I arrive in Delhi late in the evening and realize that I never investigated the venue chosen by the local team for my rapid sleep initiative. Finally finding the gate that leads to the house that has a stair up to the door that might be the hotel, my driver is reluctant to leave until he has proof that indeed I am an expected guest. Turns out that the 4 bedroom “homestay,” Thikana, is indeed like a family reunion where I am offered the remains of the proprietor’s dinner—tomatoes and cheese with oil he just brought back from Greece. Having flown for the better part of a day I was well fed and refused my Indian host’s Mediterranean meal as well as the opportunity to join the other patrons (a Chinese family) that prepared a medley of noodle dishes and were now seated on the floor around one small table. I am eager to get my five hours’ sleep before departing for Agra with Rachel whose flight from California was massively delayed and would deliver her in Delhi with enough time to brush her teeth and maybe gain energy by viewing a bed.
A decade of work in India has allowed me to spend time with the waste pickers of Mumbai, professors in Hyderabad, fast food workers in Bangalore, police and politicians in Delhi and paper makers in Jaipur. While I have exchanged parenting tips with rural weavers in the Rajasthan desert and explored the virtues of mobile toilets, I have never been to the Taj Mahal. Rather than falling into line with the other 15 members of the team who were flying to Jaipur and then driving to Samode, Rachel and I are driving 3 hours from Delhi detouring to Agra and then continuing another 5 hours to meet up with our group.
The Taj, a glistening white tribute to love was worth the wait. Stunning. Symmetrical. Just the right size to experience mastery as you circle around in awe and then collapse on a bench to contemplate … was it really the King’s love for his wife that prompted this gorgeous structure, or perhaps it was the royal’s effort to say “look at what a great lover I can be,” or perhaps it’s a public apology as after all he had two other wives. It was a clever move centuries ago as the Taj continues to draw crowds and income and is closed every Friday for restoration (remember you heard it from me, no VIP exceptions).
A quick visit also to the Agra fort and off we go. Organizing the car on the internet we never thought to ask about the comfort level of the seats. We should have given that the marble mausoleum was better maintained than the roads which were flooded from the big rain the day before. Call us trusting (see note about hotel). I keep myself on a just in time awareness of my travel plans. The system seems to work.
Rachel and I are greeted with Sula Brut (the national house champagne) when we arrive at the Samode Bague where we sleep in a tented circular community adjacent to the Palace gardens which are spectacular, quiet, clean and in total contrast to the mayhem on the other side of the walls where people live without roads or running water. One person wonders what the trees on the other side of the compound think about the trees inside. Another asks if the cacophony of avian song is really a gossip fest about us. It’s gonna be an interesting week.
Team open air breakfast: Max tells me about a monk who gets to speak two words a year to his master yogi. First year the trainee monk says, “food bad.” Second year he says, “bed hard.” Third year he says “I quit.” The head monk replies, “I am not surprised, you have done nothing but complain since you got here!” Are you giggling? I thought it was pretty funny too. Conversation continues and I offer Max an opinion on a topic now obliterated from my mind as his reaction to me was “that’s your two words until next year,” which when writing doesn’t seem so funny but they gonged my funny bone and I laughed … too hard … with a mouth full of masala tea … that I sprayed all over the table and nearby diners. Even the reserved waiters couldn’t keep a straight face (or respect me for the rest of the week).
Call me crazy but given that there are elephants in the road, and cows, and large rocks, and dogs, and maimed people who may have miscalculated the impact of the above list when setting out on their journey, I opt to wear a seatbelt which was such a novel request that the back seat had to be reconstructed to excavate the strap and metal clasp.
Why am I back in a car for a 3 hour trip in each direction? I want to meet the women who have sustained a very effective “self-help group.” This is no Dr. Phil rap session. “Self-help” refers to shared saving and loans independent of any formal system. The women have used their money for medical emergencies and weddings. They rotate leadership and as a result all have learned to count, to maintain the accounting and have established identities through additional training that positions them not simply as wives and mothers but as valued consultants on farming and animal husbandry.
Today it’s just me and the ladies. I am meant to meet 10 women. About 30 appear all wrapped in neon cloth. They ask me probing questions: “Where do I keep my cow? Can they come to my daughter’s wedding? What do you look for in a life partner?” I am visiting on a traditional fasting day where women abstain from food and fluids from sunrise to sundown to insure good health for their spouses. We giggle together contemplating which man deserves this devoted deprivation.
The woman sing for me, and I beg them to let me stay silent for their own health. Then they start to dance. I am so much better talking than moving. I bid my new friends goodbye with a promise to return four days later. En route from this farming community I stop at a government outpost to learn about a Google-funded program that equips two women from each village with a motorcycle and laptop so that they can become computer literate in order to obtain internet based answers to agricultural challenges for themselves and their neighbors. Why train women rather than men? Because the women will cascade their knowledge of course. While drinking the requisite social tea, the program administrators ironically show me Chinese YouTube videos of a man making lettuce from edible chemicals. I make it back to the palace gardens in time for Shabbos dinner under the stars with the team and more Sula brut.
I was joking when I suggested that having held a leadership festival for 7000 grassroots organizers in Mumbai, our group deserved a marching band. At the Samode dreams come true and on Saturday the gang were welcomed with a band (Indian, stationary) and a walkway lined with flower petals.
Dinner, a bon fire and off to bed. Some of us now sleeping in a palace. I have been exiled from the elegant bague. Was it because this morning I had transformed into a human masala fountain? Or did the team see my crown? You should see my room! Multiple beds, seating areas, balconies and views. Sunday the powwow begins. I didn’t name it and I agree, it’s unfortunate that a powwow, is held in India. And while you are engaging in appellation condescension let me point out that the second definition of powwow is “conference or meeting for discussion, especially among friends or colleagues.” And that it is. Leaders’ Quest has invited members of our community – alumni, hosts, supporters, and board members from around the world, a diverse group working in civil society, community development, politics, business and education. All are exploring what they need to do to increase personal capacity to continue to drive positive impact in the world. So many modes of communication; including sign language as one guest is deaf and is attending with her interpreter.
This is LQ’s third powwow and my second (all held on the same grounds). The first year focused on “active hope,” or informed optimism, last year we explored the “big middle” the gap between privilege, perspectives and politics. This year our theme is “compassion X,” how to bridge differences with people who may believe you are part of the problem. Lindsay has been writing and speaking about the importance of compassion for ourselves and others. Not idiotic compassion as in willy nilly love, but considered compassion that grows from a deep awareness of the other’s condition, and our mutual impact on each other. The “X” is for “exponential,” in response to the time our team has been spending in Silicon Valley leading programs where the speed of change is unparalleled, as is the reliance on knowledge verses, say wisdom. Wisdom? Yes wisdom as in deep knowing on the visceral not cognitive level, an effort to honor the insights that happen between and because of our shared humanity. Intuition vs. data collection. We are exploring how wisdom anchors compassion and allows us to identify patterns of hope.
In a country with a nine and a half hour time difference with NYC I always marvel at what happens in the half, does India speed up or slow us down? Along with Simon we gather a quarter of the participants each day in a peer group, a nuclear family, to allow people to pause. We begin with the suggestion that people introduce themselves in the matter one would in their home country. Defining home was a challenge and of the 21 in our group we had just as many “homes” and a collection of greetings that include head touches, pinky shakes, chest bumping, one kiss, two kiss, three kiss, red fish, blue fish (oops, I got carried away). A Nigerian woman says you can’t complete a hello without asking about mom, dad, auntie, the sick goat, etc. A guest from Israel says you never really wait for the answer to “how are you,” and our friend from the Scottish Isles says you grunt in greeting but boy don’t you dare not grunt back. Over the course of three days we get deep (and also silly). At one point it was as if we were “givers anonymous” struggling with why it was easier to give than receive. Aha, it’s a power dynamic. To give is to be in control, to assert ones will and knowledge. To receive suggests vulnerability. Our group’s Dutchman, relates that a wise man advised him “don’t tell me what you know until you show me that you know me.” We slow down. To listen to each other—actively.
To aid the getting-to-know-you we go further out into the wilderness, to the farmhouse where we are challenged to say hello with our feet. And we sing. And eat of course. And then are treated to Tabla music by a real master while we recline on pillows watching the stars, nestled between extraordinarily large rocks.
Life as a princess has its perks including the ability to watch the sunrise over the castle turrets. A light show from my bed. To perfect perfection I get up to make some tea, planning to return to watch the final burst of pink over the hills but what’s this? A MONKEY IN MY BED. A big monkey. And it’s alive. I scream. Monkey jumps thru the open window. My heart skips a beat. How did I miss monkey survival training? What would you have done? Harp later wrote that she was disappointed that I didn’t play with my new furry pal. At breakfast people inquired about a scream around 6:45 am that interrupted meditation. That was me. And my monkey. Well I don’t need any coffee today. Besides which I should avoid caffeine on the day that I am going to paint my soul scape.
Did I just say paint my soul scape??!! WTF? Really. 94 people and 940 birds, 2 hours, lots of supplies. We each paint a moment when we felt most alive. It was powerful. And fun. And surprising. I plan to hang my canvas in my kitchen if my family lets me. I follow paint with a movement workshop, 2.5 hours of speaking with my body, leading and being lead culminating with dancing out a moment when our compassion was most challenged.
There’s something to whirling in case you wondered. This is the second year I have practiced Sufi dancing, the ancient practice of spinning into a trance. Steeped in ritual, following twenty minutes of preparatory exercises we kiss each of our shoulders before taking off. Using our right hand as a mirror we are reminded that reflecting on ourselves provides the needed centering. Ten minutes of whirling literally flew by while our instructor coached us not to actually fly. At the start you are turning, once the vortex ignites you are taken by the whirl, it twirls you. Extraordinary. You conclude by being literally grounded, face down on the earth or in my case kissing the ‘really needs a mop’ floor of the Bague breakfast room.
Not a typical day at the office. We end with dinner back at the palace en masse with professional Sufi dancing on the roof, under the stars after desert. Highlight of my week? As the uber elegant professional, Zia takes the stage, someone asks “is that Melanie?” Can you ask for anything more?
Sunrise. Windows closed. No more monkey business. I am in a car by 6:45 am back to the rural village to introduce 10 new friends to the self-help aficionados. During the 3-hour drive out, one participant from California, who runs an incubator for female entrepreneurs launching food businesses, starts riffing with a woman whose family runs a major rug company and before you know it they hatched the Jaipur artisan food festival to extend the financial opportunities for the female weavers who supply her organization.
Back in the village we talk, pump water, help pull weeds and discuss microfinance and whether it’s better to wear underwear or not. The older women say no. The younger say yes. I am asked why I wear my wedding ring on my finger – they wear theirs on their toes.
On the last day of the powwow different attendees shared their work by offering “Ted talks” under tents in the garden. Maybe we should call it tent talks. An hour of silence followed with an option to meditate, do pottery, paint, dance, sunbathe, write or I guess if you had the guts … whirl. We ended back in our peer groups sharing appreciation and closed as a large group … you guessed it … dancing!