I don't know where to begin...I had such a fantastic time volunteering in India. Jill the founder of Volunteer Vacations was extremely supportive leading up to the trip. She put me in touch with an ex volunteer who kindly showed me lots of photos, so I could get a feel for the project. What's different about Jill and her company is that she visits the project herself every year, so she knows what's happening and can answer any questions from her first-hand experience and see the progress. The fact that I was the only English volunteer attending did not put me off, because she coordinated the dates with an Australian/New Zealand company called Antipodeans. I was therefore part of a group of 16 aged between 18-24 years old, which was great and made a huge impact on my overall experience.
The project itself was very well organised and we lived with Pankaj (project leader), his mother and sisters in a 3 floor house. We also had an Indian cook who was like a second mum to us! She cooked breakfast, lunch and dinner for us. I felt very comfortable living in the house. Each bedroom had around 2-3 bunk beds with an en-suite bathroom with buckets and hot water taps for showering, but this was all part of the experience! Breakfast was usually quite Western (cornflakes, bananas, porridge), lunch and dinner were usually curries, but we enjoyed tomato pasta and burgers on the occasion. We were able to ask for a certain dish, they were very flexible. Pankaj also bought fresh oranges and pomegranates from the market, so we could squeeze our own fruit juice as we were having fresh fruit withdrawal symptoms! There was also an Indian cleaner who were there everyday keeping the place tidy.
Our first day was called 'orientation'. We walked around the nearby village where we would be teaching in the local government school. It didn't feel like we were imposing on them, because they were aware of our volunteer programme, and if anything grateful for our help. The houses were made of cow dung, they had no electricity and 3 water taps in the village. Everybody was smiling and waving at us - it was lovely! We were introduced to the children briefly, so they could meet us before teaching and we spent a couple of hours just playing. In the afternoon, we visited the boys orphanage where we would be teaching for an hour and playing every day. Pankaj gave us a tour of the orphanage and explained the costs/facilities they have and would need in the future. At the time we were there, they were building a new kitchen. I found it very useful seeing the transparency of where our money was going, and I don't think you would necessarily see that if you chose to volunteer with a larger organisation.
Teaching: We were partnered up with a teaching buddy by Pankaj which worked well for some people, and not for others, as everybody naturally gravitates towards certain people/personalities. I was very lucky and my partner is now a friend for life! We taught English/Maths in the local government school in the mornings and used a rough syllabus as a guide, but it wasn't difficult. We taught colours, shapes, letters, simple addition. I didn't have any previous teaching experience, but this wasn't required as you just have fun teaching the children in creative ways. We had a resources room (donations from ex volunteers) with plenty of games, paper, crayons etc, which we brought with us to aid our teaching. We taught for 1.5 hours and our group was between 7-10 children aged around 5-8 years old, but the numbers fluctuated everyday as some children had to work in the fields with their parents or look after siblings.
In the orphanage, the boys were aged between 7-18 years old, and again we had groups of 7-10 boys each. We taught them in the afternoons for 1 hour and then played volleyball/cricket/handball afterwards. It was great fun!
In between, we had lunch at the house and 2-3 hours free time. People would either catch up on washing (washing lines on the roof), sunbathe on the roof, or go into Udaipur city and look around the markets or chill in a cafe. The local tuk tuk bus cost 10 rupees (10 pence) to travel into town, the bus stop was 5 minute walk and it was about a 15 minute ride. It was great fun riding with the locals - a couple of us were invited to a wedding on one occasion! Never a dull moment.
At the weekends, we had the option to go away on trips, which was an extra cost (I think my VV package included the Taj Mahal weekend trip). We went to Pushkar one weekend and climbed up a hill to watch the sunrise - I loved this city, the markets were amazing. We took an overnight train to Agra and visited the Taj and the third weekend trip was visiting Jodhpur and the desert. We slept under the stars with a local desert tribe and went on Jeep safari ride and watched the sunset followed by an early camel ride the next day to watch the sunrise. A very memorable trip.
Tips - take a sleeping bag, hat, gloves if you are visiting the desert in Dec/Jan/Feb. It is very cold! Rehydration satchets/immodium are a must! Don't bring tonnes of clothes, you are going to buy so much out there! Find out if there are other volunteers signed up, so you are not on your own.
Overall, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend this company or specific project and I will remember this experience for the rest of my life. To this wonderful country and wonderful people - I will be back!
What would you improve about this program?
A few hesitations - it doesn't feel like an entirely sustainable project, because we teach the children for 4 weeks and notice the difference we are making, and then we have to leave. They may not have any more volunteers for another month and this kind of ruins our hard work/what the children have achieved. Also, the weekend trips felt rather expensive, but this was maybe because we were a larger group. I was happy to catch a local bus/train instead of hiring a private mini bus to places to lower the cost.