In late January, one of my choir members asked me if I’d be interested in travelling to India to teach music classes at an orphanage. I felt like a small child again, with my hand shooting up in the air, crying “PICK ME! PICK ME!” She put me in touch with the organizers of the James’ Connection, a not-for-profit that runs Angels’ Place, a children’s home in the state of Maniupr.

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The ball was in motion, but there were many details to arrange before I could go. Special permission had to be received from my school board, my substitute teacher had to be prepped, all of my travel vaccines and medications needed arranging, and plenty of musical planning for my classes there at the home. It was a real tour-de-force, which I couldn’t have accomplished without the support and help of my family and friends. I am eternally grateful to the role they played in this adventure.

Here is the first instalment of my adventures in north-east India. I’ve included the good, the bad, and even the ugly, although the first category far outweighs either of the latter!

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Tuesday, April 1st-Wednesday, April 2nd

I left Montreal on Tuesday, April 1st. Erick drove me to the airport in the morning, and waited with me as I checked in. Truth be told, as I walked through security, I shed a few tears. Not only because I was leaving him for 10 days, but because I was very scared. I was scared that something would happen to me on the trip and that I wouldn’t see him again. You hear horror stories about young women travelling in developing countries…

I was scared, too, because while I had exchanged numerous emails and phone calls with Jan, the leader of the group, I had never met any of the three Americans with whom I was to travel. I really didn’t know what to expect.

I arrived in Newark and passed a few hours exploring the airport (terrible) and eating a meal (equally dismal), before meeting up with Jan, his wife Leslie, and Hedi, one of the children’s sponsors. I felt better upon meeting them, as they seemed like warm, friendly people. We got instantly talking about music and teaching, and began to get the feel of each other. Unfortunately, we weren’t seated together on the flight to Delhi, so the rest of our getting-to-know-you happened during the trip.

A 14 hour flight later, we arrived in Delhi. It was so warm coming out of the airport that I thought we were still inside until I saw the cars and taxis lined up. We took the Radisson’s cars to the hotel, where we went through security again (!), and entered the stunning, spacious lobby. The hotel was beautiful, with fantastic service. Truly blissful.

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I ordered something for a light dinner, which turned out to be fried patties made of broccoli, green peas, and paneer with a cilantro sauce. It was spicy, but entirely delicious.

My relaxation was only interrupted by a brief fight-to-the-death with the unruly shower fixture, which would not, for all the tea in China (India?) stay in a downward position. Instead, it would escape its metal bonds to spray wantonly throughout the bathroom. Only part of the shower was actually enclosed, which meant that certain walls and floors enjoy an even more thorough cleaning than that carried out by housekeeping.

Thursday, April 3rd

After a completely dreamless sleep, I again enjoyed the virtues of my untameable shower, followed by a mouth-watering breakfast buffet. I went straight for the Indian selections, which to me seemed more like dinner options, but were delicious nonetheless. Following breakfast, we checked out of the hotel and made our way back to the airport. 

The driving. Oh, the driving. I’ll just sum it up as a constant state of passing. Basically, you just barrel down the road toward the oncoming traffic and hope that the driver will cut back into their prescribed lane in time to avoid a fiery death.

Indian airplane food is at least 500x better than Canadian or American airplane food. On the flight to Imphal we were served a delicious rice and chicken dish with a lentil curry. Take note, Air Canada.

The plan trip from Delhi to Manipur was quite nice, and the gentleman beside me offered to switch seats so that I could take picture after picture of the clouds. I think he thought I was crazy, which is not really far-off. Exhibit A:

“Clouds Over the Himalayas”

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Note my masterful capture of the Ganges river through the greasy airplane window.

Exhibit B: “More Clouds Over the Himalayas, Including What May or May Not Be Everest”

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Upon landing in Imphal, we were met by Mr. Sanga, who is the overseer for Angel’s Place. We drove to the Imphal School of Preaching, which is where he lives and works, and had lunch prepared by his family. Lunch was good, but very simple. I was glad, though, because I was not particularly hungry. Exhaustion does that to you.

After lunch, we drove into Imphal, to the market. What an experience that was! Immediately, your senses are assaulted by a host of odours and sights that can barely be described. Oxen wandering down the middle of the road. Driving head-on towards oncoming traffic and swerving back at the last second. Trash everywhere. The platforms near the bodies of water. These are for the Hindu cremation rites, where the body must first be burnt to ash and then scattered in the water.

We parked the car and proceeded over a bridge and into he market. You step lightly, avoiding traffic and pile after pile of foul-smelling garbage. And yet, the people around you are obviously completely immune to the smell and constant feel of danger.

We stopped at a fabric store, where I purchase a gorgeous printed silk set in black, white, and blue to be made into a Punjabi dress. The vast array of silks and cottons was a pleasure to look at, but my choice was clear. I didn’t want anything that would feel too costume-ish at home. After haggling (done by Mr. Sanga) and paying, we were led by the shop owner through what I can only describe as a dodgy back alley to a tiny seamstress’ shop. Once we’d explained the cut and style I wanted, she measured me, I paid and we were off.

We drove about 1 1/2 hours to Churachandpur, where Angel’s Place is located. We were greeted by the children holding welcome banners and were presented with flower necklaces of bougainvillaea. The children wanted to take lots of pictures, and then we were shown to our rooms.

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I shared with Hedi, who is very friendly. The rooms were spacious, with fairly comfortable beds, each with a mosquito canopy.

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There is a small sitting area and a bathroom. The bathroom facilities were simple, but clean. There was electricity from sundown til about 10:00 pm, when it is switched off. There is running water, but hot water is in short supply. This will surely make for an interesting shower experience tomorrow morning…

My first night’s sleep was very disturbed, with many slamming doors, sliding grilles, and voices. At last peace descended, but it was interrupted shortly thereafter by a tremendous thunderstorm! I was also woken by (what I found out later) was the sound of a gecko lizard. Needless to say, it was a fitful night.

Friday, April 4th

I woke up with the sun and the roosters, to a beautiful sunrise.

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The view of the sun coming up over the rice fields was stunning, and reminded me of a scene out of the movie “Anna and the King”.

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We woke early, as the children do their chores at around 5:30. At 6:30 I had my first music class, with the 9-12 year olds. They were very receptive and most listened attentively. We learned “Won’t You Lend a Hand?” with egg shakers first, and then we did some rhythmic notation using Popsicle sticks and my drum. We finished up with “Up the Ladder”.

After a much-needed nap, we visited the children’s school, Hermon English School.

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We had an interview with the principal, who seemed a bit vague about the children’s study, but allowed us to view the exam papers for grade 10. We met up with a young English teacher who seemed much more knowledgable and was a pleasure to speak with. We toured the classes, and I even did “Head and Shoulders” with the nursery (junior kindergarten) children, and “If You’re Happy” with the preparatory (nursery school) children. Highlights!

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When we returned we enjoyed a delicious lunch prepared by Sanga’s family: a chicken curry with green beans and rice. Following that, I taught a class to the 4-8 year olds, where we learned “When the Saints” and “Fish and Chips and Vinegar”. The “pop!” was definitely their favourite part. All the little girls came up with us to Jan and Leslie’s room, where we spent a very pleasant hour or so, dancing, singing, playing around on the keyboard, and braiding hair. The little girls were particularly enchanted with my hair and kept enthusing about its length and colour. I was glad, in the end, that I didn’t get it cut before I left!

In the evening, we attended what they call a devotional service. This included a scripture reading, a short sermon, and several songs. The children sing very naturally, and with big voices! There would be definite work to be done on vocal technique, but I couldn’t imagine there’ll be any issues with shyness. I couldn’t wait to work with the older students the next morning.

After the service, I took a shower. This was completely horrible. Truly horrifying. The actual shower fixture didn’t work, so I prayed myself with cold water. Of course, there is no shower cabin to speak of. You just spray yourself in the bathroom and then use a sort of squeegee thing to push the water towards the drain. Unspeakable heebie-geebies.

I did feel better once I was clean, though, so that helped me to sleep. I slept well and didn’t wake until the roosters began crowing, around 4:00.

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Check back soon for India – Part 2!

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