A Picnic in the Hills

We congregate at the office at 6:30 in the morning, pile our gear and ourselves into three jeeps, and drive three hours to a picnic spot by a river. It is hot and much more humid than in the city of Darjeeling itself. We start a fire and pitch a tent for shade. I sit with my co-workers chopping vegetables which designated cooks turn into pakoras accompanying three kinds of barbecued meat. We make a table of newspapers spread on smoothed over sand. Ruben, our office director, gives a toast: “To JC, Arunima, and Sona, who are leaving the office. This may be the end of a working relationship, but we hope it is also the beginning of a lifelong friendship.”

Chopping vegetables for lunch
Picnic time

***

I’ve always found it hard to live consciously in the moment. I often find myself brooding over and replaying things that have already happened, or becoming anxious over worse-case scenarios that could happen in the future. At my steadier periods I’m usually too engrossed in the thing I’m doing to notice the details or experience the act in a meaningful way. I know that these mental vagaries are not uncommon for people, and that it actually takes a lot of training to get your mind to stand still for a change. While living in India these past 10 months I’ve put myself through an ad-hoc training of sorts to help myself live more mindfully. A little structured meditation or awareness techniques here and there. Nothing too consistent or methodical, but enough to have elicited some noticeable progress, especially now during my last few days in Darjeeling.

I find myself staring at things with the intensity and urgency that comes with knowing it may be several years before I return again, so I must experience and remember these things now. The hills look different each hour of each day. I take it in. On the road, the fern leaves extend in an act of giving. In the afternoon, they close in an act of retreat.  I look at the dusty illustrated alphabet posters on the walls of our partner schools: “A” is for “Apple.” “B” is for “Ball.” Gaps between the classroom walls’ wooden slats let in the sun and the wind. I have come to know these children’s faces and medical histories. Today the children are sent home early since the school did not receive its government provided mid-day meal rations. When our office-didi hands me tea, I notice how during the exchange we both touch our left hands to our right elbow as a sign of respect. I feel the poignancy of the internalized gesture.

***

The office picnic was something everyone had talked about doing to celebrate this or that, but which always ended up getting postponed for whatever reason. Now that I think of it, I’m glad that when the picnic finally happens it is at the end of my fellowship experience, when I can really appreciate having fun with co-workers I have grown quite close to. We turn up the jeep radio and I carefully take in the experience of dancing with my co-workers and friends by the side of a river in the Himalayas. On the drive home we stop for green tea at the Tourist Lodge in Kurseong. It is the same place in which I drank a lemon soda to calm a motion-sick stomach when I first came to Darjeeling. I feel very present, and I feel very thankful.

JC spent four years working with children from disadvantaged communities in Chicago while pursing her undergraduate degree. During this time she also studied in Pune, India, and participated in Habitat for Humanity International's efforts to build affordable housing in Guayaquil, Ecuador. From 2007-2009, JC served as an Agroforestry Peace Corps Volunteer in rural Senegal where she engaged in food security, rural livelihoods, environmental protection, health education, and gender equity projects. JC's graduate studies focused on the management of social welfare programs, with an emphasis on services to immigrants and refugees. In 2011, JC helped strengthen monitoring/evaluation systems and non-profit work with Self-Help Groups as part of an internship with Srinivasan Services Trust in Tamil Nadu, India. Most recently, JC worked as an NGO representative to the United Nations, lobbying for the adoption of inclusive policies towards poverty eradication. JC is particularly interested in community-based approaches to rural development, livelihoods creation, and psychosocial protection.

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