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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Saturday, April 19, 2014

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Chandi Chowk in Old Delhi: Complete chaos.
Chandi Chowk in Old Delhi: Complete chaos.
Old Delhi.
Old Delhi.
My three female roommates and me: Michelle, Melissa and Hilary following our welcome ceremony at the Hope Foundation.
My three female roommates and me: Michelle, Melissa and Hilary following our welcome ceremony at the Hope Foundation.

Building a bond

"In the beginning, every good work looks impossible."
--Hindi quote

DELHI -- The Hindus are very wise.

It is easy to feel overwhelmed in Delhi. In a city of nearly 13 million people, sensory overload is the norm, quiet is the exception. No matter how many times I have driven down the same street, or walked through the same market, something new always catches my eye. Maybe it is the reporter in me, but I can't help but try and take in every little detail.

When I first arrived in Delhi, the staff with Cross Cultural Solutions did everything they could to gently ease in the volunteers. Our first two days were spent doing all the typical "tourist" sites and monuments, but not really immersing ourselves in the chaos of the city. In short, I felt a little sheltered.

That all changed on Monday when my four fellow flatmates/volunteers and I decided to take the Metro to Chandi Chowk in Old Delhi. Chandi Chowk, also known as the "silvery, moonlit square" is a massive market where down every side street there is another, specialized bazaar. From spices to bangles to bikes, it is the main market for Delhi residents.

It is also crowded and overrun with cars, lepers and beggars at every turn. The air smells of a mix of exhaust fumes, body odor, urine and street food. This was the first time since arriving in Delhi I would at times have to cover my nose because the stench became too much.

To see people living this way; drinking and washing food from puddles in the street, masses of people strewn across the sidewalks or huddled around fires, living in tents just outside the market walls, is a shock to the system. I thought I had seen poverty and desperation before, but nothing compares to what I've seen in Delhi.

The most difficult part is having to turn a blind eye. As I referenced in my first blog, I have been advised to never give anything to the beggars, no matter how destitute.

During our orientation session, our program director had told all the volunteers that Hindus believe God is present, or can be present, in everyone regardless of social status. The Hindus are taught to treat every person they encounter with the same level of respect, because you may never know if the person with whom you are interacting is a deity.

That all-inclusive view of the world has made it difficult to do the opposite. It seems wrong to turn away from someone in so much need, but as I am learning, India is a country full of opposites and contradictions.

For example, India is home to 1 percent of the world's wealthiest people. One percent may not seem like a very significant number, but nearly 1.6 billion people live in India, which means 16 million people here are millionaires or billionaires.

On the flip side, India is also one of the world's poorest countries.

On Tuesday of this week, we had the chance to finally visit our volunteer placements. I am working at the Hope Foundation (Sarthi Centre) in an area on the outskirts of Delhi called Okhla. This is a predominately Muslim area of South Delhi, and the neighborhood (Phase II) which we work is home to many migrant workers and their families.

The living conditions of the children I teach can only be considered slums. As you turn on to the dirt road that leads into the neighborhood, you quickly see it is littered with potholes, goats, stray dogs, roosters, children and adults. The homes are no more than brick walls, concrete floors and tin roofs. There is no running water, and the bathrooms are a public urinal which is a small, canal-like system that runs between all of the houses.

I am not sure what the initial reaction of my fellow volunteers had been (I'm lucky to be placed with two other female volunteers at the Hope Foundation), but as we drove up the school, I was filled with apprehension and anxiety. I had never seen living conditions like this before. I felt angry and sad that human beings have to live like this. In addition, I was a little scared. I knew other volunteers had been here the past, but to feel the stares as we drove up and exited the car made me a bit uneasy. I didn't know how we would be received and if we could ever offer enough help or hope to the kids we were about to meet.

Any fear I had disappeared once I stepped into the classroom.

The "classroom" was no more than a brick building, concrete floor with blankets for the children to sit, one light bulb and a chalkboard. There are no desks. The students do not have an endless supply of books, dictionaries, learning tools, paper, pens or pencils. But they have an unmatched enthusiasm to any child in grade school I have ever encountered.

Immediately upon walking through the doorway curtains, the kids jumped to their feet, and in their best English yelled "Hello Didi!" (Didi is the Hindi word for older sister, and is a sign of the utmost respect for an elder.) Within minutes of meeting the students, I and my fellow volunteers were engulfed by a sea of kids wanting to shake our hands in proper American style, or throw their arms around us with generous hugs.

The kids were also quick to show off how much they have learned, and how much more information they want to absorb. By the time day two rolled around, Melissa (the other volunteer working with me in the classroom) and I were bombarded with homework assignments to check and students begging for more. Literally. At the end of each day, the kids LINE UP to get homework.

If you could see first hand the conditions these children have to live with, it would be easy to see their situation as almost hopeless, but then you wouldn't really be seeing the kids for all they are and can become.

Never in my life have I felt more joy than on Thursday when a small group of our 4th and 5th grade boys learned their first phrases of conversational English. By the time lunch rolled around, Melissa and I had the kids taking part in simple introductions:

Teacher: Hi, Pavan
Student: Hi, Trenni.
Teacher: How are you?
Student: I am fine. How are you?
Teacher: I am fine.

It seems so simple to us who grew up with our language and resources, but to see the looks on the kids faces when they got the phrases correct and understood their meaning, made my heart grow like the Grinch's!

And you should have seen the excitement when we explained the word "awesome"! Now, every time they complete a lesson correctly, they throw their arms in the air, thumbs up, and scream "AWESOME!"

Beyond the words, we are building a bond with children who otherwise would have no connection to the Western world, except possibly negative ones. They are fascinated by our light skin color and my blonde hair. Some of the children who can't quite pronounce Trenni, call me Sunny instead. A point further punctuated by a picture one of my female students made me today; a woman with long blonde hair, arms raised in a thumbs up!

To be honest, I'm not sure it will be until after I return that it will sink in the kind of effect we can have on people, specifically children desperate for hope in an otherwise hopeless situation, in a short amount of time.

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