Joys and Growth: Reflections from the First Five Months in the Field

On a Saturday afternoon in January, I found myself on the balcony of the Prasanthi Cottage, my current home.  I took in my surroundings – the lush hills, the distant moos of cows, the airy dance of floating clouds.  I sat, alone, with a wide smile on my face.

This scene may seem like a cliched description of someone who claims to be “at peace,” or maybe that of someone who is a bit eccentric.  Admittedly, I am a bit eccentric, but this is also a genuine reflection of the fulfillment I feel here in rural south India.

And whilst I am santhosham (“happy” in Malayalam), I certainly have not “arrived.”  The journey is ongoing, the growth is never-ending, and at times, it has been painful.  The most concise way to sum up life here: each day poses unexpected challenges, but each day also provides unexpected joys.

When I arrived in September, I was in a state of shock trying to navigate this complex, chaotic environment.  The core of my being was rocked – adjusting to new cultural norms, a new professional environment, a complex new language, and so on.  I was also experiencing a confusing duality: receiving constant attention and scrutiny, but still feeling a heavy sense of isolation, requisite of being the sole foreigner for hundreds of kilometers.  In the thick of this drastic transition, I was worried I would lose myself.  That I would never feel find my way here.  And that I would be incapable of doing the work I was sent here to do.

It is safe to say that I am surprising myself.  I am learning to bend, not break.  I am managing to walk that fine line of honoring who I am, whilst also adapting to and respecting this culture.  I am forming meaningful relationships, even with a language barrier.  I even now have a snazzy wardrobe of tailored churidars, and have grasped the art of the hectic (yet effective) public busses.  Here, I now feel a sense of familiarity, even comfort, which is surreal given where I started.  Through this process, I have learned that the human spirit is incredibly resilient.  Whilst this may sound grandiose, I believe that when our pursuits come from places of whole-hearted courage, we can and will rise to the occasion.

The opening scene reflects that I also have found joy in life here.  From receiving an unsolicited ride home on an empty school bus, to my neighbor delivering me his cow’s fresh milk on his scooter, to the looks of excitement I receive when I pass by people’s houses, life here may be quiet, but is still so full.  With distractions removed, I have the time to reflect and appreciate both glorious and simple things.

And working with the community is the most meaningful aspect of all.  In the Prasanthagiri and the greater geographic area, people of different faiths do not just peacefully coexist, but live in love and friendship.  The strength of the family unit allows people to persevere amidst unfathomable adversity.  People’s intimate knowledge and stewardship of the natural environment are humbling.  Whilst I have a master’s degree in sustainable development and some skills in managing projects, I feel like I am the beneficiary.  I have learned, I have grown, I have gained.

I constantly reflect on why I took that plunge with my modest attempt at “whole-hearted courage,” and came here.  And the truth is that I believe, with every fiber of my being, that sustainable community development is the only way forward.  Working with Profugo has only affirmed this deeply-rooted belief.  We have to educate and empower the youth.  We have to create better economic opportunity for the impoverished.  We have to protect the environment.  We have to fight for justice.  As a mentor once put it, “We have to build community because what else are we supposed to do in this broken world?”

In mentoring a young women’s leadership group, working on alternative income generation projects, or even just sitting in people’s houses, listening to their challenges and dreams, I hope I am playing a small role in healing a broken world.  This community is strong and knowledgeable; they already have the ability to make their own lives better.  My role is merely to support, and shed a bit of light – to ensure that they can breathe a bit easier and maybe feel a little more hope.  The nature of the work here is best described with Paulo Coelho’s words from The Alchemist: “…(the work is) the language of enthusiasm, of things accomplished with love and purpose, and as a part of a search for something believed and desired.”

I am aware that not everyone derives this much meaning from their day job.  And when you pair this with immense personal growth and the firm embrace of a welcoming community, all against the beautiful home backdrop of Wayanad – the feeling of gratitude is overwhelming.  The trials and tribulations are real.  But when the bruises heal and the tears dry, I like to think I am emerging, each time, more capable, more patient, and more compassionate.

Taking a step back, looking out into the world around me, like I felt compelled to a few weeks ago, I think, “I am so lucky to be here.”  And I am enormously excited at what is to come.

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