12 months working in India- roller coaster ride or big adventure?
Wednesday April 9th 2014.
After an evening out and beer the night before it was time to pack my bags again but this time head to Manur, a small rural village in the district of Tirunelveli.
Arriving in Manur was nothing short of surreal. Taken up to my house where I would be living (I’d specifically requested my own space not a host family to live with).
The top floor is where I live.
It didn’t really bother me but I remember having a feeling of ‘hmm this is going to be a lot different to volunteering’.
The first few days were odd, thats the only way I can describe it and I can’t deny that I missed the familiarity of the other places I had been living in India.
Suddenly I was the centre of attention as word spread across Manur of a ‘foreigner’ in town who had come to work in the local school (easier to say this than explain what I was doing). Everyday different people standing there talking in Tamil looking at me with great fascination.
I doubt some of the people had even met a white person before, never mind a woman who in their opinion dressed and had a haircut like a boy!
In so many ways I was different, totally different to their norm and I was in an environment that was totally different to my norm. But of course then began the familiar questions of, whats your name, where are you from and my favourite (note sarcasm) ‘are you married’……..
I’d forgotten what a complete obsession it is for people here, some how if you are not married then you don’t really have a life. You’re life (particularly for a woman) is not complete until you get married. I mean, you know, what woman can possibly live without a man to do everything for her!!!???
There was definitely an air of excitement in April. Suddenly Silo India had an opportunity to make a real go of the international volunteer side of their work and I had an opportunity to finally use my experience from the UK in India.
There was literally nothing in place, everything had to be written, designed and built from scratch but it was good to be working on things that had a tangible outcome.
Terms and conditions written, tick.
Application forms in place, tick.
Volunteer accommodation sorted, tick.
But at the same time vaguely isolating.
During the day I was working in a stifling hot ‘office’ which also doubled as a viewing gallery for the locals.
Power cuts occurred everyday between 12-3pm making any work impossible.
No WiFi, no ceiling fans.
It was over 40 degrees every day with night time temperatures a ‘cool’ 28!
I had no wifi in my house and no data connection on my phone.
Pretty much from 7pm every evening I was in the house with no access to the outside world.
It was tough settling into this new routine. People fussing around me, people taking far too much of an interest in me and although having my own place a continued sense of never having any privacy.
To counter this I often ventured back to Madurai, sharing a house with Brenda, a retired lady from UK volunteering on a women’s empowerment project. The house we lived in was nice enough but definitely in a pretty rubbish part of the city and the constant demands of the house owner to come and see us at 10pm most evenings was exhausting. However, we made the most of it, spending most evenings out having dinner and sampling India’s range of alcoholic drinks.
My reasons for traveling to Madurai at the time were quite simple, to meet up with people and to have some sort of normality which is totally ironic as Madurai offers nothing to the westerner in terms of normality but its all relative I guess.
Meeting Brenda at 6pm to enjoy a cold beer in one of the rooftop restaurants and to be able to rant, rave and moan about our confusions and frustrations of Indian life were both liberating and therapeutic. I’m pretty sure without Brenda there I would have slowly gone a little crazy.
End of April things didn’t quite go to plan. 5 days in hospital thanks to a huge infection in my leg set me back not just for those 5 days but also weeks afterwards.
Read Expect the Unexpected
Funnily enough it was only a week or so ago that me and Swathi even talked about that time. Me explaining to the volunteers how Swathi spent 24/7 with me in hospital, doing everything to make sure I was ok. I’m still and will always be massively grateful to her and her families support.
Now I just have the scar as permanent reminder.
May ticks along and we slowly get back into the routine but with things happening so slowly in Manur I spend more and more time in Madurai.
Traveling back and to on the by pass rider bus (3 hrs plus) every 3-4 days to either Manur or Madurai.
It was exhausting and I never quite felt settled anywhere and in all honesty had no clue as to where my time was best spent.
I never felt lonely but I often felt isolated and it was no surprise at this stage I hit a real low point.
See blog ‘A real low Point”
On the positive side we had the official launch of Silo India and Hallelujah the bag of sports equipment from Sport Wales finally arrived!
I’ll always remember us all stood there looking at it wondering what the heck we were going to do with it now it had arrived. We needn’t of worried, in 8 months, 15 volunteers, over 300 hours of sport sessions delivered and over 400 people on a weekly basis benefitting from it!
The appointment of a few more staff to Silo India. In short this was nothing more than confusing and frustrating. We now had too many of us working on different things in complete isolation. It was nothing against the people that were appointed but in my view it was too soon to be paying people to do roles that weren’t needed when there was no money coming in.
I’m sure it was done with the best of intentions but instead of bringing people together as a team it had the opposite affect and I wasn’t prepared to use my time to try and change that.
So I took a step back, spent yet more time in Madurai and then taking a week in Sri Lanka to think about long term plans.
6 weeks on I was due to fly back to the UK, move back into my house and go back to my job at Sport Wales.
A years sabbatical had literally flown by and I wasn’t ready to go back. But to leave my job without any indication of when I would get another or where income would come from was a big decision.
Of course there were huge concerns from family and an unspoken pressure to come back to the UK.
Two pieces of advice still resonate with me now:
1. Make a decision and stick to it, once you make a decision you’ll find a way to make it work
2. Better to regret something you have done than not take the opportunity to do.
26th June I handed my notice into Sport Wales and decided to give this another 6 months from September to March 2015. Decision made. I knew I would regret it if I hadn’t of stayed.
A huge sense of relief having made a decision and excitement that I could actually do this.
But at the same time a real fear that in 6 months time I’d just be back to square one.
Things at Silo India ticked along, frustratingly at an ever slowing pace despite the fact that the first volunteers were due to arrive on 5 August. I think a major part of my frustration was not being able to really use my skills and experience to help Silo India.
There’s no denying that I and Silo India wasted a lot of time in these first few months because of total confusion about who was doing what and a lack of urgency about anything.
As the saying goes, too many cooks spoil the broth.
28th July and I head back to the UK. Sad to be leaving India but excited to see family and friends and to have 5 weeks of not thinking.
I think I’d totally underestimated how much India took out of me over these 4 months.
Being in hospital, getting over that,
trying to readjust to another culture within India,
trying to understand what I was doing in Manur,
trying to figure people out – what they wanted and who to trust,
traveling back and to so often to Madurai.
I was exhausted, physically and emotionally and when I look back now I think, blimey I was a bit of an idiot to think it wouldn’t have affected me quite so much.
Someone recently said, traveling is great, it opens your mind, you see things differently and it gives you new possibilities. Its true, definitely and India has given me all of this but I was thankful for my time in the UK for a sense of perspective and time to reflect. Its exhausting having to constantly compromise on cultural values, consider what and how you say things, hold back on honesty when asked certain questions about your personal life. The month in the UK was sorely needed.
If you’ve never been to the UK but want to, come between May and September.
Yes it might rain and some days it might be a bit cold but there’s definitely no better time to be in the UK.
Spring blossom, warm days, long daylight hours (4am-10.30pm) and a million things going on.
My month in the UK was good, if not a little hectic but it was just what I needed.
Better rested, with a bag full of things to make things more like home in India and I head back.
This time I headed back with two volunteers Jack and Simon. All of a sudden it felt very real and I had this huge sense of responsibility to make sure Jack and Simon were ok.
After a long journey it was literally straight back into it, arriving at the house at 4am, up at 8am to meet Helen and Tash who were already out here.
The next few days were crazy and no time to get over jet lag. It was good to hear that Helen and Tash had had a good time but it was clear that a lot of work needed to be done to get this volunteer program right.
Jack and Simon were great volunteers, so laid back and just totally got stuck in.
They made a great impact on the college boys, we had a fun trip to Madurai and even managed a business trip to Chennai.
But I couldn’t help but feel that we were no better than other volunteer programs, were we really making a positive impact on peoples lives or were we just providing another opportunity for safe travel in India?
So began the process of really looking at it from the volunteers perspective, what were they getting out and how could we make sure that it really led them on to employment or next step education. So Jack and Simon planted to the seed of introducing personal development plans for each of the volunteers.
Connor and Elen arrive. So far we’d had pairs of the same gender so we were a little curious and apprehensive to see how a mixed pair would go. Connor just 18 and Elen 24, both totally different but absolutely brilliant. They were so passionate about what they were doing and totally questioned and challenged what Silo India and Vi-Ability were doing. A little taken aback at first but actually it gave us the kick to really focus the placements, support the volunteers and make clear expectations on both sides.
I think between the two of them they spent every single possible second with the hostel boys and it was during this month that we started to really see the impact our volunteers had made to date.
We also had a fun weekend trip to Kochi, beer in mugs and a random rickshaw pub crawl. I was now feeling like I was getting some sort of balance about being out here. Working hard, yes but also enjoying western company and seeing different parts of India.
Cara and Sharelle, two volunteers that had never really traveled outside of Europe before and certainly not traveled on their own. Both had a lot of volunteer experience at home but I think both of them would say it was a huge culture shock being in India and it took them a while to settle in. They did a great job of the volunteer work, were the first volunteers to really go through the personal development plan process and even helped to implement some assessment tools for English.
But for a number of reasons November was a tough month. The weather had changed quite drastically, a lot of rain which prevented morning sports from taking place, schools and colleges shut on random days and travel at the weekends more difficult.
I personally struggled in November. Frustrated with things outside of work, not being able to properly support family with things that were going on at home and constantly feeling rubbish.
The local church also decided it was a great idea to have church service from 4-5.30am every morning. Apparently if you pray to god before it gets light then your prayers are more likely to be answered, yes really thats what I was told!
It also seems the louder you shout ‘Praise the lord’ down a microphone the more likely god is to hear you!!!
It became a bit of a vicious circle but being woken up every morning at 4am, having 4 hours sleep, meant I felt queasy and tired most of the day, not really wanting to eat, then not eating meant I felt cold most of the time and again not really wanting to eat.
By the time it got to early December I was glad to be heading back to the UK. Randomly its always the last few weeks I am in India that seem to the most intense and hard work, maybe because I know its not long before I head back to UK for a bit of normality?
Dec 2nd I head to Trivandrum for what was supposed to be a relaxing few days before flying back. But the journey to Trivandrum (4 hrs by train) was awful, baking hot, bad stomach and feeling dreadful. Get to the hotel and literally sleep all day and all night, apart from regular visits to the bathroom.
Next day decide to go to the doctors.
Rickshaw across town at 7am.
8am waiting room packed and getting progressively hotter.
Doctors don’t arrive until 8.30.
9.15 and I finally get to see a doctor, tell him whats wrong and he says hmm well I’m the bone specialist doctor so why have you come to see me?
Quickly shuffled to the next doctor and a surreal experience of speaking to a doctor, with two other doctors watching and a room full of Indians being consulted by other doctors, definitely not a private consultation. 500 INR of medicine and I’m on my way back.
Literally spend that day sleeping too and that night, thankfully without interuption.
By morning I feel a lot better and have an appetite. Good job as I was flying home that night.
I arrived back to Manchester and then my parents house. I didn’t really care it was dark at 4pm and about 5 degrees outside I was just glad to not be traveling and finally feeling ok.
In the month of November, by the time I’d arrived home I’d lost 7kg in weight, 14lbs, one stone. I was 51kg, my lowest weight for about 10 years.
December in the UK is not a bad time to be on an eating mission. I literally did not stop eating for the 3 weeks I was home.
Got myself better rested and by the time I headed back on 29 Dec was back to 56kg. Not bad.
I also had a renewed word with myself about looking after myself better.
In the UK it is entirely possible to work 7 days a week, relentlessly without a break. It isn’t good for you but its do-able.
In India its not.
The climate and constant compromises in culture, just the effort of having to constantly think about what you’re doing, how you’re doing it, changing the way you speak all take their toll.
So January and I promised myself I would stay fit and healthy. I also decided that if I was going to be in India more permanently then I needed to make it feel more like home.
It didn’t quite get off to the start I hoped as the smallest person in our family (yes smaller than me) gave us all the biggest cold ever.
Oh how I have not missed British winter colds, two weeks it took to shift it. Thanks William!
January and our next two volunteers are due to arrive along with Cara who had decided to come back as a Silo India volunteer.
Unfortunately one of the volunteers dropped out last minute and the other after a few weeks just wanted to go home. In many ways I didn’t blame her, she arrived and her luggage didn’t until two days later, she was staying at the boys hostel (until we moved her) on her own, she had news about a family member being in hospital and then she got sick. It was a shame that she didn’t have the experience that she wanted.
January did give us an opportunity to really fine tune things though and by the end of the month we could confidently say that the volunteer program was in really good order. And finally I was offered a 6 month contract with Vi-Ability and getting paid for this work.
The Silo India office feels like an office. After 3 long days of painting we transformed the office from this to this. Just having a professional feel to the office has made a big difference.
February, Anmol and Lucy arrive. Anmol 18 year old British Indian and Lucy 25 year old looking for a new opportunity. The two of them were a great pair, constantly smiling, happy and definitely brightening up our day. We could now start to make some real big progress with assessments and monitoring of the work the volunteers do and also deliver other projects in the schools such as conservation topics and really try out the personal development plan process.
It was a good month definitely and I really started to feel like things had come together, volunteers happy, placements happy and making loads of progress with long term planning with Silo India.
I was due to fly back to the UK on 2nd March but decided to change my flight, it felt like we were just getting somewhere so to stay seemed the right option.
I even got around to painting my house or at least starting it. The house itself is nice but the inside was a little depressing!
It had already started to feel like home but it definitely does now.
Lucy and Anmol definitely made us laugh a lot and we still quote some of the things that happened when they were here. For Anmol we even got to celebrate Holi whilst on a business trip to Bangalore.
A business trip that saw us meeting representatives from Welsh Government that are based in India and being invited to meet the Deputy HIgh Commissioner of the British High Commission! Not a bad days work!