REVIEW

The Children of India: A Volunteer Travel Experience

February 23, 2010
Shelley Seale

The idea of volunteering in another country has long been considered the province of students and recent graduates; images of intrepid twenty-year-old Peace Corps workers in a remote Sierra Leone village might spring to mind. Today, however, the idea has reached far beyond that to become accessible, and highly popular, among travelers of all types and ages.

Even the Peace Corps itself has changed dramatically – from an average age of 24 in its beginning in the 1960s, to 28 as of 2002. Many early retirees and those seeking mid-life career changes are joining up – the oldest Peace Corps Volunteer ever was 86 when he completed his service. Volunteer travel has grown so popular that a term has even been coined for it: Voluntourism.

Companies and websites specializing in voluntourism have sprung up by the hundreds, and volunteer vacations can be found in all parts of the world, doing all kinds of activities – from digging wells for clean water in South America, to working with children living in orphanages. It was this last type of volunteer vacation that hooked me. In 2004, I became involved with a nonprofit based in Austin called The Miracle Foundation, which manages orphanages in India and recruits sponsors and donors to support the children living there. By 2005, I was traveling to India myself, to volunteer in the orphanage.

The children are everywhere in India. They fill the railway stations, the cities, the shanty villages. Some scrounge through trash for newspapers, rags or anything they can sell at traffic intersections. Others, often as young as two or three years old, beg. Many are homeless, overflowing the orphanages and other institutional homes to live on the streets. I had no way of knowing just how much they would change my life.

India was everything I had imagined it would be – only more so. More colors and smells, more noises and people, more everything. It was an assault on all the senses at once. The cacophony that greeted me was jarring after the peaceful countryside I had gazed down on from the airplane. There seemed no still or quiet space. Instead there were throngs of people everywhere, living and working and sleeping; hundreds of street vendors lined every available inch of sidewalk, while mangy dogs and cows nosed at piles of trash around them.

Rickshaw drivers pedaled through traffic alongside schoolgirls with their braided hair and backpacks. The smell of curry and incense hung thick in the air along with soft chanting from nearby temples. The dusty roads peppered with potholes were filled with a constant stream of buses, bicycles, rickshaws, cars and cows and rising over it all was the constant, blaring beep-beep of the horns. It was the most alive place I had ever been. India is too big to describe adequately, too big perhaps to absorb in a single lifetime. The country simply wrapped itself around me and refused to let go.

There was also what everyone, including myself, expected of India – despair, filth, destitution. The trash that lined the roads and the beggars that tapped at car windows. The deteriorating buildings, the ragged street hawkers, the shanty village along the river banks. The frantic poverty that would not let me rest.

At home, these things are hidden neatly away as much as it is possible to do so. But in India, everything is in full view; nothing is hidden. Its rawness of life strips away the unnecessary - distractions, superficial attachments, trivial worries. Without this safety net life becomes fundamental, only the essentials of being, and causes you to be fully present in your own existence. You become lost, in order to find.

And even still, there was beauty in the midst of it. The vitality of life teeming all around, the jangling of bangles and ankle bracelets, the colorful saris, the carved temples with swaying trees surrounding it all. The tremendous scale of the monuments, palaces and art from one of the first great civilizations left me stunned, as did the strange way there was a deep-seated peace even in the midst of tumultuous movement and clamor. The wonderful and the abject co-exist side by side. Though the country struggles with the indigence of large numbers of its population, it is far from a poor place.

And in the children this beauty seemed to come alive, almost making me believe it was a living entity I could capture in my hands. I arrived at the orphanage expecting it to be a sad place, an emotionally wrenching experience. But those expectations were turned on their head. Yes, there were stories behind each of the children – many of them painful and tragic. Stories of death, abandonment, abuse, poverty. They all had a past.

Yet the couple who ran the home, the house mothers and teachers there, the other volunteers, all made these kids their own in a community of sharing and acceptance. They were poor in wealth but not in spirit; limited in resources but not in joy and laughter. An interior peace shown from inside them that was unknown – unsought even – by many people rich in resources. Their hope and resilience amazed me time and time again; the ability of their spirits to overcome crippling challenges inspired me.

Even in the most deprived circumstances they are still kids – they laugh and play, perhaps far less frequently than others; they develop strong bonds and relationships to create family where none exists; and most of all they have an enormous amount of love to give - for nothing more than showing up. The very existence of these children forever altered both the person I was and my view of the world. India shows us where our suffering lies, and in this way becomes more than anything else a teacher, if only we are open to learn from her.

Shelley Seale is a freelance writer based out of Austin Texas, but she vagabonds in any part of the world whenever possible. Her forthcoming book, The Weight of Silence, follows her journeys into the orphanages, streets and slums of India where millions of children live without families. Shelley's areas of writing specialty include travel, cultural issues, the arts, women & children, nonprofit and social activism, entrepreneurship, business, architecture and interior design. Shelley is the Sustainable Travel Columnist at The Examiner, and has written for National Geographic's GeoTourism guides, Washington Magazine, Transitions Abroad, Travel Roads and Andrew Harper Traveler Magazine among others. Her work has also been published in The Seattle Times, GoWorld Travel Magazine, Intrepid Travel, InfoChange India, The American Chronicle, The Austin Business Journal, Austin Monthly, San Antonio Express-News, Austin Woman and more. Her mantra is “travel with a purpose.”
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