At 10am Antoine and Lisa knocked on the door to Shiva’s apartment. We opened the door to let them in and began chatting while we waited for Laxmi to arrive.
Shiva is the co-founder of Providing Education To Everyone (PETE), a NGO that has started schools in the slums of New Delhi, raises awareness of life in the slums through daily slum walks, and is in the process of opening new schools in the mountains of Uttrakhand in Northern India. PETE’s goal is to educate the community as well as children because they believe that through educating the community, individuals can teach their fellow citizens an bring about positive change. Last October, John and I researched volunteer organizations in the countries we were planning to visit. We came across PETE on ‘workaway.com’ and contacted Shiva who was extremely welcoming and invited us to come for as little or as long as we could. The mission of the organization was something we were both very interested in and we quickly committed to several days in the slums of New Delhi immediately upon our arrival in India. We figured, if there is any way to immerse ourselves in such a rich culture and make a difference in the lives of others, this was our opportunity. We were right.
Lisa and Antoine briefed us on what we should expect in the slums because they had been there daily for the past few days assisting on slum walks and spending time with the locals. Laxmi arrived shortly after and made us some really tasty black masala tea that we enjoyed together. We then grabbed some water for the 110 degree Fahrenheit day and followed her out the door with excitement and nerves. It took about 15 minutes to reach the slums by foot. The journey was smelly, dusty, hot, and full of sounding horns from every vehicle in a mile radius. We had to cross eight lanes of highway traffic to get to the entrance of the slums. In India, lanes are more decorative rather than functional. So, in reality, four lanes really accommodates twelve tuk tuks side-by-side. Over time I think you come to understand the two traffic laws: (1) yield to the bigger vehicle, and (2) don’t die. While crossing the busy streets of Vietnam is more of a mindless task (you don’t even need to look, the motorbike traffic will just flow around you), crossing major streets in New Delhi is more of an art. Truly a game of human Frogger. The only thing that made it a little easier was the perpetual traffic jam that is New Delhi. Sometimes the cars were moving slowly enough to navigate easily. Besides, Indians are very used to dodging cows all over the roads, so we figured their skills could be relied upon to avoid humans also.
No matter how much you imagine or prepare yourself for entering a world so very different from your own, you will always be surprised in one way or another. That’s why it is best to do one of two things: (1) picture it as bad as it could possibly be so that you are pleasantly surprised or (2) don’t picture it at all and just go in with an open mind. I did a combination of the two and entered the slums with an open mind, but expected the worst. To my surprise, we entered the relatively narrow alley into the slum and were immediately welcomed by the locals standing nearby as well as flocks of kids running up to us grabbing our hands and arms and smiling ear to ear. It didn’t take long to realize the incredible relationship Laxmi has with practically all 40,000 members of this slum. She is an amazing woman. At a former NGO, she nearly single-handedly immunized everyone in this slum. She knew all the locals and could speak to everyone regardless of the fact that the slum consists of many different ethnic groups, each with their own distinct language or dialect.
Everything we noted out in the New Delhi streets was exaggerated in the slums. The amount of trash in the streets had increased, and the smells in the gutters that line the alleys of the slum were putrid and full of old food, trash, and human waste. The funny thing is, I felt as if I hardly noticed it because I was so consumed by the genuine happiness and friendliness of the people we met. Laxmi took us on a small tour to show us the ropes and teach us what the organization has done. Our first stop was at the primary school where we met one of the teachers and his family. School wasn’t in progress that day because it was Saturday, but we got the idea. He invited us back later for a music and puppet show to be put on by some of the boys in the slum.
The next stop was the women’s vocational school, a trade school which offers beauty courses and teaches the women how to stitch. Some of the women were hanging out in the room and invited us to come in. One of the ladies played the drum and sang for us while we all danced to the beat (keep in mind this room was about 5 feet by 7 feet and had about 7 grown adults in it). This was followed up by some of the other women offering to give us a henna tattoo. I sat on the floor while I got a beautiful pattern on my palm and forearm. One of the younger girls came in a bit after and proceeded to draw henna on the boys (I think it was her first time!). Antoine got the brunt of it, which consisted of a large flower and other big shapes, but he was a great sport about it. John was also lucky enough to receive a tattoo which lasted about twice as long as mine did. His henna tattoo caused a lot of giggles from children and other Indians who found a man with a henna tattoo equally as funny as his giant beard.
In order to stay as healthy as possible during our stay, we only had a few rules to follow while in India: Don’t eat meat. Don’t eat raw vegetables. Always drink bottled or sanitized water. Well, John already broke the first rule on the flight over by eating some strange chicken and egg dish (but I guess airplane food doesn’t really count). Then during our visit to the vocational school, we were handed some raw, washed cucumber from one of the ladies and knew we couldn’t pass on it because it would be rude to decline such hospitality. We felt the odds were not in our favor given that sanitized water for washing vegetables and soap for washing hands are both luxuries in this part of the world and the slums of India should be no exception. Shortly after eating our tasty cucumber, we were offered some cups of water from another friendly resident which we did not decline. So, in short, within 48 hours of our arrival we had broken all of our precautionary rules on food safety. Oh well, you only live once and giardia eventually goes away, right?
Our next stop was the kindergarten, where we met the teacher and a bunch of excited and smilingly young students. They were excited to have visitors and loved to get their pictures taken. After a few minutes of distracting the kids from their learning, we continued on into some of the more undeveloped sections of the slums. Laxmi showed us the public bathroom complete with two toilets and two showers. This was one of only two restrooms in the whole slum. That means 10,000 people to each toilet and each shower. They also cost a few rupees to use, despite the appearance of not being maintained in a few years. Oddly enough, two monkeys were chained in front of the bathroom, one of which seemed to fancy coke.
As we continued on, we stopped in various homes so that Laxmi could check on everyone and we could say hello and visit a bit. We were surprised how many people knew at least a little English. We hung out with some of the kids who were playing in the courtyard of a local temple and then kept moving on to visit a man who makes stuffed toys out of hay and fabric. We bought a few to support his work and finished our loop through the small neighborhood.
We circled back around to end at the primary school to watch the boys play instruments for us and sing. Among their repertoire was a rendition of Justin Beiber’s “baby, baby, baby ooohh” complete with music that involved percussion by body slapping. We learned most of the young boys in the slums and other places in India have a talent for percussion with just their hands and chest. The man who was in charge finished the performance with a Rajasthani puppet show. We thanked the crew, gave a donation, and headed outside to make our way back to the flat, but were engulfed by crowds running down the alley. Drums were playing, people were dancing, and a man on a decorative horse was galloping through the crowd. Apparently, the rider on of the horse going to be married in the next few days and this was one of many parties leading up to the big event.
On our walk back, we let the events of the day sink in. Our first interactions with the people of India were amazing. Everyone we came across was happy, welcoming, and carried themselves with a sense of pride and dignity despite their difficult living conditions. Like many others we have met during our travels, these people made us appreciate the little things we take for granted everyday and allowed us to question what a person really needs to be happy. We hoped to learn much more from them in the coming days.
Laxmi made us all an amazing Indian dish with paneer (sort of like cottage cheese, but better) and chapati. It ended up being one of the best meals we had in all of India. We spent the evening hanging out with Antoine and Lisa, enjoying a few beers and making plans to travel together for a bit after volunteering. We knew we were heading back into the slums the following day for a slum walk and to visit with some of the locals to help promote English speaking and cultural exchange. In the end, we had no idea what was in store for us the following day, but it would prove to be a good one!