She was the last foreigner to clear immigration at Ahmedabad International Airport March 12, near midnight. Nenita “Net” Asuncion, 65, had come for her annual two-week pilgrimage in Mount Abu, Western India’s famous hill station. The next day, all tourist visas were canceled. Asuncion would end up staying a total of 11 weeks.
Her friend and fellow pilgrim, Edwina “Edz” Armada, 35, was 750 kilometers away in New Delhi for a yoga teacher training. They would not catch up until March 19, in Gyan Sarovar (Lake of Knowledge), international campus of the Brahma Kumaris Academy for a Better World, where they are both overseas students.
Thus the pandemic wrote this unique scene in their lives. They would emerge from the experience “carefree” by Asuncion’s account, and “fearless” by Armada’s.
The campus has hosted students from 130 countries since 1996. Around 50 Filipinos get to go every year. Since they became BKs, Asuncion and Armada have not missed a single season.The lockdown altered all routines, including aspects designed for students to set aside concerns about the world outside.
“A new program was put in place,” Asuncion recalls. “After the morning class, we were updated on international events. We were repeatedly reminded to wear masks and observe physical distancing. In the History Hall (second biggest auditorium), every other row of seats was cordoned off and we sat four chairs apart. In the dining hall, it was two to every table. Hired help was suspended, so students helped campus residents with the chores… Although we had fun, it was so hot in there, we sweated like laborers.”
The residents in the vegetable department learned a few things from Pinay mom Asuncion. “They chopped okra very quickly but one at a time. I chopped several pieces together—it was faster,” she says. “They used their hands to peel boiled potato; I found a small knife more efficient.” She developed intense focus while making roti (flatbread). “You have to pay attention when laying the rolled batter on the hot plate.”
Dream come true
Since it was the tail end of the season and many of the English-speaking teachers had left, classes were whittled down to two a day, which gave Asuncion and Armada more time for a few other pursuits. They presented themselves to the tailoring department and were immediately put to work.
It was a dream come true for Armada. “I had always wanted to learn sewing,” she says. “Now I can make a mask or a tote bag, and do minor repairs on saris and petticoats.” Eventually, she would like to make her own saris and kurta suits, the prescribed campus wear.
Her bigger dream, actually, is to live in India. She had nursed that dream since she first visited Madhuban (collective name for Brahma Kumaris properties in Abu.) “I thought, maybe I could live here, study or work here. The daydreaming would not stop. And then this happened—it’s like a rehearsal!”They could not have been in a better place to embrace this compelling culture that they had both come to consider their own. Asuncion had of late enjoyed some popularity on campus as “the Filipino sister (female student) who sings Hindi songs.” Well, not only did she expand her repertoire; her singing skills were vastly improved.
Armada was drawn to the language. “I have been studying Hindi intermittently. The extended stay gave me more time and more opportunities. I can engage in simple conversations now, and once or twice I was asked to translate for small groups. Inevitably, I have acquired some mannerisms, like shaking the head to say ‘yes.’”
They were used to saying achcha (OK) and bas (enough—to stop food servers from piling too much food onto their trays). Asuncion says, “More and more, we found ourselves saying dhanyaavad (thank you), bahut sundar (very beautiful), and kal melenge (I’ll be back). I managed to joke with them, too. Brothers who shaved their heads at the onset of summer I called tokla (bald). Sometimes I slipped and said tekla. They could not stop laughing.”
They stayed in touch with their families in Manila “just so they didn’t worry.”
“Thanks to technology, there never seemed to be such an enormous distance between us,” Asuncion points out. “We chatted often and I sent them photos and videos showing the gardens and the mountains.”
Techie Armada assured her own family “that I was in the safest place in the world.”
Neither one of them remembers panic as being part of that experience. Not even the acute possibility of money running out concerned them.
“I had brought enough personal supplies for two weeks,” Asuncion narrates. “When my stay was extended, I started cutting toilet paper into shorter pieces. But by May, my detergent was running out. Edz and I went to the campus store for residents since the one for foreigners was closed.
“She got shampoo, toothbrush and toothpaste. I just needed detergent. I had 500 rupees on me. I was saving my last 2,500 rupees for taxi fare to the airport going home. The brother minding the store would not accept our money and said to us in English, ‘This is God’s home, your home. You cannot be paying.’ I was touched.”
Outside of these errands, they made sure they got what they had both come for, nourishment of the spirit. It came at every turn, in the form of classes, conversations, the calming silence all around and the company of kindred spirits.
Peace, love, chai
“Just to be there was like being rewarded,” says Asuncion. “All that peace, all that love, all that… chai (sweet milk tea)!”
With the luxury of time, the colors of Gyan Sarovar became “more vivid” for Armada. She got to explore parts of the campus she had not seen. “I went a few times to Mama’s Rock (the top of a steep hillside fronting the campus) for sundown meditation. I saw the backside of the grounds—a fruit and vegetable farm and a solar park. Anywhere I found myself, I would just sit and reflect in silence, listen to the birds singing in the trees as though for the first time, commune with nature, write in my journal. I thought, paradise must be like this.”
They were both quite content and would have willingly stayed indefinitely, were it not for government emergency measures that included evacuating foreigners. It was the only difficult part of this adventure that they remember.
The Russian group had just recently left. Asuncion relates: “We were asked to book flights home as soon as possible. The transport department said the next available flights would cost Rs 55,457 (about P37,000). Edz and I did not have that kind of money. I went to Gyan Sarovar boss lady Didi Nirmala, who immediately gave it to me as a loan. But after a few days, the money was returned to me because the Philippines had canceled all inbound flights.”
Armada went to Didi Nirmala for a different reason. “I decided to stay in Madhuban and Didi gave me her blessing.”
Pressure from government mounted soon enough. “Edz and I started monitoring outbound flights daily. We found one leaving Ahmedabad April 27 via Bangkok. We called a friend in Manila to ask if we could use her credit card. But a few days prior, that flight was canceled, too, and we were told there would be no flights for the whole of May.”
For all the calm she had accumulated, booking a flight home was nothing less than a “test paper” for Armada. She willed herself not to fret. “I wasn’t about to spend what was left of my time in such a beautiful place worrying about leaving. I was even sure I wouldn’t mind dying there but, I told myself, if I was meant to go back to the Philippines, flights would turn up.”
Asuncion took the same attitude. “As much as we were looking out for flights, I was checking myself—how I was feeling, how much I was believing that everything was accurate and good. I expanded my meditation schedule and circle of intention to include Mother Nature and victims of the pandemic.”
Much of the work was done by Armada, according to Asuncion. She narrates: “We were not together all the time, as we did not stay in the same room, and we agreed that she should use the local SIM we bought earlier. She kept me posted about her communication with the Philippine Embassy, with our teacher in charge (for the Philippines) Sister Rajni, who was locked down in our Delhi retreat center, and with the BK transport department. The embassy suggested that we keep an eye on Air India’s ‘rescue flights.’ We made it to the second batch of these flights. In the end we took the train (close to 12 hours) from Ahmedabad to Delhi, where all outbound international flights were originating. Again, we were booked using the credit card of our friend in Manila, Sister Salud Idio of the BK Tagaytay center. Sister Rajni gave us some Indian rupees and US dollars for pocket money.”
Goodbye as a blessing
Asuncion and Armada bid the Gyan Sarovar community goodbye after morning class May 30. By this time they had heard of the circuitous passage that each of the groups before them had gone through.
However, Asuncion and Armada now say, they received enough farewell blessings on top of the “inner power” from nearly three months of yoga (meditation) and karma yoga (serving with their hands) to deal with the last few days to come.
They got to stay a day in the Delhi retreat center before boarding the plane home at last. Disembarking at Ninoy Aquino International Airport, Armada got the feeling that they had landed in a country at war. “Soldiers fully covered, their faces concealed by masks; medical staff suited up in what seemed like astronaut gear. I used to see those scenes only in the movies! And this was so soon after my experience of paradise.”
Asuncion says she more or less expected such a scenario, having been kept up to date by her family. Still, she took a few seconds to feel certain that she had arrived home. “There were so many questions for the returning workers and tourists. But everybody was polite. We were brought to a room and briefed on the protocol and then finally whisked away in buses to quarantine facilities. We stayed in a pension in Makati, and were cleared after five days.”
Armada says she has “matured in all the best ways” and now feels “ready for anything.” A line from one of the classes in Gyan Sarovar keeps playing in her head: “Keep the aim and never look back.”
From the start, she says, that was how it went. When my family expressed concern before I left for India, I told them that my mind was made up and that I could take care of myself. I can say with conviction that I found what I sought. Plus, I got to bask in the love of the largest extended family imaginable.”
Asuncion’s top takeaway is just as validating. “Wherever I am, I am protected. I just need to believe in that protection, and conduct myself in such a way that I deserve it.”—CONTRIBUTED INQ