Towards the end of my second semester of university at the University of Queensland, I expressed to a friend the desire to “one day” do voluntary work somewhere/anywhere overseas. To which her reply was “Well, I’ve actually just started helping Lattitude do interviews for a volunteer placement starting next February. I can send you a link on Facebook, if you want.”
Fast forward three months, and I was deferred from University and on a plane to New Delhi, nervous and excited for the upcoming months. As part of Young People without Borders, a new initiative for the Foundation of Young Australians, I was off to teach at a school for underprivileged in Dehradun, a city at the base of the Himalayas.
India was a complete culture shock, but despite this, I quickly fell in love with the country. The roads were congested, cars shuffling through spaces not designed for cars. Auto rickshaws, horse drawn carts, bicycles, motorbikes and cows all fighting for the same space, resulting in a cacophony of noise, exhaust fumes and dust. Vehicles constantly honk their horns when people aren’t moving fast enough or to indicate they’re coming through. People walk through the traffic whenever they like, and beggars wander into stopped traffic at traffic jams, pressing their faces against the glass with sad eyes, gesturing for food and money.
Teaching for three months at the Moravian Institute in Rajpur, a little town outside of Dehradun, was an incredible experience. I taught classes ranging from ten kids to forty, with ages ranging from four to fifteen. I taught everything from environmental studies, history, geography and art, fending off questions such as “But ma’am, where do Adam and Eve go on this history time line?” We played games and read to the children after school, wrote the school newsletter and even wrote, directed and choreographed the school play for the parents at the end of term. The kids were loud, energetic, funny, silly, just like kids the world over. One afternoon I had to go into the nearby city- my earphones for my ipod had broken. They were frustrating me so badly- they were the cheap kind of earphone from the aeroplane that rubbed my ears uncomfortably. We jumped on the school bus with the kids and drove down the hill from Rajpur to Dehradun. The bus took a turn off the main road down a curvy track, and I looked out the window eagerly, enjoying the scenery of the mountains of India. We stopped, and nearly all of the children charged off the bus. At first I couldn’t see any homes. Then I noticed the propped up sheets of corrugated iron and black plastic. We’d arrived in one of the local slums, and this was where the kids lived. The children ran, laughing and screaming, back home. I felt horrified I was spending so much time worried about the comfort of my earphones, when these children didn’t even have the comfort of proper homes to live in.
After teaching for three months, my friend and I planned to see as much of the country as possible. We plotted our route to circumnavigate the country. Starting in the north, where we were based, we crossed the country to the eastern coast, then travelled down the coast to the most southern tip, completing the tour by travelling up the western coast and back to Delhi. It was considered ambitious as we had one month to do it, and most of our friends were travelling north, higher into the mountains to avoid the pre monsoonal heat. But, undeterred, we started. Backpacking through India was an amazing experience. As always, I tried my hardest to follow the advice of the wonderful Dr Julie Burke, but at times it was difficult. I could almost hear her groan when I tripped over a park bench in the Jim Corbett Tiger Park. I could hear her sigh as the jeep driver announced “I have Indian medicine!” and proceeded to wipe my scraped up, bloody leg with a dirty rag. It was covered in some black liquid which to this day I hope was some iodine based substance and not snake oil as he referred to it. Three days later when I decided it would be a good idea to go white water rafting and swimming in the Ganges, I think I heard Julie cry. By the way, my leg healed very well, and didn’t even get infected. I think that this was due to one of two reasons: One, the Ganges has healing and restorative powers, or two: I liberally doused my leg with antiseptic lotion from my extensive first aid kit. I did this every morning and night for weeks on end. Julie had insisted upon me taking a range of medicines for all foreseeable circumstances. .
As they say, getting sick in some countries seem inevitable. Which is why I am still surprised that the food in India never made me sick- except for that one burger I ate at Macdonalds. I really did love the food, especially the street food. A favourite meal, whilst volunteering at the Moravian, was a local food called a “Buntiki” which was essentially a potato (aloo) patty with chopped onions and a sweet and a sour sauce on a bun. Delicious, and only ten rupees. I also adored a lot of the Tibetan culture, especially the food. A noodle soup called “Thukpa” is now something I try to replicate at home, though it never tastes quite as nice.
Travelling through India, especially when the two of you are young (seventeen and nineteen) girls, can be tough, at times. I never really felt like I was in danger, as most people are willing to tell others to “knock it off” if they’re being inappropriate. However, we did have our moments, such as one afternoon when one gentleman decided it was necessary to leap off the back of his moving motorcycle and on to our moving rickshaw, just to tell my companion how beautiful, stunning, gorgeous she was. We also had to tell some extravagant lies to get rid of a waiter who seemed hell bent on touring us around Mumbai, to the point where he would not stop following us. We ended up leaping into a taxi and driving far, far away. We often felt like movie stars, when people insisted in coming up and asking for our photos, or, more often, not asking. One man in Delhi thought he was being very subtle, holding his oversized SLR at his chest, and just aiming it in my direction, pretending to not be photographing me. However, he was unaware that his camera flashed, every time he took a photo. In these cases, humour can go a long way. I picked my own camera up, flashed him a smile, and proceeded to be very obvious about the photos I was taking of him. He looked quite embarrassed to be caught taking photos of me, and quickly walked away. As a tourist, I often came to regret that phones are now equipped with cameras, as we often had phones pointing at us for long amounts of time, making us think that people were just filming us as we went past. On trains, we would often put shawls over our heads and just go to sleep, clutching our backpacks and closing our eyes to avoid the curious faces and aloft phones.
The language barrier in India was not as tough as we thought it might be, as most people are competent if not fluent in English. However, we did pick up a little bit of Hindi, which won us favours the country over. To be able to ask the little old lady in the store “How are you?” in Hindi won us some big smiles. I loved being able to barter in Hindi, the rickshaw drivers took it so well. We would act outraged, and in Hindi say “What? But that is so much money!” and they would roar with laughter, and bring the prices down. Eventually we would say in Hindi “Alright, let’s go,” and they would giggle away, repeating what we said, making me think our accents made us sound funny.
Spending so much time in India gave me a new outlook on life. I love the countryside, the people, the culture and the history. I’d love to go back, to explore the places in even more depth, and there are so many more places to go! Further into the ice capped mountains of the Himalayas, out to the islands of the Andaman’s, or Lakshadweep. My trip helped remind me how lucky I am to live the life I do, to live in a safe country, but to be able to travel to see how people in other countries live. I don’t think I’ve done the last of the backpacking I plan to do in my life! My next plans include Mongolia, and eventually Europe. “One day.”