Family Dinner

I am that person who begins planning my next meal as I am eating my current meal- or worse- inquire what my next meal will be so I can make an educated decision about whether to overeat at the current meal or save extra room for the next one.  In my home, dinner is an essential part of my family’s day.  My mom and I happily spend two hours leisurely cooking a meal while sipping wine and being blatantly ignored by my father who prefers the news to our chatter.  The food we cook is important but even for me the food is secondary to the time spent with my family.  Once I started attending Bard my mom and I would call each other as we simultaneously cooked our separate meals, we both understood exactly what “I’ll call at wine time” meant.  And if I’m not talking to my mom, I am feeding my friends or being fed by my friends because food is something to be shared and savored.   It is this that I miss most while being in India. But, tonight I got my family dinner. 

Rani, Emily, and Meghann

My volunteers and I will leave Project WHY on Friday and as a thank you for their hard work I wanted to take them out for dinner and as an even bigger thank you to Rani’s family for taking care of all of us, I wanted them to join us. I laughed as all 18 of us piled into a car and onto two motorcycles.  We ordered far too much food which was all far too delicious but as in any good family dinner, the food was secondary. There was constant laughter, the children migrated from lap to lap sampling food from any plate which suited them, there were hugs, there were jokes, there were elephant noises! There was family. 

Rani always shoos away my thank you’s at the end of every delicious meal her family cooks for me which always includes my favorite dish, baingan bharta. I think her family will stage a coup if it’s cooked ever again!  I am saying thank you for the food, but more than that, I am thanking Rani for letting me be a part of her family and giving me back the best part of my day.  And it made me so happy that for one night my volunteers got to feel what it’s like to be a part of the Bhardwaj family, too.  They’re an incredibly special family. 

The Couple's Dance

Students from the Women's Center

My pointer finger, pinky, and thumb have pressed against what feels like hundreds of sets of little hands in the signature Project Why handshake by the time that the students say goodbye at the end of the day. They used to approach so timidly (with quiet “hello ma’ams” and head nods) but now they rush up to us at the beginning and end of their lessons, beaming from ear to ear and pushing each other in order to be the first to say hello and goodbye.  Handshakes no longer cut it and many of them ask me and Violet for hugs and kisses, often returning for multiple goodbyes as if it’s the last time they are going to see us even though we will still be here for a couple more days.  I am super glad that we are because this week at the Women’s Center we are preparing for the Republic Day celebration (the other centers are going through a similar process) and the kids are so excited to be able to dance and act in a play that the energy in our rooftop classroom seems almost uncontainable. We spent today going through and putting the finishing touches on the pieces that their teachers and some of the older students have taught them (which they will finally get to present on Thursday!). Violet and I choreographed a little couples dance to a popular song (a favorite of ours and our fellow teachers) called Aashiyan and we taught it to the kids in about an hour over the course of 2 days.  They were absolutely thrilled to learn it and even though we were only able to teach about 2 out of the 9 classes, it didn’t stop the other children from picking it up so now basically every kid in the center gets up and finds a partner when they hear the song come on.  It’s incredible to watch their enthusiastic movement and the joy they exude is completely infectious.  I’m so proud of my little cuties and so excited to bring a chosen ten to the Okhla center tomorrow and watch them perform! 

Indian Pride

Artwork produced by students at the Women's Center

We spent the weekend in Rishikesh, high up in the foot hills at a little cottage resort. The property and establishment is owned by a couple, the husband was the yoga teacher and the wife an Ayurveda specialist. Before we arrived at the resort, we touched down in Rishikesh early in the morning and spent some time at a bourgie but much needed health café. We sipped smoothies and munched on whole wheat pancakes until the sun fully rose over the foothills, and then we set out to our resort. The auto would only take us half way as the road up the mountain was in very bad condition and the vehicle was unfit to take us any further. (side note, Greta was seemingly coming down with the gut infection that got Curtis the week before and was having a hard time). It was hot and uphill for a while but we finally found our spot. They immediately welcomed us with a delicious fresh meal after we settled into our room. We were the only guests that night so we had the chance to really connect with the owners and discuss India through their eyes. We learned how open India and Hinduism really is. Hinduism is a “Neo” Religion. He asked us if we knew what Neo meant, and we all said yes, it means ‘new’. He told us we were close, and that Neo meant always new. Hinduism is Neo because it is always evolving, taking in aspects of culture that they find in people who visit India, and in neighboring areas. I really appreciate this idea. He also informs us of his theory that the Chair is a curse to humanity. It’s unnatural and is a detriment to our health. I think of Greta, up in the room lying in bed suffering. She has been given Ayurvedic medicine but is in bad shape. I think about the chair more and realize I have come to the same conclusion one way or another. I decide I must practice the squat everyone in India can do so impressively. The next morning, me and Curtis (because Greta is sick in bed) go on a hike up to the top of the nearby mountain. We’re at more or less the top when we meet a young Finnish man. We travel with him the rest of the trek and he tells us about his many travels and we discuss differences in culture and our impression of India. His name is Julius. Julius tells us about Finland, and in my opinion it sounds terrible. No sun, no fresh food. I couldn’t do it. He basically works odd jobs to save money for the next trip he will take. He has only been in India for a few days, but he shares an interesting perspective with us. Having traveled to almost every continent (every one but Africa) he finds that India is the least like western culture. Indians are very content in their unique way of life, and don’t look to America for inspiration. India is in between the Middle East and China, and India very much is a mixture of the two. I have observed similarly. When Greta and I are teaching dance to the girls at the Project, we ask if they want to listen to a Hindi song or and American song, and they all without fail want Hindi. When we are talking about dance, and ask if they want to do a Hindi dance they are exuberant. I haven’t traveled long or far much at all, only the sound of Europe, but in that experience everyone was very into the worst pop music in America, and pop culture that I was trying to get away from. It is refreshing to be welcomed with such warm arms into a culture that doesn’t give two shits what we do over in America. They are proud here, and they know their country is amazing. They know there are problems, that is clear by the artwork all over the project with slogans like “save Girl Child” “stop cutting trees” “fix the pollution” and “clean India”. The children here are full of thirst for learning, the people here live with only what they need, only that which their environment doesn’t already provide them. We all have problems, India is far from perfect but damn, It’s truly a rich, vibrant, and proud country. 

New Delhi Beyond Project WHY's Reach

The traffic here is pure insanity.  Driving on the wrong way on the road is seen as acceptable, provided that you honk to gain the attention of oncoming traffic. I'm not sure if stop signs exist or if they are just ignored, but even turn signals are replaced with honking and the few stoplights there are take forever.  But for an unthinkable reason; according to some members of the community, it is common knowledge that the police sell these areas to traffickers like territories and make the red light longer so vehicles are forced to wait.  Then children fill the streets with to beg, taking everything they are given. If the children don't make enough, they are mutilated so they will receive more sympathy.

Last night, I was sitting in this traffic on my way to watch the weekly religious practices of Sufi's in New Delhi. The roads were so full my auto was caught 3 times at the same light. And as I pondered the differences and similarities of world religions, I kept my head down to avoid more begging children that I wouldn't be able help. The last time I tried, a friend pulled me aside after and said "when you give them money you feed the demand for their imprisonment." I didn't think I had the stomach to be in that position again; there was no right decision to make. So, I lifted my scarf over my head. My blonde hair sticks out like a swollen thumb. If they saw I was white they would assume I was wealthy and reach their hands into my auto, tugging on my clothes and pleading as they have so many times before.  I was hiding. But it didn't matter. A mutalated hand was raised a foot in front of my face. I deemed her about 11, but I would believe it if you told me she was 8. Her hand hung limply off her forearm- black, charred, and completely malformed. I sat straight up, my scarf falling back on my shoulders, too shocked to understand the reality of what I was seeing. No longer than it took for my scarf to fall, the light changed and we were moving before I could finish a thought. My blonde hair was picked up by the cool wind. I sat there in utter shock for about 5 minutes, forcing myself to understand that it wasnt makeup or a costume sleeve and this wasn't a movie; somebody did that to her. Then, sulking back into dusk's cover, I pulled the scarf back over my face, and cried in silence.

Bittersweet

Starting the third week fills me with bittersweet feelings. I think back to the weeks previously full of exploration, discovery and new friendships, and then look ahead at my last two weeks leaving me with a sadness that I only have 11 days left to witness the unique experience Project WHY affords its volunteers. I only have 11 more days to take in a vibrant and welcoming culture that has embraced me 

Govindpuri Secondary Boys.

 I have discovered over the two weeks teaching, that sometimes the lessons aren’t as important or as impactful as the connections made with the students or the people. After the first day or two, I began to feel the bonds forming and with open arms I welcomed each and every one. So far, I have had the luxury of watching my boys, because that’s what they are to me now, gain confidence in themselves conversing in English. I’ve experienced my girls’ gleeful exploration of new kinds of movement with absolute trust in me. Both would not have been possible without the long-lasting connections with the kids that I have been able to establish. 

Meeting new friends in Gali 5 for Lohri festivities! 

This past weekend was when it finally hit me, that my time in India would be coming to a close. Lohri, a Sikh festival was celebrated on Friday night and Beja and I went out exploring once we got back to the flat. The small fires dotted around the opening of doorways enticed us to see what the festivities were about, we happened upon a fire surrounded by families living nearby. At first, we were able to stand back and observe the dancing and joy but we were quickly pulled into the festivities, dancing around the fire to some unknown dance. Yesterday, Beja left and all of us volunteers were aware that two weeks from her departure, we would be departing as well. But, the awareness that the days and weeks were passing so quickly was halted by exploration. 

Looking back at my first couple of weeks in India, I was able to explore the more touristy areas of Rajasthan solo. I quickly learned how interactions occurred and how my existence in this cultural society differed from what I had experienced previously in my travels. Then when arriving at Project WHY, I was given further insights into an NGO whose goal is to create an inclusive and accepting atmosphere and community. An NGO that gives hope to the heart’s it reaches. 

The Heartbreaking Reality of New Delhi

Bringing fellow Bard students along with me to Project WHY was uncharted territory but I admit to facing this new adventure with a certain nonchalance and calmness uncharacteristic to me. I was confident that I could navigate the challenges with my background at Project WHY and experience with volunteer coordination. What I did not expect was what it would feel like to bring all these people into my home, my family, into the city that I love, and be forced to see things through uninitiated eyes.

I am very much a routine person. I establish routines and normalcy as quickly as possible whenever I am in a new place.  At my home in Delhi, I have a rather rigid routine and I am used to seeing and experiencing my surroundings in a set way.  I’ve grown used to the cows wandering the streets and the non-existent traffic patterns; the sight of street children and public defecation no longer faze me; I long ago stopped recognizing myself as an “outsider” because this is my home, after all.  I work and I go to the gym and I go out with my friends, being here is just normal life for me.  The volunteers have forced me to be retrospective about my first time in Delhi when everything was novel and exciting, when I had no clue what was going on, and my home was 7,000 miles away.  I recently read through a blog I kept the first time I came to India and found myself in fits of laughter.  Not only was half of what I wrote blatantly incorrect or wholly missing nuance but also aligns shockingly well with what my volunteers are currently experiencing.  We make the same references, our writing style is similar, and we all share an air of understanding that is completely, 100% false. 

My beautiful city and home.

The grimy, decrepit city that is New Delhi captured my heart the moment I arrived here five years ago and I have never looked back. I find New Delhi gloriously beautiful and fulfilling; how I feel towards this place is the closest thing to true love I’ve ever experienced. I will forgive any faults the city has and embrace the flaws with open arms and I do all this without any serious contemplation, it’s just how it is. The volunteers, however, have pulled me out of my cozy routine and re-opened my eyes to Delhi.  I’ve had Delhi’s flaws imposed on me through their eyes and I’ve spent a great deal of time re-evaluating my relationship to the city.  How can I love a city whose culture flagrantly objectifies women?  How can I love a city whose corruption runs so deep?  How can I love a city that allows children to die on the street without food?  How can I love a city that disregards education for the majority of its population? And how can I love a city that does all this without a single qualm? The simple answer is that I don’t know. But true love never is rational. 

I don’t know if I could or would love New Delhi in the same way without Project WHY.  Maybe what I love so much about this city is that despite the systemic flaws and corruption there are people like Anou to start grassroots organizations and people like Rani to run them with unparalleled passion and knowledge.  Maybe I love this silly, infuriating, wonderful city so intensely because it is so broken but it also believes in its future.  My hope for my volunteers is that they too can learn to see past New Delhi’s faults because what lies underneath is heartbreakingly hopeful. 

Delhi Belly and Growing Pains

I’m currently laying in bed the morning after a big night of puking. Not from the normal “Delhi Belly” but from some fried chicken momos (dumplings) that I should’ve known better than to eat- the chicken was pink but damn were they good. I want more. They came from the cart downstairs, directly at the entrance of the flat we’re staying at. The woman who makes the momos is so sweet. I know the only reason they weren’t cooked correctly is because almost no Indians eat meat and so she isn’t used to cookin’ them up. If she spoke any word of English I would tell her I want more but that she needs to cook them longer. But I suppose its not worth the risk. Maybe it is, I don’t know…Momos are damn good. They remind me of home. Being in India is a wild experience, and I am really enjoying it but wow I really do miss home. The familiarity of my surroundings and the level of comfort I experience in my huge city is a feeling I miss. You’re just never sure here. Never sure if the ATM will have cash, if the men are genuinely nice or just trying to get in your pants (although that is certainly not exclusive to India), If the momos will make you throw up. The air, yeah that’s the worst part by far. I love myself a good bustling city with no traffic rules and stray cows on every corner, but to be choking on the air I’m breathing makes the whole experience way more hard to swallow.

Finding my place in India has and is a very slow, confusing experience. Within project why, I must adapt my understanding of my role in the community. I have come to realize that the 2 most valuable things which I can provide the community of Project Why stem directly from my whiteness. I am quite cynical of the dialogue surrounding “x privilege” but that is a whole different worm hole which I am not trying to open right now… yes, of course I know that I was born into a country with many advantages compared to other parts of the world. But I’ve never been one to keep talking about white people, everything we have, the good things that happen to us (which I view as systematic racism and not a privilege for anyone). I find much more value in wondering how I can use those unfair “advantages” to others’ benefit.

Being here in India and putting that into action is a bizarre sensation. To feel how desirable my native language is, and to feel how much attention and awareness that the presence of my whiteness brings to project why. It makes me somewhat uncomfortable, but that is a sign of personal growth. And I feel the growing pains every day. Teaching kids who don’t speak my language, exploring a country entirely foreign to me. It’s all hard, but rewarding beyond my expectations. India is a beautiful, mysterious place.

Life, Death, and Crossing the Street

I had never left the United States before this trip. I’d been to West Virginia, but I’d never experienced anything like India. The first impression one gets of Delhi is hard to put into words, but it can be compared to playing Frogger. There are few traffic lights, signs, or laws in India and crossing the street gives one a frog-eye view of life and death. I’m exaggerating. Most pedestrians I’ve seen get hit by a car or motor bike get up with a smile on their face. The ones hit by buses tend not to get up but that doesn’t prove that they wouldn’t smile if they could. The taxis, called autos, are motorbikes fitted with a canopy and a bench that can comfortably fit 3 people, but as many as 5 can fit if you pay the driver a little more. One of my fondest auto memories so far involves driving the wrong way up a highway exit ramp. I’d compare it to crawling up the first incline of a roller coaster while dodging other roller coasters-- very exciting. I can only imagine how the guy walking up the exit ramp felt.

Volunteering here, in many ways, feels like crossing the street. I’ll let the other volunteers talk about the specifics, but I do want to say that Project Why is not your cozy excuse to gawk at poverty and feel as if that hour of reciting the alphabet made a difference. You are the difference and one of the few resources these kids have helping them defying their odds.

Growing Up

Emily and Utpal at his boarding school in 2012

I met Utpal more than four years ago.  He was just a kid then, so young, so full of energy, and so clearly standing upon unstable feet.  Like me, Utpal was living with the founder of Project WHY; we had both been taken in.  Anou, Project WHY, and his boarding school have had shared guardianship of Utpal for most of his life and when he isn’t in boarding school he lives with Anou in her home, as her family.  When I first met Utpal, he was like a mouse that lived in the house- everyone knew he was there but nobody ever saw him. The only proof of his existence was the missing food in the morning.  

Typical of Indian schools is to assign massive amounts of homework during holidays so I would spend my evenings with Utpal chipping away at his pile of work.  I dreaded these hours almost as much as Utpal himself did; we would both dispassionately paste photos of global warming into collages and draw maps of India or write short English essays until our heads wanted to explode and my voice was hoarse from yelling over the bad Hindi cartoons playing in the background.  I think we both grew to resent each other a little bit, but we always recovered with a trip to the park or to the carnival rides outside of the Kalkaji Mandir. 

Emily pumping water- photo credit to Utpal!

I must admit to feeling nostalgic about these moments now; I haven’t been asked to help with homework this year.  Instead, I’ve been invited to the movies or he has invited himself to Center visits I’ve done.  I was surprised but elated when Utpal asked to go to the Women’s Center and then to the Yamuna Center with me and a group of donors. I’d never seen him willingly engage with new people for more than an obligatory introduction.  I found myself spending much more time observing Utpal than the Centers.  I was awed by his maturity, composure, and self-possession.  He eagerly played with the students, teased me for already gaining weight from excess kachoris and baingan bharta, gently corrected my Hindi, spoke articulately to the donors, and like every good 15-year-old, insisted on using my phone for selfies.  He looked out for me as a big brother would, telling me little stories about the kids or his visit to Project WHY with his boarding school; he made sure I tried everything and urged me to pump the water- although, I think his motives were a little questionable as he found watching me just hilarious.  What I learned from my day was that Utpal has found confidence,  in himself and in this world. 

Emily and Utpal at the Women's Center in 2017

Utpal has always done well in school. He is incredibly intelligent, but that comes easily to him.  What he has managed to achieve in the four years since I’ve met him is far more difficult.  I am so proud of the person he is becoming, and although my place in his life is a small one, I cling to the connection.  Utpal was just a kid when we met but so was I; we’ve both grown up and learned to walk on stable ground.  And I think we both have Project WHY to thank for that. 

 

For more on Utpal's story you can get Anou's book, Dear Popples: love letters from an unlikely mother,  here.

Teaching Computers as Teaching Self-Expression

I started as a computers teacher without Internet. It completely derailed my lesson plan but I’m glad. It put me in a position to work from demand, to listen to what the kids needed and give it to them, though I’m still figuring out what that is. 

I have been told that their schools are centered on memorization. Individualism is foreign to them. They write down everything they are told, copy the answers from the back of the book word for word, and have never been told to do it any differently. Apparently, if you ask them to draw they will all draw the same thing. Their individualism is so suppressed; it is hard to show them what it is that they don’t know. How can a man born in a prison try to escape if he doesn’t know there is somewhere to escape to? And so one of our tasks is to try to create this space for them.

I’ve had more difficulty getting to know my students than my peers. It is not for a lack of trying, but computers, despite how well they connect one side of the world to the other, can create significant barriers between people. When I teach, I need them to look at the screen, not at me. Asking them where they come from and to express themselves is more of a sidetrack than it would be in an English or dance class. Without my eye contact they do not understand that I am asking them a question in the first place. If I do look at them and finally make it clear that I am asking, they do not understand they can create the answer. Then, they have trouble understanding that’s what the assignment is. 

I formatted a letter for them. At the bottom I wrote “your name”. Every single one wrote “your name” at the bottom. So one by one, I asked them what their name is, and they are excited to tell me- even if they have to repeat it 10 times until I pronounce it correctly. I take a piece of paper and say “write it”, they do. But when I deleted the “your name” and said “now write here”, they look back and forth at the letter, confused. 

Computers are self-exploratory. The only way to learn is to take the mouse and figure it out. They need to want to create something in order to figure out how. And so far it seems like there is this moment, this turning point in their usage. Every day they start by opening up Microsoft paint and exploring. The first time they ever-opened Microsoft paint they were told to draw a house. Everyone starts with a square and a triangle. Add a road. Add a tree. Add some grass. His does not look like his, but they both received a good grade. For once there is no right answer. So they keep going. They are incredibly driven, so they keep studying, they keep drawing house after house, making it more and more elaborate, until eventually, they make something different. Sherif has started painting outer space. Akash has started painting flowers. They show the kids on either side of them what they are doing and show them how. Then one child’s house has stars above it. Another’s has a field of clovers on it. I didn’t think that teaching computer would be teaching art and self-expression, but that is where they are taking me, and I’ll happily follow. 

Finding My Way

I made the choice before going on this trip to keep my mind as wide open as possible and now in just the couple days that I've been here it seems as though it is full to the brim.  After over 20 hours of traveling, the car ride from the airport was like a crazy dream full of bumps and honks and weird green and yellow mini cars with only 3 wheels that I quickly learned are called autos (used as one of the most common forms of transportation in New Delhi). At first I was shocked by the smog that stops the sun from fully reaching our faces and the cows that freely roam the streets, sometimes stopping traffic if they find something tasty to eat in the middle of the road.  But now that I have been here for a little while I am just another person weaving through bodies as I walk to the metro without using the sidewalks (nobody does), bargaining for a pomegranate or a pineapple as I go.  The fruit is increeeeedible along with almost everything else I have hungrily consumed so far.  Aside from the fruit, the amazing daily lunches we are fed while working at the project centers, and the delicious dinners that we get at the flat, I and the other volunteers have found true love in momos (little fried or steamed dumplings that can be filled with veggies or chicken) which we can get for 20-40 rupees (less than a dollar) at the stand that is fortunately set up right outside our building. While the food is fantastic and consistently brings me joy, what really fills me with happiness is the generosity and kindness that is constantly demonstrated at the center.  Me and two other Bard students are volunteering at Khader (women's center), teaching English, science, and dance to the children that come everyday from the village where the center is located.  Initially, we were greeted warmly by the Head of the center and though the teachers were nervous around us at first, now we spend lunchtime talking (we help with their English as they teach us words in Hindi), listening to each other's music, and joking around.

Today I taught some of the teachers to moonwalk and they taught us some of the words to one of their favorite songs, all of us laughing as they stumbled through the dance and we butchered the words. In the picture, Curtis and Amal engage in a fairly matched arm wrestling match as me, Violet, and our fellow teachers watch.  Looking forward, I am very excited to see how this bond will grow and what we can learn from each other in the process!

Books, Books, Books!

Secondary school aged boys at the Okhla Centre.

Today was my second day at the project, and I felt like I really started to get a handle on things. The day prior had felt like playful, insistent interrogation; today it was clear that the real teaching had began. I had planned to teach poetry to the children for the next two weeks, but yesterday had left me discouraged. The kids of the 8th class have good comprehension, but I can see them struggle to have appropriate words come to their lips. Furthermore, they are confused by questions that ask them their opinion, or to explain, always thinking (as many young children do) that there is a right answer that they are not giving. However, in poetry, the right answer is whatever one says it is. Poetry is a writing rooted in abstracts and expressions, not practicality. It is an art that is effectively “useless,” yet it teaches so much about self-expression: the hardest thing to achieve in another language, but the tool most important for foreign connection. The first day left me little hope for encouraging such self-expression, but when I returned to the project today, I had a better grasp of how to be clearer, slower, and more understandable. I tried to have a greater air of simplicity, and to equip the kids with basics. All of these helped, but what really did the trick? Books. 

Rani- the center manager- gave me a few bilingual Hindi-English books of Indian poets to use with the kids. If there is anything I have learned about these kids in regards to writing, it is that they quite like to read. The bilingual books helped enormously as the kids could decipher the abstract meanings of the poems in Hindi and then confront the English words, instead of shouldering the enormous task of doing both at once. Though I still had a bit of trouble getting the boys to express themselves in the morning (tell me what you see, hear, touch, smell, taste, etc.), I hit my stride with the girls in the afternoon. They devoured the books impatiently, sharing between them and reading out loud. One pair would sit so that one girl read the Hindi on the page’s left side, and another read the English on the right. Afterwards, they would get up and switch places. The books seemed to warm them up, and by mid-lesson I was getting them to thumb through the poems to find examples of adjectives and adverbs. At least half an hour was spent with my furiously filling up the whiteboard while they gleefully offered, “Eagerly, ma’am? Happily?” At the end we all laughed at my sprawling words covering the once blank board. One girl noted, smiling, “Dense, ma’am.” It was. By the lesson’s end, I offered them some optional homework to copy a poem and learn it at home. They barely paid attention; by the time I said “book” they had snatched them up again and were reading intently for around ten minutes even after I had said they were free to go. 

The children at the project are so warm and cute. The little ones charm with their funny handshakes and tiny faces, the mid-size girls with their future beauty and their giggles, and the boys with their ideas of American culture (on the board, they drew for me a rockstar turning into the Hulk, turning into a cowboy with a Lamborghini). But sometimes in times of frustration, I forget why I love kids. I was grateful for today, for the moment I watched some young girls fight over some books. It was a reminder of how simple and important the gift of education is even if the means to getting it can be difficult for both student and teacher. Project Why seems to be imparting knowledge in a way that realizes just how special it really is. 

Meghann's First Day

Govindpuri primary boys

What I was expecting from my first day volunteering was the typical first day for anything, filled with awkward small talk and shyness. But I was not expecting, at Project Why’s Govindpuri center, to be greeted by the humongous smiles and welcoming attitudes that I received. The children walked in with their books, a friendly greeting and a smile that lit up their face and made me sigh a breath of relief.

The boys, all welcomed me with nothing but humongous smiles stretched across their faces and recognition. They were preparing for exams and as I taught an impromptu science lesson in English, their brows furrowed and their little faces scrunched in concentration. They patiently allowed for me to fumble with examples and willingly followed along with me on the science of friction. My little group was a little behind on time, and even after the time for them to go home, they pleaded me to finish the lesson. Their dedication and desire to pursue knowledge, astounded me. 

Govindpuri primary girls.

 After lunch, I was handed my little dance group and we were off! After finishing with the general introductions and “getting to know you’s”, the dancing ensued. Stretching our muscles beforehand offered the chance to catch up with their days and ask more questions, allowing me to gain a little more insight into their day-to-day. Watching these kids dance with such joy and abandon on their cute faces, made me fall more in love with Project Why and its mission. They laughed at our shared goofiness, they danced with our combined energies and they played as if there was no burden in the world. 

Volunteering with these children is not only a chance to offer outside exposure to them, it is an experience that is further enriching me and opening my heart. 

Kalkaji Mandir Centre

Like most of the students at the Kalkaji Temple Center this young student is the daughter of a beggar at the temple. 

Project Why has given me a new reason to walk the short distance from my home to the Kalkaji Mandir; in July of this year we opened a new center for the children living in the slum behind the temple.  Anou Bakshi, Project Why founder, asked me to visit the center and take some photos.  The formal announcement of the new center was planned for January 1st, 2017.  I was excited but also felt some trepidation because I didn't want my previous experiences at the Kalkaji Mandir to be overshadowed. I took along Meghann and we hunted down the “blue tin building just past the metro station.”  

We were met with the traditional “Good Afternoon, Ma’am” in the sing-songy rhythm I have come to know so well and within moments the teachers had the students attempting to dance with me and Meghann. I will spare you those photos. Their energy and laughter were infectious and I was immediately absorbed into their world.  I learned their names and favorite colors and foods, I held their small hands, felt their tiny bodies against mine, and welcomed the rush of love and determination that is unique to being at Project Why.  I looked up at Meghann and saw the same look on her face and I knew that Project Why had not only succeeded in opening a new center but in capturing the heart of another person. 

The Kalkaji Mandir represents sacred territory in New Delhi for me but has always been a place I would venture to alone. I love encapsulating myself within the chanting crowd and feeling grounded in the physicality of the experience.  As I had worried, the Kalkaji center did alter my affection for the shabby temple but rather than decreasing the restorative and magical aura the temple holds for me the center has given new life and an intense joyfulness that can not be matched.