Monday, June 23, 2008
Reflections on Week One.
I cannot believe we've been here for a whole week! On one hand, it feels like it's been so much longer than a week; on the other, it's been one of the fastest weeks of my life. This incredible group has experienced so much together. From visiting slum communities to teaching deaf children dances, crossing the hectic Mumbai streets to surviving open-air markets, participating in NGO youth leadership programs to finding ourselves on the outskirts of a riot, we have bonded, changed and grown in great strides during these short seven days.
Undeniably, our journey continuously presents struggles none of the students can be fully prepared for. With three new faculty members joining us today, I experienced a rush of emotions I felt (and am still feeling) during my first Mumbai bus ride. The poverty is incredible. Visiting the crammed homes of so many people rips at our hearts and placing a starburst or milky way into the hand of a begging child doesn't make me feel any less guilty for stepping into a beautiful restaurant to fill my "empty" stomach. The heat hasn't been too bad, but 2 1/2 hour drives in the strenuous Mumbai traffic with shrill horns (and trust me, the drivers are not afraid to use them) in a bus with no air can cause tempers to run high. Nonetheless, I think we've all experienced many things that are making this trip so much more than worth while.
While there are certainly huge impacts India is making on us, for me, the most memorable moments thus far have been the tiny things. While working at Save the Children India, an NGO that works with mentally challenged and hearing impaired slum children, four groups of PA and Udayachal were challenged in different areas-computers, art, dance, and theatre-to help the kids put on a presentation for the group. Not only was there a language barrier, but many of the STCI students hardly spoke at all. Despite this and the fact that we only spent about six hours with the children, I feel at ease saying that the bonds we made were like none other we've ever experienced. At one point, Kartik (Udayachal) was trying to teach Swati, a deaf 13 year old girl from STCI how to say "I am a bird," an intro to our theatre performance. Swati was having a great deal of trouble pronouncing, and, by chance, I caught a glimpse of Kartik taking Swati's hand and putting it on his lips so she could feel the way the mouth moves when pronouncing. I can't put my finger on exactly what I was experiencing, but in that second, something inside of me turned over.
Today, Akanksha, another NGO that works with educating students in slum communities, challenged us to go into a community with a sort of scavenger hunt. The list revolved around things that many of these people would do frequently. We needed to fill a water bottle from the local water supply, get a handkerchief made for each person in our group, find the oldest woman in the community and hear about a childhood story, use the public toilet, and fake an ailment so the doctor would give us a prescription. One thing that really struck me was how communal the slums we've visited are. Everyone knows each other and works together. They get their water from the same place and share the same bathrooms. It is very much a small world with food vendors, a doctor, a chemist, tailors, children, a football field, neighbors, and clotheslines hanging from building to building; everyone appears to rely on each other.
It is not only our on-sight work that has caused this group to bond and grow so much, but also the time we spend together. Last night, many of us pushed beds together and lay there "dropping beats" and raps about our India experiences. We can joke about home life and we are finding out so much about each other, despite the fact that few of us were friends before coming across the world. Still, we also get super philosophical. After staying up too late as a group playing Mafia and Spoons, hiding from cockroaches and sharing American and Indian candy, Neha, Anabel, and I (we're roommates) went back to our room and discussed slum life for a good hour and a half. All the students have been brutally honest and open about our feelings. Alana and Mr. Mundra are doing an amazing job getting us to write and share, and one-on-one check-ins allowed each student to get more in touch with their emotions, as well as opening up to ones we didn't want to feel as much. The bonding in Vikhroli is amazing, and this seamless bond is what allows us to make our on-sight work even more effective.
Our service is absolutely incredible. Already, friends and family have questioned why I would want to take three weeks out of my summer to travel half way around the world and do projects that I could seemingly achieve in the greater Boston area. Mr. Mundra has often asked us to question if we're really making a difference in the lives of these people, especially if we only get to spend a few hours out of a few days with them. Well, hands down the answer is yes. The smiles on the faces of children when we work with them is fulfilling beyond measures. Explaining to slum-dwellers that we are not here to take their homes or collect taxes, but merely to learn about their lives and to help, and then having them ask us to describe our lives in the US is equally fulfilling.
I think the most amazing feeling was during the closing ceremony at STCI. The head of the school, Dr. Anand, asked if any of the children would get up and say anything to the volunteers. One brave soul got up and thanked us, and after him, at least 10 more kids got up. They told us how we were their brothers and sisters and teachers, how much fun they had, how they learned, how welcoming we were and how they loved having us; we all had tears in our eyes. Just kidding, there was another really fulfilling moment. While waiting to get up the stairs to the home of one of the STIC children, a completely random family appeared from the shadows of her home and brought over a cup of water to me due to the heat. Water is precious in the slums, and anywhere, and this woman didn't even know me or have any relationship to our group. Still, she was possibly the most hospitable woman I've ever met. We don't always get this incredible hospitality from people in India, but overall, the country has been welcoming and we have been learning nonstop.
Well, we have an early day tomorrow and I need to get rest. Until next time, shanti (peace)