“Everybody needs a helping out, if that ain’t what it’s all about, tell me what.” Amy Grant
Going 9000 miles anywhere is a taxing no picnic undertaking. All roads may lead to the same end, but if you are an Iowa farmgirl since transplanted to Cleveland, Ohio, going to India is not the same as going to Seattle or Boston or someplace in between. It’s going halfway around the world to another continent culture world view.
Despite economic progress, India remains a poor country. Someone is always begging you for a hand-out. Pushing and shoving is a way of life. Personal space isn’t personal, it’s public. There are a billion Indians. Pick pocketing is common. Grab and go is even more common. Getting anything back after the fact is uncommon. Sanitation and hygiene are lacking. Among other things, Delhi Belly is a pain in the butt.
If you are a Western woman, staring and unwanted attention are par for the course anyplace anytime day or night.
When Deanna Black went to India last month, she made the trip look easy. She didn’t stand still for anything. She kept her eye on the prize.
“I’m not surprised,” said Frank Glass.
“The first class I ever took taught by Deanna was by accident, it was the hardest yoga class I ever took, and I had to sit out going to Inner Bliss the rest of the week.”
This from a man who three times a week for three years went to Bikram Yoga classes until he had no more sweat to give.
Deanna Black is a yoga teacher and holistic fitness trainer. Her point of view is far and wide. She studies engages practices aerobics, Prana Flow, Ashtanga, strength training, TRX, kettle ball, Insanity, Zumba, spinning, West African Dance, hoop dance, slacklining, stand up paddle board yoga, and “any other movement and activity that connects you with your body, your mind, your soul, and the nature around you.” She also assays positive psychology, which comes in handy when you are at the front of the room.
“Deanna was subbing that class. No one expected what we got,” said Frank. “She wasn’t bossy or demanding. She was actually encouraging, but she kept at it. She’s nothing if not relentless. I remember wondering if I was going to make it.”
She has studied with Shiva Rea and her Prana Vinyasa teacher training program since 2004. “The classes I create are designed to empower you to do more than you thought possible,” she says. “The benefits are more than meet the eye.”
She is an old-fashioned modern kind of gal, “balancing and aiming for what I want while leaning on the history of what worked and did not work from the past.”
The class was a mix of sheer effort vinyasa, endurance strength work, and baling hay, even though Deanna Black has done undergrad and grad coursework in advanced exercise physiology and psychology at Iowa State University. Making your way in the class, however, wasn’t about classwork and observation reading study reflection.
“It was about peeing on the electric fence for yourself,” said Frank Glass.
She can back off the pedal to the metal if she has to, as when she volunteers for teaching dance fitness to seniors at the Westside Community House.
Born and bred in a small town in Iowa, living in the big city of Cleveland since 1995, Deanna describes herself as a “farm girl whose DNA is filled with farmers, teachers, trailblazers, and travelers, and an adventure yogini, thrive activist and bucket list catalyst.”
It’s a lot to be. It’s a lot like mixed farming.
Mixed farming is a blend of multiple crops and livestock, maximizing light, moisture, and nutrients, complementing land and labor demands across the year. Erosion is minimized, biodiversity is maintained, water is conserved, and habitats preserved. Monocultural farming may better increase production levels, but capitalism isn’t always the bottom line.
She goes back to Iowa often, especially during harvest time. Although she isn’t Old McDonald Had a Farm, she helps out in her own way.
“I can’t even call it a job, it’s so much fun,” she said. “I am taking care of the farm animals, which includes emceeing pig races and goat yoga. I am recess patrolling jumping pillows pedal karts apple slingshots and mazes. I am lifeguarding the corn pool, which includes acro yoga sessions. I am making delicious apple cider donuts and taste testing from our scratch bakery. And I have a team of farmtastic people to help.”
When she went to the subcontinent she went on behalf of the 88Bikes Foundation.
“They continue to be instrumental in my trips to India,” said Deanna. “For all the work they do with girls who are survivors or at risk for human trafficking. It is the timing of me doing this work with them on International Women’s Day, to empower, to educate, to let the world know that the female spirit is not to be suppressed. It is to be respected and honored.”
She arrived in Allahabad in early March. It was the day after the Kumbh Mela wrapped up. It had been going on since January 15th, although it’s been going on for centuries. The Kumbh Mela is a mass pilgrimage. In 2013, the last time it was staged in Allahabad, an estimated 120 million people came to it over a 2-month period.
“Flags were still flying from each country represented,” she said. “Even with many tents and porta potties still up, the area felt abandoned. Still, a feeling of peace washed over me, particularly after I stepped into the Ganga with prayers and gratitude. Afterwards, I visited the birthplace of Indira Gandhi and learned not only how remarkable she was, but how the women of India stood strong all together and made a significant difference. It was an inspiration for leading into International Women’s Day.”
Indira Gandhi was the first and only female Prime Minister of India. Even though a politician, she had once been a child revolutionary, leading the Monkey Brigade at the age of 12 as part of India’s struggle against the British Empire for self-determination. Despite often criticized as a “goongi goodiya” – dumb doll – she was twice prime minister and was named “Woman of the Millennium” by the BBC.
She was assassinated by her bodyguards in 1984.
The brainchild of Dan Austin, a writer, filmmaker, and one-time bicycle deliveryman, the non-profit 88Bikes was born in 2007. In return for a sponsorship of $88.00, a bike is delivered to someone somewhere in the developing world. The child gets a photo of the person who donated the bike, and the donor gets a photo of the child who received it.
“We feel strongly that you can connect people across the world like this,” he has said. “I think that’s the root of what 88Bikes is about, this one-to-one connection.”
It’s many thousands of bikes going to Peru, Cambodia, Mongolia, Ghana, India, two wheels at a time.
Deanna is aware of how much awareness it takes to get a bicycle into the hands of a kid with little chance of scoring one for him or herself. That’s why she goes halfway around the world. “It’s joy-based philanthropy,” she said. “What brings us joy? Connection!”
“The happiness they deserve is now within reach,” says Dan Austin.
Before she could get 88Bikes on the road, however, she found herself speaking in front of a large group in Allahabad gathered for the Run4Niine.
“The race is in recognition that thoughts and views on menstruation in India need to change,” said Deanna. “To say that this conversation is taboo is to say a conversation about women is taboo. To say menstruation is dirty is to say a girl or woman is dirty. It is beyond time to change this thinking.”
Even though menstruation is a natural phenomenon, like blinking heartbeats hairiness and breasts filled with milk, it is problematic in many parts of India. “Close to 70% of Indian women risk getting severe infection, at times causing death, due to poverty, ignorance, and shame attached to their menstruation cycle,” said Swapna Majumdar, a New Delhi journalist who writes on gender and development.
When they are menstruating, Indian women are not supposed to touch a holy book, handle kitchen utensils, or look at pickles. Demystifying what is supposedly taboo about periods and creating awareness about hygiene has been an uphill struggle in the country. More than 30% of girls in northern India drop out of school after they start menstruating.
“It is connection with birth and the cycle of life,” said Deanna. “It’s not something to be left unsaid. It’s part of the sacred flow of womanhood.”
The next day was the day to get into the flow of pedal power.
“I’m super excited,” she said. “Tomorrow one hundred girls are getting their own bicycle.” She and her companions, Ruby and Ramon of the Blossomy Project, were outside Kolkotta. About 500 miles east of Allahabad, on the Bay of Bengal, it used to be Calcutta, once an East India trading post, now the capital of West Bengal state, India’s third-largest city with nearly 5 million inhabitants. It is regarded as the artistic, cultural, and intellectual center of the country.
It’s also the home of Mother House, headquarters of the Missionaries of Charity, founded by Mother Teresa, who is buried there.
The Blossomy Project is a non-profit organization that works to empower survivors of human trafficking through art-based programs. Since riding a bike is as much an art as a skill, they were partnering with 88Bikes.
Deanna had a big envelope full of donor cards.
“Each card is one of who donated to 88Bikes. I am taking a road trip to meet these girls and give them their cards with their bikes.”
It was bright day in the 90s. March is the sunniest month of the year on the northern east coast of India, although it is also one of the wettest. A heavy rain and hailstorm had passed by a few days earlier.
“Watch out boys,” said Deanna, giving a donor card and bike to the first young girl. “This girl has got a bike with things to do and places to go.”
The first girl hopped on her bike and raced away.
“She took off immediately to school to take a Sanskrit exam. With her bike she can get to school much more easily. These girls also use their bikes to patrol the neighborhood and visit communities and bring awareness about how to stay safe.”
Ruby and Ramon and Deanna exchanged high fives.
“Each time I come to Kolkotta, these two have been instrumental in getting me and the bikes connected with girls,” said Deanna. “So happy to have the Blossomy Project. Shout out to Ruby acting as translator and all-out rock star making things happen.”
“I can go anywhere,” said another girl, getting on her bike.
Deanna showed her the back of the donor card that came with the bike.
“You can go anywhere,” it said.
“I love moments like this,” said Deanna.
Sunday night was Funday night in Kolkotta. Everyone went out to a show by Tanmoy Bose, a percussionist and tabla player. A native of the city, he was one of the first Indian musicians to meld folk songs and tribal drumming into a large band setting. His own band, the Taal Tantra Experience, signifies worship through rhythm. The music is nothing if not spilling over with life.
“I’m still amazed with that violin,” said Deanna. “If anyone in Cleveland knows of concerts like this, let me know, I wanna go.”
After the bikes were distributed, it was time to go home. The return flight to the United States from India doesn’t take two three days, but it might as well, when you’re on the way back to your own digs. Once on native ground, she exclaimed, checking out the run-up to the NCAA tournament, “Yeeeaaasss!!! Nothing like coming back to the States during March Madness!”
A few days later she got a Facebook message from Amita Gour, one of the girls who had gotten a bike.
“Thanks for your visit to Allahabad, Deanna,” she wrote.
“So happy to spend time with you and your family,” Deanna wrote back. “Thank you so very much for all the time you spent with me showing me around. And thrilled about your new bike.”
The thrill is in lending a helping hand.
Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction by Ed Staskus.