I thought the only way to describe my Engineers Without Borders experience in rural India was to just describe one day in detail. Here goes nothing.
630am: Dave’s alarm goes off, we talk about Lonely Planet induced plans as we walk through Pathways to our early morning Yoga class. We are staying free of charge at Pathways, an IB school for international students that has a campus larger than Case’s. Beautifully manicured lawns lie between English styled buildings, and you can almost convince yourself you’re at an English boarding school. In reality, we’re a very dusty two and a half hour drive from Delhi. Yoga reminds me of each and every part of my body that is weak. The instructor asks us to help him apply for a PhD in Physical Education in the US. Afterwards we have breakfast in the Pathways cafeteria, the 15 or so of us eating potato cakes, cereal and handmade hot chocolate milk.
915am: We load into our bus to Abheypur. It takes an hour or so depending on random back roads village traffic. I mostly sleep, outside of the massive speed bumps.
1030am: Arrive in Abheypur, a small farming village of about 750 people. It’s on the edge of some very rocky hills, and in the fields they mostly farm Mustard seeds, Rice and Wheat. The girls school we are working on is in session, and we get many stares from the grades 1-3 students as they sit in open air classrooms in neat little rows. I’m to go with two students from Hartford University to the shopping district of the nearby town of Sohna, where we are to get PCV couplings, metal pipe and bleach.
1100am: Head to Sohna, listening to our translator Nishant’s tales of going to school in Scotland and his companies deal that lets him have the day off to translate for us. He’s quite happy to help, as according to him “no one likes their jobs”. He talks of wanting to move out of Delhi into the countryside. We drive along harrowing roads, avoiding head on collisions and severely overloaded rickshaws.
1130am: Arrive in Sohna. The people we work with in Abeypur are mostly used to us being there by now, but our white skin and foreign clothing gives us many stares in Sohna. Crowded market streets, wandering cows holding up rickshaws and cabs, trash everywhere. We go to the hardware store and are sat down on an embroidered bench by the owner. Through Nishant we communicate broad descriptions of the fittings and other items we need. He mostly understands, but tries to tell us we need metal fittings for our metal pipes. It is apparently impossible to explain what we are actually using the pipes for; we need to cut holes in PVC pipe without a drill, so we’re planning on heating up the metal pipes in cow-poop fires (the main Indian fire fuel it seems) and then use it to burn the holes. The hardware store sends out a worker missing at least one finger for what we assume are our supplies, but he comes back with snacks and chai. We eat and drink in the midst of the small crowd that’s gathered. Another worker coils wire for us as I eat what appear to be carrot brownies. We load up and head out, avoiding more cows and curious onlookers.
130pm: We arrive back to find an Indian journalist team from the Indian borough of the Associated Press interviewing the team. Our Hartford University professors are gone, and Dave’s on the phone with them and trying to stall the journalists until they get back. We eat our lunch, croissants filled with potato curry and an apple. The main journalist wants to know if Engineers Without Borders does work in Pakistan.
“We don’t do work in countries that the US government has travel advisories in,” Dave explains.
“So no Pakistan?”.
“No Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, North Korea …”
The journalist says something about Muslim countries, followed by “So no Pakistan.”
300pm: School lets out. The two hundred or so schoolgirls who had been sitting (mostly) dutifully doing school work (and singing multiplication table songs) all start mobbing for my camera. All the kids have figured out the system. Hold up your pointer finger and say “One!” repeatedly, then when the cameraman (me) finally breaks down and takes a picture, they all giddily rush over to see what they look like. Rinse and repeat, with slight variations and interruptions until we leave each day. The other (mainly boy) activity is the Running of the Americans. The pushy boys will come up to you and start repeating “Go!” while pointing down the yard. If you start running you’ll have 20-30 boys chasing you, screaming, until enough latch onto your shirt or limbs that they pull you down to the ground. There were enough of us that we could keep rotation going that kept them occupied for a while, but there seems to be an unlimited amount of energy contained in a 7 year old Indian boy.
400pm: We go on a children led hike up the hill near town. 10 of us, our translator Nishant and 40-50 kids scramble up rocks as seven different kids try to be path finder. We watch some peacocks attempting to mate, scare off some monkeys and break up a game of “I’m braver than you because I won’t dodge the rocks you throw at me from across the valley”. At the top we can see over the trees to the somewhat fertile valley below. We see some goatherds burning cow poop over the hill. Amid more demands for “One!”, we make the hike back to the school.
600pm: The non-hikers have finished the connections of PVC, we enjoy some more Running of the Americans, and eventually load into our bus. I split a pair of iPod headphones with Constanza, the only girl I’ve ever met who independently knew of the band Mr. Bungle.
730pm: We make it back to Pathways and rush to dinner before the school children eat dinner. We talk about our planned day trip into Delhi the next day, where we’ll visit some ruins, the Ba’hai Lotus Temple, the Indian Institute of Technology for an industrial design meet and greet, and have dinner at a rich businessman’s house.
1000pm: We smoke cigarillos on our dorm patio, talking of life, religion and India. The sign outside the Pathways school says “Learn. Work. Play. Think. Live.”
I sleep like a baby.