I was dead tired after traveling for 28 hours, getting on and off sleep, and being in a time zone 14.5 hours ahead of my home in Wisconsin, but when Andoni, the volunteer from Spain, who rescued me earlier, and Laxmi, the proud staff member, asked me if I wanted to visit the slum an hour after I arrived, I of course said yes. This is why I had to come to volunteer, to see and try to understand what slum living is, and if there is anything I could do to "help".
We walked down the road, and I started soaking everything in literally and figuratively, the 104 degree Fahrenheit heat, the pollution making me wrinkle my nose, the smells of piss and feces, mixed with frying food, the way everything looked so used and abused, the bright colors from the saris of the few women I saw walking by, the abundance of men, the dirt between my toes, and thought to myself I am not sure, not sure at all if I am going to like this place. I made idle chit chat, but more than anything I observed and tried really hard not to get ran over by the motor bikes, tuk tuks, rickshaw, taxis, cars, trucks that whizzed on by honking their horn. At first I thought they we aiming at the foreigners, as they were within inches of our group, but soon realized the honk was for everyone, the language of the street; sometimes a tap to say, "Hey, I’m right next you.” Sometimes an angry long honk, saying, "You idiot why did you just cut in front me, you know I can kill you, and I just might next time." A super loud honk, saying, "Ha Ha, I made you jump." Because the noise is constant, and not just during rush hour, it is 10 times worse than New York, but somehow you find a way to tune it out.
A small left turn after a few shops on the side of the road, and Laxmi, suddenly turns to me and says, "Terri, you are now entering the slum." I didn't know what to expect, you have images in your head from movies, books, and what people describe, but at the same time you have no clue. All I can say is that it was different than the roads we were on before, and everyone saying hello and wanting to shake your hand. I literally walked two feet and shook more hands than I had in three months. The children were dirty, some with sores, some with clothes, some without, but the thing I remember most was their smiles and the true delight in "meeting" you. Yes, a few asked for money, and some boys were rude, touching my butt and pointing and laughing, but then that can happen anywhere in the world. I was cautious, unsure, but my new friends kept walking so I went too and kept shaking hands, saying "Hello."
I was lead into one of structures and was told it was one of P.E.T.E.'s schools, Nirvana Kindergarten. The front was a small area where the cooked one meal a day for the 35 students, and back was a 14x14ft room filled with children ages 2 to 10 years old and their teacher and a helper. The students were children of men and women who worked all day in the slum, the kids would get some basic education and learn a bit hygiene, but mostly it was a place for the children to see an adult eat some food, as most of the kids don't have an adult watching over them during the day. The oldest brother/sister/cousin would kind of watch over them, but they just did what they did, coming and going as they pleased. After distributing some clothes, that Air France had donated a few days before, we headed to P.E.T.E's other school, a women's vocational school based out of one families home.
This home was a bit nicer then the school we had to just a few minutes before. It had running water from a tap in their "courtyard", a bathroom/washing area of sorts, and the house was 22x22 ft. The best thing being it at an air conditioner of sorts, basically a fan that blew over cool water into the side of the house, so it is actually pretty comfortable place to be, especially when it was crowded with students, like it was on my first visit.
I was invited in and asked to sit, and since I was new I had to sit on one of the small stools (we would have used it as a foot stool in the states) while everyone else sat on the floor. Soon the beauty teacher arrived, who also lives in the slum, but also has another job at a salon. This is not the norm for women of the slum, the majority of women have house cleaning jobs, or their husband won't let them leave the slum to work. So why is there a women's vocational school in the slum then, because with a skill/trade the women could make a little extra income from their neighbors, friends, etc. The slum is truly its own thriving community.
As beauty shop stereotypes go, before we got started we had to gossip first. I was introduced to everyone, asked where I was from, how old I was, and the most interesting question to them, was I married? I told them, that I wasn't and they laughed asked, "Boyfriend, then?" I replied, "Nope, no boyfriend either." They looked at me in disbelief, and I added, "Maybe, someday." To them this is a huge deal as they are typically are married off around the age of 16, through an arranged marriage. All the girls confided that they had the same choice I had.
After getting the necessities out of the way, they moved on to the day's lesson, manicures and pedicures, and asked if I would I like to be their example. I easily agreed and soon found myself with my feet in a bucket, which felt amazing after the trip I just had. A good soak and then two teenage girls each had one of my ugly feet in their lap. They scrubbed away the dirt that had been collected and then pulled out the lotion. I had two people massaging my feet at the same time, I about died in luxury, except I had twenty faces staring at me. Then they moved onto my hands and I received the same treatment but from two other girls. They painted my finger nails a brilliant red with pink sparkles, they were going to do my toes too, but didn't have any nail polish remover to remove my 4th of July paint job from two weeks earlier. So, in my first day in India, in the slum no less, I was receiving a mani and pedi. I guess this place is not too bad after all.
Following beauty class is sewing class, two new teachers arrive and they pull four out hand propelled machines. Here the girls are taught how to patch, alter and sew new clothes; another useful skill in the slum. Sadly this was the time I started falling asleep on my little stool, until few giggles woke me up. Laxmi and Andoni were nice enough to ask if I wanted to go, a bit embarrassed I said, yes, please. They assured me we go back tomorrow and this was only the beginning.