In February of 2019 I went on an amazing trip with three other people to India; my dad, step mom, and pastor Nathan. WOW. It was incredible. I have a feeling I will see it again some day. Getting there was surprisingly easy except for the the first of our flights getting canceled when we got to the airport. If you have traveled with my dad you will know that the family has a scale we like to use to measure his level of stress. If we aren’t in the car ready to go at least three hours before our scheduled flight, he’s at a level three. Then, once we are on the road and someone can’t find their drivers license, his level is then a five, maybe six. One time we were traveling to Colorado and I couldn't find my ID, we were on the shuttle bust to get to the airport. There wasn’t any time to turn around and look for it. Either I find it in my bag or I can’t go! I think he may have been a seven that day… but this is where he developed the “I need to see your ID before we get in the car” check. It works though, we have never had an ID scare again! So our flight from Indianapolis to Chicago was canceled, and I was imagining the “airport dad” scale at a five, but when I asked him he told me he was at a two! I was shocked. He was so calm while we waited for the ticketing crew to book us a new flight to Philly which was leaving in five minutes. This flight would take us to London and get us back on track for the rest of the trip.
It was mostly smooth sailing from there. I’ll be honest, before this trip the furthest I have ever flown was six hours from Chicago to Reykjavik, and I didn’t sleep well at all on that flight; too much excitement and not enough comfort. The idea of flying for twenty hours over the span of four flights was not appealing. Here’s a travel tip: get the isle seat and hope no one sits next to you. On he flight from Philly to London I was able to sleep, London to Hyderabad was a different story. This flight was over nine hours long. NINE. And guess who had a middle seat, with their extroverted pastor who likes to talk to strangers with the window seat, and another lady who also likes to talk on the isle seat. And they both took up the arm rests. They talked for almost three hours straight with me in the middle trying to just not be in the way. The woman’s name was Kallah, she’s a doctor who grew up in India and is returning to take care of her mother who has cancer. Kallah also told us about how her husband died and she wasn’t able to be with him, but he was baptized before it and that gave her peace. She told us how she believed in all religions, but was also looking for answers. We came to find out she had never heard the story of Adam and Eve. So for two hours Pastor Nathan told Kallah about them and about why we then need Jesus to atone for what happened, and for two hours I nodded my head and said “yeah” and “mhmm” like a good sidekick. When the flight ended, we said our goodbyes, and she went on her way. International travel really does open up so many opportunities to get to know more people, I think that’s why I like it so much. I’m sort of forced to get to know new people.
Our last flight was a local, one hour flight that felt like ten minutes. I was so tired from not being able to sleep on the last flight, so I was a bit cranky. I wasn’t sure what to expect to see when I walked through the doors of the airport, but the first thing my eyes found when I looked to my left was a short woman dressed in a regal sari. She was jumping up and down with four long garlands made of marigold in her hands. Her name is Siromani. I could feel my face light up when I reached her. She placed one of the garlands around my neck and said “I love you!”, what a sweet soul.
Siromani and David Raju are the founders of the orphanage. I was able to sit down and interview David Raju, Siromani and Kamal to get to know how it all started, so here it is: Siromani was the head nurse at the hospital, she worked in the AIDs wing. There she cared for a mother and her son, they were poor and the mother was dying. Siromani would bring them a little bit of food when she would care for them. One day, when she came back from a four day leave, she saw that the mother was not on her cot, and the child was gone. She asked the other nurses but she knew she had died, but the boy was gone. Later, she found the boy hiding in a closet and told her that her mother said not to go with any one but her, “You go with that kind, Christian lady”. That night Siromani went home and told her husband, David Raju, about what happened. The next day he went out and bought a toothbrush, some soap, and an extra pair of clothes and brought the boy home. Since that day, they have taken care of over 700 orphans in the span of 12 years. Now they have rooms for the kids, a church for their community and have built a school for them as well. We made our way immediately to the orphanage, but I was not prepared for it.
I was exhausted from traveling so when I jumped out of the car and saw about forty kids lined up with more garlands to present to us, I almost lost it. I kept it together pretty well when they started to surround me, asking what my name is and then telling me they loved me. I had to put my sunglasses back on my face so no one would see the tears welling up in my eyes. Then it happened. I turned and looked at one of the smallest boys right in the eyes. You know when your sobbing and trying to catch your breath at the same time? My chest started hurting because I was trying to suppress it. That’s what was happening inside of me. This boy had the biggest, most beautiful deep brown eyes, the same brown eyes that my sweet nephew has. There was something else about his face that reminded me of him. I turned around as fast as I could to try to make it stop. Then we left for the hotel. I have no idea what time it was, but I slept for 14 hours, and it was great.
Pastor Nathan and Kamal (Siromani’s son, he would interpret for Nathan) preached twice every day. Once, in the morning at the pastors conference, and again at a local church in the community. During the pastors conference, Debbie (my step mom, I don’t like calling her step mom because it sounds like a dirty name) and I were able to sneak away and take pictures of the kids who live at the orphanage and do a little ten minute interview with each one. These kids are so kind, generous and humble. Siromani would interpret for us, but hearing the stories of what they have gone through will tug at your heart. We would ask them what they wanted to be when they grew up, a couple of answers we got were police, army men, teachers, engineers, and a few doctors. We started getting through their questions too quickly so we added “What makes you happy?”. I thought I’d get answers like “playing with my friends”, or “art”, but a lot of them would say similar things: “I would be happy if I could sit with my parents in church worshiping God together”, and “I would be happy if my dad would not drink alcohol all the time”. Wow. That was humbling and heart wrenching. A lot of the kids at the orphanage have one parent, but in their culture it’s more important to take care of your parents than your children, leaving many children to be left to fend for themselves. This just breaks my heart. I love kids, my degree is in early childhood education, making me a child advocate. I speak for the children when they don’t have a voice to be heard. I’m also an aunt, which is a very important job involving being cooler than your sisters. After getting to know these kids, I feel like I’m their aunt. I just love them all so much. Later in the week, we got to play some games and build a connection with them all. When I would be walking through the halls or the courtyard of the building I would turn around and see five or six kids following me. They would wave and smile their bright smiles at me. They love to wave the sign for “I love you” at you, it is just the sweetest. I know a couple of hand clapping games but didn't think they would know them, so when I held my hands out to teach them, they started singing a hand clapping song. I love how something I learned as a young child in America knew some of the same games as the kids halfway across the world.
Everyday, Siromani would make us all lunch. Me and my parents, Kamal and his wife and kids, Pastor Nathan and themselves. This woman can cook, but if you know me at all, you know my tolerance to spicy foods is extremely low. Like, a granule of pepper on my tongue burns. She would try so hard to make it “mild” but I just couldn’t handle it. I’m not extremely adventurous with food, but I do like to try new things. They brought out some ox yogurt to mix with my food to make it less spicy, and what do you know, it worked! I just feel lucky that I didn’t have any gut issues from the food. Traveler’s diarrhea is a real thing, but I didn’t get it, PTL!
David Raju and Siromani love to exchange gifts, I don’t know if that’s an Indian cultural thing, or just them. I gave Siromani a scarf that I ha worn before, and she put it on and said “Oh I love you, you are my American daughter and I will be your Indian mommy”. I told her I would love that, and kissed her cheek. The next day David took us out shopping and I tried on a couple of tunics, and finally found the right one. There were thousands of options, which was a bit overwhelming for me. I did end up finding one that felt like me and I wore it a couple of times when we went out to the village churches. The first time we went out, I felt a little overwhelmed. So I’m an introvert and really don’t like being the center of attention. But if you are an American traveling in India, you cannot avoid being the center of attention. My dad really stood out, he’s somewhere around 6’2" with white-grey hair. The churches had seats for us at the front, so when we walked to the front, some of the woman would reach their hands out to touch me. A lot of the time I would see people take out their phones and get pictures of us. It was a weird experience.
I didn’t realize it was the last day with them until they brought out cake for a celebration. I was thinking I would get one more day, but they had school the next day. They brought out a huge pineapple flavored cake that Debbie cut, and my dad and I passed out. The kids held their piece of cake in their hands so delicately, and some of them took their time eating it. I don’t think some of them have ever had cake in their whole life. After they ate the cake and sang some songs, it was about time to say goodbye to them. I hate goodbyes, I did not want to say goodbye. The kids were asked the pray for us and our journey home. I was sitting in a chair and had about 20 small hands grab my hands, arms, and shoulders. I couldn't understand what they were saying at all, but could feel the love that came from their hearts. Yeah, I started to ugly cry. I’m so glad I got to hug each one of them. I’m always thinking of them, and I’m so glad I was able to experience this once in a lifetime trip. I have a ten year visa, so I have a feeling it’s not the last time I will see them!