I finally got out and bought some Indian threads!! I purchased a churidaar kameez and a kutri. I really like them. It feels like I get to wear pajamas or hospital scrubs all day. Very, very comfortable. I now had something Indian to wear at the upcoming conference.
This is me leading the conference(details below) during an energizer. The theme was bollywood dancing!
VSO Strategic Workshop Conference
All the volunteers were invited to the VSO strategic workshop conference in Gurgaon last week. It was a great experience. The goal of the workshop was to help VSO form new objectives for development in India. Currently VSO works in three main areas: HIV & Aids, Disability and Participation and Governance. They want to expand the type of development work they do and not be limited only to these areas. There were a lot of current volunteers who have been in India for some time. I was able to learn a lot and even contribute here or there. There were many great speakers who highlighted the different images that India has; one of a shining and powerful India and one of an impoverished India. While India is one of the next great economic powers 450 million people live below the poverty line! (Less that $1.25 per day US) There is such a drastic difference between the rich elite and the working poor.
I don't really want to get into the specifics of the conference as the details of the development plan are still being worked out and a lot still has to be done... I fear of misspeaking. At the end of the conference the different tables were encouraged to write some sort of art to express all that we had learned over the two days. My group did a poem/play/interpretive dance thingy. There were prizes to be won for the best art which included western treats such as Oreos, Pringles, chocolate bars and popcorn. I am happy to report that my table won two of the three prizes. (we shared the treats with everyone anyway!)
The conference was held at the very posh Best Western Country Resort. I found it funny that a conference attempting to serve the needs of the society's most marginalized was held at a country club... not that I'm complaining. The grounds were outstanding! There was a tennis court, volleyball court, basketball court, badminton court, outdoor pool, lounging hammocks (where staff would stop to rock you!), gym (with treadmill!!!), spa and very conformable mattresses.... unlike the rock that I sleep on in the hostel. Oh and the all you can eat buffet lunches and dinners were exquisite. The rooms were also cleaned to a western standard (my favourite part!) We all felt so lucky to be invited to event.
Don't disturb a hammocking Lucy! (my roommate)
AAA(Ashray Adhikar Abhiyan)
In Delhi there are about 150, 000 homeless people. That is practically twice the size of my hometown of Niagara Falls, ON. An astounding number. On Friday night the volunteers were invited to one of the AAA's homeless shelters, a partner of VSO. We got to see first hand the amazing work that they do with the homeless. In India, everyone in the country is entitled to 100 days of work provided by the government. An issue with this is, even if a homeless person finagles a job card which entitles them to this work, they have no where safe to keep their earnings. They have to carry it on them until they eventually lose it or get robbed.The shelter actually helps the homeless set up bank accounts and gets them ATM cards so that they will have a safe place to keep money that they earn. They help them get ID and can give them a permanent address, without which it is impossible to open an account.
(Article about program)
This group of shelters keeps 500 people off the street every night. A great accomplishment but only a small drop in the bucket. They explained that in the winter months they pitch temporary tents which can house 5000 people for the night. A significant increase. (I did mention in a previous post that in Delhi the temperature will go down to freezing.)
Hanging with the kids.
While touring the shelter we spent some time with some street children who had sought refuge there. The shelter actually gets them sent to school, feeds and baths them. It's really quite amazing. We spent a better portion of our time with them. (About 15 boys aged 6-14.) The children were really welcoming and so happy to see us! They had a chance to practice their English...and in return we practiced our Hindi. The spirit of these children was really amazing; all smiles and positive attitudes. They were curious about us and gave us all a chance to introduce ourselves, say we were were from and try and explain why we were in India. They patiently listened and made sure that no one was left out. They also introduced themselves.... paying attention to include everyone as well. What manners! I received a round of applause as I told them that I work with computers... they pointed out that the shelter provided them a computer to use. It was really funny. On my way out I taught them how to high five... when I held my hand up they didn't know what I was trying to do but they caught on really quickly! I had to exit from their room fast because I was overwhelmed by their attitudes and couldn't help but think about all the wonderful children in my life back home who are some of the same ages. I tried to choke back my tears in the hall... some other volunteers did the same. (I even well up now just thinking of it.)
Some of the group made plans to head to the Taj Mahal on Saturday... I couldn't miss this opportunity! Our day started bright and early with a 5am pick up(we rented taxis for the day) and then hit the road for our 5 hour journey to Agra. There we picked up a tour guide and headed to the Taj. Upon existing the cars we were told that the Taj Mahal was open to the public for free but only for the next ten minutes. We quickly jumped onto an awaiting golf cart thingy (no cars are allowed up to the grounds because of pollution) and practically ran toward the gate... but we made it. That saved us 750 rupees! Which comes to about 1/8 of our monthly volunteer wages. It was open from 9am – 10am for free because it was the Muslim holiday of Eid al-ahde. What luck! It was really spectacular. I know that when you think of Taj you think of the tomb but really the entire grounds were gorgeous! Apparently they do not usually have the fountains on but again since it was Eid al-ahde they were flowing! It was gorgeous and very very clean. Our guide Fiez was awesome too, the guides work based on how much you want to give them after the tour. I found this an odd system but since the entrance fee was waved we gave him a little more than planned. Also, If anyone travels to the Taj in the future I can give you the contact details of our guide. Just email me.
That's right... I'm holding it with very little effort.
Today we visited a street/working children centre, Badte Kadam, another partner of VSO India. It is a place where children can go to talk about issues they face and have a safe place to learn something new, grab a bite or just have some fun. Again, I am amazed at the attitudes of the children. We talked about the organization and how it was run by children for children. There are 7-14 year olds out there advocating for their rights and spreading the message to others. It really opened my eyes to just how sheltered I was... and still am for the most part. The children put together a play for us to demonstrate a collective story of growing up on the street. It was really neat.
Children performing play.
We spent some time asking questions and answering questions. We had the opportunity to explain the rights of children in our home countries. Basically, in the UK, Australia and Canada a child under the age of 15 (roughly) is not allowed to work and that school is compulsory for anyone under the age of 16(again, roughly). In India, this is not the case. A child of any age can work and most of the children on the street (some 10 million!!!) do not attend even basic education. We asked them what is the best thing we can do to help kids like them. Right away they told us to go to our governments and get them to lobby for more child rights in India. A very smart but not so simple answer. What astounded me the most was when a fellow volunteer asked the kids how they felt about hearing how children grow up in our countries. They responded that they were happy to hear that there are kids out there who have these basic rights and that have access to education. It brought tears to my eyes... they weren't jealous, or angry, or pitying themselves... they were happy for others. Truly outstanding!!
The kids went crazy with our cameras. They loved snapping photos.
Song from title: Money Lenders in the Temple by Conor Oberst