India, a hot, dirty place where grass and trees hardly grow. A place where cows roam the streets as if they own them and dogs are their best friends. A place where the streets are full of vendors of various kinds and have various prices. A place where the sky is cloudless and ever so blue like the wings of a Blue Jay. A place where happiness shines brighter than the sun. India, a place where I thought I would never one day see, nor ever go to; happiness, a word I thought I knew very well. However, I was indeed proven wrong as I did go to India and learned the key to happiness is not gaining what we long to have and then once we obtain it, moving on to the next; no, the key to happiness is being content with what has blessed our lives.
Who was I before I went to India? I was a 17 year old red head who was still searching for meaning and purpose in her life. I was loved by my parents, though I did not always express it back to them. I was looked up to by my little Down syndrome brother, though I was not the greatest role model at times. I had everything I needed and everything I ever wanted, but even then it was not always enough. As I looked around me, I saw that I was not alone in this. People wanted the next best thing, the next upgrade. They saw what other people had and wanted it for themselves. People were hardly happy with where they were in life. If they were, it was just for a single moment. Once they got what they wanted, they moved on to the next thing. Hardly were we ever happy with what was right in front of us.
Nevertheless, I discovered that all of this gaining happiness and moving on to the next does not exist on the other side of the world. When I went on a foreign mission trip to Calcutta, India for a week, I felt as though the sun could not outshine the happiness that spread like a wild fire allowing no one to distinguish it. From the moment I stepped outside from the airport, I could hear the happiness in the chatter and laughter that washed over me like a tidal wave. The honking of the horns and the people shouting out their products for purchase, though I could hardly understand a word. I could see it in the eyes of the people and the smiles that curled upon their lips. In truth, this country was born from happiness.
This first ounce of happiness that really caught my eye was the moment when Joseph and Brook Summers, leaders of the mission trip, and I walked up to a dirty smelly homeless man sitting beneath a dying tree. The moment his rough hand was grasped into Miss Brooks small, soft hand, his eye sparkled and a smile slowly lit up his face. Though we could not speak his language, this was our way of saying hello. This simplistic hello brought joy to this old man who was dying of tuberculosis; however, back in the states people hardly say hello to anyone or if one says hello, hardly is a reply given in response. This was my first real taste of happiness that India willingly shared with me.
That very day, all of the missionaries on the trip went to an orientation at the convent of the Sisters of Charity, originally founded by Mother Teresa. Cladded in their blue and white saris, they came and greeted us with warm hugs and bright smiles. The ones who could speak English expressed their happiness with words; while those who could not speak English expressed their happiness with sparkling eyes and excited hand gestures. Our presence was enough to make them happy, but of course they were not hesitant to put us to work. Our help was greatly needed, so they split our group in half. Half of the group went to a home that took care of the elderly and lepers; while the other half went to a home that took care of orphaned, mentally and physically, disabled children. Folding my hands, I prayed from my heart that I would get sent to the children; I was fearful the exact opposite was going to happen. However, God answered my prayers and my own happiness was seeping through my beating heart.
I had no clue what was expected of us at the home for children, but as the Indian style taxi was driving me and three other girls to the home, various ideas were spinning through my head. Would we be able to play with the children, take them outside, read to them, or hold them? As soon as we got to the home and we were given our tasks, disappointment seeped into my heart. Laundry?! We were assigned to go to the roof and help with laundry! Reluctantly I climbed the three flights of stairs up to the roof. As soon as we made our entrance on to the roof, the Hindu women already up there were excessively happy to see us. Their chatter grew louder and faster. Smiles covered each one of their faces and they gave us warm hugs. I remember thinking to myself, “Why are they so happy, it’s only laundry?”
However, I did not get to find the answer to my question that day as a couple of Americans came up to the roof and came over to us. “Hey, we are looking for a couple of people who have any kind of teaching experiences.” Hesitantly I spoke up, “I have some teaching experience. I volunteered in a kindergarten classroom and I have a little brother who is Down syndrome.” “You have a Down Syndrome brother?” “Yes, he is thirteen. I watch over him when my parents are away.” With a wide smile he said, “You will be perfect!” With that, the white American stranger and I were off while his buddy went to go find someone else to help them. Walking down the flight of stairs to the second floor he said, “We are short of volunteers today as a couple of our regulars got sick.” Walking into a low lit room, I found three young boys lying on the floor unable to move. “What would you like me to do?” “All of these boys have Cerebral Palsy and we need to help them perform their stretches. All you have to do is look at the book next to them and follow the picture instructions.” Sounded easy enough.
For the next hour or so, I helped my young patient perform his stretches. Each time I stretched out his legs he would smile a toothy smile. I had not thought that something as simple as this could make someone happy, but from the look on his face I know I made his day. Back in the states, I see people like him; however, they are so easily corrupted by the way others act around them. The happiness is soon ejected out of them. These children don’t have cell phones or lap tops or fancy toys to tempt them with unlike those in the states.
The next day I was ready to continue in my task, but my service was no longer needed. Again, I reluctantly walked to the roof and prepared myself to do laundry. I was in for a big surprise. Where I was used to a washing machine and a dryer, the Hindu women did everything by hand! I was completely thrown off guard, but was quickly put to good use. My first task was to help a woman fill up a large black pot that was placed over a fire with water. As we were waiting for the water to come to a boil, I sat there on my knees listening to the women hum a pretty tune. I thought to myself, “This would never happen back in the states, but here she is and humming too!” Once the pot came to a boil, I carried a bucket full of the hot steaming water over to blue plastic kiddie pools and poured it in. I did this several times over.
Once the pools were filled, I had to help by placing a load of clothing into the water and very carefully step into the pool, mixing the clothes around with my feet. The water was scalding hot and I couldn’t believe these women did this every day. Moments later the water no longer bothered my feet and I could move in and out with ease. After a few minutes of sterilizing the clothes, I picked up a handful and brought them over to the stone sinks. One sink was full of soapy water and the other sink was full of plain water while a stone table connected the two. First, I would wash the clothes in the soapy water, letting them soak, and scrubbing the dirty cloth diapers. Once they were clean, I would bring them over to the plain water and rinse the soap out. When that was done, I would beat each clothing item on the stone table to help get a lot of the water out. I wasn’t done yet; after beating them, I had to wring them. This usually took two people. One of the other missionaries would help me twist them to make sure every last drop of water was out. Then I would hang dry them on the million lines that were hung up above our heads making a manmade roof.
For a whole week, minus my first day, I did this. It was exhausting work and my hands became covered in big round blisters. However, I did not mind the blisters. I saw how happy these women were despite the hard work they had to do just to clean laundry. I realized later why they were happy; they were happy because they made something of themselves. Building character within themselves. Instead of walking down the stairs, loading the machine, and pressing a button, they went out and made themselves useful, and they had fun while doing it. They created happiness within their own work.
After coming back home I realized how much India had changed me. When I pass someone on one of my walks or in a grocery store, I do my best to put my head up high and give out a strong hello. I don’t have to have a response back, but perhaps my hello made their day. I learned to love my brother more and to grumble less when he seeks out my help. Going down stairs to do my laundry, I would not allow myself to grumble about how time consuming this was. Instead, I remembered the woman sitting by the pot, humming a tune; so I would hum a tune of my own. I became more grateful for the things I already have. I don’t need the latest IPhone, my IPhone 4 works just fine; I don’t need to buy clothes for their brand names, knock offs are still wearable; Just because someone else has it does not mean that I have to go out and buy it. India taught me the true meaning of happiness; the key to happiness is not gaining what we long to have and then once we obtain it, moving on to the next; no, the key to happiness is being content with what has blessed our lives.