Volunteering in India—or any third world country—is something quite popular in the West, which is why I decided to share my experience with those of you interested, even though theoretically speaking I did not volunteer, I did an internship with an NGO.
Now I don’t know about you, but the images in my head were somewhat romantic – I pictured myself surrounded by a bunch of skinny children, gratefully accepting water and fruits out of my hands, and myself humbly denying any attention to my person. These utopias you will loose first – which is a good thing, because after that the real understanding begins.
Finding Your NGO
I interned with a local NGO in Varanasi, and I got the contact through the German-Indian mission, which has close ties to quite a few NGOs across India. I can only recommend seeking contacts via organizations like that, because one thing is sure, there is a lot of scam going on in that field. While I was in Varanasi, I heard about so many NGOs and volunteering projects that exploit financial and manpower support and cheat their volunteers in all ways possible. So don’t fall for what the Lonely Planet suggests you, do some research ahead.
Another thing that disheartens me is the attitude many western people carry when they go and volunteer. I am not judging anybody, I know very well the way things work around here and how people think. But think twice before you decide to do volunteering work: Are you doing it because it looks good on your CV? Because future employees will be impressed? Because it is “the thing” to do as a privileged person from the developed countries? Now even if that might be partially true, I am not saying you should stay home. But the most important thing is to keep an open mind, be ready to learn things and willing to change your views on life. See every person you meet as someone who can teach you something. Don’t expect that you will change their life, but accept that they might change yours. And most important, don’t feel pity for people. It is hard, because you will be confronted with things that are just sad. But people don’t want that. They already know their life sucks, they don’t need you to tell them. Instead, give them visions, encouragement, hope.
Making it to India
Now you have a more or less trustworthy organization, and you have your mind set, so what is the next practical step? Getting a visa.
I personally just went on a tourist visa, even though strictly speaking it is not really allowed. Volunteering seems to be a gray zone in the field of Indian visas. Since you are not getting paid, it seems hardly fair that you should pay twice the fee to get an employment visa, but apparently some immigration officers don’t consider volunteering as touristic activity. That being said, no one ever bothered me, I just claimed to be a tourist (which is not really a lie, I did travel afterwards), and that was it. I also did not have any trouble applying for it, my visa was ready within 2 working days. However, I have heard that people’s cases were stalled, so you should always apply a few weeks before your trip.
If you have been to India before, you have an idea of what to expect. If it is your first time (like it was for me), get ready to feel miserable. I literally felt like I ended up in some strange parallel universe for the first two days, which happened to be Diwali, the craziest time of the year, in New Delhi. I can assure you though, it will become better eventually, depending on the kind of person you are it will roughly take between 4 days and 4 weeks to feel alright (ok that is maybe a little exaggerated, but you get the idea). You will probably never feel as proud as the first time you hop on a tuc-tuc by yourself, manage to tell the driver where you want to go and actually end up there.
As for places to stay – some NGOs offer accommodation for their volunteers. That can be a great thing, because you don’t have to pay for it, you are close to the working place, and you can share it with other volunteers. It can also be enervating, because free places are usually not nice places, and you never really have the chance to get away from all the things you will be confronted with to recharge your battery.
I stayed in a backpacker’s hostel, which was not only great because I met my future husband there, but also because it was like a shelter away from all the craziness I experienced. Plus I got to hang out with backpackers all the time, who are probably the coolest and most relaxed people on earth.
Now to the main thing, the work. My NGO was not really the kind that does development work. They have build villages and a few schools, but their focus is on assisting victims of torture, especially police torture. Whilst their head quarter is based in Varanasi, they have local stations in villages around the city, where local staff members assist victims of torture, rape or discrimination to file law cases, but also offer psychological help. I had the chance to meet quite a few of these victims, and even though I did not understand much of what they were saying (neither did they understand me), emotions and gestures speak for themselves. I had great and overwhelming experiences in a local children group, where a bunch of children patiently waited for 3 hours for me to arrive, just to ask me questions about Germany and show me their vegetable gardens that they were growing in their backyards. What impressed me the most, was the fact that people were just so curious to meet me. Even though my presence hardly made any difference in their lives, they were delighted to show me their houses and share tea with me.
One warning I have to give you, though. Volunteering in India also means a lot of time being wasted in some office (at least for me it did). Things move slow, and of course they can’t always take off to show you around. Here it might be a good idea to choose a rather small organization where you will have more field experiences, or to work with a “traditional” volunteering place like a hospital, school etc.
Whatever you choose to do, keep an open mind, embrace every experience, and try to learn from it. I wish you a great time, and if you want to share your story with me, you are most welcome to do so!