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After a thrilling three weeks volunteering with Cross Cultural Solutions in New Delhi, I have a few days in UK en route to Rwanda. It's been great to reflect on my time in India... and to sleep in a big Western bed. I knew India would be a challenging portion of my trip, but I'm so glad that I went.
If I'm to be really honest, I will admit that India had not made it to my Top 10 List of Must-See Places. Sure, I loved hearing other people's stories of India and often got a hankering for Indian take-out, but to actually travel to a country of billions of people, risk picking up a wretched case of Delhi Belly, and spend my holiday draining bodily fluids out of every orifice? No thanks! My friends who traveled there had all said things like, "It's amazing, but so intense" or "The poverty is too much to handle" or "The food is unreal, but you can barely breathe through the pollution" - not exactly words to entice me to jump on the next Air India flight.
But then last fall, I started planning my volunteer trip around the world and I just knew it would be a mistake to not include India as a stop on my Adventure of Hope. So when I met with the Canadian Enrollment Manager for Cross-Cultural Solutions last November, I grilled her about the pros and cons of their programs in both Dharamsala and New Delhi. Right away (even though I had no idea how to pronounce it), I was sold on Dharamsala. I could already picture the Buddhist chanting set in the midst of the Himalayas. Wouldn't it be amazing to volunteer with a local women's empowerment program in the mornings and then have free time to meditate and do yoga in the afternoons? Sign me up! When I found out that Dharamsala is only available during the summer, I actually considered reversing the whole order of my trip around the globe just so I could experience it, but alas - it didn't make logistical or financial sense. So with a huge sense of trepidation, I confirmed a three-week program with Cross-Cultural Solutions in New Delhi. Based on my six weeks in Cape Town, I figured if anyone could keep me safe and put me at ease in such a huge city, it would be CCS.
On February 11, after my intense experience in Vietnam (complete with riding on the backs of motorcycles with locals and trying to sleep to the sound of honking neighbours), I arrived in India - ready to experience the country but dying for just a few of the comforts of home. Thank God for CCS...
As soon as I cleared customs and emerged into the surprisingly pristine New Delhi airport, I saw a sign with the Cross-Cultural Solutions logo. To help me recover from my long journey, one of the two waiting staff members immediately treated me to a cup of chai. From the moment the driver loaded my luggage into the back of the CCS Jeep and his colleague handed me my welcome package, I could feel my shoulders sag in relief. I sank back into the seat and relished in the knowledge that from here on in, I had capable staff members to help take care of all the little challenges and irritations of traveling in a developing country. They quickly whisked me and two of my fellow arriving volunteers to our humble three-bedroom flat (which eight of us shared) near the Hauz Khas area of the city, and by the next morning had us settled into our welcome orientation, city sight-seeing tour, and introductory Hindi lessons.
In many ways, participating in another CCS program felt an awful lot like coming home. Due to my six-week program in Cape Town last year, I already knew about their model of incorporating volunteer work, cultural exchange, and free time. So for the first couple of days, it felt like I had simply arrived in a grittier, more crowded, and more polluted Cape Town (albeit with even more amazing food and a completely different culture).
On day three in India, my volunteer placement began and one of the CCS staff members accompanied me for my orientation at Mother Teresa's Home for the Dying and the Destitute. Having never worked with physically or mentally challenged people before, I think the culture shock of my placement hit me with more intensity than the culture shock of arriving in Delhi (keep in mind that I had spent the previous month in the wonderful chaos of Vietnam). Thankfully, for my first two weeks at MTDD, I had another CCS volunteer at the placement as well as the ongoing support of the staff in the Program Office to help me ease into my work. By my third week, I had settled into the routine of nail cutting, feeding, and spending time with a group of 70-80 women and had moved past the worst of my fears. The women immediately welcomed me into the fold and consistently inspired me with their warmth and sense of community (particularly how the more able bodied women cared for the less-abled ones).
In many ways, it surprised me how quickly Delhi (and India) moved up the ranks to become one of my favourite places (so far) to volunteer. With examples of intense poverty everywhere, there is obviously a tremendous need for support, but India is also a great teacher and you will leave a changed (hopefully for the better) person because of your experience there. With a CCS program in New Delhi, you can learn to speak basic Hindi, volunteer at an established NGO, see temples and mosques so beautiful they will literally take your breath away, learn about the history of the country from a political, religious, and women's empowerment perspective, and get a crash course in India's diverse religions and customs. You will also experience the hospitality and generosity of some of the most gracious people on the planet and hopefully even decide to make a weekend trip to Agra to see the Taj Mahal, which is now one of the best memories of my life. Despite my initial trepidation, I fell in love with Delhi and her gritty charm. I will return to India one day and I'm grateful to CCS for making New Delhi accessible and safe for even the most novice of international volunteers.
- Keep your nails short - outbreaks of lice are rampant, and even if you wash your hands, you can easily carry the little buggers around under your nails. You don't want to end up spending your last afternoon in New Delhi with de-lousing chemicals on your head (one of the few moments I didn't enjoy so much).
- Despite my choice of "skinny" in the title, you may want to buy extra pairs of the drawstring Indian pants (shalwar) because you will probably bring home a few extra pounds with you. The food coming out of the CCS kitchen is fantastic and I would challenge you to be able to eat it with any kind of moderation.
My only two pieces of advice if you are thinking of embarking on a trip to New Delhi with CCS: