WO resident seeks volunteers for Habitat trip to India

WEST ORANGE, NJ — When most people think about international travel, they probably envision themselves sitting on a Caribbean beach with a mai tai in hand watching the sun set over the crashing waves of a sparkling blue ocean. But for West Orange’s Saumya Bhatnagar, a trip overseas usually means manual labor — for a good cause, of course.

Bhatnagar is a veteran of three builds as part of Habitat for Humanity’s Global Village program, an initiative in which people construct homes for those less fortunate in locales around the world. In December he will embark on a roughly two-week excursion to New Delhi, India, for what will be his fourth trip, and his first as a team leader. And he hopes a lot more volunteers will join him Dec. 2 to 13, promising that the visit will be an unforgettable event.

“We’re going to provide for (volunteers) a very long-lasting, transformative experience,” Bhatnagar told the West Orange Chronicle in an April 6 phone interview. “They’re going to discover a new country they may not have seen before. They’re going to discover a new experience that they maybe never had before. And we’re going to build (a home of) long-lasting value for a family in need.”

Though Bhatnagar’s group will likely have time to build just one house, that project alone will make a difference in New Delhi. The team leader said this is because India, despite its growing economy and modern advancements, is filled with impoverished and uneducated people. There is a great level of economic and educational diversity in India, as in many developing countries. In addition, he said hundreds of thousands were left homeless after their houses were demolished so that stadiums and parking lots could be constructed for the 2010 Commonwealth Games.

One house would mean one family could be sheltered from the elements and protected from dangerous animals, Bhatnagar said. It would also mean they could live in a place where children will not have to walk long distances to school or risk crossing paths with snakes or scorpions, he said. And since the homeowners do not have to worry about paying the full cost of the property, he said they can spend their time focusing on ways to improve their lives, such as operating a business out of their new building.

“They have a chance to live their life to the fullest potential,” Bhatnagar said. “They’re given a chance to make things happen for themselves.”

Of course, a house, with all of its possibilities, takes a lot of effort to construct. Bhatnagar said his group will typically work a 9-to-5 schedule with plenty of breaks throughout the day. The labor will involve such tasks as moving bricks and mixing cement, though he stressed that none of the work is too strenuous thanks to ergonomic methods including bucket brigades for cement delivery. Plus, he said volunteers will switch jobs after a certain period so that no one gets bored.

The trip will not just consist of work, either. Bhatnagar said there will be time for recreation, including a trip to the Taj Mahal. Additionally, the itinerary will include a yoga meditation retreat and a wine pairing event. And he said he is even trying to arrange a visit to the Ravi Shankar Institute for Music and Performing Arts for an exploration of Indian music.

All the while, Bhatnagar said group members will have the opportunity to experience a broad sample of all that Indian culture has to offer. That includes shopping for traditional clothing and interacting with locals. And it definitely means trying the food, which the team leader said is always a highlight of Habitat for Humanity trips.

“I remember in 2013 when I was in India, everyone (was impressed that) there were so many options for vegetarian food,” Bhatnagar said. “When you think about vegetarian food in the U.S., you’re basically stuck with a salad and a slice of cheese pizza. There are not too many options. But when you go to a place like India where there is such a push for vegetarian food — there are so many vegetarians — it was pretty interesting for them to see that you can have five or six things on the plate that are completely different that have no chicken, meat or beef or anything in them.”

So far the New Delhi trip has six or seven people on board, Bhatnagar said, though he is looking to add 12 or 13 more. And he is not the only one who hopes more will join. Maureen O’Leary, Habitat for Humanity International’s associate director of global volunteer engagement and support, said volunteers like Bhatnagar and his group are the backbone of her organization’s work. A price tag is attached to the Global Village trips — the New Delhi excursion costs $2,090 for travel and logistical expenses, in addition to funding some of the construction — but O’Leary said the benefits of being part of a build make it worthwhile.

“It’s a life-changing experience,” O’Leary, who has joined builds in Guatemala and Costa Rica, told the Chronicle in an April 7 phone interview. “I would definitely encourage it if folks are looking for a way to step out of their daily routine and really have an opportunity to learn about other cultures. Internally, it helps you to see what you can do, how you can stretch yourself. But it also makes you more connected to being a global citizen.”

Many people have learned this for themselves, with O’Leary stating that 5,800 volunteers participate in Global Village trips annually to places throughout South America, Africa, Asia and Europe. India is a particularly popular destination, she said, with 11 teams visiting in 2017 thus far. The reason for such attention, she said, is that the need is so great there, especially since the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that killed more than 230,000 people in 14 countries and damaged so many structures. Habitat for Humanity even provides microfinance loans so that Indians can afford repairs to their homes more than 10 years after that disaster, she said.

Like O’Leary, Bhatnagar also finds volunteering for Habitat for Humanity to be meaningful. For him, he said it is a chance to give back to those less fortunate and to show his children the importance of philanthropy. He thinks others will benefit similarly, especially if they have never participated in a Global Village build before.

“It helps them appreciate their life here,” Bhatnagar said. “And by opening up their minds, and in a lot of cases their hearts, it makes life better. It makes life better for everybody. Even though we’re not the ones who are going to be given a home, we’re given a lot more than that. We’re given an opportunity to serve. We’re given an opportunity to make the world a better place.”

To learn more about the New Delhi trip and how to join it, contact Bhatnagar at saumyakbhatnagar@yahoo.com or co-leader Charles Keeping at charles@keeping.ca.