When we committed to volunteering in India we had little idea what adventure that we were in for. We found the FCN (Foundation for Children in Need) through our friend Mary, and on her advice and with her help, we contacted the founders Tom and Geetha and forced ourselves into their lives as volunteers. We didn’t really know what we would be doing but wanted to be helpful and do something good for the world…. We really didn’t know how challenging doing good can be.
After emailing with Tom and Geetha, they told us to book a train to Cuddapah. A biggish city in the heart of the state of Andrha Pradesh. There was only one entry in our guidebook about the Andhra Pradesh state and it was about a Hindu pilgrimage site – this meant we were heading to a state that was more or less overlooked by tourists. We found Cuddapah on the map and were told we would be helping out at a school that was about 2 hours away from Cuddapah near a village called Porumamilla.
We were picked up at the Cuddapah train station in an A/C Jeep (which is truly luxury transport for us at this point) and shuttled to Shantivanam, a home for the elderly and girls. As we drove through the countryside, we could see that the majority of the population were farmers and due to a 4 year drought many fields were left fallow and many of the reservoirs were dry. As we passed through the small village of Porumamilla and kept driving we realized that we would be even further out in the country than we had imagined, 13 km from the nearest town in fact. We were WAY OUT in rural India and our attempt to gain some good karma was underway.
We arrived at the Shantivanam home and were warmly greeted by Sister Lucy who would be our mom, caretaker and friend while we stayed at Shantavanam. She has been at Shantivanam, a FCN home, for 15 years taking care of orphaned and semi-orphaned girls (as they are called when they have lost one parent) as well as some senior ladies who would have nowhere to go without the haven of this peaceful place in the country. As we had travelled overnight and it was a holiday (there are many holidays in India), we were told to rest and we would head off to the school in the morning. The school that the girls attend is a co-ed school for grades nursery-10th grade. It is also founded by FCN to provide an education to the poor of the area and they provide dorms for the orphaned boys who attend.
We were up bright and early the next day for breakfast at 730am before catching the school bus with the girls to our first day of school on a Saturday. Unlike us lucky Americans, they go to school 6 days a week from 830am-430pm. Our first day was an orientation day as we sat in with a few classes to see how they were taught and get the lay of the land. We received our teaching schedules for the next 2 weeks and they were chock-a-block. We would be teaching English to grades 1-9 with an average of 5 classes per day and would finish each day with an hour of yoga – alternating yoga days between girls and boys (grades 2-9). WOW! And we don’t even like kids …. Or so we thought.
Now imagine Kevin and I, between us we have practically no experience dealing with kids, much less 20-45 at a time … oh boy. The school is split into English program kids whose classes are all taught in English and Telugu program kids whose classes are in the local Telugu language but they also have mandatory English classes. Keep in mind that these are poor kids who come from largely illiterate families and have teachers who don’t necessarily speak perfect English either. So here we were, coming in with our American accents to try and make ourselves understood and impart some sort of teaching for these kids without boring them to death. Let’s just say, in the line made famous by Tim Gunn, we had to just ‘make it work’.
The day I taught first grade for the first time was unforgettable. The kids sat still for about the first two minutes while they sussed me out. Then all of a sudden, mayhem broke loose, I had kids running around me, some trying to spell words on the blackboard, others hitting each other and a few lying underneath their desks for reasons unbeknownst to me – all while I was desperately trying to get them to sit down and be quiet again to no avail. As soon as I had half of them in their desks the other half went wild – it was a losing battle and I was sweating. I taught a version of ‘Simon Says’ which was the only thing that kept them quiet for even a moment or two… even though no one was ever ‘out’ as they would sneak around me and get back in the game. They were so tiny and small I couldn’t help but laugh but boy did that class exhaust me. I dreaded it each time, knowing that I would once again be conquered by these Lilliputians.
I quickly learned some basic Telegu such as Be Quiet (nishabdumb) and sit down (cuchondee) which had a shock effect the first few times but quickly wore off. 6th and 7th grades had about 40 kids each in them, many with very limited English, so you can imagine that as we practiced reading that the 39 kids not reading quickly got bored and started talking. Kevin and I tried to think of ways to make the learning more fun and tried hangman (pretty successful), spelling bee competitions (well liked) and basic scrabble (not as successful as there was much cheating going on.) We would bribe them with these games in exchange for silence as in ‘if you are not quiet we will keep reading and not play any games’ … it didn’t always work but it helped.
As I mentioned, we would finish each day with 1 hour of yoga. I have always been a bit nervous about teaching yoga but here I was being thrown into the fire. I would be teaching yoga to between 100-200 kids per day, in the birthplace of yoga, India. No pressure there, right? Well it all went well – I tried to make it fun, incorporating animal sounds in poses such as down dog or cobra to keep them interested and laughing. The teachers helped keep the kids in line and more or less quiet. I had told myself that during this trip I would try and maintain a regular yoga practice … well, be careful what you wish for because here it was. Daily yoga …. With a boatload of kids.
After our first week teaching we were invited on an outing with one of the teachers, Santosh. He said he would bring us to a temple, a dam and to his village. We were game, but as usual, we had underestimated the adventure. We thought we would take a single bus to and from these locations and be back by noon … as we have been taught time and time again, you must expect the unexpected in India. We left Shantivanam at 8am in the morning and caught a shared rickshaw to Porumamilla. In this part of India they use rickshaws as a public transportation, people wave them down on the side of the street, you hop in and share the fare with the other people inside. So far so good.
From Porumamilla we caught a local bus to the Veerabramendra Swami temple. As Santosh’s English is pretty basic we were just following along, thinking we were just going to have a look at this temple, as a beautiful site, but there was much more in store for us. As we got into the temple we saw people lined up on one side queuing up to pay some sort of entry fee. We were quickly whisked away to wash our feet, had offerings put in our hand (coconut, flowers and incense) and brought to stand in front of a closed gate leading into a shrine with golden figures. Since we were Americans, we didn’t have to wait in any lines and Santosh got us ‘VIP access’, unfortunately we had no idea what was going on.
We entered the first shrine and, with his guidance, offered our offerings to the priest and were blessed in turn. Santosh quickly led us to a 2nd shrine where the priest tried to explain to us who the various Gods were, while we smiled and nodded in an attempt to show some sort of comprehension, and were blessed again. Now the kicker, we were brought to the manager of the Temple and Santosh spoke to him, again we have no idea what is going on, and the manager says – ‘Ok, what do you want?’ Ummm, we have no idea what we want we are just blindly following Santosh. The manager says something that we don’t understand but he seems to be waiting for an answer so I guess and say ‘Yes, we would love to see that’. He seems satisfies with this answer and says ‘good, come you will meet Swami’. WOAH – wait a minute – meet Swami? We don’t even know who this Swami is? What will we say? What do we do? Will he asks us questions about why we are there? Oh oh, this is going to be awkward, I can feel it.
The manager shoves a bunch of booklets into our hands with a sketched figure of the Swami on the front and tells us this is not an actual depiction of Swami. Ok, understood, but can we have a minute to glance at them so that we have some idea what’s going on? Nope, not a chance.
We are led into a room, told to sit on a mat and they call out Swami. Swami comes out, looks rather irritated and seems to ask them WTF is going on? We understand the word American but that’s it. He leaves and they tell us to wait, he will be back to give us a blessing. They tell us to touch his feet as a sign of respect when he comes back. He comes back within a few minutes, still looking annoyed, I lean forward to touch his feet but Swami shakes his head. He doesn’t touch us or make any signs and leaves again after 30 seconds. We have no idea if we have been blessed or cursed but Santosh and the manager tell us it is time to leave. They offer us a couple bags of rice and ladoos (sweet dessert) as we are leaving the temple as a gift. This has been the most bewildering temple visit we have had and the day has just begun.
Next stop, the dam. We take a rickshaw up to the dam, it is a large dam that was completed 15 years ago. It is quite large (and a source of pride for the local community) but its levels are unfortunately quite low due to the ongoing drought. It was a pretty enough site but we didn’t stay long as Santosh whisked us back to town.
In town he stopped another shared rickshaw for the ride to his village. This shared rickshaw was quite full to say the least, I would have to guess that the recommended max capacity of this rickshaw is 4 people on the bench in the back plus the driver in the front. We had 16 people in ours. There were 7 people in the back, 4 people in the front crammed up next to the driver, 3 people sitting on the tailgate and 2 people hanging off each side. It was a clown car to be certain …. And did I mention it was over 100 degrees?
Arriving at his village, we briefly met his family and the local kids of the village came to gawk and giggle at the Americans. Santosh wanted us to see his brother’s banana plantation so Kevin and I got on the back of his brother’s scooter (yes there were 3 of us squeezed on there) and took a dirt road to the plantation. After oohing and aahing at the bananas and some awkward silences we were back in his village and ready to be homeward bound. Another shared rickshaw ride with a mere 14 people this time and what seemed like an eternity we were back in the calm of Shantivanam. Safe and sound after our adventure ‘out on the town’.
Our second week of school was underway and as the weather got warmer and warmer we sweated our way through our English classes. We were well taken care of at school and had a short break for tea every morning, a rice and dhal lunch and afternoon tea at 4:30pm. We started to look forward to these short breaks as a reprieve from the kid’s energy as well as a moment to rest from the heat. The children are taught to say ‘good afternoon madam, good afternoon sir’ to all teachers and as we were a novelty item at school, we would hear this chorus coming at us from all sides as we tried to wave and smile at everyone as we crossed the school campus.
In the evenings we would have dinner with Sister Lucy and even though Sister Lucy was very nervous about us getting sick from the food or water. We eventually convinced her that we had been safely travelling for quite some time and that not all Americans needed to eat corn flakes for breakfast. We are proud to say that we did teach her one thing and that was how to use a toaster. I imagine a previous volunteer had purchased it and it was still brand new. We showed her how it worked and how to adjust the temperature and lo and behold, the next day she had toasted an entire loaf of bread which took us a week to eat. I guess we didn’t correctly explain the point of freshly toasted bread…
Quickly our stay at Shantivanam came to an end. We hope that we were able to teach the kids some English and that we were a benefit to them. I will admit that I taught 7th grade the very American phrase of ‘Zip It’ in hopes of getting them to be quiet…. But I hope they retained more than that. It was a tough but extremely satisfying 2 weeks. I am humbled by these kids and have the utmost respect for teachers everywhere (WOW! You have a tough job!). We are truly spoiled in the Western World with all of our conveniences.
We have already become sponsors of one of the girls who was at our home and will support her studies as she moves from kindergarten through 10th grade. It’s hard to believe that $200 per year is all that’s needed to give these kids a chance in life. If you are looking for a good charity to sponsor I recommend checking out Foundation for Children in Need (www.fcn-usa.org). We have seen firsthand how hard the founders, staff and volunteers work and how dedicated everyone is to giving these kids a chance to improve their lives and we were treated with such warmth and kindness. It has truly warmed my heart.