We have arrived at the camp in the town of Jaisalmer, in the state of Rajasthan, NW India. We travelled on a tightly packed bedded train. On the long overnight journey from Jaipur to here, I learnt a lesson. A quintessential volunteer – a short, overweight, young, plane faced girl came to the area that I and a few of the boys were resting in and just wanted to talk to me. I struggled to keep awake as I was trying to sleep before she came, and I didn’t really know why she had come to me, but I gave her my full attention for as long as I could. She stood in the dark train aisle talking to me for an hour about her concerns and life back home. In that time, I got to see that she was more than the stereotype I had thrown here into; she was an individual with her own personality and identity. This encouraged me to speak to everyone on this level to try and rid myself of stereotyping.
I can’t upload pictures of the camp, but I can hopefully describe it in less than a thousand words. We are in a desert. Jaisalmer does have a busy town center consisting of endless markets and small shops, but we are situated about a 25minute drive away from it in the middle of nowhere. The camp consists of a few mud/dung/sand/some brick buildings around a square area a little smaller than a football pitch with all buildings around the edges enclosing an open space of dry earth, stones, lined shrubs, and a couple of shelters and pathways. Almost everything on the camp is sand colored. Beyond the camp there is only desert, sprinkles of dry agriculture, and wind turbines for as far as the eye can see – endless dry horizon in every direction. There are never any clouds, the sun beats down on us all day (quite unbearably at times) and it is between warm and cool in the night. The tips of every sunrise and sunset are visually unhindered.
The room (hut) that all 11 boys are in is not as bad as I thought. It’s actually quite spacious with high ceilings holding 5 bunk beds and a single bed for us all. I took the nearest bottom bunk to the door so I can make a quick and quiet exit when I need to solely wake for morning prayer. There is sand everywhere. As I lay down on the bottom bunk facing up, I noticed previous volunteers had littered the bases of the top bunks with messages: “You have no idea what u have let urself in for. You’ll go mad with boredom. Don’t hold your breath for electricity, running water or getting laid. Prepare for insanity. It’s like a prison here.” Another simply read: “you got the bottom bunk. Wanker.”
We soon attended a meeting where we met all the ‘executives’. In other words, the Indian staff here who are running things: heads, cook, driver, first aider, assistants etc, – about a dozen natives in total. Ground rules where also established. Various forms of misconduct can result in getting sent home. For example, alcohol is not permitted on the premises, and you are not allowed to leave the camp after 7pm. Depending on severity, consequences are: a verbal warning, then a written warning, and a final warning before being sent home. I regret to inform you all that I am the first volunteer to have been given a verbal warning. This was actually issued before we arrived at camp. What was my crime? I rode on the back of a motorbike of a native Indian dude. I’ve done this three times, though twice was because they had offered to take me to a mosque, and once for fun. The fun occasion earned me the warning. At the same time however, Platform2 have asked and trained 2 volunteers out of the 48 to carryout an evaluation task in week 5, and I’m one of them, so I’m hoping they won’t be so quick to ship me back. I will, however, be more careful in the future (not to get caught). I’m finding the rules very inhibiting. Especially not being allowed to wonder on my own and having to be in bed by 11pm. On one of my hunts for isolation after dinner on the first evening, I exited the camp area to find a little circular shelter on elevated ground behind one of the camp’s corners. I figured no one else would discover it or be seeking isolation, but about 15mins later, JJ – my London, Congolese friend – had walked out seeking exactly the same thing. We really are alike. I cannot stress how glad I am that he is here.
At night there is no electricity, so you have to use a torch to do everything, even to walk to the toilets across camp. Showers consist of going into a cracked, filthy stone cubed room and pouring buckets of murky water over your head. I don’t even want to mention the state of the toilets, though all of a sudden eating little has become a brilliant idea. On one of my wonders within camp I noticed the soft faced northerner – the girl who was sending the text on the bus – speaking on her phone. I waited at distance till she finished. She was in tears and claimed she had just told her mum that she wanted to go home. I took her aside and sat her under one of the shelters and this time, explicitly told her at length all the reasons why she should stay, and what a great opportunity this is, how there are natives here who live worse than this all around us without choice, and how likely it was that she would regret leaving if she didn’t give it time. She seemed to agree.
I’ve tried to be as helpful as I can around camp and I think I am the only volunteer to have spoken to and memorized everyone’s name. This means I chat to absolutely everyone. I’m finding it tricky to put a finger on my identity among the other volunteers. First off, I’m the only Muslim. I still wear the Muslim hat almost constantly and practically everyone knows I pray. I make no secret of it. In fact, I announce it before leaving a group, but very casually. I do not talk about Islam unless I am asked and have noticed that on such occasions, passers by will stop to listen in. This is not because anything I have to say is necessarily engaging but because there is nothing to do in this camp. I use myself quite consistently to help others, especially the females. In an environment where much daily functioning is practical, the endurance difference between men and women becomes more apparent, especially in this heat (as opposed to Western cities where day to day activities are all pretty comfortable for both genders). For example, on our travels between towns, on approaching a wide, long staircase on the train platform, each and every volunteer was carrying a suitcase of at least 20kg in the heat. It was a struggle by anyone’s standards. After getting to the top first, I repeatedly raced down and up, and grabbed bags in pairs from the female volunteers and placed them at the top of the stairs. Most of the other boys immediately joined in grabbing bags from females and every girl was more than happy to be helped. The boys actually performed the task with a sense of duty. It was a striking case of chivalry that was accepted by everyone. Other things include offering my seat to the ladies, carrying their water buckets, comforting them when upset and not coping, etc. Part of me is doing it because it’s right, and part of me is doing it because it will help me feel more positive about the relationships I make here.
A couple of the boys have brought guitars and I have somehow and very wrongly been labeled ‘singer’. JJ plays guitar and we ‘jam’ quite a lot. We have a lot of fun and have even discovered beats to go with some of my raps. The other volunteers seem to enjoy them. I’ve had to alter my attitude to music slightly. I don’t personally ascribe much value to it, but for the people here it means so much and rates quite highly in their ‘deep experiences’, so I’m quite active in the music scene on camp. Though, it’s mostly just for laughs, singing romantic boy-band songs that everyone knows. I have also disclosed that I have done some acting, mainly because a few people do theater here and it’s been a topic we can connect on. It seems to surprise them but in a good way.
Now as for teaching, everyone has been asked to select one from about 9 different placements to work on across three different villages. Everyone had a choice in his or her placement. Everyone except me. I was singled out by one of the head executives and told that since they, as Hindus, have trouble outreaching to a Muslim community in the area, I would be put to use in the Day Care Center (pre-school) of the Muslim village. What was my special task? To go into the community and encourage parents to send their kids to the day care center. Without knowing Hindi of course…? Two other volunteers have chosen the same Day Care Center that I have been placed into. Chloe is one of them, and a Jordy girl, Amy is another. It’ll be us three, every Mon-Fri, till the end.
I figured I would tell Chloe and Amy a thing or two about Islam so that they understood the environment they were going into. As the three of us sat in the eating area on camp, I was explaining basic Islamic beliefs and was interrupted by a tall slim, blue eyed committed Christian: “I’m sorry to interrupt Ziad, but Jesus wasn’t only sent to the Jews, in the New Testament, Paul says…” I really did not want to get into this. Luckily, one of the girls turned and responded to him before I did: “Well Zee’s just giving us the Muslim view.” What a great response. I affirmed it: “Yes, it’s the Muslim perspective”. That seemed to kill any tension leading to debate. He left it there but still made a comment to undermine me later. On a few occasions he’s made false assumptions about my life, but I pleasantly correct him and show him as much love as the others. He is a good guy but very much all about Jesus, Love, the New Testament, “the Heart and not the Law”. Incidentally, he is the only other male volunteer to have been labeled as a singer. I get the feeling that he’s not quite settled regarding me.
We all visited the schools and the day care center in the Muslim village this week and I have to say, this was the lowest point of my time here. We were told in advance that the Muslims were the naughtiest community. The schools however were cool. Kids (3-12) were eager, lively, happy to see us and they all loved the fact that I was a Muslim (the hat was a give away, again). It was a big deal to them because they weren’t used to it. If I was given the choice like everyone else, I would have definitely chosen to teach in a school rather than the Day Care Center. But at the same time, I accept that this must be what’s best for me. The Day Care Center consists of a room with around 15 kids, 95% female, from babies to young teens. The kids were quite rude and almost entirely uneducated. Their teacher was a slim Indian lady with a disability. She had polio, which in her case meant that she had muscle paralysis in her legs and therefore was constantly sitting and moved around on her arms. Many of the toddlers were half naked, dirty, and the room smelt awful. It was a disturbing site. When fellow volunteers teaching at the school saw the Day Care Center, they were thanking the heavens that they did not have our task. Everyone unanimously agreed that my group had it worse. We all felt very uncomfortable in that room. For the first time, I’m genuinely asking myself, how on earth am I going to do this, which is not a question I’m ever in the habit of asking.
We’ll see how it all goes this week, but I’m really not looking forward to it.
Peace be with you all