I arrived just before a massive storm hit New Delhi airport. Hats off to the Kingfisher Airways pilot. It was one hell of a bumpy ride in. My legs were still like wobbly jelly when I walked through arrivals to be met by an IVHQ driver. Was I glad to see him.
As we drove towards the hostel flashes of lightening lit up the meanest black sky I have ever seen, and the wind began to howl. I only understood the full consequence of this storm a few days later.
The IVHQ hostel is located in Gurgaon, a new city located north of Delhi itself, a sprawling mass of high rise flats in gated and guarded compounds catering for the new middle class Indian. It feels like these monstrous pink blocks have been literally thrown up, and it wouldn’t take much for them to tumble down. On the streets outside, of course, live a heaving mass of the much less fortunate.
The IVHQ hostel is the home and office of Ananta Kumar, project co-ordinator for IVHQ, and his wife Namrata. Both are simply delightful, nothing is too much trouble, and Ananta’s infectious giggle could charm the eagles out of the sky, unless, that is, he’s being beaten at Shithead (my favourite card game).
Ten volunteers were sitting around the table eating supper when I arrived, all aged under 25. But they were most welcoming and relieved that my plane had landed safely before the storm had taken hold.
In the morning several volunteers left for their assignments, leaving a core group of four Canadians, one Irish, one Chinese and myself. Their average age is 22, so we’re talking about an almost four decade age gap here, but it’s been nothing less than a delight and privilege to be with them.
Our orientation week has included seeing the sights of Delhi in a sweltering 41 degrees. As we drooped around Gandi’s tomb, I had to agree with Al’s sentiment (he’s Canadian from Pakistani origin) : ‘This is more like a chore than a joy.’ But over two days we gamely did The Qutub Minar, India Gate, The Red Fort, and Humayun’s Tomb.
Once at the mosque, similar to all the other places we’d been, we soon became a focus of curiosity. It’s more irritating than anything else, and most move away once they have their photograph.
Even though I couldn’t understand a word, I loved it. It’s a comedy about sperm donation with lots of in jokes about the differences between Punjabi and Northern Indian culture. Namrata, sitting beside me, was crying with laughter, which made me laugh anyway. I hope they bring it out in the UK with subtitles.
On the way to the see the film, Ananta and Namrata took me to a slum to hand in some clothes. I had no idea what to expect, but when we arrived we discovered that the storm had completely destroyed the slum, which had stretched for miles. There was literally nothing left apart from bits of plastic blowing in the breeze and a few desolate groups of people sheltering under scraggy trees, trying to put some kind of shelter back together again.
As soon as Ananta slowed down, ragged children and limping adults raced towards the car, hands outstretched. ‘Throw the bag out of the window,’ Ananta cried, ‘otherwise they will break the car.’
I understood what he meant as a host of grubby palms started to batter the windows. I threw the bag at them and we zoomed off. It was one of the most helpless moments of my life. The West may be experiencing recession, but we have no idea about this kind of poverty and deprivation. It reminded me of Cormac McCarthy’s post-apoplectic tale, The Road.
But the highlight of the week for me is how we vollies have morphed into this quirky little family group. Everyone gets on well and is respectful of each other’s differences, which has made me realise how set in our ways we older adults can become. I find their hunger and enthusiasm for life invigorating, and would recommend any older person to take the risk and go for it. But you do need to be flexible.
While staying at the hostel, the volunteers sleep in small mixed dormitories. I was fortunate to be offered a room to myself (there was one spare, which is not always the case) but I will be sharing when I get to Dharamsala.
The accommodation is basic, not madly comfortable, and the ceiling fans clatter at night (no air-con) in a vain attempt to manage the stultifying heat and, although they don’t last long, the intermittent power cuts can be annoying when you’re reading. So if you want to come to India choose your time carefully.
You also need to be aware of the loo paper situation. Most modern homes have western styled loos (questionable concept since there is such a dreadful water shortage). But the rest are squat loos. The Indians do not use loo paper, they prefer to wash themselves – always with their left hand, which I think is much more hygienic and doesn’t clog up the works. However, it’s a good idea to bring a couple of rolls for those dire situations which can occur on your travels.
I would also suggest you bring a blow-up pillow, a pack of cards, a damn good book, a computer (wireless network is everywhere), a mobile phone (you can buy a local sim card very cheaply), cotton clothing, and the awareness that young people know what plight the world is in. If this planet is going to be saved, it will be by the kind of youngsters with whom I am currently sharing my life.