Sure, it’s now a full year later, but in the absence of travel this February, I am spending a lot of time in my memory bank.
(February 2020) The henna intricately scribed on my forearm fades with the first soapy lather back on Canadian soil. The tan lines on my feet, I discover, weren’t tan lines at all, as the last of the grime circles the drain. Yet, despite all that seems to fade upon return from brigade travel, what we truly bring home with us does not diminish. It simply cannot be taken away. The brigade experience shapes us – first-timers and veterans alike. Perhaps without even realizing it. And I am grateful for all that lingers.
For our team of veteran volunteers, accustomed to leaving comfort zones for Central America, encountering new customs, and being flexible to changing circumstances, providing emergent dental and optometry care in rural India for the first time was quite remarkably more of the same. But different.
The smells and the sights, the transportation and the language, the culture and even the time zone – all different. But this brigade team’s heart and soul and energy and understanding that I have come to know, expect, love, and look forward to at this time of year was very much the same.
With less knowledge of the language and fewer phrases at our disposal, communication took a different kind of patience and time and care. The same, but different. With subsequent clinic days in a central location (the Maya Devi Charitable Hospital in Sarurpur Kalan), we communed with the local residents in a different way — along the narrow corridors, in the shops, in the temples, and in the streets before and after clinic hours. The same, but different. Our clinic in a rural village provided service where unexpected and seemed a fitting addition to the dichotomies we would come to know in India. Chaos and tranquility. Opulence and squalor. Impatience and peace. Apprehension and faith. Beauty. And brokenness.
In an environment where we relied on everything but our words to communicate, we became more mindful of our actions. Of our interactions. Of our benefactions.
And we became grateful for that which was tangible:
The translators who helped us to connect with our patients; The nearby shop owners who, recognizable as patients, offered smiles and sips and samples and hot peppers and water buffalo milk from the wares offered streetside; The hospital staff who brought control to the chaos as we opened the doors daily to our services — at once novel and needed; The Indian hospitality that filled us with tea and with chapati and with masala, and adorned our limbs with mehndi; The collaborative efforts of the team — having grown to include local volunteers — who helped patients to see more clearly, to understand more deeply, and above all, to be heard.
What was the same was the care that was provided. Whether in Canada or Central America or India, the care provided is the same. From dental hygiene instruction for a family, to a clearance performed on a mouth with teeth too previously untouched to be salvaged, to glasses prescribed for a child who never could have imagined what he was missing. The same.
What was the same was the hospitality of those who welcomed us into their lives, and in the case of these ladies, their home. Only after inviting me inside for tea, only after sitting side by side on the mattress in their kitchen, only after visiting the goats on their roof, and only after taking my own turn holding the chicken, only then did these patients-turned-hosts declare, ‘friends’, and through a series of charades request that I capture the moment. Despite language and cultural barriers, it seems we all speak the language of selfie. At the time, I thought this to be more unfortunate than uplifting, but when I later find these timid smiles on my camera roll, I must admit I am indeed uplifted.
What is different on each brigade trip is what we as individuals take away.
What is the same is what lingers long after return.
The same. But different.