Monday, April 14, 2014

The Magical Himalayan Odyssey - Volunteer Travel

Volunteer travel – If I have to choose the best part of the journey, without a second thought, it has to be the 3 volunteer stints. During the planning stages, I came across an article in Times Of India which was my first introduction to the idea of volunteer travel. Ecosphere(the first organisation I volunteered with) was mentioned in the article and I contacted them and discussed the opportunities available. The plan was to start the journey in Ladakh and then head to Spiti Valley to volunteer with Ecosphere. In fact , the original plan was to volunteer with Ecosphere only. But, it was such a rich experience that I extended it to 2 more organisations in 2 different states working on completely diverse projects.

Before I get into the details of each stint, I will share my understanding of volunteer travel. It was a new concept for me when I came across it the first time and a common question have been asked is – what is this volunteer travel ? In simple terms, ‘It is taking time off to work on a cause one believes in and mixing travel with it’. Few of us are associated with different causes and we voluntarily contribute towards it in our own ways. Now, think about doing the same while travelling – we have the best of both worlds – a great travelling experience and a rewarding volunteer stint. I cannot think of a better way to explore a place than volunteer travel. We get to work for the people who know the particular region in and out. Far better than any travel guide. Next, we are spending time with the localites working on projects which concerns them and what better way to understand the intricacies of local culture and history. Not to forget, volunteer travel works out far cheaper than conventional travel. Add to this, we are working on projects and causes which we believe in and passionate about. We might have theoretical knowledge about the areas we are interested in, but nothing matches field experience.

Now, how does one start with volunteer travel? Here is an article which I found quite helpful – Guide to Volunteer Travel in India. Two of the organisations I volunteered are on the list! Actually, I came across this article a few months after I started. How do we go about choosing the organisation ? If I have to list the steps:
  1. Narrow down on the place – There are opportunities available all over India(even in cities) and the first step would be to choose where do we want to spend time.
  2. Choose the right project – There are organisations working on multiple causes, each doing commendable work in their chosen field. It is important to choose a project which we believe in. Else, I feel it will be tough to maintain the volunteer spirit. Also, not all organisations might have active projects to accommodate us. So, it is important that our skills fit in their requirements. It is also possible that the organization might reject our application in case if this does not match.
  3. Plan the duration – Most organisations have minimum duration commitment (ranging from few weeks to few months) and few don’t. Irrespective of this, I feel anything less than a month is not a good idea. It takes time to gel with the new team and understand the work culture before we can contribute anything meaningful. Though there are volunteer stints for a week or two, I would not recommend it to any of my friends.
  4. Budget – A common question again – is food and accommodation provided by the organisation? This varies from organisation to organisation. In some, food and accommodation is completely on the organisation. In few, we have to pay a fixed amount, generally in the range of few hundred rupees. This should be the last of the points in decision making. Choosing Volunteer travel only because it is cheap is definitely not going to help either the volunteer or the organisation.
A brief summary of the 3 stints:

Ecosphere, Spiti valley, Himachal Pradesh 
Could I have asked for a better start ? Almost certainly NO. If anyone from Ecosphere is reading this, a big thank you for being amazing hosts. Actually, I published a small post on this stint on Ecosphere blog - 40 days with Spiti Ecosphere . I wrote this towards the end of my stint and the memories now are just as magical as they were then.

View of Kaza(Spiti Valley)

Waste Warrios Corbett(WWC), Bhakrakot, Uttarakhand
This was not in my original plan. In fact, Uttarakhand was nowhere in the initial plan. I met the founder of WWC in Spiti Valley and was quite impressed. After Spiti valley, went to Sikkim and was considering volunteering in Sikkim. But, later decided to head back to Uttarakhand, which meant 2 days of train and bus journey. In hindsight, a decision which worked out brilliantly. Waste management is something which has always been close to my heart and to work on this at the ground level was great learning. Again, if anyone from WWC is reading this, thank you for giving me this opportunity. To know more about the work at WWC, check their Facebook page Waste Warriors Corbett .

WWC team in Ringora village
Fertile Grounds, Digboi, Assam
One thing led to another and as if it was all destined, ended up volunteering in Assam. I contacted couple of organisations in the north east, but only got a response back from Fertile Grounds. If you are reading this, thank you Peggy Carswell. The opportunity was to volunteer in the field of organic farming. This was something where my knowledge was practically zero and each day was filled with loads of learning and new perspectives. Also had the chance to work with a partner organization called Axum Agri. This by far was the most intense and rewarding stint. To know more about the organizations, check Fertile Ground and Axum Agri .

Chandrapur village near Digboi(Assam)
Personally, all the 3 stints turned out far better than I expected. Would totally recommend including volunteer stints for anyone considering long travel break. Does this mean it always works out this way? Not necessarily. Have heard from fellow travellers about not so good volunteer experiences. Could be because of multiple reasons – choosing the wrong organization, the wrong place or just a mismatch between the skill sets and the opportunities. If you search for blogs and forums, there are a few which discourage volunteer travel. Nevertheless, the odds of a not so good experience are far less compared to a memorable and enriching one and I would say with confidence that it is worth taking a chance.

In the next post, possibly the last in the series, will share a brief summary of the places I got to visit and travel.

Monday, April 7, 2014

The Magical Himalayan Odyssey - Understanding Travel

The previous 2 blog posts were about answering some of the most common questions have faced. This post is primarily about some pertinent questions have asked myself about travel.

The terms tourist, traveller and visitor are often used interchangeably. But, am sure that most of us acknowledge that there is a wide difference between a tourist and a traveller. Similarly, there is a huge gap between visiting a place and travelling to a place. But, the question is, what is the difference?

Back in 2009, a bunch of us decided to hire a cab and go around Karnataka. We stopped at all the famous points along the way and made sure we captured pictures -both group and individual!! We had a fixed plan and we were not willing to change it under any circumstance. We saw all the places on our list and we hardly interacted with anybody outside our group. Actually, I don’t find anything horribly wrong with this approach. Just that we were not travelling, but we were touring and visiting places. I would safely guess that this is how most of us begin. Such tours continued and somewhere along the line, I realized this is not exactly the same as travel. I don’t recall how this thought came to me. To be honest, it was hard to find people around who understood what travel is and from whom one could learn.

The first time I came across travellers was in September 2012. They were a couple of westerners who were on a travel break and seemed to have a different approach. One striking difference was that they did not have an agenda set in stone and they were more than willing to experience anything which comes their way and their ability to observe and learn was quite evident. Fortunately, I had the opportunity to meet few more such travellers and the most notable among them was a person I met a few months before I took up my little journey. For the first time, I came across a person whose life is built around travel and whose personality has been shaped significantly by his journeys. Undoubtedly, it is a long road from a tourist to a traveller. If we can take an analogy of a school of travel, I would say I have finally managed to gain admission into the school. But, a long way to go before I graduate from this school.

In the 221 days, there were many days when I woke up in a new town and realized that I had no plan whatsoever. I ventured out for breakfast, spoke to a couple of localites and figured out what to do for the day. In the end, it all turned out fine. Now, what has changed between the time we hired a cab and went around few places in Karnataka and this Himalayan Odyssey? If I have to highlight one thing, it has to be my ability to go with the flow. I gradually got rid of my plans and cut down on my expectations. Consequently, there was very little chance to be disappointed. The amount of preconceived notions had reduced significantly and was in a better position to experience things as they are and not the way I had envisaged beforehand. This experience includes everything – people, terrain, culture, food and the list goes on. In other words, I was more open to absorb the new experiences. This I feel is the single biggest difference between a tourist and a traveller – the ability to trust the journey and go with the flow. This attitude to trust the journey and firmly believe that whatever happens along the way is a welcome experience is one thing which clearly sets apart a traveller from a tourist. Definitely, this is not the only difference and more importantly, have not understood all the differences. This is just my understanding based on my limited experience.

Next, have asked this question myself many times – what is so great about being a traveller? Why is it that so many quotes, books, blogs, forums are dedicated to discuss the greatness of travel. Most important, why do people seem to be so desperate to travel? To be honest, I feel travel is one of the most misunderstood and exaggerated concepts. This might not go down as the most popular opinion. Misunderstood because people tend to equate visiting places to travelling to a place. Visiting places is almost like going to school. We might go to the best of the schools and pursue the highest of the degrees. But, it only increases the probability of learning and does not ensure it. Same way, one can tour for years, but still might carry the attitude of a tourist and not grow much beyond that. On the other hand, one could have visited only a couple of places, but might possess the attitude of a traveller. When I hear people claim ‘I have travelled all across India’ or ‘There are only a few states left, but I have covered most part of India’, (you can replace India with any other country name here :), it just reinforces my belief that we more often than not tend to confuse between visiting a place and travelling to a place. Exaggerated because I feel that the learnings from travel are generally blown out of proportion. Is listening to the story of our neighbour much different from listening to the story of a stranger we meet while travelling?  Do our cities don’t offer any chance to learn from people of other cultures? Are the mountains and rivers closer to our hometown any less beautiful than the ones thousands of miles away? Not really. No doubt that travel is a great teacher, but a lot depends on the student.

In spite of the exaggeration, there is definitely unbound magic in travel, which I am still trying to unravel. Travel teaches a lot, no two thoughts about it. One thing I have observed is that when we are travelling, we are mostly focused on the present and not living in the past or the future. It is like all our senses are focused on that very moment and our ability to observe, learn and absorb seems to have gone up by many notches. Being away from our comfort zones and putting ourselves amidst new people in new places makes it mandatory for us to live in the moment!! Maybe, this is what makes the learning so effective and profound. And what better way to experience this than going solo!! One is not bound by the limitations and expectations of the group and we are all by our self to trust our instincts and go with the flow. If one has to experience the better teachings of travel, my sincere suggestion is to try solo travel. During the planning stages, was in discussion with a couple of friends about doing this journey together. Looking back, I feel sorry for them that they missed this magical experience. On the other hand, am also glad that I had the opportunity to go solo.

Does this cover my complete understanding of travel? Definitely NO. It is a work in progress and this post is an attempt to share my observations and understandings at this point of time. With time, it is bound to change and evolve.

In the next post, will share about the best part of my journey – the 3 volunteer stints!!