If we had to pick our favourite thing to do with the children in the community that's much more enjoyable than a day spent at a doctor's office, or lining up to pay school fees, it would be taking them on picnics where all we do is play all day (with very few rules, except for a rundown on safety first that few of them listen to) right up to sunset. The planning of a picnic includes what to do for transportation, how will we feed them, where will we take them, how will we keep them safe, and enlisting to Indu make many phone calls to arrange it all. We're involved down to the last detail, but we need the help of many people to pull off an event where all the children have fun, stay safe, and the head count is the same when it's time to return to the community. Here are the local people who help us make it all happen.
Sachin (striped shirt)
Sachin sits alone and idle most days, either on top of the well trodden pipeline, or on a broken chair under a tree near his home on the backside of the community. This year, he traded school for earphones, a cool haircut, custody of his family’s cheap smartphone, and endless hours of TikTok videos and streams of music on replay. I can’t claim to understand the appeal of the way he spends his time, but he is seventeen years old, aimless, poor, and lacking inspiration to make better choices. The good news is that he’s yet to fall under the spell of the large group of bad boys who spend their time taunting him to join them as a petty criminal in an informal gang headed by one of their mothers. She attracts idle boys into her web with the promise of a roof over their heads, food, and spending money if they represent her in her business of intimidation and drug sales. We’re thankful that Sachin hasn’t been nudged into somewhat lucrative criminal activities, so we try to employ him to help us when we can. He’s invaluable to us when we take groups of kids on picnics. He’s a gentle soul who loves the smaller children and helps us keep them safe while we’re out. He’s our swamper when we need to hire a bus to take us on long journeys to the other side of the city, giving the driver instructions when our limited Hindi fails us. He wrangles the children into a line when we need to count heads in a crowd. He helped escort the bus to pick up the visiting Australian students and stayed with them until they reached their dormitory over two days of back and forth trips. Sachin doesn’t ask for pay; he does these jobs for us because he knows we need and appreciate his help. We’re hopeful that Sachin will go back to school and complete his last two years. Giving him small jobs might just keep him on the right side of the pipeline.
Sachin was paid 300 rupees for each bus trip ($6 CDN)
School fees: We pay Sachin’s school fees. This year he decided to not attend.
She’s a fabulous cook and wanted to make food for the visiting Australian students and their teachers but she lives in another community, making it impossible to have them visit her home on their two day visit. Instead, she surprised us with a pail of homemade snack food for close to fifty of us for the picnic on Juhu beach. She filled a huge pail with puffed wheat, studded with roasted peanuts and spiced with fried salted green chilies and cumin that delighted the Aussies who devoured the snack after hours of play with the children on the beach. A few weeks later we took forty children to Aksa beach to fly kites and hang out for the day. Reeta and her two daughters wanted to join us for the day long picnic. She insisted she make food for the children and five adults. This is no small task. Reeta’s kitchen consists of a simple counter, under which her spices and grains are stored in a mix of repurposed vessels and jars. There’s no refrigeration, no vast counter space to chop and arrange ingredients, and one stovetop with two burners. She uses water from repurposed bottles that are filled from the tap near the squat toilet. Her oldest daughter, Nikita who helps her mother cook, sat cross-legged on the floor to chop vegetables in her hand over a large flat pan, while Reeta fried onion and garlic in a large pot and boiled rice in another. The end result of all this cutting and chopping was a delicious vegetarian biryani, and curd speckled with fresh onion and diced tomatoes. On the day of the picnics to Aksa Beach, she piled herself, her two daughters, the large pots of prepared food, the curd poured into a plastic bag, along with serving spoons, into a rickshaw to meet us at the community where we helped her load the food into a bus for the long journey to the beach. We set up a large blanket on the beach and while the children ran with kites, and took turns jumping on a random trampoline set up by an enterprising vendor, Reeta put the finishing touches on her feast. When the children stopped long enough to eat, she doled out heaping plates full of nourishing, delicious biryani with a spoonful of curd. With plenty to go around, many of the children indulged in second helpings.
Aksa Beach trip: 2000 rupees ($40 CDN) to feed all of us (over 40 people) heaps of biryani and curd, plus second helpings.
Juhu Beach trip: 1100 rupees ($22 CDN) for a giant pail of puffed wheat chaat (snack) - enough for 50 people.
The money pays for the ingredients and a wage for Reeta. She set the price.
Reeta's vegetable biryani and curd served on the beach
Sofian with his mom Nazma
Every time we take groups of children out of the community, we insist that all but the oldest children wear red t-shirts that we purchased a few years ago for this reason. It provides us with some peace of mind when we head into a crowded situation, but it also means any other child on the beach or in a crowd wearing a red t-shirt figures in to our head count as we scan the area for our kids. So, not foolproof, but, a few extra heads in the count is better than not enough. All those soiled t-shirts require washing and folding to be used again and again. We used to do this until Indu reminded us that Sofian’s mom, Nazma, has a small washing machine purchased on a loan. Besides doing her own family’s laundry, she charges a small fee to wash large items for her neighbours. When we return from a picnic, the children dump the sweaty, food stained, salt water drenched t-shirts into a pile and we hand them to Nazma to wash for a charge of 10 rupees a shirt. A single mother, whose husband left her years ago with four children, she has a part-time job working for a food caterer but her income doesn’t stretch far enough to pay rent, feed her children, plus pay the loan for her washing machine. This is a small way to help her.
30 t-shirts washed and dried: 300 rupees ($6 CDN)
The Bus Driver
We use large and small buses when we need to transport groups of children. A father from the community gets paid a commission by the bus company to arrange bus rentals. Indu contacts this man when we need transportation and they haggle over the price until we can all agree on a deal that benefits us all. The drivers get paid, get to hang out at the beach, and they get a nice tip.
Bus rental with driver: 6500 rupees ($130 CDN) (Aksa Beach)
(The Australian School group paid for bus transportation for the Juhu Beach picnic)
The shops we use in our neighbourhood to buy everything from snacks to kites.
The General Store
I can’t count how many kites, badminton rackets, packets of snacks, and bottles of water we’ve purchased over the years from small shops in the area. When we head out on a day with the kids, we’re concerned about their water consumption, how they’ll clean their hands, what they’ll eat, what we’ll provide for play. When we purchase these items we often return to the same shop again and again because they know what we need. It’s a win for a family owned shop and a great way for us to become part of the greater community.
Kites: 30 kites plus strings: 520 rupees ($10.40 CDN)
3 packs of cookies/2 packs of ladoo (peanut/jaggery snack): 405 rupees ($8.10 CDN)
The Fruit Vendor
Mumbai is hot, it’s humid and it’s dusty. Thirst is a problem when we take groups of kids on an outing. If one is thirsty, they all are. So, oranges, lots of oranges, helps to keep the thirst at bay, gives them Vitamin C boost and keeps them from eating more salty snacks. The fruit vendor near our apartment benefits every time we have a picnic by our purchase of bags and bags of oranges and bananas - we often clean out his supply or have to go to another stall to fill our quota. They smile when they see us coming.
7 kg oranges/30 individual bananas: 750 rupees ($15 CDN)
The Ice-cream Vendor
Just before the sun set on our day at Aksa, we purchased ice-cream for each child. The kids lapped up the melting ice-cream as they lined up on shore to watch the sun fall into the Arabian Sea. It’s the perfect beach treat with a sea full of water close by to wash sticky hands.
(The Aussie students and their teachers also indulged the children with ice-cream on our day at Juhu beach).
Ice-cream for 40 children and a few adults: 700 rupees ($14 CDN)
The Trampoline Vendor
While the kids tried to keep their paper kites from shredding mid-air at Aksa Beach, I noticed a few hundred metres away that a trampoline was being carried onto the beach. A quick jaunt without children to find out how much he charged to jump, we decided that we could afford for the children to have five minutes in groups of four or five at a time on the trampoline. This was a new, exciting experience for the children, all of them in fits of giggles as they tried to figure out how to get the best out of five minutes while we stood with our fingers looped in the netting surrounding the side of the trampoline instructing them to bend their knees and jump higher. For some, just laying on the mat while the others jumped around them was pure joy.
Cost of trampoline fun: 580 rupees ($11.60 CDN)
Yes, even the Mumbai Police earned a few rupees when they stopped the bus carrying the Australians back to their lodging. A random fine levied on the bus driver for a random reason (this happens frequently) was an entertaining moment on the way home.
Police fine (bribe): 300 rupees ($6.00 CDN)