Stepping out of the bus, I felt like Rip Van Winkle stumbling into the light of a brand new world. My eyes took in the vast, undulating hills, cliffs, outcroppings, and the thick morning dew that covered the luscious Indian landscape. The stench of farm animals hung thickly over the more subtle smell of rain and vegetation. In the distance, on top of a small hill, I made out a humble mud hut looking over the corn crops. Our guide motioned us to follow him as we began hiking up toward the farm, the stench of fresh manure intensifying with every step.
A lone drop of sweat made its way down my back, leaving a temporary trail of coolness. My eyes traced the subtle intimations of life scattered across the farm – cattle footprints and rodent droppings, and a small bird’s nest nestled between the branches of a tree. A small brown bird perched over her hatched babies with a beetle in her mouth. The short stubby bird seemed constantly alert, continuously ruffling its milk chocolate plumage as it flitted from tree to tree in search of food for its young.
When we reached the entrance of the hut, I ran my fingers across the uneven walls, then quickly retracted when our guide told us that they were made out of cow manure. As soon as I entered the hut I was enveloped by darkness. What struck me most was the size of the house – my bathroom is bigger than this living space. As ten or so kids poured inside, I cringed as I felt myself being pushed against the walls.
In the corner of the hut, a small, frail woman was carefully kneading dough. She welcomed us with her two powdery hands pressed together and a wide, toothless smile. We sat down to listen to her story. She mumbled words through her translator as she continued kneading the dough. We discovered that she was married at the young age of 12 and had never received an education. She knows neither her birthday nor her age. She says when she had her first son he nearly died of malnutrition.
Her daily life follows the same routine of most village housewives. She starts her day at four in the morning, feeds the cattle and goats, tends to the farm, cleans the house, then prepares a meager breakfast of tea without milk and, if they are lucky, some bread. She spends the rest of her day cooking and cleaning.
She continued concentrating on the monotonous kneading of the dough. I noticed the wrinkles on her face. They seemed more than just the signs of old age, but rather a map of a long and difficult journey, of worries both past and present.
A voice broke the silence. “What do you enjoy most about your day?” someone in our group asked. The translator paused and asked the woman in her native tongue.
The woman laughed and responded, “There is no part of my day that I really enjoy. All of it is hard work, but I suppose maybe cooking. It is relaxing.” I watched her hands work the bread with delicate precision, the type that takes a lifetime to perfect. The rhythm of her hands reminded me of ocean waves bouncing against the shore, or the steady beating of wings. When I shifted my gaze up I noticed the woman was looking at me. Her gaze was invasive, looking deep into the eyes of another human being. I quickly averted my gaze, but I still felt her eyes as an almost palpable thing, like a faint tickling under the skin.
When we arrived back at our camp for lunch, a large spread was laid out before us. The aroma of fish curry, chicken that melted off the bone, fresh naan bread, basmati rice, and other Indian cuisine lingered in the air – but I couldn’t seem to summon an appetite. I filled my tray, although I knew I wouldn’t be able to eat much. Everything I ate seemed to posses a bitter aftertaste. Was it the spice? The vegetables? It took me a while to register that there wasn’t anything wrong with the food, just something wrong with me. I was awash in guilt knowing I had so much food (some that would be wasted) while a mother nearby struggled to feed her kids. How is it fair that some people are allowed to enjoy gluttonous amounts of food while others are left to starve?
After lunch we were sent to continue our construction on a new school for the village. I gathered my pick ax, helmet, and gloves noticing the children both young and old running around barefoot in the dirt, smiling as they pointed to pictures in their donated books or quietly studied under the shade of a tree.
Dirt seemed to be permanently stained to their skin as their tattered school uniforms hung on their skeletal frames. The ribs mapped across the chest of a shirtless young boy told of a childhood filled with suffering, yet their actions displayed an energy so entirely different. They greeted us with smiles and enthusiastic waves. They chased each other around the school with the carefree nature of children. They bounced enthusiastically up and down, side to side, as if they were dancing to music only they could hear.
I looked deep into the eyes of a young boy and in a moment of clarity, I couldn’t be sure whether I was looking out or in. In his smiling eyes was a mirror that reflected his soul with impeccable beauty. A soul that desires the same things as mine. A soul that has hope for the future. A soul that just wants to be content. Their laughter does not seem to carry the burden of sleepless nights. Their smiles do not seem to belong to children who didn’t get enough to eat. Rather, their voices seemed to carry a youthful exuberance of children who were truly happy.
I tilted my head to the sky and watched the marshmallow clouds float out of view, revealing a sun that always seemed to be shining. A flock of brown birds soared gracefully toward a horizon that promised something new, something better.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.