Many of you have been begging for more details on what our life is like here in India, especially after we voiced our uncertainty about what to expect. I have a list of about 8 posts I’m working on to explain it all, but we’ve been spending so much time with the kids of RSO, I haven’t had time to complete them. In a nutshell, this place is intense. It’s everything we worried it would be and more: trash everywhere, cows wandering the city streets, people who walk up and stare intensely at our foreign faces, nary a restaurant we feel confident patronizing, poop–human, bovine, and canine–filling the fields and flanking the roadsides, and the worst driving we’ve encountered in our travels at home and abroad.
We are however, deliriously happy and most days forget that much of this exists. This is because we are safely and comfortably ensconced in our life with the children and the staff and have little desire to venture beyond the confines of our immediate environment. The children delight us and sometimes overwhelm us with their affection, while the staff members answer our questions about life in India, take us to crazy Tamil movies, hang out with us in the kitchen at night, and accompany us to church on Sundays. Our days are a blur of activities that can include anything from tutoring the kids in English and the teachers in pronunciation, teaching 20 or so kids how to swim in a nearby pool, playing Simon Says, taking a yoga class with the big kids, and singing good night songs to the little ones with whom we share the house. We’ve visited the faraway site they call “the land” where construction has just begun on the new school buildings, and Tom and Dax went on an even longer trip to take rice and beans to a few of the leper colonies that provide the school’s students. Tom has become the unofficial RSO photographer and is working on a series of staff and student portraits for the school walls.
I should qualify the “comfortable” statement lest you think this is a cakewalk. We still face many challenges in our day-to-day routine. Though it took us more than a week, we finally figured out how to get warm water to the shower (Kieran actually did even when the maintenance people couldn’t). The air conditioning in our room gave out the second day we were here and shows no signs of being repaired. This means we’ve had to learn how to sleep under a ceiling fan in sometimes stifling heat and figured out ways to combat the pervasive and voracious mosquitos who have a penchant for our fair, well-nourished flesh. After about a week of sweating and scratching through the nights and subsequently struggling to stay awake during the days, we hit a groove. We’ve now become accustomed to heat-filled nights and aren’t particularly concerned about the a/c. The irony is the staff here have access to cooled air in their rooms, but choose not to use it. They simply don’t like air conditioning. After so many years of living in the heat, they say it makes them cold. So they keep it turned off at home and bundle up in warm clothing when going to the theater or church where the a/c runs at moderate levels.
Eating, which we usually try to do multiple times each day, presents a particular problem. Normally volunteers come to RSO in large groups, have the kitchen to themselves for breakfast and lunch, and are attended by a cook proficient in Western cuisine in the evenings. We are the only volunteers here and share the kitchen with the school cook who is happy to make extra for us but cannot temper down the spice factor for a few Americans when feeding almost 30 Tamil children. You see the Tamil people like their food hot. Everything contains chile pepper and children here are brought up on fiery hot fare. We tried a few times to share meals with the kids and staff, but quickly learned that Tom is the only one who can stand the heat. It’s become a joke that with each meal we ask, “Spicy?” and the teachers respond, “Not spicy.” One bite is all we need to realize “not spicy” for them is three alarm for us. As a result, we’ve found a few former volunteer-approved restaurants. Traveling to restaurants is such a production, however, (a lot of walking, waiting, and/or trying to flag down auto-rickshaws) that we prefer to eat in. We’ve discovered that the grocery store, which is about 20 minutes away, delivers as does Domino’s and the local fried chicken chain. Even so, unless we cook for ourselves with the limited fare the supermarket stocks, we continue to battle the spicy factor. India it seems is the one place we’ve been that isn’t concerned with Westernizing their culture and this includes their cuisine. KFC and Domino’s are here but they change their menus to suit Indians rather than vice versa. KFC’s drumsticks blow Popeye’s spiciest Cajun offerings away and most pizzas include masala, curry, or some form of subcontinental spices. Spice-subdued northern Indian food remains my favorite cuisine of all, but I readily admit that this southern Indian stuff is kicking my bland American butt.
Working with the students is also a challenge, especially for Kieran and Asher. These kids are so excited about our presence that they literally maul us from the second we enter a room. The four older among us can stay above the fray if we want, but the two little ones are right at ground level and can’t escape the hugs, tugs, and grabbing. After two weeks of our presence, the RSO kids have calmed down a little and we can now manage their affection…slightly. Trying to teach them means channeling all this enthusiasm toward productive ends. They jump up and down and shout “English speaking, English speaking” when it’s their turn to work with us, but quickly lose focus when my hair is there to be braided or Tom and the boys are there to be climbed.
The rewards of spending so much time with these beautiful little people and their caregivers are immense and without a doubt overshadow any discomfort we’re encountering along the way. We’re having so much fun we’re considering staying an extra week and are already thinking about we might return in subsequent years. If we’re not careful and spend too much time soaking up three-year-old’s smiles, we may skip the rest of India altogether. After all, what’s the Taj Majal got to top this?