By the second week, I’d had it with India. I reached the breaking point last Tuesday night. A thunderstorm had cut off our power yet again, the heat in our poorly ventilated room was stifling, we had just discovered a gigantic anthill in our bathroom, water from the storm was beginning to form a puddle at the entrance to our room and to top it all off, the roof was leaking–straight onto my bed. My mother was right–I could never hack it in the Peace Corps.

But then, something happened. The rain stopped, the heat broke and Bangalore suddenly became a much more tolerable place. The arrival of two more volunteers–Samuel from Germany and Simrin, a Canadian Indian–changed the atmosphere and added to our motley crew. Last Wednesday, happier than I’d been in the days prior, I agreed to co-chaperone a trip to Forum Mall, one of Bangalore’s biggest shopping centers. Stephanie and I planned to take the five oldest girls for an afternoon of arcade games and ice cream. But first we had to get them out of the door. The girls took forever to get ready. They put on their best outfits and did each other’s hair and fished around for matching earrings as the younger kids looked on in envy. Once we hailed rickshaws and made it to the mall, it was game time. The arcade was on the third floor, most easily accessed by riding the escalator. Four of the girls jumped on, excited by the idea of a moving staircase. The fifth hung back, hesitant to join her friends and terrified by this new technology. At 13 years old, Sanju had never been on an escalator. At the time it shocked me; in retrospect, I understood it. The kids spend virtually all of their time in school or at the orphanage. Everything they need is there and so they have no reason to leave. I walked Sanju around the corner and up the two flights of stairs and we met up with the other girls. Inside the arcade, we bought them point cards to play the games. In the next hour, we introduced them to Skee-ball, basketball, Whack-a-mole and the day’s highlight, the candy machine. The girls traded in their tickets for pencil cases, which were then stuffed full with the candy they’d won. We got the girls ice cream at Baskin Robbins before finding rickshaws to take us home, which is when the problems began. As a foreigner, getting a rickshaw is never a fun experience. Finding a driver who will use the meter is damn near impossible. Even when a driver does use the meter, he usually charges the meter fare plus fifty percent, simply because I’m not Indian. The sight of two white foreigners and five Indian girls set off quite a scene. Rickshaw drivers jumped over each other to try and get to us. A fight nearly broke out when a jilted driver hopped into our rickshaw and refused to leave until we agreed to ride with him instead. As a foreigner in India, I have come to expect the arguing and the jacked-up prices, but it was not something I wanted the girls to experience on our field trip. I finally shouted at the angry driver to stop yelling and get off our rickshaw so that we could leave. As Minnie, the oldest of the five, put it, “He is charging you for one way what he would charge Indians for both ways. He is a very bad man. Thief.” She was right, to a point. I have met many warm, friendly people over the past few weeks, people who hold my hand, invite me to meals and offer assistance. But here, friendship comes with a price and every conversation is a business transaction. “Hello, where are you from? Oh, America, very nice. Obama! Will you come to my shop, friend? OK, tomorrow then? Do you promise?” During the two weeks I spent at the orphanage, I avoided talking to the pastors because I knew they had a habit of taking volunteers into the office and asking for money.

It has been frustrating to not be seen as a person, but as a cash cow, just because of the color of my skin. In India, and more specifically at organizations such as my orphanage, there is a certain breakdown in communication that nobody has taken the time to fix. I chose to volunteer because I don’t have heaps of money to donate, whereas I believe the pastors accept people like me in the hopes that these volunteers will then financially support the orphanage once the experience is over. My work at the orphanage was good, but largely unstructured. Because there were fifty kids and no guidelines, I made my own schedule. Doling out coloring books was followed by scrubbing dishes and then chopping vegetables on the floor outside the kitchen. If there was time before lunch, I would go out and play with the kids some more. They have very little in the way of toys–one of the choice toys last week was a plastic salad container–and so they rely on each other and on the volunteers for entertainment.

It felt good to take the girls outside of the orphanage. It’s important for them to see that there is more to the world than what they experience within the confines of the orphanage’s bright orange walls. Part of me worries about girls like Sanju, who have been so sheltered that instead of being able to embrace new scenarios and experiences (such as the escalator), they will freeze and emotionally shut down, as she did. I don’t know what will happen to these girls once they grow too old to live at the orphanage. I don’t know what sort of training or life skills they will pick up in the next few years that will prepare them for a world beyond schoolwork and hours each day of structured prayer, but I hope that future volunteers continue the work we have done. The gates of the orphanage are locked 24 hours a day, opened only when someone (typically only the pastors or volunteers) needs to leave or enter. Inside the walls is a family. It is safe and full of love and laughter and the sort of familial bickering that ends with “I’m sorry”s and hugs. But when the gates are open and these girls walk out for the last time, what sort of world will they be faced with, and will they be prepared for it? Those are the questions that have been running through my head since I left on Saturday, but I don’t think anyone can give me an answer.

Advertisements