Many assume since we are regular churchgoers who visit third world countries that we’re out volunteering for UNICEF distributing food in refugee camps. In fact, we are neither an army of Tim Tebows nor Princess Dianas. Not even close. A lot of times I wish we were, because maybe everyone would bitch less on these trips if we were surrounded by a bunch of orphans dying of malaria. And even as I lied awake in a simple bed with one sheet on it in a log cabin in the middle of the Himalayas, the trip still stung with a pinch of extravagance. They always do.
It’s on my bucket list to plan a full-blown service trip for our family at some point, but in the meantime I got my first taste of it in an orphanage outside of New Delhi. While I am uncertain of the Andersons’ place in heaven (I fear we will be more welcome at its southern counterpart), the Thalannanys are a genuinely good family–kind, generous and actively engaged in our home parish. So it was of little surprise to me that Rosemary is friends with the archbishop of Delhi, which, for you non-Catholic readers, is a pretty big deal. Earlier in the trip, she and my mom just walked up to his apartment to say hello. She is also friendly with priest from her local parish in New Delhi, who founded an orphanage outside of the city. My mom and Rosemary collected some clothes, toys and donations from a bunch of our friends in Illinois, and arranged to deliver it to the orphanage on our last fully day in India.
We attended Mass at the church where Rosemary and Sebastian were married, then picked up Father and drove a little over an hour beyond Delhi. It was interesting to see just how much remains to be done in a developing country such as India. Along the highways there are shanty houses made of scrap metal with tarp roofs, built on top of one another squeezing as many into a space as possible. Little kids played in the dirt as their parents sold anything from fruit to old computer electronics by the roadside. There’s a train to what looks like it will be a state-of-the-art business complex in the works but the tracks abruptly stop without warning. I wondered if people would ever work in the the half-complete buildings and if they’d ever be able to take the high-rise train tracks to get there.
“I feel bad already,” Deirdre said. As we pulled up on the dirt driveway to the orphanage, a bunch of kids came running up to see us. Actually, I realized it was not us they were there to see, but Father John. He ran the orphanage for several years but now serves in Delhi so it is no surprise that the children barely let him walked inside. They stared at the rest of us with curiosity. Everyone except Elizabeth, that is. Because she is a gorgeous 21-year-old Indian-American, all the girls treated her as if she were a movie star. They showed her their rooms, their things and played with her hair all day.
The nuns greeted us and gave us a tour of the facility. It was on a large piece of property replete with a small school, two living quarters for the boys and girls, a chapel and a soccer field. The kids were very proud to show us their rooms, where they had their own beds and closets with their very own clothes (second-hand at that). Each room has two or three sets of bunk beds, and a resident adult who cares for and monitors them on each floor.
“It’s just like a sorority house!” My mom exclaimed as if she had just made a revolutionary comparison. Normally I would have been mortified, but found solace in the fact that no one else besides Deirdre, my sister and I really grasped the paradox. Luckily no one in India knows what the heck a sorority is (or rush, or preffing, or Vineyard Vines).
I felt the same sense of relief when my mom and Morgan took a Chi-O themed picture in front of the Taj with the hope of making it in The Eleusis, the sorority’s national magazine. I was okay with it because no one else knew what their little gang symbol, so Deidre and I counterattacked with a shot of the two us a making much cooler Zeta symbol with our hands. And to top off all the queerness, my mom insisted we take a bunch of pictures on a bench where Princess Diana was photographed when she was there. I’d never seen the picture before, but then again, I was dealing with my mom and Rosemary, two hardcore anglophiles.
“It’s an iconic 20th century photo, Amanda, how on Earth do you not know it?” My mom chided me. “This exact bench is called ‘the Princess Diana bench!” My mere basic grasp of the British monarchy is displeasing to my mother, and my inability to understand her reference was just another check against me on my report card. It’s something I’m working on….
We enjoyed a simple lunch in the kitchen that the nuns had prepared and we discussed how things were run at the orphanage and the funding behind it. They told us how the goal is to educate the children, integrate them into society and hopefully get them to be self-sufficient enough to eventually find a job and marry. Your family roots are important in India, and it is therefore considered very taboo in India to marry someone who has no known family. Sometimes efforts in a place that seems as backwards as India can feel hopeles, but seeing what these priests and nuns are doing is nothing short of encouraging.
As we ate I worried for a second if the water is safe to drink and if the food would make me sick, since our meal was not coming from an established restaurant. But I quickly had a chat with God and told him if He was going to let me get sick bringing toys and clothes to an orphans then we were going to have a follow-up conversation later on. At the end of the meal, Rosemary and my mom gave the sisters an envelope of funds they collected from our parish friends for them to use however they needed.
“From the women of our parish, Saint Mary,” Rosemary said as she handed over the envelope. I smiled at the thought of all my mom’s friends, a almost bookclub-turned-sorority in its own right. With few friends my age left in my hometown, I hang out with them a lot when I am in town and often think of them more as my goofy socialite partners in crime than as my charitable do-good elders. At the same time it made me proud to be a part of such a strong faith community.
After lunch, scores of children crowded around Kevin as he opened the trunk of the station wagon to reveal several suitcases stashed with gifts. It was Christmas in July: Kevin distributed cricket bats, soccer balls, clothing, candy bars and books like a magician of pulling a rabbit out of a black bag, much to the children’s delight.
Though this was a trip of many “firsts,” I’d never expect to play soccer in a long skirt with a blouse, but Deirdre, Morgan and I did just that, as Kevin divided everyone into two teams and started a game with the kids. Deirdre and I were especially disappointed that none of the girls wanted to play the game we both love. We tried coaxing them, but they were timid and hesitant to mix in with the boys. I couldn’t see what the big deal was: even the two adult men we hired to drive us to the orphanage joined in, and trust me, they were so clumsy you would have thought we were playing on an ice rink, their arms and legs flailing about with every attempt at a kick. I am often reminded when I travel how uncommon it is for girls to play sports, even in an informal pick-up situation. Toward the end a few of them kicked a ball back and forth between themselves on the sideline, which we thought was minor progress. Maybe I’m reading too far into it, maybe they didn’t want to be all sweaty in gross like Deirdre, Morgan and me. There’s nothing wrong with that. Maybe I’m a feminazi. But then again, maybe not.
At the end of the day the nuns and priests called the game; it was just about time to go. We took lots of pictures with them. My dad took hundreds of pictures them in funny poses, doing handstands and goofy faces. They loved the camera and were even more eager to see themselves on the digital screen after he took the picture. After that, the nuns had the rather daunting task of orchestrating a group photo with our group and all of the children. My mom was still on crutches, so the nuns seated her in a chair in front row with all the children, and the rest of us crowded around her. Amazingly the kids cooperated.
Upon examining the picture, Mom remarked, “Don’t I look like Princess Diana with all the children around me?”
“Ya, mom, totally,” I said sarcastically.
By the numbers:
Suitcases of gifts delivered to orphanage:3
Ionic Princess Diana replica shots: 2
Days left in India: 1.