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I have the best of intentions, but I’ve never been able to sustain a long-term charitable relationship. I’m not much of a committer. OK, that’s not exactly true – I commit to a LOT of stuff, but rarely do I commit to show up, week after week, regularly scheduled time to anything. It’s probably a result of choosing early morning classes during university. What I am awesome at, however, is the short-term project – give me a set task and a defined time, and I’m your girl.

This is why when one of the JO’s (Junior Officers) at the Consulate organized a build with Habitat for Humanity/India Builds, I signed the DBs and I up almost immediately. We’d done it the year before with mixed results – they survived the morning, but were unbearable at lunchtime, so we left after half of a day. This year, they were a year older; I was a year wiser (or at least a year more optimistic about their behavior).

DiploDad was set to travel so he wasn’t able to join us. The DBs were still in their last week of Christmas break and weren’t exactly thrilled that I was dragging them off on a 2-hour bus ride and away from all the new Christmas-gifted electronics. Still, in an effort to instill moral values, charity, love and responsibility towards others in this world, and an appreciation for what they have, we paid the fees and showed up at the Consulate at 6:30 a.m. on a Saturday. Getting out of bed was hard.

Me: Come on, sweeties. Time to get up!

DB1: Awww, Moooooooommmmm!

DB2: Snnnxxx, snort, snoooore.

Me: (5 minutes later) Get out of bed, sleepyheads – we’re off on a new adventure!

DB1: Awww, Moooooooommmmm!

DB3: (10 minutes after that) Get your butts out of bed NOW or you won’t see any video games until the release of Episode 9 of those stupid Star Wars movies.

DB1: I’m up! I’m up!!!

I’d prepped pretty well the night before and packed water, bug spray, hand sanitizer, granola bars and other snacks, and a book for each kid. The cell phones were charged, and everything was by the door. I had money for the trip and everyone had laid out some old clothes to put on. Still, it took 45 minutes to get everyone up, dressed, and downstairs to a taxi.

We met up with the rest of our party at the Consulate and shortly after that we were driving along in the pitch-dark morning towards the village of Karjat.

About two hours later, we stopped for breakfast at a little traveler’s stop. We ordered breakfast by point and order, as no one in our group spoke much Hindi. It was sort of amusing – it was one of those places you run into sometimes where the menu is 15 pages of almost everything that you can imagine, but after you place your order there are several trips from your dithering waiter wherein he tells you that they don’t have pav bhaji or that exact kind of dosa you ordered. After reordering and then having to do the point and order and consider for at least half of the dishes again, we made the universal sign for “I don’t care, just bring me something before I chew my arm off” and we all had breakfast. After topping things off with a cup of chai that took about an hour to appear, we used the clean bathroom facilities and headed off another half an hour to the building site.

Upon arriving, we were greeted with a traditional Indian blessing and led into the Habitat tent for an in briefing. We received a pair of work gloves, a few instructions, and our team assignments and then headed out.

DB1: Are we all going to be on the same team? Because if DB2 annoys me, I swear –

Me: Do I look that stupid?

DB2: No.

K, our CLO, volunteered to be DB1’s “mom figure” for the day, and DB1 was visibly relieved. Sometimes, you need a little bit of help to be good and act mature when you’re 12. Set ‘em up for success – that’s my motto. Or at least try to insure they don’t annoy anyone else with their fighting.

DB1 and the adult team were going to go build, so we stopped by the brick site first.

DB2 and I were sent off to help another team paint. We’d both painted last year, so there wasn’t that steep of a learning curve. The “paint” used was paint only in the loosest of terms. I think I’d call it whitewash, except it’s more of a mint green color, and then a rusty brown color for trim. It comes in a big bag and is mixed in with water. It’s a goopy, soupy mess, and it runs all over when you first start using it and then by the time you are halfway through your bucketful it thickens up. It’s kind of gross.

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Ick.  It IS as nasty as it looks.

DB1 and I grabbed a bucket and finished up on the porch before heading to the back of the house. Chickens were following us. They looked fierce.

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They’re there.  They’re in hiding.  Ready to pounce.

DB1:   There’s a chicken watching me, Mommy.

Me: Wave at it. Say hi.

DB1: What if it’s like all the cows in India?

Me: What do you mean?

DB1: What if it chases me?

Me: Who’s bigger, you or the cow?

DB1: The cow.

Me: Who’s bigger, you or the chicken?

DB1: The chicken.

Me: Are you still worried?

DB1: Nah, not really.

Luckily, we did not get feral chickens. Truth be told chickens are stupid – they’d probably charge you and “beak you” if they thought there was corn involved and you were in the way. There was no corn to be found, so we were safe.

At about 11 a.m, we’d been painting an hour and a half or so, and the Habitat folks came by with some juice for a juice break. We were the only two from our group, so we quietly sipped our drinks and eavesdrop—er, observed the rest of the team.

They were a group of young and middle-aged professionals from a corporation in Mumbai, and they reflected that demographic: a few of them were interested more in selfies than painting, one of the girls had her iPod broadcasting songs while she and a friend chatted an painted, several of them chatted with DB1 and offered him cookies. Or advice.

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Woman: Boy, you don’t paint like this. You do it up and down and then left and right – use more water, empty your bucket and refill it with more watery paint when you get to the top of a row.

DB1: (uncharacteristically quiet, keeps painting)

Woman: Are you listening?

DB1: (goes on painting, first left and right, then up and down, doing a perfectly good job)

Me: Have you done this often? How many years have you been on builds?

Woman: This is my first time.

DB1: It’s my second.

 

A short while later, I had my own illuminating conversation:

Man: So, have you done this before?

Me: Yes, you?

Man: But you have to do it, right?

Me: Excuse me? (quizzical look)

Man: Doesn’t the Consulate make you do stuff like this? Isn’t a requirement?

Me: Um, no. Everyone here is a volunteer. We don’t make anyone do anything they don’t want to.

Man: Oh.

After juice break, we worked another couple of hours before we went back to our in-briefing tent for lunch. Lunch was Indian food, of course – dal, rice, some vege and chapatis. DB1 ate like a horse. He’d been working hard with his team. He was a bit sad though – instead of building at the brick site, there had been too many folks bricking, so the entire team was sent off to paint. DB2 ate like he usually does, which isn’t much at all. Sigh.

After lunch, we all were assigned to a house together.

The home was owned by an elderly man who was dressed in a white dabbawalla outfit. Unlike other homeowners who stayed far away from the strange interlopers, he hovered. He watched. And he had a plan as to how his home should be painted. An hour and a half and a juice break later, we were starting to get sore. No offense to my lovely trainer, Abishek, but I was more sore from the constant reaching, squatting and lifting the next day than any of his awful TRX workouts. Suddenly, DB1 let out a yelp – he’d gotten paint in his eye.

Honestly, with the thin crap they gave you to work with, it wasn’t a surprise. I had done it earlier myself. But one of the ingredients in the pain was lime, and you really want to wash that stuff out. We tried to dump some water from our bottles into his eye, but he kept pinching it shut, so I headed back to the Habitat tent and to the wash-up stations. One of the Habitat ladies joined us, and then the two of us proceeded to flip over the water cooler when we moved it too close to the edge of the makeshift shelf. Ooops. After some re-jiggering, we managed to get DB1 under the stream, and I pried his eye open and presto – a rinsed out eye. DB1 was soaked to the skin, but his eye felt much better. We returned to the work site and as we settled back in, the Old Man in our group started in about riskiness, and blindness and bad parenting and all that sort of bullshit. I bit my tongue and just smiled and ignored him, but I really wanted to slap the snarl off his face.

After the juice break, we picked up speed. The inside of the house was harder to paint because there was some sort of sealant applied. Reaching the top of the wall was also difficult – it was too low to bring in a ladder, and most of us were too heavy for the flimsy plastic chairs. Then one of our group, M, just hoisted DB2 onto his shoulders to reach that “one last place”.

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That put our poor homeowner over the edge, and shortly after that, we were told it was time to leave for our outbriefing.

We drove home with the sun setting and two very sleepy DBs in the back. After baths, laundry, a walk with the DiploDog, and a movie, we all went to bed and slept hard. The next morning we awoke stiff and achy, but feeling happy and fulfilled. Over breakfast, the DBs told me they loved helping, and DB1 was back on a mission to get a pet chicken.

Later on, M, our group leader, told me that the Habitat lady in charge called later on to say that next year there wouldn’t be any children permitted on the build. She wouldn’t give any other reason other than they could “get in trouble” and that it “wouldn’t look good”. I found that really strange, because the “child waiver” that they sent me to sign was definitely taken from Habitat’s main Georgia office – or at least based on it. Moreover, my children were accompanied by a parent, were volunteers, and were not given heavy equipment to operate. They did well, and truth be told, DB1 did more painting and did a better job than some of the young professionals that were doing painting selfies.

I get it though – child labor, which I mentioned very briefly in my blog entry about the Sassoon Docks, is an issue here, and sometimes the perception is more important than the reality. I can’t help but wonder, however, if the Old Man had anything to do with this new change in policy.  There are plenty of people out there, however, who seem to want to parent expat kids; for some reason, your foreignness or the fact that you aren’t in your home country.  To them, I say:   Get over yourself. Children aren’t fragile flowers past the toddler stage. They benefit from experiences like this. From hard work. From thinking about others and from getting their hands dirty. The risks I take with my children are reasonable. Keeping your kids in a glass bubble where they don’t ever try anything risky in a controlled environment doesn’t serve them, you, or society in general. That’s part of the reason that we joined and continue to stay in the Foreign Service – to avoid the helicoptering and shrink-wrapping that is becoming standard for children nowadays. I know what my boys are capable of, and I’ll push them to that edge to help them become the people I know they can be. So either be supportive and helpful or shut your yap. I know what I’m doing, and I’m damn good at it.

We had a great experience both years and I hope Habitat changes its mind by the time the build season rolls around next year. For any of you who ever thought about volunteering but didn’t because you aren’t a carpenter or a plumber, stop hesitating. Because if I can do this, you can too.

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