India: Life Stripped

Mar 6, 2014 by


Despite the evident chaos of India, I have been forced to slow down, to live a simpler life.

I live in a volunteer apartment, a humble one bedroom space that I am to call home for the next two months. I live with two other girls who are donating their time as nurses. They share the one bedroom of the apartment, and I have a space on a firm and lumpy bed (but nothing like the ger beds in Mongolia!) in the living room. There is one other bed in the living room, but it is unoccupied at the moment. There is a small kitchen with a sink that has running water and we also have a supply of drinking water. Our stove has two elements; more than one is a luxury. The toilet is off the kitchen, and my knees touch the door when I sit. Toilet paper cannot be flushed, but having a toilet at all is a luxury. There is a smaller sink, also in the kitchen, and this is where I wash my hands after using the toilet, and it is where I wash my face and brush my teeth  when getting ready for bed at night. In many ways, our kitchen is also a washroom. There is also a shower room – again, running water! There is no hot water, so to have a hot shower, I boil water, pour it in a bucket and mix it with cooler water from the tap. With a cup, I have a bucket shower, pouring water over myself. The other day I washed my hair, and it was glorious.

Simple tasks now take me much longer to complete, and instead of complaining about it or whining, I see it as an opportunity to slow down. It is because it takes me an hour to have a shower that the chaos of India does not have me riled up.

I spend my days volunteering at a school. The children who attend this school live in poverty, some in slums with no running water, others live and sleep on the street. Our apartment here may be cramped, but we have running water and regular meals. One of the reasons the school is beneficial to the kids is that we can make sure they eat at least once per day.

I teach 4 regular classes: 3 English classes and 1 science class. I am not a teacher, but I have energy and knowledge to share, and even if the kids aren’t managing to learn anything with me, I am helping to keep them occupied and off the street. In the last 3 days, I have been astounded by how brilliant some of these kids are, and it breaks my heart that they don’t have all the open doors and windows in the world. They have their struggles: lice, fevers, sleeping on the street, untreated colds, and yet there is no shortage of personality or childhood. From day one, these kids have been just that: kids. They run and play like other children. They act up in class, and they try to work over the new teacher (me) for special attention (which I don’t fall for). I also tutor a young woman at the end of the day. She is probably 5 or 6 years younger than me and already has a 1.5 year old daughter. She is smart as hell and tells me with a laugh how she makes a lunch box for her husband and goes to work every day where she cooks in someone else’s home. Her daughter is clean, happy and strong.

There are several rooms at the school used for classes. There are no desks or chairs, and the students don’t even have their own pencils. The pencils they use are the ones I bring with me to each class in a basket. The children sit on the floor or on homemade wooden boxes. Often, there are 2 or 3 classes taking place in one room. Many of the kids go barefoot and wear the same clothes for many days in a row (or only change when something is worn out or no longer fits). In three days, I have already gotten used to seeing this.

At lunch time, everyone washes up at a small sink (running water!) in the corner of the hallway to the office. Their wet hands drip water on the floor, and their barefeet leave little brown footprints behind. Lunch is served up on the floor of the main room (pictured above) and the smallest children eat first, some eating off of the same plate. There are so many of them eating that I cannot walk through them to get to the volunteer locker against the wall. When they are done eating, the older kids eat. I eat too, and in a day I learned to eat with my hand (only the right – wipe with the left, eat with the right).

Each day, I ride the rickshaw to and from school. Each ride costs about 50 cents. We go past slums, coffee shops and all sorts of people, dogs and smells. I am never bored on my walk to the rickshaw after school. The street in the Khar neighbourhood is packed with stimulation. There are barbers who give old-school shaves. There are ladies selling flower garlands and men selling chai. There is a fish market and vegetable and fruit stands galore. Today I bought six oranges for less than a dollar. There are shops selling clothing and brightly coloured fabrics and men weighing garlic by the fistfuls. There are tiny frightened kittens and men sewing and repairing shoes, and men making nets. There are live chickens for sale and bags of rice and flour and stores selling coal. Every day I see something new. Among all of this, bikes and rickshaws and motorcycles are trying to get through the narrow street packed with people, critters, and goods for sale, and they honk the whole way.

It is no wonder I come home filthy and exhausted at the end of the day. And it is no wonder I am satisfied and more than happy to take a long shower and just be quiet. The chaos of India has been anything but chaotic for me. It has been a force of peace and acceptance.


I am volunteering with One! International. I highly recommend looking up the website to learn more about the organization and how it started. Maybe even think about volunteering…

Please like my facebook page (so you don’t miss a beat of this amazing journey) and follow me on twitter and Instagram too! 

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  1. This sounds like such an incredible experience! And even with only the one photo, you paint the picture so vividly that I can almost see it.

    • Colleen

      Ah, I’m so glad my writing is successful on some level, so thank you! I aim to transport. I like it when my readers are right beside me the whole way. Thank you Katie. Hope you are magnificent. xo

  2. Woah, I took an internet break and now you’re in India!? Holy crap girl. That is awesome. I’m really looking forward to reading about this.

    • Colleen

      Haha… Yeah, I’ve never done things in a linear or logical fashion. This kind of detour in life is what is actually logical to me!

  3. This was AWESOME, Colleen! All of my parents (steps too) were teachers so I absolutely LOVE this part of your life journey. Isn’t it amazing at how a child who knows of no material or comfort world can appreciate and seize the day? You are such a Godsend for what you’re bringing to them, Colleen. Bless you always our friend 🙂

    • Colleen

      Thank you thank you Mike. Any blessings I get in this life are helpful. (And I’m a big sneezer, haha). It’s so great that you could relate to my experience as a teacher on such a personal level.

  4. Loved this, Colleen. I had a similar experience in Nepal where it felt like everything was distilled down right to life’s very bones. It was both humbling and invigorating and my time there, when there were so few comforts, taught me just how important the little things are, how easy it is to be grateful when we ostensibly don’t have very much. I can already tell this time in India is going to be AMAZING for you (and for us as your readers!).

    • Colleen

      Yes! You understand completely. I love this being described as distilled to life’s bones. There are so many ways to beautifully describe this kind of humbling experience. I hope with every fibre, tendon and bone that any changes I go through here are good ones. I would love to compare experiences over a hot cup of chai one day. 🙂 Also stay posted… I may or may not be going through Nepal later. 😉

  5. You do a great thing, Colleen.
    I am glad you have the Internet access. Can’t wait for your photo updates. Be safe!

    • Colleen

      Oh thank you… I am definitely doing something different with my time these days, and that’s what I want.
      The internet here is spotty sometimes, but has mostly been reliable (just slow). I will be posting plenty while I’m here I hope!

  6. India is crazy like that. I kind of miss being in Mumbui now. At the time I found it hard to settle in but once you get used to it India works its way under your skin. How long are you out there for?

    • Colleen

      India is a crazy place, but it’s amazing how quickly I’ve adapted. I’ve learned that I don’t ever get culture shock, but the reverse culture shock is ALWAYS what gets me! Mumbai has been a very stimulating place to live. I’m very happy to be here and I can see why you miss it. I will be in Mumbai for 2 months. 🙂

  7. Emy

    Your adventure sounds awesome, and I am firmly convinced that doing good things for others is the most beneficial thing you could do for yourself, so I have no doubt that is filling you with love and joy. And I am happy for you that you get to experience that. I’ve always wanted to volunteer, would you mind sharing more info on the practical side of it?
    But this also obviously breaks my heart, as I am sure yours too, to see the inequality we live in and the poverty that is probably going to be forever for some people, actually many people. It’s a thought that’s hard to avoid and process and deal with.
    I send you lots of good vibes from sunny Paris!
    Take care of yourself!

    • Colleen

      I think you are totally right. As much as I am here to help other people, I know that in so many ways, they are really helping me. These kids I work with every day remind me of what’s important in life and slowly they are sorting out my priorities.
      I would be happy to do a post on volunteering in India and provide all the information you might need to do something like this. I think you would LOVE this. I would definitely recommend it to you!
      Sending you some warm hugs back all the way from Mumbai xoxoxox

  8. Wow Colleen, I can imagine it perfectly from your writing and descriptions. And I like where you mention that you don’t whine or moan, you just slow down. I checked out the volunteering website and I really like the sound of it. I like that they ask for a minimum of 2 months commitment. I’ve often heard of people paying a fortune to go and ‘volunteer’ for 5 days and that has turned me off taking part in volunteer projects- I’m not sure how much it benefits children having a new teacher every 5 days… But One International sounds really great and I can tell from your post that your work is very beneficial for these children. How did you find out about One International? Thanks for sharing your experiences and I look forward to reading more.

    • Colleen

      YES! I’ve researched volunteering overseas before and some organizations are just cash grabs, and I don’t even know what good they do. The reason I chose One! is because I was familiar with the organization and their expectations. While I am here, the costs I have are basically zero. It is a completely grassroots organization, not one that suckers foreigners into coming to India thinking they are going to change the world. It is hard work and I earn your keep, but it is so worth it, and it is a wonderful way to experience life in India! I have been here for a week and am now getting into a bit of a groove which I like. I will do a post later about One! International and how I found out about it. If you are at all interested in this kind of thing, you should look into it.

  9. This post was just so amazing on multiple levels. I have never been to India and the India I “know” is only from what I’ve read or seen in images and yet your words I feel brought “la vida cotidiana” to life for me.

    Your students sound just like so many of the kids I met and interacted with in Mexico. Many had tragic stories, came from horrific backgrounds, and yet were smiling kids always getting into the latest bout of mischief. Kids are kids regardless the language, culture, or background.

    • Colleen

      Julie, thank you for such a kind comment. I love that we can relate to each other’s experiences even though they are from opposite sides of the world… although there is some tragedy in that too. But the silver lining is that kids are kids wherever they are.

  10. Zhu

    Even though I have never been to India, I can relate to a certain degree because I also felt I was forced to slow down in Central America. Buses are old schoolbuses from the US. They rarely go from point A to point B directly. A 20-km long journey can take two hours. Restaurants are the family-owned kind and there is only one cook–ordering and getting the food can take a while.

    It took me a few days to adapt to the pace of life but it helped me in a long run. I feel less rushed, less stressed and more flexible, even now that I’m back in Canada.

    • Colleen

      Travel can sometimes feel too fast paced (I know, I have been there), so it is nice when travel forces us to slow down and see things differently. I hope your experiences carry you on into the future in the best possible way. Sending you my best. xo

  11. This reminded me of a page from a book Jen has me reading, The War of Art by Steven Pressfield.

    “Resistance obstructs movement only from a lower sphere to a higher. It kicks in when we seek to pursue a calling in the arts, launch an innovative enterprise, or evolve to a higher station morally, ethically, or spiritually.

    So if you’re in Calcutta working with the Mother Teresa Foundation and you’re thinking of bolting to launch a career in telemarketing… relax. Resistance will give you a free pass.”

    Jen read that to me as I was editing photos and stressing about my show. I didn’t take the time to appreciate the words until I read them myself.

    Colleen… enjoy the higher station.


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