Last Friday Paige and I experienced a most pleasant surprise. We had been told that the preserved body of St. Don Bosco (the patron saint of the youth) would be brought to Hassan for a mass and special viewing ceremony. Prior to our departure, Paige and I prepared ourselves mentally, physically and emotionally; as the whole orphanage would be in attendance as well as hundreds of people from surrounding villages. I immediately imagined myself trapped in the middle of a hot, smelly, chanting crowd of Don Bosco fanatics, fighting for my life. And this wasn’t just my imagination running wild—I based this depiction off of first-hand experience.
So we loaded up the bus on Friday afternoon—yes, I said BUS not BUSES. There are 83 girls at boarding and we legitimately took one big bus and sat five or six girls to a seat. Things weren’t looking so good. But somehow Paige and I got lucky and were able to sit four to a seat: Paige, me, and two 7 year-old girls Johti and Ashwini. Since the first week, Ashwini and I have had a special connection. She’s the definition of a girly girl, with permanent pigtails and her left hand painted in pink (Indian girls only paint their left hand because they eat with their right). I call her my Rajkumara, which means princess in Kanada. If I’m in sight, she is either holding my hand or clinging to my leg; so it was no surprise she found her way to my lap on the bus.
Most of the girls were brought to the orphanage when they were really young, so it’s not often they ride in a car or see life outside of the village. So it was really moving to observe Ashwini and Johti’s reactions to the scenery outside the window. Every five seconds my face would be jerked by Ashwini’s little hands, “Look Aunty! Look!” she would shout. She asked me what each building was, but she was most excited about the railroad tracks. I was happy knowing that someday she’d relate her first memory of these things to a memory with me.
Upon arrival, we immediately attended mass—which was as expected, a full house. (Click here to see a video of the mass and ceremony) Seeing Don Bosco’s body contained in a glass case was actually pretty cool, but a lot of people took it to the next level. Some turned into animals and were pushing and budging in line to get closer to him. That’s usually when I’m about ready to call it a night. It was a two-hour mass and by 7:00 p.m. my mind (and stomach) drifted to the real question at hand…would we get some fricken dinner or not? I was famished, but didn’t know how they could possibly go about feeding all of us, given the circumstances. Unfortunately, you can’t just drive through Wendy’s to get burgers for everyone in a place like this. All I know is that it’s not a good sign when you are hoping the Communion bread will tide you over until you get dinner.
After mass there was a candle light procession, in which hundreds of candles lit up the dark night. When we tried to leave, we got nabbed by a Chatty Cathy, and then HAD to be introduced to everyone in her family and their dog. She ended up writing down her address and phone number and told us to come stay at her house before we left for America! There’s some crazy people in this world, I tell ya.
After the procession and watching a movie about Don Bosco’s life (after being movie deprived for two months, this film was not exactly my first choice), everyone was given square tins of rice, hard-boiled eggs and pickled mangos, and naturally no silverware. Generally I like my dinner around 6 p.m…not 10 p.m., but beggars can’t be choosers.
The bus ride home was surprisingly my favorite part. We loaded the youngest (and sleepiest) girls onto the bus with some village families. Little Ashwini within minutes was fast asleep in my arms. It’s amazing how maternal instincts become so natural when your put in this kind of situation. I sat and cradled her too-small-to-be 7 year-old body in my lap, trying to hold her tight enough so her head wouldn’t bounce when we hit bumps. I rubbed her bare, tiny feet so the cold night air wouldn’t wake her up. I sat looking at her most of the drive home, making sure she didn’t stir in any way. I thought about how innocent and sweet-hearted she is, and how she should have been sleeping on her own mother’s lap. How she instinctively loves and trusts me, although I’ve only been in her life for two months, and will soon be out of it. I can’t think too long about these things, it’s too emotionally difficult to come to terms with.
Then I looked around the bus at all the village people. I was awestruck at the amount of love shown amongst them all—whether they were family, neighbors or simply acquaintances with one another. There they were, on a Friday night, riding five to a seat on a bus to see Don Bosco. They were all dressed in raggedy clothes, most had no shoes or even no teeth—but they were the happiest people I have ever seen. They passed all the smaller children around, seat to seat, lap to lap, like he/she was their own. I’ve watched the same thing happen in church, babies crawl through the aisles and are picked up and passed around by all the women—without a worry or thought about it by the baby’s mother. These people are like one big family, tight-knit and loving to one another. I watched as the husbands joked with each other while the mothers stroked their sleeping children's hair.
After observing all of this, I contemplated the theory of “ignorance is bliss.” I initially thought these people are so happy because this is all they know. They are content because they don’t know any other kind of life that exists outside of their village bubble. But then I thought, maybe we are the ones in ignorant bliss. We lead materialistic lives in America, whether we admit it or not, and feel entitled to nice things. The difference between wants and needs has never been more apparent to me than now. Maybe these people have discovered the secret to happiness because they only succumb to their basic needs by living simply. A loving family, a simple home, strong faith and loyal friendships—that's all they need. Witnessing these sentiments lived out on a daily basis has single-handedly changed me for the better.
Photo: Ashwini and me