Wednesday, November 19, 2014

As "us"

Just last week, I was waking up on the opposite end of the world. Literally. I think Kolkata is geographically the same distance east and west from Saskatoon. I can truly say I travelled half way around the world. I would go to sleep early in our hotel, aptly named Hotel Heaven, which made me smile when I first read it. I was either going to love it or die there.  It was a comfortable place to land at the end of the day and it had air conditioning so it felt luxurious to me. Each night, as I fell asleep I'd turn off the air conditioning and listen to the sounds of the street below. I loved the noise of the city in my ears, telling me the story of nighttime in Kolkata. Sirens. Shouts. Music. Intent conversations. Horns and the intermittent sounds of the ancient street trams that rattled by sounding like someone shaking a tin can full of bottle caps in my ear.  Around 3 or 4 am every night I would wake up. Partly because it was late afternoon back in Canada, partly because the room was now 29 degrees and I was sweltering and needed to put the a/c back on for a bit. The beautiful thing about that middle of the night waking time was the silence. When you've gone to sleep with noise in your ears, the silence is comforting in its own right. I would lay there until the room cooled, read or play a game of solitaire on my phone in the dark, until I could turn the a/c off again and go back to sleep till about 6 am. The first two nights I tried to occupy those dark hours. The third, fourth and fifth night, my mind was full of the people I'd met, the foods I'd tried, the children I'd played with, the slums we'd walked in. Several of those nights, I just lay and tried to hold my heart and mind open to what God was telling me or trying to teach me. Before I went to India, I had been thinking through some of the areas in my life in which I needed to bring changes to. I'd written down a small line in a book I carry around, a prayer of sorts, "More of You. Less of me." In those dark hours, I would repeat that line and offer it up and listen for whatever answers or suggestions would come back. I'm not great at meditation, my mind tends to flee at the slightest noise and by the time I reel it in, I'm not sure where I left off. This line, "More of You. Less of me" gave me something to come back to when I was wondering if I had given the media guy at church the password for the youtube channel. Things you think about in the middle of the night in Kolkata. A few nights passed with these regular hours of silence and I was beginning to enjoy the practice of just laying still, listening to the rhythmic drip of the a/c on the floor, and repeating the phrase. One night, I'm not sure at what point, I may have dozed off, I may have heard from God, it may have been both. I was laying in the dark and realized that what I was hearing was, "Less of You. More of US."  Isn't that in a nutshell? Yes, less of me. Absolutely. But more of US? That came out of the dark and illuminated my brain. I think I'm often apt to release my cares and concerns in desperation, with a sort of throwing it at God in an "okay-you-do-it" type of way. I'm not saying that's always wrong...I am saying that when I do it, it's not often with a willing, contrite spirit of leaving things gently and confidently in His hands. But this? The idea that God wants less of me alone and more of us together...that changed something in me.

So, it's barely 5 am here back on my half of the planet. I'm awake. The house is creaking in the cold. The furnace is humming and the last night train has shuffled past. Snow is flying sideways in the orange light of the street lamp and the dog is snoring beside me on the couch. Having a labrador means you're never alone, even when insomnia hits. I'm thinking of small girls, like one named Puja, rescued from a garbage pile at 3 days old and raised by compassionate strangers as their own. I think of her smiling and pulling a funny face as she stands with her classmates in the halls of her school dormitory, half a world away indeed from the desperate beginning of her life. Of a girl named Jashlyn, saucy and strong, fiercely competitive in sports and games as we played in her community. Running amongst the shacks in the slum, she's the girl the boys tried to take out of the game at every turn, her skills threatening their own. I think of the small girl who, when asked, if being at school made her miss her family, shook her head solemnly "No".  Her face passive as Jaishree, the director of OneLifeUp operations in India, explains to us that school is a respite for this little one from the abuses and violence of her home in the Nalpur slum. I think of Piyas and his wife, who open their home for girls like these during school holidays, so that they need not return to the slum and the violence there. And as the clock clicks away, these girls are ending a day of classes and heading in for dinner. I'm curled up on the couch, not even ready for breakfast. It makes no sense that all these things can happen simultaneously across the globe. It makes me feel small until I think of how God works. Through us. In spite of us. With us. As "us". There's nothing bigger than that.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

From Fear to Familiarity

I think it's fair to say that I was pretty transparent about how afraid I was to go to India. In the light of that pre-trip honesty, I have to say that I loved being in Kolkata. I loved it. I loved the city. The traffic. Rickshaws and buses, yellow taxis and overloaded semi-trucks careening around each other with seemingly no objective other than to add to the noise and chaos of the already crowded streets. I love the multiple uses of car horns to suggest movement, imply movement, and demand movement. I love that pedestrians weave in and out of this tempest with fluidity and ease, whether burdened with packages, talking on the phone or holding the hand of a small child. Kolkata streets are filled with acts of boldness and bravery at every turn. I hardly walked anywhere and still managed to narrowly avoid being hit by numerous vehicles because of my defence mechanisms that kept me from stepping into the oncoming traffic without eye contact with the driver of whatever vehicle was bearing down on me.  The trains are beautiful and loud, with people teeming out of the windows and holding onto rails and leaning out the doors casually, as if just leaning on a stationary street corner instead of being propelled through crossings and over land at break neck speeds. The every day coming and going of people and vehicles would be an endless source of entertainment for me. I could watch it for days.

I loved the light and the colour of the streets. The beautiful women in whatever economic class, wearing saris of brilliance, their vibrant colours adding to the muted tones of the backdrop of the streets. Even in the darkness, the colours of the lights and the taxis and the people are not diminished. Streets look like elaborate sets from Bollywood movies and despite the crushing poverty in and amongst the elite, everyone has a role to play in the drama of day to day life in a city of over reportedly 14 million. It's as if nearly one out of every two Canadians were to descend on an ancient city for a week. The numbers are staggering. Everywhere you look there are people. Working. Begging. Shopping. Selling. Drinking tea. Making street food. Delivering parcels. Banking. There's not a corner of the street where I ever stood on my own.

I was afraid that Indian people would be severe. Their dark eyes and brooding looks were in my mind,  for no particular reason other than assumption, menacing and threatening. I felt that I would be hassled and harassed, my personal space impeded and my privacy intruded upon. Nothing could be further from the truth. Though it's true there were stares and second glances at our group as we travelled, the moment eye contact was made, it was often followed by a shy smile or a reserved tilt of the head. My assumptions could not have been more wrong...not shocking by any means, given how little I knew about India before landing there.

When I arrived in Mumbai, where I was to meet my team, I was late. My flight having been delayed out of London Heathrow for over 90 mins didn't leave room for errors in making my connection that was already flashing "Boarding" as I ran down the concourse. I hustled through the line at security, delayed by the fully dressed woman in front of me trying to get through the scanner with her bag in hand. I tried to be patient as three people gestured and explained to her the process of x-raying her belongings and going through the metal detector with little extra on over her sari. She began to methodically strip down, blocking the metal detector and with no apparent time constraints. I began to shift back and forth on my feet and eye the line up beside me, for males only, that was only two people deep and weighed in my mind the risk vs reward of jumping into that queue. I stayed in the female only line and received a series of four different stamps and one handwritten star on my bag tags, obviously for model behaviour, and dashed down the last set of stairs to the gate entrance. Unfortunately for me, the gate entrance was actually the entrance to a bus TO the terminal where my flight was now closing and although I was sure I could make it, I was at the mercy of the gentleman admitting people through. I explained to him that I was trying to make the flight to Kolkata and he seemed genuinely disinterested. At this point, I wasn't even frustrated. It was about 2 am I believe and I just resigned myself to having to trot back to the beginning of my journey and rebook a ticket for a later flight, hoping to meet up with my team at some later point, when this lovely man, motioned for me to come back up to the podium. He scanned my boarding pass, pointed me towards two others standing near by and said that a van was coming for us. I turned on my phone and received a text from Seth, on my team, and he asked if I was close, that they were closing the gate and he was boarding. He assured me they would send a van for me in the morning and that I would be met at the airport in Kolkata with no problems. I told him I wasn't worried, which at that point, I wasn't...but that there was a teeny hope that I would make the flight as they were sending us on a van. Little did I know that the ride to the other terminal was lengthy and involved crossing out of the airport secured grounds into the adjacent slum (at which point, I may have regretted ignoring Amanda Lindhout's suggestions on kidnapping and ransom insurance....) and back around yet another terminal, waiting for a plane to back out onto the tarmac in front of us, and finally up to our waiting plane. I boarded with the two others and was never so relieved as to hear a friendly voice, coming from the sweet face of OneLifeUp's Melanie, asking if I was Shelly. I nodded and she smiled and I proceeded to my seat where I promptly offered up a prayer of gratitude for travelling mercies.  The three hour flight to Kolkata provided me with a two hour and 48 minute nap that was long overdue and we arrived safely. Another team mate, Mandy, sitting near me, introduced herself and I followed her to where the others were collecting their luggage. I was thankful for not having checked luggage as I would assuredly not have had it arrive with me, given the connection. We proceeded to a bus and our hotel and given our early morning arrival, were afforded a few hours to shower and rest before heading out for the day.

Laying on the bed in my room, I could hardly imagine that I was in India. Driving to the hotel felt vaguely familiar as Kolkata to me was reminiscent of Addis Ababa, teeming with people and representing all stages of development from pre-industrial revolution ox carts to modern, glass sided office buildings towering above.  Everything in the city seemed in some stage of decay or construction. It wasn't always apparent which was which.

Suffice it to say, arriving safely was a good start on the week ahead. I felt my confidence building as I recognized the traffic and sounds, industry and architecture of a previous British colony and the opposing influence of years of communist party rule.  I realized that my travel experiences were culminating in a lack of culture shock and that that would settle my fears far more than any verbal assurances I could give myself. In a lot of ways, Kolkata felt like the stage of a familiar play with new characters. I couldn't wait to experience the story that would unravel.
The Mother House - where Mother Theresa worked...just outside my hotel window, barely 20 ft away.
I woke to singing and prayers each morning, which is a beautiful way to start a day.

The Monument to Queen Victoria, built after her death. It's impressive, incredible and expansive, elaborate and beautiful.
Quite the memoriam to Queen Victoria.

Jaishree and Melanie of These women are beautiful inside and out...friends from the first moment we met.

The meticulous grounds of the Queen Victoria Monument.

Just one of a million fascinating doorways in Kolkata.

Early morning, women come to the street for water to haul to their living quarters, wherever they may be.

School girls hold hands and walk to school in Kolkata.

Yet another fascinating doorway.

These construction workers were hauling cement, I thought by hand, to the site down the alley
next to our hotel.

Then, they proudly showed their skill at balancing heavy cement mix on their heads.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Not Quite Home

I know that many of you have been checking the blog for news from India. I can see that there are those who check thank you for that. I'm sorry I haven't updated yet. It's not that there wasn't WiFi in Kolkata, because there was. It was just that I wanted to stay in the moment and try and process all I was seeing and experiencing without having to make sense of it in writing.

I'm just sitting in snowy Toronto, about to board my last flight and I am looking forward to seeing the boys and Jason and of course,Charlie. I hope over the next few days to put down some more coherent thoughts. Until then, thanks again for being so diligent in keeping up with me as I travel. You're never far from my thoughts, friends. So many of you are so invested in my life, it's as if you travel with me.

Until my brain catches up with my heart....Check out the organization I travelled with.

We'll catch up soon, I promise!

Friday, November 7, 2014

Overpacking and Overthinking

This week I've been riding a wave on anxiety as I prepare for my next trip. I head to India on Sunday...Kolkata actually. I think I'm finally ready to say that I'm excited more than nervous. That's not to say it hasn't been a process.

Today was perfect though. As some of you know, I work event security at our local arena for concerts and conferences, etc. Today, in Saskatchewan, was WE Day. It is part of Craig and Mark Kielburger's Free The Children enterprise in which they inspire and empower kids to become activists in our world. I love the work that these guys do, particularly in that they started as children and have continued to motivate youth to get involved in the issues that stir them. Though I'm far older than their target demographic, I learned a lot about how to connect and motivate kids to get involved in global and local issues that are concerning to all of us. Part of the event involves getting various celebrities to get involved in motivating the kids with their own stories. I didn't know anything about the line up of who would be there today but suddenly, I found myself in close proximity with one of my Canadian heroes, Lt. Gen. (ret) Romeo Dallaire, who led the UN Peacekeeping mission in Rwanda during the genocide during the 90's. It was an impossible mission and many feel that perhaps Daillaire was doomed from the outset...and yet, what he has done with his life since that terrible chapter, has given me such inspiration. He deals with PTSD and yet continues to advocate against child soldiers and other atrocities of war. He's written several incredibly difficult yet integral books on the subjects and he has really shaped a lot of my education around social injustices and human rights abuses. So, today, as he stepped into the spotlight just feet away, although I was working,  I had a steady stream of tears sliding down my cheeks. I wondered how many people in that building actually knew who he was or what he had been through and what's he has overcome. It makes me wonder what we really know of anyone's particular story, celebrity or not.

Along with Lt. Gen. Dallaire, Capt. Phillips, shared his story as well. A merchant marine captain made famous by Tom Hanks who played him in the movie about his ordeal as his ship and crew were attacked by Somali pirates and he spent four long days being abused and isolated as a hostage on a life raft with his four captors. His message today was that you are stronger than you know and you can endure more than you can imagine.

In the face of courage like this, what do I have to fear?

I went in to work today thinking it was just another day, customer service and providing directions to visitors to our facilities. In the end, it was a day that I will long remember as one that spoke right to the heart of my fears and put them to rest.

I encourage each of you to check out and visit virtually each of the communities that I will be walking in next week. I ask that as you see the pictures and read the stories, that you would remember our team as we step into those stories.

I'm excited. Fear abates. Curiosity and calling win out.

Friday, October 31, 2014

What Cynicism Can't Even Imagine

Today seems bleak. I'm not an optimist at the best of times but I've been seeing the good in people in recent years and hanging on to that thread of humanity as best I can. Today I feel like I've put too much weight on the thread and it's led to the unravelling of the comfortable sweater I've wrapped myself in.

I'm warning you. If you go into this any deeper, you may join me in the darkness of what is winding around my heart today.

In the midst of days that have seen domestic attacks on our military personnel here in Canada...on the heels of a not so distant shooting spree against RCMP officers on the east coast, I'm wondering if we're really so much different than any other country in the world. Governments and health care systems only function when there is stability and good infrastructure and frankly, peace helps.
Can we be so far from sliding off the grid? (I warned you....)

And then, this day. I wait to hear from our dear friends in Zambia if they are able to stay on the land they purchased 7 years ago. The person they bought the land from has decided that he only was charging them "rent" and so now believes he should be able to evict them and take over the home they worked so hard to build. A home that provides shelter for their 5 children. A home that is a symbol of their hard work and the stability that they are trying so very hard to maintain. So, yes, today is going to be long until I hear the word that they can stay and that this injustice will be averted. There's no guarantees.

And still, the wars rage on in Syria, Central African Republic, Eastern Congo...and I think of all those that I don't give thought to day to day...and I wonder about our turn. If it comes, will we really believe that there are those that will come to our defense? Particularly when we are worried about having enough candy to hand out to costumed children this evening...and consumed with our weekend plans and our jobs and all those really important things like why our high speed internet isn't quite fast enough? Oh, I'm on a roll now.

This may have been my unravelling this morning. Appropriately so. We're called to be human. Humane. Compassionate and caring. Yet when we are, the balance can tip so slightly towards despair and becoming distraught, which is where I find myself this morning.

There's a caveat here. The images are desperate and disturbing. I thought, "I can handle it."  I'm can't un-see what I've seen here. On Halloween, no less, when ghoulish and garish things are celebrated? I can think of nothing worse than what I've seen here. Not one thing.  Proceed with caution. I'm not sorry I've seen it...only that now I'm left with what can I do? And there's no easy answer here.

Claiming heartache or brokenness at the sight of these images doesn't touch what I really feel here.
It's as though any rose coloured tint left on my glasses has been forever removed. At least, I hope it has. Last warning....honestly...avert your eyes if you aren't ready. If you are, take time. Read the story that accompanies each photo. Let yourself be immersed in them. See the details. The dirt floors. The pain. The rustle of a health worker in a haz mat suit. The sound of grief. The screams of a boy. The blood in the streets. The murmured prayers.  Clarity comes with a very high price.

Images from the front lines of the fight against Ebola.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

"We Stand on Guard for Thee"

O Canada! Our home and native land!

True patriot love in all thy sons command.
With glowing hearts we see thee rise,

The True North strong and free!

From far and wide, O Canada,
We stand on guard for thee.
God keep our land, glorious and free!
O Canada, we stand on guard for thee;
O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.

Cpl Nathan Carillo did exactly that today. He stood on guard for us. As did countless others, whether in ceremonial dress, fatigues, or in civilian clothing across our nation and overseas. Freedom has never been so costly. My heart goes out to Cpl. Carillo's family. He is our soldier. He is her love. Their son. This child's father. Their friend. Their brother in arms.

I can't begin to fathom the cost to those who loved this young man as the one across the dinner table, the one on the end of funny text messages, the one who was a workout partner or a dog walker, the dad who threw his child in the air or the soldier who made his family proud each time he walked out in that uniform. I can only express my gratitude. For the days and months of unnoticed service, when he stood on guard for my country, hundreds of kilometres away, before I even knew his name.
Thank you, Cpl. Nathan Carillo.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Now. This is happening now.

In my life there has been a very long lists of "I would never's" when it comes to things brave or adventurous or rebellious. I'm not saying that this should be qualified as any of the three but it's definitely been near the top of my list. Let's just say that there are 100+ other places that would top my list of places to visit and most of them don't even involve taken yet more malaria pills. And yet...

I am travelling to India (Kolkata) in Nov. I’ll be there Nov 9-17 with an organization called It’s crazy how it all came about, somewhat loosely through my blog/twitter feed but it feels like this it's an opportunity for learning for me. I am excited about this organization based on the feedback I got to my crazy questions as I evaluated going. I love their model of care - empowering local people to care for those around them living in the slums of Kolkata. It felt familiar when I read it...much like the model of care that I love so much about Hands at Work. 

I was only reluctant to go because I’m afraid. I'm afraid of India. Mostly because I hate crowds, bad smells, curry and bad toilet situations more than anything and India seems to encapsulate all of these beautifully. I also had no funding to go as I had already worked my travel budget for the year and India wasn’t in the plan. But, I always tell people to not let fear or finances get in the way so I have to put my own advice into practice. Oh, how I HATE when that happens.  

I sent out a letter to some friends, looking for back up to back out. In the days that followed, the same messages came back. "Go, you chicken, go." At least, that's how I read them. One friend said that she sensed that God was telling her to buy my ticket, which is unreal because it's no small change to fly overseas. So, no excuse there. 

So, with no good reason other than fear, I signed up. As soon as I hit "send" I broke out in a cold sweat.  I drove home, threw up three times out the door of my Escape en route (my apologies to those of you who live and work on Clarence Ave.) and went to bed with  what I think can safely be called a fear induced migraine. So, I just laid about all the fears I had to God and the one that kept standing out to me the most, which really had nothing to do with India-was the fact that I would be travelling through several airports with connections and I was unfamiliar with any of the airports. I was worried about missing connections and therefore missing meeting up with the team of people I would be travelling with. It was weird because really they were mostly US airports and should not have been as big of an obstacle as they had become.  So, for some reason, that "small" thing was just stuck in my mind and kept my stomach churning. 

On the day that I went to pay for the trip, the travel agent found a cheaper ticket (to the tune of $500 cheaper) that has me travelling alone and meeting up with the team in Mumbai. Now, instead of travelling through new-to-me airports, I fly to Toronto and then on to Heathrow, then on to Mumbai to meet the team. I have spent more time in those two airports and Johannesburg airport than any others…so that was my small (huge) confirmation that maybe God takes care of the details in such a manner because I’m so short sighted in my fears. 

So, that’s it. I’m going to India. Bring on the traveller’s diarrhoea and intestinal issues, I’m in.