Breaking the Cycle of Poverty with Love & Education

I knew my trip to India would not be a vacation by any means, but nothing could have truly prepared me for the sights, smells, intense heat and humidity and most of all the extreme differences in culture from what I have grown up with.
I have traveled all over the world and experienced the poverty in which much of our world lives in and it is never easy to stomach, especially when you realize the cycle in which it continues. However, for me, the most unsettling part of this whole trip has been the serious social issues and lack of equality amongst the people, both because of the caste system and the serious sexism.


Being raised by a liberal, single father I grew up being told I could do anything and that not only was I equal to every man, but every human is equal and deserves the same rights. It has been drilled in to me from the minute I was born and so it is still so appalling to me to see the way other cultures view and treat other humans. In a few occasions I have lost my cool and have been fed up with the constant sneers, awkward and intimidating stares and most recent invasion of privacy by one of the male staff at our “safe & secure” ashram where we are staying. I realize these things are harmless and comparatively speaking, laughable, considering not too far from this part of the world women are still being stoned to death for “disobeying” their husbands. I have to remind myself that Ghandi, this nations peaceful leader in freedom and human rights did not achieve his dreams through rage and outburst but by compassion, tolerance, resiliance and perseverance. My passion must not be misguided but focused on the solutions that will bring a balance to this world.


As I sat in the tiny one room medical clinic/elementary school in the slums of Barota, India, I watched as Dr. Mistry wrapped a little girls arm in an ace bandage while he questioned her father as to why the 9 year old had never been to school. He was mostly blind and the mother worked full time to support the four children so the little girl had to work cutting vegetables in a local restaurant. I thought about what this little girl’s life would be like. It was almost too easy to predict and the doctor later confirmed it was all too common that these girls worked from the youngest age until the time they were married off around 14 or 15 to then continue the cycle.


Later in the day more little girls showed up to the doctor’s office, peeking their faces through the door way, shyly spying on me, curious to this strange looking visitor but too shy to enter or speak. The doctor told me that the girls attended the classes that he and his wife ran at the clinic every morning and they were avid learners. The girls are the most passionate about learning, he told me. The young females seeking education are the moving force to building up the country to be strong and healthy he said.

This is why he has left his private practice of 21 years in New Jersey, to return to the slums of his home town of Barota in Gujarat, with his wife, educating the children and providing affordable and available healthcare.


It was such an inspiration to meet someone who walked away from their comfortable lives in the US to return to where the help was needed, where it will make the biggest impact and where it is much appreciated.
The next time I returned to the clinic/school I brought a group of college students, members of Dr. Interns summer medical internship program who I have come to India to help support through marketing and program expansion.

The students were as excited as I were to hear Dr. Mistry’s story and I was most excited to see the little girls who had gathered the courage to come sit by me and even posed for pictures for me and with me. They mimicked my English and were obviously hungry to learn anything I had to teach them. I was excited to meet these girls who’s situation seemed grim but who’s futures looked bright.


The next time I returned with an even larger number of excited students and arms full of school supplies including all my favorite things: crayons, colored pencils, markers, coloring books, chalk, UNO cards, notebooks, pencils and erasers. We were happy to contribute to the Mistry’s school/clinic and I was excited to speak more about expanding our program to assist with their work. This is what I came to India to do. This is what I am on this planet to do.
The little girls ran from their houses to greet me in the street with cheerful “Hi’s” and hugs with huge smiles on their faces.

As we sat around Dr. Mistry’s office/clinic/school the room quickly filled with small children who were all excited to see strange new faces in their neighborhood. The energy in the room was amazing and even though the little children had trouble keeping quiet while the doctor explained his story ( now for the third time for me, yet still as genuine and full of passion) it was sweet to see how much it meant to them that we had come and with supplies for their school.

I wanted to hug each one of them and tell them I was so proud of them for getting an education and to stay with it. I wanted to let each one know that they were special and worthy of having a better life, one of opportunity and freedom but with the little Gujarati I knew I was stuck with formalities but the love and compassion was felt between both the children and us.

We poured our love on to them with smiles and photos and laughter and found a renewed purpose in our work here in India, something that is easy to lose sight of when faced with the giant hurdles of social issues. However, like when we spent the day delivering reusable waterbottles to the children enrolled in school in the rural village of Ratunpura we realized with every act of love and support, regardless of how small, making a difference in the life of a child is the greatest action a person can take in life.

Christmas in Cusco then Costa Rica…

As fun and exciting traveling the world is there are moments when you realize how delicate each moment, each plan has to be. Kiersten and I are both experienced travelers and would consider ourselves incredibly resourceful, aware of our surroundings and prepared. Days like today make us feel like no matter what you do there will always be curveballs. As we sit in the Lima airport, stranded because we don’t have the proper proof of yellow fever vaccinations we both feel defeated and that “of course” attitude since we have been so excited to get to Costa Rica finally.

Peru has been such a learning experience, learning of the ancient culture, the history and also a lot about people in general; both who we want to surround ourselves with in life and who we want to be. I can’t say much about the current culture of Peru because I have made it a point to have a positive outlook and mindset about life, especially when it gets difficult but it seems that the more you try to assist and show generosity, the more people expect and Kiersten and I are both exhausted feeling like we have been taken advantage of far beyond our means.

Our mission has been completed. We finished the 4 day Inca trail to Machu Picchu and spent yesterday, Christmas day at the Hogar with the girls who we spent so much time, money and effort to fundraise for. Getting there was a complete nightmare. Our host and one of the directors of Peruvian Hearts was aware we planned to visit the Hogar onChristmas day for weeks, yet when it came time for us to leave we ended up standing in the freezing rain for almost an hour, changed taxis 3 or 4 times and still paid for both our taxi and hers and the teens accompanying her. We would have easily paid for a van to comfortably take us all and it would have cost the same had there been any planning by our “guides.” Instead, much of our day was spent freezing, wet, standing on the street hailing cabs or ANY car passing by and now we both have sore throats and very possibly colds.

The time we spent at the Hogar was worth any cold or cost since our simple gifts of hot chocolate, panetone (traditional sweet Christmas cake) and the packs with goodies from GUESS were more than those girls had expected for Christmas. They referred to us as their “Papa Noel” (Santa Claus) and knowing that we literally provided them with a Christmas was more meaningful than anything imaginable. We were constantly getting hugs and pictures painted for us and their gratitude was immeasurable. They had never had an art project like the one we brought and although we simply provided 5 colors of fabric paint and a variety of brushes the girl’s creativity was so impressive. It was the greatest Christmas gift to me to see my idea and hard work pay off as they went nuts over the different colors and ideas they put onto the fanny pack or paper.

“Kristina and Linda’s Spa” Giving the girls mini manicures of Nivea hand cream to treat their chapped and cracked hands and Sally Hansens Hard as Nails to help strengthen and grow their nails.

 

A friend we made at the hostel, Garreth, who happened to live on the same street as me back in San Diego is living in South America now, working through his travel blog and volunteering with an organization to build libraries down here. He also came with us to the Hogar and was an awesome addition. He was playful with all the girls and very funny. He and Kiersten even had a very spectacular dance showcase for the girls while we learned to salsa to Columbian music and played musical chairs. We certainly had a great time and will remain in my mind a success.

Now all we need is a successful rest of our South American tour. Thanks to a couple random California girls we met at the Taca ticket line who let us take photos of their vaccine records and Kiersten’s photoshop skills we have two “Yellow Fever Vaccination Cards.” We might actually finally leave this country and continue on to Costa Rica for the “fun” part of our journey. We are both more than ready!! Luckily we are the two smartest, fearless, travel savvy females we know so I am not too worried, just frustrated that no one, including the airline or travel service that booked our tickets from here to Costa Rica mentioned a specific card we needed. It’s all part of the learning experience. Lets just hope it doesn’t cost too much to change our flights and we can get on standby tomorrow morning or our next fundraiser may be to get us home!

Its Beginning to Feel a lot like Navidad!


All we want for Christmas is wi fi and a hot shower and we found the coolest hostel either of us have ever been to! A Cusconian, hippie, travel party compound with different dorm wings and awesome paintings everywhere, a bar inside, a courtyard with beanbags and table tennis, a kitchen with people from around the world cooking and eating. It looks like a South American party dorm! The study room I am in now has the constellations in actual little lights on the ceiling and above me  is Orion, the archer, my favorite constellation.I feel at home on this big green bean bag chair blogging away next to Kiersten.
Although we love staying with Daniel and his family,  it is nice to be close to the main plaza with hot water and internet.
Its only about 4 soles (1.50 US) to get a cab back to Daniels up on the hill so we will make it back tomorrow to help Rosa prepare the Christmas meal. Kiersten even said she would break her pescetarian ways to dine on traditional guinea pig for Christmas!

I am excited to be back in Cusco for Christmas and glad we are through with the commute we did the last 3 days.
We spent 20 hours over the past 3 days in different cramped tin cans of death on windy unpaved roads with waterfalls and landslides blocking roads we had to drive through. We took video of us driving through a foot of water that was running down the side of the mountain and it literally just running down off the cliff we drove along with no barrier or anything to stop the car from going over. We drove through at least 15 of these road hazards. All without any seatbelts. (Sorry if I am scaring you Grandma, but obviously the angels are looking out for us so thanks for the extra prayers)

Our first night was spent in Quillabamba where Daniel our guide is from. We saw the land where he grew up and spent several years running the coffee and mango farm, raisig his 3 younger siblings while his parents were in jail for being revolutionary union organizers, fighting for the rights of the local people. Such an inspiring story and an honor to know such a wise person.

Its a really small town with a really colorful, fun and friendly vibe. It reminded me of the same coziness of Siem Reap in Cambodia. Kiersten and I agreed it felt familiar.

While visiting a dining hall where Daniel’s friend throws events for her restaurant, we were invited  to come back to the party later that night, which we learned was a Prom!!
So we did what any 23 year old American girls in Peru do when invited to a Prom: We rented dresses from the shop across the street from our hostel and showed those teens some of the best moves of the west.
It was an awesome night. Footage to come soon!
The second day we spent another 5 hours in a sketchy cramped car only this time we had to get out at one point and cross over a makshift bridge about 50 yards long and 100 feet above a rocky muddy river. The bridge was simply two 2x4s laid across steel beams unsecured so balance was key. I dropped my poncho halfway across and two of the workers scrambled down into the ravine to retrieve it for me and fought over who got to return it. Such chivalry!
Although it was the Summer Solstice it was rainy so I was happy to have my poncho still.  We missed  some amazing solstice festivals and parades in Cusco but being in the jungle made up for it…We went to one of the sites of the last Incan refuge where the last of the Incas were tracked down and killed by the conquistadors who also destroyed all evidence of how the Incas lived. A shame. Kiersten and I wondered what our world would be like had we learned  more from them.
The sun did come out for a few hours while we did the tour and while we gave our offerings of coca leaves in the Incan fashion for the Intitayta (sun god and most important God to the Incas)
Daniel our guide played his flute for us as the sun went down on the longest day of the year here and Kiersten tried to bring back her high school first chair flute skills. Apparently an Incan flute is much different but I applaud her effort.

Overall the near death car rides were worth the spiritual experience we got at the last known Incan sites where not a single other person was around. We definitely felt the spirits.  Speaking of spirit, I am actually feeling the Christmas spirit back here in Cusco. There are street performers in the Plaza de Amras and all the lights and decorations are really pretty along the old colonial brick roads and cathedrals.

It feels like a real Christmas and I feel like actually getting in the spirit which is rare. It feels more genuine down here, like people appreciate their family and the meaning of Christmas so much more. It is more important to share a panetone (big spice cake that comes in a box with a handle) than presents.

Kiersten and I have been blogging machines for hours now and are the last remaining travelers in this study. Both of us are craving our own panetone to share in celebration of Christmas Eve in Cusco. I am so blessed to have this opportunity and a wonderful “non-domestic partner” to share it with. Excited to spend Christmas back at the Hogar with the girls and bring our Christmas surprises to them. The true meaning of Christmas is sharing your love, remember that.

“Camino Inca” A Pilgrimage to Machu Picchu

For anyone who has ever climbed a mountain or the Andes, you know what a physical challenge the hours of endless uphill trekking, downhill descends and sleepless painful nights with little to no “comforts” feels like. I anticipated the challeneges ahead and my travel compadre Kiersten and I anticipated, Peru was not going to be a “vacation” by any means. We came for a purpose to assist with a major issue in the community of Cuzco, providing scholarships to girls pursuing further education to break the cycle of poverty. We also had the goal of making the 48 kilometer trek through the Andes learning of Inca culture, visiting Ancient Ruins of a civilization with an incredible and almost unimaginable knowledge of agriculture, engineering, construction, philosophy and understanding of the Earth and its relation to the Universe. I could go on for pages of Archaelogical and cultural facts of the Inca people but that would bore you and its much more interesting in the black journal I started prior to this trip.

We accomplished our goal of surviving the Inca Trail thanks to Clif Bars, good jams on the ipods, amazing guides and each other’s awesome motivational powers and positive energy. For four days we hiked uphill through rainforests, through “Dead Woman’s Pass,” over rickety bridges, over powerful streams and down slippery, uneven stone stairs that went on for miles. We slept on hard cold ground in tents, ate very simple and sometimes indigestible meals with our group of Argentinians, a Mexican, an Australian, two Swedes and our amazing Peruvian guides, Juana and Pepe. We woke up before the sun, carried what little we brought with us on our backs and took dozens of stops to take pictures, meditate or just to concentrate on our Spanish speaking skills or to catch our breath with the incredibly high altitude.

We did not expect however to experience the same uphill battles and and steep scary descends emotionally. A member of our travel posse for the past 6 days was a very challenging person to handle at such high doses and it was a lesson to us that not only should you chose your travel companions VERY wisely, but even on the side of a mountain standing among ruins of some of the most positively charged structures and temples, we were still facing the challenges of dealing with people you can’t escape.

We realized after a day of walking on egg shells and still experiencing the wrath of someone we couldn’t understand or get through to, did we realize the true challenge of the pilgrimage. You will always get handed the challenges you need most when you least expect it. Moral of this story. Kiersten and I proved to be stronger compadres than ever before and helped each other physically and mentally meet these challenges and persevere.

From here, the trip will be much different now that we have parted ways and celebrated our liberation from this aggrivator last night with drinks and salsa dancing lessons with our guides Pepe and Juana who we had grown close to. Today we even went to Juana’s favorite spa for some sauna and salt and honey body scrubs  and did lunch and some shopping in the markets of Cusco. It was a great start to the next chapter of our trip.

Tomorrow we leave for another 3 day trek to the jungle of Bilkabamba, the last refuge of the Incan people, where Daniel, our amazing host/guide in Cusco is from. We will be spending the Summer Solstice, December 22nd on this trip and know Daniel will have so much knowledge to share with us and I am really looking forward to a real spiritual awakening here in the mountains of Peru.