A brief overview of my experiences while traveling and volunteering with Happy Home Orphanage from Kathmandu, Nepal, across India.
Nearly one month has passed since I've left Nepal and have been traveling around India. The past three weeks have been unbelievable spending time with the kids from the Happy Home Orphanage and my friends: Jessica, Christina, and Scott. Long hours on buses and trains have proved to be taxing both mentally and physically. I would never have imagined that sleeping a night in the Bombay train station was possible with 43 little rug rats. At the least, the children were all able to fall asleep. Us adults, however, were watching over them like hawks to make sure no one snatched one up from under our noses. Some said that we were crazy for taking these kids on a trip like this, but it all worked out in the end and we had a hell of a time doing it.
The first destination of the trip was the beautiful Portuguese colony of Goa. The kids loved the beach, and proved to be fearless of the vast Arabian Sea. Playing lifeguard for the days spent in Goa was challenging at times. A friend that we met in Goa who also volunteered his time said it best, "You are constantly counting their little heads in the water. As every wave crashes the kids fall over and you have to start the count again, 1...2...3....4." We tried our best to teach the non swimmers how to swim, and towards the end of the week we saw progress! We met some amazing people in Goa who selflessly spent time with the kids and bought them ice cream, fruit, and even a cake for one of the girls' birthday. It was special to see everyone take time from their relaxing vacation to help out. We even had the opportunity to set up a mini photo shoot for the kids on the beach. The pictures came out great and we printed them off for each child to take back to Kathmandu to remember the great time they had while in India.
One week in Goa went right past us and it was time to catch a train for Puttapharti, home of Sai Baba and his Ashram. My only exposure to Sai Baba was from spending time with the kids in Kathmandu and attending a couple of their prayer sessions (Darshans) at the home. Sai Baba has declared himself to be a sort of avatar, Godman, and miracle worker. His teachings include a mixture of Hindu and Muslim beliefs. The kids practice his teachings and, therefore, have dreamt of seeing him personally. I had never been to an ashram. I tried keeping an open mind as much as possible to harness an understanding of why so many people flock to this small city and participate in his teachings. It turned out to be one of the strangest experiences of my life.
We arrived in Puttapharti in typical fashion: late, tired, and hungry. We spent a couple of hours on the street while Bishwah, the Happy Home founder, tried to find a solution to our lack of accommodation for the night. We arrived late so our initial plan of staying in the Ashram itself was not going to work. However, a miracle occurred as fourty three children sitting on the side of the road, with luggage in hand, attracted an older Indian fellow to offer us a free place to stay for the night. I never would have thought that a group of over 50 people could find a place to sleep, for free, without reservation! We slept in a big hall with no beds. The males were in one hall and the females in another hall, and this segregation would be the same inside the ashram restaurants, foreign living quarters, and during darshan.
I didn't much care for the Ashram. The people who worked there abused their power to the point where you thought you were a prison inmate. If you sat down anywhere they would probably tell you to sit somewhere else, and then they would tell you to move from there. If you were wearing the wrong type of clothes they would let you know. Being told that you can't do something became irritating and took the fun out of the experience. Supposedly you weren't even allowed to take photos while staying inside the ashram. On the plus side, food at the ashram was amazing and extremely cheap!
Another positive note was that the ashram had a hospital where all of the kids got to see the doctor and dentist for their various ailments. Ear infections, chest colds, warts, and bad dental hygiene were the common problems. It was a great thing to accomplish as most of the kids have never seen a doctor. Hopefully they now know that doctors take care of them and aren't there to hurt them.
Towards the end of the trip we noticed the kids were becoming tired and less obedient. The change was completely understandable as they were getting to bed late and waking up early. I would have been the same way if I were in their shoes. The last darshan that we attended was a perfect example of this change in behavior as the kids were sleeping on the floor while everyone else was sitting upright and praying. I looked over at one of the little boys, Bishant, laying down and noticed a puddle developing around him. I couldn't believe it and immediately I jumped and grabbed him before any of the older gentlemen sitting around us made a scene. I cradled Bishant in my arms and felt the warmness of urine trickle down my arms. I ran him to the bathroom but he was still half asleep. I had to take him all the way back to the dorm to shower him and to change his clothes. This wasn't the first time this had happened and it probably is the best birth control a guy my age can ever receive.
The week at the ashram ended in typical style as the kids were late for the bus to the train station. A nice man that had been helping us out during our stay at the ashram had contacted the bus station to have the bus wait for them. The bus waited for an hour. The other passengers, who were also on their way to catch their trains, were very pissed off by this. After we got the kids loaded onto the bus with all of their baggage they left in a flash. The good bye wasn't quite what I had envisioned, but I should have known better because it summed up the trip perfectly.
So, that was a brief summary of the three week trip with Happy Home Orphanage. I could write forever it seems as the experiences I had during that time were many. I will never forget those kids. I'm certain I learned more from them than they learned from me. Each child is something special. Every child's story, although sad and tragic, will make each one of them a better person down the road and I know their experiences in India will do the same.
I've been in Mysore for the past several days. After my stay here I will be heading back to Goa for a week or two to relax for a bit, and then plan my next leg of the trip. Once I figure out those details I will let you all know. Until then take care and talk to you soon.