Voluntourism is a combination of volunteering and tourism, where people get to visit a new place and at the same time help those less fortunate than themselves. They can choose to get off the beaten path and visit remote villages, mingle with the locals and understand their lifestyle and culture. As volunteers, they can educate children or help build an infrastructure for those who do not have even the basic amenities that we take for granted. Overseas it is a growing trend, but there are also a lot of opportunities for voluntourism within our country.
Back in 2013, I wanted to take a month-long vacation. My parents were supportive and advised me to find a purpose for my trip rather than just spend my vacation lazing. Owing to its mesmerising mountains and peaceful spirituality, I was instantly drawn to McLeod Ganj, a suburb of Dharamsala in Himachal Pradesh. I imagined walking through the quaint streets and visiting the monasteries; I could even hear the sound of the gongs of the Dalai Lama temple as they echoed through the valleys.
Overseas it is a growing trend, but there are also a lot of opportunities for voluntourism within our country
My vision takes shape
When I first announced my decision of volunteering while on a trip, everyone around me concluded that it was a bizarre idea. Honestly, I was scared to go to an unknown place and manage a solo trip for that long with no familiar locals to lean on. But even though I was afraid, I was also eager to help this compassionate Tibetans-in-exile community. I surfed the internet and applied for the role of a volunteer teacher at the LHA Charitable Trust, a non-profit organisation and one of the largest Tibetan social work institutes based in Dharamsala. A couple of days later I was accepted for the position, and soon my bags were packed and I was ready to leave.
I find purpose
When I arrived in McLeod Ganj, I was received by a representative of LHA, who helped me find accommodation for the next month. At noon, I was inside the LHA office, a small green building with ordinary classrooms, a few little office spaces and a simple homely charm. I was welcomed by the volunteer coordinator, who then introduced me to all the other volunteers. They had come from different parts of the world, for the same purpose—“to teach the ones who needed it the most”. Later that afternoon, I met my student, a fair and beautiful Tibetan nun with twinkling eyes and a pure smile. Her first words to me were, “Tashi Delek, my teacher.” The phrase “Tashi Delek” can be roughly translated as “blessings and good luck” and it is a greeting that is characteristic of the rich Tibetan culture.
The decision that changed my life
The decision to stay locally was a turning point in my trip—and my life. I made new friends and learnt a lot from them, in turn sharing what I knew. My stay had a definitive purpose now; I taught my student basic English and chatted with her for hours to improve her grammar. In return, she taught me a set of new Tibetan words on a daily basis and gave me an insight into Tibet, its culture and a Tibetan’s journey across countries.
I made new friends and learnt a lot from them, in turn sharing what I knew
The days were still long enough to leave me plenty of time to go on treks with the other volunteers, explore neighbouring towns on weekends, visit the cafes and enjoy countless yoga and meditation sessions. We shared music, movies, books, anecdotes and stories from our respective hometowns, turning the experience into the most enriching cultural exchange of our lives.
A novel experience
What I had just done was new to me as an Indian traveller. Our strict working schedules and suspicious mindset about safety issues concerning new places hold us back from trying out new experiences of this kind. But, with a little research and following my own experience, I realised that volunteer-travelling or voluntourism is a common practice for foreigners around the world. It’s easy to find a number of accredited volunteering organisations in offbeat areas of developing cities and countries or in remote and tribal settlements. India, Nepal, Cambodia, Iceland, Guatemala, Brazil and South Africa are among the top destinations with such opportunities, not only to teach different languages, but also to help in ecological research, conservation efforts, restoration, business development, marketing local businesses, or provide assistance in therapy, childcare and so on.
Voluntourism may not change the world overnight, but the smallest efforts can, at times, make a big difference
Tips for voluntourism
Voluntourism may not change the world overnight, but the smallest efforts can, at times, make a big difference. While I sincerely hope that more travellers will be inspired to volunteer while travelling, here are a few tips to make your experience memorable and problem-free:
- Do your research and find an organisation that you trust, value and respect.
- Opt for cheap and affordable local homestays, when looking for accommodations for a longer period of time.
- Plan your stay for a minimum of 10 days or more, to make the most of your experience, and to be able to really contribute to the cause for which you volunteer.
- Be open to the culture around you, and learn as much as you can from the locals. Relinquish your modern luxuries, and eat, sleep and live like they do.
- Don’t be a tourist, be an explorer or adventurer, ready to discover and always appreciative of new cultures and places.
- Last but not the least, remember that travel can also contribute to a greater cause.
This was first published in the February 2016 issue of Complete Wellbeing.