I can’t remember when I fell in love with the idea of India: somewhere between reading The Jungle Book at age five and visiting a Bengali bazaar in Durban when I was nine. The gilded statuettes, the heady spices, the myriad saris, bracelets and jewelled bindis (forehead dots) captured my imagination in a flurry of peacock feathers, incense and visions of palaces, princes and belly-dancing beauties. As I grew up, the fascination only intensified, spurred by the political parallels I noticed between the Eastern nation and our own, and by the Indian authors who painted a hypnotic picture of their complicated home in novels like Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children and The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy. But when my chance came to travel there, the steamy cities of the South India of my dreams eluded me and, early in 2014, I found myself living and working at a monastic school in Gombadara, a tiny hill station in the lower reaches of the Himalayas.
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My path to this curious and cold destination? Googling ‘Volunteer in India’. Like many recent graduates, mildly overwhelmed by the prospect of entering the working world, itchingly keen to finally meet my hero India, and determined to do something worthwhile, I decided to take part in the growing field of ‘voluntourism’ – the genre of travel that allows the traveller to work in the non-profit sector while living abroad. The packages often include bed and board, vastly reducing the overall cost of what would otherwise be a pricey endeavour.
(I managed to live in India for nearly five months for less than R40 000, R11 000-a-pop flights included – a fraction of the price of ‘holidaying’ for the same period.) Also, I would have the unparalleled opportunity to acculturate, work, and truly live the authentic Indian experience while, hopefully, making my own small contribution.
There’s a downside. With many agencies, you relinquish control over where precisely you are placed, and if you aren’t careful and considered, you can’t be entirely sure you’re going to end up where you’d imagined. So, before all ye good-willed nomads rush o to Google, there are a few things you need to know before you turn your Googling into going.