Travel websites consistently try to impress upon backpackers the importance of packing light. While this is good advice (just how practical are this seasons crystal studded Manolo Blahniks really?) there are a couple of things when volunteering in India that you can’t afford to leave behind.
Acceptance of Other Cultures
The cultural differences between India and the rest of the world are enormous, particularly if you experience rural areas where most volunteering projects take place. India is a place where women have to cover themselves from head to toe even in 47 degree heat, where taking a crap onto the train tracks and wiping it away with your hand is the norm and where cars, buses and tuk-tuks are over crowded and carry a complete disregard for everyone and everything else on the road. Ultimately you are the stranger here. Go with the flow, dive straight in and get involved and you may find yourself swept up in it all, and that really is exhilarating.
Heaps of Enthusiasm
When working with children or people in deprived areas, you will find that a smile and an enthusiastic attitude will break down most language barriers. While in India, I had many conversations with children who spoke little to no English and really developed a relationship with them, simply through basic phrases and body language. A little effort goes a long way and you’ll find that it’s definitely worth getting to know the wonderfully warm people of the great sub-continent.
A Strong Stomach
I’m not just on about a harder than nails digestive system to battle the inevitable Delhi belly (and trust me it is inevitable), I’m talking about being able to keep your cool in the face of true adversity. What I found the most difficult to process was the stark difference between the living conditions of rich and poor, and in particular how the rich treated the poor. I got choked up several times hearing stories of the women who have men’s names to prevent them from being raped as children, of women who are beaten by their husbands because leaving them would have worse repercussions. It makes you real appreciate the little luxuries you have in life like basic nutrition and as a woman, being able to afford to marry who you want and then be able to leave them again.
When you travel India, you realise just how different the lives of the locals there are to your own. While you may feel you are being ripped off, by tuk-tuk drivers, market stall owners and street food stalls, you have to think that if you would be happy to pay that price in your home country then you should be happy to pay a lesser amount in India. While haggling is part and parcel of life in India, don’t try too hard, those 10 rupees you could save would be a lot more useful to a local than to yourself. It’s also humbling to see the looks on local’s faces when you give them old shoes, clothes or items you don’t need anymore, and just how much that small gesture means to them. I’m sure they’d be happy to show you their henna skills, or make you a bracelet or cup of chai in return.
If you are thinking of volunteering in India, I urge you to do so. India is one of the most diverse, vibrant and exhilarating countries that you can ever experience. Just remember that it will be a country that you will never forget as long as you remember to savour every moment.