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VOLUNTEERING ALONE IN INDIA, AS A WOMAN.

We were heartened to know that one of our customers would be traveling and volunteering in India on her own, a journey considered to be a taboo by many. Whilst India might sound a dangerous territory to step into alone, especially as a woman, Rebecca shares another perspective of what it was like for her.

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When I decided to travel to India, as a solo 24 year old woman, I came up against a tidal wave of negative reactions.

That’s not to say that there wasn’t a lot of positive ones too, but the negative were definitely stronger than I’ve ever experienced when divulging a travel plan. ‘Isn’t that a bit dangerous’ was a common one, ‘You’re going alone?’ followed by a mildly concerned expression was also frequent, ‘It’s not the diseases you need to worry about, it’s being attacked’. The latter is a direct quote from the nurse in my village whilst she was administering several large injections, 2 days before I left. Nice one.

I wouldn’t say that I wasn’t nervous before I left, actually I was terrified. The things you read in the news about India, coupled with this wave of worry was a little hard to ignore.  I’m not saying you should ignore it, future India traveller. Pay heed to the sensible bits of advice, be savvy. Do not, DO NOT let those words stop you from what could possibly be the most exhilarating experience of your life.

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I started my journey in Mumbai, volunteering for a charity that works in one of the biggest slums in the world. It was everything you might expect, eye-opening, challenging and upsetting at times. It was also a few things you might not expect, life affirming, beautiful and joyful. It was a placement I had arranged myself by emailing a few months prior. I told them about my skills set, interest area and the dates I would be there. Simple!

I learnt a huge amount from my time both volunteering and traveling in India. Patience is a virtue but sometimes you have to lose your sh*t. Or do as the Indians do. If something makes you angry, shout about it. People don’t queue. They push, jump into the scrum or you ‘aint getting on that train. Be open and be interested. Everyone will stare at you, that’s a given. Stare back if you like, it isn’t rude (the exception to this rule can sometimes be when you’re alone and some dude is eying you up…then it’s probably best not to stare back. I speak from experience). Indians are interested in each other’s lives. As we say in the North-East, they want to know what the craic is, what’s going on. They don’t live in little bubbles of personal space like we do. Yes, you might find an old lady half your height pushing you by the bum, embrace it! Take a deep breath, go.  If you fall down get up and dust yourself off, go again.

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Some of my favourite memories of my time in India are my interactions with people. On my first day in the slum I met an old man who had been making clay pots since he was 14 years old. He told us about his life, his wife and children and the hardships he had faced. He ended by saying, ‘in life you have to be the lotus flower floating above the mud, above pain and illness and suffering.’  I thought about him every now and then throughout the rest of my trip. ‘Think lotus flower’.  From people I shared meals with, to those I shared a conversation with and those I only shared a glance with.  I carry them all in my head and my heart. The unbelievable landscapes, the music, the colours, THE FOOD, they are what stay with me. The women in the slum who were the most beautiful women I have ever seen, grinning school kids, the man I shared a beedie with in Mysore, the rickshaw wallah who serenaded us with a medley from the lion king. The, quite possibly, hundreds of people who helped me at every turn, crossroad and hiccup in my journey. Work friends, traveling friends, train friends and life-long friends.

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I’m hesitant to quote a film but ‘All life is there’. It really is. India is not shy. It’s all hanging out there for you to see (and hear and smell…). Things that are hidden away in the West because they’re difficult, because we’d rather not know and be blissful in our ignorance are out in the open. Death, poverty, bodily functions… India doesn’t try to sanitise life. It revels in the glory and squalor of human existence. It is brutally honest. Whether this overwhelms you is a choice that you make. 

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Sometimes you have to look for the beauty, but it’s always there. I urge you to go and experience it for yourself. I also urge you to go local. Don’t get chauffeured around everywhere or travel 1st class train or plane. The most incredible experiences I had were always when I was in amongst it all. People are warm and welcoming and if I, a twenty-something from a small village in the least populated county in England, can do it then you definitely can. It will leave you breathless and hungry for more.