I hail from the “if you want to do something badly, better make it something big” tribe, so I bought a ticket to India and started reading about teaching, determined, but knowing full-well I could only do so much in a few weeks. Emphasis on determined. I’d consider myself a relatively seasoned traveler for 25 years old, but I’ve never done something like this before.
With only a few days left, I haven’t gotten to know the children as much as I would have had this been a longer stay, but I’ve gotten caught up in the relentlessly positive energy and kindness of so many students who are, without a doubt, going to do amazing things with their lives that wouldn’t have been possible without Shanti Bhavan. I arrived during exam time, which meant even fewer opportunities to teach the lessons I’d planned, but I decided to improvise and to re-evaluate how I can contribute to this beautiful place.
In the end, I’m rounding out three weeks spent in India and that feels pretty great on it’s own. I worked with seniors on their personal statements, I read to pre-k and kindergarten students (side note: they even got me to sing on one occasion), I worked with 10th and 11th graders on current events, I had third graders practice their typing skills, I squeezed in some lessons on grammar and writing, and I kept the 8th graders awake and focussed during study hall—not an easy feat. If anyone wants unused lesson plans for 7th, 9th and 11th grade English language, creative writing, persuasive writing, and literature, I’m your girl. And in an effort to do just a little bit more, I’m also channeling my marketing skills to help spread the word about the school in a BIG way, but more on that later.
Was my time in India exactly what I expected? Not even close. But even though I’ve never done anything like this before, my past travels have taught me that plans are often unpredictable at best and the sooner you learn to improvise, the happier you’ll be. Whether I’ve taught the children here one thing or 20, I’ve tried my best and approached everything with a smile. As for the lessons I’ve taken away, I’m not sure I’ll fully realize those until I’m back home and no longer jet lagged.
When I was younger, I was convinced I could happily spend my whole life traveling. While there are few things more magical than exploring a new place, whether it’s two states away or on the other side of the world, there’s something so incredibly powerful about coming back home with a camera full of photos, some souvenirs and stories, and the sense of accomplishment that comes with taking on so many unknowns by my myself.
I'm leaving for the 30-plus-hour trip back to Boston in an hour and I think I'll miss the amazing personalities of all the kids the most. Here's a sampling of the crazy/creative/always-smiling children who made this adventure so memorable (and one with some of my fellow volunteers)
I came to India to volunteer at Shanti Bhavan, but I wasn’t about to leave without squeezing in a little bit of shopping. Last weekend, I got my opportunity: two days to scoop up as many souvenirs as I could. We traveled by bus with another volunteer, crammed in and hot with a Hindi movie blasting during the second leg of the journey. First stop: coffee, something I’ve miraculously been surviving without for the past three weeks. We met up with Padma, the former employee of my mom’s friend’s cousin (follow that?) in Bangalore. She had agreed to give us a shopping tour around the city and took us to some local spots we wouldn’t have visited on our own. Since nothing in the shops has a price on it, Padma’s negotiating know-how was crucial. We navigated past street vendors and weaved in and out of shops, picking out scarves, jewelry, clothing, and other trinkets along the way. I just wish we had time to at least take Padma for ice cream to thank her for being so kind and helpful.
Though our shopping efforts were successful, we spent so much time browsing that we skipped lunch. With a cookie each to hold us over, we took the relatively new Bangalore metro to dinner in lieu of an auto rickshaw. After putting our bags through a security scanner and being scanned ourselves, we proceeded to the ticket line. I didn’t know it was possible for a subway token to be cute, but the little, black, scannable coins were impressive enough that we took photos with them en route upon learning the disappointing news that we’d have to return them upon leaving. Additionally, NYC and Boston take note: when the train door opened, there was a woman standing there with a mop who had just finished cleaning the floors. I was so impressed.
Post-dinner, we walked over to Toit Brew Pub, stopping to buy necklaces along the way. It felt kind of surreal, sitting on a bench outdoors, drinking a really good dark beer while watching train cars travel along the tracks overhead. Just that afternoon, we’d been walking the dusty streets, dodging vehicles, and navigating through crowds of people. Now, my surroundings could have passed for New York City. I suppose all those years dodging yellow taxis to cross the street did well to prepare me for avoiding auto rickshaws with relative ease. The one downside to the Bangalore metro is that the last train leaves at 10pm. But I was exhausted from the day and happy to retreat back to the hotel to take stock of my purchases and watch some episodes of Big Bang Theory before bed.
Now, I don’t know about you, but I think shopping in another country is as much a sightseeing and cultural experience as it is a retail one. That said, I was still determined to see one temple before heading back to Shanti Bhavan. So, after some more coffee and a gigantic cinnamon roll, back into an auto rickshaw we climbed and headed towards the Bull Temple. I happily snapped some photos (below), made one more purchase from the stalls outside, and then headed over to an adjacent park to explore. I don’t think I’d ever stop being in awe of the plants and trees and flowers here. Before I started asking some of the students to take photos, I was a bit concerned my Facebook album would have to be titled “Flora, Fauna, and a Few Adorable Kindergarteners of Shanti Bhavan”. Either that, or I needed to step up my selfie-taking efforts. Thankfully, I’ve successfully avoided both of those scenarios.
The Bangalore outing ended with Thai food at a 13th-floor, open-air restaurant and juices at the coffee shop. Mission: accomplished. The only problem will be convincing myself not to keep everything I bought!
What happens when you ask a bunch of third graders what they'd do if they had the school to themselves for the day? Turns out, a bit of creativity and a very busy agenda. Computer class is far more fun when you're teaching it. Here's my favorite answer:
"If I had the whole school I would let no strangers to my school. I would watch TV. I would eat my favorite food. I would go to the garden and play. I would also go to the museum and pick the clothes I like to wear. I would put music and dance and act mad. I would call to my friends and say HELLO! I would wear my swimming suit and rush to swimming pool and swim. I would make my popcorn and act like I am at a movie night. I would read my favorite book and dose off to sleep."
Another favorite: "If I had the whole school I would make myself famous and I would also make the whole world know about Shanti Bhavan".
This is quite the improvement from last week when I asked them to create poems out of their names and I got more than a few odd attempts. I'm not sure who would describe themselves as a "slithering snake".
So what if I tried to get the pre-k kiddos to say "Snuffleupagus" and "hippopotamus" during story time for my own amusement? They totally got their revenge by convincing me to sing "I'm a Little Teapot" and "If You're Happy and You Know It". Guess what? My voice is just as off-key as it was the last time more than two people heard me sing solo... easily 12 to 15 years ago. But there I was singing and clapping and stomping and jumping with a room full of four and five year olds and one entertained aunty. It felt pretty good.
Also, please note that the girl in the center of this photo is holding a pretend cell phone. She pulled it out in the middle of my story. In the cutest voice I could muster, I leaned down and said, "how rude!" Gotta curb those texting habits early or at least teach them to be more discreet.
Wise advice from a ninth grader... given after the fact. Yesterday, I decided to check out the garden and help pull some weeds around the tomato plants. I swear the kids were able to stand effortlessly on top of the mud while I just sunk every time I took a step. Almost left a shoe behind, too. By the end, I sort of learned how to jump from dry spot to dry spot. Sort of.
Later in the day, one of the SB graduates, Chai, decided she needed photos before heading home and that my camera would be used. So we had an impromptu photo shoot where it quickly became clear to everyone involved that I was not capable of keeping a straight face in pictures. I tried. I really did.
Happy April Fool's Day from India!
Today at dinner, one of the younger kids told me there was a lizard on the ceiling. When I turned around, he shouted "April Fool's". In my defense, just half an hour before, I tried to go to the school building and one of the girls was standing really still near the entrance. She told me there was a snake and we had to go grab a flashlight to investigate before walking past the bushes. No fooling on that one, so I was in a "critters are everywhere" mindset by dinner.
Today was also my first day teaching. I had third grade computers and ninth grade English, plus two study halls to observe and story time (Little Bear) with kindergarteners. During gym class, I was pulled into a volleyball game (hello, high school throwback) and promptly realized that I'm just as terrible a player as I was at 17. The only difference? My teammates were quite sympathetic about Miss Alyssa's lack of athletic skills and actually applauded my effort. Refreshing, really.
In other news, a kindergartener tried to tell me her name was also Alyssa, I've been drinking a ridiculous amount of chai, and I'm determined to get a few good writing lessons in before I leave.
I arrived in Bangalore exhausted, but excited and thankful for a smooth journey. As the driver made his way to Shanti Bhavan, I could feel my jet lag actively outweighing my culture shock as we dodged cars on dark roads. Looking out the window, I knew I was farther from home than I'd ever been, but at the same time, I felt like that was exactly where I was supposed to be. An arrival time of three in the morning isn't easy, no matter what time zone, so my first priority was a nap. Breakfast proved just how enthusiastic the kids here can be. I was pulled over to a table of girls who, in between bites of food, asked every question they could think of, including if I liked to travel and shop (yes. absolutely. always.). They placed guesses on what I'd be teaching since I didn't know at the time. After breakfast, I got a tour of the gorgeous campus and was serenaded by a classroom of kindergarteners with their rendition of the ABC's—easily the cutest version I've ever heard.
One of my biggest worries was eating spicy food, but so far, so good. I'm also told I picked a great day to arrive. Thursday brought a special snack of grapes in honor of a volunteer's second-to-last day and a party to celebrate the 10th and 12th graders finishing exams. I definitely thought the appetizers were the main course and barely had enough room to finish the full meal, which included dessert. There was dancing and picture taking and Miley Cyrus, Justin Timberlake, and Kesha and Pitbull blasting from the speakers. Fact: even in India, it's really hard not to start dancing when "Timber" starts playing.
On Friday, I was feeling revived from a night of sleep and ready to play dodgeball and SPUD with the younger kids during PT time (remember SPUD?). In the morning, I was introduced to the English class I'll be taking over, and in the afternoon, I sat in on a spelling class, which actually meant playing word games outdoors. I've been making a list of classroom games and activities over the past couple of days. I'll be teaching 7th and 8th grade creative and persuasive writing, 7th grade spelling, and 11th grade English.Since there are only a few weeks left in the school year, I'll mostly be working on reviewing material. Right now, my biggest challenge is learning all of the children's names. Dinnertime brought a barbecue in honor of two other volunteers who were leaving (like I said, I picked the right day to arrive). That was followed by actual dinner where I sat with first graders and had to explain that the "Klean Kanteen" logo on my water bottle wasn't the correct way to spell either of those words. I answered more questions (favorite bird, favorite food, if I like dogs), and we played a few rounds of a clapping game. After dinner, the kids performed The Merchant of Venice.
My schedule will start getting very busy on Monday when I'll officially be on the schedule. Expect m posts to be more about the kids after that now that I've gotten some background details out of the way.
When you travel, things will go wrong. Doesn't matter if you're flying to another state or another country. Take it from a girl who had to dry her hair with a somewhat-broken space heater in Portugal: the sooner you learn to laugh off the hiccups, the better. I'm certainly getting my fair share of laughs planning for India—currently, I am not able to get a referral for vaccines at a Massachusetts travel clinic because I haven't been here long enough to visit a primary care doctor (a necessary step to getting said referral). I also almost overlooked the fact that I need a special attachment for the fancy filtering water bottle I ordered that removes the kind of waterborne diseases I'd be actively avoiding during my stay. I feel like that's something a company should make extra clear in their product descriptions, but hey, maybe they're not as afraid of bacteria as I am. Crisis averted, though.
Some other laughs:
- Trying to perfectly time the pickup of my Visa with my visit to NYC obviously fell through because of processing delays. Overnight mail to the rescue!
- My credit card sent me a fraud alert NOT for the plane ticket to India, but for the purchase of a new computer and clothing for my trip.
But I'm rolling with the punches, getting more and more excited, and making more calls to customer service numbers than I've made in the past five years, combined. In the end, it is all so unbelievably worth it.
Update: Just got a call saying that the General Consulate attached the wrong photo to my Visa. Luckily, it was caught in time and I just need to send a new form. I'm now sitting here wondering whose photo they chose for my Visa.
Another update: USPS lost my water purifier bottle. On the positive side, I have mastered the art of the customer service call. By "mastered the art," I mean "participated in a daylong, 12-part exercise in patience".
Go big or stay home seems to be my unintentional travel manifesto.
I've never been to India before and I've never taught a classroom full of children, but on March 25, I'm flying from Boston to Bangalore to spend three weeks doing both of these things.
I first heard about the amazing students at Shanti Bhavan Children's Project through my dear friend Christen, whose nonprofit, She's the First, has taken her around the world on a quest to sponsor girls' education and create first-generation graduates and leaders. I wanted to volunteer for no more than two weeks. Christen pushed for more and I'm glad she did. Friends and family concerned about the length of time I'll be gone: blame Christen. She can take it.
On top of my excitement about working with the children at Shanti Bhavan, India also holds a great deal of personal significance for me. I'll be the third generation in my family to travel there—my grandparents many times for business, my mother and aunts as tourists, and me to volunteer. It was my grandpa who first sparked that ever-present need to get out and see the world. On my sixth birthday, he asked if I'd like to see England. I had no clue what he was talking about, but I said "yes". That summer, he made sure it happened. I remember the magic of that experience like it was yesterday.
My Visa application is in and my to-do list is growing. I'll be chronicling my trip here and also blogging for She's the First once I arrive in India. Stay tuned for more updates!