The overnight train journey from Nileshwar (in northern Kerala) to Panvel (just south of Mumbai) was pleasant in our three tiered sleeper, though the comings and goings of other passengers made it difficult to sleep. As always, the conversations were friendly and interesting. In the morning, when I commented on how dry Maharastra State appears, the man next to me said, “Someone coming from Jaisalmer (in western Rajastan) would marvel at the greenness of Maharastra state.” Good point! But we were used to the hues of Kerala, and there’s quite a difference.
Walking from the Panvel train depot to the bus station was an eye opener and our first close-up exposure to a real slum area. Then, during the short hour from Panvel to Pen, we passed a few smaller tent cities. All of these are tiny cousins to the slums of Mumbai which we’ve recently learned are the largest in all of Asia. By contrast, we also passed several billboards advertising vacation homes, gated communities, luxury high-rises and more! Apparently, the most expensive real estate in the world is also found in Mumbai.
We’re happy not to be there and instead here, on the outskirts of a very small village, about 4 kms from the town of Pen. The heat here is much drier and the sun feels harsher. As I write (at 2:30 pm) the temperature in the shade is 37C and the humidity is a mere 15%. To Christian and I, it feels less oppressive than the 90% humidity of the south, but Kaya, Emil and Sarah say they think it’s more uncomfortable. (I suspect that’s because the air conditioning on the train got our bodies out of whack with the heat.) Nadia hasn’t told me what she thinks (in case you’re wondering!)
What brought us here was the wonderful time we had at Deenabandu and Kaliyampoondi. We wanted more of the same, and for Sarah to experience a children’s home… so what better place than Savarsai, the location of another Child Haven Home? It has only about 1/10th the number of children that Kaliyampoondi has, but we love being here just as much!
In fact, it’s a lot easier to try to get to know the names of 33 children and 6 adults (rather than 300 plus), and run activities. The children range in age from 6 to 15 except for Priya, the daughter of the home’s managers, who is only 4. We think her parents, Kavita and Prakash. do an excellent and inspiring job of running the home. The children truly respect and love them, they all help out in small ways and things seem peaceful and harmonious.
We’ve played cat’s cradle games and made god’s eyes with the kids again. We’ve done Sudoku with them, and helped them make “Fortune Tellers.” We got them to paint small cards that another volunteer will use to play “Concentration” with them. We did yoga, played lots of ball and tag, enjoyed a performance night of dance and drama, and had a giggle of a time dancing with them on our farewell evening. It’s been an action packed week, and we are so glad we came!
Prakash and Kavita are pretty weak in their English skills, but we managed to laugh a lot together – Prakash really loves to joke, and seems to understand ours. They were invited to attend an engagement party on our second day at the home and they invited us to come along. It is always so interesting and amazing to see rituals in action here. The event was taking place in the street between the groom’s extended family’s homes (and perhaps some neighbour friends’ homes too, I’m not sure). A large decorative canvas tarp provided shade. The priest was very busy co-ordinating rituals first with the groom and his parents, then with the bride and hers and other folks too… but the 150 or so people in attendance were only half attentive, they had lots to talk about amongst themselves and, at one point a motorcycle drove through! I love the casual attitude - it is such a sharp contrast to the highly ritualized event that was going on. It felt like the relaxed way people go to temples here and makes it all so much more pleasant/fun.
We made several trips into the town of Pen which I absolutely adore! Home to about 20,000 or so, Pen is pleasantly small, and very colourful with its relatively high percentage of tribal people (around 15%). They are typically very poor – some are “travelers” and many are not treated well.
We very much enjoyed meeting Raj, who is on the local Child Haven board, and runs another interesting project focused on the tribal people. It includes a great deal of advocacy work and adult education. With some education, the adults are realizing the only way out of the cycle of debt, bonded labour and near starvation is to ensure that their children become literate. To support this, Raj, his wife and their foundation, have set up a home for tribal children where the kids are able to study. There are quite a few tribes in the area, but they are targeting the group of “travelers” that is the most poverty stricken, landless and mistreated (can’t remember their name.)
We visited the home for a few hours and had a super time playing clapping games and talking with the kids. Raj’s two daughters who attend the English school in Pen came along and were able to translate for us. Three of the young women there (probably Kaya’s age) had just completed a mid-wifery certificate program. What an accomplishment! They and their parents had to stand up to criticism from other members of the tribe. Normally by 18, the girls would have been married and with children. But now, they are in the job market and one of them wants to continue her education to become a fully fledged nurse. Already they are able to earn more than their parents… and perhaps will indeed be able to break the debt cycle, and do some advocacy work for their families. Now the foundation needs to buy a building, so they do not have to move from one rental place to another. People are very prejudiced against the “travelers” and landlords evict them with the smallest of complaints.
We wished we could have returned for a second visit, but we were too busy at Child Haven!
At Savarsai, I finally left my state of denial. Thirty or so kilometers from the coast, I could no longer think that my itchy scalp was caused by swimming in salt water. When I noticed the kids at the home nitpicking one another, I began to wonder if perhaps I needed the same treatment. Jyothi, a 15 year old Child Haven resident kindly agreed to check my hair for (gasp) head lice. She found a jungle! And was busy nit-picking me when Sadanai, another board member of the local Child Haven Home dropped by for a visit. She is an elegant looking 60 something year old. If this had been Canada I would have been completed embarrassed by what was going on… but this is India and no one seemed to notice. Getting rid of lice is just an every day event. BTW, Kaya and Nadia also have minor infestations, but it seems that Sarah, Christian and Emil have somehow avoided the little darlings.
Sadanai (the board member) invited us to her home in Savarsai. On the way there, we stopped at the 2 room primary school and recognized many of the smiling faces (from Child Haven.) It was interesting to enter her home. Unlike the metal roofed rooms at Child Haven, her high-ceilinged house has ceramic tile. What a difference! No fan was necessary to stay cool. But I imagine ceramic tile is far more expensive and Prakash told us it requires far more maintenance… so I don’t think the new wing that is being planned will have ceramic tile either.
We walked into the village of Savarsai a few more times. Another slightly more fortunate tribal group lives in government supplied housing (and made the place feel very exotic!) It’s so nice that people in India really tend to stare when strangers come by… that means we can stare back, and we do!
All in all, our time at Savarsai was wonderful. The only rotten thing was yet another bout of flu not enjoyed by Kaya, Emil or Sarah.
Many tears were shed (by almost all the children and most of us too!) when we departed. That was a little hard… but we’d had a lot of fun all week and lots more just prior to our morning departure. The kids had put a note on our door:
You are no going.
From all childrens.
When I first saw Jyothi that morning, I was surprised that she had a smile on her face – I’d thought she might already be in tears as she is a very emotional girl. It turns out that it was a mischievous smile! Nadia had left her shoes in the front hall of the main building and Jyothi was very pleased to let us know that the girls had hidden Nadia’s shoes, so we wouldn’t be able to leave. We spent the morning on a playful shoe hunt and, at one point, had to rescue Emil because the boys had tied him to a pole!! Those kids, along with the ones at Deenabandu, Kaliyampoondi and the tribal home in Pen are in our hearts!!