The fall season had arrived, and I found myself amidst a crowd of bright-eyed graduates at a global opportunities fair in Toronto, my hometown. The event was a whirlwind of ticket purchases and brochures, promising post-secondary programs and volunteer opportunities to boost one’s resume for the corporate world. To be quite honest, the fair often left attendees with little more than a collection of paper waste. Yet, as a university dropout (with an eco-conscious mindset), I had ventured there seeking something elusive, without a clear idea of what or where to find it.
For three years, I had been running Raine for Water, my nonprofit organization that I had started in my last year of high school, driven by a pure intention to contribute to solving the global waste and water crisis. So, when the possibility of going to India was presented to me, I let the thought marinate.
India had never been on my radar until that moment. It’s hard to believe that after more than eight years of living here, I learned Hindi was the national language from a pamphlet, after registering for a short-term volunteer teaching position in Jaipur.
Before departing, uncertainty loomed over me. I was working full-time for a catering company as an event manager and questioned the impact I could make in just three weeks of teaching. Seeking solace, I often drowned my thoughts in Butter Chicken and naan, of which I ate weekly until my departure.
With a blue and pink visa glued into the center of my passport, I was document-ready. I read the organization’s arrival details ten times while meticulously repacking my bag. The date was etched into me: April 18. At the airport, my mom and boyfriend dropped me off. My mother: terrified. My boyfriend hugged me tightly, tears welling in his eyes. I blinked rapidly, hoping to convey reciprocal feelings.
The flight was boarding and I skipped all the way to the plane door. I sank into my seat, looked out the window and choked. I suddenly couldn’t breathe. I was heating up. I was bug eyed. I could feel my heart in my throat. The man next to me pulled it out and tossed it into the next row. I was sweating paranoia and fear.
What if my visa had an issue during my layover in Saudi Arabia?
Who did I think I was, a privileged Canadian girl heading to the other side of the world to teach English? I wasn’t even a teacher, or so I believed then.
The weight of my privilege choked me. I violently grabbed my earbuds and snacked through my panic attack.
Little did I know, the layover would be the worst part of my journey. I jotted down my thoughts on a napkin: “Jeddah: a place I would rather never visit ever again.” Not only was I harassed by security, I was stepped on in the overcrowded airport, and the bathroom floor was so flooded, I had to pee with my backpack on (an experience that would become strangely familiar). Throughout my three-hour layover, I fixated on the clock, yearning for the moment they would call for boarding to Delhi. When the time came, I sprinted to the front of the line.
Stepping out into the arrivals area, I was immediately met with a wall of humidity. Late in the evening, I faced an overwhelming crowd of ten thousand men, each holding signs. It dawned on me that not only could I not find my name among them, but I didn’t even know who was supposed to pick me up (if only I had read the arrival instructions eleven times!).
I suddenly felt stranded without a data package or the option to leave the terminal. With a mix of frustration and desperation, I found a payphone at a Vodafone booth and dialed the only three numbers the organization had given me. I dialed them each once. Twice. Three times. I hesitantly tried the first number one more time as my throat dried. Finally, a woman answered; her voice muffled and accent strong. I fumbled through my situation. She instructed me to exit the airport and he would be there waiting. The call became inaudible and disconnected (another common occurrence that would become familiar). I placed the phone back on the receiver and took a deep breath. I looked up at the EXIT sign and prayed to all 10,000 Hindu Gods as I stepped forward.
As I ventured into the unknown, I stumbled upon Shivrag, a cheerful man holding a sign with the organization’s name. Relieved, I approached him.
The following three weeks weren’t as dramatic as my arrival, but they laid the foundation for my connection with the country. The next morning, I was greeted by a diverse group of fellow volunteers: a creepy English boy (who still gives me nightmares), a homesick Spanish girl (who was well into her thirties), and two Germans, Claire and Anna. Claire was a snotty, privileged eighteen-year-old who came to India for a new Facebook profile photo. Anna was my age, with beautiful and curious blue eyes. Together, we took on the uphill climb of trying to better this voluntourism organization with real strategy, sustainable volunteer solutions, and long-term objectives. And together, years later, we would meet up for weekends in London, road trips across south Germany, and to sing and dance to “You make loving fun” by Fleetwood Mac at my wedding in Delhi.
During our first week with the organization, we were introduced to their education project while engaging in various workshops like cooking, mehndi and Hindi. This is where my study of and love of the Hindi language began (well, the pamphlet was first). The entire week was spent at the organization’s main office in Gurgaon. I believe in 2014, Gurgaon was just a metro and a mall. Although safe, simple and soft on the tummy, that week made me question my presence there.
Seeking an adventure, I convinced Anna to explore the markets of Old Delhi. I asked Sudha to call me a rickshaw.
“But it’s very busy. You shouldn’t go alone. It’s dangerous. You may get hurt”, she warned me as I walked towards the door with a map in hand.
Sudha and Kurti were the two aunties assigned to our group during our week in Delhi. While Kurti was quite silly and could crack a joke, Sudha was a typical aunty with her nose right in my business.
“I’m a big girl, Sudha, ” I replied, grabbing her hands which were begging me not to leave. When she realized that she could not stop me, she noted my mother’s number and claimed she could not be responsible for me. I took Anna’s hand and we were off into the city. It was the best afternoon of the entire trip. We ate chana, tried on juttis and immersed ourselves in the India we were longing to experience. It was bittersweet when we left for Jaipur two days later as my senses craved more of the overload.
Although I knew that Jaipur wouldn’t be the Barbie pink I was hoping for, the terracotta was a warm embrace. It was April and summer was ready to scorch. Waking up for our first morning at the school felt like Christmas. I put on my best teacher’s attire: a sunflower maxi skirt, a white t-shirt and a white chunni. I jumped into the camper and let my eyes feast on the city as we drove into Jagatpura. The street became so narrow the camper could hardly fit. As I exited the car and opened the door to the school, my heart immediately sank. It was thirty-something degrees and there was only one fan in the two story building. The narrow space was located down a residential alley with one room on each floor. The bathroom had no running water, the toilet was filled with maggots, and the door didn’t close. There were no files or notes on the children.
We had no idea what they had already learned, what they were working on, and how we could help them. All the organization told us was there were three classes: the advanced class, middle class and lower class. I would be taking the advanced class since my first language was English. That was the only criteria needed for the advanced class, which consisted of two children: Vishal and Mahima. The middle class had five kids in it, all between the ages of twelve and sixteen, which was led by another German girl who had just completed a high school exchange in Jaipur. Anna led the lower class, seven very young children between the ages of six and ten who never listened and ran around the room for half an hour until we could calm them down. It took us three days and 100 rupees in candy bribes to get them to finally pay attention.
I immediately realized that I wasn’t going to be making much of an impact in three weeks. I don’t know what kind of white-man saviourship I had been fed by the program organizers, but I knew there was real work to do here and I could help at least be a catalyst for change.
My most vivid memory of teaching in that school was the absolute admiration of learning something new by Vishal and Mahima. They ate up everything – math, new English words, puzzles and crosswords (which I would make from scratch the night before with colored markers and a ruler). One afternoon, our driver was running late so the children invited Anna and I to see their homes after school. I was shocked to see so many people living in such tight spaces, and so many chores to do upon arrival home. With many mouths to feed, everyone had a clear role and responsibility in the house. I became so much more grateful for the joy of play as a child. This inspired us to turn Fridays into afternoons where these kids could just be kids. Our first “Fun Friday” was an afternoon of dancing in itchy saris to “Pani Pani” on repeat. The sounds of laughter fuelled the entire colony. I can still hear it.
That weekend, as I sat with other interns drinking Mango Lassis. I thought to myself what would be the most memorable, rewarding experience for these kids? What would inspire them to want to use education as this stepping stone for a better life, a better sense of self? The next day, we begged the program director to rent us a van to take all the kids to a nearby park, somewhere they had never been before. I still have trouble wrapping my head around it – a kid who doesn’t know where the nearest park is. Although the request was put in more than a week in advance, it wasn’t until my last Friday with the kids that our idea manifested.
That afternoon at the park still leaves me speechless. The way we packed 12 kids into a van and watched as they sprinted towards the playground. The dancing, the singing, the laughter, the freedom of children just bring children. When they began to pull out handmade gifts with tears in their eyes knowing it was my last day, my heart broke into so many pieces, I had to leave some there in the sand.
Although I would have never supported such a program to this day, my first experience in India lifted the veil of the impacts, both good and bad, of voluntourism and the use of foreign volunteers. I mean, the program wasn’t the worst, it was bringing education to children who needed it most, but I couldn’t help but think about all the wonderfully educated locals in the city who could make a real impact in their own community.
I left knowing I didn’t make a difference in the world. And that’s okay. The experience reassured me that the only way to make a real difference in a community is for community leaders to rise up on their own, or be given the support they need to confidently rise up.
As I boarded to Toronto, I marinated in just how profoundly those children had impacted me. Instead of the change I was supposed to make, I was leaving changed. They were the catalysts for finding my purpose: empowering and mobilizing young people through education so they can become our future, powerful leaders. They are what inspired everything I have built today, now nine years later, at Hara World.
I sat on the plane with two thoughts:
- How do I return to this country?
- How do I break it to my boyfriend that I’m leaving and maybe never coming back?
I calmly put in my earbuds and let Bollywood tunes carry me all sixteen hours home.
About Jazzmine Raine
Jazzmine leads from a background of over 10 years in project management, social impact, and experiential education. She is the proud founder of Hara House, India’s first zero waste guesthouse and tourism organization, and has been recognized globally for her work in the sustainable tourism sector.
Her diverse career has spanned across multiple countries with a strategic focus on providing young people the tools and knowledge needed to solve global challenges. With a love for storytelling and leading social impact, she thrives when coaching students and young professionals in leading new, innovative ideas.
Jazzmine has been a key leader in many unique social projects such as Causeartist, Sustainable Travel Network, Studio.89, CanGap and Hara World. In her spare time, you will find her writing short stories and drinking chai on her balcony at 8000ft in the Himalayas.
You can read all stories under the ‘Passport Perspectives’ Travel Column here.