Of all the places we are going to visit in our 11 months on the road, India is the one which inspires the greatest excitement and the greatest fear. We have visited with dozens of travelers who claim it to be both the best and worst of their lifetime travel experience. We know we love the food, but have been warned that if we value our health we can’t eat most of it. We know we love the exotic landmarks and vibrant landscapes, but realize we must brave horrific traffic, seething crowds, and scorching heat to visit them. We know we love the people, but are a little overwhelmed that there are more than a billion of them.
We decided to get our feet wet in the subcontinent by sitting still for three to four weeks in Chennai. This is the site of Rising Star Outreach, a fabulous NGO started by a friend from Atlanta that serves the leprosy-affected of Tamil Nadu. RSO started by administering mobile medical care to local leper colonies but expanded its efforts to include the children of those afflicted by the easily cured but debilitating disease. The prospects for children growing up in the colonies are bleak since they are still ostracized by much of Indian society and truly treated as “untouchables.” Their parents’ ability to feed, clothe, and educate them are limited, and this is where RSO steps in. Currently 66 fortunate children ranging in age from 3 through 10 live in two children’s homes where they are loved, nurtured, and educated by a highly competent, tireless group of devoted men and women.
We are currently sharing a house with 33 of these little cuties–the pre-K and kindergarten students. We had been warned but nothing really prepared us for them. From the second we drove we up, we were bombarded with hugs, squeals of delight, and urgent pleas to hold hands. These beautiful little souls are overflowing with love and eager to share everything they’ve ever learned with us. “Auntie, auntie, look.” “Uncle, watch me.” Language is no barrier. Those whose English is limited, expound in great detail in their native Tamil. The big boys are life-sized jungle gyms and are getting their best workout of the trip dispensing tosses into the air and airplane rides. Kieran and Asher are perfectly sized playmates, who except for their fair complexions, blend right in to this energetic group.
We spent our first morning at the upper school, where the children were feverishly working at clearing a patch of land on the grounds of the neighboring nursery. A British film crew was coming to shoot some footage for a commercial featuring Padma Venkataraman, daughter of a former Indian president, distinguished humanitarian, and dedicated RSO supporter. Because the current school site has no yard, the crew obtained permission from the business next door, a nursery specializing in small bedding plants, to use their lot. There were about 7,834,292 plants that had to be moved in order to accommodate the equipment, so 30 little soldiers went to work, each trying to prove him/herself a harder worker than the next. We wilted quickly in the stifling heat but the children seemed unaffected, racing back and forth, back and forth until the job was done. The only thing that slowed them down was the occasional millipede (or really big centipede…I’m not sure) which elicited screams of terror from the otherwise tireless workers. Apparently while not fatal, these critters deliver a nasty sting that none of the kids was eager to receive. Fortunately, the brave male staff, led by boss Gopi, protected us all by squashing the lightning fast menaces with a stick.
We’ve now been here four days and I’m afraid we’ve fallen in love 66 times over. After all, who could resist faces like these?