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India, Voluntourism

On Agra and volunteering

After Jaipur, we headed to Agra. Agra, of course, is home to the spectacular Taj Mahal, which took an astounding 22,000 workers 12 years to build. It was built in 1631 by Shah Jahan (a Muslim ruler) as a memorial to his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died in childbirth. Pictures of the monument cannot possibly do it justice. The perfect architectural symmetry, the mosaic work using semi-precious stones, and the intricate floral reliefs chiseled into the white marble have to be seen in person to truly appreciate them.

After the Taj Mahal, we saw some other local sights (e.g., the Baby Taj and Agra Fort), then started the journey back to Delhi. This marked the end of my tour through Rajasthan, but the beginning of a new adventure: my week of volunteer work. When I reached Delhi, I made contact with the organization and grabbed a tuk tuk to the volunteer house, which is in the home of Rajiv and Priya, two former English professors who now act as volunteer coordinators for the organization with whom I’m working. Their home is in a relatively well-to-do neighborhood in south Delhi; but of course, well-to-do by India standards is not the same as American standards. It is a humble and comfortable home with several other volunteers, a Nepalese maid who does the cooking and cleaning, and their bipolar dog, Jenny.

I thought I was going to be assigned to an orphanage, but as it happens, I was assigned instead to work in a facility for street kids—boys, in particular (there’s a different facility for girls). These are children who run away from home for various reasons, such as extreme poverty or abuse, and then come to Delhi via the railway in hopes of a better life. They usually end up living on the streets and begging (either on their own or as part of a begging “ring” organized by unethical adults), and some will fall prey to a worse fate. The organization that I volunteer with provides them with an informal education, a safe place to stay, counseling, and food. The facility that I work in is a dingy three-room flat next to Nizamuddin railway station, a particularly seedy and poverty-stricken part of town. It’s located there because that’s where many of these kids arrive to Delhi after precariously hitching a ride atop a train car or sneaking in on one of the open-air cars.

My job at the facility is to provide the informal education. It’s considered “informal” because the facility is not a licensed school, but focuses on “repatriating” the kids; that is, reuniting them with their families, if it is possible and safe for the child. However, since many of these children have not been exposed to the English language, they are introduced to the basics at the center. And that’s where I come in. I rather thought I would just be assisting since I’m only here for a week, but to my surprise they had me leading within the first 15 minutes of my arrival. Thankfully, I was able to fall back on my Peru experience and recalled some of the lessons, so I quickly did a review of their knowledge of basic vocabulary and then tried to come up with games to keep them engaged using the English words they already knew and some new ones that I introduced. Afterwards, we did a period of physical activity. Since the room where I teach is extremely tiny, it left me with few options. So, I led them in activities that I know (and which could be done in a small space): yoga and basic self defense (boy, when I studied martial arts I had no idea I would put it to use this way!) Understandably, the boys loved that part. It was an exhausting day…and only day one.

About colleen f

Colleen is a globe trotting, sight seeing, day tripping, frequent flying traveler with a penchant for voluntourism.


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