Niamh Wallace, Lifestyle Editor.
I’m sure that when you hear of India you think of Slumdog Millionaire, right? You think of poverty, gang warfare and rampant child labour. Perhaps you imagine the squat toilets or Delhi Belly. I’m here to tell you that India is a country with so much more on offer than the sensationalised cowpat you’ve been sold in movies and popular culture.
India is a country I have long wanted to visit due to my love of yoga. So, when I got an email from QUB’s RAG society advertising two weeks with the PMGY Foundation in Faridabad, I jumped at the chance and persuaded my friends Laura and Eoin to join me. We had a fundraising limit of just under £1000, and through bucket collections, Easter raffles and pestering our friends and families on Facebook we managed to get there. All three of us had wanted to try our hands at volunteering and this seemed the best way to do it, allowing us to see a country we were intrigued with at the same time. While we went to the project to teach, we learned a lot in the process.
The project accommodation is split between two houses: Vishy’s house and the orphanage house. When we arrived, we were greeted with some of the friendly and helpful boys living in the orphanage. We played games of chess and discussed international business with them whilst we chatted in English (and French) about their schoolwork and their favourite Bollywood movies.
The boarding house was an adventure in itself. We bonded with friends from England and Ukraine, as well as further afield in America, Australia and New Zealand. There was plenty of space on the rooftops of the house to chill out and socialise, as well as being able to dander into town for a look around the shops. All the food in the house is vegetarian, so we had various kinds of potato curries that we ate along with omelettes and chapati (our new favourite food) and on some nights we would enjoy Western comfort food in pasta and chips.
Between Vishy and Jon (our guide and cake expert) we were always well looked after, whether it was organising a trip to the cash machine or recommending places to go in our free time. They helped us discover Perfect Bake where we got brownies and milkshakes nearly every day after class and our new favourite Chinese restaurant, Berco’s, where we bonded with the owners after a few trips. With a milkshake costing 80 rupees (about 75p) and a full Chinese meal costing about 300 rupees (£2.80), we never went hungry.
The project was first started by Vishy in 2009. A local of Faridabad, Vishy has a degree in Speech Pathology and has worked with adults and children with various disabilities. This allowed him to see the poverty in the area and caused him to found the Global Orphanage Trust where he could recruit volunteers to help people who were deprived of medical and educational services because of their circumstances. He reached out to Philip, the founder of the PMGY Foundation who provided him with a host of eager volunteers ready to make a difference in the area. Almost 10 years later, the project in the area is still growing, with individual projects in teaching, medical practices, female empowerment, a local orphanage, the disabled school and the community centre. The group from QUB raised £5259.85 between us, a total that will go far in the expansion of the slum school to make sure as many kids get the opportunity of education as the organisation can take. If you are someone who donated to any one of us, thank you, your donation will make a huge difference!
The teaching project proved a fun challenge. We tuk tuk’ed our way through crazy Indian traffic and every morning, we received a warm welcome from the kids. We would say their prayers, sing the national anthem and do various dances and exercises at assembly before being separated into classes. We arrived during their exam period, and the first week was spent helping them revise, while the second week was spent testing them in spelling, grammar, maths and science. I was paired with a teacher called Rita, and we taught a third level class together to make sure the children did well in their tests and could progress to the next level. This is Nandini, Deepa and Chandni, three girls in my class who got full marks in their spelling.
The kindness and generosity of the Indian people definitely starts at a young age, as the children would always help out their classmates who maybe didn’t have a pencil or share their packed lunches between them. On our last day of teaching, exams were over and we got to have a party. We danced to popular Indian songs and played games outside while the organisers were able to feed the entire school for less than £20, and everybody got a vegetable samosa and a cup of juice.
This shows how far that money donated can go, ensuring that every child has a meal at lunchtime that might be their only meal of the day.
Since we travelled the whole way to India, we wanted to experience some culture in our spare time. Jon really threw us in at the deep end on our first day, when we travelled into New Delhi and experienced the Hindu celebration of the god Krishna. We partook in a sort of pilgrimage walking through the temple and the streets in our bare feet through the puddles left by the monsoons, dancing and singing Hare Krishna with the locals. That evening we attended a service at a Sikh temple, where we got to sit amongst the gold and marble grandeur and got to experience a meal. It is very important to the Sikh people that no food from the temple is wasted as it is an offering, but none of us had any problem finishing the delicious food they served us. We were all very intrigued by the Hindu religion due to its lively and colourful nature and by the Sikh religion as they advocate for equality, serving three meals a day and providing a place for people to sleep.
We were also able to organise lots of activities for our free time in the evening: classes available included a yoga class, a pottery class, a cooking class and a Bollywood dancing class.
We also visited Akshardham temple (no phones allowed) and saw a lights and water show produced to the standard of a Disneyland show.
The main cultural activity we embarked upon was the Golden Triangle trip. We travelled on a bus for 6 hours from Delhi to Jaipur, where we got to visit lots of sights such as the Hawa Mahal, and the Amber Fort where we experienced an earth-shattering thunderstorm. We also got to visit an elephant sanctuary and a beautiful Indian buffet restaurant called Royal Treat. At the very end of the trip, we set off at dawn to see the Taj Mahal at sunrise, the highlight of the trip for many volunteers.
All in all, I would recommend spending time in India with the PMGY Foundation to anyone, especially those interested in vocational careers such as teaching and medicine who also would like to travel. The project provides invaluable life experience, while also providing the charity with your skills and qualifications. Whether you are bringing teaching expertise, medical expertise or just enthusiasm and will to help, this project could really use as many volunteers as possible.
Thank you to Vishy and Jon for making our time in India so amazing, and thanks to the kids for teaching us chess and giving us friends for life!