I, Missiotourist

“. . . one begins to wonder if these trips are designed more for the spiritual fulfillment of the volunteer than the alleviation of poverty.” Ossob Mohamud, “Beware the ‘voluntourists’ doing good.

The Guardian, Feb. 13, 2013.

We’re eight hours late getting into Delhi, so it’s well past midnight by the time we stumble out of the airport and into the charter coach. As we chug along the congested highway into the city, the students plug themselves into their devices and fall asleep. Only four of us – three teacher chaperones and Alex, our eager student leader – remain awake enough to take in the bustle of nighttime India.

At our swank hotel, we blink our way into the shining lobby and hand out room assignments. We cancel the morning’s service activity, worried about sleep-deprived students coping with Delhi’s 40-degree heat. We say goodnight and look for our luggage. There’s no need – every suitcase has been whisked off to our rooms by the overnight hotel staff.

I’m up early the next morning. A few of the students actually make it to the breakfast buffet, a lavish affair mostly populated by western foods, an Indian menu available á la carte. I sit by myself and order potato dhosa, as excited to sample the cuisine of Delhi, my birthplace, as I am about bringing 14 privileged teens to do a few days of service in this desperately needy city.


This is Discovery Week (DW), set aside at the end of the school year for learning opportunities away from campus. This year, every DW itinerary must have a primary service component, an opportunity that Alex leaps upon. He negotiates with BOBS, the philanthropic shoe company, to match funds and provide dozens of pairs of shoes for Delhi orphans. INCITE, a Christian mission run by a saint named Vikram that helps homeless girls find housing and employment, will host and provide facilities for our service.

Alex runs a number of fundraisers for the shoes and other supplies, but students and their parents pay for the trip itself, including extra fees for the chaperones’ airfare, housing and per diems. We don’t talk about the free aspect of the trip very openly, but it’s never far from my thoughts. Factor in a week away from classes and marking, and I’m actually making money to be here.


After lunch, we load into the coach again and make our winding way to the INCITE house, observing the teeming, sun-baked streets from our air-conditioned bubble. As we haul in duffel bags full of donated toys, sports equipment, and school supplies – the airline generously waived the extra baggage fees, if not the carbon footprint – we’re greeted with fragrant flower garlands from the INCITE girls and shy smiles from the orphans. The children have no idea what to do with dollar-store toys, crayons, playing cards or footballs, but their enthusiasm propels everyone forward. We use up all the supplies we brought, the ones we intended to leave with the charity to meet future needs.

We’ve offered to provide meals for the days we’re on site, and Vikram is too polite to correct Alex’s suggestion to order in. Their meals are usually simple – huge pots of curry and rice made up in the kitchen – so the kids have never seen Subway sandwiches. They only eat the bread and meat – the garbage is heavy with discarded lettuce, pickles, tomatoes.

The cost of supplying shoes outside their retail supply chain is prohibitive, so BOBS has connected Alex with a local shoe supplier. The footwear arrives in big blue plastic bags. The shoe guy went up two sizes for every pair to allow for growth. The orphans sing a thank you song, lay their too-big shoes to the side and resume play in their bare feet.

The next day, we help paint another INCITE house with salmon-coloured surplus paint, oil-based, and spend the day light-headed from the fumes. Few of the students have ever painted more than their own kindergarten fingerprints. Vikram waves away our concerns but admits they’ll have to bring someone in to re-do the work and finish the job.


On our final day in Delhi, a couple of the girls take us to the slum where they were born. A few hundred families cluster together beside a busy railway, their shanties swaying to the passage of frequent commuter trains. Led by the hand through still-smiling despair like well-fed beetles touring a ragged ant colony, we gawk and snap photos, then leave.

Back at the hotel, our students change into bikinis and surf-shorts and head for the outdoor pool. I enjoy a massage at the in-house spa. Later, after everyone is in their rooms, I order an icy beverage from room service and jump online. A teacher-friend at a Christian school back in Canada has posted photos of an end-of-year missions trip to Central America. They’re helping build a school and dig a well in a tiny village – there are jokes about how unaccustomed to manual labour the students are, how the locals come by every night to finish the ditches and re-lay the bricks.

Tomorrow, we’re off to Agra to play tourist. In keeping with the spirit of things, after seeing the Taj Mahal we’ll visit Mother Theresa’s orphanage. The nuns will arrange a tour and some time to play with the children, many of whom have physical and developmental challenges we’ve only read about. We’ll stay for a couple of hours, snap hundreds of photos and head back to the hotel for a well-earned swim.


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