This post is about my first volunteering experience in India. I have written in a story-like format to make it interesting (a little writing experiment). However, I do understand that some of you are too frustrated and anxious right now (just like I was when I was looking to make quick money online for the vacations) to read the entire text. So, you can see the last section of this post directly to get the main information and resources regarding volunteering in India.
I’d suggest you to read the entire post if you have time- Trust me, it is worth your time!
CHAPTER-1: THE BEGINNING
What happens when your savings are at the lowest and the wanderlust’s at it’s peak?
Well, as the old saying goes- “Where there’s will, there’s way” !
I was desperate to spend the winter vacation in my favourite destination in India- Rishikesh! I could not possibly spend the vacations in Delhi- That was simply not an option! So, I sat down with my laptop praying for some miracle to happen and fetch me money within the week. I searched intensively for hours and hours but, with no luck!
I realised that there was a fundamental problem in my request- easy money is an illusion! People wouldn’t work if they could just get money by surfing the web! I then corrected my search phrase and began to look for work in Rishikesh. I was getting closer to a solution. Finally, I could see some feasible options. After reading some blog posts and researching online, I looked for volunteering options in Rishikesh.
Finally, I found a solution on Worldpackers.com– a website where one can find opportunities to barter their skills for accommodation, meals and free activities in different places. Immediately, I applied to volunteer at the ShivShakti hostel in Rishikesh (which is Trip Advisor no.1 there). Guess what? I received a reply from Mr. Nitin and my application was accepted within a day!
YIPPPEEEEEE!! I couldn’t believe that I would get to spend my vacation in Rishikesh after all.
I confirmed my trip and paid the worldpackers fee- ($20) it is pretty nominal and depends upon the trip.
CHAPTER- 2: MENTAL CONFLICTS
Excited to leave in 4 days, I began sorting clothes that needed laundry and gathering all the money I had hidden in different locations of my room. As usual, by the evening, there were five people in my hostel room and we were discussing our holiday plans. When they heard mine, they gave me a look of disbelief. The idea of volunteering seemed “too good an opportunity to be true” to them. They were genuinely concerned for me!
The group broke into a debate on whether solo travelling is safe- “News incidences vs feminists ideologies”. Well, that went on until the group dispersed and the night began transitioning to dawn. Everyone slept. Everyone but me. Not because I had an exam next day, but because a few points raised in the discussion had left my mind restless. “The Travel Jitters”, my friends who give me a visit after I make crucial travel decisions, knocked at my door again.
Volunteering is a relatively new concept to Indians travellers. And, travelling solo with hardly any money and depending upon the organisation to fund me was a big risk. Being a net savvy person, I opened up my laptop to do a little research. I looked for the reviews of ShivShakti Hostel on Trip Advisor and other sites- they were excellent! People simply loved the staff and there was no negative review as far as I had searched. (Too good to be true? Well, we’ll find out soon!). The reviews gave me the confidence to not cancel the trip and give it a try. Calculated risks are necessary for life- they give us life’s most memorable experiences and some very crucial lessons.
CHAPTER- 3: THE BUS RIDE
I left from home early in the morning on 5 December 2016. My dad dropped me at the metro station and told me (for the 1000th time)- “TO TAKE A VOLVO BUS BACK TO DELHI IMMEDIATELY IF ANYTHING WENT WRONG OR SEEMED WRONG”. I bid him farewell and left. My journey had begun!
People inside the metro were staring at me and their stares were justified. I had a huge backpack and my face was covered with a scarf (I hate pollution and turn into a maniac at times!) making my eyes the only thing visible. I got down at the Kashmere Gate station. Outside the metro gate, two women stopped me, pinned a flag to my jacket and asked me for money. Yes, you need to incorporate some money for “involuntary and unavoidable circumstances” in your budget! Finally, I entered the ISBT and boarded the bus.
You want to book your bus tickets at least 5-6 hours in advance if wish to travel by Jan Rath or Volvo. However, regular non-AC buses ply every 2-3 hours and usually have vacant seats prior to departure.
The bus started and I was glad that the seat next to mine was vacant. I could keep my bag there and sleep on the entire seat during the journey! But, seems like fate had other plans for me. After an hour, a tall man appeared out of nowhere from behind the bus to claim the seat next to me. He had been occupying someone else’s seat behind! UGGHHHH! The whole journey (up till Haridwar), that man slept and took a lot of space- A lot! He tilted and took about one fourth of my seat as well!
After reaching Rishikesh, I waited around half an hour in an auto-rickshaw with another traveller at the bus stand. He demanded 150 rupees to drop us at the Lakshman Jhula! We weren’t ready to overpay and hence, decided to wait for more travellers to share the ride. When we realised that he was wasting our time so that we would agree to his price, we used the old trick of getting down and pretending to leave. He finally agreed on 80 rupees!
I got down near Laksman Jhula and asked around for Shiv Shakti Hostel. Almost everybody knew of that hostel.
CHAPTER- 4: ARRIVAL AT THE SHIV SHAKTI HOSTEL (SHANTI SHANTI!)
I had no idea how the hostel crew would receive a volunteer and hoped I wasn’t the first volunteer there. I told them about my volunteering position at the reception. They made me feel welcome from the moment I entered the place and asked me to rest in the common area while they checked me in. The entire atmosphere was very chill! Everyone was happy and the other travellers seemed pretty satisfied with the hostel. It looked more like a backpackers’ community than a hostel.
They gave me a bed in one of the dormitories. I met the other dorm mates there- Roman and Alan. Alan was a volunteer as well. He was leaving that night. Roman had arrived a few days back and stayed there the entire month I was there! She is one of the most amazing people I have met! She is a writer and has worked in Hollywood! I talked to her for a while. Her book- “Hollywood Insanity” is based on her experience in Hollywood..
Then, I took a long refreshing shower. I loved the shower there- it had hot water all day long! After getting ready, I went to the reception. Saurav bhaiya (at the reception in that shift) gave me a tour of the entire hostel. Then, I met Anu Di (Nitin bhaiya’s Sister). She is the most humble and hardworking person I have ever met! She told me about the hostel over tea and taught me how to fill the C-forms (forms that hostels/guesthouses need to submit for every foreign guest they host at their property).
Later, Nitin bhaiya arrived and told me to check out the rooftop. I spent the rest of the evening upstairs- the most happening place in the whole of Rishikesh! People were jamming with their instruments, playing cards and having travel conversations! I knew I would love the place and I was glad of my decision to work there.
CHAPTER- 5: THE FIRST WEEK
On the second day, Nitin bhaiya talked to me about the volunteer program and we decided upon the entire plan. I spent the first week gardening. I love gardening and it did not feel like work at all. It felt more like pursuing my hobbies and hanging out with the amazing hostel crew! We painted pots, selected plants, decided the best soil mixture composition and had loads of fun!
Anu Di gave me tours of Rishikesh on her scooter and made me try some amazing street food! Every evening I would explore the streets and try out different cafes. I took part in the evening activities (even Bollywood dance!). Also, I played with Jackie- a newly adopted super-energetic puppy there!
The nights were mostly spent on the rooftop- talking to other travellers and listening to the amazing music performance by Arjun Baba!
CHAPTER- 6: THE YOGA WEEK
Second week on wards, I hardly had anything to do in the hostel. Initially, I had to get some surveys filled while exploring the town. My daily survey turnouts were pretty low. Hence, I spent a few days with Roman who was doing the surveys as well to learn from her, but, it seemed like I had no hopes of improvement there!
Nevertheless, I went on a few Aarti walks and N.G.O. visits with the guests to give a review of the activities and suggest points to improve them. It was fun! Especially, the N.G.O. visit to Ramana’s Garden. It is a magical place. I would suggest everyone to visit the kids there and interact with them.
Mid-week, I went for a sunrise trek to the Kunjapuri Temple organised by the hostel. The sunrise, the tasty breakfast, the beautiful downhill trek and swimming in the waterfall- it was amazing!
One night, we went out looking for a Chai stall in the town area and had the most tasty bun and butter ever along with some tea! During my free time, I walked to different parts and explored Rishikesh on foot.
CHAPTER- 7: LADOO AND DAL BAATI!
The third week was very chilled out and I had nothing to do! Mostly, I interacted with the guests, explored new cafes and spent time chatting with Anu Di. I met Sanjay bhaiya, a friend of Nitin bhaiya. He owns the best traveller’s hostel in Amritsar- Jugaadus Hostel. He gave me the nickname “Humpty Dumpty” and then, “Ladoo”! Soon, everybody in the hostel forgot my actual name and began calling me Ladoo (a round sweet that is popular in India). I was the round clumsy kid- Ladoo! By this time, the hostel had become like family to me!
We all tried food in different cafes in the evening and – for three consecutive mornings we ate the most delicious Dal Baati I have ever tasted, at the Rajasthani Restaurant. The brunch group started with eight people and ended up as a group of around 20 people! It was the most fun I have ever had in my life!
On almost every evening, I went to the Tree House Cafe. I loved the ambience there- most travellers there played amazing music and were very talented. The cafe, as the name suggests, is built like a tree house around a huge tree. A group of friends had started the cafe about an year ago and they did the structural planning (and most of the construction) themselves! It was great to see that they did not cut the tree that their property had and instead designed their concept around it- true love for Nature!
CHAPTER- 8: THE CHRISTMAS WEEK
The last week was very happening- it was the Christmas Week! We planned the Christmas party and I made pasta for the Christmas Brunch! There was music jamming in the afternoon and it rained in the evening- Rishikesh looks divine during rain!
I spent the next day playing around with Henna- painting my hands and legs- I was obsessed! Haha!
I left on 28 December, in the morning. It felt sad- the thought of the routine city life that awaited me. While leaving, I knew I would miss the magical hostel in the divine land of Rishikesh. I wish my college had reopened a few days later than the schedule because I really wanted to spend the New Year’s eve in Rishikesh!
Maybe, Next Year!
–END OF THE STORY–
SHIV SHAKTI HOSTEL- THE VOLUNTEERING EXPERIENCE
My experience at the ShivShakti hostel was Magical! I cannot imagine having missed this opportunity. The people who run the hostel truly believe in the phrase “Shanti-Shanti”. Hanging out at the rooftop every night, having cool discussions with Roman, Anu Di, Nitin bhaiya, Sanjay bhaiya and Aditya bhaiya, having an all girls night in the dormitory, hanging out in the Tree House Cafe, Eating Dal-Baati at Rajasthani, the Kunjapuri Trek with the blues music and the list goes on….. I made uncountable memories!
All I had to do was some gardening, trying to get some surveys filled out, going on a trek and some evening tours, interacting with other travellers there and showing them around, trying food at different cafes and helping the hostel organise some events. Does that even sound like work?? No, right? I loved volunteering there!
Why Shiv Shakti Hostel is Ranked-1?
I realised why the hostel is ranked no.1 on all the review websites- the people that run the hostel put their heart and soul into it. To them it is not business, it is a lifestyle! They love what they do and they do it the best! In addition to that, they are genuinely concerned about their guests and try their best to make their stay memorable. I have not seen a hostel more dedicated than this one- taking care of the sick guests, dropping them to the bus stand, giving them honest reviews and helping them out with anything and everything! Moreover, Nitin bhaiya has some amazing ideas and is always open to suggestions. He had himself been a backpacker during his college days!
Every evening, they have some activity for the guests and the team! Music jamming, Aarti walks, Bollywood dance(best day of the week!), Dinner together on the rooftop, N.G.O. visit, Picnic and Morning treks! Even if you are a resident of Rishikesh, staying at this place for a few nights would give you a holiday feeling- it is a world in it’s own! I would like to call it a backpacker’s community rather than a hostel! I did not even realise that I had travelled solo to Rishikesh. Coming back to the hostel felt like returning home at night!
TIPS FOR VOLUNTEERING IN INDIA
- Look online for volunteering positions available in the place you wish to travel to.
- Some websites that I would recommend are- Worldpackers, Workaway and Helpx.
- Research about the place before you apply.
- Confirm the trip over phone a few days before your arrival to avoid any last moment confusion.
- Be honest about your skills.
- Do not cancel your trip after confirming your position (unless it is urgent and unavoidable)- the host faces great difficulty in arranging substitutes at the last moment.It is a loss to them as well as the other volunteers who were denied the chance to your position earlier. Confirm only if you are completely sure about your trip.
- Give your arrival details to the host and discuss all the terms- accommodation, meals, pick-up, working hours and the type of work before confirmation. Let them know if you have any special dietary requirements.
- Be prepared to work and contribute! Be open to trying new things!
- Learn a little about the place before arrival- the language, culture and weather, to adjust there quicker.
I hope you find the answers to most of your queries regarding volunteering in India as a first hand account gives ample insight to understand the concept. Feel free to comment any queries and do share your experience if you have volunteered in India before.