of traditional crafts, lots of nature. A short bus ride from Ahmedabad.
Hodka village traditional embroidery
Last time, we visited Khamir to poke through their Kala cotton yardage and learn more about their process.
"“Khamir is a platform for the crafts, heritage and cultural ecology of the Kachchh region of Gujarat. Instituted after the earthquake of 2001, it is a space for engagement and development of Kachchh's rich creative industries.”
KALA cotton products and puffs :)
In addition to their vast amount of support to the artisan communities in Kachchh, Khamir is weaving new textiles out of recycled plastic bags on site. Like most places, plastic waste is a huge issue in Kachchh- it’s either littered on the streets or burned in waste piles, releasing carcinogenic toxins into the air. Khamir is creating a solution.
“The Recycled Plastic initiative is an example of the way craft can alter a space and generate income for marginal people. This is a skill that can be easily learnt by neo-weavers and can become a source of supplementary income to medium skilled weavers, home-based workers, disabled and senior citizens. In our age of global warming, this project has great significance. Rather than creating new materials, this intervention has found a way to re-use waste and protect our environment from the harsh toxins that modern production technologies may produce.” -Khamir
Nearby the plastic weaving, they were spinning their KALA cotton. The harvest I took part in a while back was on one of their KALA farms- so I asked where we could see the next step, between the picking and the spinning- the processing. We were instructed where to go, and who to ask for.
I tried to help with the spinning, she was kind for humouring me.
After the Himalayas, we took a funtime trip to Delhi. First thing we did after 10 days of dahl? -pizza-.
All our "planning" energy spent on the previous ten days (and also no longer responsible for anyone other than just ourselves), Teju and I winged it in Delhi. It was three days of relentless fun and some spiritual experiences as well. (How could we visit Delhi without seeing the Lotus Temple or the Jama Masjid?)
A night in Hauz Khas
"The importance of harmony between science and religion.. If religion does not correspond with scientific principles and the processes of reasoning, it becomes superstition... Science without the universal virtues taught by religions will lead to materialism"-Baha'i Lotus Temple
Jama Masjid, old city
On our last day while sitting quietly in Jama Masjid, observing the serene energy of prayer and reflecting on our past 12 days, we discussed what we were feeling. Teju was going back home within the week, and was processing her emotions regarding the intense connection she had felt with the Himalayas and the people at the community centre. I knew I was coming back to my work in Ahmedabad soon, with my departure almost a month away and realising that a list of top priorities was in order- but what those priorities consisted of was yet to be seen, as the things I valued before this trip seem to have been altered slightly. It was a beautiful moment of silence and reflection shared between us, before we made our way back out to the bustling streets of Chandni Chowk. A mad dash onto the train brought us back to our lodging, and then to the airport, returning to our previous world; a world whose meaning had shifted drastically since we left it 14 days prior
Travel is the best form of education. Relating to other people in different cultures, seeing other places and what it means to exist in them as a foreign spirit. Whatever personal growth or spiritual epiphanies any of us encountered over the duration of the Himalaya trip were certainly due to its initial purpose: the kids. We were escorting these happy and hopeful souls to open their minds and hearts to the big world that surrounds the only world they’re accustomed to.
For me, travel is the greatest gift and deepest love, the most amazing thing a person can do. And a close second to travel is hosting foreigners. Our visit to Uttarkashi also included three days at the community centre affiliated with Manav Sadhna- Manav Uttar (sp). Children from the community gather there daily to learn and play, just as our kids do at Manav Sadhna. We came to help the community centre, and introduce the kids so they could learn from each other while enjoying the company of new people from a different place. It was one of the most beautiful, authentic, surreal, amazing experiences I have ever had. I am certain Teju felt the same
Creating a mural on the front of the community centre, seem below from afar
A breath of fresh air literally surrounded by mountains and greenery, a breath of fresh air mentally from the purity of the people. The kids were light-hearted little dancers who taught us every possible schoolyard game. One night they staged a performance for us and their community- dancing and acting. They are very talented and so sweet.
Other than that evening, they wore the same clothes every day. I noticed many of their garments had been lovingly mended with hand-stitches. I managed to get a few photos of these pieces, but every time Teju and I pulled out our phones- the kids would scream “photo! selfie!” and pose for us. I’m not sure they know the proper definition for “selfie”, and I certainly wouldn’t be the one to tell them. I love, love, love how untouched they are by crazy consumerism and the pop culture that’s run rampant in my world, worlds and worlds away from theirs.
Some village women knit wool items for extra income, and for fun- or so it seemed fun, when they gave us a demonstration of their manual knitting machine. Knitting isn’t easy, especially with this machine and its guidebook full of number combinations and intricate instructions. These women operated with ease however, and were rightfully very proud of their products. Most notably, in our opinion, being the SWEATER VESTS that many women in the surrounding villages wear regularly. It gets cold in the mountains. Teju and I both love the cropped style, and when asked our opinions of the marketability of these items we asserted hands down- the cropped style in muted colors. (maroon, navy, black, brown). The perfect wardrobe staple with a beautiful story. Once they get the production power-we said- get these in those boutique “ethic” shops, like the Whole Foods Goods market. A cropped fair trade Himalayan sweater vest for $45? or maybe even $60? Done.
In general, the traditional mountain dress was beautiful. Obviously this isn’t so much “fashion” as it is a way of life, a way to denote which village one belongs to while shielding oneself from the elements in a landscape of varying weather patterns. Comfort and functionality in my opinion are the most important aspects to any garment- but there is no reason to sacrifice the aesthetics (unless you want to, personal choice! another reason I love fashion really. we can curate whatever and whoever we want to be within the context of our worlds) And these people? Proud of their heritage while using the best colors - seemingly playfully as well. Win win.
After spending three beautiful days at the Uttarkashi centre and other significant locations in the area (a school, the homes of some children and and the Swami Sivanand ashram in Ganeshpur) We were descended the mountain and spent a day relaxing in Rishikesh before Teju and I hopped on a bus for the next part of our adventure- New Delhi.
Gorgeous Teju. and off we went.
On the scenic yet very windy ride up the mountain many kids got motion sickness exacerbated by their exhaust. Our bumbling 4WD tank vehicle was driven by Macho Mountain Indian Guy, who Teju and I decided was attractive after observing his fast yet efficient, rough-and-tumble driving style. We stopped at various roadside shanties- each with their own phenomenal view of the Himalayas, becoming only more breathtaking the higher we got.
Traffic jam :P
Upon reaching Uttarkashi, the view was indescribable. Our accommodations were simple yet lovely- a room with two beds that Teju and I shared with a two kind ladies and one sweet little boy of four. Although still exhausted from the severe sleep deprivation and constant travel, we took a walk to a bridge I think I saw in a National Geographic.
The next day- yet another obscenely early morning after an obscenely late evening- we departed for a day in Gangotri, a holy town even farther north. The historical beginning of the Ganges river. We were utterly exhausted. It was so beautiful there however, surrounded by gorgeous snow-topped mountains and a divine chill in the air. (meanwhile. Ahmedabad was soaring to 120/50 degrees). We had taken the holy Ganges dip in Hardware and Rishikesh already- Gangotri is also a site of Gangaji immersion, however due to the low temperatures, freezing water and already sickly state of the children they were encouraged to submerge their feet only.
Teju and I took a moment to sit on the rocks while the Ganges bubbled softly by, talking about life and culture and what it means to have multiple identities between lives and cultures. What it means to be an American abroad. What does it mean to have privilege, as Americans abroad, and to be sensitive to this privilege? I’ve wondered about privilege in New York, how it dictates my behaviour, or the behaviour of others- although it’s such an incredibly difficult topic to discuss. Everyone has their own vastly different experiences with it, and it's so fluid- is it actions? Is it thoughts? How does privilege permeate our regular world at home on a daily basis? How can we be sensitive to our privilege in everyday life, and to uplift our fellow folks who might not have so much?
When traveling, especially in eastern countries- general western privilege is a completely different animal. The widely varying levels of socioeconomic statuses and confusing cultural exchanges come into play. I knew I didn’t understand what it meant here, although I’ve been in India for five months now. We’ve been living quietly in a house with various other women, hand washing our clothes and eating simple vegetarian meals. We don’t have wifi, there’s no TV or dishwasher or anything machine really. Nothing is fancy and it’s nice. It is very different from the life I was used to in the US. We had all the conveniences yet complained significantly more than it appears people do here (in my specific experiences), people who have much less yet seem considerably happier in life.
Yearly Spring ceremony at the Gangotri temple- Hindu pilgrimage sites are now open for 2016. People from surrounding villages bring all their unique deities in celebration.
So, what does it mean to live in a slum like these children? How does it affect their development, how does it affect them as individuals? In comparison to the western life on abundance and intimidating consumerism in which both Teju and I had been raised. How do these kids see life, how do they overcome obstacles? I wanted to know how different it is from the world that I have known- I wanted to check my privilege. That’s what people say, right? “check your privilege” when someone is being ignorant. I’d been to the slums a few times, but that’s not enough to know anyone.
:sidetone: -the slums here are not sad, deprived places as many of us might have imagined based on our knowledge of underprivileged communities at home. People are generally jovial and will greet you with a heartfelt "Namaste!" while offering chai as the children follow you screaming happily "DIDI!" What country? Name? didi hello!" ('Didi'= big sister)
We had been told that this trip would not consist of amazing accommodation. We hadn’t expected such a thing anyway, and we accepted. The organiser- a kind soul- tried to turn us away in strange ways, discussing obtusely the “lack of conveniences” and “potential for large insects”. Maybe he couldn’t articulate the reality, maybe he didn’t know the extent to which events would unfold. Either way, the more he spoke ill of the journey, the more I knew we needed to attend. To learn about the children, to try to support them at any difficulty, and to check that privilege. What does “simple accommodation” even mean? Simple to who? To us western women he assumed lived considerably more decadent lives than our actual realities? (my apartment in new york was by no means luxurious, I assure you) and Teju- I know she has a nice house, but I’m sure it is not a Beverly Hills mansion. Or simple to even the children, perhaps simple for himself? We went regardless.
That Gangotri night changed everything. In addition to extreme exhaustion of all involved, lack of regular food consumption (a rice/yellow dahl combo twice a day at random times) and sickness of multiple children after days of restless commotion, our accommodations-reached by jagged uphill stone steps- did not have electricity or running water and there were not nearly enough double beds to fit even three people each. Had our trip been smoother and more restful thus far I wouldn't have felt nearly as anxious as I did that evening. It wasn't the worst place to stay for one night only. However, between traveling to the children from Ahmedabad, and then traveling with them up around Uttarakhand, it had been almost a week of very little sleep or mental security and I began to worry that I'd go insane and become useless as a chaperone. Gangotri reaches freezing temperatures at night, despite this however I had hoped to find solace sleeping on the floor.
Morning time clarity speaks life, I wanted this. Based on the organiser’s pre-trip determent, I knew there would be some difficult encounters. I was hoping to understand what it means to make do and exist extremely simply, perhaps even lacking some basic needs temporarily. And seeing these kids- to the best of my knowledge, the children were very uncomfortable as well but said nothing. In the most inspiring way, they endured. They are so strong- and so hardworking. Every night they hand washed their clothes themselves, and one day they cooked dinner for us. The cutest 11-17 year olds peeling potatoes and rolling rotis like we'd never seen!
Things were different after that. A little more beautiful and worthy of understanding. Expectations ceased to exist, replaced by the gratitude of presence. The depth of energy surrounding these sacred spaces was no longer lost. We slept well the following evening back in Uttarkashi. The kids were no longer sick. I took a run to recover in the mountain air and began to understand why the Himalayas are such a spiritual place.
Last month I took my fashion hat off to co-chaperone a ten day trip of 30 Manav Sadhna children to the Himalayas along with my friend Tejshri, a MS volunteer of Gujarati descent, born and bred in Texas. I thought it might be stressful, stepping away from the research and studio work for so long- but this unexpected otherworldly experience is the first thing that has ever pulled my headspace away from my work. All of us were transported in some way throughout the duration of this adventure.
The Manav Sadhna kids have not traveled much before. They were very excited and I was excited for them- however I had no idea what it could mean to travel a long way up and down windy mountain roads through various means of transportation over the course of 10 days, with 30 children whose life experiences have moulded them into significantly stronger individuals than myself
The first two days were spent in Rishikesh/Hardiwar seeing Hindu temples and other various spiritual experiences (Gangaji aartis, river dips, ashrams and such). The Himalayas are supposed to be very spiritual. At first I didn’t think I would feel it. After all, I’m not Hindu- Although I was curious to learn about the religion. There are so many amazing stories full of philosophy and beautiful life lessons in Hinduism. My personal spiritual background is solely monotheistic, as such I had a little trouble connecting with the idea of so many energies each with a separate divine power. Did they come together to form one? Or are they all really separate, with their multitude of connections and reincarnations? I asked a lot of questions throughout the tours. The trip felt like a mini “birthright” for the kids, and to me it was a such a valuable learning experience.
Rishikesh Gangaji Aarti above, Haridwar Gangaji Aarti below
Aarti defined: "Hindu religious ritual of worship, a part of puja, in which light from wicks soaked in ghee (purified butter) or camphor is offered to one or more deities." In this event, the prayers were to Mother Ganges.
Above: Bharat Mata Mandir
Below: Vishnu Devi Temple
As time went on, the reality of being surrounded by a vastly different culture and language at all hours settled in (there is no alone time with 30 Indian children and the other Indian chaperones. They don’t do that here, it’s not a thing like in the US) It was a constant attempt at translations in my head, when I'm not even close to fluent in Hindi (yet). I speak just enough to bond with the kids on merit, but no Gujarati at all which is their primary language. Teju is American but her Gujarati roots are strong, so she was able to translate the language as well as whatever cultural bits were lost on me- which created some challenges for her with regards to constantly communicating between both sides. However, I would randomly have really beautiful moments with the kids where we could understand each other in Hindi, and they would even teach me! I helped them with their English as well.
Our nights in Rishikesh were spent in the Parmarth Niketan Yoga Ashram. We were happy, however severely lacking in sleep due to the somewhat unnecessary early mornings imposed on us (5:30, 3:30, when the kids don’t get in bed until 12 at the earliest), but still happy. It was our little space for our little four hour nights, after being on rickety sleeper buses for two nights in a row. We were tired, but feeling adventurous and ready for the mountainous ascent up the Himalayas to Uttarkashi on the third day.