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.