When I heard that Meg Ryan was going to India with CARE, the international aid organization, I got excited. Like Meg, I believe that empowering impoverished women is the key to transforming our world. I was even more convinced after reading Rosemary Mahoney's riveting account of the four days she spent with Meg. Wanting to talk with Meg about what she learned, I reached her in China—the next stop on her journey—where she had just adopted a baby girl. — Oprah
Meg: What a week I've had! My new daughter, Charlotte True, is sitting next to me. It's been a two-year process, but nothing prepares you for the second a little person gets handed to you. It's a delirious, great time.
Oprah: How old is she?
Meg: Fourteen months. She's beautiful. Every day I'm getting to know her, and she is such a flower. You could never anticipate the sweetness, the smarts, or the amount of love she already has.
Oprah: That's what you were working on for two years. And what prompted the India trip?
Meg: CARE came to me because they were initiating a campaign called "I Am Powerful", which is about paralleling the lives of women in the first world with women in the third world. They're always looking for the seed of the idea that can be most productive in building people's lives. I just kept thinking, "Wow, this is a beautiful idea." I'd gone to India before, but I've never seen it the way I did with CARE. Have you been there?
Oprah: No, I'd love to go.
Meg: I first went about ten years ago. This time when I landed in Delhi, I thought, "I forgot how tough this is"—the smells, the hordes of people. It seems like everyone lives in the streets. There's this oozing, enormous feeling of everyone in your face, all the time. The extremes of poverty are so big that you feel incredibly alive, like you've never been more awake.
Oprah: Then I must go.
Meg: There's so much light in the people's eyes. We went to a slum in Delhi that turned my heart inside out. But we met these 14- and 15-year-old girls CARE has trained to talk to one another about condoms and preventing the spread of HIV. These girls own one, maybe two saris, and they run through the slum, all decked out. You've never seen so much joy—in this horrible place in Delhi.
Oprah: I've seen that many times in rural African villages where people have nothing but a hut and a bowl. The joy in the children's eyes is something you wish you could package and bring back to America. How did this trip compare with your other visits to India?
Note: This interview appeared in the April 2006 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.
Meg: My other visits have all been to Mumbai, where I go to an ashram. This time I went out to the desert to visit salt-pan workers. You drive for hours and hours, and finally you see something in this flat, flat desert. And it turns out to be a hole they've dug, that they've put twigs over, where the kids go to school.
Oprah: And the reason they're in a hole...?
Meg:...is so the children can be cool. They've fashioned this little staircase down, and the kids come from wherever they come from, carrying their little cloth bags with maybe two books.
Oprah: Is it shocking to return to Western comfort and commercialism?
Meg: [Laughs] Everything seems like a Fellini movie. One day I'm in India; the next I'm sitting at the Four Seasons, one of the nicest hotels I've ever been to. I mean, I stayed in good hotels in India, but you couldn't drink the water. Then I went to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. You enter through this archway, and the noise, the hustle, the din that is India stops. The silence of this thing! It looks like a cloud sitting on the ground. It takes your breath away, it's so stunning.
Oprah: I can't even imagine it.
Meg: Agra is this stinky town, but I was put up in a hotel where butlers were drawing my bath. By then I was so ripped open. I was all ready to go, "Oh, this is untenable; it doesn't compute with what's right outside my window." But something else opens up where you say, "Well, people are capable of building things that are so beautiful and serene." It's crazy.
Outside Agra we visited a village where about 75 women gathered in a circle to talk to the CARE workers. The women started singing exuberantly. One woman stood up, covered her face with her red sari, and began to dance. Anne Goddard, CARE's chief of staff, started dancing with her. Then Anne reached over and pulled the sari off her face, which was beautiful. This lady's face had so much love and gratitude. Finally, she said to Anne, "I have nothing. I work in the fields every day. But I am so happy with this life. There's so much color."
Oprah: Oh my God, that is beautiful!
Meg: Yes. During the entire trip, we talked a lot about women's lives—about all the ways women feel oppressed. Even in the first world, expectations are not as high for women as they are for men. We get that message subtly, but in the third world, it isn't subtle. Girls are isolated and encouraged not to talk to one another. A little girl we met in the Delhi slum threw up her hands and said, "I used to be so alone. But now I feel free. And I want total freedom!" Over and over, she raised her hands and yelled, "Total freedom! Total freedom! Total freedom!" Once women find a way to form community, everyone reaps the rewards.