The Performers Without Borders’ India Team is on their FOURTH MONTH touring and have headed NORTH to Darjeeling!
The team includes Mika (the tour leader, USA), Shaheen and Shouniez (South Africa), Bea (Spain), Mango (England), Sara (USA), and myself Spades (USA).
Kolkata was a bustling city that left us both inspired and exhausted, so it was a nice recharge having two weeks off directly after. Mango and Bea went back to Varanasi with our new resident photographer Shreya Goswami from Kolkata, India. Shaheen and Shouniez planned a trip to Nepal to renew their visa and I tagged along for the adventure. Mika and Sara headed to Darjeeling ahead of the rest of the crew to settle in for some shanti relaxation. We all accomplished our goals and reunited in the beautiful Himalayan city of Darjeeling on April 5th, 2016. As an added bonus we were joined by Manish, one of PWB’s long-term students turned teachers from Asha Deep School in Varanasi. This is his third PWB tour of Darjeeling and he has been a phenomenal contribution! Darjeeling is the last stop on our India Tour and the final PWB project for 2016. We were all very excited to get straight to working with the kids, but first we needed to sort out a few logistics.
Our main partner organization in Darjeeling is Edith Wilkins Street Children Foundation (EWSCF) and their volunteer organizer Namrata has helped us immensely. The foundation has a volunteer house with two very nice rooms and a great kitchen, but it wasn’t large enough for the entire team so Mika worked diligently with Namrata to source out a second home close by. Luckily they were able to find a beautiful large house for rent just down the street, but it hadn’t been lived in for over a year and was in need of some serious TLC. Once the team had assembled we all drew names out of a hat to see who was living in which house, then went to work turning the spaces into our homes. Mika, Mango, Shaheen, and Shouniez were picked to live in the EWSCF house and Sara, Bea, Manish, Shreya, and myself were chosen to live together in the large and drafty new house. It wasn’t long before our house was named “The Castle” because of its beautiful rounded front door, drafty corridors, and walls made of grey cement blocks. That quickly turned to “The Cloud Castle” due to the constant overcast skies and then to “The Clown Cloud Castle” for obvious reasons.
We immediately went to work with the EWSCF kids and quickly realized how different this project would be from our other locations in India. The children were extremely excited with smiles from ear to ear, but they lacked the usual chaotic energy we had become accustom to. Life in the Himalayans is much more shanti than that of the major cities and it is very apparent in everyone’s demeanor. This was a very pleasant surprise for us because we were able to direct our workshops much more efficiently and have more time to connect with each student without every other child around screaming for attention. Because Darjeeling has been the last stop on the India Tour for several years, Edith Wilkins has accumulated a very large collection of circus props. This was also wonderful news because for the first time we had ample equipment to teach with, instead of requiring the normal patience from the children as they waited their turn.
The EWSCF facility consists of two large buildings overlooking the steep hills of Darjeeling with a playground in between. It is a beautiful view and a pleasure to teach and perform at. The kids range in age from 5 to 19 and are incredibly attentive and talented. The staff is incredibly loving and very grateful for our presence, so we have found ourselves going to hang out with them even on our days off in our free time. All of the children come from troubled backgrounds, but you would never guess with how positive they all are!
Time has flown by while living amongst the clouds. Darjeeling is a beautiful city with a rich cultural influence from Nepal. The small businesses, guesthouses, markets, and restaurants are seated on steep hillsides that roll into the distance. The views are spectacular, although they are always shrouded in clouds. It makes the entire area feel mystical and the landscape seems to be ever changing. It gets very cold at night, but most days the temperature is comfortable and very similar to my hometown of Portland, Oregon. Stray dogs roam the streets like all of India, but the dogs here are almost all healthy with thick furry coats and the cutest faces.
The trees are tall, green, and filled with rainbow prayer flags. The buildings are very old with culture emanating from them. The markets are winding narrow pathways connected by steep stairs with the most amazing shawls, scarfs, socks, leggings, jackets, and Nepali handcrafts. The street food is delicious and there is a huge variety of vegetarian and meat options. The entire town funnels into a huge main area called Chowrasta Square that hosts lots of shops, tourists, and a beautiful stage with marble steps that is perfect to people-watch or busking. In short, I’ve fallen deeply in love with the area.
We have also had several outreach workshops and performances in Darjeeling and the surrounding towns amongst the tea farms. One of our favorite shows of the entire tour was for school kids who come to a large gymnasium in Darjeeling called Hayden Hall to do their homework after school. Most of the students are children of porters who transport unbelievably heavy things up and down the hills using straps on their head. They use the gym to do their homework because their homes are too crowded or lack electricity and proper lighting. They were also one of our rowdiest audiences to date.
As I mentioned above, Shreya Goswami has joined us from Kolkata to photograph our lives on tour. She is a fiery Bengali woman who has already made her mark in the world of professional photography with her photos of classic cars for “Auto India” magazine. Luckily for us she has a passion for street photography and was so impressed with our shows in Kolkata that she wanted to follow us on tour. Her photographs are stunning and have been a beautiful gift to us all.
Manish is a 20-year-old Varanasi local. He has trained with PWB for the last seven years on their Varanasi projects and spearheaded flow-jams and workshops in the 11 months we aren’t there. For the last three years he has joined the PWB team on tour as a performer, translator, and instructor. His quiet personality and constant smile is a blessing to have around and his astute observations and contributions are extremely helpful. We have been sharing a room and I couldn’t ask for a better housemate. We love juggling up and down market streets while looking for local foods and enjoying the beautiful architecture of the city. It is almost frustrating how quickly he picks up tricks from us… It took him less than a day to learn fishtails with my contact sword and in the last 6 hours he has started playing with hat tricks. To my amazement he has not only managed to catch every trick I know, but he has also innovated several rolls, tosses, and spins I’ve never thought of. Manish has taught me immensely about India and I am extremely grateful for his presence as a team member and part of our family.
It has been EXACTLY 100 DAYS since we first met and I can truly call every single person on this team a member of my family for life. We have laughed, we have cried, and have danced the Macarena. We only have 11 official days left in our tour and I can’t imagine life without these goofy characters… but I know this is FAR from over.