Back again! We were met at Bangalore airport and driven to the school, Shanti Bhavan, a residential school for selected children from extremely poor backgrounds. Our spirits rose to be back in India again, with its crazy drivers and colourful, hustling, bustling markets, and we couldn’t stop smiling. After two hours, we arrived at the familiar school gate, where the smart security guard saluted our arrival. We quickly dropped our bags and went to dinner. Nothing prepared us for the roar of excitement that spread across the dining hall as we entered for the first time. It was our third trip to Shanti Bhavan but we hadn’t been back for two years. It was a wonderful welcome and made all of the madness of packing and getting here worthwhile.

We had the weekend to settle in before starting teaching. I was putting the toiletries on the shelf in the bathroom cabinet when I noticed a former volunteer had left something behind. I went to remove it and it was squishy and slightly slimy…. Then it moved. I had disturbed a very sleepy frog – about the size of a… well, a big frog. I took a quick photo and donned my rubber gloves. I captured it and was on my way outside when it escaped my grasp and started hopping up my arm. At this point I was thinking ‘evil toad’ rather than ‘cute frog’ and I let out an uncharacteristic squeal that brought the Facilities Manager running. He was the same man who dealt with our snake last time and is well accustomed to volunteers’ histrionics.

The rudely awakened frog is as startled as I am.

The rudely awakened frog is as startled as I am.

The funny thing is that it was probably the same frog that had climbed up the basin overflow hole and terrified me in the semi-darkness two years ago. You’d think I would be immune by now.

Other creatures that have delighted us so far are squirrels, bats, a bee swarm, geckoes, kingfishers and the Koel bird. The latter is also known as the Indian cuckoo and it supplants a crowing rooster. It is tremendously loud and goes off at 6.14am each day, without fail. Fortunately I’m already awake, as I need to get to Prep or PT by 6.30am.

The school building now has solar power, which is a vast improvement on previous years. There seems to be some battery storage and, as long as no volunteer has plugged a laptop in overnight, the children can actually see for the first 15 minutes of Prep until it gets light, at about 6.45am. The Indian power supply is completely random so at night we wear our head-torches around our necks, as we never know when we will be plunged into darkness. The kids have no such luxury and are not fazed by sudden blackouts.

It always surprises me when I stagger sleepily into morning Prep to find that the 12th Grade students have been studying since 5.30am and the 10th Graders have been having a class since six. When it’s not Prep it’s PT duty. The kids love soccer and there is a rush to get hold of a soccer ball that hasn’t gone flat. They play on very hard dusty clay and it ruins the balls. I used to wonder why they don’t play cricket as it is such a popular Indian sport. I’ve now learned that they introduced it a few years ago and within the first week there were three broken arms. (No verdant village greens here to soften the blows of heroic catches).

I’m always amused to see the soccer fullbacks and goalies clutching textbooks so they can brush up on their Hindi verbs before the ball comes their way.

After Prep it’s off to breakfast. I never tire of the food at Shanti Bhavan. I always say we have curry and rice three times a day, but that can be misleading. Last week we had pasta for breakfast, rice for lunch and dinner, but rice pudding for afternoon snack. Sometimes we have dhosas for breakfast, which are like pancakes, usually with a chilli sauce. The only meal that is universally disliked is ‘ragi balls’. Ragi is millet and the balls, like enormous rissoles, suck all the moisture from your mouth and are very difficult to swallow. They are apparently a very cheap form of protein in southern India but at SB they have become a dreaded form of punishment. “If you misbehave one more time, you’ll have to eat ragi balls for dinner!”

For a Valentine’s Day treat last week, the volunteers sponsored a snack of bread (an absolute treat in itself), Nutella and banana, washed down with hot chocolate. They  created an impromptu assembly line to make about 700 rounds of sandwiches, 2-3 per person.

SB Volunteers make a Valentine's Day treat.

SB Volunteers make a Valentine’s Day treat.

There is a great bunch of 14 volunteers here at the moment. They come from Puerto Rico (1), Russia (1), US (8), Scotland (2), and Oz (us). Some of the US volunteers have Indian backgrounds but were born in the states. An American volunteer, who teaches Accounting to the 12th Grade, is taking time out from a busy career at Deloitte’s. The Russian volunteer is teaching the 2nd graders Russian songs.

We are sharing the principal’s house with a theatre professor and her artist husband from near Buffalo. They are about our age and a lot of fun. The school is looking to diversify the volunteer base to balance the US input. As well as a range of teachers from pre-primary to 12th Grade, I think they could also use a teacher librarian as the library needs a bit of TLC. Perhaps someone could do it as a practicum project.

SB Volunteers off to bus stop for a Saturday break.

SB Volunteers off to bus stop for a Saturday break.

Barney is teaching computing and working hard to install newly donated second-hand computers. They have also purchased new monitors that are more energy efficient. They have already halved the power drain on the batteries. Three freshly donated laptops will also help. I am teaching English, mainly to 6th and 8th Grade students, which suits me well. They have excellent volunteers preparing the upper grades for their all-important Board exams.

We are really lucky that both the school’s founder, Dr Abraham George, and his son, Ajit, are here from the states. Dr George spends about 6 months total here in two blocks. He has devoted the last 20 years of his life to the children and his generosity and humility provide an excellent role model for them. The wonderful Ajit, who is full time with the George Foundation, works from home in the US. He spends two shorter stints at the school each year. They are a remarkable family. Dr George’s mother (now 93) was the first woman in India to be awarded a PhD in physics. She worked in the US for NASA in 1966. The foundation also runs a journalism school (with the view to encouraging the free press), various farms, and a medical centre.

There is no television at the school so the children only learn about the wider world from weekly movies, volunteers and daily news presentations by students. Dr George often elaborates on a news event in assembly. Yesterday he reported that the founder of Facebook had just made a massive donation to charity. He then segued into a detailed story about a sports fly fishing trip that he had taken in Alaska long ago. He described the fine fishing line, the fly, the enjoyable challenge of playing the salmon gently so as not to break the line, etc. He said that after a half day of repeated casting and reeling in, he eventually caught a fish. He articulated how rewarding that felt after such hard work. To the children’s surprise, he said that they returned each fish they caught to the water and happily watched as it swam away.

The moral of the story? Special people like Zuckerberg, Warren Buffet, and Bill Gates enjoy the challenge of working hard to be successful and make money but they also take great pleasure in giving it away.

More of Shanti Bhavan soon.

Nutella feast with volunteer assembly team in background

Nutella feast with volunteer assembly team in background.