I had three places on my bucket list, in order: India, China, Africa. I had traveled a lot in my life, lived abroad in Europe for school, and been to Japan, Korea, and Taiwan for business. Yet India seemed another planet, and I did not feel I could go alone. I had just a few weeks to give, but I wanted to quickly delve deep and understand the country. A volunteer vacation seemed the perfect choice.
After much research, I settled on Cross Cultural Solutions. I’m so glad I did. CCS provides as much or as little support as you need. The key difference is the “cultural” part. CCS places major emphasis on having face-to-face interaction with locals, so all the volunteer jobs are putting you in those situations, rather than working side by side with other volunteers only. I loved it. Also, CCS is highly sensitive to the local community, so healthy rules prevent us from upsetting the local economic ecosystems – for example, we’re not allowed to give gifts or money to those we help, for many good reasons. Other organizations aren’t always so farsighted and responsible.
They pick you up at the airport and provide local housing, commensurate with how the locals live. They have a cook that provides all meals that are good, safe, and also localized. And the staff goes out of its way to be helpful. They provide cultural training, like language lessons, teaching cricket, cooking classes, and there are field trips, all to give you a deep understanding of the local culture. And we’re encouraged and supported to go out exploring on our own.
In Dharamsala, my job was teaching English to elementary school kids in a remote hilltop school - the school had no electricity or plumbing, just cement floors, wall and ceiling. No desks, kids sat on the floor. And they didn't speak ANY English. I was thrown in with them, and I had no experience teaching. But, it was a fabulous experience! Talk about getting to know the country quickly, as a local, not a tourist. In the evenings, there was time to roam up to Mcloud Gange, where the Tibetan community has its center in exile.
What's one thing I wish I'd known before going? Luckily, I heard this from other volunteers before going on my first CCS volunteer trip to India - you are somewhat left to your own devices in your volunteer gig. So you have to do your own preparation. CCS works hard to secure volunteer spots, but they may change at the last minute. The staff can't be up to speed on all the jobs and train you much, so as the other volunteers attest, you do your best based on your own skills and wits that you bring. It's fine. In India, my job was teaching kids, and I had never done that before. I don't think I was very good, but the kids and teacher seemed to love my efforts and I learned so much. In China, where I went a year later, teaching the teachers was simple - they just wanted conversation, so the prep materials I'd brought weren't needed. Talk to previous volunteers before you go. CCS will connect you with them.
I plan to go to Tanzania or South Africa with CCS soon. This is really an outstanding program. I can’t say enough about it.