May 16, 2016

JOURNEY BACK TO INDIA

Words + Photos : Daniel C. White

Back when I was 18, I got my first tattoo. Yep, a tattoo, and, mind you, this was back when tattoos were not quite as socially acceptable as they are now. Also, I got not just any tattoo, but a really horribly stupid and irrelevant tattoo. Of course, this post is not really about a tattoo, but, rather, it’s more about the story that began on the day that this stupid thing was embedded into my right shoulder forever.

This day was very significant for many reasons. It marked the day of one of the most insecure, yet relevant seasons of my life. It was a season that literally almost cost me my life. When I was a kid, my parents got divorced and I was constantly moving back and forth from house to house. Eventually, I moved out on my own at an early age, which is how I met a group of people that got me into a lot of trouble–eventually leading to me being admitted to the hospital for near exhaustion and pneumonia, due to drug use.

As I laid in the hospital bed with two IV’s in my arm, I heard an audible voice of God say “where are you going and who are you going there with?” Of course, I replied with several expletives, as I was frustrated and tussled with God by not putting the right people in my life.

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At that time, I did not understand that this moment was only going to create perseverance and character in my life, but would also make me stronger in the future so I’d able to help others may be dealing with the same or similar thing.

I walked out of my hospital room and, three days later, I disappeared from life as I knew it and traveled for a good while to India & Nepal with a humanitarian and missions organization. This is not because I immediately became some kind of saint, however, I went to find myself, and in the process of helping and serving others I,well, found myself.

When trying to find ‘who you are,’ sometimes, it has nothing to do with who you are, and, rather, it’s about the journey you’re on. While trying to find myself I found people, and those people made me who I am today. Through that journey, I lived in India for a good while. Since that first visit, the people of India have always resonated with me. Outside the feeling of independence as a teen moving out of my house, they were my first love.

All of that happened when I was 19. Now, at age 39, I recently had the opportunity to go back to the place where I discovered a new sense of self: India.

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Going back to India

For a few years, I worked in the entertainment industry in creative direction. Over the last 5 or 6 years, I’ve had the chance to travel all over the world with a non-profit organization, Food For The Hungry. Out of the blue, I got a phone call on the 20th anniversary of my time being in India. The call was from the Chief Development Officer from Food For the Hungry to tell me about a development project they are working on in India. He told me the project was about telling the story of the lower caste system and trying to find hope and provide opportunity for the families so they can rise above it.

Things like that sometimes happen in life that are just meant to be. Of course, I said yes because, not only was I going to be able to tell people’s stories of hope in a country that is so dear to my heart, but I knew it would be an incredible feeling to go back, after 20 years, with different eyes to see the country that changed everything for me.

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Madryha Predesh

I was traveling with two friends of mine, Jeff Arnoldand Doug Penick. It took us 40-hours to get there and we actually drove about 7 or 8 hours from the airport to Madryha Predesh, a large state in Central India, where we’d be working to tell the story of the their lower caste for Food For The Hungry.

Two of the lowest caste systems in India are the street sweepers and sewage cleaners and then prostitution, which is what was going on in the area we were visiting. Due to their caste, this community was not receiving much help from the government. We were not trying to go in and overshadow the government; it’s what all organizations do all over the world. They go into communities who do not know how to sustain their area in an educational way with things like food and agriculture. Organizations like FFTH will go in to give them hope and provide opportunity. So, that’s what we did: we went in to inspire hope, walk with the community, and find ways to make it sustainable.

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Groundbreakers Program

I was there to help document the organization’s “Groundbreakers Program” which they are setting up to build a house where community members will be able to access education and food.

Normally you would walk into a community thinking you will see such destitute and hopelessness, but, really, we saw families that love each other and were just doing what they’ve done for hundreds of years. They were doing what they had to, to survive. We weren’t trying to go in to force people to do something they didn’t want to do. Rather, we are going to provide a home that gives the message, “hey we can be more then this.” We believe this will provide hope for people–to show that they are worth more than their caste labels them to be.

As cliché as it sounds, it’s about the journey so that when you get to the end of the road things come full circle and it will be more meaningful. I knew where I started and to be able to come full circle and be part of a story that was so uniquely important that was so humbling.

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Agra, India

One of the most amazing parts of this trip was that we got to go to the Taj Mahal, which is one of the 7 wonders of the world. I’d never gotten to do that and I honestly never though I would. It was absolutely fascinating to wake up before the sun and watch it rise over such an iconic building that holds such a beautiful story.

But, it felt odd too, after spending a week with communities that are gasping for hope, go and took photos of buildings that could have filled the country with hope and opportunity with all the money that was spent to build it. But, hopefully in Agra, now it provides some economic structure.

Moreover, it was weird to take a photo of something that already looked like photography in real life. Normally you take a photo and, after the fact, it looks more like a painting – the Taj Mahal was the only living structure I’ve seen that I didn’t feel like I had to take a photo of it.

It was honestly so cool to jump on a train and go to Agra and see the Taj Mahal. I could live there. I travel all the time and I’ve never gone “Oh, Ethiopia, I could live here,” but, India, of all the places I’ve traveled, feels like home.

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