Days Under the Banyan Trees

5:30am – Fast asleep in my bed, I’m awoken by the sounds of local Rishi Valley wildlife: stray dogs and monkeys. A dog howls in the sand-covered playground just outside the window of my tin-roofed home to alert the world of the first few rays of sunlight…just in case we wanted to know. In what I assume to be some sort of epic chase for survival in the dramas of evolution, a pack of monkeys race across my roof – screeching, banging, terrorizing in general – doing things that shouldn’t be done pre-dawn. I look at my watch, sigh, and close my eyes.

6:30am – Once again, I’m awoken by the sounds of local Rishi Valley wildlife: hungry children. Breakfast for the younger kids doesn’t start until 7:00am but the race to the swing set begins much earlier. What sounds like thousands upon thousands of children begin clustering outside my window, taking their turns on the squeaky swing set, chatting (yelling) and laughing (screaming).  I look at my watch, sigh even louder, and roll out of bed. I head to the bathroom, fill up my bucket, dunk an electric heading rod into the water, flip on the switch and climb back into bed for 10 minutes while my “shower” heats up.

8:00am – I eat my breakfast via banana leaf with the older kids in the main Dining Hall, a stumble away from my home. When I finish, I pack up my things and jump on my sweet ride: a slightly-rusty, purple cruiser complete with front basket, bell, locking kickstand, back rack (for extra seating) and shock-absorbing bubble wrap left on from the original purchase. Safety first.

In a couple of pedals and a few turns I’m exiting the school’s campus shouting my “HELLO/GOODBYE!” to the flip-flop clad, old security guard that sits at the main gate with his trusty notebook of approved visitors. I round the corner, glide down a quick hill – passing local villagers heading out to start their day’s work, fields of rice paddy and coconut trees, school-uniformed children waiting for the bus – and then begin my single-speed, slow peddle up the gradual hill to the Rishi Valley Rural Health Clinic.

As I ride into the health clinic and dismount my purple steed, I acknowledge the bewildered stares from arriving patients and wave hello to the staff. I visit with my mentor for a bit, he cracks a few of his usual morning jokes, and then I start in on my work for the day.

10:30am – Pre-lunch chai time. Throughout the day, hundreds of patients from the nearby villages wait to see the two doctors on staff. They see everything from serious illness like cancer or diabetes to stomach pains from eating too many chili peppers. When the patient’s name is called, he or she walks into the doctor’s office, sits down, opens up a plastic, shopping bag and pulls out random bits of paper, wrappers from medicines they have taken, and notes written by doctors that may or may not have had actual medical training. They explain their pains and the doctor carefully examines the contents of the bag…and so begins the detective work.

3:30pm – Post-lunch chai time. A patient walks into the room where I’m working. She stands in the doorway, stares silently at me and smiles (I’ve gotten used to this). She asks if I’m a doctor and I tell her no, I’m just working here. She asks for my name and when I tell her she repeats back “Nen-si?” Close enough. She laughs hard and I ask her what is so funny. “Name means ‘meat’ in Telugu!”

4:00pm – I race (as much as my bike will allow) back to campus to begin my daily Telugu lesson with one of the well-respected school elders.  “Sir” has been a part of the Rishi Valley School since 1962 and is a scholar in Sanskrit, Telugu, Hindi, English….and beyond. He lives very simply in a small room at the study center where we have our lessons. I began with the intent to learn a few conversational phrases and nothing more – “Hello my name is…”, “Where is the bathroom?”, “A monkey ate my dosa, may I have another?” But alas, in two weeks we have covered the entirety of the Telugu alphabet and have now moved onto conjunctive consonants and sentence construction. Bagunda!

5:00pm – My downstairs neighbor, seeing my bike parked out front, calls up to my room from outside the window “Lindsey! We walk!” I press my nose against the mosquito screen and yell down “Coming, sir! 2 minutes!” I quickly change clothes, grab my shoes, and run down the steps to meet him. Evening “walks” (more like runs) with my neighbor have become one of my favorite parts of my day. We hike (run) all over the hills, farms, and villages of the Rishi Valley. We scale ancient stone fences, climb through brush, and follow the narrow paths through rice paddy – stopping only to take in the view, do a bit of yoga, or reflect on the general connectivity of the universe. Occasionally I’ll get a story about the time he may have seen a tiger in the forest near his home in the Himalayas. We rarely follow a trail, have gotten lost only a few times, and always find our way back to campus before dark.

7:00pm – I collapse on my bed with a book and relish my little bit of alone time, American-pop songs being blasted by the 11th-year girl’s dormitory below me. I hear the “jingle jingle” of my 2-year old neighbor’s anklets as she runs around the flat next door, wound-up from her evening adventure in the sandbox.

7:05pm – The power goes out. I read by headlamp.

7:30pm – The power turns back on and the dinner bell clangs. I carefully walk down the narrow steps of my rooftop home keeping a careful eye out not to step on any frogs or snakes in the darkness. I sit with the 12th-year students in the evenings so that I can catch up on any important news or school happenings. Sometimes they tell me that after dinner there will be a film or discussion. Sometimes they tell me that their favorite blue kurta went missing in the laundry. Sometimes they tell me that a frog fell on so-and-so’s head the night before. The conversation varies.

9:00pm – Back in my room, I make some tea with my electric kettle which, luckily, got the “good purchase” stamp of approval from my neighbor. My life here is an open book. The American-pop songs abruptly stop as I hear the house parents of the dormitory yelling at the girls to quiet down. I see my roommate, Ned the Gecko, come out from his daylight hiding place near the window and run across the ceiling. I wonder if he’s pulled his weight in our relationship and eaten any mosquitos today. A dog begins to howl just outside my window and I hear the familiar screech of monkeys in the distance making plans to terrorize the night, no doubt. Another day in the Rishi Valley comes to an end. I drift off to sleep with a smile.


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3 thoughts on “Days Under the Banyan Trees

  1. Fantastic story…I really enjoyed reading about your life there…felt like I was there too!!!


    Ethan (AIF Executive Director-West Coast)

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