Lending a hand on a volunteer vacation in Rishikesh, India

By Sue Spirit
This article appears on page 20 of the October 2019 issue.
Second-grade students at Mother Miracle School in Rishikesh.

We need volunteers,” declared Shahla Ettefagh, founder and director of Mother Miracle School, which provides education for some of the poorest and most intelligent children in Rishikesh, India. That was all I needed to hear.

For several years I’d been sponsoring a girl, Kalpana, at the school and had always wanted to visit India. I am usually up for the most off-the-beaten-path travel experience possible, and this Rishikesh sojourn would turn out to be an immersion in Indian life that would surpass all my expectations.

Since medical volunteers were at the top of Shahla’s wish list, I rounded up three good friends, nurse Marcia, physician assistant Diane and physician Rob, to join me. After a lot of planning, we were off, prepared to hold a November 2018 medical boot camp for the school’s 400 students, ages 4 to 17.

Three days in Delhi

We flew Air India from New York’s JFK to Delhi ($900 round trip), where we were met by “Jogi” Jageshwar Kashyap (jogik33@gmail.com), our friendly travel guide for the first three days of planned travel in the Golden Triangle. Jogi, a friend of my good friend Mike, was just going into business as an independent licensed travel guide, and he welcomed us with marigold malas (leis), bottles of cold water and a comfortable, air-conditioned Toyota 4Runner.

We were soon off on a whirlwind driving tour of New Delhi, ending at the 4-star Hotel Amrapali Grand (phone +91 11 257 25700, www.amrapalihotel.com) for the night, where we were welcomed enthusiastically by a staff of seven. More tired than hungry, we downed bowls of delicious hot-and-sour soup.

Next morning, we made the 4-hour trip to Agra for the requisite tour of the Taj Mahal, spending the night at The Taj Vilas (phone +91 78950 02674, www.hotelthetajvilas.com), a comfortable 3-star hotel. (Entry tickets for the Taj Mahal cost $16 each for non-Indian visitors.)

Our journey next took us to Jaipur, a 5-hour trip, where we visited the City Palace of the maharajahs ($4.21) and the astronomical observatory Jantar Mantar, a UNESCO World Heritage Site ($2.81). We had a delicious dinner and spent the night at a brand-new 4-star hotel, Jaipur Greens, which belonged to a friend of Jogi.

We headed back to Delhi the next morning to catch a flight to Dehradun, the closest airport to Rishikesh. Jogi dropped us off for our 40-minute flight, promising to meet us on our return from Rishikesh so we could spend our last afternoon and evening with him in Delhi.

Sue Spirit on a motorbike with school volunteer Deepak.

Our total cost for the 3-day driving trip, including hotels with breakfast (excluding other meals and admission fees), was $300 each, plus a $50 tip for Jogi and $25 for our driver, Sanjay. I highly recommend Jogi and his very reasonably priced tour for up to four passengers.

On to Rishikesh

Our round-trip flight to Dehradun on Jet Airways cost us $130 each. We were met by Manny, Shahla’s driver, whom we paid a total of $18 for the half-hour drive to Rishikesh.

Our home for the next nine days was the Kailasa Guest House (phone +91 75350 03307), which cost $10 per person per night, including breakfast. It was the caliber of a slightly shabby youth hostel, but it was perfectly adequate for our Peace Corps-type mentalities. “Breakfast” turned out to be white-bread toast with chai.

Shahla, a 60ish bundle of energy dressed in white from head to toe, breezed in to Kailasa the next morning to find that our breakfast had been meager. She immediately sent for several loaves of healthy multigrain bread from Mother Miracle’s bakery.

Discovering that our rooms were not clean, our towels were torn and our water supply was questionable, she firmly informed the manager that she would not send any more Mother Miracle guests to stay there unless conditions improved immediately. The staff jumped to action, and we even got fruit with our breakfast the next morning. But what can you really expect for $10 a night?

The school

Kailasa was a 5-minute, 700-step walk from Mother Miracle, which was doable even for me, with back troubles. A rickshaw ride to the school, or anywhere else in Rishikesh, cost about $2.25.

Soon we were enfolded into the life of the school, with Marcia, Diane and Rob doing physical exams for students while I wrote stories. Mother Miracle School is a vast, 4-story concrete building containing 20-plus classrooms with pastel walls decorated with murals. Athletic courts, dining halls, music and dance rooms, kitchens, computer labs and a bakery complete the picture.

The 400 children each receive a cup of hot milk every morning. (Shahla is trying to figure out how to afford a breakfast cookie or cake to accompany it.) At lunchtime, the students have a huge plate of rice, dal (lentils) and vegetables, with the promise of all they can eat, as this might be their only meal of the day.

Volunteers are needed for everything, from teaching English to teaching computers, art, creative writing and sports. Dentists, dental students and other medical professionals are especially needed. Visitors to the school are welcomed and included in daily activities and lunch.

Sponsors are also needed, especially for kindergartners. The Mother Miracle School website (mothermiracle.org) gives detailed information for prospective volunteers and sponsors. To sponsor a child in the school, one pledges $40 a month, which covers school fees, books and paper, meals, uniforms and needed medical attention. (See “Sponsor a Child” on the website or, in the US, call 415/259-5702 [8-10 a.m. and 8-10 p.m. PST] for more information.)

I was especially excited to meet 14-year-old Kalpana, the girl I have sponsored at the school for four years. I got to visit her classroom for her English, math and Sanskrit classes; meet her two best friends, Ayushi and Sadhna; visit her one-room home to meet her mother, father and five siblings; watch her dancing like crazy at the Children’s Day festival, and take her shopping to buy a lehanga, a sari-like fancy floor-length dress, for parties.

About the city

Rishikesh is known as a holy city, a place Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists and a few Muslims call home. Nightly pujas (prayer, chanting and drumming sessions) at ghats along the sacred Ganges draw thousands of worshipers, retreatants and tourists.

The city is also the yoga capital of India and a center for many well-known ashrams. We visited the city’s oldest, most distinguished ashram, Sivananda Ashram, where pilgrims and sojourners from all over the world may stay for a donation. (It was in Rishikesh that the Beatles spent time in 1968 following their spiritual guru, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.)

Rishikesh is also an all-vegetarian city. Cows, dogs, pigs and monkeys are all treated kindly and respectfully.

The city is full of interesting restaurants providing fantastic Indian delicacies. Two of our favorites, both reasonably priced, were the Vasundhara Palace (phone +91 13524 42345) and the Madhuban Ashram (phone +91 98978 99971).

Dr. Rob Griffith examining a student at the school.

Vasundhara, located near Ram Jhula, the famous footbridge over the Ganges, specializes in all sorts of paneer (fresh cheese). A favorite treat was a yogurt drink called banana lassi. A meal cost about $8. (An overnight stay, if you want to avoid the Kailasa, can be had there for $67.)

Madhuban Ashram, also near Ram Jhula, lights up the night sky with its spectacular pastel lighting. It has tandoori vegetables and paneer as its specialties. Average cost is $2-$5.

A third favorite restaurant, A Tavola Con Te (Inter College Rd.; phone +91 89796 76849), is hidden in a cozy nook up in the hills and features bruschetta, a pineapple-mint drink, crisp pizza to die for and the best tiramisu ever! The average cost for a meal is $10 for two people.

All too soon our sojourn in Rishikesh was coming to an end. Shahla and the Mother Miracle staff and volunteers bade us a fond farewell, begging us to stay in touch and to think about the upcoming priorities of the school: the establishment of a coding program to lead the students to gainful employment upon graduation and a recycling project for the entire city of Rishikesh that would serve as a model for the rest of India.

A few last stops

We flew back to Delhi, where we were again met by Jogi and Sanjay. Since we had a whole afternoon and evening to fill before boarding our 1 a.m. flight back to the US, Jogi had planned a visit to one of the Mahatma Gandhi memorials, the residence where Gandhi had spent his last days and where he was assassinated. (Admission is free.)

Because we had been too busy in Rishikesh to do any souvenir shopping, Jogi took us to Central Craft Cottage Industries (phone +91 112356 1691), where they had just what we had been hoping to find: gorgeous pillow shams with Indian embroidery and small mirrors — perfect gifts for friends and family and at a reasonable price ($6-$7 per cover).

Sue with the student she sponsors in Rishikesh, Kalpana Kaintura.

But the biggest surprise of all took us to Jogi’s favorite restaurant, Naivedyam (1 Hauz Khas Village; phone +91 11269 60426), for dinner with his wife, Reena, and their two young boys, Chandransh and Vedansh. Naivedyam features mouthwatering South Indian dishes, and Jogi had arranged for us to try a little of everything: a tamarind-and-coconut soup, chaas (buttermilk with coriander), papad (thin papery pancakes), thali (a plate of mixed delicacies) and a stack of poori (puffy bread). The cost of the thali plate was $3.75.

It was awfully hard to say goodbye and head for the airport. Except for the interminable flight back to the US, the trip had been the closest thing to heaven I’ve ever experienced. Would we go again in a few years? Definitely!