Retired Onteora English as a Second Language teacher Donna Ivy Wilkes used to sing “I Whistle a Happy Tune,” a number from The King and I, as a preliminary lesson to her students. Together, they memorized the lyrics, and Wilkes told them to remember the song whenever they felt afraid or overwhelmed.
Wilkes hums the tune to herself as well. After traveling the world in an effort to see all of the places her students had come from, often alone and typically on a whim, the single mother of three has truly embodied the spirit of this line from the song: “You may be as brave as you make believe you are.”
Wilkes has seen France, Yugoslavia, Spain, Luxembourg, England, Switzerland, Russia, Scotland, Belgium, Germany, Italy, Holland, the Netherlands, Wales, China, Japan, Taiwan, Thailand, Costa Rica, Panama, Nicaragua, Mexico, Argentina, Peru, Bolivia, Brazil, India, Chile, Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Canada (where she was born). To fill out this exhaustive list, Wilkes laid a world map on her living room floor and, sitting on a floor cushion, pointed to each place she had been.
“My children worry about me, they think I’m a wild gypsy woman,” joked Wilkes, “I am a wild gypsy woman, I think.”
Even in her Kingston home, Wilkes surrounds herself with foreign culture. Her walls are layered with bright textiles; an eclectic mix of Latin and Asian art, painstakingly packed into luggage or gifted by her friends and family. Her middle son, Adam, has lived in China for 15 years and married a Chinese native. Justin, her eldest, married an Indian woman in a traditional ceremony. Her youngest son, Ethan, has taken after his mother and traveled to 54 countries. Wilkes has three Chinese goddaughters who she initially taught English to that call her weekly for motherly advice. She dances Bachata, a style of dance originating from the Dominican Republic, and attends weekly salsa classes at the Rosendale Café. Although she is retired, she still works part time for the Onteora school district as an interpreter between Spanish-speaking parents and their children’s teachers at conferences.
Wilkes’ wanderlust began with a love of languages — although she only claims to be fluent in Spanish, she can speak a smattering of Mandarin, French, Yiddish, German and Thai and has taught students hailing from over 15 countries.
Wilkes has trekked the Gobi Desert on the back of a camel and broken all of her ribs after being thrown off an elephant’s back on Thailand. Most recently, she spent 17 days in India this October, first attending the week-long marriage ceremony of her daughter-in-law’s cousin’s Punjabi wedding and “piggy-backing it” with her own trip afterwards through Rajasthan, where her eldest son was married. She had been enamored with the Indian state, but had been too busy with “wedding stuff” to explore.
After traveling for 34 hours through four airports, Wilkes was greeted by 105-degree heat on the tarmac in New Delhi. Disoriented and “probably looking like [she] was hit by a Mack truck,” she received a phone call. A member of the wedding party told her in broken English that a driver was waiting at the airport to bring her to a pre-wedding party at the bride’s home.
After being warmly greeted by the “DadiMaa,” the grandmother of the household, Wilkes watched the family arrange intricate designs on the floors of the home with marigold petals. Orange represents good luck in Hindu culture, and thus the marigold flower plays an integral party in wedding ceremonies. Traditional Punjabi wedding ceremonies span over a number of days; this one lasted for an entire week.
The next night was the Mendhi ceremony, during which turmeric is applied to the bride’s face and hands and a professional henna artist decorates the bodies of the bride and wedding guests. According to popular belief, the darker the henna on the bride’s body, the more deeply her new husband will love her.
On the fourth day before the wedding ceremony, called “shaadi,” the men of the families meet for “sangeeth,” the turban-tying ceremony. The men’s heads are wrapped in yards of fabric in preparation for the ceremony. The bride and groom sat in an open jeep which drove alongside drummers and other musicians, the wedding party, goats and bison. Slowly, Wilkes and the party made their way to the wedding venue an hour and a half away. The couple are wed beside a fire under a “chuppah,” or canopy of marigolds. The family celebrated for the next two days.
One of the family’s servants, a 16-year-old uneducated girl, took a liking to one of Wilkes’ Indian-styled garments. When Wilkes gifted it to her, the girl thanked her only with her look of surprise and then joy. “Even without the English language as a commonality, we communicated,” said Wilkes. “There is a way to communicate without language if you want to.”
Two days after the wedding ceremony, Wilkes began her solo trek. She was driven for six hours to Rajasthan. Cattle often disrupted traffic; traffic patiently waited for them to leisurely cross the road. Rajasthan literally translates to “Land of Kings.” However, Wilkes sought out rural villages. Between 1990 and 1992, Wilkes traveled to a small town in Nicaragua, Larreynaga, alongside medics and educators to provide relief for schoolchildren. It was there that her desire to see what she calls “the reality of the masses” was conceived.
“My visit [to Rajasthan] was like stepping back in time where simple pleasures really do exist,” Wilkes reminisced. “Daily time-consuming routines comprise the day, like grinding and milling corn wheat for chapatti, harvesting [that] wheat in the fields, tending to the animals, and daily religious ceremonies. The priority of family life and respect for elders is apparent, and large extended families all live together. These villagers are still unspoiled, not knowing the 21st-century advances in our western world, let alone the ones from their sister cities in India.”
Jaipur, nicknamed “The Pink City” for its characteristic pink buildings, wreaks havoc on the senses, said Wilkes. The smell of cooking meats mingled with the smell of the crowd and of the sewers. Women in colorful embroidered saris bustled between stands in the marketplace showcasing colorful vegetables and sweets. Wilkes bought only what she could carry in her arms.
After two days, Wilkes left for Barli, where she was the only guest at a huge fort that once housed the king and queen who oversaw the village. Their descendants have since converted the building into a hotel. She was given the master bedroom and shared a “royal” meal with the family.
The owner of Fort Barli often had his “stars read” by a local Hindu priest, who the owner felt was especially perceptive. When the priest visited the fort, Wilkes asked through a translator if he would read her “stars” as well. Using only her birth date, time, and place, the priest was able to discern that Wilkes had four children — although she only has three living sons, she lost a child at birth. He proceeded to correctly detail elements of Wilkes’ life, including the longevity of her 90-year-old mother that she had not mentioned. He predicted that Wilkes would find her new life partner between November of 2016 and October of next year.
The next day, she was taken in a “tuk-tuk” on a tour through the unpaved city. The children, some of whom had never seen a Westerner, tried to say hello. Their under-eyes were rimmed with black “cajul,” a substance meant to protect its wearer’s eyes from the bright sunlight. Many of them didn’t wear shoes.
Wilkes visited a local schoolhouse, where she was greeted warmly. She stood before a hundred schoolchildren sitting on mats and taught them a few songs, including “head, shoulders, knees and toes.” Only the principal spoke rudimentary English. Each child shook her hand and said “nice to meet you” before she left. According to Wilkes, this was the highlight of her trip.
In the local marketplace, locals traded lentils, wool and garments; Wilkes bought a pair of billowing white pants to wear in the sweltering heat. Upon trying them on and finding them to be loose, she sought out a local seamstress. She took in the pants using a sewing machine with a trestle. As a gesture of goodwill, the seamstress applied cajul to Wilkes’ face and a bindi to her forehead. Originally signifying luck in marriage, the bindi now has a myriad of significances, all of which bear luck upon its wearer. Although Wilkes offered her money, the woman only wanted to interact, and was taken aback by the photo that Wilkes took of her and her three children.
Wherever she went in Rajasthan, Wilkes was met with curiosity and kindness. Wilkes insists that traveling alone gives her the opportunity to really connect and to “[meet] the most wonderful people on the way who have enriched my being.” She hopes that, by sharing her experience, she can encourage others, particularly women, to travel and enrich themselves.
“A woman traveling by herself is much more vulnerable than a man traveling by himself in many parts of the world,” said Wilkes. “You really have to know your territory and be cognizant of what’s around you. Research before you go. We live in a very male-oriented world where a woman is much more vulnerable [than a man] and it is not safe for us in many places. [However, women] shouldn’t feel like they can’t [travel], there are many places that you can go on your own and it’s very empowering. I want to encourage people who have a desire to see the world who are fearful to figure out ways to still see the world at their own level [of comfort]. Just because you’re a woman by yourself doesn’t mean that you can’t do it.”