Volunteering at a School in India

Volunteering at a School in India

Time for an Adventure

Back in 2011 I decided I’d had enough of the endless 9-5,  working as a Warehouse Manager for an electronics company. I was really at a dead end and needed an adventure, volunteering seemed like a good option, luckily I had internet access all day at work and spent most of the quiet days searching travel websites like www.lonelyplanet.com for inspiration.

I had only really done one bit of travel before when I went to Thailand on my own Volunteering with Elephants in Thailand

I’d saved up about £4000 and the lease was up on a flat I was sharing with a friend, so the time seemed right to pack up and go.

On one of my days searching online for ideas I found a volunteer Computer Technician role in India, advertised at www.lhasocialwork.org .This looked ideal as I knew my way around computers as I’d grown up with them, the minimum length of time they needed someone was 3 months which was quite a commitment and it was to maintain the schools computers and help the students with any problems. I took the plunge, booked it and then set about planning, I knew that I wanted to return to Thailand to see friends I had there so also booked onward flights and worked out I could be away for around 4 and a half months in total.

The process of getting a visa took a while and made me nervous of sending off my passport, hoping I would get it back in time as I’d read too many horror stories on the Lonely Planet forums, I also needed larger passport photo’s and none of the photo booths around town did them, I had to go to a shop and get them specially taken.

Off to India

Eventually the time came for me to head off to India on my own, it didn’t seem real until I was sat on the plane high above India looking out onto the vast plains. When the doors opened and you felt the heat and humidty it was a shock as I’d just come from the cold and snow of the UK. I got to immigration and had to state where I was staying, I had no idea of the hotel name as I hadn’t arranged it, so I just put Hotel India! Grabbing my bag I made my way out of the air conditioned airport into a wall of heat and noise, there were lots of taxi drivers desperate for my custom but I managed to make out one holding a card with my surname scrawled on it. The driver didn’t say a word and just grabbed my bag and we walked off to the multistory carpark, we drove out and he turned sharp right driving right across a piece of bumpy waste ground until we came to the main dual carriageway, he didn’t hesitate and drove straight across the traffic to the other side, this woke me up a bit! That was quite a hairy ride, the traffic was crazy, big battered busses chugging out black smoke, passenger hanging out the windows, massive dirty trucks honking their tuneful horns, mopeds filling in any little gaps, it was chaos. Every time we stopped, the car was surrounded by hawkers selling everything from books to coconuts, tapping on the windows, my driver just ignored them and sped off.

Majnu Ka Tilla

We finally arrived in Majnu Ka Tilla where the Tibetans had a large community, It was getting late and I’d arrived when Losar, Tibetan New Year was on, meaning everyone was on the move north to celebrate in Dharamsala. My driver pulled down this dirt road and we got out, he took my bag and we got to a large dilapidated building where I was greeted by monks who didn’t speak a word of English, I managed to muddle through with pointing and they showed me to a room. My phone was playing up and wouldn’t connect to the local network since I’d arrived, finally I got it to connect and got hold of the guy who’s number I’d been given as a contact, he said to meet him at his office the following day, I’d had no food and all the restaurants and shops were closed because of New Year, luckily I’d packed emergency packs of Mini Chedders that saw me through!

The next day I met with  the contact at his office, he gave me my bus ticket, I had a good few hours to kill until the bus was leaving, I got a bit lost around the maze of passageways, lots of people staring at me, I found a small cafe and made friends with two Dutch girls who were luckily also waiting for the bus.

Waiting to Board the bus volunteering in India
Waiting to Board the bus

Very long bus journey

The bus finally arrived 2 hours late and it was a scramble, not knowing if it was the right bus. I stuck with the two girls and boarded, my seat was at the front and was already occupied by an old Tibetan lady who gave me a big smile, I sat down right behind the driver while everyone else fought over their correct seat, a French girl was very irate, shouting at the guy taking the tickets, she had to sit on the floor in the isle next to me and we drove off, eventually we stopped and she got on the right bus!

The journey was epic, 12 hours in total stopping multiple times for punctures and breakdowns, we stopped twice at India’s version of a motorway services, this was very basic. The first one had toilets that had no light in and the floor was awash with all sorts, flip flops were a bad idea. The food on offer was interesting, mainly deep fried things of all shapes and sizes, I passed and just ate some more Mini Chedders!

We stopped at some sort of makeshift border and two official looking men got on screaming and shouting, they walked along the bus, grabbed some bloke from the back and hauled him off. We then carried on as if nothing had happened and started winding our way up the mountain roads in the dark, you could feel the air getting cooler with every hairpin turn, sleep was not an option as the driver was playing some awful Bollywood movie at full distorted volume and there were constant horns blaring, along with never ending bumps and turns. I had prime position to see exactly what sort of state the roads were in that we were driving down, I wish I hadn’t! I noticed a few times that the driver would nod to his chain smoking mate who would open a small panel in the dash and grab something out, handing it to him to swallow with a glug of water. I can only imagine this must be some drug to keep him awake, this made me slightly nervous! The Tibetan lady next to me was chomping her way through some unidentified food and she offered me some, not wanting to cause offence I took what looked like a dried fruit, it wasn’t tasty and I wasn’t sat next to the window to slyly chuck it out!

Mcleod Ganj

The sun was now rising which just revealed in even more detail the sheer drop to one side and sheer crumbling cliff to the other, thankfully we made it to Mcleod Ganj in one piece, I was greeted by a guy that worked at the school, we walked forever to the guesthouse that had been arranged, up and down some long hills, I was knackered. The room was pretty basic, there was also foldup beds in the hallway, I later discovered that this is where the staff slept, very loudly! The view for breakfast was pretty good though.

Breakfast view Mcleod Ganj volunteering in India
Breakfast view Mcleod Ganj

The next day I was shown the school where I’d be volunteering, I had visions of a big building away from the hustle of the centre, I was wrong, it was right on the main street up a few dodgy steps and had only about 6 small rooms, I was introduced to the director and then the Tibetan computer teacher, I was then told that they were short on a teachers and would I mind teaching basic computing to a class, I was slightly hesitant but agreed. I made my home on a little desk in the corner (pictured) and was instantly asked to fix a laptop!

Computer teachers office volunteering in India
Computer teachers office
Mcleod Ganj volunteering in India
Mcleod Ganj

The following few days I focused on finding a better place to stay, doubling my budget to £10 per night I moved to a guesthouse a bit nearer the school down some of the dodgiest 200 steps I’ve ever seen! After a few weeks of these I was so much fitter, you could tell the new arrivals as they’d be gasping for air at the top.

The new guesthouse was run by some Kashmiri brothers and had comfy beds, wifi and room service! They also has a small cafe on the roof with a great view of Triund, perfect for breakfast and Kashmir tea.

Triund Mountain volunteering in India
Triund Mountain

Lessons

I got settled into a routine at the school, planning lessons (quite a task), teaching a class in the afternoon, this was an experience as I had to have a translator to help for some of the Tibetans, I remember showing this one girl how to use a mouse, she sussed it in the end. Most of the students were only really interested in learning how to use Facebook and messaging software so they could contact family that they hadn’t seen in years back in Tibet.

Basic computing class volunteering in India
Basic computing class

Any free time I had was spent fixing various laptops, this included an ancient IBM Thinkpad I was handed by two monks who didn’t speak a word of English, they just showed me the screen, full of popups and viruses, it was unusable! This thing was to be my nemesis, it required a complete wipe and re-install, quite a task when you don’t have any software and the thing was using a copied version of windows! Many hours were spent downloading things on patchy internet but I fixed it in the end, he was very happy.

At the weekends I’d wander around the town, finding the best restaurant to eat in, meeting fellow travellers, climbing mountains, taking pictures and even going to the Dalai Lama’s temple to hear him give a talk that I couldn’t understand!

Moving on

When it finally came time to move on I was pretty sad, I’d got used to my daily routine, was a lot fitter, healthier, had made some great friends and have some excellent memories. The bus ride back was awful, 15 hours in total with lots of breakdowns again, I spent 1 night in a hotel in Pahraganj central Delhi then flew on to Thailand.

I’d recommend volunteering whilst travelling, it’s a great way to get away from being just another tourist on the usual trail, you get so much more out of your time and it’s very rewarding knowing you’re helping a bit.


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