Why did you decide to volunteer abroad with the Travellers Worldwide Teaching Project in India?
Geraldine: In 2003 I wrote a bucket list. Both visiting India and doing voluntary work with children abroad, featured; but somehow the timing (and finances!) to do either, never seemed right. In 2010 I was passing through a difficult time in my personal life and realized that I needed to get away from the life I knew, for a while.
I needed to find a new focus. With my dreams to visit India and to work with children abroad never far from my mind, I began to browse the ’net for options, and came across Travellers Worldwide voluntary work experiences.
After a number of emails and phone calls everything was sorted – I was to work in a primary school in the mornings and in an orphanage in the afternoons, living with other volunteers, in the city of Madurai.
Describe your day to day activities as a volunteer.
Geraldine: For one month, I taught conversational English at an underprivileged primary school every morning; and worked at an orphanage every afternoon.
Every morning the tuk-tuk would pick me up from home. An exciting ride through traffic-infested, crowded streets, with a fusion of smells, sounds and sights; and full of smiling, staring, waving strangers would ensue.
The school day would begin with the head’s greeting and giving me the day’s timetable. Then there would be assembly, where some of the children would show off their work through which I would helpfully gain more perspective on Indian culture, traditions, history and geography.
At the school I taught 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th Standards everyday. Each lesson was approximately 40 minutes long. I was allowed to teach through topics of my choice, as long as the children were taught new vocabulary and allowed to practice proper English.
I tried to make the lessons as visual and tactile as possible, to vary them from the traditional chalk-and-talk system the school used; not because my way was better, but because I wanted to bring a different experience to what the children were used to. I used to buy materials (very cheaply!) from the stationer in the road I lived in; and the supermarket close by.
I especially enjoyed topics that allowed me to introduce different cultures to them, such as the lessons on manners and customs; and lifestyles, with 4th and 5th standards; and those that allowed me to refer to India, such as the one using famous Indian people to talk about different professions.
At around 12:30 p.m., when the children and staff were having their lunch breaks, the tuk-tuk would take me back home for lunch. There I had around two hours to wash clothes, review the work done at school and prepare for my orphanage placement.
What was the best moment of the entire trip?
Geraldine: My time in India was all special. I have to say that I was thankful for it everyday that I was there. When I think of it, it still tugs at my heart and it is still one of the best experiences in my life so far! So I will list a number of things that come to mind when I travel down my India memory lane:
- the children’s smiling faces, their never-ending questions and their gleeful, “Ma’am, Ma’am” in class, which I can still hear
- giving way to cows while using the street
- the scents coming from the food stalls outside
- the general noise of daily life, starting from very early hours and ending late at night
- weekend trips full of funny mishaps, with the other volunteers
- sunset and sunrise at the backwaters
- conversations about life with my host mother, the tailor, a student neighbour… certain issues are universal and people are people wherever you go
- seeing the majestic Taj Mahal during my two week solo tour of parts of India after my placements had ended
- a general sense of peace and contentment that was with me all throughout
What was the hardest or most challenging part of your experience?
Geraldine: Being in a country so much larger, further and different to my home island was a challenge through and through. But once I forgot about my European standards and lifestyle, a couple of days into the experience, I started to fit in straight away and though fascinatingly different, things all began to make sense!
It was very difficult to accept the pervasive poverty that exists in India. Seeing whole families out on the streets, seemingly surviving on so little, is not something I could ever get used to or forget.
Once, seeing three children sleeping outside a coffee shop the volunteers and I used to frequent so often, reduced me to huge sobs.
The placement at the orphanage was also very challenging. Hearing how innocent babies are abandoned and how dangerously they can end up on the streets, because of extremely difficult birth and family conditions was heart-breaking. Taking care of the children there, most of whom had difficulties in personality and intellect, was a daily challenge which taught me a lot.
Ten years from now, what’s the one thing you think you’ll remember from the trip?
Geraldine: I hope I’ll remember everything! I hope I’ll remember the first thing I am still in touch with even today – that heart-warming feeling of welcome I was given everywhere I went and whoever I was with. India was home and the people who coloured my experience there, were family.