Volunteering in India

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We have all played or at least heard of the game Cowboys and Indians. Well, essentially I am both a cowboy and an Indian. I am the girl walking down the hallway saying “y’all” and the girl who eats curry during lunch.

This past summer, I visited my dad’s hometown of Calcutta, India. Calcutta is a bustling city that never sleeps, almost like New York, but it is definitely not as glamorous. Calcutta used to be the capital of the Indian British Empire, but after the late 1900’s when the British finally left, they ransacked all of Calcutta, ultimately leaving it as an extremely impoverished city that is slowly evolving.

The millions of the people living in this city suffer and struggle. Living in America, we never think of basic things such as food, water and shelter as something we would not have. However, the people in India struggle to even find these things while we are here trying to get the new iPhone X. This summer I got to experience this poverty firsthand.

My adventure started at the break of day when my family and I got up and walked a couple of blocks down to a local market from my grandfather’s apartment. My grandfather lives in this beautiful apartment complex with colorful doors and palm trees going everywhere it almost feels like Hawaii. Markets in India are discover this very different from markets here. With several different gross stenches, meats hanging from the ceiling and people talking loudly in Hindi, we were all slightly overwhelmed. Slightly is an understatement. 30 minutes later, we finally found a small vendor that sold rice and lentils. We bought 40 bags for about five dollars. Before this, I could never imagine food being that so much food could be so cheap. But what really surprised me, was that even with the extremely low costs, many families still could not afford to buy a bag of lentils and rice every couple of days.

After the bags were ready, we put all the bags of food into the trunk of the car. We then drove another few blocks to a slum that was not even a mile away from my grandfather’s apartment complex. There were no rich and poor parts of the city. They were all intertwined. One of the fanciest and most expensive buildings could be right next to one of the poorest and most densely populated slums. For instance, when you look outside one of the windows in my grandfather’s flat, you can see a government housing building. The building has chipping paint and mud caked on the walls while there is no plumbing or running water.

When we got to the slum, it was a nightmare. I remember just freezing up in the car and was reluctant to get out. The sight was indescribable. I have been to India several times, but my parents never took me or my sister to a slum to hide. They always wanted us to not see the poverty and unluckiness of the people living in the slum. This was the first time I had been to a slum and I still had not imagined it being as bad as it was.

The people living there work to make the lives of the better off people easier and more comfortable, but the people in the slum live in the lowest and worst conditions. There was garbage littered throughout the slum. The people were living in extremely cramped, boxy houses made out of spare materials. There were about six to eight people living in one of the houses, if you could even call them that. The houses were only one room and there were too many people crammed into it.

When we pulled the car into the slum, people shot us mean looks. They did not want us there. We did not belong and they did not know what we wanted. The children were playing soccer with a plastic water bottle, soccer is a sport that I have always been passionate about, and seeing these children playing with a water bottle tore my heart. I noticed that there were several men just sitting there playing cards. My dad suggested that maybe they were not making money because the men were not going out working or looking for a job to support their family. But I said, “How could that even be a possibility? These people have nothing. Would they not be willing to work to support their families?”

The women came running towards us when they saw that we had brought food. They still shot us mean looks, but I did not blame them because I do not know who I would be if I had to live a life like these people. My dad then made a quick run to go pick up biscuits from a nearby stand. He came back and we passed out the biscuits to the children. The children all smiled and said “dhanyaavad”, meaning “thank you” in Hindi. The children, even being in extreme poverty, were smiling and saying thank you. Their unwavering smiles and happiness were truly inspiring.

Ultimately, living in Houston I feel like we are never exposed to real poverty. We volunteer around the community and think we see poverty when we drive around the poorer parts of Houston. But nothing I have ever seen has compared to the slums in India. I always think back on the kids that we saw that day, I remember this one girl in particular who gave me a hug, and I cannot shake the notion that these kids could very easily continue to live like this for the rest of their lives. I hope that someday these kids will be able to escape the horror they are living. I think back to when I was younger and always wanting the new iPod or some other sort of gadget and being upset when I would not get the exact one I wanted. And these kids live everyday without the basic things that we take for granted on the daily.

However, even though people can have the least and lack the essential needs, they can still be happy. Poverty does not define you or your happiness.

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