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The Ramana’s Garden/Rishikesh, India post generated enough interest justifying another to share more stories and experiences from this multifaceted excursion. I invite you to sit back, read and enjoy!

Another view of northern India….

The flu found its way into my system before leaving for India. This wasn’t how I wanted to travel to a country I knew little of and unknown conditions caused nervousness how my body was going to fight the virus. Homeopathic remedies are my preference rather than over the counter medication although an exception was made to buy more than one could possibly need before the flight. Enough were ingested before boarding the plane in Chicago to sleep most of the flight.

Leaving Delhi airport provided our Ambassadors for Children group with sights of pandemonium. Rickshaws, taxi’s, trucks, cows, weaved, or walked through the streets as our tired group sat in the speeding  shuttle heading towards our first night stay in a partially collapsed YMCA. The most dangerous family transportation was scooters. There were families of three or four on a scooter!

Mostly Dry River BedThe aged train our group boarded the following morning was much nicer than the standing only train the poor would take on their travels. Our train had the luxury of a bathroom, although to my surprise the toilet was open to the tracks that were rushing below. The clacking ride to Haridwar provided views of the poverty including dung homes and dung being used for fires. Sustainability at work, but this is what the people had to do. Many of the riverbeds were dry or nearly dry. Visual senses became stressed as my eyes had difficulty taking every second in.

Lord ShivaIn Haridwar porters transferred our bags to 4WD vehicles for transportation to Rishikesh. Statues of more than thirty Hindu gods and goddesses were coming into sight, the first being Lord Shiva standing tall near the Ganges river. After two hours of bumpy roads and drivers dodging scattering monkeys we arrived at the ashram where the International Yoga Festival was part of this voluntourism trip. Two months prior I had rotator cuff surgery making early morning yoga classes excellent physical therapy before the half hour walk through rubble and village shops to Ramana’s Garden. There were more types of yoga than I knew to become familiar with but focus was the orphanage and children.

Elisa with Cooking TeachersThe friendly cook at Ramana’s Garden Organic Cafe, which has the best food in Rishikesh, offered a cooking class in her home for Elisa and I. While living in England I learned to appreciate Indian food and Elisa is a culinary artist and food lover making this a great time and experience. The woman and herHomemade Indian Dinner mother were so friendly and outgoing they could have a successful cooking show in the U.S. They chopped, diced, sliced and cooked while we took notes which I’ve yet to make the recipes entered in my journal. The four of us finished the evening sharing and enjoying the creations of the best meal I had in India.

Tehri, India - Near Mountain RetreatThe day after the Computer and Library project was completed Elisa and I hired a driver and traveled north to Tehri, the location of the Himalayan Mountain Retreat to see another area of India and escape from the business of Rishikesh. (Driving is something you do not want to do in India!) I wanted to hike and get closer to the Himalayan Mountains which have been of interest since mountaineering became a passion. We made a stop in a small busy town before the retreat to purchase our food and personal items for our stay. Many locals were interested in conversation and I was asked numerous times to visit their home because they are proud people and wanted to introduce foreigners their family. The market sold just about everything including brand name jeans where they’re shipped to when they can’t be sold in U.S. retail stores. More than enough fruits, vegetables, grains, chai tea, mango chutney and hot mango pickle were purchased for the time at the retreat.

Mountain Retreat Main HouseThe Mountain Retreat wasn’t what you would think of as a retreat. There’s no electricity and if you wanted hot water it had to be heated by fire. The location was secluded and best of all it was peaceful and quiet, something rarely experienced since arriving in India. The retreat was managed by two caretakers who were most helpful, kind and humble. Meals of the fresh produce and fresh chapatti bread were prepared Elisa and I and chai tea was made during the day. One caretaker was working to support his wife and two children living in Nepal hundreds of miles away. He spoke very little English but we were able to communicate using basic communication skills, simple words, signing, and acting out. (Remember Dances with Wolves?!) The interest this man had was genuine, intriguing and refreshing.  In the evening fires were made in the dining area and bedrooms. Nights were colder being further north and at higher elevation so the warm, crackling fire was a nice way to heat the room and provide meditative sights and sounds.

Elisa, a caretaker (unfortunately I can’t remember his name), and I hiked along a dirt road the first morning making our way around a corner until the Himalayas came into sight. I stood silent with amazement. What I thought were a layer of clouds were mountain tops in the distance. A rush came over me and was in awe taking in the view wanting to be even closer, but that would have to be another excursion. We made hikes to a local village for a chai tea and to our own personal places for journaling and mediation. On one hike an Indian leopard caught my eye and I’m not sure who startled who. Birds of all kinds and colors were flying and singing on the forest edge. Returning from a hike a goat had just given birth to two kids. I watched with amazement as the mother cleaned then fed her newborns with the help of the gentle goat herder.

Leaving the retreat was almost as difficult as leaving the orphanage. In such a short time a bond was made with these two humble, giving men who made the stay comfortable and provided company. As a gift of thanks the extra food was left along with extra clothes. The departing trip to Rishikesh was long, knowing this was the beginning of the return trip back to the United States. Keeping travel interesting  was a sheep (traffic) jam. You never know what you’re going to encounter traveling in India so being in a hurry isn’t a good state of mind.

After a pass through night in Rishikesh and a quick hello to the children it was time to return to Delhi. For a change from the YMCA which had a bed in a small concrete room a night’s stay was reserved at a “proper” hotel. The shower, room, food were a pleasing change, but after enjoying everything that evening something didn’t feel right while thinking about the poverty and the poor that were just up the road. Some behind walls that were built to make them invisible. The following day was a visit to a shopping district to walk the streets and eat at a recommended safe restaurant. The sari shops had beautiful colorful fabric and if clothing was needed it could be bought in this area. My sight, sound, taste, and smelling senses were on overload before the afternoon was over sending me and Elisa back to the hotel to rest for a long day of travel.

My eyes experienced some of the best they’ve seen and the “not so best”. I was physically, mentally and emotionally exhausted. The children, Ramana’s Garden, views of the Himalayan Mountains were spectacular. People from the Ambassadors for Children group, Ramana’s, and the caretakers greatly added to the enjoyment. I was looking forward to returning home knowing the experience would last a lifetime, wanting to return one day to visit the children and travel to Nepal.

Much gratitude to Elisa for telling me about the trip and sharing the adventure which gave me some of the most memorable experiences to date.

– Greg

“Yesterday is already a dream and tomorrow is only a vision, but today well lived makes every yesterday a dream of happiness and every tomorrow a vision of hope.”  – From the Sanskrit

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There are many stories I could tell about a 2008 journey to India and the incredible experiences occurring just about every day. The trip at times was physically and mentally tiring and trying, a life altering event that touched my soul causing me to look closer at my core values, unveiling a new path to be aware of. Travel from Delhi to Rishikesh, the children, the orphanage, and the Himalayan Mountain Retreat  where I first saw the Himalayan Mountains are each their own story. This post provides the significant highlights of the trip; the children, the orphanage and the Computer & Library Project.

The journey begins…

RishikeshAfter being unemployed from a high tech start-up company a friend and past colleague Elisa Logan made me aware of a humanitarian effort in India to help the “untouchables” at Ramana’s Garden* orphanage. Elisa was helping to spearhead the effort and already had her trip in order. Untouchables are the lowest of the caste system and according to some should not have food, water or shelter. Ramana’s Garden is located in the foothills of the Himalayan Mountains in Rishikesh, India. It was time to give back and feel good about a work/volunteer effort. Immediately, I began to make the necessary arrangements with the U.S. organization heading the effort, Ambassadors for Children. Within a few weeks friends and family donated $2,500 toward the effort making a total of $11,000 raised for the Computer & Library Project.

View from AshramThe eleven hour flight to Delhi was long and uneventful. While I was collecting my bag from the carousel in Delhi airport a man approached and asked if I knew Ted Chokas. In a tired surprised response I told him Ted was my father. Brewster, who was part of the group, is good friends with my father’s best friend. Was this a welcome, you’re supposed to be here sign? Such a coincidence. Twenty of us collected our bags, loaded into a van and made our way to a YMCA for the night. Little sleep was had that night before a long trek to Rishikesh by bus, train and SUVs. My weary morning eyes were now opened to the poverty, poor living conditions and the quality of life many have.  It can’t be explained, only witnessed.

Sunset Over the GangesI checked into the Parmarth Niketan Ashram then ventured to the sacred Ganges River watching people, spiritual ceremonies and wandering playful monkeys. I was truly in another world. The following morning our group started the walk to Ramana’s each carrying the 50 lbs. of books to be added to the library. The mornings were quiet as the town awakened. People were bathing in the Ganges and vendors were opening their shops while sacred cows roamed the streets. Most of us were silent as we walked through the poor conditions we’ve never experienced before. A highlight of the walk was crossing the Lakshman Jhula suspension bridge just before arriving at Ramana’s Garden.

Lakshman Jhula BridgeThe orphanage houses 60 children and provides education to 160 from four to sixteen years of age. We met the founder of the orphanage Dr. Prabhavati Dwabha, a woman of strong stature, who told us the story how the orphanage was meant for her to build, an amazing story in itself. The café at the school opened for lunch serving the freshest and safest food in Rishikesh. When finished we were given a tour of the impeccable school grounds and finally met the children we heard so much about.

Outdoor ClassThe children were happy, healthy, and well mannered and spoke English very well. They wore uniforms and many boys wore hats. The temperature was a warm 85 degrees and I asked why they were wearing hats. They simply answered, “Because we like to!” Fair answer, as I had to laugh. During the three weeks at Ramana’s I never witnessed bullying or rough play. Each morning the children begin the school day with prayers and songs before heading into classrooms. While waiting for the computer equipment, desks and chairs to arrive I would go into different classrooms and teach the class in progress. Learning is by memorization and there’s little experiential learning, possibly from being without family. I taught outdoor recreation and math classes, having fun with the kids, playing with them in the schoolyard.

PinkyI was called Mr. Greg and asked for help when computers and peripherals needed to be locked away for the night until classroom security was completed. Even if a student carried an empty box they were proud to be involved. Late each day an angel named Pinky kept me company while I was working. Pinky has eye injury from her infant years which didn’t keep her from reading, writing, or drawing. Each night keeping me company until it was time for dinner. If I could have brought her back to the United States I would have. The choices where to eat dinner were in the café with people from around the world, or with the children. The choice was simple; I chose to spend eating with the children. Each evening we laughed and talked and they asked many questions. So many I hardly had a chance to eat. At the end of the meal each would clean their own dishes and prepare for evening prayer and song.

With Monique in LabThe effort took two weeks with help from the local electrician, computer technicians, and maintenance operations person. The morning after the classroom was finished I was in the courtyard surrounded by 160 children. I told them how much I enjoyed their company, how special they are and to use the computers to enrich their education and become who they dream of being. The words were hard to say during this special life moment. As one of the children was tugging on my hand I was asked, “Mr. Greg, why do you cry?” Hmmm…I wonder why?

– Greg

“The way to be strong is to help the weak. The way to have wealth is to give things away. The way to lead is to serve.” – Kent Nerburn

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Final words…

The Computer & Library Project was a huge success. One thousand pounds of books were added to the library and with funds allocated by Ambassadors for Children and private donations the number of computers, peripherals and teacher salaries exceeded expectations. Ramana’s Garden has the largest computer classroom outside of colleges in Northern India.  Funding and donations covered the costs for:

  • 9 – Laptops each with a wireless mouse and keyboard
  • 9 – Desks and chairs
  • 1 – Locking security cabinet
  • 1 – Printer/Scanner
  • 1 – 22″ flat screen monitor for the teacher
  • Wireless network
  • Internet access for one year
  • Years’ salary for a computer teacher and librarian
  • New electrical connections
  • Increased classroom security

Non profit charity for Ramana’s Garden: http://www.friendsramanasgarden.org/home/

* Video shows areas from the ashram to Ramana’s Garden.

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