I recently moved in with 21 orphan girls and all of their caregivers. The decision wasn’t taken lightly: what about my precious alone time, time to reflect on my experiences? Because I wanted to be more present with the girls before I would leave for a while, I did it.

Little Stars School is a school and girls hostel in Varanasi, India. I’ve volunteered here for many months over two years, but moving into the school building was a new experience altogether.

gita-and-girls-BM-800After the day students and teachers have left for summer, only the hostel girls and their caregivers remain at Little Stars. The hostel houses 21 girls, aged 4 to 18, whose families have either passed away or disappeared, abandoning them. Most of the cooks and maids at Little Stars live there also, simply because they don't have anywhere else to go. These women are vagabonds, rejected by their families for having intercaste or love marriages, or divorces, or illegitimate children.

With no men around, the women build their own hierarchy and way of life. In the evening they wear outfits like long shorts, baggy T-shirts and dupattas across their chests. They grumble when there is a late visit from a male contractor or teacher, saying "Now I need to put the long pant."

The school (when it’s just a house for girls and women) runs beautifully. With fewer people to care for, the women do all of the chores in no time, and and fill the rest of the day sitting together and gossiping. They brush hair and massage feet, and dance to music from a cassette player. Some of the eldest hostel girls do beautician training, and practice on on the other women: waxing lower legs using boiled sugar and lime, and threading eyebrows holding floss between their teeth and hands. The women and girls together care for one another with more grace and respect than they were ever given in their previous lives, and so shouldn't know how to give to one another. But they do.

The concept of alone time doesn't exist in small town India in the way it does in the west. When I lived with the women, the days were full: even when there was a moment for rest, everyone rested together. There was no time to contemplate my needs, as there were more pressing issues at hand: activities, little girl politics, and time necessarily spent eating and laughing together. In that way, I was relieved of my need for time to myself: what a relief it was.

New-Bronwyn-McBride-250Bronwyn McBride is a student from Vancouver, BC, and now lives between India and Canada. After quitting her intensive study of circus arts and dance in Quebec, Bronwyn flew across the globe alone to see if she could live in a very different way. It wasn’t her first visit to India, and wouldn’t be her last!

Wherever she is, Bronwyn explores different ways to volunteer and get involved with local communities. She’s worked with severely disabled kids in a Mother Teresa orphanage in Kolkata, crossed the country with a social change performance tour, and has spent long months through the boiling summer in Varanasi, working in a school for girls. Next up: enjoying volunteerism and a foray into Bollywood in India’s cosmopolitan metropolis, Mumbai.

More of Bronwyn’s writing can be found at: www.bronwyngrace.wordpress.com