When my brother arrives at my house for a party, the first thing he asks is if he has to do any kind of project for the poor before he can start drinking. “See the world, develop global understanding, service to others, social justice, volunteering, giving back…” I acknowledge that I MAY sound like a broken record.
However, for all of my preaching and acts of service from home, I am a somewhat selfish traveler who has yet to dip my feet in “voluntourism.” I love the idea of seeing the world while serving others, but have struggled with the thought of a daily schedule, responsibility to someone, and feeling strapped to a plan. When I first decided to visit India, I had a fading moment of selflessness when I searched for places to teach. I signed up with an NGO and put the idea in the back of my mind as a possibility. When my visa would not allow me to return to India if I visited Nepal, I contacted the NGO and asked if I could work in the teaching street children program for a few days. When I received a quick and positive response, it felt like fate. I booked my flight to Kolkata. As I left Goa, all I knew about this city was based on four words I had heard many times before…”Mother Teresa of Calcutta.”
(Sitting in taxi now…driver stopped at roadside shop to have his car repaired. He assures me that we will be back on the road in ten minutes. A bit better than driver yesterday who stopped to relieve his bladder next to the car, but I digress!)
When my plane landed in Kolkata, I left the airport, searched for the person I emailed, jumped in the car with three strangers and headed to the “home-stay” location. As we drove down the dark streets, they asked me to pay for my lodging upfront and it occurred to me that anyone could set up an “NGO” website and invite foreigners with pockets of cash to their cars in remote places. Hmmmm….my momentary, quickened heartbeat suggested that I should have done more research, but happily, I live to tell the story of my short visit to work with street children.
I arrived at the dark and somewhat dirty house in a – not appropriate for the occasion- stark white dress. I was greeted by four fellow volunteers who warmly welcomed my arrival- but appeared to be in on a secret that I would soon learn! It’s hard to describe our accommodations. Wandering through India gives you a new definition on what is considered housing. Some places are palatial while others are constructed from sticks, a tarp, and rocks that serve as lounging and shelter. You watch people do all of their private business on the streets…bathing, brushing teeth, dishwashing, and toilet views are fairly common in places I have visited. So, I guess that would make our NGO housing a middle-class experience. We had a small sitting area with a couch and table and two bedrooms to share. Wooden beds, a cement-like pillow, a dirty or bucket shower option…all manageable. I did struggle a bit with the smell of the 20 dogs on the small property, but realize that as soon as I alter my preconceptions, I can get used to anything.
I settled in with some girl gossip and made fast friendships. Dani and Sylvia are fun-loving but serious-minded college students from Austria who are completing a school practicum experience. Their desire to make a difference and positive nature were charming. Bubbly – yes she really is- left her family behind on her 40th birthday for a few weeks of an altruistic celebration. Her witty banter with everyone we encountered made for some great laughs. She was traveling with her mom Katie who kindly accepted all of us as her temporary daughters and nurtured the heck out of us. I’m talking massages, hair oiling, and bargaining with skill for all of our purchases. Bubbly and Katie are of Indian descent, but have been living in the UK for years. Katie’s Punjabi background gave us all an inside track on Indian culture and local deals.
(25 minutes later…seem to be going…but wait, short disagreement between taxi driver and mechanic over cost of repair.)
The girls gave me the lowdown on our program. Each morning, we travel for one hour to a slum area near the main train station. We sit under a tree and wait for the street children to arrive to play games and participate in activities we devise. After an hour, we serve food and get on our way. The daily interaction was short and not exactly the teaching I imagined. On my first day, it rained like cats and dogs. As we traipsed through the mud streets and over railroad tracks, my plastic flipflops and sliding feet made for an adventure. The weather made playing hard, so we passed out food and left. The children affectionately accepted our love with calls of “aunty, aunty” but I couldn’t neglect the idea that we were a bandaid for the bigger issue…wishing these children were in school. Their homes and intense level of poverty stirred feelings of guilt for all I have and a frustration for how students I see each day often complain about our lives and take the opportunities we have for granted. I could sense a leadership structure amongst the children with an older girl guiding the actions of others with her words and sometimes a slap on the face. I wondered who this girl would be if she lived at home…student council president, honor roll, teacher’s pet?
On my second day, the weather was nice so we colored, played some games, listened to music, and learned Tae Kwon Do with Bubbly. It was better, but still left me feeling like there was so much more to be done. My sense of school leadership starting toying with all of the systems that could be put in place to “fix” this problem. But, I recognize the limitations of my ethnocentric stance and lack of cultural knowledge and understand that these are deeply-rooted issues of poverty around the world that make my simple solutions misguided and undesirable. Children on the streets of Kolkata face the same issues of poverty that we have yet to solve at home, just with a greater and more obvious intensity.
It’s hard for me to form an opinion on the program after two short days, but I was left with an itch to serve globally that is more agitated than when I arrived…now I just have to decide how to scratch it. Maybe that new desire is enough to make this short experience worthwhile. I also feel blessed that the next events left me with a lasting, life-altering understanding of how volunteers are making a systemic difference in Kolkata.