When I was four years old, a missionary from India came to my Sunday school class. I don’t remember her name, just her sari. I had never seen one before and I was captivated.
She told us stories of the faraway land of India, of monkeys and camels and elephants, of the crowded slums of Mumbai and a woman named Ramabai Mukti who founded an orphanage and school for unwanted children.
It was a lot for a four year old to digest, but the woman and her stories made a huge impression on me. For years I was obsessed with India. I studied the country, its culture and history. I read alot about Ghandi. I asked my mom to take me to Devon Avenue in Chicago, where I purchased a sari of my own.
From the time I was 4 until I turned 16, I told everyone I met that I was going to be a missionary to India. As a religious kid in the Midwest, that seemed the best option to me for visiting this exotic land. Certainly my family would never have the money it took to travel to a place like that–we went to Indiana on family vacations.
And besides, I wanted to help. Even as a really young kid, I was struck by the idea that somewhere across the world, there was a girl like me.
But while I was born into a family who loved me unconditionally and encouraged me to follow my dreams, whatever they might be, this girl was born into a culture where she had no worth, no value, and no options. It seemed like a very random assignation of destiny to me. Why me? Why her?
As I got older, simple answers like, “Because it’s the will of God” didn’t work anymore. And although I renounced my future career as a missionary in my mid-teens, my fascination with India remained.
And finally, 37 years after I first heard of India, I set foot on its soil.
Last November I traveled to Jaipur with Tea Collection. My colleagues were there to shoot an editorial catalog for our Spring 15 collection, which is inspired by the beauty and culture of India. I was there as the storyteller, to record the sights and sounds and smells of our visit. To take notes on what it felt like to be there. To observe, to ask questions, to internalize the experience so that later I could make it real for readers who hadn’t come along on our journey.
But I had a second purpose. Tea Collection partners with the Global Fund for Children, and I and my coworker Jessie were to spend a day visiting a GFC grantee in Jaipur, an Indian-run nonprofit called Gram Bharati Samiti.
The day we spent in rural villages with Bhawani, Kusum and Sarita was the best day of my whole trip to India.
Better, even, than my birthday two days later when I was surprised with a chocolate cake and a gorgeous photo taken by our photographer Hideaki Hamada.
The people I met that day, the staff of Gram Bharati Samiti and the girls and women in the villages we visited–their faces will stay with me for the rest of my life.
I wrote a blog about my experience for Tea–you can read it here, and please do. You’ll find all about a 6-year-old girl named Buja and the amazing gift (baby goat!!) I was given by another girl named Rekha. It’s the best story, really it is.
Hardly a day has gone by since I came back without me thinking of those girls, those villages.
Someday I’m going back. I’m going back and I’m taking Bruce and Lucette with me.
We’ll ride elephants and tour palaces and go back to Gaonli village to see if Buja’s still there.
And then we’ll hop on a plane and head south to Mumbai. I want to see where it all began for me, I want to visit Ramabai Mukti.
-Lo, who can’t believe 2014 went by without one. single. word.