India. Teaching kids. How to kick ass and have fun?
June 12, 2009 12:38 PM   Subscribe

I'm leaving for India this Wednesday, as a volunteer teacher in a school for young street kids. I've read quickly through most of the relevant-looking MeFi "India" threads (I plan to read them more deeply soon). And I would love it if you, my fellow MeFier, could post any thoughts or tips, or even highlights from older threads you might have -- what do I need to know? How can I make it the best time for these kids? What would be fun to see and do in my non-teaching time? How can I be safe? ...A bunch of possibly useful details about me after the jump?

- I'm staying in an apartment with other volunteers, it's all paid for by the school. Vegetarian food is provided for us 6 days a week, but of course we're allowed to go off and look for our own food.
- I'm of Chinese descent, and I'm Canadian-born.
- I do not speak Hindi, but I am assured by the school that this is OK.
- I'm male, healthy, just out of undergrad, and the plan is to be in India for 2 months.
- My friend's personal anecdote involved a potential kidnap and her life being saved by whipping out her knife (!) Perhaps this has something to do with her Indian appearance and gender? Do I need to be worried about issues like that?

If you need any other details, just ask. Please, post away!
posted by demagogue to Travel & Transportation around India (10 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Don't drink the water. If you're going to spend a lot of time in a sketchy part of town (teaching street kids in a slum?) carry a disposable wallet with $40 in cash and some expired library cards to give to any potential muggers. Don't use your ATM card in anything other than a major bank's machine, I recommend Standard Chartered.
posted by thewalrus at 12:39 PM on June 12, 2009

Where are you going in India? It's absolutely huge and not at all homogenous. I presume somewhere in the north, as you mention Hindi?

That said, here are two pieces of advice that would apply wherever you go:

-If you're going for two months, bring a small water filter. You really won't be able to drink the water or even brush your teeth in it, and surviving on bottled water, as many visitors do, creates horrifying amounts of plastic waste. You won't be able to get by with chemical treatment either, as Chlorine-treated water can still have parasites and drinking Iodine water for two months could make you seriously ill. A little filter isn't that expensive and is well worth it.

-For heavens' sake, look around, go off on your own and don't spend too much time socialising with the other volunteers. Too many volunteers end up seeing nothing of India but each other's drunk faces.
posted by Acheman at 1:47 PM on June 12, 2009

I spent three months in India a couple of years ago and took Iodine tablets with a neutraliser with me. I was volunteering in the middle of nowhere about a 4 hours train journey north west of Kolkata where western comforts were non-existant. The iodine tablets made it so much easier because I didn't have to constantly worry about whether I had enough bottled water and then what I would do with the empty bottles once I had used them. This was particularly the case as I was there in +40 degree c heat and 100% humidity which meant I was drinking litres and litres of water a day.

As a blonde, western woman, I got my fair share of hassle - but actually mostly in big cities and tourist centres - outside of those, places actually felt very safe and welcoming. As the hassle was very much sexual (stares, whisltes, gropes etc), I imagine it is very different for a guy - I met a male friend in Mumbai whilst I was there and the only hassle he got was people trying to sell him drugs!!

Enjoy the volunterring - although I found the isolation hard (I was the only Westerner in the town!) the amazing warmth and hospitatlity of the people I met whilst volunteering definitly gave me a very different insight to the country than I would have got from just travelling.

If you stick to vegaratrian food that is freshly prepared (i.e. not buffets) you should be fine health wise. Definitly acquire a taste for chai, and above all make sure you take a train journey!

Have a great time - it's an amazing country.
posted by smudge at 2:47 PM on June 12, 2009

Yes, where are you going? It can be brutally hot in many places this time of year. The best way to dress is in loosely fitting, light clothing. Definitely bring a water filter so you don't have to buy 2-3 liters of water every day.

Bring postcards or other small, cheap pieces of memorabilia from your hometown. Pictures of your family are good, too. Kids will like the postcards, grownups may like the family pics. Everyone was tickled by the picture of my family's house in the snow.

Be prepared to be the object of almost obsessive attention. I'm another blonde female, so this might have skewed things, but you will be stared at everywhere you go. This was true for me even in places like Delhi. Just smile and be friendly and be prepared to answer the same three questions a million times ("What is your good name?" "Are you married?" "Where are you from?"). But if you are approached in the street, especially in touristy areas, keep your wits about you, since this is a classic pickpocketting setup.

Pack super light. You will be able to find almost anything in India for about 1/10 what it would cost in North America. Electronics are an exception.

I wouldn't worry too much about safety, at least no more than you would at home. Keep your valuables safe, travel with the aforementioned throwaway wallet. The biggest crime against tourists/foreigners is pickpocketing, which sucks but doesn't put you in any physical danger.

Definitely take some time to travel afterwards, and make sure you pick up lots and lots of handicrafts. You'll have Christmas and birthdays covered for a year.
posted by lunasol at 3:28 PM on June 12, 2009

demagogue - I love the fact that you're volunteering your time to the less privileged. I'm not sure if you live in Canada, but if you do, and you're not leaving til later in the day on Wednesday, I have an unused gift (can't remember which one it is) for you. I bought in a few years back, and since I pride myself on carrying next to nothing when I travel, I've never actually tried it out. Because its ceramic, I believe it never requires a new filter. At my expense, I will make sure you have it by the end of the 'work day' Wednesday.

Have fun!!
posted by gman at 3:33 PM on June 12, 2009

Sorry, more:

This was particularly the case as I was there in +40 degree c heat and 100% humidity which meant I was drinking litres and litres of water a day.

I can't hammer this home strenuously enough. When I was in Delhi in June, the average high was 44C. Keep yourself well-hydrated, and stay out of the mid-day sun.

Also, forgot to point out that it's the monsoon season in much of India, which makes it even more important to be vigilant about only drinking clean water. I contracted Hep A while I was there, which isn't the worst thing in the world but waterborne viruses are never fun. When buying bottled water, squeeze it and shake it around to make sure it's actually sealed. I once shook a bottle of water and a bunch of sediment was floating around - the proprietor had obviously filled used bottles with water, probably from the river (hence the sediment). This was in Varanasi, where the river in question, the Ganges, regularly hosts dead bodies. That can't be good for the digestive tract.
posted by lunasol at 3:36 PM on June 12, 2009

How can I make it the best time for these kids?

My experience is working with kids in the slums in Brazil, not India, but this is the advice given to people in other teams, including India.

* Your purpose is not necessarily to teach them (only) school things, but about the world and other people. One of the best things you can do is help them understand the ways your lives are similar or not, and what your country is like. Focus on things that are not material. Bring pictures of your brothers and pet dog, but leave the ones of the BMW. Demonstrate your juggling hobby, bring an American football (if Canadians play? I am totally illiterate in this), teach them origami, rather than talking about your weekend outings to Whistler and your chalet at the foot of the slopes.

* If it is within your/your schools/your neighborhoods capabilities, also help them learn about the people and areas around them. In Rio, many favela children have never ever been to the beach, 2 miles from their home. Others never meet a middle-class Brazilian (and vice versa), leading to weird, sad, and dangerous presumptions about both demographics. If you can get support for more local interaction, there is a lot more room for long-term impact or at least some really memorable experiences.

* I second the advice about getting out and meeting non-volunteers. I live overseas now, in a country that is welcoming but hard to integrate in, and there are a lot of people limited to interacting with the rest of the foreign population. You will have lots of fun that way, but spend a lot of time drinking, and go home feeling like you had a two month vacation in India with your fellow Canadians. I cannot recommend Couchsurfing enough for meeting people in your area.

* Also you should be totally fine with only English, but help give outsiders a good reputation and learn a few niceties in whatever your local language will be (it may or may not be Hindi, depending on where you go). Also keep an eye open for the real to-dos and not-to-dos culturally. You will be given a lot of leeway as an obvious foreigner, but you do not have to take advantage of it.
posted by whatzit at 4:52 AM on June 13, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks for all your answers so far -- for everyone who asked, I will be in Mumbai. Wiki tells me that Hindi isn't the official language, although it is a Hindi language primer that the organisation gave us -- maybe the Hindi in the primer is also part of Bambaiya?
posted by demagogue at 8:39 AM on June 13, 2009

+1 demagogue. Really appreciate you volunteering your time for the less fortunate.

I guess you are already onboard - sorry I couldn't reply earlier. Just read your post.
Seconding all the above replies. - Travel light, be a little cautious when eating and drinking just to be sure the prep was clean, don't keep too much cash or too many cards on you, vegetarian food, rainy season, everything.

Not knowing Hindi shouldn't be a problem in Mumbai/Bombay. English works just fine.
It is about 35-45 degrees Celcius here these days but its the onset of monsoon so things should get cooler in about a week. Try to stay hydrated. Once the rainy season starts you'll have to be more careful of what you eat or drink. It would be good to carry your own water filter or you could buy one here - I think the brand name is

Don't carry too much cash on you. 1000/2000 INR (Rupees) in 10/20/50/100/500 dollar bills (prefer the smaller ones) should be more than enough for your wallet. Keep some 100-200 bucks in small change in your pocket just so you don't have to open your wallet for every transaction. Try to keep your passport /cards etc safe. You should be able to use any bank's ATMs for your transactions. There might be a limit on your daily withdrawals though - check with your bank. Beware of pickpockets. Avoid giving alms to beggars. You could end up getting harassed by a lot of them if you give once. If you do feel like giving though, give some food - a small packet of biscuits (ParleG - INR Rs. 5) should be pretty decent but make sure you tear open the pack before giving.

Try not to carry too many electronics considering you are living in a shared accoomodation and will be outside at school for many hours at a stretch. It would be better to leave your own phone (if its of the expensive kind) and buy one of the prepaids ones which are available for $10-20 bucks back USA/Canada. Just confirm that its quadband and you should be fine. Or else you could come here and get a new phone for cheap - almost the same price. International roaming costs can kill you so you should be able to get a prepaid phone number from one of the local cellular companies. Prefix 00 for International and 0 for national numbers when dialing. You should be able to find cyber cafes for Internet usage in any area. The upload speeds are not comparative to USA/Canada so make sure you have storage space for your digital camera's photos (if you are carrying one).

I would recommend drinking bottled water for the first few days just to be on the safe side. I do this whenever I travel home even though I've lived most of my life in Bombay. Check the bottle before you pay for it just in case its been refilled. Prefer the following brands of water - Bisleri, Bailey, Aquafina, Oxyrich, etc. I can't vouch for all of them but there are a lot of other local brands which I don't trust or recommend.

Indian cuisine has a lot of variety but it can also be pretty spicy - I would recommend asking your dishes to be prepared mild or medium-spicy before being adventurous with more spices.

Shopping - You should be able to get almost anything you need fairly cheap in stores. Road side stalls/carts in shopping areas like Fort/Colaba Causeway/Fashion Street and tourist attractions generally try to swindle foreigners and charge a lot of money. If you want to shop from those places (they have good clothes, gift materials etc), prefer taking a native person with you. 1. For haggling, and 2. as he'll know the rates for those items.

Keep some medicated soap or soap strips on you - Brands Dettol/Savlon and Lifebuoy are good.

Bombay has state run buses/local trains which you can use to travel to any part of the city. They can be very crowded during rush hours 8-11am and 6-9pm so be careful. Taxis are pretty safe but always pay by the meter - ask them to show you the fare chart before you pay. Bombay has started a yellow-cab like service which you can call to ask for a cab - I think its Meru - Telephone number 44224422.

India is a great country and you'll meet a lot of different people here. By maintaining basic precaution, you should be able to safely travel anywhere.

I am travelling for the next couple of days but am in Mumbai for about almost a fortnight before I head back to the States. Check ayour mefi mail!
posted by bbyboi at 12:23 PM on June 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

>1000/2000 INR (Rupees) in 10/20/50/100/500 dollar bills (prefer the smaller ones)
1000/2000 INR (Rupees) in 10/20/50/100/500 rupee bills (prefer the smaller ones)

Some common words and their pronounciation
Hi/Hello - Namaste (Na-mas-te) (a as in above, e - hey)
Thanks - Dhanyavaad (Dhan-ya-vaad)
Sorry - Maaf kijiye (Maaf Kee-jee-yay)
Water - Paani (Paa-nee)
Food - Khana (khaa-naa)
Public Phone - PCO
You - Aap (aap)
Me/I - Main (men (e pronounced the way you say 'a' in apple))
posted by bbyboi at 12:33 PM on June 16, 2009

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