Memories of India: Part Five

Claire Armstrong

Bye bye friends, hello Chennai…

Once we were back in Delhi, we only had time for a little bit of sightseeing before Lisa and Sue had to head back to Blighty, and it was time for me to fly down to Chennai, to work in an orphanage for about 2 ½ months.

It’s another story entirely, and I haven’t room for it all here, but this was my email back to my family and friends, with my first thoughts on the place…

Well, I’m now in Chennai, and have moved into the orphanage.

I’ve not started work proper yet – I’m having meetings with people who are trying to work out timetables for me. But it looks like mostly I’m going to be listening to the children read every day, doing book discussions, running 3 art groups and taking 6 children out to do one-on-one tuition every day in basic literacy and numeracy. And then in my spare time I’m going to be making new displays for the wall, coming up with a “thought for the day”, that kind of thing.

It all sounds quite exciting, although definitely a little nerve-wracking, as I’m pretty much doing this all on my own. Normally when they have volunteers here, they come in pairs! But there are a few other people around who’ll offer advice, at least. And the children seem really lovely! If a little enthusiastic…

My room’s nice and cool, which is a blessing as it’s over 40 degrees here, and really really humid, so it’s really good to have some respite from it! I only have water for 3 hours each morning, so my routine is going to include filling up 3 massive tubs of water every morning to provide all my washing and toilet-flushing needs for the day.  And my bed is as hard as the floor only higher.  But it’s a cute little place, and I have it all to myself.  And I have a western toilet rather than a hole in the ground, which is a huge bonus!  And I’m eating in the canteen here every day, and so far the food’s been great!

Right, I’d better go.  I’m writing this from the internet café just down the road from the orphanage, and I don’t want the night watchman to worry – if you go out after dark, they prefer it if you give them an idea of when you’ll be back, so they don’t worry!  It’s not considered safe for girls to be out on their own after dark, even though it’s literally only 3 minutes’ walk away.

Chennai seems like a nice city, by the way – but I probably won’t get to see much of it till the weekend.  I have seen the beach though, which felt pretty weird thinking back to the terrible images on television when the tsunami struck last Boxing Day.  Now you’d never guess any of it had happened – the beach just looks idyllic – sand, sun, surf, people paddling…”

My bedroom in the orphanage (note the improved mosquito net setup!) and bathroom, complete with barrels to fill with water during my 3-hour window of running water!
The outside of my room in the leafy but slightly run-down grounds of the orphanage

Bustling and beautiful Chennai – which was to become my home for just over 2 months

I had a difficult but wonderful time at the orphanage.  The kids were lovely, but I’m not sure that I’m really cut out for teaching – I found it very draining at times having to stand up and put on the teacher act.  But also incredibly rewarding – when Mervyn finally got the hang of his times tables, it was one of the best feelings in the world!  And I got to take trips around southern India at weekends to recharge my batteries – Kerala, Mamallapuram, Pondicherry…

Honestly, I will never ever forget my time in India.  I saw sights that were so exotic, so inspiring, so unsettling, compared to life back home.  The level of poverty was like nothing I’d seen before, and at the same time, there was beauty everywhere I looked – Indians seem to decorate everything from lorries to crumbling walls to pavements, and it’s utterly entrancing.

While I was away, I thought I would maybe “find myself” somehow – or at least escape my own head for a bit… but I didn’t. The funny thing about going away is that you take your own head with you!  But it does give you a bit of perspective, and certainly helps you realise your privileges.

And I stayed abreast of events back home through email… in the days before smartphones, internet cafés were my friend.  My sister and her husband were busy moving into a new flat in Ulm, Germany, so she’d keep me up to date with how that was going (I went to stay in said flat on my way home from India actually!).  At the same time, my best friends Tim and Julie Wakeling were busy setting up his computer help books business back in Cumbria, and Tim used to update me regularly on milestones like their first advert, setting up a business phone line at their home, selling their first books.  It’s off the point slightly from my travel diaries, but I’ll leave you with Tim’s reply to the email I just showed you – the very beginnings of The Helpful Book Company:

Hi Claire,
it sounds pretty exciting, all this stuff you’re going to be doing at the orphanage.  It sounds more varied than I’d imagined (though I bet it’s knackering, even though it should be incredibly satisfying).

And hurrah for the western style toilet!  It’s going to make your house seem like a palace when you come back to it after all the places you’ve stayed in!

Things are getting exciting here, too.  I’ve now got the binding machine for making the books (can’t bind any yet cos I stupidly ordered the wrong type of spine, but the supply company I’m using do next day delivery, so that’s OK), I’ve got piles of blank CDs and CD labels, huge stacks of blank paper (and double sided glossy paper for the covers) and boxes of bubble bags stacked up.  Plus this morning the business phone line was connected, so people aren’t phoning our home number to order (so I can put it on answer machine in the evening) – it’s quite neat cos I can set it to divert to another phone if someone calls when I’m busy, so if I have a busy day and hire someone else to help or Jules stays at home to help one day, it can be set to divert to our existing phone if we’re on the business one.  And in the next week or so I should get my set-up for taking credit card payments – it’s weird, it’s really beginning to feel like a business instead of just what I spend all day doing!

It’s all go!  (first advert is 9th July — about 3 weeks… scary!)

Right, back to work…

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