When I was looking online for projects abroad to do on my gap year, I was wary to stay away from projects which are commonly described as 'Volun-tourism'. This is why AV particularly stuck out from the rest for me, since it is one of the few projects which properly immerses the volunteers into the culture, rather than acting as outsiders imposing themselves onto the culture. This is the best way to really get to know a place and to feel like you're one of the community, it wasn't like being a visitor, I really begun to feel like I belonged there, and everybody was so welcoming.
I really wanted to go to India, and the year I applied (2013), AV had two projects in India,both in the Darjeeling District of West Bengal. I chose to do the project which involved living with a Lepcha family in the foothills of the Himalayas, although AV chose the village and family that I would be staying with for 3 months. I had no idea what to expect, but was warned about the culture shock and very basic living conditions, which I knew would make the months a challenge, but all of this excited me.
AV were absolutely fantastic before I left for India. I had an hour long phone conversation with Sarah, one of the people from AV based in the UK, in which I was encouraged to ask anything. It was also an opportunity for her to get to know me, so that when they needed to pair up volunteers they could match us according to our interests and personalities. I also went to Devises where the AV head office is, with my mum, to meet Sarah to ask any further questions, although I know some of the other volunteers just did this meeting over skype. I didn't have the best internet connection whilst in India, but I know AV were really great in occasionally updating my family at home on news from us out there.
It might sound a bit strange, but what I liked most about AV was the fact that there presence wasn't at all obvious when we were out in India. This is in fact a compliment to AV, because it meant that they let me and Rosanna (the other volunteer I was paired with), just get on with it. I remember the day we arrived in the village, a taxi jeep dropped us off at the top of a very large hill and whizzed off (it was such a hurry we actually forgot to get our loo paper which we had specifically bought and tied tightly on the roof). I remember feeling that having been nicely eased into India with a week long induction in Kalimpong, we were finally on our own. If we needed help or were worried about anything, we had a mobile phone, but other than that we were on our own. This is what AV do so well, they seem to have organised everything to nicely before we go away, that when you're there, they leave it up to you.
Although AV is based in England, on each of their projects abroad there will be someone there to make sure if anything goes wrong, we're not completely alone. In my case Tendup Lama was this contact, and I cannot praise him enough. We only saw him about 4 times over the three months, but he was always at the end of the phone if we ever needed comfort, and he was the most generous and kind man.
So we were welcomed so warmly into the village, as soon as we arrived. Fed unbelievably well. The first week involved visiting all the families in the village, and they all insisted on giving us tea accompanied with maybe eggs, or noodles or biscuits, or rice and dahl, but whatever it was, we were always expected to eat it all! Which was much more of a challenge than you can imagine for sensitive British bellies. We taught 5 days a week from 10am-12pm, which compared to some of the other volunteers in other villages, is nothing at all. We also taught in what is called the Night School every day from 6-8pm, which is purely for the Lepcha children in the village, helping them with their homework, teaching them songs and dances, as well as them teaching some of their traditional culture. The primary school which was government run, wasn't the most organised institution, and so teaching hours were always changing, but this added to the spontaneity of it all.
Once we arrived in the village, the children persuaded us to help out in their Sunday School, as there were lots of Christians in the village, we taught them songs every Sunday morning.
We lived with a family, and although the children were away in the town at school, we very quickly made many friends with the other children in the village, who we either taught in the primary school, or who came to Night School.
After school we would generally help cooking over the log fire, going into the jungle to collect food for the goats, go for walks with the children, or visit the other AVs in the nearby market village which was an hour's walk away.
At the weekends, we preferred to stay in the villages, as the older children didn't have school and it was the best opportunity to spend time with them. We would go for picnics, help them cut crop in the jungle, or play games inside.
The nearest town is Kalimpong, an hour and half drive away, we probably visited about 5 times over the three months. This is where you can get internet, and go out for meals. We would meet the other AVs in Kalimpong occasionally. We also came here for Holi festival, which was over the Easter Weekend, and was the Hindu festival of colour, to celebrate the beginning of Spring. All the AVs (12 of us), met up for this and was a lot of fun.
We were given the equivalent of a Half Term, and were able to go to Darjeeling one weekend, and on another occasion we went to Sikkim. We could have done more trips at the weekend, but felt it was better to stay in the village to make the most of our time with our family and the friends we were making.
In the village there is a combination of Christians and Buddhists, and we were involved in both of the celebrations which was so interesting.
During the month I got completely attached to some of the people there, and although it is difficult to stay in touch, i write letters and send text messages.
The living conditions were basic, but you get used to them really fast. Me and Rosanna shared a bedroom, and also had a sort of living space for ourselves. The loos were long drops, and to shower we filled up a bucked from the hose, which was cold water. We also washed our clothes in this bucket.
The project is relatively expensive, and this might seem strange when you are organizing this at home, but I can confirm that when in India it was really clear as to where my money had gone. Whilst I was in India I didn't spend a single coin of my own money, because on arrival we were given our money back in installments, to pay our rent to the family, to give to the village as a gift or donation, and also for spending money.
Overall, the three months was completely amazing, and I would recomend this project to anyone who is willing to make the most of it. The family we stayed with were incredibly generous and kind, and so I would hate for someone to arrive who wasn't going to make the most of their time there. It is tough, seeing as there is a massive language barrier, but this can be so easily overcome with patience, enthusiasm and determination. The project is so worthwhile because although 3 months is definitely not enough time to teach a child good english, it is plenty to give them confidence in their learning, and we were constantly reminded that this was the most important thing for us to do.