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  Volunteer Tales >> Alex Roger

An Indian Experience, by Alex Roger, a recent media volunteer with i-to-i International Projects - also some great hints for first time volunteers going to India !!

"If you are thinking about taking a year out either before or after university – or even as a career break – then from a personal point of view I would highly recommend it. It can be a fantastic experience in which to travel, see parts of the world you could never have imagined existed and also live and work in a completely different culture. Also, you may never again get a chance to spend such a long time in another country so think carefully about what it is that you are looking for. Before I go in to some of the advice that I would pass on to other people planning their own year, I will tell you a little of my own experience in India…

After finishing university, I knew I didn’t want to either stay on for further study or go straight in to a job. I wanted to travel and gain some experience of life in another country. However, I didn’t fancy the idea of just wandering the globe and being a tourist for my whole time. I wanted to actually do something out there. And so I looked at many organisations that organised work abroad (check out the web – there are lots). Each had a different emphasis and I would not say that you can judge one of these to be better than the others – it comes down to personal choice. I chose I-to-I as it was relatively good value, had media projects in India, and it allowed me to go in April for a three month period. That was everything I was looking for. Between finishing university and going away to India, I temped to pay off overdrafts and put money away for the flights and fees. I managed to raise all the money I needed in six months just through working, I didn’t go for the money-raising approach. In preparation, I made sure I had all the jabs you need – India can be a dangerous place if you don’t have the right protection! I also spent a major part of my time before Christmas applying for jobs starting the following September and after some time, managed to secure a training position. I found that firms were generally curious as to why I wanted to spend time working in a second world country but were fine with the whole idea once I’d explained why I wanted to do it. To me it was quite important that I had something to come back to – it is a big security when you leave for so long.

And in April I jetted off to India. The experience as a whole was amazing – not always easy, and sometimes quite hard work. I think you will find that a common experience of people who have spent time out in India. You have to be prepared for a major culture shift from the comforts of Western life. This was my first time travelling on my own and so I really was jumping in at the deep end. I landed in Bombay, spent two days catching the sights in the city and then caught a train down to Bangalore. Admittedly, planes are quicker but I wanted to see some of the country first and what better way than sitting back and watching the scenery drift past. (Also, a first class train ticket is still a third of the price of a budget flight.) The journey lasted for 24 hours and so I had plenty of time to take it all in Although I did this on my own, I was not lonely for much of the journey as the Indians around were friendly and curious. I had long conversations about why I was in India, the differences between here and England, my life, family, study and job. They have none of the reserve of the British and will happily ask you all sorts about yourself. It takes you aback the first few times but you soon get used to it. I spent two weeks travelling around the South seeing temples and palaces before I started work with the NGO (non-governmental organisation). This is an organisation that aims ‘to effect social change through the media’. In other words, it raises awareness for disabilities, human rights, women’s rights, development issues by making short documentaries for national television, producing a journal, making radio plays, and putting stories in newspapers. Although I was only there for three months, I managed to get involved in all of these things. My duties included: Researching possible disability groups that could be used in documentaries; Scriptwriting the documentaries with colleagues; Attending the ‘shoots’ of the documentaries; Editing the latest thrice-yearly journal; Researching and writing an article for the next journal; Spending a week with a national newspaper as an intern (in which I got 5 article published!). All in all, a whole range of activities that were great fun. However, I had to be quite proactive in the work. If you sit around waiting to be given work, you are going to get bored very quickly. You have to be enthusiastic and if you can see where you can help, offer to do so. I expect, though, that in any project it will take about two weeks before the ball really starts rolling. In that time, you will find your feet and get to know just what the place is all about. Only then will the work start to get ‘meaty’. Your colleagues will also have a good idea about what you are capable of and what you are most interested in. The old cliché ‘you only get out what you put in’ holds here as much as anywhere.

So where did I live? Our home was with an Indian family near to our work in the Bangalore suburbs. We were given three meals a day of the most gorgeous food you could wish for (we would be given a packed-lunch before we left the house for work). The boys shared one room and the girls another. Just at the end of the road were all sorts of shops, including numerous cyber cafes. Bangalore is strange blend of the ultra modern and the traditional past as wooden carts pulled by oxen will trundle by outside the internet shops. If the weather was fine in the morning (which it was most of the time) we would walk to the office, otherwise we would grab an auto rickshaw, or squeeze on to the number 314 bus. At the weekends we would travel to the cities and sites around the South of India.

What advice would I give to someone just starting to plan their year out? Well, as you will likely only get one shot at the whole year off, think very carefully about what it is you want to do. If you are after an easy time where you don’t have to think much and just want to travel, I wouldn’t recommend a working experience. However, if you want to live the culture of another country and you have plenty of enthusiasm and an open mind, then seriously consider working abroad. It will provide you with an insight in to the world that you will treasure for a long time.

• Look at all the options available and pick the one that will suit you best.

• Plan at least 6 months ahead of going and budget carefully.

• Make sure you get all the right inoculations as this could ruin your trip if you don’t. Get the latest medical advice on the particular region as certain strains of disease can migrate across countries and may require you to take different drugs.

• Read the introduction section of the Rough Guide to wherever you are going before you go. These are packed with invaluable information by experienced travellers.

• Enquire about visas early. If you send away for these, they can take over a month to process. The other option is to wait at the relevant embassy and get in done in person. Usually takes a few hours.

• Get advice from people who have been already. What did they enjoy, what problems did they have?

• GET INSURANCE. And check that it covers you for your entire trip – i.e. the length of time and also the activities. For instance if you are likely to want to go diving or climbing, it is unlikely to be covered by the basic policy.

• Get a credit card, if you can. These can be extremely useful in an emergency – either for cash in a hurry, tickets, or for instance if you are rushed to hospital, these can be used to cover all the expenses and then you can claim on insurance when you get home.

• Make sure you know what to do if things go wrong. For instance, who to contact and where to go should you lose you passport/money etc… The procedure in case you get ill, etc…

• Get a holster or a money belt. I used a holster type thing that was about £6 from Salisbury’s. One of the best things I bought. You can safely keep your passport, emergency credit card and documents stashed away out of sight but never have to take it off. Putting your valuables in your rucksack or in a lose wallet is just asking for trouble.

• Travel light. No explanation needed. In India, clothes are so cheap you hardly need to take anything out there. And also you will probably get stuff that is much more suited to the weather.

• Go with an open mind.

Alex Roger volunteered with i-to-i International Projects, April-July 2001