When you dream of an exotic vacation, rural India may not be the first place to cross your mind. But my trip last year to the small village of Karapa was one of the most rewarding experiences in my life.
Some folks are attracted to ecotourism vacations; others are drawn to other types of traveling charitable endeavors, or as one writer in the U.K. dubbed it, " guilt trips."
As for me, I was pulled to Sharon Children's Home, an orphanage in Andhra Pradesh, India.
I visited this worthy institution on behalf of my church, and I wanted to meet the head of the orphanage himself, Pastor Abraham Samuel, and to ensure that the children there were well cared for.
The visit exceeded my highest hopes.
Andhra Pradesh is on the southeastern coast of India; the state is best known for its capital, Hyderabad.
Muslim and Hindu temples are a major tourist attraction through the city, which more recently has become a hotbed of tech and biotech companies.
Although there are direct flights to Hyderabad, I learned that my journey to Karapa would take a full day and a half, door to door.
Mumbai the Wayside
After a 15-hour flight from Newark, N.J., to Mumbai, I had an eight-hour layover in this most populous Indian city, which has an arresting mix of gleaming new office towers next to street beggars and stray dogs.
I then took a short flight to Visakhapatnam, in northern Andhra Pradesh. While this is a city of three million people, it is more traditional than cosmopolitan: I spotted only a handful of Westerners in the airport, and the women were all dressed in traditional saris.
I was greeted at the airport by Samuel, who founded the Sharon Children's Home. He bestowed me with a garland of fresh marigold blossoms, and we set off on the four-hour drive to Karapa.
As we traveled into the countryside, I attracted a fair bit of attention. I was clearly a foreigner -- one person asked for my autograph when we stopped for gas! Andhra Pradesh is obviously not a tourist hot spot.
While it was nice to be noticed, I was totally unprepared for the highways and byways of India.
Pedestrians jostled with cattle, trucks veered around elephants and bicycles jockeyed for position with ox carts. Did I mention the monkeys? After twenty minutes, I felt overwhelmed and closed my eyes.
Nevertheless, I arrived without a scratch. Since India is 10 1/2 hours ahead of New York, it was now almost two days after my departure. But it was worth every minute: at the orphanage, thirty children were waiting to shower me with rose petals.
This place was no Taj Mahal, but everyone there treated me like royalty.
A Warm Reception
Sharon Children's Home opened in September 2005, and was built by members of
in Morristown, N.J.
I first met Samuel after my wife looked on the Internet for a place to send used clothing. She learned that Samuel had twenty children sleeping on the floor of his church, and we decided to help.
Samuel was an orphan himself, and takes in children found sleeping at local bus and railway stations. He initially accommodated as many as he could in his church, and he and his family cooked for them from his home.
Fortunately, all of the children at newly expanded Sharon Children's Home are well fed, clothed and are enrolled in a school down the block. They stay through high school, and then move on to jobs or to college.
To view Robert Martorana's video take of this column, click here
The day after I arrived, Samuel invited everyone in the village to a dinner to dedicate the orphanage.
Samuel fed about a thousand people rice, vegetables and a small sweet roll, each portion on a fresh green banana leaf. Everyone ate with their hands, and afterward, the leaves went onto the compost pile.
The rest of my stay, I was served three hot meals a day in my room.
Samuel's wife Grace went out of her way to ensure there was always something I could eat, and there was always cold bottled water. Their teen-age son Joshua stood nearby to make sure that I had everything I needed.
Before my trip, I prepared for just about anything. I had taken pills for malaria and a vaccine for typhoid. I brought extra medication and three pocket-sized flashlights (which came in handy, since the electricity failed every day).
But nothing can prepare you for the oppressive heat and humidity in South India.
At the dedication dinner, I managed to sweat completely through my ceremonial attire -- and this was in early September, which is
the hottest part of the year. It was consistently over 90 degrees, with nearly 100% humidity, even at night.
Naturally, sleeping was a big challenge. I stayed in Samuel's house, so I was lucky to have a ceiling fan. The marble floor also helped, and I found out this is common to homes in the area. (Marble stays quite cool, and local quarries offer an inexpensive supply.)
The windows didn't have glass or screens, but rather metal bars and wooden security shutters. Thankfully, insects were sparse, and I had no trouble with mosquitoes. Small geckos occasionally darted across the walls, but they were more of a curiosity than a nuisance.
Travelers who want to avoid the heat should visit in January or February, when this region averages 70 to 80 degrees.
Avoid travel during October through December, as this is monsoon season. And don't even think of going during May or June unless you are prepared for temperatures well over 100 degrees.
More Than a Game
During my week at the orphanage, I had plenty of time to play with the children. Despite the language barrier -- most people in Andhra Pradesh speak Telugu -- this proved the best way to bond with them.
I did learn a few words of Telugu, and the children all called me "Dad," which is a sign of affectionate respect. It seemed to me that English is widely embraced in the region, and is no longer associated with the colonial rule under the British Raj.
Frisbees were a big hit, especially one that glowed with optical fibers. On Sunday evening, when it got dark, I put the illuminated Frisbee on a wall, and we watched it change colors. The kids quickly memorized the pattern and called out the colors by name.
Granted, it may seem silly to have two dozen people staring at a glowing Frisbee. But keep in mind, there are no computers, TVs or even radios to be found here.
I also brought a small black superball with me, and we improvised a quick game: The church which housed the orphange had no furniture (attendees sit on the floor), and it had a very high ceiling.
I divided the children into boys and girls teams and let the ball loose. As you can imagine, a black ball on a dark floor is almost impossible to see at night, and the kids went crazy trying to find it. After a while, though, they learned to
for the ball instead. (The girls won the game.)
My own son has a TV, computer and three different video-game systems. But I bet the orphans had more fun that night with a 99-cent rubber ball.
I know I did.
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