Care in India
It would be almost impossible to try and fit all our amazing experiences in India into a small novel, let alone one small page, “single spaced, size 10.” In any case, some of the fantastic adventures are put down, but there are numerous others that simply did not fit the word count.
That trip was such a success that the following year another group of four students from my college organised ourselves to go out again, in July 2010. Having sorted out visas, flights and so on out with Projects Abroad, we finally landed at Thiruvananthapuram airport just before dawn, the ground still wet following a monsoon shower.
Having been picked up from the airport by our local Indian carer and all-round hero, Jaya Prakash (JP as we had to call him), we were crammed into the back of a jeep to begin the bumpy drive to Madurai. “We would have put the luggage on the roof, but it’s going to rain again soon,” JP told us. You soon get used to these things in India – at first it seems so abnormal to strap your suitcases to the roof. But like most other things in India, upon reflection it makes almost perfect sense. After all, nearly every other car, van or bullock-cart that we passed seemed to have some sort of box tied to its roof; we almost looked out of place sitting cramped between our cases.
One of the first things that you have to learn in India is to just go with the flow – the second thing is to eat with your hands, but before you can do that, you have to learn to go with the flow. There is no reason why all the vans should be painted bright yellow with the words Sound Horn over the bumper, but there’s certainly no reason why not. There’s no reason why you should let cows wander the streets, but good luck to anyone that tries to stop it.
Later on, on our weekend break to Kodaikanal, we would be sitting around in the hotel after dark, when a storm hit the town. The rain poured down and was crashing off the tin roof when all the other Indian guests ran outside. They were carrying shampoos and soaps and, to save the money on the hotel water, starting showering in the pouring mountain rain. It might seem odd to hear now, but at the time it was the most logical thing in the world, although I’m sure it wouldn’t have the same effect in England!
The first week of the placement was spent building a playground at a care-home just outside Madurai. Before starting work on the first day, we were taken to the village school where, in the downstairs classroom, we met the forty-odd children from the village, ranging from six to thirteen. Many of them lived at the care-home where we would be building. The first day of the work was spent smoothing out several huge piles of stones and sand, that would raise the height of the playground. Having done that, we dug a small trench along the whole length, into which seeds were sewn.
Hopefully, by the time I get round to finishing this report, a curtain of bushes should have grown up as a natural fence around the playground. More digging, painting, soil-moving later and we were ready to put up the slide and swings, before finally painting them in a number of bright, cheery colours. Since returning to England, I have been sent pictures from JP of the orphans playing with the equipment, which really gives an indescribable feeling of having contributed to a good cause.
Perhaps the greatest experience in that first week was the World Cup Final, although it’s not for the football that I remember it particularly. I never really thought of Indians as being too interested in football, but in a growing country of around 1.2 billion, I’m sure you could find a few fans. The night of the final we were staying in the Hotel Naveen Saravana in Madurai, where Nic and I had one of the few working televisions. A match that kicked off early evening in South Africa did not start until about 2am in India, and soon after there was a knock at the door. It was Tom, coming to watch the final. Ten minutes later, another knock as JP and Ghopal dropped in for the football. By half-time half the corridor had come to our room to watch the match, and when Iniesta scored for Spain, we found ourselves celebrating with complete strangers, all of whom had just wandered in to see the score.
Whilst India may have its faults (apparently), no-one could discredit its people. They are without doubt the warmest, friendliest people I have ever met. Even if I couldn’t say more than a few pathetic words of Tamil, their faces would always light up at my attempt at the iconic Indian head-wobble. This shake of the head means almost anything from simple phrases, “Yes”, “Please”, “Thank-you” and so on, to far more complex sentences, “So you’d like one like that there, but with a straw?”
When Nic and I went for a meal in one of the towns on the way to Kodaikanal, one head-wobble from me was enough to gather almost all the restaurant to our table. Indians as old as Brahman were passing us spicy curries to try, delighting at our failing attempts to combat the heat. In turn, seeing them grinning and calling to other guests gave me so much pleasure that I continued to eat these ludicrously hot dishes, whilst the waiter brought endless jugs of water to our table.
Our last few days work was at the Model Farm, in Ullar, a farm supported by Projects Abroad that works to produce sustainable organic crops that can be sold on to other local farmers below the market value. Here, among other jobs, we dug a series of trenches in order to plant a row of shrubs, protecting the crop from the wind. Less attractively, we also sifted through the farm’s fertiliser tanks, containing a mixture of compost, cow dung and coconut husks. However, to wash off we went to the nearby river to bathe and wash, as it turned out many of the locals had also decided to.
Two weeks in India taught me what many people could learn in a lifetime. JP, who we affectionately used to call Gandhi, a reference to the only Indian to have ever been nicer than JP, was an amazing guide, as was Ghopal our driver who didn’t speak a word of English yet still managed to make us laugh throughout our meals. Our English guide, Olivia was also fantastic and made the whole trip so much more enjoyable.
Whilst I would love to, and believe me I would, say more, there is only so much that I could fit in, and I could write for months on the wonderful, eye-opening experiences in India. As a group, we send our thanks to Projects Abroad, for organising such an extraordinary trip, one that I could happily have stayed on for years, let alone two weeks.Will Hutton
This volunteer story may include references to working in or with orphanages. Find out more about Projects Abroad's current approach to volunteering in orphanages and our focus on community-based care for children.