While most of our group headed off to London, Orlando, and New York, two of us stuck around for one last remarkable visit. Unfortunately that meant traveling through the decrepit Calcutta airport one more time. Gross.
A sigh of relief escaped my mouth upon arrival at the perfectly manicured Bangalore airport. My companion and I both agreed that this would be the airport in India we would want to be stuck at. Note to self: be careful what you put out in the universe.
One order of red snapper sashimi paired with Thai green curry later, I was more than ready to call it a night even before Bangalore’s 11:30pm curfew. Chocolate lava cake persuaded me to stay until the manager quietly told us that we “really needed to leave now”. I was more than happy to follow the strict curfew law and head back to the hotel. It meant I would be able to spoil myself with a lengthy bubble bath… something I had only been dreaming about since moving into a flat with a typical Indian “wet bathroom”.
7am felt earlier than ever when Ravi aka The Driving Machine arrived to take us on the scenic drive through Sai Baba Land to Anantapur.
The legendary Ana Ferrer stood waiting to warmly welcome us as the SUV pulled up to the foundation’s gates. Her once proper British English accent was now garnished with hints of Spanish, Catalan, Hindi, and Telugu as she spoke about the history of her late husband Vincente Ferrer and the foundation.
We were honored to know that we were the first Americans to visit. This was also reconfirmed by everyone at the foundation greeting and instructing us in Spanish. Every worker is fluent in Hindi, Telegu, Spanish and Catalan. Most are also fluent in English and very excited to finally get some practice in.
Sasi, our flamboyant guide for the visit, arrived right on the time the organized VFF tour programme had indicated as departure for our visit to the Special School. Accompanied by the marvelous Mancho Ferrer, I learned all about the school that is home to children suffering from disabilities and why it is so special.
Many of the children attending Special School are blind. Armed with teachers trained in Braille and modern technology such as JAWS, a computer screen reader program for the blind, VFF has given the opportunity of education to children that families and communities have given up on. Alba is the JAWS instructor who is on her third extended visit from Spain accompanied by her Seeing Eye dog from Michigan. Special School is even equipped with its own center for printing in Braille after textbooks have been translated by key players in the school’s success.
Following a few classroom visits and songs, we were whisked off to the ever important Family Planning Centre. A few key facts about the family planning center of Anantapur:
– 90,000 tubal litigations have been performed at the centre
– Only 13 vasectomies have been performed even though both are provided free
– The average number of children per family in surrounding villages has tremendously decreased from 8 to 3 since the opening of the centre
– The Bathing of the Babies is a ritual everyone should observe once in their lifetime. Grandmothers of all religions unite in order to bathe a bundle of tiny bodies.
Day Two of the Tour Programme started with a 10.15am departure for the Nutrition Program Centre in Kaluvalpalli. Beneficiaries of the program waited an extra hour to eat that morning, so we could participate in the daily lesson and even help serve the food. Dozens of boiled eggs later, Sasi and Ravi then took us to what would be my favorite stop on the journey.
I assumed that something tragic happened such as an accident when we pulled up to the crowd outside the housing colony of Rudrampalli. Much to my surprise, the hoards of villagers that crowded the narrow dirt road were there to welcome us. Weighed down by garlands and babies thrown into my arms I weaved my way through the village checking out the construction of the new brick homes. The homes cost about $3,000 USD after materials and land, but the effects on the community are priceless. Women are given the titles to the homes once they are completed. Yes, women! How modern and amazing is that? A woman as a title holder is a huge step toward equality for women in India.
Sitting with the little girl that stole my heart, I listened to touching stories of change pouring out with pride of the villagers’ mouths. I could have sat for hours in this sea of positive energy, but Sasi and Ravi insisted we keep following the tour programme.
We head back to Kaluvapalli to visit the Residential Bridge Course centre. Dropouts are all too common in the Anantapur area. Most children drop out in order to support their families financially or take care of a sick parent. VFF partners with the government of Andhra Pradesh on the mission to get the children back in school. The Residential Bridge Course centre becomes home to hundreds of students for one year while they catch up on studies and become acclimated to the education system once again. I also had a little lesson on communication myself as I learned that the PEACE sign can be misconstrued as a sign for support of a specific government party. Instead of PEACE, they see the V for Victory. Now anytime I use the PEACE sign in pictures, I just simply shout SHANTI. The kids bid us adieu by throwing up their hands with SHANTI signs on full display. Adorable.
Day Three of the Tour Programme only had two stops on the way back to the Bangalore Airport. Bathalapalli is blessed with a beautiful hospital containing everything from a blood bank to neonatal care unit. Touring hospitals is always an uneasy task for me. What left me most on edge was the visit to the Intensive Care Unit which housed a majority of patients from suicide. The familiar story of sexual violence against young women caused one of the victims to swallow hair oil. Even with a face swollen up to the size of a large watermelon from allergic reaction, the fear and shame in her eyes pierced my soul. Aside from free medical care, victims of suicide will also be provided counseling after release from the hospital. I was shocked to find out that the hospital director was happy with the decrease in the rate of second suicide attempts within a year: 50%.
No better way to say goodbye to the foundation then to visit Father Vincente Ferrer’s resting place located only a few steps from the hospital. Surrounded by stones from Bombay, a cross from Spain, and a stuffed panda from his granddaughter, Vincente Ferrer was laid to rest after his death last year. While paying my respects, an old man with leathery skin approached me rambling in Telugu. Sasi translated for me as tears began to roll down his weathered face. The words he spoke I will always hold sacred, and a few tears rolled down my cheeks in return.
Full of emotions, we jumped in the car and headed for the airport where our wish was granted…. Thanks for heavy downpour in Goa; our flight was delayed 2 hours. At least it wasn’t Calcutta.