This continues from Part 3 of Our Story
Unbearably, miserably ill, I jostled around in the van that was our transportation from the Marriott Hotel in Chennai, India to our new 'home' outside of Thottanaval Village in rural Tamil Nadu - a two hour drive.
I wasn't looking forward to it. All I wanted to do was to sleep and sleep and sleep away this jet lag and unknown illness. Was it nervousness about our new life? Or something else?
What should have been a two hour drive turned into four, since the driver also had several errands to complete while he was in the big city.
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Our destination was a campus that was housing and school for nearly 200 children of families who lived in outlying leprosy colonies - children who had formerly been denied an education because of the 'untouchable' status of their parents or grandparents who had contracted leprosy.
Somewhere I'd heard that upon arrival to the campus, the children would greet us, sing songs and adorn us with flowers - so I'd done my best to prepare, even dressing myself (with difficulty) in a sari, the traditional clothing.
But when we finally did arrive, I was in a half-conscious stupor, and have a vague memory of being escorted into a room with a bed where I fell promptly asleep - and stayed asleep - until the following day.
The next afternoon, and throughout the coming weeks, I ventured from the bedroom (which contained beds for our family of six in the volunteer housing known as the Elephant House) long enough to become acquainted with the place we believed would be our home for the next 5 years.
I was pleased with the temperate climate (which I was constantly warned was the coolest 'winter' they could remember.) I met the children; explored the campus; became acquainted with the staff, volunteers and managing directors, all the while fending off an uneasy queasiness which I couldn't seem to kick. I began to be suspicious that this illness had some other causes which would result in life-long effects.
My intention before coming to India had been to contribute as much as possible to the work done by the non-profit which had given my husband the 'perfect job'. I wanted to take photos, capture video, tutor students and tell their stories.
But we weren't there long before I realized that caring for my four young, rambunctious children; trying to do their 'homeschooling'; adjusting to my changing hormones; dealing with an increasing sweltering heat and spicy foods; all while fighting off persistant nausea was about all I could handle.
I wanted to be tougher than this. I wanted to do more. But I honestly didn't know how.
My husband wondered what had happened to his wife, and as we hadn't yet made public the suspicions we were holding, the volunteers and staff could only speculate as to why they saw so little of me.
Greg tried to hold things together, caring for the kids as much as he could, picking up their messes in the areas shared with other volunteers, and attempting to fulfill his responsibilities on campus, overseeing the school, participating in the medical clinic, and making visits to the leprosy colonies.
Overall, we were adjusting, and enjoying, our time in this strange land. Cows did wander the streets freely. Verdant green rice patties which painted the landscape were contrasted by the colorful saris worn by shy, exotic women.
The older half of our kids were having fun with all their new 'friends', but the younger half weren't quite so enthusiastic about them, considering they were accosted each time they made an appearance, with 'kisses' (pinches) on the cheeks and unaccustomed invasions of personal space. Greg and I had to get used to not touching, kissing, or holding hands while in public. Public display of affection between men and women, even married couples, was taboo.
We were all adjusting as much as possible to the change in diet (the spice wasn't a favorite for all family members) and to eating with our hands (even though the lefties in our family were reprimanded with 'Shame!' each time they used their preferred hand to eat with. In India, the left hand is used for the role that toilet paper plays in Western culture.)
The boys loved to run to the kitchen to get baal (warm water buffalo milk with sugar) from the cook, Padmini. Kyah and Parker were attending some classes at the school, just for the experience, and we were all outfitted with uniforms.
The Indian people were reserved but amiable, and admired Greg for his friendly, impartial treatment of all classes (the caste system is still a part of everyday Indian life.) The men liked him as a friend so much that they often wanted to hold his hand (although forbidden between men and women, it was a common form of affection or friendship between people of the same sex).
A favorite past time was our evening walks into the small, local village of Thottanaval where we interacted with the villagers. They were fascinated by my camera and loved for me to take their photos and show them their image on the digital display.
Evening meals were taken on the roof of the student housing, where volunteers and staff gathered to discuss the day's 'highs' and 'lows'. They were uneventful enough, unless our repast was interrupted by a 'snake hunt' that came as a result of a screaming child. (Cobras were common on campus, and quickly dispatched to avoid possible difficulties).
As the spicy food become more unpalatable to my picky palate (and less nutritious, mostly white rice), my waistline began to expand and the heat grew more sweltering everyday, I spent more and more time in the comfort of my air-conditioned 'cave' (as my husband nicknamed it), longing for the 'comforts of home'. My body was craving a big, juicy steak, or fat hamburger.
Where 'home' was, I didn't know. We were nomads. The last place we'd lived was Atlanta, Georgia, but only for six months.
If I could imagine some place that would be like 'home' right now, it would have to be Alaska. Cool temperatures sounded so appealing, and besides, my mommy was living there and she could take care of me. 😉
But how could we go to Alaska? We'd committed long-term to this project, it was our only source of income, and deep within, I was still onboard. I had wanted to come to India. And I still wanted to explore this side of the world. This 'illness' would pass, I knew that, and then my heart - and body - would be back into it. I re-committed to staying put.
So we announced our 'news' and made tentative arrangements for having a baby in India. We looked into hospitals in Chennai (a first for me, since my first three natural children were born at home), but talked to the local doctor about delivering on campus as well - it was at least two hours into the city.
Greg continued with his duties. He was overly contented to get up every morning, having our financial needs provided for while he spent his time doing 'work that mattered.'
I took photos of campus events and made a few videos, but mostly read a lot of books. However, an undercurrent of 'trouble' was brewing.
It started with volunteers who weren't happy about the messes of our kids - toys strewn across the inner courtyard, messes in the kitchen, unflushed toilets - you know, the usual kid stuff. (The original plan had been for us to have our own separate house, but as the house wasn't finished yet, our young family was sharing space with child-less volunteers.)
Then the drama ensued. First with the principal. Then with the Executive Director (who in my biased opinion had a personal vendetta against my husband). Then it was spying, duplicitous volunteers and nasty, denigrating emails.
Ultimately, it all led to the organization 'letting us go,' with the excuses including that having families on campus just wasn't working out; the Indian people didn't respect youth, hence the need for someone older; and the company didn't want us increasing their liability and risking their licensing by having a baby in India.
Outwardly, I was devastated, although secretly, I was kind of glad.
I was glad that I could finish my pregnancy in the comfort of the States, with 'real' food, smooth roads, temperate climates and 'normal' smells. I had decided that although India (could be, when you're not pregnant) a nice place to visit, I didn't want to live there. Not really.
But I was also bitterly disappointed because this job had been the answer to our 'money problems'. It had been to solution for our lifestyle. We'd searched so long in vain for a way to fund our travels and life abroad, especially doing something that was meaningful. Now we had a job that would provide that, and it was being ripped from us before we'd scarcely begun.
I cried bitterly thinking that my husband would now have to go back (once more) and get a 'real' job again. Oh, how that would break him.
The real reasons we were let go? I'm not sure I know. Perhaps it was a combination of a lack of concentrated contribution on my end (even though I wasn't being paid, I had hinted I would give more to the organization, and my husband wasn't giving his 100% while trying to make up for my slack,) and fate.
In the clear vision of hindsight, I can see that working for that organization wasn't really, ultimately OUR thing. It had been merely an easy answer to a pressing problem.
The next few weeks were spent preparing to return to the States, and deciding where we would go to live next. We quickly did all the things we hadn't done yet - like riding elephants and visiting Mahabalipuram - because we had been telling ourselves we would have plenty of time. We would be here for five years, wouldn't we?
We re-packed our suitcases and said good-bye to our dear Indian friends (some of whom nearly cried.)
The entire four months we had been in India it hadn't rained one drop. As we loaded into the van that brought us to Thottanaval and would now drive us back to Chennai where we would catch our plane, the rain started to fall and Greg strummed the ukulele while we all sang as a family, "Drop Baby Drop."
I think I shed a few tears.
To be continued:
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