A few weeks ago I had a dream about kids underwater that morphed to the nightmare stage when the children couldn’t be located. When the dream ended the children still hadn’t been found.
A few days before my kids-under-water-anxiety-dreams started we had decided to organize a water-park outing for 34 kids from Saki Naka who definitely can’t swim, have never seen a swimming pool or been in water deeper than what would cover their nicked and cut bare feet. It seemed a good idea. Mumbai was having a heatwave with temperatures in the high 30s. We kept having to postpone the outing while dealing with problems in the community. Then we rebooked the park and something else came up. Then kids who were in school had exams on the day we finally booked. The price for the bus was too high. Was this a sign that perhaps we should reconsider this event?
By this time the kids knew we were planning something. Todd and I had ventured outside of Mumbai to see the waterpark and I had taken photos on my phone to show Indu. The kids have all-access to my phone and they viewed the photos. “What is this???” they squealed. “Um, water, a pool.”, I stammered. They knew we were going to check on a picnic spot and they knew this was it. They started making drawings of stickmen lolling in blue crayon circles. It was on. How could we deny them a day of ridiculous fun? Thirty-four kids who can’t swim and have never been to a swimming pool, four adults (two who can swim) at a waterpark with seven pools lacking any measurable standard of hygiene, few safety features, numerous slides and many, many ways for things to go wrong.
The bus trip to the park started with an hour or so of chugging through snarled, loud Mumbai traffic. Finally the city gave way to billboards advertising new communities with half-constructed apartment towers standing like the last stalks of picked corn in scrubby fields. Then the hills in the distance loomed closer and I took out my phone and clicked on the GPS. The older kids jumped out of their seats to check the map. “When the blue dot connects to the red dot, we’ll be there”, I said trying to sound confident that this would happen any minute. Once the city had faded behind the brown curtain of pollution and the green open spaces stared back at us the water park was within spitting distance.
I hoped we would be the only ones there; we had chosen this mid-week day to avoid large crowds. We’d labeled the clothing the kids would swim in with pieces of yellow fabric with their names and Indu’s phone number clearly marked with a waterproof pen and tested for permanence. I convinced myself that if each kid was labeled they couldn’t get lost and maybe they wouldn’t drown? The initial excitement of giving this gift of pure pleasure to the kids was continuing to make me mad with anxiety.
The sign to the entrance of the water park, weathered and slightly askew on leaning parallel poles promised FUN, SLIDES and FOOD. The kids spotted the sign and jumped out of their seats. They shrieked, shouted and pushed each other toward the door. Fakhriallam, who is six years old, held his palms upward, wiggled them left and right and asked if the water is clean. “Yes, yes of course”, I said as I helped Indu, her husband Akhilesh, and Todd keep some order in the bus. “Cindy Mom”, he continued, “Dirty, no”? “Fakhriallam, you will love this place. The water is very clean!”
The seven pools - squares and circles of baby blue rippled water - were spied by the kids as they walked the long path lined with an assortment of dust-covered bushes and rocks painted neon yellow. The kids stopped abruptly as the pools finally came clearly into view and the questions began again. “Which pool can we swim in? Which slide do we use?” “We can use all of the pools and all of the slides”, I shouted over waves of giggles. The employees led them to the change rooms where they dropped their plastic bags, changed into clothing they could swim in and then there was chaos. Some kids whose bravery and daring-do has never been questioned leaped into pools that were clearly over their heads. We fished them out and they did it again. I looked to the pool employees (not really lifeguards but they had whistles) and realized their job wasn’t going to interfere with their conversations, but they were effective in monitoring the kids as they climbed ladders to slides. At least that, I thought. We tried to corral the smallest children and keep them in the shallow pools. As they got braver, they too started to leap off the tiled deck where three feet below was only a foot of water. Clearly the dangers of drowning, slipping on wet decks, cracking skulls, falling into deep water and throwing themselves off sharp ledges into a crowd of other kids was going to be what we would spend the next five hours trying to prevent. All my dreams were coming true. If you lead a child to water they might sink.
If our anxiety showed, the kids didn’t notice. We showed them how to put their face in the water, how to float. Within half-an-hour of being in the pool, even the most water-resistant child started to float, they dipped their heads under water, they swallowed half the pool, they slid backward down the slides, they shared flotation devices that have seen better days, and just in time, they always came up for air usually by way of one of our arms reaching under water and sitting them on the deck to sputter for a while.
Four hours into the marathon of madness and supreme fun, the kids started to show me their puckered fingers. What was happening they demanded to know. One after another they showed up with worried expressions and deeply wrinkled fingertips. Maybe it’s time to leave we suggested, “Your puckered fingertips means you’ve been in the water for a long time!” When faced with leaving they decided their wrinkled fingers shouldn’t be a problem and they dropped one by one back into the fray of splashing, sinking, swimming, sliding and gasping for air between giggles.
When we finally started pulling kids out of the water as they became too tired to continue, the others followed, exhaustion and lethargy had set in, finally. They dragged themselves back to the bus and settled too quickly on the cracked vinyl seats. I sat next to seven year old Noorsaba who was busy fiddling with the window. I opened it for her and we settled in for the long ride back. I started looking through the photos I had taken and heard a clunk. Noorsaba had fallen off the seat before the bus pulled out of the parking lot and was still sound asleep when I pulled her off the floor. Looking backward everyone was asleep. Todd, Indu and Akilesh were keeping busy propping kids against each other so they wouldn’t slide off the seats as the bus picked up speed.
Most of my fears were realized on this outing - the kids spent more time underwater than above the water, but this was exhilarating for them. It was an outing that they continue to talk about. They flip through the photos and recount their daring exploits on the slides. The excitement of this picnic was priceless and perfect. Everyday these kids cross six lanes of erratic, nonsensical traffic and make it to the other side. I see them challenge each other to jump over wide gutters filled with toxic fluid and rats as big as cats. Chunks of broken cement and live wires are real dangers as they play unsupervised in the lanes. They comb through germ-infested garbage looking for treasures. They see the worst of humanity because poverty picks as the seams of civility and leaves wide gaping holes that are hard to mend. The pools, the slides, a whole day of pretending to be a fish, was the best kind of play for them. Outings such as these are the closest they will get to trauma counselling.
Anand Sagar Water Park entrance fee (swimming/2 meals and a snack/all day pass to paradise for 34 children and 4 adults): 16,000 rupees (CAD $320)
Bus rental and driver for 8 hours: 8000 rupees (CAD $160)(the cost of the bus included a driver, toll fees and the cost of a special license to take the bus out of the Mumbai city limits)