The clanging bell squawked as if it were a stern mother hen, calling us to steamy cups of chai that punctuated the peak of each afternoon here in India. Little Flock Children’s Home became alive with movement as we all trickled into the dining hall. The boys were all elbows and bare feet, in a hurry to get back to the latest cricket game, while the girls were a tumble of vivid fabrics and a melody of voices, chatter and laughter weaving like intricate thread. I eased a hot mug into my hand, drew it to my lips, and blew on the milky surface softly.
This moment of the day had become a sacred pause, a collective deep breath, and a rhythm I’d grown to adore. Dave, a pastor leading a team from Santa Cruz to serve at Little Flock beckoned us Americans, inviting us along to visit Snake Village, a short walk from the orphanage gates. Ten of us strolled single file down a narrow dirt path just wide enough for my worn shoes, the soft undergrowth and hidden thorns nearly catching with my swaying Sarwal, the traditional Indian attire I slipped into each day. It felt like we were on a journey into the wild, like perhaps, if I never looked back, I might lose sight of all things familiar. I wasn’t entirely wrong.
Ducking under numerous low hanging branches, we came to a hastily assembled cinder block wall. Moments later we reached an opening. It was as if I were stepping into another world. An emerald green rice paddie seemed painted in the distance, the sun glinting off the pools.
To the right lay a barren brown plot where sun-etched bodies hunched over, digging at the earth. Here and there village men carried logs twice their own size on their heads, like leaf cutter ants toiling tirelessly. Calves meandered lazily across the road, just at home as any other resident. Immediately the villagers poured from their homes eager to meet “the visitors.” Entire families met us at their make-shift stick gates, an excited buzz illuminating the single street in all of Snake Village.
Herds of barefoot boys ran up and down the cement road, an old bike tire bounding ahead of them as they urged it sharply with a stick. Over sized collared shirts swallowed their small frames. Little beaming girls not older than six or seven stood with bare bare-bottomed baby brothers slung on their hips, clearly capable of stepping in as mother on a daily basis. Women in colorful sari’s remained on the outskirts of all the commotion, gracefully balancing water jugs atop their head like crowns. It was like I’d been trapped in a kaleidoscope, surrounded by intoxicating colors, striking beauty, and a newness that took shape in endless sights and sounds. The whole scene was like a photo out of National Geographic, foreign, glossy, and all too unreal.
We made our way down the main road framed by two rows of thatched huts that nearly melded into the foliage. Each home was comparable in size to 1 room in my own home, handmade and intricately constructed with dried palm leaves and squat wooden beams. The village road came to a dead end, and from the last hut, two women with round, cheerful faces came carrying precious twin baby girls in matching vests. Kids flooded the street, grinning broadly and calling “Auntie! Auntie! Auntie photo!” After a week or two of living in India, this endearing and respectful way of being addressed had become the sweetest sound to my ears. I clicked away with my camera, bending down to show the kids the images of their beaming smiles. Inside I wondered when the last time was that any of them had seen a picture of their own face. It was unlikely there was a mirror in this entire village.
We could barely speak a word, yet immediately I was taken with them all. Each child was so completely full of a joy that was absolutely irresistible. Without hesitation, they invited us into their jubilance. At some point in the chaos, Dad began to sing loudly, leading a crowd of kids in the Hokey Pokey. The village erupted in song and a jostle of limbs. A hilarious boy named Mori with curly hair, about nine years old, was the “class clown” of the village. He had the biggest smile of them all, a rather mischievous one, and just knew how to get the crowd’s attention. His signature move was the trick handshake where he would pull his hand away at the last moment, and pretend to slick back his hair, which never failed to make us laugh. I stooped down to his height and the two of us played hand clap games faster and faster until my hands stung. Our joy emanated and seeped into my soul.
A little girl of about three years old appeared beside me with a sprig of curls and a watermelon pink sundress. She looked up at me with huge brown eyes, and shyly took my hand. I picked her up with ease and swung her around, unlocking a fountain of giggles. From that moment forward my little love bug never left my side. The charm of smiles, warm energy, and silly games allowed us to communicate even without words. This is humanity at its core. We are a people who seek connection and laughter…even in complete strangers far different from ourselves if all stigma, awkwardness, and expectations are stripped down to the bare bones.
Amidst the wild fun and rapid Tamil spoken among even the smallest kids, a little boy signaled that he’d be right back. Moments later he reemerged, now holding a small bleating goat. The boy approached my brother, Trevor and offered the goat to him casually. Before anyone could question this, we each took a turn holding the tiny brown goat, unsure whether this animal was a loved pet or a future meal. Laughter gurgled up inside of me, this couldn’t possibly be real. Back at home, my friends were likely sitting in Chem class. I marveled at what my life had become. Though surreal, and at times overwhelming, the simplest interactions filled me with SUCH joy. I’m telling you my heart was radiating. This was nothing like I had ever experienced in my whole life time, but already I felt the pull to come back to Snake Village again and again.
The whole visit was over in a blur. What had been an hour felt like minutes, caught up and enamored with this community so welcoming, kind, and energetic. As we rounded the bend, we gave final hugs and waved goodbye, promising to be back soon.
Still holding my little shadow, who had latched on to me upon arriving and never let go, I was the last of our group to pass through the cinder block entrance. She was so sweet and we were enthralled with each other. I wondered who her family was, and if she ever got held so lovingly. Eventually, I had to peel my precious little friend from my arms. Never have I felt so completely alive and FULL. That is the best way I can to express it all. I knew, as I wandered down the trail that God had made me to live a life like this. I was lost in my own world, replaying the past hour in my head as we headed back to Little Flock in the cooling air, dusk setting in. I felt so full of life and of love, and I knew I would be back to Snake Village. While a cup of chai may be my sacred pause, it is the lively relationships and contagious joy that exhilarates my soul.