Journal 7: Elation
I woke up very early this morning. We were going to give out the first three Life Packages later in the day and I was extremely excited--but at the same time I had one nagging concern: what if the villagers couldn’t conquer their fears and go back in the water? They had been unable to set foot in the water even once since the tsunami, so this was a realistic possibility. Aside from the terrible loss of loved ones, their economic losses were total. Their boats and nets were the accumulated wealth of multiple generations, so their attitude of helplessness and despair was completely understandable. I was convinced that the people of Pudupattinam needed a positive jolt to jump-start their recovery from the recent devastation and I was hopeful that the new boats, nets, homes and life kits would do the trick.
As we drove down the coastline to the village my overwhelming instinct was that this was going to be a great day—a day of healing, a day of celebration. Since arriving in India just two and a half weeks before, I had traveled thousands of miles only to come full circle--right back to the first village I had visited upon my arrival. As we neared Pudupattinam I was struck by how different the energy in the car was from our first visit. Our first trip was thoroughly depressing, and the heavy silence in the car that day was broken only by our periodic muffled cries of fear, as our driver seemed not only suicidal, but he seemed intent to take us with him. It was five hours of white-knuckle silence. I had never been so sad – and so afraid for my life. Today everybody was laughing and making jokes. We had finally figured out how to communicate a clear message to our driver – we told him that every time he honked his horn or made a dangerous move, we would reduce his tip by 10 rupees – unless, of course, the horn was to scare away a wandering water buffalo, or perhaps to avoid somebody sleeping in the street. Mark Templer, our designated passenger in the “death seat,” was spared the harrowing experience of the prior week. Jamal returned to his old self, offering his sardonic observations, and I was finally enjoying a car trip in India.
When we reached the village, I was overwhelmed by the grace of the scene greeting me. There were two long lines of beautiful, shining young faces--about 400 in all—lined up to greet me and Mark. Every one of the children, from the 2-year-olds to the 17-year-olds, stood patiently in line, greeting me with unbelievable smiles and hopeful looks that I might stop and spend a little time with them. I don't know Tamil, but I didn't need a translator at that moment. These children were able to communicate their love and appreciation with their looks, their smiles, and their gentle hands--with which they reached out to touch me and connect with me in simple, but very personal ways. I stopped and spent time with every one of them. Some laughed, some shared high fives, and some just wanted to hold my hand in a gentle clasp.
Later in the day, the children started speaking to me, one by one, to tell me their stories. They spoke of their losses, their fear, their pain, and now--for the first time since the tsunami—they told me they could speak of their hope. They all asked for books, pens, writing pads--and better teachers. Their village school was washed away, and even though the school wasn't very good in the first place, the children missed what little education they were getting before disaster struck. These children and their families had lost everything, but somehow they had the intuitive sense that the best thing for them would be to try to revert to their old patterns and get some normalcy back in their lives.
We then headed to the beach for a brief gathering in which the village elder formally thanked us for coming to their aid in their time of greatest need. He noted that he didn’t know why we had selected his village, but he was so grateful that somehow God had us directed us to them. Mark and I spoke as well, and I remember feeling remarkably moved by the experience. I told them that they were my family and that family members need to help one another when they have problems.
Deep down I was certain that I was benefiting more this than they were, as I was bathing in an amazing pool of love. I didn’t think that the day could possibly get any better, but it did when they whisked me off to the shoreline for a religious ceremony to dedicate the boats. I was asked to participate in the simple, but touching puja (worship) celebration in which the boats were offered to God. I held a coconut with a little lit lamp and circumambulated the boats while all the villagers crowded around. The fishermen decided to take the boats out into the water and test them out—with me in the first boat. I found the whole experience incredible as it was clear that I had somehow been allowed to enter into their lives in a very intimate way. I had been a party to their fears, their pain, and now I was going to share in their recovery.
The boat ride was wonderful. Five young men went out with me and although they were very nervous at first, they started to relax after a couple of minutes. The salt air smelled terrific and I loved the feeling of the sea splashing on my face. After we had gone about two kilometers out to sea, they felt sufficiently comfortable that they decided to cast the net. The sudden shift in energy from trepidation to confidence was palpable, and thrilling. One thing was for sure – I now understood why the men were all so fit. Casting the net is an elaborate process as it is nearly a kilometer long, and hauling it in takes phenomenal strength and balance. It took about twenty minutes to complete this process, after which they spontaneously started shouting and singing—and then joyously leaped and flipped into the water in what seemed almost like another dance of joy. The villagers on the coastline could see this and I saw them celebrating as well.
On the drive back to the hotel, each of us shared our personal impressions of the day. As everyone recounted their experiences, it became overwhelmingly clear that we had just shared a sacred moment, a joyous day that celebrated life and the remarkable resilience of the human spirit. We all felt blessed to be a part of such a day and we really didn’t think it could ever get any better. The rest of the ride home was quiet, but it was the silence of joy that needed no verbal expression.