When it comes to India, the senses are overloaded and opinions are as strong as the various smells, noises, poverty and riches that hit you when you step out into the searing heat: India is described by some as the spiritual centre of the universe or dismissed as the open sewer of the earth.
India is a land of extremes. There is no middle ground. Nobody ‘quite likes’ India or rates it as ‘nice’. Before I went, my good friend Clare said India was an acronym for I’m Never Doing India Again! It was never going to be a straight forward destination – I realised this as soon as I tried to get 500 bandages and 50 paper animal masks through customs – but if you are considering volunteering, I challenge you to find anywhere else that will be more inspiring or rewarding. By giving up a small part of my time, India gave me experiences that are priceless.
The SLA school at Tuni is, quite simply, wonderful. After the abject poverty of Delhi, where street children grow up too fast and elderly and disabled people are abandoned to die at train stations, the school and Light of Love project is a shining example of how education, health and a safe family type environment enables children to attain more of their true potential. Yes, the scale of poverty was overwhelming during our travels from Delhi down the East coast and ending in Mumbai, but by bringing some practical aid and mainly ourselves (spending time with the ‘untouchables’) I was reminded, after many years of experience as a psychologist, of how a smile and kind human contact can help begin the healing process even after unbearable sadness.
I went with a group that included my own 15 year old son. He realised quickly that many language and social barriers are broken down by sport and, unlike me, had just the right energy levels to enjoy cricket, football and volleyball in alternating monsoon rains or temperatures of 38C. The highlight of our trip was taking the whole school to the beach in truck convoys. Many of the children had never seen the sea and their shrieks of joy were deafening! As a mother, it was a wonderful experience for me to see these children able to play and have simple fun. I also had the great privilege of seeing my own son benefit from India: maturing over the 2 weeks, respecting difference, developing his own opinions and sharing insights which will be etched on my memory, and his, forever. My lasting impression of India is that in the SLA home there was a shared bond of values and community that many in the Western world would envy. On leaving, everyone asked us if we would ‘do India again’ – my son has already booked his next visit for November!