On the 5th September 2013 I left the UK for India to commence a 12 month sabbatical to volunteer and live in a country that had captured my heart and mind some 10 months previous.
10 months on and time to make the biggest decision I’ve had to make for a long time.
1. To return to the UK, back to my old job with a fantastic set of memories, or
2. Continue to pursue this crazy dream of living and working in India
First let me recap on why I am actually here even having to make this decision.
I landed in Delhi Airport on 3rd November 2012. The minute I stepped outside the airport into the hazy sunshine, into the chaos, into a vastly different country and culture I had a feeling of absolute calm, perhaps cheesy to say but I felt like I’d come home. From that point for the next two weeks I loved every minute of being in India.
The craziness of Delhi, the temples, the beautiful countryside, the huge range in the wildlife and the fantastic people I met, were just some of the things that contributed to what I see now as a life changing 2 weeks.
I don’t know why it affected me so much, but, just as you fall in love with anything, a person, a place, it becomes increasingly difficult to get it out of your mind. And I couldn’t.
19th November first day back in work I requested a sabbatical,
February 2013 it was approved,
15th August 2013 last day in work,
5th September I was on my way back.
Excited, nervous, very apprehensive wondering if I had done the right thing leaving all this behind.
Family, friends, home comforts!
5 September – 20 September
No turning back though and thankfully a year that started with a two week trip with 3 giggling monkeys!! Anyone who has met Keli, Gayle or Sam or who has had the misfortune to spend time with the four of us together will know that before you see us you hear us…..
Usually with one or more of us in tears of laughter.
Whilst I still feel really sorry for the other people on our trip for me it was the best way to become reacquainted with India.
In those two weeks we traveled from Kochi to Ooty, Mysore, Mahabalipuram, Pondicherry, Madurai, Thekkady and Kollam. It was definitely a whirlwind tour of the south.
It was a trip noted by two things.
A lot of beer and a lot of giggling.
Week one: “Our local guide stopped the bus and said right now we’ll get beer who wants to help. After a few hours stuck on a bus I was mostly glad to have a walk so Sam and I offered. We went down the main road avoiding lorries, rickshaws, people, bikes and whatever else and if that wasn’t dodgy enough we turned right down a side street into what looked like the entrance to the slum. There on the left was a little opening with a man sat in a room full of booze. Local guide goes to hatch orders beer and hands bottles and bottles back to us. Locals are looking at us a little bemused and one said “hide it, don’t carry in public”. With only one small bag we had to hide them up t-shirts and walk back to the bus trying not to look suspicious. Apparently it’s not illegal but if the police see you they will stop and prob ask for a bribe!”
Week two: it seems our giggling was catching
“The hotel bar was a dark smokey room with about 6 Indian business men in there but we braved it and probably took over a bit. Our leader then made quite an entrance by tripping over the TV cables and disconnecting the whole lot. It’s a good job it wasn’t cricket. It took 4 hotel staff over an hour to reconnect it all. At this point we were starting to wonder if our guide had had any other incidents because he did come across as clumsy. Clumsy and very giggly! That’s when he started to tell us stories from his other trips.
Someone had not got off the train so were stranded on their own,
another passenger had lost all their stuff
and someone had died!
We have another week with this man including train journeys…..”
20 September – 20 December
Thankfully I survived the two week trip and after a strange goodbye to the other 3 it was time to head off to my first volunteer project.
Conservation project with Projects Abroad at the model farm in Chinnupatti.
Its weird looking back at how I first felt when I got there, these are quotes from the emails I sent home.
“So I was left in a boiling hot room not sure if it was ok to go out, to leave the windows and doors open for some air and 4hrs to kill before dinner. I literally sat there for half an hour thinking what the heck have I signed up for, why didn’t I just carry on travelling. The previous two weeks had been an absolute ball so it was a massive adjustment going from constant company and knowing what was going on to being on my own in a completely alien place. After staring at my bag for 30 mins I decided I should at least make my bed, make it feel a bit more like home, take a shower and have a read of the handbook.”
And at the end of my first week……..
“It’s been a week of mixed emotions and as I said at the start its hard to believe it’s only been a week. Sometimes the day goes slowly but everyday you see hundreds of things and learn things that you hadn’t even thought of. I’m beginning to realise there is nothing you won’t see in India. No doubt this is going to be a very different experience but a good one I’m sure of now I’ve had a week to adjust. This is India and what I came to see and I’m enjoying experiencing such a different way of life. It’s certainly making me appreciate what we have at home. Not so much the material things more the freedom to do what we want, when and how. Also simple things like, water and food that we just take for granted.”
After two weeks I was absolutely settled into and loving it more each day.
“So another action packed week and one I have thoroughly enjoyed. We were all saying that posting these blogs is really hard as so much happens in one day here it’s really difficult to describe it all. And its not so much the big things that makes your day it’s the little things like locals grinning at you on the bus, someone stopping the traffic so you can cross the road and listening to peoples stories. We met a guy who works in a local shop who was a pastry chef in New York but his dad wouldn’t allow it so he’s back working here. Beginning to understand the daily battle here for the young people who want more freedom, more choice and the older generations who want to retain their strict traditional values. All this certainly combines to make India one of the most interesting places to live and perhaps once you accept that India is noisy and can be busy it is one of the most enjoyable places.
After a bit of a shaky start I can now say I’m really settling into village life and India and I’m sure each day/week is going to provide even more fun experiences.”
The whole experience at the farm was fantastic. Hard work definitely but in those 3 months we achieved a lot. Numerous field visits, school programmes, developing the farm, linking with colleges to recruit volunteers, organising the monthly dirty days and some really interesting weekend trips.
It was no surprise to me that at the end of the 3 months I wasn’t ready to leave.
But December comes around and time to take a much needed break and spend some time with family as my parents flew out to India for 3 weeks to see me.
22 December – 10th January
Christmas in a hot country is always quite a strange experience and it was certainly the same here! Decorations everywhere, people dressed in Santa outfits and an Indian style Christmas dinner. But we made the most of it and enjoyed a week in Kochi and Manur where the scenery was absolutely spectacular.
After Christmas in India we headed to Sri Lanka for two weeks. My first taste of the island that I was to return to to take part in a volunteer project. A week in Negombo enjoying some time on the beach, visiting local sights and spending some time on the ‘Sri Lankan backwaters’ followed by a week near Kandy visiting elephant projects, botantical gardens, temples and tea plantations. I was really surprised how different Sri Lanka was from India. Everything was different, the culture, the clothes people wore, the infrastruture, even the climate! I found it really strange being a tourist for two weeks, particularly being surrounded by hundreds of other European tourists escaping the cold European winter. It was fun though, we saw a lot and it was nice to spend some time with my parents, for them to get a taste of the life I’d been living for the last 3 months.
11th January – 9th February
I arrived back into Madurai on 11th January to return to the model farm. Slight mix up in communication about not being collected from the airport and I’m back on the familiar bus from Madurai to Batlagundu. I distinctly remember sitting on that bus thinking ‘its good to be back’ and as I arrived back to the accommodation, no running water and a power cut, I had to laugh to myself as I thought, yep I’m back in rural India.
A month was always going to fly by and that it did! Some of the activities the same, others completely new, not least of all having to write and direct a play at the local school.
Different volunteers too, 5 of us this time. I have to say I was extremely lucky to have Allison as my roommate, there aren’t many people that you can spend 24/7 with that you hardly know. Everyday on the same project, sharing the same room. We got on really really well and it wasn’t long before Allison, Filippo and I got into the daily routine of tea and cake in the local bakery after a days work in the town. They certainly made that last month at the farm a lot of fun.
It was tough leaving India, I really didn’t want to leave. The 4 months I’d spent there had been remarkable. Sure it was tough at times but having looked back through these photos it reminded me what a great experience it was!
9 February – 1March
Sri Lanka – Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society
Wow what a completely different volunteer experience. I thought I was living remotely in Chinnupatti but this was something else. On the edge of Wasgamuwa national park, a beautiful spot but in the middle of nowhere!!
Thankfully yet again I was with some really great people and the 3 weeks felt more like a holiday than a volunteer project. Mornings spent walking transect lines looking for evidence of elephant activity in stunningly beautiful countryside and afternoons spent in the tree house monitoring traffic and elephant activity. Everyday we saw elephants in the wild and whilst stood there one evening on one side of the lake watching a herd on the other side I had to wonder whether I was actually experiencing this or dreaming.
Aside from the ‘hard work’ of the project there were also the really hilarious, pretty lively parties that we had in the field house. I think at times it was probably best that we were based so remotely.
And not forgetting the weekend trips to Worlds End and Adams peak.
Adams peak is without doubt one of the toughest climbs I’ve done, 5000 steps up to 2600m through the night but it was worth it.
I definitely won’t forget the trip to worlds end either as I travelled there with Sanne and Lennart , the two intern students from Holland. I’d been beginning to understand how accident prone Lennart was in the previous weeks but this trip confirmed it. He had a blister so needed medicine. Not happy with a plaster he bought 5 different things and spent an hour (with Sanne help) dressing it. He dressed it that much he couldn’t get one of his flip flops on and had left his boots in the van. So proceeded to walk to the restaurant for dinner in shorts and tshirts (it was 10 degrees outside but he’d brought no warm clothes with him) with one flip flop on and a dodgy stick as some kind of crutch. We walked a safe distance in front so as not to be seen with him. Over dinner Lennart continues to relay stories from previous trips about accidents and incidents that have happened, it seems if trouble is going to find anyone, its going to find Lennart. Dinner was fine but as we got out the restaurant the waiter runs after us, sir sir you forgot this!!! He’d left his only shoe in the restaurant. I’m still not sure which was the funniest part, Lennart highly embarassed or the confused look on the waiters face as he tried to work out why he only had one shoe with him.
1 March – 20 March
6 months into the sabbatical, 2 volunteer projects, 2 vastly different countries, a lot of experiences and a lot of good friends made. Now back to the UK to catch up with friends and family. 2 and half weeks was always going to be a a whirlwind trip, not least of all as in that time I also needed to reapply for a visa and get myself organised to come back out for another 4 months. It was good to see everyone but it was weird adjusting back to the western culture and it being March it was cold, really cold!! Visas sorted just in the nick of time (thanks to Kelly) and on 20th March I was headed back out to India with Kelly and Gayle but this time not a tourist trip a business trip.
20 March – 5 April
It seems my emails home, whatsapp messages and skype calls had been enough to persuade Kelly that it would be a really good idea for her as the Founder and Managing Director of Vi-Ability to look into the feasibility of replicating their hugely successful model in India. So over the next 17 days we traveled from Bangalore to Madurai to Tirunelveli back to Madurai and back to Bangalore visiting various projects, social enterprises and community groups.
During the trip we saw some really cool water projects in rural villages, listening to the impact it had had on peoples lives was remarkable. Meeting Tennis Alicante India who are supporting talented youngsters to compete on the world ATP tour and meeting Silo India to discuss an international volunteer programme and the set up of their social enterprise.
It was this trip that was the kick start to my dilemma about what to do from August onwards. I could see so much potential to do stuff out here but without investment for a salary it seemed a risk too far.
6 April onwards
Following the business trip, to continue to build links I’ve spent the last 4 months based between Tirunelveli and Madurai working with Silo India and Tennis Alicante to see what we could do.
For those that have read my blogs you’ll know that its been a bit of a roller coaster, time in hospital, complete meltdown about who to trust but then followed by the really good stuff, Silo India launch, confirmation of funding through Vi-Ability for a volunteer programme, delivery of sports equipment and in the next month the arrival of our first volunteers.