By Taylor K.
In early July, my Girl Scout troop — seven girls and four adults — set off on our journey to India. While all of us had been fortunate enough to travel outside of the country at least once, most of us had never been to a developing country or at least not one as different from the U.S. as India.
I had many different visions of India from the movies I had watched, stories I’ve heard and pictures I’d seen. Based on these sources, I had created a picture of India in my head filled with both stereotypes and truths. As I stepped on our first plane, I was eager to see which parts of my picture held up and which ones were wrong. I assumed that India would be dirty, very crowded, unsafe to be alone, very family-oriented, have a strong sense of culture and be very poor. Most of these assumptions concealed both truths and myths within them.
We started out our three-week trip at Sangam, a WAGGGS (World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts) world center located in the small city of Pune, as the locals call it, where roughly 4-million people reside.
Sangam has beautiful, very well-kept grounds and provided for a wonderful stay. At Sangam, we met a troop of Girl Guides from Nova Scotia, Halifax, Canada, and Girl Guide leaders from Australia and New Zealand. Sangam provided a way to meet other Girl Scouts and Guides and learn more about other troops while developing friendships. We took part in the “Discover Your Potential” program which was designed to reveal the leadership skills already in us and teach and cultivate new ones while also learning about and experiencing Indian culture.
Our first activity in the program was a walk around the neighborhood surrounding Sangam to give us our first real taste of India and get us oriented enough to understand where we were. Between us and the part of the neighborhood we were going to walk around in, stood a very busy road with many cars and motorcycles. Luckily next to Sangam, there was a walkway over the road. I wasn’t sure what to expect from the neighborhood since so far what I’d seen of India had been busy roads with lots of trash along them. The volunteers who took us on the walk described the neighborhood as middle class and also pointed to another neighborhood from the walkway that they described as lower middle class. There was an obvious difference between the two areas, the middle class mostly had narrow two-story homes and the lower-middle class shared homes that didn’t look as nice and mostly didn’t have doors. After we went off the main road, it surprised me how much quieter it seemed even though it was still busy. The houses were pretty and of all different shapes and colors with elaborate gates. We also learned that since there are so many kids, half of them go to school in the morning and half go in the afternoon.
Another place that we visited was Laxmi Rode and market. We road in our first rickshaw of the trip to get there. My group had three people in it and we thought we were very squished until we looked over and saw eight school children crammed into one rickshaw with not all of them even sitting on a seat. Our version of crowded and uncomfortable was very different than theirs, and we were lucky to be able to have that different version. The Mahatma Phule market was large and had many, many vendors. The market had an overhead covering, but no walls, so it was easy to get into and out of. One thing we immediately noticed was how colorful the market looked with all of the different fruits, vegetables and spices. We also observed that there were many vendors selling the exact same thing, all situated right next to each other. All of the people selling ginger and garlic seemed to be near one another, and all of the people selling chilis and turmeric were also near one another. The vendors amazed us as they worked so hard to get people to buy their product instead of a competitor’s, calling out, bargaining and being over all persistent.
Another part of our Sangam experience that really stuck out was our community action project. One key part of the Discover Your Potential program is the community project. Sangam has many partners around their area that they work with, and volunteers go to one that needs help at that time. Once we were at Sangam, we learned that we’d be working with an organization called Tara Mobile Creche. This organization provides daycare for children of migrant construction workers that come from small villages with little to no economic opportunity. The creche is at the construction site until the work is finished and then moves to another site. There are multiple creche sites around Pune. Most of these kids haven’t attended school or can only speak their village’s language and not Hindi, English or Marathi, the language of Maharashtra, the state that Pune is in.
Tara Mobile Creche provides these kids an opportunity to go to school, which they might not have had before, and hopefully opens the door to more opportunities. Before our first day volunteering, our group split into smaller groups to go to two different locations. With my group, we started planning activities for the kids right away. Before our first day of running activities, we had the chance to visit the site, which was extremely helpful because it gave us more of a sense how much space we had to work with and clued us into the children’s tactical abilities and interests. The creche at our location was a tin building that had a main entrance and was then split into four rooms. There was one room for the 0 to 3-year-olds, one for 3 to 6 years and two for ages 7 through 18. One of the first things that caught our attention was how the 3-6 year-olds had much better fine motor skills than kids in the US. They were putting very small beads onto a very thin string with ease and tying their own knots. They were also very interested in us because they don’t often see people that look different than them.
After our quick, initial visit, we worked with the kids for three more days. We knew that the kids didn’t share a common language with us or even each other so communication would be a struggle. Keeping this in mind, we picked activities that we could teach by showing visually such as paper airplanes and painting. The communication did prove to be a struggle, but not as big of a one as we anticipated. On our first day volunteering, one of the teachers pulled up a picture of drawings of fruits and vegetables on Pinterest and pointed at us and then the picture. We eventually figured out that they wanted us to do a nutrition lesson for each of the age groups. We struggled for a while to think of a way we could communicate a lesson to the kids, but came up with the idea to have the kids make “nutrition bowls” where they put healthy things in a bowl. The kids don’t have access to many fruits and vegetables, so we tried to pick ones they had access to. Many of the younger kids rarely were able to read books because of their limited access to them so we brought along a few to expose them and let the kids see them up-close.
Although I’m back in DC, I still think about and reflect upon what I learned and saw in India. After coming back, I’ve been more conscious of how much I am fortunate to own and have access to. I now realize more than ever the things I take for granted such as safe and drinkable water, nutritious food, and a house with multiple rooms and floors for the three people in my family. In contrast to the kids we worked with, who lived in one room tin shacks with their many family members and still smiled through each day. I have so much more than I absolutely need to survive. In our society, we focus so much on material items to give us pleasure and happiness, such as phones, TVs and video games, but these kids in India are a reminder that we don’t really need any of these things to live a life with joy.