I’m really excited to announce that starting this month, for every item sold in my Etsy store, I’ll be donating $1 to Aseema, an NGO (Non-Gov’t Organization) in India which provides Montessori education to slum and tribal children. You can read about their work on their webpage:
So, why India? They say once India get in you, it never leaves. I spent 4 years of my life living in India and today I’m going to share some of my experiences with you.
My first trip to India I was 18. I went to an Indian church in Mumbai (Bombay) which had a 9 month discipleship course. I had never been out of Canada before nor on a plane. It was a very stretching and challenging yet wonderful experience. You can smell the city before the plane even lands.
I still remember the first street child I saw when leaving the airport. I remember the noise of the horns honking and the damp hot air and the smell. It was very exciting and scary.
Through the course I got to visit and volunteer at many different programs to help people; orphanages, women’s homes, homes for the blind, leprosy treatment centres, hospitals, old age homes, youth hostels, homes for women and children with AIDS.
Orphanage for girls
Team at a rehabilitation home for women and children with AIDS.
I had to get used to the thick accents (I just nodded a lot having no idea what the person said even though it was English) squat toilets, eating with my hands, fighting my way onto crowded trains, taking buses, arguing with taxi drivers, haggling prices, the extreme heat with no air conditioning, a completely different culture.
Mumbai train station
There is one experience that stands out the most out of them all.
I have always loved children and since I was young wanted to work with street children. The church had an outreach program but, being a white foreigner, it was best I didn’t go because it could draw unwanted attention and cause problems. However, once a year the church took the children they worked with on a picnic in the hills and I got to go. We went by bus to a place outside the city where they had rented an old building. The children were given baths, clean clothes, a meal and there were games and activities. I helped with bathing the little ones, some only maybe 3 years old. I helped comb the girl’s hair and put ribbons in. Such sweet little children who had experienced too much hardship in life. On the way home on the bus the two little boys sitting beside me fell asleep on my arm and lap. The one boy’s hair was full of nits but I didn’t care. My heart just went out to them. It was one of those moments in life that last an eternity. That make everything else in life so insignificant.
Street children. (notice the sign behind them)
After this I came home for a year and worked. Reverse culture shock was really difficult and I missed India intensely. In 2002 I went back to India. This time to Mussoorie, a beautiful hill station, where I attended the Landour Language School to learn Hindi.
I stayed in an old British house called Rokeby (which has since been fixed up to be a rather luxurious hotel, but back then it was very simple). I knew no one when I went there but I met people from all around the world. I shared a room with a lovely lady from Singapore who had had Polio as a baby and was crippled but that didn’t stop her from travelling the word and helping others.
The language school was amazing and I learned a ton. Mussoorie was a beautiful town with big old British buildings and narrow streets which would cause cars to wind up head to head and then have to negotiate everyone backing up until someone could squeeze through.
And the mountains, they were breathtaking. They say on a clear day you can see the Himalayas.
And the monkeys. Lengur monkeys, whose faces look so human it’s disconcerting.
At night you could look down on the twinkling lights of Dehra Dun at the foot of the mountains, like colourful gems spilled on a midnight carpet.
In my spare time I would go visit a children’s home. The couple who ran it had been taking in children for years. They were now grandparents to their own children, so the children in their home were all in their early teens, the youngest was about 10. Some had tragic stories. One brother and sister, their mother set their father on fire in front of them. Other siblings were going to be thrown into the river after their parents had died. So much suffering of children. Life is cheap in India.
Children’s home children.
I came home again and again worked to make money and find a way to go back and stay for longer. The government would only give 6 month tourist visas. I eventually decided to attend an Indian University. Pune, in the the Indian state of Maharashtra, is known as “the Oxford of the East”. I decided I wanted to study sociology and so I filled in all the paperwork to attend Fergusson Collage under the umbrella of the University of Pune.
Again, I knew no one there though I was given two contacts. There is a lot of fear but so much adventure in going somewhere where you’ve never been and knowing no one and not speaking the language.
After I arrived and was staying at the YWCA I got in contact with a wonderful lady, Sandra, who was the cousin of friends of my grandmother. She told me to come stay with her until I found a place to live. She cooked the most wonderful meals. I eventually stayed in the empty flat (apartment) that belonged to her brother who lived in the Middle East. It was a perfect place to stay though it had been empty for years so there were huge cockroaches coming out of the drain *shudder* (though that was nothing to the rats I had to deal with when I lived in Mumbai). The apartment complex was mostly families who had lived there for years and all had children around the same age in college like me. They became my best friends.
Society (Apt Complex) friends: Soliya, Vivek, Neeraja, Rohit, Clinton, Aatish, Rima, Mandar and Muriel.
The first person I met at the Collage was a girl from Butan, Kinlay. We both became close friends with another girl who was from Tanzania, Mwatima.
Mwatima and Kinley
There were many students from Iran and Korea as well. But I was the only white person in the whole college. Pretty much everyone know who I was or of me.
I loved my studies there. I loved the old stone buildings and the history of the college. I loved learning and living.
The Gymkhana building of Fergusson College (the inside of this building was used in the movie Gandhi)
College in India was nothing like what it is in the West. There were no power point presentations. No white boards. No laptops. Not even an overhead projector. Just a black board and wooden desks. The teachers would dictate notes that we’d dutifully transcribe into notebooks to study later. Sometimes stray dogs would wander into the lecture hall to take refuge from the heat in the cool stone building.
One of the nicer lecture halls/classrooms
Our marks were completely based on exams. 20% for the midterm exam and 80% for the final exam. We’d study for months for the final exam. Exams would be in a room, often two to a desk (writing different exams so you couldn’t copy). I remember times the power would go off for “load shedding” and many of the windows would be blocked in the room for various reasons. It’d be dim, with no fans, the sweat would be dripping onto your paper.
I enjoyed my classes. Maharashtrian history was hard. The teacher would dictate these names like “Shivaji, Afzal Khan, Aurangzeb, Sambhaji so fast and I’d be like, “wha…..?” while the other Maharashtrian students had studied it all since childhood. I eventually picked up a 5th grade primer to help me figure things out lol.
Statue of Maharashtrian hero Maharaja Shivaji.
I did learn it and found it fascinating (I’m a history buff) and was very excited when I got to visit a fort, Pratapgad, that we had learned about in our class.
I had a wonderful sociology teacher for the 3rd year of college. She wasn’t just there to dictate notes but to actually discuss and teach and explore. I had completely absorbed Indian culture as much as I could that one day the teacher looked around the small class and said, “oh, we don’t have any foreign students today to ask about this” I was like, “ummm Madam?” her reply was, “oh you’re not a foreigner, you’re Indian” lol. I felt proud that moment that I had been so accepted that I wasn’t seen as different by those who knew me (of course to everyone who didn’t know me I was a like a celebrity to stare at and try to talk to or sell things to or for men to accost with “I want to have friendship with you”)
Across the road from the college was a restaurant, Savera, where many an hour were spent socializing, studying, and eating. I still often crave their Upma with coconut chutney.
Once a week I went to volunteer with an organization called Akanksha which taught English to slum children. That was a fun, though tiring experience. The little boys were like wild monkeys. Because the organization was against corporal punishment which is still used in the schools today (misbehaving children get slapped on the hands with a ruler) it was hard to keep the children in control.
Eventually we got a wonderful teacher who could just give a look that got the children quiet, however she taught them to pronounce “yellow” as “ellow” and “yes” as “es” and the letter “I” said, “ee ee Eendia” lol. I was always amazed that the children, especially the boys, could be so dirty but their mothers always looked so beautiful and clean and gave off this air of grace. They had a dignity in spite of everything. A dignity I don’t often see here in Canada . There was one child, a little girl, who picked up English really fast. She was a very bright child but her parents played huge part. They really supported the program and her learning. In a country where boys are highly valued and girls just mean crushing dowry, you could tell her parents, namely her father, was different; that he wanted more for his daughters (she had an older sister) and valued education and knew how learning English would give them a huge advantage.
The bright little girl, Rangoli, is on the left.
After 3 years at college (a B.A. in India is a 3 year program) I came home again. It was so hard to leave my friends. I did bring someone with me, my dog Timmy. I got him from an animal shelter. He was this little puppy, all bones and covered in sores. They told me if I didn’t take him right away he’d die because the puppies always die.
Skinny little Timmy just after I got him.
I’ve been back from India for 7 years now. I don’t know when I’ll ever get to go back. I’ve married and had children. One day though, one day I’ll go back. But until then, I can give to those who are doing what I’d love to do, who are making a difference in the lives of children through education.
Did you know that Maria Montessori herself lived in India and opened schools there?
Though Maria Montessori was an Italian, India was one of the first few countries to see the propagation of her method of education. The work began with her arrival here in 1939, and continued through her representatives, Joosten and Swamy, before spreading further. In 1939, the Theosophical Society of India extended an invitation to the 69-year-old Montessori. She accepted the invitation and reached India the same year. She made Adayar, Chennai her home and lived there along with her son, Mario. The famous Montessorians, Gool Minwala, Tehmina Wadia and Khurshed Taraporewala were the students in the first training at Adyar. In 1940, when India entered the World War II, Montessori and her son were interned as enemy aliens in India, but Maria was allowed to conduct training courses. Sixteen courses were conducted during this time, creating a very strong base for the method here. She also had her own school in Kodaikanal for this duration. In 1947, she went back to Europe for a brief period. Montessori returned to India for a second time the same year to conduct a few more courses in places like Chennai, Pune, Ahmedabad and Karachi. The Montessoris then returned to Europe, leaving A.M. Joosten as their representative in India. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Montessori_in_India
If only I had known about the Montessori method back then, there’s a teacher’s training school in Pune itself, where I was living.
Finally, here are some extra pictures of my travels.
A backwaters canoe ride in Kerala
Chinese fishing nets at sunset in Kerala
Krishna river Maharashtra.
The Western Ghats Maharashtra