The morning after we arrived at Kabirwad, Jayesh-bhai suggested that we all go to the beachfront to pick up trash along the Holy Narmada river. Being fully attuned to the trash scene, I saw no real distinction between the side of the river and the land leading up to it, so I continued picking up trash everywhere. To me, all the Earth is holy. There is no place that is not.

Collectively, we all gathered quite a bit and now the question of what to do with it arose. Everyone gathered it in a big pile on the beach to burn it. I was aghast. I was no expert on the subject, but had learned as a child that burning plastic is a no-no. What else could be done with it? After all, we were out in a remote part of the world where there is no trash collection. We had to deal with it ourselves. The other option was to bury it. This too seemed like a blight on our beloved Earth – just knowing that there was a big pile of offensive plastic taking space in some location underground seemed impure.

Those were our options though and burying it seemed somewhat less toxic to the atmosphere. It was difficult digging a hole big enough, but we did it and then buried it. It’s not something I felt very good about.

village_1After Kabirwad, we walked to a nearby village to meet the people there and to offer ourselves in service. We were offered a place to stay and quickly went to work landscaping, cleaning, picking up trash, playing with kids, etc. We quickly earned the villagers trust.

Again, what to do with the trash we were gathering immediately came up. We decided to dig a pit in the village and found an acceptable location. It took hours of strenuous labor to dig a large pit, but we hoped it would hold our trash and could be used by the villagers for a longer period of time – perhaps offering them an alternative to burning it, which was the norm.

We had gathered a large pile of plastic which we were going to move into our new pit, but someone had lit it on fire and I was amazed to see the very people from our group who had been helping dig the pit throwing more plastic on top of this burning pile.

johnaxefamOur stay in the village was extraordinary. We met with so many special kids and people. We met with so many beautiful water buffalos, goats, cows, and other animals. I stayed with the outcasts of the village who were there to chop down trees (another silly story of non-sustainability). I helped the axe-man arrange all the wood that he had cut and did whatever I could to help in the spirit of connection. Mark joined in as well and we brought food and ate with the family. I suggested to Mark that it would be cool to create a swing for the kids. Not only would it be fun, but it would attract other kids from the village and help integrate this family more. Mark loved the idea and suggested we make it a tire swing.

We hunted down a rope and a used tire and created an awesome tire swing. Leaving that behind was one of the highlights of the whole experience because we knew that it would be a living part of their lives for some time to come.

Lesson Learned – it is invaluable simply to connect with and inspire people. These memories ripple out and have positive repercussions for some time. When structural changes like playgrounds, new schools, wells, etc. are introduced, these offer an additional kind of value that cannot be underestimated.

After several days in the village, many from our group left and were replaced by a new crew. Formerly, most of the people from our group would just walk and not bother to pick up any trash with us. To me, this was just silly because it was so easy to do and if we all did it together, we could make a great difference wherever we went. But this is the habit that had formed.

When we hit the beach, I began to pick up trash as I was now addicted. The new group had come and was psyched up to join us in this experiment in service. They were looking for direction and when they saw me picking up trash, they immediately joined in as they assumed this must be one of the ways in which we were helping.

Lesson Learned – it is good to always have a new flow of people coming in because they are fresh, eager, and open, and haven’t yet settled in patterns of apathy. It would be wise to incorporate this ever-fresh flow into the model itself.

Our group began our walk to the next location, Nareshwar, the ashram started by Shri Ranga Avadhoot Guru Maharaj.

Along the way, the trash collection vision began to evolve into a more political one. Before I was thinking it would be great to create a movement thoroughly gathering trash, leaving behind a trail of purity. This new vision remained the same, however, this time all the gathered trash would eventually be delivered to the government or whoever had the power to legislate the use of plastic.

First, we would have to research the environmental impacts of trash, and explore any bio-friendly alternatives. If we came up with any recommended solutions, we could then make a suggestion to the government regarding what changes could be made. It’s likely that they would ignore these suggestions, at which point, the campaign would begin as a way to gather public awareness and support for the recommended changes.

Call me crazy and naïve, but it just feels like these kinds of changes seem possible in India much more so than in the U.S.

When we reached Nareshwar, we again got to work landscaping, painting, picking up trash, etc. Here again, we dug another trash pit, but when we gathered trash along the holy Narmada, this time, people from our group just burned the piles without much thought. It’s just thousands of times easier to burn it than to bury it.

Afterwards, everyone was feeling self-satisfied having cleaned up the beach. We sat down in a prayer circle as we did often, now amidst the thick fumes of burning plastic.  I covered my face both to shelter myself from the toxic fumes and also to protest a solution that was just not acceptable.

We did, with a little challenge, end up putting a permanent painted barrel on the beach for trash collection, and as a group, we did inspire all the local merchants to dedicate themselves to keeping their areas picked up.

Still, my enthusiasm for picking up trash was quickly vanishing. The end result of our efforts was always disheartening. The only way for me to continue on this path would be to expand the vision until it became complete and holistic.

Photos courtesy of Guri!