When I first decided to take a gap year and travel abroad to India I felt excitement, tinged with a hint of apprehension: I had never travelled alone before and even the thought of organising my project seemed an adventure in itself. For someone who had just finished their A-levels I had to make a transition from the theoretical to the practical, moving from Sixth-Form studies to organising my trip, sending off for a visa, booking flights, arranging the details of my plans, and raising funds. I shouldn’t have been so concerned; choosing, planning and organising my trip was straightforward with the help and support from Projects Abroad.
Through the website and the Projects Abroad brochure, I was easily able to search into the destination and project I was interested in, finding out about information specific to India and the projects on location. With the ‘request a call back’ and online information sessions I could ask any questions I had: the feedback I received was helpful and I always received a prompt.
After submitting my application for a three-month journalism project in India, Projects Abroad sent me information which helped me to prepare and organise my trip. I was given a comprehensive information pack, a log-in myprojectsabroad.org, and the details of my host family.
By the time January arrived, the New Year bringing my departure, I was full of excitement and anticipation for the adventure ahead. Although it may seem daunting at first, don’t let the thought of travelling alone stop you from doing something different and seizing the opportunity to take the trip of a lifetime. It is liberating to have a new-found independence and the only ties you have are to your all-too-heavy suitcase!
Upon my arrival in Madurai I was met by Victor, a member of the staff from the Projects Abroad office in India. It wasn’t until three of us approached the man with the beaming smile, holding aloft the Projects Abroad sign, that I realised the two volunteers from Germany I had befriended, on the bus to the arrivals department, were also doing their projects, care and sports, with Projects Abroad. From this point on I was never alone. I had never expected to meet so many like-minded people from across the world and the volunteers I shared my experience with, the people I am now lucky enough to call my friends-for-life, were one of the best aspects of my trip, helping to make my time in India so memorable.
Madurai is a fascinating city; living in a host family it really becomes your home, each volunteer you meet becoming another member of a strange, new, extended family. It is difficult to ever feel homesick when you are surrounded by so many other volunteers; there is always so much to talk about, so much to see and so much to do. I was lucky enough to stay with a family that supported up to eight volunteers. On average I shared a room with two other volunteers and we became as close as sisters. From arranging weekend trips to Kodaikanal, a beautiful hill station in Tamil Nadu; to local adventures up to the ‘Monkey Temple’; afternoon walks home via the watermelon-wallah, and evenings spent watching the sunset on the roof of our home in Moolakarai; we shared everything together. It is safe to say that I had never laughed so much, nor had as much fun, as I had over the space of time I spent in Madurai.
Working on the Madurai Messenger was a fantastic opportunity. A challenging and exciting project, the magazine gives volunteers the chance to choose their subject choice, within the theme of a particular month’s issue; conduct interviews, often on-location; write their articles; and see the printed result. Although I had no plans for a future career in journalism, I enjoyed writing, and the project couldn’t have been better for me. As a volunteer journalist with Projects Abroad I was immediately thrown into the deep end, learning on the job as I interviewed students at a Pongal Festival celebrating the harvest, with guests from the Iowa University, USA. I soon adjusted to the fast-paced progression presented by each issue. In my first month alone I travelled with a group of other journalists to Munnar for our issue on India’s tea plantations, I conducted a Skype interview with eminent American field biologist, Dr Clifford Rice, and I wrote about the illusive Nilgiri Tahr of the Western Ghats.
As journalists you find yourself immersed in the rich and vibrant culture of India. Opportunities with the magazine had me travelling to Chennai on night-trains, helping to release endangered Olive Ridley turtle hatchlings, tasting culinary delights prepared by a YouTube internet sensation, riding elephants through the forests of Munnar, and driving to the world’s highest tea plantation where we sampled cups of steaming chai. I attended festivals, visited the cinema, participated in the February’s One Billion Rising event at the Ghandi Museum, and travelled to Valparai for my cover story on elephant-human conflict in Tamil Nadu.
The people we met and the stories they told were incredible. Whether I was behind the notepad of questions, or attending an interview conducted by a fellow volunteer, I was fortunate enough to meet many inspiring individuals with fascinating stories to share. From wildlife photographer, Sriram Janak, to feminist poets, Salma, Sukirtharani, and Kutti Revathi; founder of Mahatma Schools, Premalatha Panneerselvam, to Dr. P. Kumarasamy, ‘The Batman of Madurai’; all were incredible to interview. The histories, achievements and testimonies which they recounted will remain as enshrined in my memories as it shall in the print of the Messenger.
One of my favourite aspects of my trip with Projects Abroad were the weekend trips. It was great to be able to explore Tamil Nadu with the help and guidance from the organisation. Weekend trips were also fantastic opportunities to meet other volunteers, find out about the projects others were working on, and to make friends with groups you may choose to travel on with. My first weekend in India was spent at a Pongal celebration held at a local school for the January festival. Volunteers joined staff and students, dressing up in saris, and learning about the local traditions and festivities. Everyone enjoyed the weekend of games, song, dance, and, of course, the auspicious – and delicious – pongal!
Other weekend highlights included a trip to Rameshwaram where we visited an array of vibrant temples, enjoyed a thali lunch, and swam in the pristine shores of Dhanushkodi Beach beneath the sunset. After meeting volunteers on other projects, a group of us organised a weekend trip to Kollam and Varkala in neighbouring state, Kerala. Staff from the Projects Abroad Indian office helped us to plan our itinerary, booking our train tickets and arranging our houseboat tour of the backwaters.
I was always so touched by the lengths to which people went to help us, to accommodate us, and to make sure we were safe, happy and well. From organising transport and travel, cultural workshops, and tours, to checking up on me when I was sick, taking me to visit the doctor and getting me the medication I needed; there is always a member of staff looking out for you, or just a phone call away.
The food offered in India is incredible and the culinary delights of South India are often a mysterious surprise for the western traveller. My experience in India turned me into a true foodie and I long for dosa, idly, poori, thali, raitha, and other Southern treats - I know that I should soon return and my stomach shall make sure of that! Whilst your host family may prepare pasta or noodles, most of the food we ate was South Indian cuisine, and my roommates and I would take regular bus trips into the city for dinner out in one of the many authentic eateries offered in Madurai. In addition to this, we would join the weekly ‘volunteer’s dinner’ on the rooftop of the Residency Hotel where Projects Abroad volunteers would meet up for a meal, a catch-up, and a Kingfisher. This was a great opportunity to keep in touch with other volunteers on different placements and weekend trip plans were often cemented over a chicken biryani, or a butter chicken masala.
My experience as a volunteer in India with Projects Abroad was incredible. Whilst it required a good deal of funding, looking back and considering the experiences I have had, the friends I made, the lessons learnt, along with the life-skills and character development that comes with travelling abroad, as cliché as it sounds, it has been priceless. Volunteering abroad gives you a new perspective, you are able to experience a new culture, meet people you would never have crossed before and you can see the world through a fresh set of eyes. Seize the moment whilst you have the chance, take the opportunity you have always considered and I can assure you that you shall not look back.
Volunteering with Projects Aboard gives you the chance to travel and more. With Projects Abroad you will be a part of your destination – rather than a tourist looking in on a city, you will be immersed in it, truly experiencing the culture for yourself. As a volunteer you will be constantly learning and will engage with an active role, be that by teaching in a local orphanage, or writing about the extraordinary efforts of a neurosurgeon. Your experience will be enriching for yourself and for your CV.
My decision to volunteer with Projects Abroad was one of the best I have ever made and I hope that my review shall help others to make similar decisions. Your project abroad will never leave you and when you are not volunteering or travelling overseas, you will be planning your next trip…