Two years ago, I stumbled out of the Bangalore airport in the middle of the night.  Gilgy, my colleague and someone I now consider my brother, met me and we drove the ten hours back to Prasanthagiri village.  Upon arrival, we scaled the steep hill to my new home.  Gilgy trekked up with ease, even whilst holding my 50 pound suitcase on his head.  I, in my white sneakers, immediately slipped on the rocks and nearly took a tumble.  Gilgy looked back at me and with his signature, kind spirit said, “Oh no problem – you’ll get the right shoes and find your way.”

In the shock and discomfort of that moment, I could not imagine ever “finding my way” in this unfamiliar place.  But he was right.

Julianna with some of the local youth precovid.

Over the following two years, I stabilized my footing (literally – I learned to traverse rigorous rural roads in sandals, like a local).  Plunging into the initial darkness, I could not see what was in front of me, but I kept going, moving past the initial tension and discomfort.  Eventually, something cracked open.  And light, wonder, connection, growth, and beauty rushed in.

What rooted me throughout was a strong sense of purpose and belief in the importance of the work.  Through a pandemic and subsequent crises for our community members, Profugo’s purpose only became more pronounced.  We started one of India’s only all-female farmer producer companies, growing to an impressive membership of 2000 women in a few months.  We trained and employed local women to be leaders and community organizers, whom I am confident will someday run the company independently.  We started a toxin-free farm products cooperative to sell our farmers’ vegetables and fruits, thanks to a chance encounter with ashram members on a cloudy November afternoon.  I am endlessly proud of the accomplishments of our team.  

As I learned to stand on my own two feet, sometimes, I did so in complete isolation.  But many times, I was surrounded and enveloped by a pure sort of love that community members and staff came to have for the energetic, at times strange, foreigner they called Julikutty.  These treasured individuals filled me with chai, brought me food, delivered me milk from their cows and eggs from their chickens, called me regularly and asked about my family, and always reminded me that I am a sister, a daughter, and a friend.  If anyone ever spotted me walking through town alone, they would ask, “Evidaya poyo??  Evidaya Malini?”, asking where I was going and where my friend and colleague, Malini, was.  At first, this felt like an invasion of my privacy, but as I look back, this was a reflection of the deep care they held for me.

Julianna offering encouragement to the newly inducted community resource ambassadors (CRAs)

When it became clear that the only safe decision was to evacuate India in May 2021, I could not give any proper goodbyes.  The only farewells I managed were double-masked and mass distanced with two special neighbors, Mini and Reji, and Naija and Roy, and their beautiful children.  Unable to embrace, we cried at a distance and exchanged the words of love and appreciation we could in our combination of broken English and Malayalam.

Through her tears, Mini led to the back of her house.  She pointed out newly blossoming passionfruit vines scaling the outside of her goat shed.  “These fruits are not ready yet, but I grew them for you.”  She knew that every week, I ran low on stock to sell to our cooperative as we called every week asking if she had any passionfruit.  Mini, like so many community members, like Profugo’s extraordinary director, Lukka Thurayil, like the Profugo staff, like so many of my dear friends in Wayanad, would do anything to walk with me and support me in whatever I was trying to accomplish.  Whatever we, as a team, were trying to accomplish.  But, finding one’s way is also knowing when to walk away.

At the end of my time with Profugo, exiting suddenly was just as jarring and difficult as my abrupt arrival.  But as I moved through the process of leaving and cleaving, I witnessed that the previous two years in India left me well-prepared to handle the uncertainty and the unexpected.  On my final afternoon, as I made a final lap around Profugo’s Center of Development.  I looked out at the gorgeous scenery, the place I called home for two years, and characteristically, I tripped on a branch.  But, instinctively, I caught myself with ease.  The strength and resilience I cultivated was present, but so was my ability to adapt, to change, to handle whatever obstacles came my way.

Julianna and Ms. Mary having some fun while preparing orders for the toxin free vegetable cooperative.

During the long monsoon months in summer of 2020, I witnessed that the only trees that survived the treacherous winds and rains were not necessarily the largest nor the most striking.  Rather, they were the ones that were firmly rooted and stable, but also had the flexibility to sway with the different directions of the wind.  This is what we as humans must do, as well.  I believe that our true humanity comes alive when we also embody and tread between these dualities – when we understand how we must change ourselves and grow, but also when we must remain grounded in our convictions, values, and truest selves.  Finding my way in India meant learning when to plant my roots, but also when to adapt and move.  It meant learning when to press on by myself, but also when to let others link arms and walk with me.  This wisdom from dear India and Profugo forever endures and lives in me.  With my deepest gratitude for this opportunity, I walk forward. 

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