We hustle down from our bunks, sling our bags over our shoulders and stumble off of our night train from Hyderabad onto the platform at dawn, only one hour behind schedule. Welcome to Bhimavaram, an untouristed southeastern city in Andra Pradesh State and home to the rural transformation program headquarters of the Byrraju Foundation where we will be staying and volunteering for the next five days.
We work our way down the platform toward the station where my colleague and friend, Bhanu Murthy Penumaka has been waiting for us. Bhanu Murthy coordinates the Byrraju Foundation’s water program, overseeing thirty drinking water filtration plants and serving the rural poor with affordable filtered water access. What does it practically take to measurably and sustainably improve the living standards of India’s rural poor? This will be my third visit and opportunity to work with and learn from the social servants of the Byrraju Foundation.
A few minutes later we arrive at the Foundation’s Bhimavaram office and guesthouse, situated on a lush compound surrounded by rice paddies. The air is still heavy with fog. Inside it is clear that the office itself is going through its own transformation: cracks are being filled, rooms are being remodeled and everything is getting a fresh coat of paint. “Careful, don’t touch,” we are warned; the handrails on the stairs to our second story guestroom have just been freshened in a thick, black high-gloss. As with many NGOs worldwide, the Foundation’s growth strategy wings have been clipped over the last few years due to economic constraints, but the commitment of the staff to increasing fresh water access, providing in-village health care and offering livelihood vocational training has never been stronger. The office makeover seems to be serving as a symbol of collective reaffirmation.
The exterior’s new coat of cool, blue paint cannot cover up the genuine and familiar warmth of this place. Minutes after arriving, Lakshmi, the housekeeper, knocks timidly on our guesthouse door to deliver two small cups of chai. She takes my wrists in her hands and greets me, as familiarly as her station allows, like a dear friend. Three years ago I snuck out of the guesthouse with her before sunrise to learn how to make muggu, the white chalk symbols some Indian women draw on their thresholds to ward off disease, illness and other evils from entering their homes.
Chris and I will spend the next five days touring local villages, meeting with villagers and village leaders, visiting water plants and learning in depth about the current work and challenges of the water, heath and livelihood programs. At visit’s end we will offer our insights and recommendations.
But first, a cup of chai.