Sunday, February 3, 2013

‘Slumdog Millionaire’? It's Real Life: A new volunteer’s perspective.

These past few days have been incredible. Words cannot even describe it - but I will do my best. Although I suppose I am used to the traffic here by now, the fact that I still desire to talk about it proves that maybe I'm not... Picture New York City traffic during rush hour, but about ten times more hectic - and that is Mumbai traffic. Now imagine a typical four-way intersection in America with traffic lights, pedestrian crosswalks, lines that tell cars where to stop, etc. Four-way intersections here have none of those. Rush-hour traffic literally results in a giant free-for-all where cars from every direction just charge down the road at each other and usually end up slamming on the brakes to narrowly avoid accidents. The honking? Enough to make one go deaf. Or just completely insane.

When waiting to cross the street, people do not usually stand on the sidewalk like they do in the U.S; they stand IN the street. Indians do not really believe in the concept of pedestrian right-of-way here so if someone is standing in the street, an approaching rickshaw will not slow down, but simply let out a shrieking, blood curdling honk for a few seconds to warn the pedestrian to get back. People push their produce carts and wagons directly through the center of the street. Motorcycles weave in and out between the cars and rickshaws and trucks. (It is not uncommon to see three, four, or even five people on one moped- or to see a very elderly person or young child driving one!) Vehicles are often no more than a few inches away from each other. The air is constantly thick with the smell of pollution - and there is so much smog, the sky here is constantly gray.

Anyway, two days ago marked the first day we visited the slums. We have not started work yet - we start today, but we simply went to introduce ourselves to the students and teachers we will be working with. The schoolhouses were probably the most decent part of the entire slums, and it almost brought tears to my eyes to see these bright children and witness firsthand their love of learning. Attending school could change these kids' lives. If they are not educated enough to be able to hold a real job one day, they will never leave the slums. Education is their only chance - I am so honored and humbled by the fact that I will get to help teach these kids for the next two months with GPM. A Western program called REAP that oversees the literacy classes for the children works with GPM to ensure a free meal is provided to each child per school day. For many, it is the only food they have, and on Sundays, when school is not in session, some of the children will not eat from Saturday until Monday.

Outside of the classrooms, let me just say, it was incredible. It is hard to believe that there are people in this world who live like these people do. Their homes are made of tarps, wooden beams, and scraps of metal. There are stray dogs everywhere.  Unkempt, half-naked children play in the streets (meaning a narrow trash-filled dirt path ). The air smells like a mixture of urine, excrement, rotting garbage and pollution. Farm animals walk down the streets. Families gather in the dirt around small fires, cooking what little food they have. People rummage through the trash on the sides of the street. Many people sit outside their shacks just staring into the sky.

As we began to leave, a huge lump formed in my throat. It was almost sickening to think that we come here, and are doing such good things for these people, but at the end of the day, we get to come back to our comfortable apartment.. and they have to stay. While a lot of them do hold some type of tedious, back-breaking, laborious job such as working the fields or picking up trash at the Kalva train station that marks the beginning of the slums, the large majority of them are too uneducated to even purchase a train ticket and journey into town in search of a better job. They have no skills, very little money, and no self-confidence. They are prisoners of their own poverty.

Once again, my thoughts turned to my hard mattress, my toilet that leaks... and my heart once again swelled with gratefulness. I have seen firsthand the lives of people who have absolutely nothing. We have oh so much to be thankful for, and it is very easy to take our good fortune for granted. We get so caught up in our petty problems, and think that our life is the world, when it's not. The world is so big, and even before I came to India, it puzzled me when I saw people I know worrying and fretting over things these people would love to even have the privilege to worry about. In future, whenever I feel that I have a problem, I will imagine telling it to an emaciated woman picking through garbage on the side of the street, and see what her opinion is on my "tough" life.

I look forward to continuing interaction with these beautiful people, and especially with the precious children. These slums have existed for hundreds of years, and they are the first generation of their people that are working hard to ensure there will be a brighter future ahead of them.

Erin, from Ashville North Carolina, is one of the new GPM-JDC fellows. She has just started the Spring session.

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