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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Saturday, Nov. 22, 2014

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Off to India!

After so much planning and anticipation, it is still hard to grasp the concept that I'll be living in India for the next three weeks. Despite months of plans and preparations, nothing will completely get me ready for the culture shock I'm about to experience.

The flight time totals about 16 hours, but my travel time on the way out will be at least 23 hours. I'll fly from Chicago to Munich, then from Munich to Delhi. I have seven-plus hours to kill in Munich, so I'm very thankful my friend Marla's husband Matthias has offered to pick me up from the airport and take me to lunch. And by lunch, I think he means a huge stein of German beer! I am scheduled to land in Delhi on Saturday at 7:45 a.m. local time.

I honestly thought I would be more nervous today, but I'm actually calm yet excited to start this journey. I've also realized there is no real way to prepare for a trip like this. Most people I know who have traveled to India have gone on business with an American company, and they have been very honest in telling me that my experience will be vastly different. As my friend Ben put it, "I doubt you'll be staying in a nice hotel, with room service and a driver!"

No, no I will not. But, my accommodations will not be terrible. I will live in a flat in an apartment building with other volunteers. Most likely I will have one or two roommates. We do have a flush toilet and "warm" water. However, the sink, toilet, and shower are all connected which means I'll have to wipe up all the water after every shower, because there is no tub or curtain. Good times.

Once I leave our flat, the "facilities" will be interesting. Known affectionately as "squatty potties," my bathroom experience will be a hole in the ground. Yes, I've packed travel toilet paper and hand sanitizer. Want to know how to use a squatty potty? Just search YouTube for how-to videos! I'm guessing I'll have some bitchin' quad muscles upon my return.

When it comes to food, the volunteer organization I'm working with, Cross Cultural Solutions also provides us with an on-site cook who provides us with authentic Indian meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner Monday through Friday. But once again, when I'm out and about, I'll have to be much more careful about my options.

I've pretty much resigned myself to the fact I'll have at least one case of "Delhi Belly," but I'm heading over prepared with every possible medication.

Speaking of medication, yes I have received all of my shots. I had to get five vaccines; H1N1, polio booster, Hepatitis A, DTP (diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis), and typhoid. I also began taking anti-malaria pills on Wednesday and will have to continue for one full month after I return.

As for the work I'll be doing, I have been assigned to work with the Hope Foundation (Sarthi Centre). My job will be to teach English to 3rd and 4th grade boys and girls, ages 8-12, who come from Delhi's lower-middle and lower class. I will also play games with the kids, do arts and crafts projects, and help teach children simple skills to help them integrate into society. The Hope Foundation's goal is to educate and empower India's underprivileged. We'll also work to evolve strategies that help address the changes facing women and children in these communities.

I want to put in perspective what low-middle and low class means in India. The Asian sub-continent is home to a third of the world's poorest people. The World Bank estimates that 80 percent of India's population lives on less than $2 a day. (Low-middle) While 41 percent of the continent live on less than $1.25 a day (low) which is the international poverty line. I have come to understand there is no way to prepare for the poverty I am about to be exposed.

The worst part about the devastating poverty in India, is having to turn down the young children who ask for money. I have been told over and over again to never give to beggars. Sadly in India, parents purposely harm their children by amputating their limbs or throwing acid in their eyes and on their face to disfigure and blind. All of this is done because there is a thought that Westerners will give more to these children. As difficult as it will be to turn away, if I give to these kids, it just perpetuates a horrific trend.

I've had the chance to talk with a small group of women who have volunteered in India and their advice has part common sense, part culture shock. The obvious do's and don'ts: Don't drink the water, don't eat any fruits or veggies that aren't cooked or can't be peeled, don't drink or eat any dairy, and stay away from the street vendors. What will I eat? I still plan on diving into the local culture and trying all the tastes India has to offer. But just in case, I've also packed peanut butter, protein bars and packages of chicken and tuna salad.

There are a lot of wardrobe don'ts as well. No tight fitting jeans, sleeveless shirts, v-necks or low cut tops, and skirts must come to my ankles. Let's just say I'll be packing lightly! Because, upon my arrival in Delhi, I will visit a local tailor to purchase a Salwaar Kameez, which is traditional Indian dress for women. The outfit is simply loose fitting pants and top, with a scarf.

I fully expect this journey to more than just a trip. Although I'll be meeting fellow volunteers in Delhi, I'm essentially traveling alone, and to a part of the world that couldn't be more different than what I'm accustomed. I have been told time and time again this experience will be life changing, but I'm trying not to think about exactly how I will change.

I'm hoping by sharing this journey with so many people, it taps into your desire to take a risk, give back, or a combination of both. Volunteer work has long been an important part of my life, but I've often struggled with feeling overwhelmed and unable to really make a difference. Until I talked with my friend Jane's father, Mike. When explaining to him how I couldn't decide where to give my time because it seems so many people are in need, he gave me some of the best advice I've ever received. He said you never know how many people you are affecting by taking one step. In giving your time to one group, you may inspire someone else to give their time, and they inspire another, so on and so forth. Which made me truly believe one person really can help change the world.

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