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
On 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!
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.
It 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.
RASTA 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.
Wayanad 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.
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.
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.