PETE plans activities for the vocational school women to get them out of the slums occasionally. Most people never even leave the boundary of the slums. They have small convenience stores inside and rely on each other for everything else. The girls had been wanting to go to SPLASH, a water park in New Delhi. Antoine, Lisa, John, and I offered to split the cost of the admission for the girls who wanted to go. Twelve women and girls were able to make the trip (some of the women’s husbands are abusive and wouldn’t let them go). We planned to meet at around 9 the next morning at the metro near the slum to go to the park. All the girls showed up a bit late and we rushed into the metro station to purchase tokens. As we were doing that, we noticed several of them had run off. A few minutes later, they returned wearing jeans, t-shirts and fancy shoes rather than their traditional garb! Laxmi’s daughter was along for the trip and ad apparently brought them clothes to change into. It really was a day out on the town! This was the first time Manju had ever worn a pair of jeans. Incredible. We purchased tokens and set off to board the metro, which was a disaster. We had to push some of the girls through the gate that opens after you scan your token because they were terrified by the opening and closing doors. We also had to coax some of the girls onto the escalator because it was the first time they had ever seen one. It was amazing to see the world through the eyes of someone who is rarely allowed to leave the “comfort” of the slums. It made us even happier we were giving them this opportunity.
The travel to SPLASH was ridiculously long to say the least. After the metro, we had to take a local bus which was stuck in a New Delhi traffic jam and not moving at all. The bus was open air, which means it was over 100 degrees F in there and people were squished in shoulder to shoulder. Everyone was pretty miserable on that bus and one of the girls got sick when we got off. Despite all this, we made it to the stop and walked about 10 minutes and across a busy highway to get there.
Our first impression was that SPLASH looked pretty run down and we weren’t even confident it was open (how awful would that be after two hours getting there?!). We paid and headed inside where some of the girls had to buy swimming clothes (shorts or capris and a tank top or t-shirt). I changed into some capris and a t-shirt, we shook off the long journey, and were determined to make this a fun day for the girls. Little did we know that wouldn’t be hard because as soon as the girls were dressed, they ran off into the wave pool with everyone else who was there. As you enter splash, there is a pool to the far left that occasionally has waves and otherwise just has a giant stage with a MC. He blasts music and has people come up to the stage to dance while all the other people dance and splash in the water below. It took all of two minutes before the MC spotted 4 white people and immediately called us up to the stage to dance like fools in front of everyone. They all ate that up! Luckily, Manju and some of the other girls had been up there right before us, so we weren’t alone. We had a great time making a spectacle of ourselves for a few songs before going back to the splash zone.
We were terrified to get water into our mouths because we knew it was filthy. We danced and splashed and all kept our lips pursed the whole time. The girls were having a ball. We spent the rest of the afternoon riding water slides, dancing, splashing, and swimming. We even convinced Laxmi to go down a few slides. Once the sun started to get low, the girls changed and we went to the other side of the park where they could ride rides. Laxmi was so excited to ride this sketchy fish train that went in a loop above the other rides. We did that with her, her daughter, and her daughter’s friend and then rode the teacups and swinging boat which made Laxmi scream like crazy. It was soo much fun!
The park was closing, so we had to head back home. The girls looked utterly devastated that they had to change back into their traditional clothes. Luckily, the ride back was much faster and easier. We bid farewell to them for the night, they thanked us profusely, Manju told Lisa and I we were now her sisters, and they all told us they would never forget this day. It was so worth it. We promised to meet them for a going away party the following evening before we all left to go to Varanasi on Thursday.
The next morning assisted with another a slum walk. I have mentioned slum walks previously, but never explained them fully. Part of PETE’s mission is to raise awareness about the New Delhi slums both locally and internationally. The way they do this is by holding daily slum walks (for a small, required donation). The visitor is taken through the slum, shown the schools and other parts of the slum that keep it running, and introduced to different people. A group of Australians had signed up for a slum walk on our fourth day, so we assisted Laxmi with the tour. We knew the general information, where everything was, and could explain it in much better English. It might seem like a strange concept to bring tour groups through a place where people live and put them on display in a sense. Before we came, we wondered how it would feel and I am pleased to say the program is more about cultural exchange and understanding, rather than people coming to the slum just to say they did it. People are genuinely interested in making relationships and learning about a way of life so very different from their own. This day was particularly special because the weekend was over and school was in session, so I was able to engage with the primary school kids and teach a little English. It really made me miss teaching. We also were able to spend more time with the vocational school women and interact with the kids in the kindergarten. Midway through the walk, John had to make the 15 minute journey back to the flat alone because his stomach wasn’t feeling too great. We planned to meet back at the flat after the slum walk before we went to the going away party.
While John was resting at the flat, Shiva had returned from the second school in the mountains. A few minutes later we all returned from the slum walk and were able to talk to Shiva about our experience and ways we thought the volunteer program could be improved. Since we had already promised the girls that we’d be at the going away party they had planned, Lisa, Antoine, and I headed out while John (still not feeling well) worked with Shiva to help forecast program expenses and organize future activities for volunteers. Earlier in the day, we had some pictures sent off to print to give the girls at the going away party. Unfortunately, they wouldn’t be finished until the following day, but Laxmi promised to hand them out for us.
The party was at the same place where we got married and Pooja hosted a beautiful event. She got all dressed up and made heaps of food. We bought some treats to share and everyone exchanged gifts. Laxmi also gave out lots of women’s underwear that was provided by a previous volunteer. I came away with all sorts of going away jewelry. Everyone was so amazingly sweet to us. We also found out several of the girls had been sick all night because “they aren’t used to swimming”, aka they swallowed too much of the gross pool water. Mmmm. Public pool water. They were feeling better though and still participated in the going away party.
I was genuinely crushed to leave all of them. As we walked out the door and turned to say goodbye and at least 20 women were standing in the room smiling and waving and shouting, I thought to myself, “it doesn’t get any better than this!”