Life of a volunteer: expectation vs. Reality.


Rewind a couple of years and I was a girl about to finish school and still completely bemused and directionless about her future and any potential plans (an idea that makes me chuckle now I’ve come to India and seen how focused even the youngest of primary children are). One thing I did know, however, was that I needed a break from studying; the constant pressure to perform well in exams and hand in essay after essay was driving me slowly insane (another point that my hindsight now belittles). I wanted an adventure. Somewhere I’d never been before and bore no similarities to the drizzly village in rural England which had been home for the past eighteen years. Safe to say I think I found the unknown that I was in search of.

India had always appealed to me. Elephants, curries and a million and one different cultures, states, languages all under one roof, what could be better?  When I look back I can’t remember at what point I decided to turn a potential holiday or few months of travelling into a year-long volunteering placement, although I suspect it might have originated from a late night, coffee fuelled essay deadline…in the name of procrastination my mind wanders far and wide. But, somehow, I ended up on a plane armed with little more than the name ‘Sevalaya’ and that it was a charitable school, and a return ticket home for the following year. If I’m being perfectly honest, the volunteering took up a disproportionately small part in my imaginations for the year ahead, surely riding an elephant or camel would be more fun? The project would be a basis from which I could explore the greater India and bump around this vast country.

I can say now, nearly ten months in, and with an alarmingly short six weeks left, that the concept of being a volunteer has far exceeded my expectations. By no stretch of the imagination am I a perfect volunteer: the kids sometimes push all my buttons to the point of a very short tempered volunteer, my tendency to daydream whilst walking has lead to me disrupting many a prayer session and I spend long stretches of my time thinking of how I can manoeuvre myself under one of the underpowered fans, sometimes whole classrooms away.  But I enjoy it, I have made friends here, staff, students and volunteers alike.  The children know me and feel comfortable to come up and start a conversation, even if it is often a short babble of ‘Hi sister, how’re you? Eating finished? Okay, Bye!’ And, dare I say it, I think I might have even taught them some things: a lot about England, a different and sometimes incomprehensible culture, grammar ( although more of that than I care to admit came from some last minute brushing up of my grammatical knowledge) and potentially opened up a world of Disney magic (an experiment has confirmed that ‘Frozen’ is an international, cross continental phenomenon to children the world over).  Yet I feel guilty. The things I may have taught these children is in no league with all the many hundreds of things that they’ve taught me.  Although, despite their best efforts, my Tamil is still very thin on the ground I am well versed in little girls’ clapping games, and applaud the person who thought to rhyme seven with Shivan (complete with actions). I have somehow turned into the hostel hair stylist, and can now plait, loop and tie with ribbon beautiful Indian tresses before you can say ‘oh god another batch of headlice!’.  I have also been scorned by a particular Northern Indian volunteer for sitting on the floor of Chennai central station with a bag of ten rupee flowers tying them with string to wear in my hair the following day.

So now, with the amazing power of hindsight, I can say that I regret nothing about my decision to stay as a volunteer for such a long period of time and I’d recommend it to anyone contemplating doing the same thing. Sure, the Taj Mahal is jaw-droppingly beautiful, but the memory of being asked by a child what a pimp is will stay far longer.


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