Saturday, October 22, 2011

Delhi. The good, the bad, the unexpected.

An alter at the ISKCON temple

India has been calling my name for quite a few years now. It's inexplicable how or when I first heard it but I knew I somehow, someday I needed to come here. When bill and I first started to discuss the issue I had visions of bearded gurus chanting mystically, meditating in an ancient ashram and reaching enlightenment while riding an elephant. There were so many things about myself I wanted to find answers to, so many things I wanted to see, hear, taste, do, and just experience. When we talked about it more we decided to volunteer in Delhi before moving on with the rest of our trip. The plan was to take the train to southern India, stopping in Jaipur, Udaipur, Mumbai and Goa before hitting Kerala for a guided tour through the back waters.

These were all ideas that were thrown around before we left Brooklyn. While we were in Rome, Mumbai was bombed. We crossed it off our destination list. While we were in Berlin we planned out the second and third legs of our trip and it was looking like we would need two months to do India instead of one. The train schedules were somewhat confusing. To go from Udaipur to Kerala we would have to go all the way back to Delhi if we didn't want to go through Mumbai. We were on the fence with Goa, meaning I wanted to go and bill didn't. We also wanted to leave for Buenos Aires by November 1st so we could keep on schedule for our south America adventures. We are not the couple who will end up traveling endlessly, going wherever the day takes us. Believe me, I would have loved to spend more time in certain places (ahem, Ibiza) but I also want to get home by the end of Dec so I can hopefully get a job and make back all the money I spent on this trip, get health insurance, start contributing towards my IRA again. You know, all those responsible, rational, icky adult things that I find too many travelers don't seem to care about. We decided to stay in Delhi for 3 weeks to volunteer while taking weekend trips to Jaipur and Agra. Then we would train it down to Kerala, then train it to Bangalore before flying home. Then we decided to ax Bangalore because there was a much cheaper flight out of Delhi. We would fly back to Delhi then fly to BA. Then Delhi got bombed and we had already paid for the volunteering so we couldn't not go there, so we should have just stuck to the original plan with Mumbai cause apparently "they bombin eeerrrrbody in India this summer" Too soon? Not funny? whatever. Then, just last week, we decided that a 46 hour train ride to Kerala was too much even if we were in first class so we bought a flight that was the same price as the train. We would spend the 2 extra days in Delhi. So, we will have spent 24 days in Delhi and 8 days in Kerala by the time this month is over. Follow all that? Oh, and we never made it to Jaipur.

The Lotus Temple. Please excuse the lens smug! That will have to get photoshopped out later.

Our first week in Delhi was interesting. We did a lot of sightseeing, got some Hindi lessons, saw a Bollywood movie, and went to the Taj Mahal in Agra. We also saw a lot of Delhi. There's lots of traffic, smog, trash, rubble, public urination, people like you and me and destitute people. Destitute is not the same as homeless. Homeless people in New York City are living a life of luxury compared to the people on the streets here. I didn't have any shock seeing this, I've seen it before when I traveled to southeast Asia for work. I also somehow manage remain very detached emotionally from these kinds of things. I think Bill is a little bothered by it. Especially when we are on our way to the now infamous M Block market and we have to walk past a completely open and enormous raw sewage drain. Imagine the worst smell you ever smelled and multiply it by a million. Rotting, fermenting, festering sewage flowing through the city in a drain the size of a small canal. And there are people working down in it, doing what I have no idea.

The Kamal Nayan Society school.

Our second week we started our volunteer assignment and we saw the real Delhi. The raw Delhi. Our program director took us to our assignment the first day to show us around. The Kamal Nayan Society is a non-formal education school on the edge of the slum in the Okhla Phase 2 Industrial Area. That means it's a chalkboard on the wall in an alley between factories with an asbestos roof held up by two poles. There are no books, no materials and sometimes no chalk. The office is a little shack with a couple chairs and a table. There are 20 to 60 kids a day that come in two shifts- boys in the morning and girls in the afternoon. They are anywhere from 2 to 17. They all wear the same clothes everyday, a lot don't have shoes, one little toddler didn't even have pants or underwear. Yep, a shirt and a little toddler penis greeted me one day. These kids aren't homeless though. They have parents, who often come by the school, most go to government school in either the morning or afternoon, and they have homes in the slum where there is no running water. The water pipe for the slum was right next to the school so every afternoon the parents were there filling large buckets of water and unfortunately the older girls in my class would leave early to help their families carry the water back to their shacks. Basically, these kids were poor, not destitute.That's poor in India. Poor kids in the US have shoes and pants, food stamps, welfare, running water, rights and laws that protect them Thank God.

Bill with our morning students, and one of the full time teachers. Sono (mentioned below) is on the right in the striped shirt.

I panicked the first day. I'm not a teacher, not even close. I almost never interact with small children and if you put me in a classroom in the US with 30 crazy kids I would have walked out. Now I had 30 crazy kids who were screaming in Hindi, in a dirt alleyway covered in trash in a slum. Bill and I finished our first day and I had a serious talk with him about just quitting. This whole program was a hot mess. I was not going to ever be able to teach these kids anything, I was anxious about having to come up with things to teach them everyday. In case you haven't noticed, I'm not exactly William Shakespeare over here so how could i teach English? And math, forget it. I failed algebra and trig in high school. I haven't done a division problem on actual paper in like, 15 years. But we already paid for this and if there's one thing I will never do is throw away money because I'm scared of something. I did regret our choice of spending so much time in Delhi. I felt like I was never going to see the glamourous, mystical India I had in my head before we came here.

So began our 2 weeks of teaching. I took the smaller kids, bill took the older kids. The boys in the morning always wanted to do math so we started out simple so I could see where they were at then we moved onto harder stuff. Cross multiplying, equations, exponents and yes, dividing. When I wasn't right the other full time teacher would jump in. She didn't speak any English but she could usually tell what I was trying to say and would translate to hindi. In between yelling "LADO MAT!" (no fighting) we actually got some stuff accomplished.

The girls were different. First of all, they were cuter and sweeter. They always wanted english. We started with nouns, I would write a sentence and circle the nouns. They wrote the same sentence in Hindi on the board and circled the nouns. We did the same with verbs and adjectives. We did geography, and to my astonishment, when I pulled out a world map not one kid knew where India was. That was an entire days lesson and by the end every single one can tell you where India is on the map! I showed them all the places bill and I had traveled. I showed them pics on my camera of Paris and Morocco. We talked about modes of transportation, you can take a bus or train to Pakistan but you have to take a boat or plane to South America. A big hit was yoga. Out of desperation for something to do one day I started teaching them some poses and they begged to do it every day after. A bigger hit was bill and I clumsily doing a waltz for them. Dancing With The Stars won't be calling us anytime soon but they loved it. They did the waltz, and I made them show me some Hindi dances. They loved to color so I brought in packs of crayons and coloring books. It sounds juvenile but when your a 10 year old kid and the closest thing you have to a toy is a styrofoam container that was trash, new crayons are awesome. Bill spent an entire afternoon teaching a girl how to write an S correctly, but when she finally got it he was elated. I have a profound new respect for teachers. Especially when we realized it's the little victories that count. I could go on and on about all the things we did but you get the idea. Some days were great, and some days sucked really bad.


And then there was Sono, aka Crooked Hands Jimmy. Already famous a la bills previous post, and he was my absolute favorite. It started when he serenaded me with a Hindi song and it was solidified when he made me an origami frog that hops. A kid missing half his arms and has backwards hands and only 1 thumb painstakingly spent a half hour folding a tiny origami frog for me. I've received lots of pictures and cards from the kids that I have to throw away, I mean, I can't lug that stuff with me all over the earth. But the frog I will keep till the day I die.

I was doing my laundry in a bucket in the bathroom the other night and, as I was scrubbing my filthy pants caked in dirt after just one day at school, I started thinking about my initial thoughts on India. We will have to return one day to do a proper Rajasthan tour. I've also always wanted to see Varanasi, and watch the bodies burn on the Ganges in their final grasp at enlightenment. I want to go to the Bodhi tree and see if I feel more like Buddha sitting under it. There will be time to do all this, assuming I'm not dead, in the future. Right now I think I was meant to be here in Delhi. A teeny transformation has been happening all along, I didn't have to wait until I got to India. It started back at home. If you really want to cleanse, get rid of everything you have. I sold a lot of my stuff, what I didn't sell I gave away or threw away. Every single object forced me to ask a question about myself. I got married! I pushed my limits in yoga. I have lived out of a carry on size suitcase for 4 months now. I'm forced to communicate my feelings to bill in a better manner than screaming uncontrollably. My patience isn't endless yet, but it goes a lot farther than it used to. I've mostly gotten over a huge germaphobia problem. I've eaten things when I didn't know what they were. I've realized that I have to just give up trying to control circumstances and let the universe do it's thing because I am a small, tiny spec on the planet. I've come to the shocking conclusion (so far) that people are overwhelmingly good, honest and nice no matter where you are. I had originally planned on having a spiritual epiphany in a remote ashram somewhere in the country, but I think I came a little closer to God in the slums of Delhi. I haven't taken the elephant ride yet though, so I'll have to report back on that later :)



  1. Namaste Bill & Claire!
    Now can you understand why went I got back (after being there for 1+ years), I would laugh when people would ask me, "so, how was India?". It's so cool that you have immersed yourself in it all ... the good, the bad and the completely and utterly unexplainable. There is a lot of truth and beauty underneath it all ... sounds like you are finding it. Don't get me wrong though, that place is crazy and I am still recovering. ;) ... But I do miss it !
    Happy Travels!

  2. I volunteered at the school in October 2009 , and I can honestly say it changed my life , the children were so charming and so grateful for the time spent with them. I visited many of their homes , and even though they had nothing to spare , I was always offered a drink and food. I stayed with a family , in New Delhi with a lot of other volunteers , and we had fun as well as working , I would thoroughly recommend it to anyone.

  3. The school looks exactly how my group and I left it. Its awesome to see it used like this :3 That world map is still the biggest accomplishment of my life. Don't you think the courtyard a little down the ally is one of the most beautiful places on earth?

  4. My school travels to Delhi every year to volunteer and we have also worked at Kamal. Last year we put up a new roof, repainted all of the walls, put up a new "No Punching" sign (glad to see it's still used to keep the kids from hitting each other), and added a real toilet! This year we're putting in a filtered drinking water tap. You're right, the kids are so lovely, polite, eager to learn, and positive. We're heading back to Delhi in three weeks and I'm already counting down the days until we see the kids again! Those Yoga lessons look like a blast- maybe we should try that as well :)