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Derek Beckvold can tell, down to the precise moment, when his ‘cosmic connection’ with India was first revealed to him. The 28-year-old professional musician from Boston had barely arrived in India, on a Fulbright grant, in August 2014, and had left his hotel in Delhi to run some errands, when in a densely packed metro train, he came face to face with Shailendra Mishra, the tabla guru to train under whom he had come halfway across the world. “I had not yet called Mishraji to let him know I had arrived in India, and yet, there he was standing right next to me in a busy subway car in a city of some 25 million people,” recalls Beckvold in wonder at the serendipitous odds of such a meeting. “This to me seems a metaphor for how things always work out in India, despite the chaos, and has led to wonderful moments of self-reflection, wherein I feel India has lured me here for a purpose.”
That ‘karmic connection’ has, in Beckvold’s case, been cemented even further with his stint as a volunteer at Music Basti (www.musicbasti.org), a Delhi-based organisation that uses music to impart life skills to underprivileged children, and his extensive travels within India, during which he has established enduring relationships with many people.
Will Clark, 26, from the UK, who too volunteers at Music Basti, similarly recounts an interesting ‘only in India’ moment during his travels to Santinekatan. Emerging from a swim in the Kopai River, Clark was greeted by local villagers who made generous offerings of food; even better, a local music group put up an impromptu performance for his entertainment. “India is, of course, a complex place, with many different realities, but I’m always moved by the kindness of strangers,” he says.
Beckvold and Clark, and others like them, belong to a growing tribe of ‘voluntourists’—people who travel to (or within) India to volunteer their services in a good cause, and additionally get to experience India up-close and personal through their travels and interactions with people and communities here. These aren’t always college students taking a gap year off to see the world. In some cases, these are mid-career professionals or even retired folks who look to combine a bit of do-goodism with getting an exposure to Incredible India.
Internationally, an estimated 16 lakh volunteers travelled across the world last year. And although the voluntourism trend has drawn criticism on the grounds that it has spawned an ‘industry’ that doesn’t really change things on the ground, there are those in India who see it as an exercise that instills empathy and a larger sense of community, while opening up young minds to alternative realities. “It lets young adults discover the world through social service,” says Dr Hitesh Gupta, co-founder and CEO of Vatsalya (0141-2701794; www.vatsalya.org), a Jaipur-based non-governmental organisation.
Volunteers to India typically come from the US, the UK and other parts of Europe, and Australia, observes Dr Gupta. And from within India, volunteers come from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, and from the Indian Institutes of Management. Vatsalya, which helps orphaned and destitute children, and works on women’s empowerment and livelihood projects, takes in about 150 volunteers a year, which number has been going up in recent years.
Laura Kantrud, 29, a certified elementary teacher from the US, teaches English to the children at Vatsalya, where she volunteers, and provides guidance in best practices at the organisation. Additionally, she’s travelled to many parts of India, attended Indian weddings, and celebrated Holi with friends.
Joaquim Gomez Ramos, 24, from Spain, who too volunteers at Vatsalya, is in India for the second time: a three-month visit last year inspired him to return. As much as the time he’s spent volunteering, which he reckons will enhance his work profile internationally, Ramos has enjoyed his explorations in India, and the widening of his cultural perspective. “It’s wonderful to lose yourself in India,” he adds. “In fact, only when you lose yourself can you really experience India.”
In most cases, voluntourists benefit from an immersion in a local culture while they are volunteering their services. In Bodh Gaya, for instance, Michael Saatkamp, a social worker from Germany, runs a budget hostel called Charity Backpackers (+91-9122545831; www.bowlofcompassion.org), which subsidises a children’s school and a soup kitchen. Visitors who come to stay get to interact with the children, and even teach them, and in other ways live out the Buddhist philosophy of compassion that inspired Saatkamp to make Bodh Gaya his home.
A similar sense of calling has brought Ivy Silk, 76, a retired nurse from the UK, to India seven times since 2004 as a volunteer at the Institute for Indian Mother and Child (033-24348865; www.iimcmissioncal.org) in Kolkata, which was started in 1989 by Dr Sujit Kumar Brahmochary, who was Mother Teresa’s medical adviser. And on all these visits, Silk has managed to combine a month-long volunteer stint at the institute with holidays in Goa, Kerala, Odisha and the Andamans—and otherwise embrace the Indian experience. “I’ve dressed up in Indian outfits, opened schools, slept in hostels,” recalls Silk. “I’ve even had a lizard up my trouser leg!”
As much as volunteers give generously of their time to India, the country in turns enriches their lived experience in countless ways. “India has certainly taught me patience,” says Kantrud. “It has made me appreciate the art of being flexible and finding ways to adjust and has taught me to appreciate the little things in life.”
Ramos concurs with that sentiment. “India has given me strength and courage to fulfill my dreams, opened up my mind and taught me to accept everything in life as a challenge I can learn from.”
Clark has a more level-headed view of his experience. “I’m enjoying my time in India and learning from it, but I don’t also want to romanticise it, since I’m aware of the many struggles that go on.”
That sobering assessment frames the experience of the voluntourist in real-world terms: as someone who travels to new places with generosity of spirit and a sense of adventure, but additionally also the humility to understand that systemic change requires more sustained engagement.
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