It’s 7 am on a cold and cloudy day in the middle of January in a small village named Naddi at the foothills of the Himalayas. The time of day coupled with the overnight bus from Delhi make the vague outline of the mountains seem surreal. A local teenage girl approaches me and my new colleague, she has a sweet demeanour and a kind face (I will soon find out this is a common trait amongst the villagers). She knows our names and introduces herself as Milan. I don’t know how she found us or whether she was even looking for us at the time, but apparently she’s been expecting us for over a day. Our lack of respect for the rush hour traffic in Delhi two days previous had cost us our seats on the bus. She brings us to her home where we meet her family, they feed us Chapatti (a local type of fried bread) and Chai tea.
Before I’m aware of what’s going on another young girl takes me by the hand and leads me away to her home. Her name is Sunana and she informs me that I will be staying with her and her family for the foreseeable future. This 11 year old girl knows a lot more than I do about the “new westerners” living arrangements and I am tired enough to trust her implicitly. I am obviously not the first person to pass through here like this; the locals are very accustomed and welcoming. It seems that children are the only ones who speak any English; I am immensely grateful for this as my Hindi is severely lacking. Sunana shows me what’s to become my temporary room where I contemplate contacting someone from EduCARE but I pass out before I can even find my phone.
I wake up in a daze at around 2 o’clock, although you could never have guessed the time as it is so dark, cold and wet. What on earth am I doing here on this rock hard bed, in this freezing room, in this small community on the outskirts of this small village at the base of these enormous Himalayan Mountains? I’m daunted by what lays ahead of me and just want to retreat under the covers until the sun comes out, even if it takes a month. I tell myself I’m too tired to face making “small talk” with Indian children and “small amateur sign language talk” with Indian adults.
“Wrong attitude Alex! Stop being such a wet blouse, grow a pair (pardon my French), go out and face the day. You signed up for this, paid your way to come here and have been looking forward to this for months. I put on about fifteen layers of clothes; it probably takes me about ten minutes to get dressed. In time I will realize that everything takes longer in India, in this instance even something as simple as getting dressed...
I step outside my room into the rain and bump into my colleague that I travelled with. We comfort each other with the fact that we have been going through similar emotions of uncertainty. I make a quick stop in the toilet, as I expected, it’s an outhouse with a hole in the ground on the side of the path leading up the hill. Hearing people walk by the little toilet shed and talking makes me uncomfortable.
“Get used to it, this home for now.”
Walking up into the village we are met by two familiar faces, familiar not because we know them but because they are not Indian,. They are from EduCARE. We’re brought to a hotel for our first induction meeting where five other uncertain faces greet us. Other new interns! It’s explained to us that we are to spend two weeks in the “homestays”. These are part of the micro finance project set up as a type of guest house to help develop a small home business in hospitality. It’s not just a place for new interns to stay but also for tourists when the season comes. The aim is to encourage cross cultural learnings, for the guests and the hosts whilst making a few Rupees for the families.
The vision and philosophy of EduCARE are explained to us, but I think it passes over all our heads. We're reassured that this is normal and that it will take a couple of weeks worth of meetings and discussions before we adjust and understand what it is that we are doing here. I'm not reassured, just more uncertain.
The afternoon is coming to an end so we head back to our respective homestays for dinner. The kitchen is small, without tables and chairs, there are just a few mats on the floor surrounding a small fire with minimal ventilation. The family are incredibly nice and welcoming, even if we have to communicate through Sunana. Feeling comfortable on this floor happens very fast.
I’m the first to receive my plate of food, but it doesn’t come with cutlery. I wait and see what happens next. Sunana gets her dinner and dives straight into it with her hands. When I was her age, this would have been expressly forbidden, my parents would have told me to stop playing with my food. I would have loved to have been allowed to eat this way. Now I’m older, with 30 years of conditioning in the ways of western dinning behind me. I make an awkward attempt to grab my food with my fingers, rice, lentils and sauce pour down my hand. What’s left of the food that I hold is about to fall from my grasp. At the same time I try to throw it and shove it into my mouth. I miss. The food on my face and my jumper creates a bonding laughter between me and the family. Sunana chooses this moment to offer me a spoon. If they thought this ironic gesture would be funny, they were right.
Despite my wants to fully experience this culture, I can’t resist the temptation of what I consider to be the practicalities of cutlery. I look to my side and Sunana is already finished, every last grain of rice is gone from her plate in what I would consider record time. This is a clear lesson to me that there is no right or wrong way for anyone to eat their food.
After dinner I retreat to my icy room which has been supplied with plenty of blankets. No amount of blankets would be enough. Like in the afternoon, it takes me what seems an age to get undressed and then dressed again. For this first night I decide it would be prudent to sleep in a hat with 3 layers of clothes, a sleeping bag and 2 huge blankets. After a few minutes the bed warms up and I am actually quite cosy. I think to myself about the struggle to get out of this warm bed that awaits me in the morning and then it hits me; I forgot to go outside to the toilet before bed, Lesson learnt! I won’t make that mistake again, but there are many more mistakes to make and solutions to find as I settle into this very foreign village.