Compassion meets adventure in India

John Koenig

Senior Anna Nummelin, a nursing major, doesn’t seek recognition for her many accomplishments. Instead, she pursues her far-reaching dreams with quiet sincerity.

Nummelin’s compassion for the human race took her to India, but at home she pursues varied talents such as classical singing, rock-climbing and belly dancing – all of which she holds a unique aptitude.

“I always had a basic concept of what I wanted to do with my life, and little by little I’d find ways . to enable me to do the kind of things I want to do,” Nummelin said.

Putting her then-limited nursing knowledge to use in 2004 was a valuable opportunity, Nummelin said, because she really “learned by doing” on her trip to India.

Life in Varanasi, India
While many college students head to Cancun for a taste of culture, Nummelin had no qualms about entering a civilization like India.

“There were so many places I wanted to travel and India was very intriguing,” she said, citing the culture and history of India as primary attractions.

After researching organizations, Nummelin settled on “Where There Be Dragons,” a program out of Colorado that sends students and adults on self-designed trips to Asian countries. She said she spent the equivalent of a semester’s fees at UW-Eau Claire on her four-month expedition.

While she did the “tourism thing” with about seven people, Nummelin said most of the program was very individualized. Her particular interest, nursing, took her to a traditional city in northern India called Varanasi. Here, she worked in a leprosy colony and a Mother Theresa hospice, she said, in addition to taking language classes and specialized lectures through the local university.

Nummelin worked at a leprosy colony called “Sankat Mochan,” meaning “deliverer from troubles.” Common beliefs about this disease are that it is highly contagious and a skin problem – both of which are untrue, she said.

Leprosy is a neurological disorder that causes nerve endings to die, Nummelin said, therefore making it easy to develop sores and injuries all over the body. She said she had a very low chance of contracting the disease, and spent most of her time cleaning, bandaging and cutting out wounds with the local doctor.

“It was just interesting, because after I was there for awhile, everything just seems so commonplace,” Nummelin said. “After a couple of weeks of going there, I was just like ‘Wow, I go to a leprosy colony twice a week to cut parts of people’s feet off.’ ”

Even though the cure for leprosy is easy to obtain, Nummelin said the culture places a huge stigmatism on those afflicted, so they rarely seek medical help. Instead, they live where they feel acceptance, often raising children in colonies such as Sankat Mochan, which supports about 60 people.

When she wasn’t at the colony, Nummelin volunteered at the local Mother Theresa hospice. Here she saw another side to medicine by working with sisters caring for elderly and sick people, she said.

Describing the Taj Mahal as “just a building,” Nummelin said her travels within India took her to places beyond Varanasi.

Bodh Gaya, the place of Buddha’s enlightenment, was one of her favorites, she said, along with Daramsala, where the group celebrated the Tibetan New Year with monks.
Nummelin said living with a host family also presented unique opportunities. Not only did she practice Hindi with her non-English-speaking host mother, but she also became familiar with India’s caste system. Her family was on the lower end of the Brahman caste, Nummelin said, the highest social group in Indian society.

Ingolf Vogeler, a professor of geography who is familiar with the Indian caste system, said technically the distinction is illegal, but intricate sub-categories still exist, especially in rural areas.

Born and raised in India, business professor Rama Yelkur agreed that caste distinctions are still evident for traditional purposes. She said the original intention of the codification was to separate people by their occupations. Today, it is primarily used for narrowing down parents’ choices when arranging a marriage for their son or daughter, she said.

Through his travels, Vogeler said he was also familiar with the city where Nummelin lived. He said Varanasi is the most holy city in Hinduism because believers who die in the city reach “spiritual fulfillment” – that is, they finish the reincarnation cycle.

Nummelin said religion played a large role in the lives of the people she met, and also had a big impact on her personal spirituality.

“To me, it’s not so much about finding a label, it’s the way you live, and to not pass judgment on other people’s beliefs … Going (to India), I met so many people of different faiths that just had so much wisdom . it was just indescribable,” she said. “You knew that there was no way I could say that my way was better.”

Beyond spiritual growth, Nummelin also utilized the opportunity to exercise her athletic skills on a week- long trek to the Pindari glacier in the Himalayan Mountains, and a white water rafting excursion down the Ganges River.

Now that she is back in the United States, Nummelin is planning a trip back to India for next January. She said she will visit her host family, explore meditation and take a rock-climbing trip in the Himalayas with some friends from Europe.

An ancient art form
Decked out in an elaborate costume, the belly dancer fluidly improvises traditional steps to the backdrop of a complex drumbeat.

One would expect such controlled movements from a seasoned native of the American tribal tradition, but her blonde hair gives this woman’s ethnicity away.

Nummelin’s passion for this unusual style of dance goes back about seven years, she said, when she began learning about various cultures and their dances with her mentor.

Now she advances her technique through independent study, Nummelin said.

Combining the isolated body movements of the Middle East with the strong and sinuous gestures from the Flamenco tradition, the storytelling motions from India, the Eastern European gypsy dance and more, Nummelin said she created a unique dance manner that keeps her performing about twice a month.

“Once you have a base of movement, it becomes very personalized to the way your body wants to move you,” Nummelin said of her improvisational style.

While belly dancing is very flirtatious and feminine, she said, it is also empowering, she added, because the roots of tribal dance are all about a “community of women” performing together.

“Dance was very much an integral part of (tribal women’s) lives,” Nummelin said.
To share this passion with others, Nummelin teaches a belly-dancing class through University Recreation. Vicki Reed, associate director of the department, hired Nummelin not only for her competence in dancing, but because of her philosophical outlook of the style, she said.

Reed attributes the course’s popularity not only to the content, but to the teacher.
“(Anna is) a perfect fit for this job,” Reed said, pointing out Nummelin’s patient teaching style.

Students can experience Nummelin’s passion for culture and beauty when she makes an appearance at local venues, such as the Acoustic Caf‚, 505 South Barstow St., and TV10, as well as cultural festivals and energy fairs around the state. She also performed for a Concert Choir underwear party, and describes her audience as “very receptive.”

But the strangest request Nummelin ever had was for a 16-year-old boy’s birthday party.
“I said, ‘I think I’m busy,’ ” Nummelin said laughingly.

In her “free” time…
Taking the stage with confident grace, closing her eyes momentarily as she waits for her cue, Nummelin filled the packed auditorium with her soaring soprano voice at her joint voice recital last night.

Last spring, Nummelin demonstrated this talent again, sharing the starring role with a visiting vocalist in the music department’s Puccini opera, “Suor Angelica.”

“She absolutely held her own against this professional singer,” said Mitra Sadeghpour, Nummelin’s voice teacher for the last six semesters.

“You couldn’t remove your eyes from her face when she was singing,” Sadeghpour said.

Though she had never been formally trained, Nummelin said she always loved choir, musical theater and vocal jazz, and decided to tryout for a school-produced opera her freshman year. After earning a small part, Sadeghpour contacted her to see if she would study with the professor.

“She had a voice that really needed to be in voice lessons,” Sadeghpour said, adding that Nummelin possesses natural talent and drive.

Before the Eau Claire productions, Nummelin
said she had very little experience with the operatic style, and doesn’t plan to make a career out of her talent. But she said she learned to appreciate the genre, and is auditioning for the Metropolitan Opera. She said has the full support of her teacher as she takes on this challenge.

“I think she’s ready to move up to that level,” Sadeghpour said. “In the highly competitive world of classical singing, she could pursue it.”

Opening yet another door into Nummelin’s personality requires exploring the outdoors.

As an adventure racing and rock-climbing enthusiast, she tackles her hobbies head-on.

Al Wiberg, the program manager for the Environmental Adventure Center in University Recreation, said he hired Nummelin two years ago to fill two positions: adventure trip leader and climbing wall supervisor.

As a trip leader, Nummelin coordinates and guides backpacking and rock-climbing trips, Wiberg said. A lot of responsibility goes with this position, and Wiberg said he looks for dependability, assertiveness and good communication skills when seeking a trip leader.

“(She is) very personable, outgoing and trustworthy,” Wibergy said, adding that he is also familiar with Nummelin through their shared interest in adventure racing.

This summer, Nummelin, her boyfriend and two friends will cover 250 miles of rough terrain in the Montana Rockies as they take on the Big Sky Breakdown. The four-day adventure race requires skills in rock-climbing, ropes courses and mountain biking, Nummelin said.

Limitless horizons
The average college graduate concentrates on one passion, but Nummelin is unique. Besides racing in the Rockies this summer, trying out for the Met in October and traveling back to India after graduation, she will move to California with her boyfriend and pursue graduate school for degrees in public health and family nurse practitioner.

“(Nursing) is a tangible way to help people and make their situations better,” she said of her decision to focus her future on this particular talent.

But before she can attain her goal of helping with Doctors Without Borders, a selective medical organization that sends healthcare workers around the world, she wants to gain more “cross-cultural experience.” This is where 27 months of the Peace Corps will come in, Nummelin said, adding that she is not sure when she will enter this group.

“Whatever she decides to do, she will be making the world a better place,” Sadeghpour said.