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September 5, 2009

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An Indian summer

I took a class on Indian religion in New Jersey, the United States, last year and ever since then I've been hoping to see the country with my own eyes, especially after watching the Oscar-winning film "Slumdog Millionaire."

This spring, when the Rustic Pathways Foundation was offering a summer volunteering opportunity in India, I jumped on it immediately.

During my time there, we helped a local non-governmental organization with some small projects, such as rose planting and whitewashing a school wall. Our major task was tutoring local kids in English and arithmetic and showing them different cultures.

The "vehicle" we took to and from to the village was a camel. We were excited to ride them at first but we were hardly thrilled minutes later because of the smell.

Planting roses and whitewashing walls were hard work while tutoring kids was fun.

The kids were about six or seven years old and they were waiting when our camel procession arrived. They were excited to see us and greeted us with "hi" and "hello." As we extended our hands, they happily grabbed them and shook hard.

But they also shot a smug look at their parents, who were flabbergasted and looked at the kids and us angrily. Later I was told that according to tradition, it was not usual to shake people's hands. What a difference a generation can make!

The tutoring sessions were short and sweet. The kids were fast to learn the English words and arithmetic since some of the material had been covered by the previous volunteers. So we moved quickly to games. We finally decided on a traditional Chinese game "Throw the Handkerchief." The kids were quick to learn the game and had fun with it.

One kid was especially active. He was very fast in the learning sessions and played the game aggressively. He was more ready to ask questions, to challenge our authority and to outwit us.

He came from a relatively rich family in that area. His father had a bunch of businesses which all had less than five employees. We were puzzled by that until someone explained that India has a lot of rules for business and it was very hard to dismiss an employee. Therefore, owners kept businesses small to circumvent the rules.

On our way back to New Delhi airport, as I looked at the skyscrapers, I thought of the kids in the village.

Their smiles made my trip worthwhile. Though one week was hardly enough, little by little we could make their lives a little better.


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