“On a mission: A woman, a river and a cause” by Saira Kurup, Times of India
On a mission: A woman, a river and a cause
By Saira Kurup, Times Of India
November 27, 2011
An adventurous white woman paddle-boarding on the Ganga is bound to attract curious onlookers. But for Michelle Baldwin, who paddle-boarded 500 km from Rishikesh to Varanasi, it was no adventure . It was actually her pilgrimage to the City of Ghats, and a mission to raise $100,000 for a global campaign against cervical cancer.
Above all, she had come all the way from the US looking for some answers because, being a Buddhist, “it’s important at the time of death to reflect on death.” That’s because Michelle, 44 and a single mother of three, has terminal cervical cancer.”I had a terrible time on being told there would be no more treatment for my cancer. For two months I didn’t do anything. Slowly it occurred to me that I needed to go to Varanasi on a pilgrimage. And the Ganga kept coming into my mind, kept whispering,” she says. She had started paddle-boarding in August in California, and the first day itself, she had the idea of paddleboarding down the Ganga. But she didn’t want to do the journey just for herself. “I had read that cervical cancer is the number one cancer killer of women in India. I knew I had to do something and contacted the Global Initiative Against HPV and Cervical Cancer and asked them if they would be interested if I raised money for them.”
The journey on the Ganga started on October 17 and for 25 days she paddled on her 12.5-ft long inflatable paddleboard – becoming the first person to do so on the Ganga. The only other person who accompanied her was filmmaker Nat Stone on another boat. She wore long custom-made swimming dresses. “I felt it was risky enough showing off my arms and legs…I tried to be as modest as possible.” Every day, they had breakfast and lunch aboard and then Michelle would paddle for four hours. “In the first week, I had no pain at all,” she says. At night, they would pick a campsite on one of the numerous sandbars on the river. “No people, no lights, no bugs – all we would hear were the howling of jackals.” The river dolphins that tagged along with them for many days, the barking deer, the jackals coming to drink water, the sound of bhajans from distant ashrams – these are the sights and sounds of India that Michelle says she would remember.
They made several stops along the river, where Michelle would interact in English with local people about cervical cancer. “I ended up talking to men because women were harder to get to. There were a lot of misconceptions. One man said his wife has had menopause and had no unusual bleeding and so, could not ever have cervical cancer. I said that’s the prime age, and that by the time you have the symptoms it’s late. It’s important to tell women to ask to get the pap smear test done. Any woman can get cervical cancer, especially those between 30 and 65.”
She says the reason she is dying is because she didn’t get a pap smear test for 10 years. “It’s very important for women to look after themselves; they are the key to the family. It’s like they tell us on planes that when the oxygen masks come out, put it on yourself before you can take care of your children.”Michelle is proud that she was able to complete the journey, despite her pain making a comeback towards the latter part of the journey. Her brave front and willpower crack a bit only when she speaks about her three children – two sons, aged 19 and 17 and a daughter, 12. “This is the hardest thing about having cancer. The reason I am doing this trip is so that other children don’t lose their mothers. My children rely on me. I am their world. But my 17-year-old is now staying with his best friend’s family because they know that I will be going. My daughter has tried out living with a couple of different people and my parents, and we are looking at where she’s going to go when I die. They are very supportive of my trip but I wouldn’t wish this on any woman. If 74,000 women die of cervical cancer in India, which is a conservative estimate, that leaves about 300,000 children without their mothers.” She has already raised about $5000-6000 for the campaign. On the personal front, she says she has found the answers she was looking for. “The Ganga is just the most beautiful and loving body of water. You realize that it brings life and death, and the acceptance of death. By the time I was at the end of the journey, people would say the Ganga can heal you. It did heal me. What I have come to understand is that I can be healed and still death is always a given thing.”