Posted by: lilyhamburger | May 15, 2010

my peeps and magic moments

There is a funny balance I have here of feeling like I am a part of a community, a makeshift family and a group, and then feeling so foreign and out of place and not-belonging. In spite of language barriers (even those who speak English I have to speak slowly and enunciate awkwardly) and extreme cultural differences, I have some surefire friends here.

One makeshift family I am a part of is the group that lives on campus. When the daytime staff return to their families at the end of the day, the 2 directors, a few teachers and docs, and some peeps from other NGOs stay in their own houses on the campus, and I stay in the guesthouse (half of the time Madhu ben is also here with me, and there are constantly other groups and guests). No one who lives here has their family with them, so we are like the lost boys in Never Never Land. The summer is bringing us together. These days it’s too hot to sleep inside, so the whole lot of us sleeps out under the stars together. This means: movies, pillow talk, seeing my boss all disheveled when she wakes up, hearing her snore, etc. And shooting stars!! I now keep a toothbrush at Rashmibhai’s for the rooftop slumber parties – yesssss! – and I usually pass out while the constellations are being contemplated in Gujarati all around me. Also, that house is right next to the river (currently dry) so I wake up to birds whooshing overhead and peacocks in full-feathered mating parades in the riverbed below.

Harashadbhai and I have been waking up at sunrise to go swimming in a nearby river – the only one around which is not completely dry. We go by bike or rickshaw or a combo, and the ante is upped when we bring mangoes to eat as we drip dry riverside. (I have to swim with all my clothes on, which is hilarious but a nice natural AC bike ride home!) I am also beating the heat by napping at Daxaben’s in the afternoon because it’s a lot cooler inside the shaded windows on the marble floor. Sometimes I even get to sleep in her AC-ed bedroom – aaahhhh what sweet relief! It’s a sure way to bond with the boss… but it also sort of separates me from the rest of the staff – none of them get invited to sleep in the AC with “Ben” (madame) – but sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do. It’s been well over 100 F some days! (I am so lucky to be here and not in a city – far worse there!)

The staff people at ARCH are super friendly and laid back. I have spent the most quality time with Uma ben, who is the cook. She arrives early in the morning and leaves late at night when groups are in the guesthouse – these days that’s every day. She has the biggest smile, and it’s always on. Her voice is always singing and we gossip over cups of early morning tea or pounding chutney on Sundays. The office staff are mostly men, which means we aren’t really supposed to be close friends, but I have gotten sweet invitations to many people’s homes for chicken, mangoes, etc. that always feel like big to-dos. The ARCH staff family recently piled into our new bus (gargantuan tank of a vehicle) and spent an afternoon celebrating Vinod bhai’s engagement day. Here are the pics: Weddings here are more like invite-the-entire-village-festivals, so I am invited to all the neighborhood nuptials…got my new sparkly clothes ready, so stay tuned for pics 🙂

The next layer of friends are people who come through every so often for a few days at a time for trainings or contract work. They are health trainers from other NGOs, teachers from cities around Gujarat, writers from Mumbai, leaders in the movements for improved health and education in rural Gujarat (exciting!) as well as tribal students, traditional birth attendants, health workers (and their babies), who are all incredibly curious about the white girl from afar. Those walls of staring and silence haven mostly been broken down by songs and dancing at this point, as well as some intense Q&A about America late at night. I consider it a privilege and a treat to chill with people who wear nose rings the size of my fist and don’t know how to turn the running water on and off. And I learn so much from conversations with people who can discuss development issues and theories of education in English, as well as the kids who just smile and laugh and hold my hand even though we can’t really talk about anything more than how good ripe mangoes are.

It can feel tiring at times to be the odd man out, especially when I am exhausted from a day of setting up electronics in a hot village without electricity and all I want is to crash onto my mat on the terrace but someone wants to hear what grows on farms in America or watch a soap opera in Hindi. But there are so many magic moments (like sitting on the porch swing with the wind blowing through the mango trees under on a new moon night while kids from Vavar scream out songs, laughing over jokes in 3 languages while making tea with my gang at Rashmibhai’s, tying a bunch of Styrofoam wrapped in a cloth to Chayya so she can learn to swim in the river, discovering while bumping along in Ashwinbhai’s rickshaw with his whole family on a dark village road that I will be the only one eating chicken at this chicken dinner I was invited to, and slurping down mangoes in the back of the kitchen with Madhuben and Umaben after the other staff have gone home) that make me worry that life might not ever get any better than this.

And, after almost 7 months in India, I am still thrilled every time I see a camel.



  1. Lil,
    You are so amazing — what you see, what you feel, and how you write about it all so beautifully. I loved getting a real letter from you. Thanks,


  2. Oot! I love them too! My parents kept taking millions of pics everytime we saw one. Your blog is the dudh.

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