I’m certain that its true beginning occurred as we consciously began playing within the dream, but for me, there was a definitive moment where a different type of clarity began to emerge. Our group headed out on a two-week “yatra,” or walking journey through rural Gujarati villages. Our intention was to enter these villages and do whatever we could to connect with the people and offer ourselves in service. This mission, though limited to two weeks, was clearly an introduction to a set of possibilities that could lie ahead for us.

jayeshbhaitextWe were being led by Jayesh-bhai and Viren-bhai (bhai means brother) – two of the founders of Manav Sadhna, who have extensive experience working with villages and forming priceless connections. These were probably two of the greatest guides in the world, and we were going primarily to learn what they had to teach us.

Throughout the journey, our group had shifting members, but was generally about a dozen or more at any one time. Before going, I was determined to give it all that I had. The first day I spent in silence. On that day, we departed from the Gandhi Ashram and took a bus to our starting point – a 15 km walk to Kabirwad. This location was selected for the symbolic way in which the Banyan virenbhaitext_1tree’s branches fall to the ground and enter it, actually becoming tree trunks themselves, later forming branches of their own, which fall to the ground, becoming trees, until a forest of unknown beginnings soon emerges. Kabirwad’s legend is that the first branch started growing after a blessed visited by the mystic and poet Kabir.

This symbolic location was chosen by Jayesh-bhai – perhaps efforts like ours could be replicated and begin spreading on their own, much like the banyan.

On the way there, our bus stopped at a restaurant. I got out of the bus, saw trash all around, saw a broken box, and realized that this was a good time to enter the dream. I looked around and saw Jayesh-bhai, Viren-bhai, Mark, and Nipun. I was afraid of looking like a fool, but I had no choice. I was here to step it up – even if I was to be embarrassed in the process. I folded the bottom of the box together and began to pick up trash. Mark saw me and quickly joined in. Soon Jayesh-bhai, Viren-bhai and others joined in as well. It wasn’t long before a large group of us were picking up trash all over the parking lot. It was a grand success. For me it defined what our group was about – we were here to serve – not just upon arrival at Kabirwad., but in life… here… now… wherever… whenever…

After this exercise, I noticed even more astutely all the litter strewn across the Indian countryside. After our bus arrived at its destination, we all entered a small restaurant for lunch. It was here that the idea first emerged in all its simplicity. We were planning on walking long distances, so we would be walking rapidly. Clearly, we could pick up trash as we went, but it wouldn’t be very thorough. What if we were to slow it way down and pick it all up as we walked, leaving a trail of purity behind us.  This was the kind of process that resonated most closely with me. Rather than just walking from point to point, ignoring all the in-betweens, why not make every step an act of service and purification. If others were to join in, it would become quicker and easier and who knows where it could lead. Since I was silent, I wrote the idea down on a piece of paper and showed it to Mark, who was also silent. He asked how we would collect the trash, and I suggested that we could use small plastic bags that we found along the way.

metrash_1We left the restaurant, hit the road, and began the experiment. We quickly discovered the laws that govern guerilla roadside trash collection. Indeed, there were enough small bags to be found to be used as containers. These bags, though unappreciated by most, were golden, because in order to keep going, one really depended on these bags. Most of our group walked rapidly without joining us, which forced Mark and I to operate at double speed – keeping up with the group, while freeing the roadsides of debris.

We quickly learned that the greatest offender was plastic. Hands down. There were chip bags, an occasional water bottle, some plastic bags, but by far the King Offender of them all was the little shiny chewing tobacco pouches that were everywhere.

tobaccoFor years, India has been an extraordinary model in natural recycling. Street snacks were served in used newspapers, tea and juices were served out of glasses that were quickly washed and reused, meals were served on leaves, sodas were consumed and the glass bottles left immediately behind for recycling. Sure, for long it has been a culture where garbage was tossed aside, but this presented little problems as it was all bio-degradable and combed through for value by cows and dogs and goats and people…

Only recently has plastic been introduced and it is quickly taking over. Its negative attributes are many. Here are just a few to start:

  1. When scattered as litter, it looks ugly
  2. Because it is non-biodegradable, this ugliness remains
  3. Most of it is not really recyclable
  4. Cows and other animals eat it, clogging up their intestines

What’s clear to me is that plastic is just now starting to take over in India.  America lost its way a long time ago. There is still hope for India though. Is it possible to stop this contagion before it’s too late?

We continued our efforts on the streets, observing the effects as we went. People everywhere would watch us and wonder why; others would thank us. We were able to flag down trucks and throw the garbage in the backs. Inspired, others even joined in with us. Still, one question remained… what to do with it all once it was collected?

For now, we put it at the ends of driveways in hopes that home owners would better be able to do something with it. Afterall, we had to leave it somewhere in order to keep gathering.

What to do with all the trash?