My month volunteering in Rajasthan

This time last year, I decided to take some time off work to go to India. I think if you spend years working in Corporateland (especially finance) there’s a chance that you lose touch with reality. Your life becomes a round of meetings, expensive coffee, and commuting, and you forget that there is actually a whole world out there where none of that matters.

I did some research online and found Sankalp (Hindi for ‘helping hand’), an NGO with volunteer placements in various locations across India. And in November 2013, I set off to spend a month working in an orphanage in Jaipur.

It’s taken me a few months to gather my thoughts and write about my time in Jaipur. It’s hard to make sense of the good (helping people, making friends, experiencing a new culture) and the bad (poverty, inequality and how they blight people’s lives).

My working day started at 8.00am, when I was picked up from the volunteer house and driven to the orphanage, home to 30-odd children aged 0-6 years. The kids would be drowsy but reasonably cheerful, and our first job was to get them undressed, washed, and dressed again. Peeling clothes off wriggling kids is a challenge but also a good opportunity to interact and make them laugh. The wee ones were generally a bit reluctant to go the washroom. Not that I blamed them, I wouldn’t be up for early icy wash either.

Next up was drying time. There were two towels between the 30 kids, which meant that the kids at the end of the queue were invariably dried with a damp-to-sopping-wet towel. This is an example of a small thing that could have managed better for the sake of the kids.  The poor buggers at the end of the line  would reluctantly shuffle forward to be enveloped in a dripping wet towel. The towels were washed daily in a huge washer, there were plenty of them, so I couldn’t see any need for this stinginess.

This situation frequently led to fractious conversations between us volunteers and the staff – me asking for a towel, and them refusing. I get the impression the staff saw us as decadent, wasteful Westerners, and while there’s a fair bit of truth to that,  these are orphans who have no family, schooling or toys.  Would it have been so hard to give them a comfortable wash in the morning?

Once or twice, the younger kids would be handed to me to dry having not been washed properly by the staff. This was particularly true of the toddlers and disabled children. I found one of the carers holding a disabled 2-year old at arm’s length with a sneer of disgust on her face, before handing him to to dry. He had soiled his nappy and she hadn’t bothered to clean him properly. I wanted, to use some charming Scottish parlance, to skelp her. I had to remind myself that the workers themselves received very low wages, with a standard of living far below my own, so it was a bit rich of me to judge them.

This was a common occurrence for me – tied up in Western guilt over conduct I felt showed a complete lack of compassion or humanity, while trying to remind myself that I was there to help, not to judge. As an example, one of the women would threaten and  hit the children with a wooden stick as a means of chastisement. They weren’t physically bruised or damaged afterwards, but they were cowed and scared, and it broke my heart.

Orphan drop box - how some of the kids arrived.
Orphan drop box – how some of the kids arrived.

Orphanage life

Returning to he daily routine: after washing, it was playtime, my favourite part of the day. There were limited toys in the orphanage, but we would play games with the older kids, and sit with the younger ones on our knees. I should have said – as far as  Sankalp was concerned, that was the volunteers’ main role – to give affection to the kids. Around six of the kids were sponsored, and therefore went to school. The rest didn’t attend school, despite India’s universal right to education act. You need a birth certificate to gain admittance to many schools, which in practical terms excludes many orphans.

One little boy had TB, so he was kept apart from the others (somewhat inconsistently, some, but not all of the time). One of the girls I volunteered with – a tiny, big-hearted Aussie girl – was desperate to hug him, but she hadn’t been immunised against TB. She hated to see him excluded, and unable to understand why. If I was to make a criticism of Sankalp, it would be not telling the volunteers in advance that could be exposed to kids with diseases such as TB (and Hepatitis).

Having re-read the above, I feel I’ve painted a bleak picture of the orphanage, and it’s not my intention here to criticise it. It gives these kids a roof over their heads, relative stability and plenty of food. It’s trying to give them a chance in life, or at the very least, to preserve them from immediate poverty. That said, the lack of education opportunities for these kids makes me so frustrated and depressed. I played a counting game with a little boy who was innately so quick, yet he’ll grow up illiterate. For girls, the outlook is even more bleak. There was a courtyard under the orphanage where some older orphans, (young women really) lived. Without a dowry, they’re looking at marriage to someone coming to the orphanage looking for a wife. And without education, they’re wholly reliant on their looks and domestic skills. As someone a bit obsessed with gender equality, all of this was hard for me to take.

Weekend roaming - the camel fair at Pushkar
Weekend roaming – the camel fair at Pushkar

After hours: roaming

My working day in the orphanage would end at lunchtime, meaning afternoons and weekends were entirely free to explore. I do find myself equally charmed and frustrated by India. On the one hand, it’s breathtakingly beautiful. Jaipur, the  ’pink city’ is aptly named – the buildings glow pink in the sun, and there’s a constant hum and red dust as people go about their business. Even the everyday, the mundane looks beautiful to a stranger, like catching a glimpse of a bright sari through the heat and haze.

I love Indians’ laid-back attitude to time-keeping. It really appeals to me. It proves what I always suspected: the world doesn’t end if you do something a little later, or differently, to how you originally planned.

Exploring and chatting
Exploring and chatting

Before visiting Jaipur, I hadn’t seen an elephant in the flesh before. The first time I saw one in the street I was pointing and shouting like an idiot, much to the amusement of the locals.  Later in the month, we spent the afternoon at Elefantastic, an elephant sanctuary. Seeing elephants up close for the first time was genuinely amazing, and even more importantly, I came away with the impression the owner of the sanctuary really cared about the welfare of his elephants.

The frustration came out when I went out with other Western girls. I get that people will try to overcharge us – by their standards we’re rich, so I don’t really blame them for trying to get money out of us, in rickshaws, at stalls, whatever. I’d probably do the same. What made me uncomfortable was the staring, and following, generally by younger guys. We were all wearing clothes we bought for our placements, a kurta and trousers, so we were always respectably dressed. Despite this, we were approached by men quite frequently, and all groped on at least one occasion.

To compound things on a personal level,  I had spent the three months prior to Jaipur living in London, where I had unlimited freedom of movement. In the volunteer house, we adhered to a curfew of 9pm, and the female volunteers were discouraged from going out at all after dark. Having my freedom limited by my gender was a new and sobering experience for me.
Another aspect to volunteering is that you meet loads of different people. I was really lucky to volunteer alongside some great socially-minded people who really wanted to make a difference. That said, I did find myself getting frustrated with one of my roomates who didn’t have a negative thing to say about India. We had nearly enough common ground – concern for the orphans – but not quite enough to be friends. I would balk at the wasted opportunities for the young, and feel my heckles rising on a personal level at the attitudes towards women. She would talk about how she felt ‘so at home’ in India, that it was such a spiritual and relaxing place,  but her eyes seemed shut to the glaring social inequalities in India. India offers hospitality, beauty, the opportunity to explore on a huge scale. I can see that, and love it. But the poverty and the gender inequality are still there. My conclusion – embrace it warts and all, but don’t pretend the warts aren’t here.

Jaipur - an incense-smoking pig
Jaipur – an incense-smoking pig
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