|$1 US = 44 Indian Rupees
Well, India has lived up to it's reputation for sensory overload. I walked out of the small airport at Trivandrum (short for Thiruvananthapuram), and there were probably a thousand people crowded at a barracade by the exit. After the shock of so many people, I noticed the cacophony of sounds... talking, traffic, and horns honking. I was able to locate someone in the crowd with my name on a piece of paper, and he drove me to the school called Mitraniketan where I would be spending the next ten days.
I will describe Mitraniketan and my time there, but first I thought it would be interesting to recount my first full day in India.
I woke up and headed for the bathroom in my dorm-style room at the school. While brushing my teeth I had a strange cold sensation on my toes. Turns out the sink drain was just a plastic pipe emptying onto the floor by my feet, and everything in the bathroom sloped toward a central drain. Then I "showered" by filling a big bucket with cold water, and using a little bucket to scoop out water and get myself wet. After shampoo and soap, I splashed myself with more little buckets of cold water, screeching and dancing around from the thermal shock. I was definitely awake!
I went to the school Director's house for a breakfast of Indian biscuits, gravy, eggs, toast, and coffee. Then we had the daily morning assembly with the students, about 400 of them. The children sang Indian songs, discussed a life lesson, and had announcements. Turns out Mr. John from San Francisco was the main announcement, so I was asked to stand up, introduce myself, and talk about my travels. I asked the kids if they knew the Terminator (some of the older ones did), and said he was the governor of my state. My short speech was translated into the local language Malayalam. After the assembly dozens of children came over to say hello and practice their English.
My next task was purchasing a ticket for my next flight to Delhi. Due to the sketchy internet access, I lost my already slow connection every few minutes. Two hours later I had located a domestic budget airline, found the flight, entered all my info, got to the last step, and I was denied. Some additional research revealed that due to frequent fraud the airline won't accept credit cards that are not issued in India. The school principal Reghu showed up, saw my frustration, and said he would make a call. Five minutes later my flight was booked!
The principal thought I should have a tour of the school, so he asked one of his assistants to take me around. We visited the gym, the library, a computer class, several "skills" areas including carpentry, plumbing, and agriculture. The highlight was when we visited the animal science building. As we walked up, there was a man with his arm I swear shoulder-deep in the backside of a cow! After finishing with the cow, he came over with a big smile to shake my hand and intoduce himself as Jith. (Left arm in cow, right arm to shake my hand.) Jith had some very interesting ideas on how to offer a vetrinary service to insurance companies who want to outsource, and he could tell I was just the person to help him launch this business.
My afternoon began with the principal taking me to the closest main town Trivandrum so I could run some errands. We stopped by his home so I could meet his family, we ran some errands, and then I was dropped off in town. I wanted to find a gym, buy a towel, and get an Indian cell phone card. Easier said than done.
After asking around for maybe 30 minutes, I was directed a long way to Power Gym. The very nice guys there explained that their smallest membership was 500 rupees for a month. I said I was just there for a day, but 500 rupees is only about $12, so I was considering it since I really needed a workout. When I mentioned I just wanted to work out for an hour, the manager and his assistants said they had decided that I could use the gym for no charge. First we had a chat about where I am from, what I am doing in India, etc. The manager gave me his card and said to call if I ever needed anything. Finally a workout. The strangest thing was that, like most indoor places, you had to remove your shoes at the door. Lifting weights in bare feet makes you very careful not to drop the dumbells.
I had looked around for a towel with no luck, so I asked the guys at the gym. Turns out you get towels at any of the many fabric stores. Duh! The store I went to had no less than 8 people at the u-shaped display counter, all looking at me helpfully. Two men, with a lot of encouragement and advice from the team, offered me many towels. They were also concerned about my bedsheet situation, and whether my sisters, mother, daughters, and other relatives had enough saris and other traditional Indian clothes. Wow were they nice!
Next was the phone store, and this time three guys and many bystanders all had advice on my mobile service choice. Once we decided on a company, it was time to fill out the paperwork. Luckily I had my passport since that was necessary, but I also needed a photo! They sent me down the street to a photo place. While waiting to take a picture I met a nice couple with an adorable little girl. I got chatting with the father, and lo and behold, he has some ideas for outsourcing to India! He works at an Ayervedic spa, and invited me for a free massage and spa visit since "wink wink" I am an American businessman who can send the spa many clients. I received another business card.
Back to the phone store, I discuss with the growing crowd my application. We have a moment of concern when the store manager's phone is out of talk time so he can't execute the transaction, but being a pro this is quickly resolved. Now I have Indian cell phone service, which I find out a few hours later does not have service at the school where I am staying!
Walking down the street I am stopped by a couple guys hanging out on their scooters who want to talk. On hearing I am from America, one tells me about his friend's uncle who lives in Ohio. Excellent. They recommend a tandoori restaurant for dinner called Zam Zam and say to stop back when I am done.
I found Zam Zam and it was packed downstairs, upstairs, and next door. Very popular place. I end up sitting at a table with a couple young guys. We try to talk, and are able to communicate the basics. I am from America, they work construction, etc. Then they are saying "sidem sidem"?? OH, yes Saddam! I signal my comprehension by making a gesture like holding a noose above my neck since this is a few days after his hanging. Immediately I realize my potential faux pas. I ask if they are Hindu. "No, we are Muslim." I know the answer to the next question but I ask anyway if they are Shiite or Sunni... "We are Sunni." Shit! They are still smiling, but for a minute I wonder if I am next in the Tandoori oven.
Afer dinner I meet the scooter guys again. They arrange a three-wheeler taxi back to the school, which involves almost an hour of little unlit and unmarked roads. The driver asked for directions about a dozen times, but miraculously he got me back to the locked gate at Mitraniketan. I walked over to the Director's house, and his daughter gave me some water and bananas, and showed me the way to my guesthouse. There are almost no lights on campus so the stars are brilliant. My room is hot, but I cool off with a cold spongebath (with one of my new towels), turn on the fan, and go to sleep.
My first day in India was long and crazy, but it turns out, not at all unusual. My original plan was to focus on Southeast Asia and save India for another trip, but my interest in working with children led me to change plans. I have mentioned that, along my journey, I wanted to do some volunteering. When I was researching my trip, I was lucky to connect with a woman named Ann McLaughlin and her organization NGOabroad. Visit NGO Abroad
Ann and NGOabroad were extremely helpful in connecting me with people and organizations in Asia. NGOabroad's tagline is "Custom-Fit International Service" and that is exactly what they provide. I sent Ann a copy of my resume, and an email detailing where I planned to visit and what interests I had regarding volunteering. She reviewed my information, spoke with me on the phone to fill in the blanks, and then sent me a series of documents listing information, organizations, and specific contacts customized for me. All this for a shockingly low fee!
Ann's number one recommendation for me was the Mitraniketan school in the Kerala area of Southern India. Visit Mitraniketan Website The Kerala area is tropical, with beautiful beaches and lush farmland. Mitraniketan is very secluded outside a small village called Vellanad. The school was founded 50 years ago by a man named Viswanathan, and he is still the Director of the organization today. I actually had all my meals at his home.
Mitraniketan promotes rural development through education programs for children and young adults. The school focuses on children from the lowest rungs of their society, called scheduled castes and scheduled tribes. Most of the scheduled tribe children actually live in non-permanent homes in the jungle, and for many they are the first generation to be educated. Around 400 of these children live at Mitraniketan, and their room and board, education, and even some clothes and supplies are provided by the school.
Mitraniketan also started their People's College ten years ago, which proves about 100 young people a one-year residential program to build life and vocational skills. Development of personality and leadership are emphasized in addition to fields such as agriculture science and computers. The college program also focuses is the most disadvantaged segment of Indian society, and it provides this program at little or no charge.
Everyone at Mitraniketan, from teachers to staff to students, were incredibly nice. They were very excited to have visitors, and someone from America was unusual. Most people spoke a little English, even the little kids, and everyone was very interested in me and my life. Most of the kids here are very poor, and for many this is their first time away from home. I started taking pictures and the children all loved seeing their image on the screen. Then I would make videos and they went bananas!
I was only at Mitraniketan for a little over a week, but it was a blast, and I was able to spend time with the pre-schoolers right though the People's College. I was regularly a guest of honor in classes and events.
As an example, a group of older nursing students had a performance one night, and the whole school attended. During the initial announcements (in Malayalam) I heard bla bla bla, Mr. John from San Francisco, bla bla bla. Much to my surprise I was led down behind the stage and the kids organizing the event were telling me the name of their program and pointing at the microphone. I asked what they wanted me to do, and they said "Oh, just make a felicitation." Oh, ok... What is a felicitation? Turns out a felicitation is to offer congratulations, so I got up (yet again) in front of a few hundred young people to talk about the tremendous work the nursing students had being doing.
My time at Mitraniketan was really special. Check out the photos. Delhi and Rajasthan in Northern India are next.