There’s Much More to Travel Than Famous Sites

Volunteering in Rural India

It has been said that the things that blindside us are not the things we worry about, it’s the unexpected phone call on a Tuesday afternoon that brings us to our knees. That’s the way it is with life, yet I am still surprised when it happens. When you least expect it, something wonderful happens and transforms you forever.

The transformation begins

I was raised on plates of hearty European fare where food is love. Plates of spaghetti, though, were always served up with a side order of guilt. Perhaps that’s why then, as an adult, I have a strong rebellious streak.

“You’re not the boss of me.  I am the boss of me” has recently been my mantra. Also, as you age, you get smart (hopefully) and realize that’s the only way to live your life.

Now, that being said, there is something about guidebooks that inspires a need in me to obey the rules and do what it says in their hallowed pages. I don’t know what it is. I don’t know why I feel obliged to visit the sites, check out the museum/temple/ruin, I just do.

Now, that’s not a problem in and of itself.  For a lot of people that’s just fine – witness the busloads of tourists arriving and departing from the Colosseum minute by minute – it’s just that generally speaking, the sites  and “things to do” leave me cold.  But I’ve always had this odd feeling that if I don’t do what it says in the books, I feel guilty.  So I arrive at the destination all happy and eager to see what’s there (as written by Lonely Planet, or Frommer’s, or Rough Guides) and I am consistently, always, every single time,strangely disappointed.  “That’s it?”  I query the guide?  “There’s nothing else?  I came all this way for …well…that?”  I scan the pages frantically – maybe I missed something?  Nope. That’s it.  Those statues are really all there is. Oh.  Ok.

I always feel a little deflated and sometimes a little ripped off, but I have always remained undaunted!  I happily check off that site in the box of “things to see in Tamil Nadu” and go on to the next museum/temple/ruin simply because I feel that I should.  Besides, maybe the next museum/temple/ruin will be better!

That’s how I used to be

One day it dawned on me that I didn’t really have to go to every site listed in the guide.  I could just sit and watch the people if that’s what I wanted to do.  I really could.  This epiphany came to me one blistering hot day in Mammalapurum, India.

I only had an afternoon there, so I had to do the sites in the heat of the day.  It was 120F (50C) in the shade – literally – and I was racing around the site just to get it over with.   I was sweating and angry and rude to the touts.  All I wanted to do was sit at a tea stall and drink chai and watch the people coming and going. I stopped suddenly mid-climb up to the top of the lighthouse (where the guide book said I had to go to get the best views) as it dawned on me.

I didn’t really have to do this.  Did I really care about this rock temple or the view?  Nope.  Was I alone and did I have the power to do whatever I wanted?  Yep.  Was there anyone from Lonely Planet who was going to chastise me for not seeing this site? Nope. So  why the heck don’t I just give this a miss and go have a cup of chai? So that’s what I did that hot summer day, and I have never looked back.

As I sat there drinking my tea, I realized that for me, the true joy of traveling is in the connections. It is in the sights and sounds of the people. It’s not in the museum/temple/ruin.  It’s in the children, the old ladies, the beggars, and the fashionistas.  It’s in the people with a capital P.  When I travel, I am a camera, taking it all in, and it fills my soul.

But you really can’t spend a month sitting and watching people, can you?  So what to do? I decided that perhaps I could volunteer my time. Working alongside others in a school or health center, interacting with the locals, now that really appealed to me.  I began my research. I picked a country where I wanted to go.  I was not fussy; I just wanted somewhere in Asia, and I googled the appropriate words: “ volunteer, Nepal, teaching, health care, NGO,” and a plethora of hits came back.

As I sat there drinking my tea, I realized that for me, the true joy of traveling is in the connections. It is in the sights and sounds of the people.

“Fantastic!” I remember thinking.  Look at all the places that I can volunteer at! I was ecstatic. I had so many choices, and I happily clicked on link after link. “Where do I want to go, and what do I want to do?” I thought.  I was shocked to find out though that volunteering costs money – in some cases big money and in other cases, REALLY big money.

What the heck?  It would cost me $3000 for two weeks to work at an eye clinic in Thailand? Seriously?  It would cost me $1500 a week to make sandwiches at a school in Nepal?   Really?  Plus there was the travel cost!  Clearly volunteering isn’t cheap!

I was dismayed. I didn’t have that kind of cash.  I searched and I searched and came up largely empty handed in my quest to find a volunteer position where it wouldn’t cost me anything but travel expenses to the location and my accommodation. I was happy to incur those costs, since it was, after all, my trip.  And if I was traveling around seeing the sites, I would be paying that anyway.

I was faced with a dilemma. I wanted to volunteer, but I didn’t want to pay so much to do it.  My mother was in India at the time, and I was lamenting this fact to her in an email. She suggested that she get the name/email of the principal of the local school, as she had visited the school a few times. She thought that maybe he would have some ideas about organizations in the area who might be looking for volunteers.

I emailed the principal with my request: Are there any organizations that need volunteers in your area? Or, as I am a certified Canadian teacher, do you want me to come teach English at your school for a month in July? He wrote back immediately and said he would be delighted to have me teach at his school and thanked me very much!

I remember his exact words were “Madame, I thank you.  My prayers have been answered.”

Honestly, how could I refuse that?  I agreed to teach English at his school for the month of July, 2008. All I knew was his name and where the school was. I also didn’t know that my transformation was beginning.  But that’s how it is with transformations – you don’t really know while it’s happening, do you?

I packed a big duffel bag of supplies and some teaching aids for the kids, and set off- eager to change the world. What followed were insanely busy days teaching English, singing songs ( Head and Shoulders and Hokey Pokey were the favorites), having tea, visiting, laughing, crying with exhaustion, and not seeing the Taj Mahal!

High on the experience, the day I left, I promised to go back!

But that’s not really the story. That’s just the beginning of the story. The story was not over when I boarded the plane to come home. A month after I came home, I got an email from one of the senior students.  The students had started an “Anti-Malaria Club of Bandhavgarh, India” and wanted to know if I would be the president? I emailed back “Yes, of course!”  And that’s where the story really begins.

Dwelling in possibilities

Being president of a club that is operational on the other side of the globe poses some problems as you can well imagine. Weekly meetings are difficult. That being said, the kids kept me abreast of their activities with regular emails and included me in any decisions that they were making. Their goals were simple: to inform and educate the people of their village and community about the dangers of malaria and what can be done to prevent it. Sounds easy enough, but when faced with the daunting task of educating a people that are resistant to change – new ideas and new ways – it’s a difficult task. I was just thrilled that the students showed such initiative and was amazed at how they took an idea and ran with it. Wish we all had such moxie.

Quite frankly, I wasn’t sure that I wanted that responsibility.

However,I knew that any involvement I would have in the future with these kids and the club meant a commitment, and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to make such a commitment.  A commitment to return to the same place each year, a commitment to raise funds for their club, a commitment to e-mailing and consistent contact, a commitment to be present in their lives for a while. Quite frankly, I wasn’t sure that I wanted that responsibility. After all, vacation time is hard to come by, there are other places to see besides India, and I would run out of people to hit up for money, right? I couldn’t believe I promised to go back! What was I thinking?

A decision

I did some soul searching over the next few months, analyzing honestly the reasons I wanted to volunteer in the first place. What, really, was my goal? I am ashamed and contrite to admit I am not at all sure it was for purely altruistic reasons. I suspected that my real reason in wanting to volunteer was very selfish indeed. I dug deep and uncovered the ugly, unvarnished truth.  I was nothing more than a “do-gooder.”  Bottom line is, I didn’t do it for them.   I did it for me.   I was no humanitarian – I wanted to feel good. I wanted to talk about my experiences over the water cooler at work and bask in the praise of colleagues and friends.   I did it for me.  Ouch.  Now I felt really guilty.

To try and redeem myself and to alleviate some of my guilt, I agreed to return the following year and set about to the task of raising funds.  I did not want to arrive empty handed.   I did some research and found out that a mosquito net cost around $4.50, and thus began my campaign.

I was no humanitarian – I wanted to feel good. I wanted to talk about my experiences over the water cooler at work and bask in the praise of colleagues and friends.   I did it for me.  Ouch.  Now I felt really guilty.

I asked people to buy a mosquito net. One net, five dollars; the price of a latte.  That worked, and over the next ten months, I collected money from my church and my pals. I am not a comfortable fund raiser, and I didn’t make a big deal of it, but slowly, the money came in.

When I returned to Tala, India in July 2009, I had a substantial amount of money…enough money to purchase over 125 mosquito nets. I can’t say that I was thrilled to go back, but I felt that I had no choice really. I had made a promise and for whatever reason, something wonderful had been started by this small group of kids. It was my duty and obligation to support them and be the person that they thought I was. This time though, I was going in with my eyes wide open, no glorious goals or lofty ideas of changing the world. It was just me, a few dollars, and some motivated kids, who apparently, I inspired. Little did they know though, that I was the one that was inspired by them…funny how that works.

Nets and blankets and bikes, Oh My!

Being a teacher, that feeling of inspiration is nothing new. My students have often taught me more than I have ever taught them but there was something about this particular turn of events that humbled me. Sometimes in our cozy western world we think we have it all figured out.  We think we have the answer to how we should live our lives, but when we travel, that view is often turned topsy- turvy and one sees that there are other ways to live a life that’s totally okay.

The people of the villages were surprised that I came back this second time. Apparently white folks make promises to return and never do. Not too shocking. It’s easier to make promises to eager, desperate believers than it is to tell the truth: “No, I won’t be back. I am really only here to kill a few weeks and have a story to tell.”  It’s so much easier to lie. I almost did it.

I am not going to describe the homes of the villagers, or the poverty,  despair, and the appalling conditions in some of the places where we hung the nets – this isn’t a story about that. We have all seen those shows by National Geographic. Conditions, though, were nothing like that. They were worse. Being immersed in the scene is much different than watching it from the safety of the sofa with a bowl of popcorn. The smells, the heat, the intimacy of poverty doesn’t translate through to a screen.

Sometimes in our cozy western world we think we have it all figured out.  We think we have the answer to how we should live our lives, but when we travel, that view is often turned topsy- turvy.

As the kids from the club and I put up the nets, we explained to the adults of the home the importance of keeping the net up and putting the kids under it at night. The people were grateful, embarrassed, and shy.

I was humbled when they placed their infants in my arms for a blessing. Who was I to bless this child? Why did the color of my skin, and the accident of my birth make me in any way special? I left that summer feeling confused, exhausted, and woefully inadequate, but something transformational had got under my skin.

I was hooked. This time, I knew I would be back. I did some more fundraising and returned at Christmas time in the winter of 2010. This time, the club kids and I decided that we would buy blankets for the villagers as it can get quite cold in India in the winter. We went to each of the homes again and gave the thick woolen blankets to the families that were most desperate. How does one measure poverty, when everyone is so very poor?

This time though, I pondered the ethical implications of my work. “Give a man a fish and feed him for a day, teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime.”  We all remember that right? Was what I was doing wrong?  Was it morally and ethically responsible?  Was it “the right thing to do?”

I had no idea!  After all, what did I know about being a humanitarian? What did I know about trade, international development, and philosophical dilemmas? I didn’t know anything. I just knew that the kids were warm now, and they weren’t before.  All I knew was that for this winter, the children didn’t have to be cold as they lay on the mud floor in their mud hut.  All I knew was that with their new blankets the kids of 96 families might sleep through the night and their skeletal frames would be warm, and maybe that was good enough.

I have just recently returned from visiting my kids again. This time, I purchased 14 bicycles which we distributed to the schools. Each school in the area got two or three bikes for school use. It felt so good seeing the smiles on the kid’s faces as the bikes were unloaded off the truck. The boys were the first to be brave enough to get on the bikes and test drive them, but I encouraged the girls to try, too, and soon each of the bravest girls took a spin around the yard. It feels good to think that now, somewhere in remote India, a bike that I purchased might be leaning up against the wall of the decaying school building, awaiting its rider (hopefully a girl) who will, perhaps, go home for lunch with it, or use it to get medicine or food from the market.  Who knows?  That’s not really the point, is it? It’s there if they need it, and it wasn’t there before, and that’s a good thing.

The alchemy of travel

The “ Anti-Malaria Club of Bandhavgarh” is no more; the name of the group has changed. It’s the “Global Tiger Conservation Society of Bandhavgarh India” now.  I am not sure what the future is for this group, but they are off to a great start as a registered NGO.  Adults run it now, and the kids aren’t involved anymore.  They have moved on to other pursuits, and I wish them all well.

I want them to know that because of them, my heart has been touched.   I want them to know that because of them, my life is fuller, richer, and I am less judgemental.  I want them to know that I think of them often and send a prayer up to the sky in gratitude for all they have taught me.  They have taught me that big things can happen from a small idea. They have taught me that once I make a promise, it means just that – a PROMISE.  I want them to know they got it all wrong-they have blessed me more than I could ever bless them.   I want them to know that the ripple effect of their idea of the club has reached far, and the ripples will keep spreading in the years to come.

I don’t know if I perpetuated the idea that white people are rich, and we like to play Santa Claus to make ourselves feel good… I just know that somehow things got a bit screwy in the ol’ wealth department…All I am trying to do is balance it out a bit.

I don’t know if what I am doing is right or wrong. I don’t know if giving out nets or blankets or bicycles was a good thing or a bad thing. I don’t know if I perpetuated the idea that white people are rich, and we like to play Santa Claus to make ourselves feel good.  I don’t know any of that.  I just know that somehow things got a bit screwy in the ol’ wealth department.  We are rich and have plenty, and people in a lot of places are poor and don’t have anything.  All I am trying to do is balance it out a bit. I may go back to India.  I may not. I must admit, there is something about it that I love and something about it that I hate. I don’t know where I will go next, but the world is a big place, and there is much to see. I have a soft spot for the education of girls and women (ok, a huge soft spot), and perhaps I will make that my next focus (How dangerous is Afghanistan, really?).  I also have my eye on a small school in Cambodia, so who knows?  I certainly don’t.  Like Emily Dickinson, “I dwell in possibility.”

I do know that I will leave the philosophical debate to the philosophers and just keep doing what I am doing:  teaching English ( for I believe that education is the most precious commodity) and giving what I can back to the community,  and that’s nothing to feel guilty about.

Read more inspirational travel stories from normal people who have made travel a top priority and check out resources to help you do the same:

Photo credits:  Hussain Didi, all others courtesy of the author and may not be used without permission.

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