Posted by Dennis Mark Heslin on May 02, 2019
Friendship Exchange January 2019 to India with 12 members from District 9820 representing 8 clubs.  Over 14 days we were hosted by Rotarians from District 2980, the anagram of District numbers was found quite humorous by our hosts.  Aside from being guests of honour at many Club Meetings, including 6 Cluster Meetings we were guided to many Rotary projects within the State of Tamil Nadu.  One club owns approx. 160 acres and provides housing in ‘nursing home’ style for the elderly. 
One club created a Private Blood Bank and funds the entire operation.  The town of Neyveli has one of largest lignite open cut coal mines in the world and together with nearby Rotary Clubs provide for the many elderly former workers of the mine.  The skyline in this area is very similar to our own LaTrobe Valley.  My favourite visit was to the SOS Childrens Village in Nagapattinam.  SOS is located all over the world and helps in creating a family unit for children to live under the house guidance of a ‘house mother’ who is more than likely a woman who is a widow or has been subjected to domestic violence and is in need of a safer environment.  I have already planned to return to SOS Nagapattinam in 2020 to provide a sporting program to local schools under the guidance of a NFP that I have recently established with some like minded friends.
The Pongal Festival was celebrated whilst we were there.  Pongal is the celebration of harvest and is a time for families and communities to gather for four days of celebration.  Celebration includes the burning of unwanted household items, much dancing and drum beating and of course plenty of eating, especially of the traditional Pongal sweet rice dish.  The energy and atmosphere we experienced at these rural festivals was a highlight of the trip for many of us on the exchange.  The local people were so giving of their environment with no expectation of anything in return, other than for us to enjoy their culture.
Mumbai was my last stop and it was great to meet with Anitha, the English teacher the Rotary Club of Casey has sponsored for a year of training and employment.  Anitha teaches Grade 4 at Royal City School, Dharavi Mumbai.  The school is situated within Dharavi Slum which has a population of approx. 750,000 over an area of 500 acres.  It was with much nervousness that I spoke to the class of 42 students and answered many of their questions of both Australia and of my dreams when I was at school.  A wonderful experience first hand to see children feeling safe and very happy to be at school away from the many issues they face when at home.
Travel is my passion and I encourage anyone that gets an opportunity to experience something different, go for it.  Whether it is under the banner of Rotary or not, there is a big world out there and is a lot smaller than it once was.  Wonderful, kind people exist everywhere.  Cultures have differences, some small and some enormous, but a smile is the same wherever you go, as is the despair of someone who is hungry or homeless.  We are very fortunate to be apart of a world wide group of people that share a common interest to help people without agenda.