While planning a full escape from her corporate-tour-of-duty, Jeannie Mark’s job suddenly quit her. In June 2010, she set off to explore the world, find stories and grow exponentially. She recently spent three months volunteering at a small village in India with Child Haven, a home for abandoned or orphaned children. Please enjoy this week-in-the-life of Jeannie from Nomadic Chick, as she recounts her first week of volunteering in India.
Day One: Sunday
12:00 pm: Flew into Mumbai completely unprepared. I’m counting on someone from Child Haven picking me up. Go through customs with no problems and as I venture outside a wall of steamy air hits me. Prakash, the assistant manager, is there with a placard. We shake hands. He smiles. The ride to Savarsai begins precariously. There are no medians, so cars barrel head on towards each other, then swerve into their own lanes narrowly missing each other. Add in wandering animals, surprising olfactory sensations, and men, men, men. No women present on the streets. I feel drowsy from the flight, even though I slept. The car rocks up and down. I brace for the ride ahead.
3:00 pm: Fall asleep on the long jeep ride to Savarsai. Prakash wakes me up. Kavita, the manager of the home is here to greet me. Language is a bit of a struggle with her, but the trade-off is I can communicate with him more seamlessly. I tour the home – a long, rectangle compound, offset by a concrete patio where the kids play, study or eat. The home is surrounded by infinite hills. A lake that snakes through the hills and beyond is accessible by a slope. Kavita takes me to my room. It’s achingly rustic. There is a western toilet, a new add-on in the last year. The rest of it is dusty. Literally. The walls remind me of swiss cheese, fragile and full of holes. The shower has dirt on the floor. I sweep the dust, then begin unpacking a bit.
6:00 pm: Prayer time with the kids. All 42 of them. It’s the first time we meet. I sit in a plastic chair and they face me sitting cross-legged in rows. The gist of prayer is to show thankfulness to Child Haven and Gandhiji. The sing-song rhythms of their prayer reminds me of holy places. Afterwards, they swarm me. They torpedo me with questions or touch my hair and clothes. I am named Auntie Jeannie. The youngest one has to be five, the oldest sixteen.
8:30 pm: Dinner is spicy potatoes with peas, lentil soup and a yummy flat bread called puri. I eat with my left hand by mistake, immediately switching. I follow Kavita and Prakash’s lead, washing my hands with water, letting it flow over my right hand. My hand is still oily.
10:00 pm: As I lie in bed, a group of rats skitter across the roof. They must live there. Earlier, I had to sweep a cluster of ants outside. Before I drift off, I’m certain a mosquito is circling near my ear.
Day Two: Monday
2:00 pm: I endure my registration in Alibag. Indian bureaucracy at it’s finest. They still hand write everything in large ledger books and work on those huge tunnel monitors from the nineties. I entertain some strange questions by the Assistant Chief. All we do is wait for something to happen, when we know perfectly well it could happen in mere minutes. We wait 25 to 30 minutes for a receipt alone. I see one officer holstering an ancient, well-worn Colt .45. Get caught though. My employment visa says I’m volunteering in Andhra Pradesh, not Maharashtra. The officer gives us a stern warning. The bus back is 40 minutes, choked and cramped. I watch the grassy countryside through the window.
8:00 pm: Celebrate a festival with the kids. There is singing, dancing, fireworks and sparklers. Nearly burn my hand off holding a lit one! We consume something called shekurama – boiled soy milk with pistachios, almonds and bits of plum. It’s very tasty. Most of the kids speak Marathi, knowing only a few words in English. Prakash tells me the ones not enrolled in English Medium probably understand 20%, while the English savvy understand 80%. After fireworks and sparklers, the kids dance to music. I take some photographs and learn my first Bollywood dance moves.
10:45 pm: I want sleep, but wash some clothes instead. Write in my journal a bit, then secure the flimsy mosquito screen over the window on my door with duct tape. The night is never quiet here. Cars and motorbikes zip by on the nearby road and since my room is by the girls’ dorm they gossip and chatter for several minutes. No matter; sleep comes the minute my head hits the pillow.
Day Three: Tuesday
6:00 am: Wake to the sounds of morning exercise. Outside, it’s still dark and the kids are half-asleep as Prakash makes them do callisthenics. They are cute as they wind their arms, contort into downward dog and bounce at jumping jacks. I join in, a bit bleary-eyed. After the warm-up, the kids run off to their dorms. Kavita comes out of the kitchen entrance with a steel bowl of soy milk. I help her arrange cups while she pours. The kids, some in school uniforms, run up to claim a glass. I sip from my own glass, savoring the warm milk.
10:30 am: Take a rickshaw to the nearby town, Pen. I walk down the main square. The visual inputs are overwhelming. Oxen run free, nobody owns them or tries to slaughter them for consumption. People take great pride in sweeping their homes, yet throw garbage in the open sewers or alleyways for burning later. Merchant stalls teem with people. They stare at me. I realize I’m the only foreigner. I turn down the market street, taking in trinkets, spices, garlands or clothes for sale. I find the Internet café down a side street denoted by a telephone pole and a mangle of lines. The owner allows me to use my laptop. I email some people, try to write a post, but words don’t come easily. Have to get back to the home, anyway.
12:30 pm: Lunch is served in the office. Dal, chapatti, curried vegetables and lentil soup is displayed on a stainless steel thali plate. Eating with my hands is easier, the food delicious. Kavita keeps dishing me more even though I’m full. The office has two computers, two desks and a plastic table in the center for such gatherings as lunch, dinner or meeting donors. Kavita tells me how she came to manage the home. A social worker at the time, she was asked by Mukunda Kolkata to start the home in 2001. Mukunda is the founder of Savarsai, the nearby village. The high school kids arrive from school. I chat with them, try to remember their names. After lunch, the kids have nap time. I write an update email to the Child Haven head office.
Day Four: Wednesday
8:00 am: I help the English Medium kids get ready for school. They are picked up in a SUV-type vehicle with bus seats installed in the back. The driver has floor speakers beside the bus seats, blasting techno whenever he starts the engine. I tie up their shoes or help them with book bags. Mostly, the matron is the main caregiver. That’s when I stand a bit helpless. I walk them to the gate, make sure they get in, and wave goodbye. Dipali, a ten year-old girl, says “goodbye Auntie” the loudest. I retreat to my room, but have to leave again; it’s homework time for the high school kids before they leave for school.
11:35 am: As the high school kids get ready to catch the bus, we hear some commotion on the highway. The kids and me run to the gate and see a blur of orange. A procession of men and women bang on instruments, chanting “tuka ram”. Kavita says this means that man and woman should go to pray. The kids announce that we just saw a dindi. The procession will walk 10 km to temple, pray, and stay for two or three days. Raja, the resident dog jumps on me excitedly. He likes dindis as much as I do.
4:00 pm: Homework time for the English Medium kids. Prakash asks me to sit with them, help them with studies. Saraswati shows me her math equations. Some are wrong, so I get her to count additions and subtractions with her fingers. Nanu’s homework involves filling in the blanks, so I help with pronunciation. Two of the girls want to sing some English poems and dance. They act out their poems. I chuckle and dance along with them.
Day Five: Thursday
10:00 am: I walk the Marathi Medium kids to the village school. It’s a short ten-minute walk. The kids group together in pairs, but that seems to fall apart! Some dawdle; others walk fast. We stay to the side avoiding bits of garbage, cow dung and jagged stones. Chitra holds my left hand; Sonali holds my right. They don’t wear shoes; I’m amazed. We go up a stretching, paved pathway, towards the center of the village. It’s my first look. Some houses are constructed of wood, while others are concrete smudged by dust, battered by wind. Goats, cows, wild dogs and piles of garbage round out the landscape. The villagers stare at me incessantly, a foreigner in their everyday environment. I drop the kids off, the principal smiles and waves at me. I walk back slowly, absorbing the surroundings.
3:00 pm: A couple and their children arrive in a rickshaw hauling large bags. Prakash asks me to take photos, since his camera is slow. All the kids sit in their designated rows and sing a welcome song to the visitors. I greet the donors, find out they are from Mumbai. Kavita welcomes them formally and asks them to make a small speech. The kids sing some adorable songs, peppered with rhyming and hand-claps. The donors hand out snacks and distribute blankets. I’m included, given some chips and a ladoo. The kids buzz on sugar and the thrill of a special visit.
9:15 pm: Post-dinner, Kavita asks me to share a fairy tale before bedtime prayer. It’s chilly, so I bundle up in a toque and jacket. Some of the kids are already sleeping on the cold concrete, but I proceed with a rousing telling of Jack and the Beanstalk. I enlist Sanghvi, a bright English Medium student to translate for me. I act out the story to make the kids laugh. After prayer, I enter the room exhausted, ready for bed. A cluster of ants gathers at the walls and near the door. I sweep again, and then decide it’s time for pest control spray. The clothes I wore all day are filthy, so I put them in a bucket to soak them. When I go to the bathroom, a frog appears on the toilet seat. I shoo it away.
10:45 pm: I’m physically tired, but can’t sleep yet. Raja starts barking at some faceless intruder. My nose is cold under the spinning ceiling fan. I turn around on the hard mattress, the bedsprings creaking. Raja stops barking. The only sound now is the pump outside, flowing with water. I close my eyes.
After five months in India, Jeannie is now traveling in Sri Lanka, Thailand and other parts of Southeast Asia. Read her gypsy wanderings at Nomadic Chick or follow her Twitter feed @nomadicchick.