It’s Thursday, and Hari and I have officially been in India a week. We stayed in Chennai for a few days, saw a couple sketchy hotels, and slept a lot to ward off the jet lag. Most of our time was spent in an incredibly nice mall and at a movie theater. We didn’t really do anything touristy; we were tired and looking for creature comforts. Besides a few terrifying auto rickshaw rides and some confusing encounters with the hotel staff, India did not seem that different from a very dirty American city. By the time Hari’s cousin drove us to Pondicherry on Sunday afternoon, the heat, lack of air conditioning, and increasing amount of garbage everywhere were a bit of a shock to us.
Sunday afternoon an administrator at the Nirvana school, Elumalai, checked us into our volunteer residency. Volunteer residencies are in the Nirvana High School complex, which is a short walk from the Nirvana Primary School that we were assigned to volunteer at. The residency was simple, but clean enough; it had a bathroom, bedroom, two beds, and a strange living room with no furniture in it. We expected to not have air conditioning in the room and the first night was fairly tolerable heatwise. Indian ceiling fans are no joke. They aren’t like the pretty decorative fans with light fixtures attached to them that we have in the United States. They are constructed out of metal and move fast enough to make me not want to go anywhere near the ceiling. When you turn them on, all of the air in the room moves around you like a cyclone, creating the illusion of coolness. With the fans, we figured that we would adjust to the Pondicherry heat (which usually has a heat index of over 100 degrees Farenheit) and be comfortable enough.
We met the other volunteers. James and Siobhan had been at the school for a couple of weeks and occupied a different volunteer residency on the second floor. They are recent graduates of Cambridge and have been in India since February volunteering and traveling. Mads, a Danish student about to enter University, arrived the same time we did. We all get along well, and often eat meals and hang out together. James and Siobhan noticed the insane amount of garbage in Kottakuppam, the village we are staying in, just as we had. One field in particular, which children often cross to get to the school, is horrifyingly dirty. Besides the mounds of trash, feces, and the large amount of stray dogs and goats, the field has broken glass in the sand that causes problems when children play games on it. According to the headmaster of the school, Mrs. Samani, the field used to be a coconut grove. When population rose, the trees were cut down and it was turned into a trash heap. The stench of smoke from burning trash and animal dung are horrible. James and Siobhan have been researching previous efforts to clean up the trash, and found that the village as a whole would like to see the field cleaned but have no where to put their garbage. Kottakuppam does not provide sanitation services, and the nearest dump is kilometers away. James and Siobhan are now in an effort to find out about successful sanitation efforts in Tamil Nadu, hoping to inspire the village to clean up the field. Hari and I like their idea and have offered to help educate the children about sanitation, something which they seemingly know very little about.
After a few awful days of drowning in our own sweat, the volunteer residency became unbearable. The lack of air conditioner wasn’t a problem as much as the lack of circulation was. Our room was a first floor room surrounded on both sides by a large concrete security wall. The bedroom itself was very small and received even less circulation than the living room. No breeze could pass through the walls, and the room was completely stagnant. We woke up more than one night so hot that we couldn’t sleep and had to take a walk around the complex just to cool off. We were drinking about 2 liters of water each just overnight. While I’m pretty sure the sweat lodge effect cleared my skin up a bit, we were so hot and miserable that we couldn’t eat. We wanted to tough it out and stay in the residency though; the money went to the school and plenty of people in India survive without air after all. It became clear, however, that we would not adjust to this situation in time to actually get anything out of our trip. We wandered into a guesthouse behind the school and asked about rooms. Rooms with AC were almost double of what we were paying, and we began to walk out of the guesthouse. The owner stopped us, saying he had a large flat next door with AC in the bedrooms and a kitchen for the same price we were paying at the school. We moved in that night and have felt much better since. While the power still goes out often and the air isn’t always working, the room itself has incredible circulation and we no longer have to drink an entire soda bottle of water overnight.
Besides the residency, the school is wonderful to be at. The kids are absolutely enamored with Hari because he can speak Tamil and understand them. They make fun of me; apparently my name sounds like the Tamil word for “body odor” to second grade boys and my accent is hilarious when I try to talk to them in Tamil. Listening to them draw out their vowels like me in jest is really strange. There are a few things at the school we’d like to teach; the art class basically consists of copying a picture the teacher has put on the board and the physical education isn’t always fun. We started a mural of the Tamil alphabet on a wall and have had the kids help us with that as well. Today, we received timetables. I will be teaching mostly computer classes, PE, and one art class. I am going to speak with Elumalai to see if I can teach more art. Some days, we will be tutoring the high school students as well.
I will post again when I can get internet. We have to go into Pondicherry via a loud, crowded, and erratic bus that we can never seem to catch to find an internet cafe. I’ve posted pictures of the trip that I can manage to take.
Pray I don’t drown in the apparently oncoming monsoon,