Wednesday, June 25, 2008

June 25

It's our last night for a few days at the Vikhroli colony, tomorrow we're packing up the 24 seater and shipping off to rural Satara! For the next three days, our trip will take a completely different path, looking at a microfinance bank and the amazing results it's produced for those living in poverty in Satara. The night's dinner brought an unexpected early birthday surprise, and a delicious cake was brought out for me at the end of the meal!

Leaving the colony makes me think about the experience here thusfar. I remember the hazy first night, two in the morning carrying all of our luggage. We met all the Udayachal students, and their names all blurred together in my sleepy stupor. My native roommate, Karthik, and I got to a slow start, and with small talk dwindling, I assumed it would be an awkward three weeks. The next morning, I knew I had jumped to conclusions, as we had all begun to warm up to each other. Now, a little more than a week later, I feel like I've known my pals forever. The conversations have moved far beyond the, "Do they eat Reeses Pieces in India?" or "Do you have a Crosswords in America?" to sincere topics. Discussions of american school dances, the emerging popularity of love marriages in India, the difference between Hollywood and Bollywood, and more have taken up hours at night. Topics as serious as politics and terrorism also come up, and it is fascinating to hear the perspectives of those with very different problems. For my birthday present, they all signed a huge card, and presented me with a neatly wrapped box. Inside was a joking mug, but my favorite was the inscription on the bottom in pen: "Don't Forget Us"! No quesiton about it, I definitely will not.

On a different note, today was one of the most inspirational days of my life. We returned to Mankhurd, a relocation community that houses families from the slum areas. Our plan was to simply pass around a petition to increase the amount of water flowing through the pipes (as of now, it's once every three days, for 20 minutes). We all felt quite passionately about this, so it came as a shock when Mansi, our Akansha host, informed us that we would be cleaning all 7 floors. The majority of us seemed bummed, not because we felt we were too good to clean, but because it seemed impossible. While the accommodations are comparatively nicer than the slum areas, the halls are caked in dirt, flies swarm furiously around, and trash was piled haphazardly in corners. We had two hours, it seemed like an impossible job. "We can get help from the community!" she encouraged. "What an idealistic thought!" I assumed, I felt that we were already invading these peoples spaces, now we're going to ask them to do hard labor and tell them what to do! When we set out to ask for supplies, I cringed thinking of their hurt and indignant reactions.

I was wrong, completely wrong! It pains me to recall my attitudes and unfair preconceived notions. Not only did many supply us with brooms for sweeping, detergent for scrubbing, brushes, and buckets, but almost all of them helped! 7 floors of people, all EAGER to help! Out of nowhere, the halls are flooded with people, scrubbing and washing! Even the monsoon rains, which had contributed to my pessimistic attitude that morning, were more useful than we could imagine, supplying us with a steady flow of fresh water from the drain pipes outside the building! Halls were flooded with water, women and children swishing suds into dirty corners, men hustling up stairs with extra supplies and water. As water was used up quickly, I spent most of the time filling up buckets and bringing them up the stairs, a task that I could manage and that I knew would be of great help. All of the residents were joking and laughing, young boys trying to impress me by carrying as many buckets as they could.

After an hour of filling the bukets from the streets and hauling them up the flights, I passed a man standing by the rail on the fourth floor. His boy grabbed my pants leg and starting speaking at me in Hindi. I looked up apoligitically, and prepared to keep walking with my buckets, when he said, "Come!". Startled, I approached the rail and saw him working a pully system. He had tied a bucket to a rope from the ledge and was lowering it to a nearby drainpipe! "Smart!" I pointed to his brain and we both smiled, what an amazing idea! Even the men of the community, who we presumed would stay away from our work were doing all they could! Young children used the newly slippery floors, caked in suds, to their advantage as a makeshift slip-n-slide. As toddlers flew past me on their tummies at speeds previously unknown to man, it hit me how wrong my initial impression was. In addition to passing around the petition, we got the entire community to have fun with this job, and while it may not have been as sustainable as we were pushing for, it surpassed social barriers and led to change in, I think, everyone! This one boy, I called my "detergent sidekick" because he always insisted on spreading the detergent when I doused the floors (sometimes he sprinkled too liberally, I had to teach him the correct pouring amount). He palled around with me for the majority of the 2 hours, and even though I don't think we exchanged more than five words, he was giggling the whole time, begging to help with everything! That was an experience I will never forget.

Mr. Shaw gave a fascinating talk on economics, jampacked with huge words and crucial world topics. I am looking forward to Satara tomorrow, but for now, time to spend the first 9 hours of my birthday partying it up with the crew!

-Michael Scognamiglio

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