|The Call To India|
For several years my wife had been a member of World of Hope Foundation, working to support its project in Mexico. In 2001 she felt that God was calling her to go to the WHF project site in India. If God was calling me to go to India too, I did not hear Him and so had made no plans to go along.
As the time for the India pilgrimage grew closer, my wife began having second thoughts about embarking on such a bold venture and decided that the call she had received from God was really meant for me. As for me, I still was not so sure that God was talking to me, but I have an adventurous spirit, love to travel and meet people of different cultures, so I agreed to take the journey to India.
Preparing for the TripAside from the many physical preparations for the trip, there was an even more important mental and spiritual preparation for such a journey. I still had not heard God’s voice calling me and I was filled with doubts. I prayed daily that I was doing the right thing and even searched for scripture readings, finding comfort in bible passages such as the verse from the 23rd Psalm that says even if you walk through the valley of death, God will be at your side and you need fear no harm.
As I was fairly proficient with a video camera and had the ability to edit video on my computer, I was asked to bring my equipment and help make a promotional video for World of Hope. It was about this time that Murphy’s law kicked in and everything started to go wrong. My video camera stopped working two weeks prior to the trip and had to be sent to New York for repairs. Then two days before the trip, my custom built, dedicated video editing computer stopped working, and I could not get any immediate help form the place where I purchased it. In short, as I left the United States, I was extremely frustrated and did not exactly feel like I was about to embark on a holy endeavor.
D-day was finally here and we departed, arriving after midnight in New Delhi. Upon leaving the airport and going outside, I was immediately overwhelmed with the smell of diesel fuel. It seems that all vehicles in India run on diesel engines and have no pollution control devices. After a few minutes, my eyes began to water from the ever present diesel fumes and I could actually taste it. It seemed to coat my throat and fill my lungs so that during my entire time in India, I had a diesel-fuel-related sore throat and cough.
As we were driven to our New Delhi destination for the next couple of days, I was confronted with the strange phenomenon of driving in India. Aside from driving on the left side of the highway, the only other rules of the road in India seem to be:(1) Don’t Stop. Red lights, other vehicles, and pedestrians, seem to offer no reason to slow down, let alone stop. The only exception to this rule is made for cows, considered sacred by the Hindu religion, and who seem to have the right of way wherever they wander;
(2) Might Makes Right. This is a very simple rule. A pedestrian must yield to a bicycle, a bicycle must yield to a motorcycle, a motorcycle must yield to a car, and a car must yield to a truck. Camel driven carts and ox-carts seem to fall somewhere in between a car and a motorcycle, and elephants, I think, can pretty much do as they please;
(3) Honk. I’m not sure what good it does, considering the heavy traffic congestion in Indian cities, but the driver of every vehicle on the highway is constantly honking his horn. In addition to the pollution caused by the diesel fuel, this provides an intense degree of noise pollution, so, in addition to a sore throat, a cough, and watery eyes, you also have a constant dull headache.
A Man in a House of Dung
Our hosts in New Delhi had arranged a trip for us to see the Taj Mahal in the nearby city of Agra. On the road to Agra I saw a man leaving a small house made completely out of dung that had been collected from the droppings of cattle. This man wore no sandals and the only clothing he had was a sort of loin cloth. He was carrying a long pole over his shoulders that held two pots for collecting water. As there was no stream or river visible nearby, he must have had to go some distance to obtain enough water to drink and cook with for the day. Upon seeing this man and his miserable living conditions, I ashamedly recalled the frustration I had felt at home with my mal-functioning computer. Now I beheld a man living in a house made of dung, who had no running water, few possessions, and with no electricity, would have no place to plug in a computer, even if he could afford such a luxury.
The Sea and the SkyAfter flying to Bombay, we stayed for a time in the state of Kerala, within walking distance of the Arabian Sea. As the weather here was quite tropical, we planned a day on the beach, and of course, a swim in the Arabian Sea. After a short walk to the beach, we discovered that the sandy beaches of India are not places of recreation as in America, but rather, are bathrooms of the local people. The sand was littered with human feces as well as in the water. Needless to say, we did not go for a swim. As we were now south of the Equator, I had hoped to get my first glimpse of the Southern Cross, but just as the beach and the Sea were polluted, so also was the sky. The smog from the factories and automobile diesel engines had placed an ugly mask of brown and gray in the sky so that neither the blue of day or the light from the stars at night were clearly visible.
The Hindu and the BeggarAfter leaving Kerala, we flew to Madras, one of India’s largest and most modern cities. As the plane was landing at the Madras airport, we flew over a huge mesa of dung, much larger than the Bandini Mountain of the U.S. fertilizer company fame. On this dung heap were hundreds of lean-to’s and cardboard shacks that served as homes for the poor of Madras. We saw women washing their clothes in the gutters, where waste water had accumulated and families living in large construction pipes, similar to those we would use for underground sewage or irrigation.
In Madras we purchased first-class, sleeper-car tickets for the midnight train to the village of Eluru, where some of the World of Hope projects are located. The “sleeper car” turned out to be similar to a large box car with triple stacked bunk beds, reminding me more of a cattle car than a sleeper car. The train stations in India are one of the many places where the poor and the lame–“the untouchables”–congregate, hoping for a handout from someone to help them survive another day. While waiting for our train to depart, a beggar dressed in filthy rags, whose legs were so badly deformed that they were quite useless, and who could only move by using his hands to lift himself off the ground, approached the open door of our sleeper car with an outstretched hand and a look of desperate pleading in his eyes. Tim took a few Indian rupees out of his wallet and handed it to the beggar. Nearby was a Hindu businessman who immediately began to chastise Tim, telling him that he had no right to come to India and interfere with their customs. The Hindu continued his tirade by saying that it was the plight of the beggar to suffer, that he was born to that situation in life, and no one should interfere with his destiny.
A Leper and the Sacred RiverWe stayed with the Bishop of Eluru for most of our visit but we took a side trip to a Catholic Ashram in West Godavari, where there is a very large annual weekend celebration and feast, honoring the Blessed Virgin Mary. The feast attracts not only Catholics, but Hindus and Muslims, as well. People walk for miles to attend the daily masses, listen to the live music, and make purchases from the many booths selling various food items and crafts. Attendance is around ten thousand. I was very much looking forward to this event and ready for a celebration.
We arrived at the Ashram, a sort of retreat house, on Friday evening. The next morning we set out to tour the craft booths and look for souvenirs to take home to our friends and loved ones. It was really exciting to see the Indian crafts, foods, and very colorful dress of the Indian people. After covering two or three rows of the craft fair aisles, we came to a large hill and saw people walking slowly on a path leading to the top of the hill to a holy shrine. We also followed the path to the shrine which was lined with beggars. I thought by now that I was accustomed to the sight of the poor and lame in India, and their appearance was not quite so shocking to me. After walking about twenty paces, I noticed what appeared to be a bundle of rags on a blanket at the side of the path. Upon closer inspection I saw that the bundle of rags was actually a human being with no arms, no legs, and no visible facial features. Although the temperature was in the mid 90's, the body was shivering as though he or she (I could not tell which) was chilled and this person made a moaning sound that will haunt me for the rest of my life. This was my first encounter with a leper and I’m afraid I did not handle it very well. I was visibly shaken and suddenly felt very ill. I was unable to continue the climb to the shrine or tour the rest of the craft fair. I retired to my room for the rest of the day and just felt sick.
Another side trip took us across a bridge over a river that was about a mile wide, the river Godavari. The Hindus believe that this is one of the seven most sacred rivers in India. I asked the driver to pull over so I could take some video footage. As we stopped and I began taping with my video camera, I saw some Indian women dressed in their colorful saris washing clothes at the water’s edge. As I zoomed my telephoto lens in for a closer shot, I noticed a couple of pigs on the shore not too far from the washer women. People throw their garbage on the side of the road and the wild pigs come along and eat the garbage. These two pigs were feeding on something in the water, and as I used my camera’s telephoto lens to get a tighter shot of the pigs, I saw two bloated bodies floating in the water. They were human bodies which the pigs were feeding on.
The Slums of Eluru
We spent two full days video-taping in the slums of Eluru which are actually small makeshift villages of the poor. The homes are huts made from palm branches and grass, and sealed with dung. Sometimes two or three families may live in one of these small, one-room huts. Beside the huts, raw sewage runs along the edge of the roadway to a nearby swamp. The women cook on the ground outside their huts near this stream of sewage and laying hens feed in the sewage. The families then eat the eggs from these chickens. Attracted by the raw sewage, the dung sealing the grass huts, and the uncollected garbage, there are flies everywhere. The only available potable water comes from a storage tank in the center of the town. Because of the limited supply of this water, the water spout is only turned on for an hour in the morning and another hour in the afternoon. The people must wait in line for the fresh water and then carry it to their huts. The unsanitary conditions of this village and the lack of nutritious meals, naturally lead to all kinds of disease and medical problems associated with malnutrition. I saw evidence of rickets, club feet, and many other disorders that I can not put a name to. I saw children that don’t play and never smile.
Our guide and companion on our tour of the slums was a priest from the diocese of Eluru, Father Michael Injamala, who also oversees the World of Hope Foundation Projects in Eluru. The priests and religious educate the people in the slums. They try to teach the families elementary practices such as washing their cooking utensils with fresh or boiled water, washing their hands before cooking and eating, going to the bathroom at a designated place away from their homes and cooking areas, and brushing their teeth. There is a sort of school in the village where the children are taught very rudimentary subjects such as the A.B.C.’s, how to count, and perhaps how to sing a few songs.
The World of Hope Projects
After visiting the slums, we inspected two of the World of Hope projects in Eluru, where poor children from the slums come to live while attending school. In contrast to the children we saw in the slums, these children were clean, well dressed, well fed, and smiling. Their surroundings were clean and comfortable. Comparatively speaking, they seemed well educated. They appeared genuinely happy and were very pleasant to be with. They were delighted with the small gifts we had brought them and even more delighted by the attention we showed them. My heart went out to these children and I think that if there is any hope for better living conditions and the pursuit of happiness in the future of India, it lies in these and the other children that are being saved by World of Hope Foundation and similar organizations.
After three weeks, I came home from India with a very different attitude than when I left. I saw things I will never forget. I saw a government and a religion that worships and erects shrines to monkeys, elephants, cows, and even rats; but neglects human beings that are hungry, sick, diseased, and lame. Things I used to take for granted, like fresh running water, indoor plumbing, an abundant food supply, a sturdy home, and an unpolluted environment, now have a new meaning for me.
The population of India has now exceeded a billion and there are so many poor that it seems even our best efforts to help the children in that country are relatively insignificant. One thing though is certain, we can make a difference in the life of the child that we help, and to him or her that makes all the difference in the world.Note: Pat Weeks subsequently became President of World of Hope’s California Chapter. He was called home to the Father last year on Good Friday.