Volunteering in India



The village kids. (Photo by Isaac Reichenbach)

By Isaac Reichenbach

Some might say that I’m not good at planning. Others might say I’m an idiot. I like to think I’m “spontaneous.” Regardless of the exact reason, I have paid too much, used too much nenkyuu, and failed to capitalize on prime traveling times (Christmas 07: went to Fukuoka. It was ma-ma.) Anyways, sometimes things just fall into place. They happen. And they happen in a great way, like when I went to India during Golden Week this year.

At first we only had a couple things on the agenda, some must-sees and a possible stop up in Nepal. But after the advice from a few friends who recently visited India (“Don’t wing it.”), we decided not to wing it. A few days later I received an e-mail about volunteering with a non-profit organization called Longitude. The team of volunteers, 21 JETs, would be building houses for ten days in southern India, in a small village affected by the 2004 Asian Tsunami. I was intrigued! We filled out the applications, were accepted, and began raising financial support. The more money we raised, the more houses we could build, and the more lives we could enhance! It’s science. I knew right away that this was a good cause. I finally felt like I’d be doing something with my life.

Upon arriving at the simple K/I village (Kotha Santhram/ Indirinagar) in Andhra Pradesh, I felt as if I had been taken back in time… to a scene from The Gods Must Be Crazy. It seemed like a different world. If poverty could be properly witnessed, it was then and there. It is a “Dalit” village, which means that it is comprised of the “Untouchables” of India. They are the lowest of the low in the Indian caste system. And for that reason, they have yet to receive sufficient aid or recognition from the government since the fatal tsunami over three years ago. The injustice is unbelievable.

The majority of the next ten days would be spent in the village, putting in long hours of moving bricks and cement, playing with the kids, enduring the blazing sun and combating Dehli Belly (see: explosive diarrhea). It soon became apparent to us that as cool as volunteering sounds, it can be grueling and painful work. We broke into teams and helped the masons in constructing the modest brick houses. The jobs ranged from making a brick assembly line, to lifting plates of wet cement, to pouring roof casting, and even to fetching water. We worked in the morning and late afternoon, taking a break mid-day when the sun was most fierce. During our break, we ate lunch, rested, played cards or hacky-sack, and hung out with the village people… not to be confused with The Village People.

Because the villagers spoke their native Telugu language, our ability to communicate clearly was nearly impossible. However, having experience both with JTEs and with using hand motions, we managed to do our best. Despite only using the basics of the language we picked up, I felt as if I were connecting with the people. Whether I was lifting kids in the air, arm wrestling, or handing bricks to a mason, even through slight facial expressions and smiles, I became attached to them. One kid I was working with, 15-year-old Yankayat, kept saying “jyokobi” to me. I’d repeat it, making my voice as low as possible, and he’d get a kick out of it. Since this happened on the first day, it kind of became our thing. We would just say “jyokobi” back and forth. Then it caught on with the other kids. The adults also found it amusing. I later found out that he was actually calling me “Jacob” because I looked like a previous volunteer. It was fun while it lasted. As simple as my interactions with the people were, I can assure you, they won’t soon be forgotten.

It’s impossible to sum up such an experience in 900 words. There’s so much to tell. I didn’t even touch on the food (mostly curry, except for the Domino’s Pizza in New Delhi). Nor did I mention the cows and pigs everywhere. Or how I almost stole a few kids. We had a ceremony for the first house completed and it was a special moment. To see the fruit of our hard labor and the money we raised was an incredible thing. The people were so grateful, thanking us and calling us gods. It’s such a beautiful country with such beautiful people. Check it out. Volunteering in India might just be the rewarding and worthwhile experience you’ve been looking for!

Top Tips:

  1. Volunteer in India- it’s good to not always think about yourself.
  2. See the Taj- though slightly expensive (2,500 yen), it’s worth it.
  3. Book a taxi from the airport- even though the driver will be creepy, he’ll be less creepy than your alternative.
  4. Prepare your stomach by eating yogurt and praying- Dehli belly is a force that deserves your respect.
  5. Bring a camera- you’ll want one. But don’t let it get stolen while you’re swimming in the ocean. It happened to a guy once.
  6. Don’t drink the water- because you’ll get sick. And die.

Other tips

  1. DON’T fly with China Eastern.
  2. I often use No1-travel: 06-6345-4700
  3. Ask for Noreen (she has a nice voice).
  4. www.no1-travel.com/kix
  5. Book hostels and taxis in advance over the internet.
  6. Hiring a driver is useful and cheap, but make sure you discuss everything before leaving.

Volunteer with Longitude. I met some cool JETs from all over Japan.