In India, I woke up to the sound of langurs landing on the corrugated roof above my bed. One right after another, their near-human feet pattering over my head like a roll of thunder. Sometimes I still dream of it, conjuring up images of the langurs out on the balcony of my apartment or running across the roof of my childhood home. But there are no langurs here and the only sounds above my head come from my upstairs neighbours. In India, I learned how to take a bucket-shower, washing my hair with ice-cold water because I couldn’t figure out how to work the unfamiliar plumbing. I watched lizards scurry up the wall while I bathed, and welcomed the black and yellow spider staying in the corner of the room like an old friend. Back home, I take steaming showers every day, and banish all living things from the interior of my house, seeming to forget that they too are only seeking warmth. In India, I struggled over simple things like bathrooms and unfamiliar foods and the near- constant feeling of being damp. I have no issues with any of that back home, but I still struggle. With excess, with complexity, with the constant feeling of being out of place now that the way I see the world has changed. Now that I have changed. I find myself drawn to brighter colors when before my world was comprised of varying shades of black, brown, and white. I listen to Bollywood music and dance to it when I’m alone the way we did on that final night in Amba. I have never been religious, but I find myself engaging in conversations with my mother-in-law about her own spirituality. I can see the spark in her eyes, how happy she is that I’m open-minded enough to talk to her about it even though I myself will never take on her religion. India taught me that spirituality is not a lifeline for the weak-minded and ignorant, but a salve for the hurting, a light for the hopeless, and an adhesive for the community. Sometimes, I forget that I’ve even been to India. It feels so effervescent, like a dream clouded over by jet lag and the smells of the incense they burned in the temples. But echoes of the trip are everywhere and I stumble over them at the most peculiar times. Last month I went to a conference in San Francisco for work and watched the caterers throw out enough food at every meal to feed one of the villages we visited for days. I watched the police chase unhoused people away from the conference centers and thought about the tiny children in Pune sticking their hands through the windows of the bus to ask for money for chapati. I walked through a sales floor filled with vendors giving away little plastic animals adorned with logos and I couldn’t help but think of the small wooden deities sold at the markets in Dapoli. Those logos are our version of gods, after all. On my final day in San Francisco, I took the time to go to Muir Woods to see the redwood trees, and all I could think of was Gunawan and how he said that the thing he most wanted to see in the United States was a redwood tree. It’s no secret that India was a struggle for me. I struggled with the food, with the conditions, with the very soil it seemed. I even struggled with my hosts at times, questioning the way they spoke of the community members with whom we met to talk about conservation. I took it all in anyway, telling myself I’d sort through it all when I was home. But I’ve been home for four months, and I’m still not certain that I know how to feel. The only thing of which I’m certain, is that I know nothing at all. My husband thinks I was miserable in India because he can’t move past the idea of squat toilets and the fact that everything I brought with me came back with a layer of red dust. I try to explain that I wasn’t miserable, I was just growing and growing is painful sometimes. More than anything, I am humbled by my time in India, and I know that’s a cliché. People often carry their travels like a badge of honour, yearning to tell anyone who asks about all they’ve seen. But I don’t talk about this trip the way people might expect me to, and when they learn that I didn’t ride an elephant or see the Taj Mahal, they lose interest anyway. Nobody wants to hear about the quiet moments I spent touching the petals of a turmeric flower in the rain, or the way the clouds seemed to curl up out of the mountains as if the very earth was breathing. No one cares when I tell them that the villagers caught a crab in a bucket just to show us a piece of their world when I could be telling them about the monkeys I saw in the airport in Delhi. But I suppose that’s the curse of conservation work, isn’t it? We go to these places and experience things that are at once both achingly beautiful and profoundly delicate, and we come out the other side not knowing how to convey any of it. That’s what makes all of this so hard. So instead of trying to explain, I use the memories to fuel my work. I spin my experiences into stories that I hope will make an impact, knowing that those who just want to hear about monkeys and temples will get what they came for, and that maybe, when the words have time to settle, they might find the deeper meaning of it all. Of course, the danger of telling stories this way is that I’ll never know if any of it really makes a difference in the long run. I’ll never know if the work I’m doing helps to plant seeds in people’s heads that will grow into something bigger. But then I remember that somewhere in India, There's a sapling with my fingerprints on it already putting down its roots. And for now, that’s enough.
From: Vol.10 N.01 – Private: The Transformative Now
by Hayley Gelfuso