Volunteering & “Home”

I’ve been at my project for two weeks now, but I have yet to write about it. I find that the day to day stuff is more interesting than the travel stuff – after all, as far as traveling goes, really you should experience things like the Taj Mahal yourself. Photography and words do not do it justice.

I am staying in an apartment with a single mother (widow) named Mumta. She has two twin boys about 10, and she recently hurt her arm (she was hit by a motorcycle) so her mother, Vasha, is staying with us for a few months to help with things while Mumta recovers.

The four of them share one room, Wendy and I share another, and there’s a third bedroom that we recently acquired that two new volunteers (who should arrive today) will be staying in.

Our apartment

The apartment building has three floors and a roof. That grate in the center is on every floor, including the roof – it allows sun light into the entire building, which is actually very efficient (it only really rains during the rainy season, when they cover the roof grate). Each floor is a different apartment, but the stairs are open and you sort of walk through each common area (living room / dining room) to get to the next floor. The individual bedrooms have locks on them. We are on the third floor, but the laundry is hung on the roof so our neighbors come through pretty frequently. Sometimes they stop in our rooms for chats. As mentioned previously, privacy and personal space are not big cultural things here.

Wendy, a recent retiree (seen walking in the photograph above) , is my roommate and co-volunteer for this project.

Our bedroom (the mess is mine, obviously)

We do have a western toilet, which is pretty awesome, though I think I finally got the squat down with grace. Our shower is the bucket shown below. I fill it about 2/3rds with water, then put an immersion water heater in it – which actually gets the water pretty hot. I then use a cup to rinse myself down and do the usual shower stuff. When I’m done, I mop up the bathroom floor to make it less of a puddle. To do laundry, I use the same bucket, fill it with cold water and Tide powder and soak the clothes for 30 minutes before I scrub them a bit and rinse them out with another bucket and hang them on the roof. However, we haven’t had tap water all day so whether or not I do either of those on a particular day is usually up in the air. The power also goes out rather frequently, usually during the afternoon.

Our shower

My meals are usually chapattis and some form of chaval and dal (lentils and rice). Depending on the meal, sometimes there’s spiced vegetables along with the dal. It’s simple, but very tasty and way better than anything you can get at an Indian restaurant in the states.








After breakfast, around 9:30 am, we walk to the project. The project is… well, having seen slums in India, I know that the project is not located in the slums, but I doubt most westerners would know the difference. To get there, I have to cross two bridges.

Walking across the bridge to my project.

The bridge above is actually the nicer of the two. Here’s the first one I have to cross:

The first bridge we cross - it's like that for about 1/4 of the way.

Do I need to describe the twenty foot drop into a sewage-river? No? Okay, moving on.

When I get to the project, Wendy and I spend an hour or so teaching English to the core group of women. Ideally, they then spend the rest of the morning & early afternoon sewing bags or making jewelry to be sold by the organization Katah Sandesh, a getting-off-the-ground NGO/business. She and I then spend an hour teaching English to three teenage girls who also want to learn English. Then we come back for lunch and work on tomorrow’s lesson plans. Wendy then goes to her second project, which is helping with an after school program. I spend the afternoon sorting through / editing recent photographs of their products and the women and working on the web design of their website. Soon I will start writing up lesson plans for the long term during this time, to allow for continuity after Wendy and I leave.

Wendy and the women of my project working on English

I’m kind of excited that so far, I’ve actually been keeping busy – and busy with stuff that can legitimately get put down on my resume. Which wasn’t the whole point of this trip, but you know me: I don’t like to not have anything to do. It drives me rather crazy, and that’s some of the motivation behind volunteering instead of just traveling. That and traveling gets old after awhile – it’s nice to have a home base to return to and just spend the day studying Hindi, writing letters (still haven’t found a post office) and drinking chai. Which basically describes my day today.

In a few weeks I am going to Jaipur & Jodhpur and next month I am contemplating two weeks or so in an ashram (yoga) in Rishikesh. Over my birthday, I’m thinking a week in Dharmasala, maybe taking some Buddhist theory classes and spending my mornings at the yoga center there.

In between it all, I have the women here. I’m really enjoying teaching the women – the dynamic of the class is lovely. More than that though, I’ve recognized a common thread between the hour long class on a dirt floor and my time at a women’s college and my time as a Girl Scout Counselor. All women learning environments have a special way of getting under your skin that I have yet to encounter in any other learning environment, and it’s a pleasure to return to that.

Note: Some of the pictures in this entry were taken by Wendy.

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