For most of January I was in India and Kim was in Nepal. I left Kathmandu for Delhi when 2018 was just five days old. Three days later I boarded an overnight train from Delhi’s Hazrat Nizamuddin station for a small town called Warora in Maharashtra, central India. I’d been looking forward to the journey. I love train travel and I had a nostalgia for the trips I’d done with my sister down the length of India on my first visit there when I was nineteen. This trip was scheduled to be twenty hours. It ended up being over four hours late so I left Delhi on 8th January at 11pm and reached Warora at 12.20am on the 10th. A delay of this kind is common in India and in fact I got off lightly as I’ve heard about other delays of up to 19 hours.
Whiling Away the Train Trip
Over the course of the journey, I found myself falling more and more in to a kind of meditative state which seemed apt as I was on my way to a voluntary work and meditation retreat. As the hours passed and the delay increased, rather than feeling agitated or bored, I felt at ease, like I was ticking over quietly in optimum gear. I had little impulse to read or write and instead enjoyed looking out of the window watching India roll by. Every now and then I would try out some gentle stretches in the small space available in the compartment. Occasionally I’d go and stand at one of the train doors between the carriages. These were often open and it felt good to lean against the wall, watch the world go by and feel the warm air wafting in to the train.
Fathoming Time and Space
I was still enjoying the different climate which felt like a welcome novelty after being in Nepal. On the Annapurna Circuit which we’d trekked over Christmas and New Year, it was usually below freezing and in Chame, where I stayed for a week, it was minus 15 at night. Later on, once I was settled in to the work retreat at Anandwan, I would go up to the roof of the building where I was staying to get a better internet signal. Sometimes I’d be messaging Kim in real time. From where I was in the flat lands of central India, I’d picture him in Nepal in the mountains. I’d be wearing trousers and a shirt of thin cotton and he’d be bundled up in a down jacket. I’d be looking up at the moon, imagining him looking at it too, so many miles away, at such a different altitude and in such different surroundings. It’s so hard to fathom the concepts of time and space. For me, the experience of travel, as insightful and educational as it can be, often serves to highlight the wonderful mystery of these concepts, rather than to offer any great explanations. I’ve become quite happy with that.
I’d been wanting to come to Anandwan, which literally means Forest of Joy, for a while. It’s a community that was founded in 1949 by someone who came to be known as Baba Amte. After walking past a man dying of leprosy on the street, this trainee lawyer let go of that vocation and found a new one. He decided to dedicate his life to helping people who had leprosy, or were living with the disabilities caused by the disease. Anandwan is the result, home now to 2,500 people who have had to leave their families as a result of contracting leprosy. Due to the way the the disease is viewed, people often become outcasts from society, and this was particularly the case in the past. Baba Amte was to call this attitude ‘leprosy of the mind’ and his aim was to create a place where leprosy patients could live a life of inclusion and with a sense of purpose.
Anandwan now is populated with hospitals, schools, homes for the elderly, workshops, vegetable gardens, a dairy and shops. Everybody living there has a purpose, a role, and contributes in some way to the community. People with missing fingers, toes and limbs are engaged in weaving carpets, making furniture, sewing, gardening, craft-making, cleaning and cooking.
Volunteering at Anandwan
I was going to be at Anandwan for three weeks with a group of other volunteers and the work we were invited to do during our stay included food preparation, gardening, woodwork, wound dressing, nail cutting and massaging the elderly. It also included games and arts and crafts with the hearing and sight impaired school children.
When I’d first heard about the voluntary project that is run every year in Anandwan by SanghaSeva I’d noticed I felt kind of shut down, thinking that that type of work wasn’t for me. But I soon became curious about my response and, realising it was rooted in fear, I reflected on what this was about. I came to understand that my reaction was partly based on ignorance about leprosy itself: I was carrying an assumption that leprosy is highly contagious, for example, but later discovered this is far from the case. On another level, which felt deeper to me, I understood that my fear was about a need to distance myself from ‘the other’: anything and anybody that I needed to see as separate from myself, in order to preserve the notion that sickness, ageing and death happen to other people but have nothing to do with me. As time went on, I became more and more open to the idea of attending the work retreat to explore and confront my initial reaction. Three years after first hearing about Anandwan, there I was.
Day-to-Day Rhythm During the Retreat
The days were well-structured, full, but with plenty of breaks. In the morning, with several other volunteers, I went to the old people’s homes where we gave massage to the elderly men and women. At first, I found it hard to see some of the disabilities people were living with. But soon, the disability became almost invisible as I saw through the barrier that I had, in effect, erected myself, to the person beyond. Over the course of the mornings I spent there, I repeatedly experienced real joy through the connection created by the simple act of massaging someone who typically receives little, if any, intimacy or tenderness. Seeing the light in someone’s eyes as they felt the warmth of my hands and felt some relief from their aches and pains made sense of why I was there.
In the afternoons I split my time between the hearing and sight impaired school children, and taking the elderly out in wheelchairs. I’d felt some apprehension about working in the schools as I’m not familiar with the age group and have never worked with anyone who was hearing or sight impaired. The children were lively, fun and creative. Although demanding of attention as they have little extra input beyond school lessons, their energy and engagement was infectious. I found myself becoming more playful and able to dig in to reserves of stamina I didn’t know I had. It felt good to relax in to being with the kids and to put my own needs to one side.
The wheelchair rides, as we called them, were another delight. We would do a circuit that included visiting the beautifully maintained graves of Baba Amte and his wife Sadhanatai. The old folks loved getting out of their homes and it was moving to see them pay their respects. The route followed a path with fields on either side where we would regularly spot kingfishers, hummingbirds and a whole host of other feathered friends that I couldn’t identify. We would pass by a herd of goats and stop for a moment, watching them as they contentedly munched and browsed. Often, the men and women we were taking out would chat with people passing by or working in the grounds, people they used to work with or see everyday when they were younger and fitter. The conversations were usually vibrant, bringing great big smiles to the lined faces of the elderly men and women.
An Ongoing Journey
There were so many of these moments and I would try and take note of them, soak them up and absorb them while they were happening. But I think it was only really afterwards, when I’d left Anandwan and met up with Kim again, that, with a bit of distance I could see the deeper and more ongoing effect of my experience of volunteering there.
It’s not easy to convey without it sounding sugar-coated, although my experience was anything but this. Rather than an immediate rush of pleasure that flares up and quickly dies down, demanding to be replaced by another rush, I am left with a sense of joy that feels expansive and enduring. This isn’t to say that daily life feels rosy all of the time but any irritations, so far at least, seem to be landing on a bed of deeper understanding about what really matters: I’ve noticed I’m responding to day-to-day ups and downs in a less reactive, more gentle kind of way. The journey I made at the beginning of January has turned out be more far more than twenty-five hours on a train.
My photos of the retreat are in the gallery below. In addition, Tom, another attendee at the retreat, took some excellent photos that I wanted to share as well – Tom’s photos.