Saturday, December 24, 2011

Volunteering at Anandwan, Forest of Joy

"The good you do today, it will not last. Do good anyway.
If you give the best you have, it will never be enough. Give your best anyway."
 ~ made famous by Mother Teresa (edited)

"I sought my soul, but my soul I could not see.
I sought my God but my God eluded me.
I sought my brother and I found all three."
 ~ source unknown; the favorite quote of Baba Amte, founder of Anandwan

Steve Martin used to begin his live comedy show with "I like to start the show by doing something impossible: I'm now going to suck this piano through this straw." Today's impossible feat: I will now describe to you what it's like to volunteer at a mostly-leprosy community in central India. As I write these letters I always hope to provide some kind of full accounting of an experience, and it's never looked as hopeless as it does right now. Volunteer work of this sort has a way of stretching you, finding your edges, building great walls around your comfort zone, and then watching those walls crumble, brick by brick. The subtle-me says you can't even accurately describe the experience of sipping a cup of tea. Caring for wounds of leprosy patients? Why do I even try...

We're staying at the lovely oasis, of sorts, of Anandwan, which means Forest of Joy. It was founded by the bigger-than-life Baba Amte, a compatriot of Gandhi, who was born wealthy and had unending luxurious alternatives laid before him. As a fearless young man fighting the British for independence, he found himself fleeing from the horror of the "living corpse" of a dying leper. He was shaken to the core by his reaction, and after returning and caring for the leper's last three days on earth, he resolved to dedicate his life to the care and empowerment of India's lepers. This place is built on principles of dignity, equality, hard work, and the intrinsic value of humans, regardless of their status, wealth, or number of fingers. "Work builds, charity destroys" is a core Baba Amte principle.

There are 18 of us volunteering, including the two retreat organizers, and we're working two shifts a day, for two or three hours each. Among the many possible roles, most of us have chosen between wound care, playing with the deaf and/or blind kids, and giving massage and  attention to the people in the old folks home. Inexplicably, I've chosen to start the day with dressings wounds, waking at 5:30 a.m., roughly four hours earlier than my normal get-up-ya-lazy-bastard wake-up time. In the afternoon a group of us are taking mostly old folks out on wheelchairs trips to the grave site of Baba Amte and his wife.

A continuing theme on the retreat, and our biggest struggle: what really helps? What's the "best" thing to do? How could I be most useful? The short non-answer: it's helpful that we're here, mostly for the message that the lepers and other outcasts are worthy of our time, attention, and love; AND we're doing very little that will have any kind of lasting impact. That's way too simple a summary, but there was a long discussion group on this topic last night, and it's not going to be summarized in a sentence or two. (But the retreat's happening again next December, and you're welcome to join and figure it out for yourself!)

I'm treating wounds under the direction of "Mousie," a lovely and healthy leper with permanently bent fingers, at the old folks home. Mousie doesn't speak a word of English, but that doesn't stop her from talking to me in Hindi or Marathi, the local language. At first I felt incompetent and useless, but now that I'm getting better at applying bandages, I'm only feeling useless. Mousie lives here, has for years, and will be dressing these wounds six or seven days a week until she's too old to continue. Soon enough I'll be laying on a beach somewhere complaining about the cost of airfare to some other exotic location. She doesn't need me. At the same time, she seems happy that I'm there, and we've developed a smooth work relationship. The giant burn the length of one woman's thigh is too complicated for me, so I mostly watch, but when someone comes in with a deep but clean wound that covers a quarter of the sole of their foot, she motions with her finger slightly to indicate what to do.

I'm probably at risk of objectifying some of the patients, but damn, these are some cute grandmas. One lady is about four feet tall and her foot looks about the size of the palm of my hand. There's a one-legged no-fingered two-toed lovely with an artificial leg who's full of life and has a sassy grin. I think in a parallel universe somewhere we're dating. I don't know how the relationship is going but I wish them well. The least attractive of the leper ladies, a hard fought contest to be sure, is one of my favorites. She has a snaggle-toothed grin with random missing teeth, no fingers, and she can't stop drooling for some reason - but she has such a lovely and gentle way about her. I said in the last letter that I was dealing with a mix of love and revulsion. As I thought might happen, when you get used to the wounds they seem less important, and it's easier to see the residents not as lepers who need help, but as people. It's amazing what they are able to do, but like old folks everywhere, they can use a helping hand. 

If you do come next year, which I expect, (just say yes,) what I've written above may not be your first impression. There is some incredible suffering on display here. As Dr. Vikas, the son of the founder told us the other night, the mission of the organization is to close this place. Virtually no one comes here to live by choice. They've come because they've run out of choices. Lepers are still shunned by society and forced to leave their homes and villages. As he put it, "It's a social catastrophe that brings us here."

So on this Christmas Eve, you have much to be thankful for. May you recognize it. Eyes to see, a roof over your head, food, friends, your health. And fingers to join together in a "namaste," the traditional Indian greeting that means I recognize the divine in you.

Too much love, hardly any revulsion!

It's a portrait-filled newsletter, people, so get over it. I'm making up for lost time when I couldn't as freely take people pics in Europe. Are these two stunning, or is it just me?
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We came for the dancing competition, but stayed for the endless speeches. Then we left before any dancing happened. This is so typical for Indian official events.
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Meet Jyoti, who spends literally 23+ hours a day laying flat on her back in a women's dorm at the old folks home, because there's no other place for her. She has severe arthritis (I'm not sure what kind) that prevents her from being able to straighten her legs. Her arms are stick-thin. Jen took it upon herself to get her upright and in a wheelchair and outside for maybe the first time in six months. How is it that she's always smiling? How can that be?
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In this guy's parallel universe, he's playing sax for a blues band. Here on earth he's an eye patient with cool-cat shades.
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A leprosy patient sitting in the sun.
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Another leprosy patient.
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I like this old guy. He's all in one piece, but pretty feeble. I've tried to talk him into a wheelchair trip with no luck so far.
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All the rooms are dorms, with 8 or 10 beds in each. They have almost no personal possessions, and there's no sink or toilet in the room.
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She's one of my regular patients in the wound clinic. Lovely thing.
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This woman is blind, sitting in the sun with her girlfriends and chatting away. The women are SO much more fun than the men, clucking and cooing and gossiping. The men mostly hang out in smaller groups or alone and don't talk much.
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This is Nani Bhai, with the palm-sized feet. The end of her foot wobbles from side to side in a way it's not supposed to.
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She doesn't always look so fierce.
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Another heart-breaking story. This is Neesha, who was literally dropped off at Anandawan when she was about three years old. She's now about 10, blind and mute, but able to recognize the doctor's voice and ask him for chocolate. Jen and I have taken her out for walks several times. She lives in the hospital, of all places, because there's no place for her.
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Where's Waldo? That's another Dave in the background, from England.
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Some of the wheelchair crew at the Baba Amte grave site. One of the old women just cried and cried when she came to the grave. He's really revered by the people here. He died in 2008 and his wife only earlier this year. (Laurie is from the U.S., David from England, and Yvon is French.)
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The best work job: giving the old women massage and oiling and combing their hair. Less thrilling: Nathan on the right trimming fingernails and toenails.
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Jen (The Tower of Love), Neesha, and Jenny from Singapore. Notice the home-made wheelchair with a standard plastic chair as the seat.
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Sorry if this is disturbing, but this sweet old guy can't close his eyes because of leprosy. A skin has formed on his left eye, and he's blind in both eyes. I gave him a little massage today and he asked me to sit on his bed next to him. He's actually really cute. (Maybe that sounds funny looking at the photo.)
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Warming herself in the morning sun.
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A local young man invited us to visit his village for a few hours, and six of us went along.
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I didn't want this little guy to cry, but I was happy to take his picture while he did.
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I think this kid was in the last newsletter. He and his sister are great fun.
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This little girl loves to have her photo taken. She's a beauty.
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The lovely Dana from Israel, one of the retreatants.
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This is how metal rods are cut the old-fashioned way.
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The cousin of our host in the village, standing in front of a purple door. We'd just finished a delicious meal prepared by the family.
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(The End)