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Through New Eyes

July 27, 2003

Ron Marks
tulanian@tulane.edu
Michael DeMocker

Three weeks in India change the life view of a group of Tulane social work students. From the moment we stepped off the plane at midnight in the Delhi airport, fatigued after 30 hours of air travel, I knew we would discover in India a story too complex to comprehend from pictures and too human to gather from the pages of books.

Indeed, this was precisely the plan: to offer a small group of graduate social work students the opportunity to learn not about a person's life from a social worker/client perspective, but how it is to be a person caught in circumstances very different from one's own.

tulsp03_india2_1As the dean of the school and the faculty member responsible for organizing this educational experience, my plan was to immerse the group in what Howard Goldstein has referred to in discussing experiential learning as "dailiness."

The group would come to know with every sense the traumas, crises and weaknesses of the people with whom we would meet as well as their strengths, virtues and inner resources.

In India our daily struggles with adversity and the level of discomfort and unfamiliarity that resulted would enable us to build a better understanding of ourselves and a more open and expansive world view.

As part of the planning for this trip, which took place last September, each student would have a project, personalized to his or her interest. From the beginning, the commitment and dedication of every student who participated was extraordinary.

One student worked with children at the Tibetan Children's Village, another at a childcare center for orphaned children and another with a Tibetan lama to help secure sponsorships for monks and nuns who have recently escaped from Tibet.

Another student worked with a young Tibetan man, helping him to learn computer skills necessary for expanding his small shop. Two others planned field research to document women's health needs in the surrounding villages.

On our first day in Delhi, I was awakened by chanting from the Hindu temple next to our small hotel. I walked the maze of alleyways, the early morning heat fore-shadowing the intensity to come. The community was waking. Cows strolled aimlessly, grazing on garbage. People who call the street their home awoke, brushed their teeth and relieved themselves, unaware of my watchful eyes.

All this activity made it clear how the boundaries between private and public space are far less rigid than we know in the West. We were staying in a central section of Delhi called Pahar Ganj, where the streets are home for many and filled to capacity. People, rickshaws, motorcycles, cars and cows compete for the very limited space.

Small groups of children ride by in caged bicycle-driven rickshaws on their way to school. Saddhus (holy men, monks or wandering ascetics) wander the streets, and there are more temples than there are bars in New Orleans. A person who wandered into any alleyway would likely end up in a family's bedroom on the street, where the morning ritual of bathing takes place in full public view. In these early morning hours, I was witness to the unfolding drama that is India. Our next destination after Delhi was Dharamsala in north India, deep in the Himalayan Mountains, home of the Dalai Lama and the epicenter of the Tibetan government in exile.

For decades, Tibetans have been fleeing their country, which has been under occupation by the Chinese for more than 50 years. Often this journey is made under very arduous conditions--in the winter months and at night to escape detection by the Chinese and Nepalese military. Refugees arrive in Dharamsala after a journey of from 700 to 800 miles, much of it by foot, to begin a new life. This small hill station is home to nearly 8,000 Tibetan refugees who are desperately attempting to keep Tibetan culture alive and begin a new life free from persecution. As a social work education experience, several principles guided our journey to Dharamsala.

First and foremost, the trip was conceived as an experience that demanded one's total self--mind and body, intellect and emotion, memory and foresight. It was also intended to be an active and interactive process: We would experience and engage in learning. Immersion experiences like this one provide an opportunity to directly face the social and health realities of an area and gain a more direct and candid understanding of the important role social work and public health play in the international arena.

Such experiences provide a critical opportunity to develop a better, more informed interpretation of one's own en-vironment and, especially, to increase one's self-awareness and global perspective on central issues facing contemporary society.

tulsp03_india4_1Experiences such as these force us to deal with a level of discomfort and unfamiliarity and thereby build a better understanding of ourselves. They provide opportunities for real personal development. In short, our trip was meant to directly affect our world view.

The streets of Delhi and the close relationships inherent in village life in India provided the perfect setting for this kind of endeavor.

It is not possible to escape the human drama that is India and the near saturation of every sense. At every turn, one is inundated with exotic fragrances, brilliant and confusing sights, a cacophony of sound and the intimacy of the crowded streets.

The French writer, Juliette de Baircli Levy has said, "Every land has its own special rhythm, and unless the traveler takes the time to learn the rhythm, he or she will remain an outsider there always." Opportunities to discover India's rhythm were many. When I left my small room in Dharamsala, it was often necessary to squeeze by a family of monkeys on the narrow balcony we shared. At times, they traveled in packs of as many as 20, and we had to wait our turn as they paraded by. I came to know one group in particular and later witnessed a mother nursing her newborn.

From this same balcony, surrounded by snow-covered Himalayan peaks, we watched eagles soar and on several afternoons saw clouds move in rapidly, enveloping us in a dark mist. Similarly, on the crowded streets of Delhi, cows were pervasive and meandered in the traffic seemingly oblivious to the persistent horns. Sights such as these revealed the fluidity of boundaries between animals and people and the importance the natural environment plays in everyday life.

Dharamsala is home to numerous victims of Hansen's disease (leprosy). Many of these people depend on begging to pay for their bandages and antibiotics. The first time I traveled the dirt road from our hotel into town, I passed Raj. His hands were bandaged, but he had the most brilliant and engaging smile I had ever seen. It radiated outward and drew me in. His smile literally stopped me in my tracks and brightened my day. Despite his impoverished circumstances and chronic disease, and despite our inability to communicate in words, I came to know Raj not as a victim of leprosy, but as a warm man and caring father.

Similarly, I was moved by the radiance in the eyes of the children. Whether it was poorly clothed street children on the streets of Delhi, or school children in the rural north, their brilliance was striking. We visited a school three hours from Dharamsala, which served several surrounding villages. The 50 children in this school sit outside under an overhang. Their broad, smiling faces welcomed us, and it was clear they were as interested in us as we were in them. 

tulsp03_india1_1Students used small slates, which look like miniature blackboards about one foot square, to do their school work. To write on them, they use a small stone. Each student also has a paddle made of wood with a small handle about six inches long and a main part about 18 inches by four inches. They use these crude wooden paddles to do their homework.

They take them home in the evening and do their math tables or practice the alphabet and bring them in the next day for the teacher to check. Once checked in the morning, the children go to the river behind the school and wash the paddles with mud to remove their work and ready them for the next evening's lesson. These paddles were a poignant reminder of the lack of basic school supplies and the resourcefulness of this small school and its teachers.

Traveling several hours farther along the steep and winding ridges of the mountains, we visited the sacred village of Tso Pema (also called Rewalsar). Its center is a small body of water called Lotus Lake, which is surrounded by more than 70 Buddhist, Hindu and Sikh temples and monasteries. A small path surrounds the lake, and circumnavigating it throughout the day represents a form of religious observation.

The devout travel to this area on religious retreats, some for several years at a time. High above this village lives a community of Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns. It is believed that Padmasambhava, the great saint and father of Tibetan Buddhism who brought Buddhism to Tibet from India in the eighth century, lived for a time here in the caves in which his followers now live.

On this occasion, we were traveling with a high Tibetan lama, Karma Lhundup, a prominent Buddhist monk, who was bringing rugs to distribute to the community. The monks and nuns would use these gifts to sleep on in their caves. Before setting off, we walked into the village to purchase fresh vegetables and other ingredients the nuns would later use to prepare a mid-day feast. As we climbed the mountain and approached this small, pious community, we were welcomed by the thousands of multi-colored Tibetan prayer flags that hung everywhere on the mountains.

The flags in blue, yellow, red, green and white are inscribed with Buddhist mantras, and it is believed they bring blessings to those who see them. Our day in the caves offered us an intimate connection to the sacred and profound. Our hosts freely shared their spirituality with us and were a vivid example that it is possible to be profoundly happy without the trappings and accumulations of material wealth.

A few days later, back in Dharamsala, another high lama, Lobsang Darjy, with whom I had been communicating for several months prior to our visit, invited me to participate in a lesson he was giving to a visiting group of Mongolian monks on the sacred art of making sand mandalas.

He explained that a deity can be found in every grain of sand within the intricate pattern of the mandala. The practice of making sand mandalas occurs during religious ceremonies and each one can take several days to complete. Once the painstaking process is complete, the high lama destroys it as a reminder of the impermanence of all things. As our journey neared its end, I thought of the words of Marcel Proust, who said, "The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes."

Our three weeks in India provided the platform to extend learning beyond the classroom. Experiential learning represents a significant part of my educational philosophy. This time in India brought us to question the very notion of "development" and offered our group the opportunity to view the world with a different and unfamiliar lens and with "new eyes." Whether witnessing a cremation or interacting with a person with leprosy, we discovered a spiritual richness among the Tibetan refugee community in Dharamsala, despite the material poverty.

tulsp03_india3_1We, in turn, learned to measure modernity in a more humble way. During the last days of our trip, I began to wonder about the balance between what we received on this trip and what we were able to give back. It seemed to me that the people and communities we visited gave to us far more than we could ever repay. I hoped the balance would be different and that the students' projects in Dharamsala with the Tibetan community would bring it into equilibrium.

Despite the students' dedicated efforts and their hard work on their projects, I still wasn't sure the balance I sought had been achieved. But while I struggled with this thought, I was also carefully watching and experiencing the changes taking place in our group. Without exception, each member of our party had undergone experiences that can only be described as transformative.

I was reminded of the ideas expressed by the Latin American libertarian theologist and community organizer and activist Paulo Freiere, in his writings on the process of achieving consciousness.

Freiere notes that personal development that springs from experiential learning generates group awareness that can lead to critical consciousness, community action and social change. Over the course of this journey, each of us was deeply affected by it. About a day or two before our scheduled departure, it occurred to me that these personal changes may have brought the give and take of this equation into balance in another way.

Clearly, we were not able to give back to this community as much as we received. But from a more global perspective, those of us who participated in this trip to India are better for it and more prepared to give to the world.

Ron Marks is the dean of the Tulane University School of Social Work. He can be reached at rmarks@tulane.edu.


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