I am now in Khajuraho. The train station is, as promised, very nice and very clean and I am beyond relieved that Yasen’s lovely sister met us.
We walked to the vehicle and I was amused to see a motorbike rickshaw instead of a car. Fun fact, three adults carrying bags and my gigantic pack can fit in the back of a rickshaw! Our driver was another member of Yasen’s family and within minutes we were at the hotel. It was another pleasant surprise, very nice and very clean! It was late now so everything was dark—I couldn’t see the poverty that surrounded the hotel at night and was shocked in the morning when I saw the homes. I had pangs of guilt as I slept in an air-conditioned room with room service and a comfy bed.
Now that we were in Khajuraho, I was Yasen’s guest. He assumed responsibility for me but it was a very different relationship than the one I had with Hussein in Agra. Yasen never asked me for any money, he never acted like my hired guide—more like an ambassador and friend.
Yasen told me he would pick me up at 1000 to take me to the NGO where his sister works. I’m looking forward to seeing Afroj again and her NGO. I eat breakfast in the hotel restaurant of eggs, toast and coffee. When I was in both Delhi and Agra the hotels had a buffet breakfast that consisted of only Indian food and I loved it. I was a bit disappointed to revert back to an American-style meal now, but was happy that I was still feeling good. I am actually surprised I haven’t been sick yet—no tummy issues to speak of, how great.
Yasen is right on time and I am ready to go. I have my backpack with my camera and I also brought an instamatic Fuji with several packs of film so the children can take photos of each other. I imagine that none of them have actual photos of themselves. I honestly do not know what to expect so I hope my gift of photographs is acceptable.
Did I mention that I am in India during the hottest time in history? It is difficult for me to articulate just how hot it is—I could feel the perspiration on my scalp as I walked outside. The heat quickly generated between my back and my backpack, my shirt became damp immediately and I wanted to drink water but feared hydration since I had no idea when I would see a toilet again.
Yasen and I walked out of the hotel into the sticky heat and he showed me his motorcycle…oh great, we are riding on a motorcycle. This feels strange and a bit too intimate for me—I’m suddenly uncomfortable again. Shit, I have no choice, just suck it up and get on the back! So I get on and keep a space between us and I hold on to the back of the bike instead of his waist. This feels much more platonic and comfortable to me. I asked him to drive slow telling him I was afraid of motorcycles and he was polite and drove very slow for me. Truth be told, I’m not afraid of motorcycles but we did not have helmets and the people in India drive like maniacs.
He was so proud to show me his town. He pointed out a few fancy hotels and told me that is where the tourists stay when they come to visit the famous temples. I googled the town and her temples and was fascinated: http://www.indiasite.com/madhyapradesh/khajuraho/ This little town is one of the most visited in the country because of the 20 temples spreading over 6 square kilometers. They boast the most “graphic, erotic and sensuous sculpture the world has ever known,” no wonder Yasen spoke to me so openly about sex—it is part of the culture of this town. However, only about 10% of the art on the temples is the erotic kamasutra. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Khajuraho_Group_of_Monuments
As we rode down the main street we passed many people walking in the heat and starring at us. I’m sure I stood out (again) and wondered how many people knew him and what they thought of me on the back of his motorcycle. Whatever, right?
He took me straight to the NGO. It is a very small, cement structure that sat alone among heaps of trash. Just across a dirt road was where the children who attended this NGO lived. I am not exaggerating when I say that their homes looked like tents made completely of sticks. As we pulled up I felt my throat tighten and my breathing become shallow…this is not the time to start crying…these kids don’t want pity, they want smiles and attention. We walk in the door and almost in perfect unison the children put their palms together and say, “Namaste!” They are all smiling and looking at Yasen and me as we enter. I returned their greeting and smiled back but my eyes welled with tears and my throat had an uncomfortable lump in it. I must not cry…this is surreal…these are real children, in front of me, with nothing.
Afroj (pronounced Af-rosa) and her assistant are clearly proud of the children and welcome me to their school. They explain that these are the children of farm workers and they have nowhere else to go during the day so it is essentially a child care service. These women do their best to teach the children and stimulate their minds instead of just babysit them. It is completely because of these two selfless women these children are learning. India does offer free education for all children but not preschool and I am not even sure about kindergarten. This means for the first 6 years of their lives these children stay in the stick huts all day alone and the other children watch their siblings. I saw too many little kids carrying around their toddler siblings because they had to care for them. There were some women who tended to the children in the stick village but can’t image they are able to do more than keep them alive as they must also grind wheat to make chapattis. I was also told that children of low cast are treated terribly in schools and the teachers rarely even show up to teach—they get paid but do not teach. This is all unsubstantiated gossip but it rings true based on what I witnessed here.
The teachers tell each child to stand and introduce themselves to me and I try to pronounce all of their names after they say them. I want them to know that I care who they are, that they matter, and I want to know their names. Next, I am treated to songs and alphabet recitals (in both Hindi and English). Yasen begins to cry (“screech” he calls it) as they sing a song that touches him. He clearly loves these kids too and feels sorry for their circumstances. I wonder what his childhood was like and if he grew up with friends who lived in these stick huts. He hugs the kids and carries a little 2 year old around the room as the bigger kids show off their drawings to me. Then he tells me that we should leave and go buy the kids some sweets and bring it back to the school. I agree and we dash off to the store to buy something special for them.
We return with ice cream, juice, water and cookies for later. Like children everywhere, they are delighted to have the ice cream (plus it is ridiculously hot and they are sitting on a hot, dirty, concrete floor) but I also noticed how special it was to have juice—this is really a treat.
After they finish their treat, I decide to show them the camera I brought and take photos. Yasen is so excited to take the photos that I ask him if he will do it for them. There is chaos (it’s a room full of kids and something interesting—totally normal) so the teachers put the kids back in line and have them each take turns having their photos taken. They are so excited to watch their image appear on the film. I told them the photo was theirs to keep, to give to their mothers and they are really happy. Of course some are pushy and want all the attention while others were shy…but I got at least one shot of each kid and when I realized I had enough film left over, I took one more so they could leave one at the school and take one home.
As we were photographing the kids some would have to leave to go to the toilet and others would simply walk out and go home. This felt strange to me since they were so little. What I didn’t know is that they were walking home to show off their photos and soon other kids came to have their photos made. I was happy to have enough film for all of them. I was also happy that I didn’t drink any water or juice because I noticed there was no toilet anywhere. The kids were just walking outside to urinate or defecate on the ground, among the trash. There was no shelter, no designated area, just the open ground…I just couldn’t do it. I have no problems doing this in nature when I am camping or hiking but there’s a completely different feel about going outside because you have to…there’s no other option, there’s no running water anywhere except at the public fountains.
I asked a couple of the kids to draw a picture in my journal and I will always treasure them. I also asked them to sign their names so I could remember. I will never forget these faces and this feeling I have for them.
I was happy that Yasen drove me back to my hotel to freshen up and eat lunch alone after the visit to the NGO. He invited me to his home for dinner and said we would go to Aterra (near Banda) to meet the Gulabi Gang the following day. Sounds like a plan.
The name of the NGO is “Roshni” and although the teachers do their best to amuse the kids, they are desperate for school supplies and clothes. Many of the kids wore clothes made of donated material and they only have flip-flops for shoes—soon it will be winter and they need coats and shoes. If you are interested in donating anything, write me and I will send you a mailing address—anything is welcome and everything is needed. (I also took a photo with the info on the building–send them anything and make their day!)