DISCOVERING THE VIBRANCY OF INDIA'S TAMIL NADU REGION & THE REBUILDING OF A SCHOOL WITH LOVE
Updated: 4 days ago
As we join in celebrating the historic news of Kamala Devi Harris becoming the United States Vice President-elect and all the beautiful diversity she brings to that role, we reflect on when we traveled to the Tamil Nadu region of India, the same region as Kamala's maternal heritage. We delighted in discovering the vibrancy and fascinating cultural India had to reveal. This journey changed us forever! Travel expands the mind and traveling to India certainly expanded ours, more than anywhere we had ever visited before.
After the great Asian tsunami of 2004 and seeing all the terrible images and news of the devastation, it hit me hard. I knew people who lost family in that disaster and I was driven to help. I didn’t just want to drop money in a box and not know where it was going, I wanted to do more than that. I wanted to see my money make a difference.
I came up with the idea of making a fundraising CD, I reached out to my old school friend, British singer/songwriter Julia Fordham and immediately she was in. Together with a group of friends, my sons’ local school and some incredibly talented producers, we made a new version of Julia’s profound song “Happy Ever After – Tsunami Remix.” The blend of Julia’s dulcet tones and the rousing voices of the young school children the song raised $40,000 with the help of Sir Richard Branson, who gave permission to sell the CD in his Virgin Mega Stores.
Jump forward to 2007, we had cut through bureaucracy, miles of red tape and connected directly with the Round Table of India. With the help of the Round Table of India, we were able to rebuild a school in the tiny village of Sothikuppam, Tamil Nadu, which had been devastated by the tsunami.
Laurie and I were excited to be invited to Sothikuppam for the school’s official inauguration, along with my two sons, Andrew (9), Leo (6) and Julia Fordham. Before we could travel, we had to obtain visitors VISA’s and during that process Laurie and I were told to be careful not to show any signs of affection publicly, because of India’s anti-gay stance. Although Laurie and I were aware of this, it didn’t deter us in any way from wanting to travel to India and learn more about this colorful country and its people.
Our journey to India was incredible.
We landed in Chennai International Airport and as we drove to our hotel, we were immediately hit by this extra-ordinary place. At every turn there was something remarkable to see.
Chennai, formally Madras, is the third most visited city in India. One of the first places we stopped at was the Sri Parthasarathy Swamy Temple, which is steeped in mythology. It is the oldest temple in the city and the ornately carved towers are just beautiful.
Marina Beach, which is India’s largest beach, we walked along the beach in the evening, it was busy with locals just sitting, taking in the light breeze. There were many food stalls with vendors who were eager for you to taste of their exotic food. We bought a gorgeous shell from one seller, which sits on our shelf and brings back memories of our time on Marina Beach.
Another breathtaking place to visit is Mahabalipuram, this temple is set on the shore of the Bay of Bengal. Built with block of granite dating back to the 8th century AD. Wondering around these awe-inspiring sights, we were taken back in time, mesmerized by the intricate details of the monuments.
When we travel we like to go off the beaten track and explore the unknown land. We searched out some quiet streets, with small shops and street sellers. Ladies sat on the side of the road making exquisite flower garlands. The garlands are deeply rooted in India’s culture, they are religious symbols to honor gods or in respect of very important guests. Everyone we met was so welcoming. They wanted to talk to us and they absolutely loved having their photographs taken.
It was time for us to leave Chennai and take a road trip to Pondicherry. At times the roads were a bit crazy, filled with a mix of tuk-tuks (auto-rikshaws), speeding trucks, cars and sometimes slow-moving animals. We thankfully we had an experienced driver, which we highly recommend. Originally, we had thought we would hire a mini-van and drive ourselves, we are very glad we took advice and hired a driver and a mini-van! Along the way we took time to pay our respects to the magnificent statue of Mahatma Gandhi, in Pondicherry, which is situated on the beach front. It is the biggest statue of Gandhi in all of Asia, it covers an area of 4 meters and is surrounded by pillars carved out of single pieces of stone. Gandhi led India to independence and inspired many civil rights movements across the world. As we know the importance of civil rights, it was very meaningful to stop and ponder for a while over the greatness of this iconic man.
After a night in Pondicherry, it was time to make the last leg of our journey to Sothikuppam. What an adventure! We drove as far as we could, then walked through a boat yard to take a hand pulled boat across the water to Sothikuppam.
We could not have received a more wondrous welcome. A band greeted us at the waters edge and marched up to the school, where the entire village was waiting for us to arrive. It was the most marvelous sight. To see the school everyone had worked so hard to build standing before us. The children of the school and their families excitedly cheered and clapped as we walked up the sandy pathway.
It felt such a privilege to attend the school’s inauguration, we were overwhelmed by their warm welcome. The children put on the most inspiring show for us, they sang and danced, and their costumes were stunning, it was hard to imagine that they had been hit by such a terrible disaster. Then, when Julia sang “Happy Ever After” and it felt magical.
This idea of making a difference had come full circle and here we were, in the moment, all the late nights and long days of effort, on everyone’s part, had come to fruition. Laurie was the official photographer, Andrew and Leo made the sweetest speeches on behalf of their school.
After the show and the official inauguration, we handed out small personal gifts we had brought from the school children of England. Each child lined up and received their gift and each one was so grateful. We were all truly honored and humbled, to play this small part in helping to repair a village.
This entire experience proved, individuals can come together and have a real impact around the world. English, American and Indian’s had all come together and made a real impact on each other lives, all for very different reasons.
Laurie and I have always had a fervent desire to advocate, whether it be for ourselves, the LGBTQ community, the health of a family member, or for people on another continent. Giving something of yourself to help another is what makes the world a better place.
India celebrates Kamala Devi Harris
As part of our continued activism we started theLexperience, a social media site to empower women and have had an overwhelming response from women in India. We couldn’t be happier to be providing positive support for these women, taking it full circle, from education to acceptance.
Our personal journey is filled with wonderful connections to India, which we love, and we hope one day we will travel back to the arms of India.
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