A Volunteer Vacation in India

The eye-opening trip you’ll want to take.

My daughter Brook makes a new friend at the Deepthy School.
Photograph: Susan Crandell

The last time I went to India, five years ago, I said I’d never go back. Yes, I’d been awed by things I saw and experienced: The Taj Mahal glowing at sunset, monks in saffron robes moving around the grounds of the home-in-exile of the Dalai Lama in Dharamshala, riding a camel through the camps of herders preparing dinner over open fires at the Pushkar camel fair. For me, these extraordinary experiences were overpowered by the gut-punch of poverty: passing miles and miles of hovels at the outskirts of Delhi on the train to Rajasthan, being thronged by beggars, often children, everywhere we went. Staying in a luxurious hotel while watching local people laboring through impossibly difficult lives left me feeling overprivileged, powerless and sad.
Then Destination Himalaya, a California-based travel company owned by Sanjay Saxena, a Delhi native who now lives in Marin County, made me an offer I couldn’t refuse: a chance to see more of India’s splendor, this time as part of the solution. Saxena’s firm supports a number of nonprofits throughout his birth country, and he invited me and my daughter Brook, also a writer, on a trip that would visit three of them: two schools in the canal-laced region of Kerala on the Arabian Ocean coast, and a medical ship that plies the waters of the Sunderbans, an island-studded delta east of Calcutta (or Kolkata, as it’s now called). More than half of Destination Himalaya trips visit at least one of these sites, and Saxena contributes $250 or more for each traveler he hosts.
First stop was the Maraikullam School in Kerala, where dozens of children shouted hello and jostled one another to meet the pale-faced foreigners and touch Brook’s blonde hair. "It’s a good school, but the kids were sitting on the floor," Saxena says. "So we hired a local carpenter to build benches to use as desks and chairs."  At another school in the region, where Destination Himalaya launched a lunch program, enrollment jumped 30% in three months.  Now Saxena is replicating the model at other schools.
At Maraikullam, Saxena turned pied piper among the kids, fashioning dogs and giraffes and swords from a seemingly endless pocketful of balloons. When all the children were carrying brightly colored critters, we ate lunch together, scooping up curries, relishes and rice from palm-leaf plates. Learning to speak English is the key to well-paying work, and spending time with us affords an opportunity to hear colloquial unaccented speech. I was impressed by the kids—clever, cheerful, enthusiastic—and the teachers. This is a well-managed school that can make fine use of more resources, an excellent place for your money and your time.
A day later, we broke bread—make that nan—with another group of kids, this time from the Deepthy Special School, run by two Carmelite nuns where 75 mentally-challenged children learn life skills. The kids showed us how they spin coconut fiber into "yarn" that’s used for floor mats and rugs. "It’s a money-earning skill all the children can learn," sister Rose says. The children board, with many going home to their families on weekends. Several have gotten jobs and are learning to live independently. It’s a bright future, a big change: traditionally, disabled kids were shunned by families because their impediments suggested reincarnation payback for evil deeds in a previous life.
After we toured the school, walking through a big new building under construction that will contain a dormitory, dining hall, offices and classrooms, a dozen boys joined us on our houseboat for lunch. As we cruised along the waterways, one student performed a dance routine and another sang. The youngest, a sweet boy with big brown eyes that didn’t miss a trick, handed out little wrapped chocolates all around, then gathered a sizable stash for himself. And yes, Balloon Wallah was at it again.
The Deepthy School is another institution that’s on its feet, not its knees. You feel the money you donate will be spent wisely. Travelers often volunteer several days at one one of the schools, teaching English conversation or helping out in other ways.

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