Your office is a three-year old school in a village at a height of 7,100 feet, which is a four-hour horse ride from the nearest town and about eight hours away from Srinagar, Kashmir. In the quiet village of Breswana, weekends mean picnics, treks in the picturesque mountains and a chance to play cricket with school children. The only qualifications are “physical fitness, basic knowledge of Hindi and Urdu and willingness to intermingle”. Satisfy these criteria and Sabbah Haji, co-founder of Haji Public School at Breswana, may just hire you as a volunteer at her school. In return for your services, you get free lodging and food.
Haji’s school is among the growing number of organisations providing travellers with a chance to be good samaritans while they travel. Volunteer travel, or voluntourism, is a vacation that includes volunteering for a cause. Usually a concept associated with foreign tourists or college students on a gap year, voluntourism is fast finding favour with travellers within India too.
“It’s like travelling with a purpose,” says Vidya T, 31, an Indian settled in Toronto. She is currently volunteering at Rural Opportunity for Social Elevation (ROSE) in Sunargaon, Uttarakhand, a self-help community that works towards improving the living standards of local farmers.
Last year, Shivya Nath, 24, took a two-month sabbatical from her job to volunteer at Spiti Ecosphere in Himachal Pradesh, where she was involved with setting up an initiative called Monk for a Month. “I was in Spiti for a month travelling to monasteries and nunneries in many remote villages and interacting with the monks and nuns to understand their lifestyle,” she said. There were many highlights to her trip: experiencing life in the remotest villages of the Himalayas, living without social networking, spending nights stargazing and looking out for shooting stars, hitch-hiking on her own and spotting Spiti’s elusive wildlife. “I got to interact closely with the monks and nuns of the region, which I would never have done otherwise,” she says. So inspired was Nath that on her return, she quit her job and started her own travel initiative, India Untravelled, which uses social media and digital marketing to connect travellers with socially responsible and offbeat travel options.
Vidya, who has been volunteering for ROSE for three weeks, says living in a homestay was a crucial factor. For her, the appeal of visiting Uttarakhand lay in seeing an unexplored Indian countryside that is usually just a footnote in guide books. “I’ve realised that I enjoy travelling most when I can feel a genuine human connection with locals. That’s not easy when visiting popular tourist attractions which are usually surrounded by tour companies and sales people,” she says. A computer engineer by profession, Vidya helps ROSE update its online information and document its different projects.
Voluntourists can be broadly divided into two kinds of travellers — those who use their vacation to volunteer, and long-term travellers who seek out causes. Ashima Goyal Siraj, 31, belongs to the former. Having grown up helping her dad clean up tiger reserves wherever they went on holiday, it was inevitable that she would feel the call to volunteer when stationed in Scotland for a few months. Siraj worked with a charity shop, helping them with fundraisers, sorting out donations and even running the shop when needed. “It was the easiest way for me to get settled and if nothing else,” she said. “A good, fun introduction to a culture I had no idea about.”
Work it out
Since voluntourism largely depends on how much time people have to spare, it works well only for organisations that are flexible. One such organisation in India is World-wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF). WWOOF India has 161 farms spread across 19 states which provide volunteers (or WWOOFers) room and board in exchange for volunteer work. It’s beneficial to both, says its director, Harish Tewari. “Volunteers can work anywhere…they can choose the kind of work they would like and the duration. The farmers on their part get help tending their farms, composting, running the machines and so on,” he says. Boarding and food is free. Both travellers and farmers pay WWOOF an annual membership fee.
Most organisations are happy with the help received, even if it is for a short while. Haji Public School started taking short-term volunteers because of the lack of educated teachers and staff. “Now, we don’t take in people who only want to come here for a holiday, but serious volunteers who can help with the children and in the administrative functions of the school,” she says. The volunteers live with Haji and her family. Short-term volunteers are usually called in only for workshops.
Spiti Ecosphere was created in 2007 to provide people a chance to combine travel and development work. Over the years, co-founder Ishita Khanna has seen short and long-term volunteers drop by to help with data collection, marketing, teaching, providing medical aid and so on.
Speaking about the time she spent working for Monk for a Month, Nath says, “I loved pretty much everything about the trip.” That’s the charm of voluntourism: it works for everyone involved. Organisations welcome the help, and travellers enjoy the experience of getting to know a place and its people. It’s a win-win situation.