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About 16 million people live in Bombay, or Mumbai, as it is now called. About half of them live on the street or in slums. But Mumbai is also a city of some glamour - it's the home of "Bollywood," the largest film industry in the world. Right before school started this fall, reporter Judith Ritter brought Devorah, age 19, and Yael, age 16, on a vacation to this city of contradictions. But the kids knew at the outset that this wasn't going to be a few weeks of leisure. They were going to work.

Working Vacation

by Judith Ritter, 11/9/2001

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I'm delirious with joy to be back in India. All the things that annoy other people - the monsoon, the humidity, the crowds - places like this noisy, dirty beach amusement park near our hotel - I find energizing.

Yael and Devorah are less thrilled. Two years ago, we were in Calcutta - a vacation that included ten days volunteering with Mother Theresa's Missionaries of Charity. The girls loved it. Now, Two years older, they were a bit resistant to leave home - a resistance overcome with the promise of a combination of volunteering and Mumbai nightlife - maybe an accidental run in with an Indian movie star. But not tonight.

Tonight our "nightlife" is a visit to this crumbling beachside arcade with its greasy food stalls. We're here to spend time playing with and buying food for some of the dozens of street kids who live here alone or with their families. We've hooked up with Toronto-born Harvard student Neera Nundy. She shows us the ropes of "instant" volunteering. We've bought a strip of merry-go-round tickets, and one after another, we're putting the ragged kids who've gathered around us to beg on the rusty carousel - to sit on an elephant with peeling paint or in between the cracked wings of a swan.

Deval with little girl...

Neera: "Is she going to fit in there? Put Her up...I'm telling them to hold on...we asked them if they want to go again. They said they'd rather eat for the same amount of money."
Nundy has spent her entire summer vacation helping poor Indian women set up businesses. But she's convinced, even if you're here a few days, you can do some good. Even without contacting an organization, you can just play with street kids, buy them food, and sit down with them. We do that. Two small children with matted hair and grimy faces turn into four...then eight...soon their are 28 of them...
Neera: "Basically what happens is you get a small group of children and they'll tell everyone else..."

Feeding the kids...

And adults gather, a man with no arms, a man with a monkey, a young woman with a baby whose head is bleeding. Reluctantly we send the adults away.

Neera: "We're saying we're only going to feed the kids, otherwise we'll have hoards here."
Devorah takes the mothers of babies to a kiosk to buy milk. Neera Nundy can't imagine spending a vacation without including volunteering, but she admits that some of her peers find her odd.
Neera: "It's funny...I have a lot of friends at school who are going to take their last week after working at an investment bank... Actually there's a bunch of them renting a boat going to St. Thomas...costing them like 1500-2000 dollars. But for me roaming around the streets feeding the children, its far more fulfilling than sunbathing on a ship. I actually believe a lot of my friends if I could yank them out here for a vacation, would keep coming back here because it's a completely different experience."

That's a sentiment I hope touches Devorah and Yael as they start their first day as teacher's assistants at an ad hoc learning center for poor children. They're replacing a group of girls from a Connecticut high school who just left.

Girl practices her letters...

Teacher: "Nanda Kumar, Kajil, Rinki, Pinki, Ambaji, where is Ambaji? Ramzan, sit properly Ramzan, come on...Soni, Laxshmi, Chandrikan, what happened to Chandrikan...?"
For two hours a day, Indian volunteer teachers and international volunteer assistants like Devorah, Yael, and Mira Patel, a sixteen-year-old from California, do two-hour shifts as "didis," or teachers. They teach English and math to orphans and street children - children who are ragpickers and live in "Tharadi." That's an area of Mumbai reputed to be Asia's largest slum. The learning centers, run by a group called Akanksha, are in unused schoolrooms, churches, and offices.

There are about 30 5-10 year olds sitting under a tree in a courtyard outside a tin roofed classroom. Until the sudden daily monsoon rains start, they learn outside. Their clothes are worn and ill-fitting. Many wear tee shirts that says "Akanksha." The kids love their shirts, and in many cases it is the only shirt they own. Some Have sores or scars, and many are coughing.

Devorah on a field trip...

Mira compares her world - a backyard swimming pool, private school, and devoted parents - to the world she's discovered here.

Mira: "I remember one kid, he was a little kid, like he had scratches and bruises all over him, his legs were almost white because of the dirt and dust...his shirt was torn, his pants were uneven...he just looked at me and smiled and he just started to give me a hug. The way he's living right now, and yet for him to show so much love, it's incredible!"
...incredibly challenging! Using only a few slates and chalk, for the next week, Devorah and Yael will teach. They'll teach letters of the alphabet (m for mango, monkey, malaria), names of fruits (chickoo, sweet lime), and names of shapes shapes.
Yael: "Wow! You want to draw a circle? Hold it very tight. Great job! Is this a circle?"

It's hot and buggy and there are stray, diseased-looking dogs sniffing around the courtyard. Sometimes the girls are just discouraged.

Street kids...

Yael: "They want to learn...you can see they want to learn, and when I talk with them they're excited, but at the same time it makes me feel horrible...because I could be spending so much time here...when all I can do is spend a couple of days...and give them my best...my best isn't enough. It's ripping at my heart. I can't take them home with me...especially the ones that are orphans. But I'm enjoying this."
Other days...
Devorah: "It was wonderful. We had such a good time. One of the teachers taught them about buying things at the market - she taught them how to not be cheated by shopwallahs. A shopwallah is a shop keeper. And the kids taught us how to dance...and then we all sat in a circle holding hands and we all rocked back and forth singing 'heal the world' and they were all singing 'heal the world, make it a better place'...and it looked like a UNICEF commercial."
Who's healing whom here? We've all heard volunteers say they get more out of helping than the people helped. For young people such as Devorah, Yael, and Mira, these few days teaching the kids is an epiphany. It's the next step up from collecting "good cause" dollars in a bottle in the classrooms of their schools in North America.

Deval: "This is the room - probably 10 feet by 30 feet. This is where 30 kids sleep, pretty much live their life here. This is their home."
Deval Sanghavi has taken travel volunteering another Step - alternately patting heads, peeling off little girls clinging to his legs, he shows us around a shelter for girls who are found on the street. A couple of years ago this young Texan was, as he put it, on The "Porsche track." But after spending part of a trip to India as a volunteer, he decided to leave a promising career at Morgan Stanley. He wanted to put his business skills to use helping groups like Akanksha, and this little shelter, to stay afloat. And that's what he does now. He also sets up traveling North Americans with a day, week or month or more of volunteer work. Today, we've volunteered to take these 30 little tadpoles of abandoned girls - in stretched and faded T shirts and buttonless dresses - to their first movie. A smash-hit Hindi film...Lagann.

There aren't enough sandals to go around, so we have to carry The littlest ones into the theatre where footwear is a requirement. The kids are, well, kids. They alternately squirm and are delighted. Hindi movies are about 3-4 hours of songs, melodrama and action. There are trips to the john, seat changing, and the tiny child on Devorah's lap pees on her. Devorah, fussy in her own country, is unfazed. The day is wonderful. Deval Sanghavi...

Deval: "I think a lot of volunteers feel that a day or two or a week is not going to make a difference, but think of it in the context of your own lives. And how one of your dad's friends came over and taught you how to ride a bike. It happened in a day or two, but the impact it had on your life was great. Just imagine what you can do with these kids that live on the streets or in slums...they've never been loved before, been hugged before. Even coming here and teaching kids to play duck-duck-goose - that has value. I think volunteers can do the exact same thing in India."
It's Monday, and Devorah and Yael's last day, last games, and Last goodbyes.
Devorah and Yael: "It was nice to meet you...study a lot, okay...do a lot of Work...I'm going to miss you guys...bye bye...I feel really sad....I feel we've let them down a little bit."

It's only November, but last August's trip seems centuries ago. Lately we wonder when we'll even feel like taking a vacation again...and where we'd go, but we do know when we leave our continent again, and we will, we'll try to do even more. The other day I remembered a conversation I'd had with Mira, the girl from California. She told me about the kids, on several occasions, singing a little song thanking God for their lives. She was so surprised that there they were alone, poor, not sure they'd even get one meal a day. After all that has happened to them, they were still thankful, and that made her wonder if our lives in America ever got harder, would we still be able to find a place of gratitude inside ourselves?

Devorah and Yael...

Savvy Resources:


Contact Deval Sanghavi at deval@impactpartners.org. Impact Partners is a small social, venture philanthropy fund. The group provides financial and advisory services to NGO's. Visit them on the Web at http://www.impactpartners.org/.


Sharanam is small shelter for young girls who have been abandoned, abused, and live on the street. Contact: Shivani Taperia at shibs5@rediffmail.com

Magic Bus is weekend getaway project for slum and street children. Contact: Rinku Varde at rinku@magicbusindia.org. Visit them on the Web at http://www.magicbusindia.org.

Akanksha (which means "aspiration") provides basic education for poor children in small centers around Mumbai. Contact: Fabiana or Manije at akankshafoundation@vsnl.com. Visit them online at http://www.akanksha.org.


Disha is a school and shelter for rural children in Kharagpur, outside of Calcutta. Contact: Neera Nundy at neeranundy@hotmail.com.

The Institute for Indian Mother and Child provides maternal and child healthcare in rural India. Contact: Dr. Sujit Brahmaochary at iimccal@cal.vsnl.net.in.


From the U.S: Northwest Airlines has daily flights via Amsterdam. Information at http://www.nwa.com

From Canada: Fly via Hong Kong on Cathay. Information at http://www.cathay-usa.com.


High-end accommodations include:

The Taj Mahal Hotel, Colaba. Visit them online at http://www.tajhotels.com.

The Holiday Inn Bombay - Juhu Beach. Visit them online at http://www.holidayinnbombay.com.

Moderate accommodations can be found at the Sea Green Hotel: http://www.seagreenhotel.com

Budget accommodations can be found at the YWCA International Centre: http://www.ywcaic.com

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