Goodbye India…

…When I flew to India on the night of my 24th birthday, I flew out of my comfort zone. I flew toward 1.2 billion people without knowing a single one of them and toward a culture that mystified me. As the 747 climbed away from home and the lights of Phoenix disappeared behind, I remember looking out at the austere darkness and feeling very alone. When I landed in New Delhi the next night, I had no idea where I would go, what I would do, or whom I would meet. All I was told was to meet a man outside of customs who would be holding a sign with my name on it. The uncertainty was endless and anxiety stronger than I had ever felt.

Standing here tonight, five months later, I can hardly believe all that has happened since then. It just doesn’t seem possible even though I lived through it all. I came here to volunteer in hospitals and gain a more global awareness of medicine. I never planned on exploring slums, deciding which slum children would go to school and which ones would stay behind, or scouring entire communities for handicapped and disfigured people neglected by society. I never expected that I would be taken under the wings of Carmelite nuns, that my host family would treat me like their only son, or that I would feel like a relative to dozens of slum families among the lowest castes of Indian society. I never dreamed that I would bathe in the Ganges, ring in the New Year at the Taj Mahal, or be taken in a speeding ambulance to drink hot milk fresh from a buffalo.

I came to India because I wanted to make a difference and learn something that I could not from the comforts of home. I came with a positive attitude and a desire to expand my horizons. But I never imagined that I would be rewarded so magnificently by people from nearly every aspect of society.

This afternoon, I went to my final class with our spectacular students. Over the last three months, I have watched them go from a destiny of illiteracy and poverty to one of renowned educations and endless opportunities. Their lives have been changed forever and so has mine.


–Neha, our first student admitted to the Carmel Convent School–


–Komal, Gudiya, and Roshan, each of whom are excelling with nearly perfect marks–


–Ajeet, who when folded is conveniently the same size as my carry-on luggage–


–Anita, the girl who will turn around her family’s incredible misfortune–


–Akanksha–


–Pooja and Manisha–


–Kajal–


–Akshansh, Ajeet, and Sonu–


–Manisha and Akshansh–


–Our talented and devoted teachers, Deepa and Priya–


–Manisha, Anita, Neha, Gudiya, and Ankit–


–Madhu, Roshan, and Sonu–

We returned to the slum so that our students could change for my farewell party and I could say goodbye to the rest of the community.


–Manish and his mother, Dolly–


–Neha, Saraswati, Ankit, Sonu, Madhu, and me in Ankit’s home–


–Moni with her father, Dablu–


–Madhu, which means “honey” in Hindi–


–Gudiya waiting for Ajeet while he prepares his gift for me (in Ajeet’s home)–


–Ajeet in front of his old slum school–


–Rani, the widow who carries bricks to keep Anita, Sindu, Indu, and Surendar alive–

We then returned to the Carmel Convent School where the final farewell was to take place. As suggested by Crystal and Heather, I bought an entire ice cream trolley full of delicious treats for anyone who wanted one and rode around the community with the kids all yelling, “Ice cream wala!”


–The two youngest members of my host-family, Naima and Naysa–


–The ice cream cart made me especially popular–


–Sister Pushpa and the most touching family I have ever met–


–Manish’s cousin, Anisha, who can often be found taking care of the little tyke–

Then the presents started to come. Nearly every family in attendance brought me a gift. I thought I was going to need another bag just to get home with all of the packages.


–Rani–


–Ajeet–


–Prianka, who will have her biopsy on Wednesday–


–Manish, who will be admitted to the hospital next week for new medications–


–The sisters and my host family with our lovely neighbors. Ironically, Mamta and Meenakshe (our neighbor) had never met before Heather, Crystal, Natalie, and I asked to meet Meenakshe. Now, Mamta and she are best friends and the kids play together nearly every day–

I then handed out my own gifts. I gave each family my favorite pictures that I had taken of them as well as photos of my family and me in America.

We then started to say goodbye. All of the kids came up to give me a hug. Madhu started to cry and I could no longer hold back my own tears. These kids have taught me lessons that have transformed my own existence. Their optimism and zest for life despite the conditions in which they live have inspired me since the day I met them. I have seen them nearly every day for the past 100 days and have watched them grow and adapt beautifully to a way of life radically different and more demanding than what they were accustomed to five months ago. They have exceeded everyone’s expectations, including my own. These precious children have become my family, my friends, and my world. I cannot fathom ever working for anyone who will be as grateful or passionate about what they do as these children. I will leave them behind tomorrow, but they will never leave my mind.

This time last year, I was waiting tables in a restaurant. I had been rejected from 17 medical schools. I felt lost and unproductive. I decided to go out on a limb to a place where people needed me and where my limited resources and experience could still make a difference.


–A plaque on a cabinet door in the Carmel Convent School main office–

If I had not been rejected from my own dreams of attending medical school, these children may never have had dreams of their own. I certainly would not be here right now and would likely never have met these children, sisters, doctors, and families who have so drastically changed my life. Sometimes, even the biggest disapointments can be blessings in disguise.

I am signing off from India, but don’t worry. I have the last month to catch you up on and will do so from home. In the last five months, I’ve taken 13,320 photographs and compiled enough experiences to keep writing about for months. In case you forgot, we also have 20 stunning students to follow for the next 10-12 years as well as a half-dozen disfigured and handicapped children to watch through their medical treatments, growth, and eventual educations.

To all in India who have shown me unsurpassed hospitality, thank you for the experience of a lifetime. To my family and friends who await me at home, I can’t wait to see you and express what I could not from a distance. To those who have followed this blog and supported me throughout, I owe you a tremendous amount of posts, stories, thank yous, and photos that will be coming soon. I don’t know how I will ever convey the lessons and perspectives I have gained here but I look forward to trying.

Finally, I must reiterate my utmost gratitude to those of you who have donated to the Squalor to Scholar Program. Without you, none of this would have ever happened. The swiftness and generosity of your donations have revolutionized the lives of everyone present this evening in only a few short months. I am happy to report that all 20 of our Carmel Convent School students are now fully sponsored for the next year! Some have been sponsored and committed to for even longer. However, this does not mean that we do not need new donations. I know more than 500 talented and deserving slum children who I am leaving behind tonight without being able to help at all. Every rupee of your money has been and will continue to be spent with great care to ensure that it makes the greatest impact possible in their lives. Everything you have seen and read on this blog to this date has been accomplished with $6,000. Imagine what we could do with more! If you’re looking to make an immediate impact, Prianka and Moni will be having surgeries within the next four weeks. Prianka needs approximately $300 and Moni $150 to cover their medical and transportation expenses. When you make your donation, please specify if you would like your money to go to one of these special young girls. Thank you.

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6 thoughts on “Goodbye India…

  1. John, over the last five months, you have brightened my life considerably with your pictures and stories. You have reduced me to tears, and you have made me laugh. You have reminded me how blessed my life is and how fate could have played a dirty trick on me and landed me in a slum in Faridabad with no hopes or dreams. I don’t know what life has in store for you, but I know it will be extraordinary, for you. my friend, are an amazing man – and an incredibly talented photo journalist.
    Jill

    • Jill, thank you for this incredibly kind and thoughtful note. It’s been my utmost pleasure to share my experiences in India with family, friends, and even strangers all around the world. Yes, we are truly blessed and so is Pritesh because you have given him hopes and dreams that he would otherwise never have had. I look forward to meeting you when you return from China. I’ll be in touch about Pritesh’s achievements as he grows, matures, and lights up the world. Best wishes!

  2. John, I too have just spent time in Faridabad at the Miracle Mission School in the Dheraaj Nagar slums. Although it was only for 2 weeks, I cried when saying goodbye to the kids who’d dug their way into my heart so I can only imagine how hard it must have been for you after 5 months. You inspired me to go to Faridabad by your blog and I want to thank you for that. And to congratulate you on the work you’ve done. I will be back there very soon and for a longer period. As a character in Magnificent Marigold hotel says when asked how he can bear India, he replies, “the smiles, the colour, the light. All of life is here”. Thank you for your blog!

    • Wow! I had no idea I helped inspire you to volunteer in Faridabad. Thanks for letting me know. That’s very rewarding. If you ever need a great host family or network when you go back please let me know. I just read your blog about the Miracle Mission School and will be sure to check it out when I return. I heard about that movie for the first time today. Sounds like I’ll have to go see it. All the best and thanks for following!

  3. It was truly a pleasure to follow your blog. I believe it was really hard to say goodbye to Shri, Mumta, Nayma, Naysa, all children from school and all people from slum but you have to be proud and happy because you were part of one big story that is not finished . It has just begun thanks to you. Greetings from Croatia

    • Hi Petar! Thank you for following from Croatia throughout. Keep checking in periodically. Plenty more is on the way. I looked for Monika for you and even asked around but never found her. I’ll try again and see what we can do to get her in another school. All the best!

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