My volunteering in India story is full of surprises. The first one being that I never intended to come to India and second, I never planned to become a volunteer. Yet here I am telling a story of flashmobs, school children and environment activism.
As a yoga enthusiast, I had romantic visions of India as a perfect place for yoga practice. But it was not until 2009 when the idea of going to India came up.
After finishing my Master’s thesis (a three-month struggle in front of the computer screen), I felt like taking a longer break that would also allow me to escape from the cold winter in Europe. It so happened that a yoga ashram from Kerala responded first to my e-mail request. I must admit that I was a little scared in that moment. Stereotypes of Mumbai slums and huge masses came to my mind. But I had decided I would go where destiny leads me and thus booked tickets just a few days later (I still remember how my heart was beating in the travel agency!)
In February 2010 I reached tropical Kerala for the first time, thinking I would not even survive the taxi ride from the airport on those bumpy roads. The place turned out to be much different than I had imagined. The ashram was located in a serene and peaceful village, no masses of people, no traffic. Volunteering in the international yoga ashram in the middle of lush and green forests was a pleasant experience. But it was like being inside a bubble that had little to do with the real India. The story would have probably ended here, if not for one friendly tourist from Mexico who said: “You should see more of India. Let´s go to Munnar to see the tea plantations”. Till today I am thankful for this invitation as it changed the course of my life permanently. Probably leaving the ashram earlier was one of the best decisions of my life!
During my last days in Kochi I made many local friends and just after four months home, I found myself back in India. After spending many weeks in beach destinations like Varkala I felt like doing something useful and having a more structured daily schedule. I went to Bangalore and learnt about various volunteering opportunities in local schools there. Just a day at Yuvalok, a NGO-funded school in Hennur/ Bangalore was enough for me to get attached to the children there. I then spent a month teaching English to small groups of children and doing exam revisions with them. During this time I also met one of my best friends, Yvonne, in Kammanahalli. When my visa expired again and it was time to leave India I knew that I would have to come back soon.
After I reached Germany my friend in Bangalore had the idea of starting a mentoring organization called We-KIT to give professional mentoring to young professionals. There was a bunch of other friends that got excited and within just a few weeks we registered and officially launched our NGO. As soon as I was able to return to India, 3 months later, we started our work with full force. During those intense months we not only organized a big art competition with more than 800 young participants, we also did many programs in schools around Bangalore and even two flashmobs in the center of Bangalore. None of it was really planned, it just happened (and often in a rather unorganized way!). I now think that, in many ways, it was the lack of experience that led our team to get lost in too many activities. Nevertheless I experienced some of the most amazing moments during this time. I never thought I would nearly solely manage a dance event with 250 children from underprivileged background and get sponsorship from Garuda Mall for it.
I got a chance to meet schools and NGO’s all over Bangalore and witness the great work many of them do. I guess I could have not had a better learning curve than through all these experiences!
My last and ongoing volunteer engagement in India is with The Green Path – an eco-hotel which has become a true hub for scientists, activists and eco-enthusiasts. I am still amazed at the great volunteering opportunities that came my way in India.
Looking back at the last few years now, I feel a lot of gratitude. I was exposed to so many new interesting areas of work, met wonderful and inspiring people, saw the great and consistent work many grassroots level organizations are doing, be it in the social or environmental field. There were also many challenges during this time and moments of big disappointments (those stories are all too long to be shared here now).
Yet I would not be here now, doing the work I do now and having the mindset that I have now, without all these volunteering experiences in India.
Working with the local people and spending longer time periods in a place really allows a much deeper cultural experience than any holiday could ever give. In fact India has become like another home to me and I feel like having family all over the country.