Volunteering in India

Ian had to leave Europe and go to India before me, so he looked on the internet for volunteering opportunities. On workaway.com he came across a place called the Rural Agency for Social and Technological Advancement (RASTA). RASTA is a community development organisation in Wayanad at the top of Kerala. He arranged to go there alone for ten days, and then for the two of us to volunteer for about a week after I arrived.

It was midnight on Friday when Ian met me off the plane in Trivandrum, at the southern tip of India. I was exhausted after emotional family goodbyes and a seven hour stopover in Delhi, but we spent a couple of nights at a beautiful homestay set in its own grounds that was an oasis from the busy city

2014-12-07 21.34.16On Sunday we caught the 2.30pm train to Calicut. Ian had organised it before he left the UK via an Australian website as it’s difficult to organise train travel from outside India. Everyone’s name and seat number were posted on bits of paper stuck to the outside of the carriages. It was an express train so didn’t make many stops; even so, it was 10pm by the time we arrived in Calicut – it’s a long way from one end of Kerala to the other!2014-12-08 14.04.05

We stayed in Calicut overnight then, after a huge breakfast, we caught a bus to Kalpetta at about midday. For two hours the bus wound its way uphill around nine hairpin bends; as we climbed higher the air became cooler and cleaner. Finally, in Kalpetta we caught an auto to Kamblakkad which took another 20 minutes.

2014-12-08 14.54.55It was about 3pm on Monday when we were dropped off outside RASTA. Everyone had gone to a wedding but Omana T.K., the director and driving force behind the organisation, soon arrived. She was very happy to see Ian again and to meet me. She told me about RASTA’s history.

It is a non-government, not for profit organisation in a poor district where 17% of the community are tribal people. RASTA was established in 1987, and is committed to empowering tribes, economically and socially disadvantaged women and marginalized farmers, as well as preserving the unique natural environment of southern India.

2014-12-09 14.09.02RASTA has completed over eighty projects on topics including education, housing, sanitation, tribal development, farming, environmental protection and waste management. Omana, a passionate advocate for women’s empowerment, is now encouraging local women to train in solar technology. So far, solar lights have been installed in 145 village homes.

Omana asked us back to her house for tea and cake as we hadn’t eaten since breakfast and were starving. That kept us going until dinner, which we ate in the dining room at RASTA with other volunteers and staff. The food was simple but delicious south Indian vegetarian fare, made with locally grown organic produce.

The next day I met with Omana to find out what I could do to help. She told me that the organisation was struggling financially due to the global financial crisis and aid agencies withdrawing from Kerala. Her vision is for RASTA to become financially sustainable so it can continue to help the disadvantaged local community without relying on outside assistance.

2014-12-09 08.47.42Wayanad is situated in the Western Ghats, a beautiful unpolluted region of India with many natural attractions. Omana’s idea is to open a homestay and eco-tourism business at RASTA. The accommodation facilities at RASTA need to be decorated and furnished to a standard suitable for paying guests. There is also a large, round, half-finished structure, which is central to Omana’s vision. Once completed, this building will provide an additional seven bedrooms plus a relaxation area for yoga, meditation and ayurveda treatments.

Eco-tours could be organised to tribal hamlets, farms, women’s organisations, local schools and temples, allowing visitors to participate in local life and learn from the culture while supporting a grassroots organisation. Increasing the number of guests will also provide employment for the local community, as more staff will be needed to look after the visitors.

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We decided that my skills could best be utilised by writing promotional material to attract more volunteers and funding, while Ian painted rooms and cleared a vegetable patch for planting. We worked for at least five hours a day. In our spare time we walked around the area, marvelling at the peaceful lanes, the simplicity of village life and the friendliness of the locals.2014-12-11 09.07.02

Omana took us to visit some of the local tribal people whose sturdy homes had been built from RASTA-funded projects. Although their dwellings were very simple, they were a vast improvement on the huts they had been living in before. We were humbled by the generosity of the households we visited; they all brought us drinks and snacks despite having so little for themselves. One family even cooked a yam for us on a fire in the middle of the room. The villagers also gave us a tour of their thriving vegetable plots, which had been established using seed and farming expertise provided by RASTA.

When we saw first-hand how much RASTA has helped the local community, we offered to organise a fundraiser in Australia to raise funds for the completion of the homestay. The resulting ‘Bollywood Extravaganza fundraiser for RASTA’ will be held on 28 November 2015.


Feeling like a movie star in Madurai

2015-01-07 14.25.26The massive Meenakshi Amman Temple covers six hectares in the heart of the ancient city of Madurai in Tamil Nadu. Although the present structure was built in the 17th century, its origins go back 2,000 years. The temple has 14 gateway towers (gopurams), which are about 50 metres high and flamboyantly decorated with thousands of elaborate sculptures. The towers can be seen from all over the city, which was very useful as our hotel was located near the temple.

2015-01-07 14.44.52The temple is unusual because it is dedicated primarily to a female deity, Meenakshi. According to legend, she was born with three breasts and it was prophesized that her extra breast would disappear when she met her husband. That happened when she met Shiva (AKA Sundareswarar) and became his consort.

We visited the temple in the evening so we could see the nightly ceremony of putting the god and goddess to bed to consummate their union. Before closing the temple, a ritual procession, led by drummers and a brass ensemble, carries the image of Sundareswarar to Meenakshi’s bedroom. He is returned to his own shrine the next morning at dawn, having supposedly done the deed.

We entrusted our shoes to a shoe keeper outside the temple and joined the queue to enter the complex through one of the massive temple gates. When we got to the ticket box a guide called Johnny offered to take us around the main sights for 500RP (about £5). We were feeling a bit overwhelmed by the size of the temple complex – although many of the shrines are closed to non-Hindus, there’s still a lot to see – so we agreed to his offer.2015-01-07 20.45.53

2015-01-07 20.48.52The temple is adorned with colourful ceiling and wall paintings and there are some amazing sculptures that have been carved from a single block of granite (as Johnny kept proudly telling us). We finished our tour at about 8pm and sat in the meditation hall for a while as the bedtime ceremony wasn’t until 9pm. Then we found a possie outside Sundareswarar’s shrine where we would get a good view of the proceedings.

2015-01-07 21.15.20 While we were waiting, a big group of women came out of the inner sanctum and walked towards us. I didn’t take much notice of them at first, but as they passed they all held their hands out to shake mine. And then they wanted to have their photo taken with me. More people poured out of the temple, men also, and they all stopped to shake my hand and have a photo taken with me too. I felt like a movie star!

Eventually, the adoring crowd dispersed and my hand shaking duties finished. Although it was a flattering experience, it was also a little eerie. There were other Westerners there – why did they choose me to target?!

But I didn’t have time to contemplate this for long as just then, in a cloud of incense smoke and accompanied by loud, discordant music, the image of Sundareswarar emerged from his shrine in a hand held carriage. You can see a clip of the start of the journey here: https://youtu.be/e3HP-YB4tUQ2015-01-07 21.32.43

He was carried around the temple to Meenakshi’s bedroom where there was more ceremonial cacophony … but we left them there. I feel that deities – and movie stars, for that matter – should be allowed privacy in the bedroom.

Auroville – human unity in diversity?

Auroville was envisioned by Sri Aurobindo and his spiritual collaborator Mirra Alfassa (known as The Mother) as a model universal township where people from all over the world could come and live together in a non-religious community and advance society. The town was inaugurated on 28 February 1968 and 124 nations were represented. The purpose of Auroville was ‘to realise human unity– in diversity.’ In essence, it was a sociological experiment … but has it worked?

Near the end of our time in India we felt as though we wanted to escape the pollution and rubbish that pervades the country … and Auroville seemed to fit the bill. It was January, slap bang in the middle of the high season (December to March) so we knew it would be pretty busy. We tried to find somewhere to stay for three days on the online Auroville accommodation site, but it wasn’t very user-friendly. We had to contact the hosts one at a time and wait for a reply before we could contact another host, which isn’t good for people like us who tend to plan the day before! In addition, many people volunteer at Auroville so stay for a while and hosts prefer people who are staying for weeks rather than days.

On the day we left for Auroville, we went for breakfast in Pondicherry before heading off. Our usual breakfast place was pretty full and we 2015-01-14 19.48.54ended up sharing a table with a mother and son. By coincidence they were renting a place in Auroville for a while. We hadn’t managed to book any accommodation but our new found friends said we could stay with them if we had trouble finding a place. We took their number and, although we hoped we wouldn’t need to fall back on their offer, we felt more confident about turning up at Auroville with no accommodation.

We got a taxi to drive us there and wait until we’d sorted out a place to stay. Our first stop was the accommodation office at Auroville. The phone lines were down so the accommodation officer wasn’t able to contact anyone, but she told us that one of the nearby homestays, Atithi Griha, had recently had vacancies. We dashed over there and luckily they still had rooms. I booked in while Ian got the taxi to drive our stuff round.

2015-01-13 20.11.12The rooms were built around a central courtyard, with a restaurant at the front. Our room was very basic, with a double bed, a desk and a lamp, and some built in bookshelves. There was a simple ensuite with solar hot water, but it wasn’t very clean. A breakfast of simple, but tasty Indian food was included in our rate of 1,090 RP (about £11) and dinner was also available, if pre-ordered, for an additional cost of just 75p! We ate dinner there one night and invited our friends who had offered to let us stay with them.

Despite reading about Auroville and chatting to other travellers who had visited it, I found it difficult to imagine what it would be like. Auroville was originally planned for 50,000 people, but so far there are only about 2,400 people (from 50 nations) living in small communities set among the trees, on this sprawling 20 square kilometre site about 10km north of Pondicherry. The community is split into different areas according to their particular research interests. At the heart of the settlement is an old banyan tree. Originally, this was the only tree on the site. Today, the forested area is a tribute to the revegetation skills of the Auroville pioneers.2015-01-14 14.09.50

2015-01-14 14.15.45Near the banyan tree is the Matrimandir – a monument that looks like a massive golden golf ball. This was conceived by The Mother as ‘a symbol of the Divine’s answer to man’s aspiration for perfection’, and is said to provide the perfect conditions for meditation. Access to the Matrimandir is strictly controlled. Visitors first have to watch a short film about it and then do a tour to look at the outside. We did the preliminary requirements but didn’t get an opportunity to go inside the Matrimandir as it was booked out in advance.

2015-01-15 14.25.30We hired pushbikes so we could visit other communities in Auroville. These were available from the kiosk near the visitors’ centre and cost just 60p a day. One evening we rode to a pilates class at Tiranga and then had dinner at the Solar Kitchen, which is the community dining area. Another day we had lunch at Solitude Farm, consisting of a delicious thali of fresh organic produce and a purple drink called Radha’s Consciousness.

The Aurocard can be used instead of money and some places, such as the Solar Kitchen, will only accept this as payment, but it is a bit of a palaver. First you get an Aurocard from your host then take it to the town hall to load it with money. When you leave, if you have money left on the card, you need to visit the town hall again to get a refund, and then return the card to your accommodation for a refund of the card deposit. I wouldn’t bother getting an Aurocard again for a brief stay as many places, including the main restaurants near the visitor’s centre, accept money.

There’s plenty to do at Auroville if you want to get involved. I did a half day workshop about ‘Integral Yoga’, which was devised by Aurobindo and The Mother. It is to do with bringing the spirit into the mind and then into the body, by being in the present moment and connecting to beautiful things in nature.

Volunteers who stay for a while would get to know the place better, but we got the impression from people we spoke to who lived there that it was rather cliquey. It also seemed to me as though The Mother and Sri Aurobindo had become what they didn’t want to become – gurus of a cult. And, despite outward appearances, all is not peace and harmony at Auroville – there was a murder while we were there and I saw an article in the newsletter about a recent suicide.


Are you crazy enough for a Rickshaw Run?

Imagine travelling over 3,000 kilometres in India in an auto rickshaw (or tuk tuk as they are known in Thailand). These vehicles are basically glorified lawnmowers with 2 stroke, 7 horse power engines. They are designed for tootling around urban areas, not for long distance, cross country sojourns. While we were wandering around Kochi (in the Indian state of Kerala), we came across some mad individuals who were going to do just that. Moreover, they were going to pay for the experience!

There was lots of activity at the Cochin Club on this particular day in late December, so we decided go down the driveway to investigate. We discovered 95 brightly decorated auto rickshaws gathered on the lawn, together with teams of people from all over the world. They were getting ready for the 2015 Rickshaw Run from Kochi to Jaisalmer in Rajasthan.

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This challenge started on New Year’s Day and finished on 14 January. There was no set route and no back up support. Once the teams left Kochi they were on their own until they reached Jaisalmer … or rather, IF they reached Jaisalmer. Of course, I had to find out more!

I spoke to Julie Walsh from the UK who has always wanted to do the Rickshaw Run and finally managed to persuade her 23 year old twin daughters, Suki and Stevie, to join her. I asked Julie if she was worried about driving a rickshaw.

“No, I’ve done it before. It’s just like driving a scooter,” she said.

2014-12-28 14.51.55The teams paid £1,500 to enter and the proceeds go to two charities, Cool Earth which was chosen by the organisers, The Adventurists, and a charity chosen by the individual teams. Most of the teams had organised to have their rickshaws decorated to indicate their charity.

2014-12-28 14.57.40When I met her, Julie had just started painting her design on the rickshaw, with the help of two Indian women who she asked to assist after they did a good job of painting her hands with henna.

“We weren’t organised enough to create a design and email it to the organisers in time,” said Julie. “But there are some advantages to being disorganised – the unpainted rickshaws are all brand new!”

The design was going to be a big smile to tie in with her chosen charity Smile Train. This charity pays for children in developing countries to have operations for cleft lips and palates so they can smile again.

I followed, Julie, Suki and Stevie’s progress on their Facebook page (Spreading A Smile – Rickshaw Run) and am happy to report that not only did they finish the race in the allotted time, but they were the first to arrive. Julie even got a ‘Finishing with Style’ award because she drank so much rum when they arrived that she was sick on the finish line stage!

If this sounds like your cup of tea, check out The Adventurists website to find out more about the Rickshaw Run and other crazy charity challenges.

Getting up close and personal with the locals

There are risks to travelling on public transport in India (see my previous post about the raging rhino bus drivers), but the reward is that you get to meet local people on buses and trains. Also, many buses in Asia play local music, giving the journey an exotic air.

2015-01-06 13.05.59On our three hour bus trip between Kumily and Madurai in Tamil Nadu, the driver had an ancient tape player perched on a dirty old towel on top of the engine casing next to him. Although it sprouted a myriad of wires it worked just fine. The bus driver skilfully manoeuvred his clunky old vehicle through stark mountain ranges and the kaleidoscope of life in Indian towns and villages, accompanied by loud Indian music all the way. I felt like I was in a Bollywood film! To get a taster of that journey take a look at this brief video clip.

On that same journey, the bus got pretty crowded and a woman near me was nursing her four year old daughter while I had a free seat next to me. The mother and I tried to persuade the little girl to sit with me but she was very shy and unsure of this foreigner. So I gave her a pen.

Photograph taken by Ian Butler

In response, her Mum opened a box she was carrying. It was full of the cheap jewellery you see on sale in bazaars around India. She insisted I have a pair of earrings. Touched by her generosity, I tried to put them in my ears straight away to show my appreciation for the gift. However, the earrings had thicker posts than the ones I usually wear and I couldn’t get one of them in. The woman came and sat next to me and after much gentle coercing got the earring through my ear. Then she took a chain out of her box and put that around my neck, despite my protests. I tried to pay her for them, but she was most offended and made me put my purse away.

2015-01-06 14.15.35By this time, the little girl, who had been watching the earring episode from close quarters, had lost her fear and sat happily between me and her mother. For about an hour I entertained her with jigsaws, music, maps and funny photos on the ipad. When the crowd on the bus dispersed, they returned to their seats and at the next pit stop I shared some food with them. Even though we had no common language we had connected through our common humanity.

We were sat near the front of the bus and the bus driver had been watching our interactions with interest. He was one of the better bus drivers we had in India and didn’t drive as recklessly, yet he had had to swerve twice on this trip. Once to avoid the flailing arm of a drunk man who was very near the edge of the road, and once to avoid an old lady in an apple green sari who dashed across the road to greet someone. When we got off the bus at Madurai, he confided to me that “driving in India is difficult”. I sympathised with him wholeheartedly!

2015-01-08 17.20.35A couple of days later, we travelled by train from Madurai to Villupuram. We didn’t book our tickets until the day before so there were no seats left and we had to get a sleeper, even though we were travelling during the day. As luck would have it, we were in a compartment with a very interesting 74 year old Indian man. He was a retired professor of physics so his English was excellent and we were able to converse about a wide range of topics, something not usually possible because of the language barrier. Besides the usual topics (family, where we live, our opinions of India, our travel plans), because he had a very open mind, we could discuss normally taboo subjects like religion and politics and try to put the world to rights.

I have always thought that travel is the best education … certainly it is for the things that matter. In this crazy world we’re living in at the moment, it has never been so important to connect with ordinary people worldwide. When we do, we realise that we are all striving for the same things – peace, love, and happiness.

I’d love to hear your stories about people you have connected with on your travels and what they have taught you.

Getting around India

I’ve recently travelled through Kerala and Tamil Nadu in southern India. As anyone who has been there will attest, the traffic in India is crazy. Although they don’t move very fast, vehicles glide between each other in a seemingly chaotic, complex dance, 2014-12-28 14.25.43using their horns frequently to warn those in front that they are overtaking.

There seem to be no road rules, but we were told by a Polish expat who rides a motorcycle that there are two guidelines to follow when driving in India:

  1. Don’t look behind you.
  2. Aim for the gaps in the traffic.

Roundabouts are particularly perplexing. Although Indians drive on the left hand side, on entering a roundabout, drivers will often take the shortest route to their exit – so if they are turning right they will turn right onto the roundabout rather than left.

There is very little road rage, drivers appear to expect the unexpected and have good reflexes to avoid collisions. However, statistics show that this strategy is not always successful. Traffic collisions in India are among the highest in the world, and there are more than 135,000 traffic-related deaths a year on Indian roads.

2015-01-05 14.36.05There is a definite pecking order amongst the vehicles in India, mainly based on size. At the top of the ‘food chain’ are the buses. Bus drivers behave like raging rhinos, bullying their way through the herds of other vehicles, by driving within inches of the vehicle in front, overtaking on blind bends, continually blowing their horn and generally intimidating other road users. To illustrate my point, here’s a link to a short video clip I took on a bus journey in India. Near the bottom of the pecking order are auto rickshaws – these glorified lawnmowers are the scuttling beetles of the roads.

India is a vast country, but the majority of travellers do not consider driving there. Even crossing the road incites fear into most tourists new to India, as pedestrians are at the bottom of the pecking order … along with dogs, goats and cows! Instead, they hire taxis or auto rickshaws or use trains and buses for getting about. Although hiring a taxi or auto is relatively cheap (after you’ve haggled to get a good price), for journeys of more than a couple of hours the most common mode is public transport.

Trains are more expensive than buses, but are more comfortable if you can get a second class ticket. However, these seats are very popular so you usually have to book them in advance. Tickets for bus journeys can be bought on board and are very cheap, although the buses are decrepit and can get very crowded. You also have to contend with the raging rhino instincts of the bus drivers, which can be terrifying at times.

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As a comparison, the bus from Kalpetta to Perumbavoor (250km) took 8 hours and cost 198 INR, whereas the train from Trivandrum to Kozhikode (400km) on the Jan Shatabdi took 7 hours 15 minutes and cost 600 INR.

I like travelling on public transport in foreign countries. Part of it is because the skin flint in me is pleased that I’m saving money, but I also get a better appreciation for a place through meeting the local people. Of course, this also gives me a chance to interrogate them and find out their recommendations for their local area! I’ll share some of the experiences I’ve had on pubic transport in India in my next post.