If anyone told me I would have to get up at 3.30am every morning for 4 weeks I have to say I would not be best pleased. But when the reason for getting up is to go and wash, feed and care for 5 magnificent elephants then perhaps this early start seems a little less painful. Plus when else would one get to see the normally chaotic streets of Jaipur in such a docile state, where the lumbering buses and noisy rickshaws are replaced by snuffling pigs and bleary eyed goats?
This is just one of the many experiences that set apart volunteering from merely being a tourist. Sure, everyone wants to see the big attractions, whether it be the Taj Mahal ot the Golden Temple or a tropical beach in Goa and there’s no doubt they are wonderful sights, but there is no better way to feel the real essence of a country than to spend time with the locals. And on all the Volunteering With India project, this is a fundamental part of the programme.
During my time in Jaipur working with the enigmatic elephants of the Amber Fort, I stayed with an Indian family in their house in the suburbs of the city. The volunteers lived on the ground floor of the house where we were provided with our own kitchen and bathroom facilities and 2 people slept in each of the 2 bedrooms. However, in my whole 4 weeks at the house I don’t think I ever used that kitchen as I was welcomed into the family’s living space upstairs to eat my breakfast, lunch and dinner with my hosts. And what wonderful meals I was presented with! The family I lived with were Brahmin cast, which meant all food was strictly vegetarian (including no eggs) but I didn’t need to worry about lack of variety. My Indian “mother” cooked some fantastic food and there’s no doubt that this was about as authentic as Indian food can get – poles apart from the anaemic kormas and tikka masalas that are passed off as curries in the UK. I really got the true Indian experience in that every meal was eaten on the floor, with our hands, often in front of the families’ favourite historical Hindi soap on the TV. Would I have got all of this if I were merely in a hotel? Absolutely not.
My family also gave me a great insight into Indian culture, not only by experiencing everyday life with them but also by their willingness to involve me with some of the festivals that take place during my time in Jaipur – and believe me there are a lot of festivals in India! One particularly memorable moment was being taken to a local beauty salon by my “Mum” and her 10 year old daughter to have my hands decorated with henna. Not only did I leave with beautiful palms and fingers, I also had the experience of sitting with a group of gossiping, chattering women of all ages and picked up a few local beauty tips while I was there! My family also took me out to the famous Raj Mandir cinema to watch a Bollywood film – something I would highly recommend. From the cheering children to the wolf-whistling boys to the delicious interval samosas, going to the movies in the UK will never be the same again!
There’s so much more I could write about my “real-life” experience in India but the only way I could really make it come alive is to advise you to experience it yourself. I can safely say it’s been one of the highlights of my travelling career so far, so what are you waiting for? Get in touch with VWI now!