Reaching new heights in India: Volunteering in the Himalayas
The Himalayas during monsoon season was a spectacular and certainly unforgettable experience. I have been supporting the Tibet Relief Fund by working two weeks in a SEN (special educational needs) school, raising money to support both the children in the school and the Tibetan community. We arrived in the early hours on Saturday 14th July, when the owners of the guesthouse welcomed us around 01:00, paying their respects with the gift of a khata - a Tibetan tradition symbolising purity and compassion. As my group and I settled into our Tibetan guesthouse, we soon familiarised ourselves with some interesting insects taking residence in our rooms. Although daunting at first, we focused on the journey we were about to begin, kickstarting our volunteering the next day by introducing ourselves to the school.
From afar, the school appeared somewhat neglected in appearance, dirty and along with the dull weather, fairly glum. However, when entering the school, the happiness that reflected the students was overwhelming. The positivity protruding from their smiles was contagious, and the atmosphere within the bare classrooms reflected just how insignificant materialism is in this country, showing virtuousness vending from their spirituality, and their affection and care towards one another.
The following day we visited an elderly care home, resident to almost 100 war veterans. Similar to the school, the home was practical although halls were stark, and echoes followed through from conversations between the staff and the residents. However, the people we met were wholesome, well-travelled and courageous people who opened up their rooms to show us the extent of their commitment to the Dalai Lama. Their rooms were laced with photographs of their spiritual leader, along with representative candles, holy water and flags to pay respect. As a group, we paid our respects with a bow of the head and continued the day serving the elderly their lunch and cleaning the home, before returning to the guesthouse for some home-cooked Dahl, chapati and rice to energise us for the following day – our first day of teaching.
As the second week commenced, my confidence had ameliorated. Teaching the students was extremely rewarding seeing the benefit it had on them mentally, physically and emotionally. One of my main aims when teaching the children was to activate new boundaries in their learning, showing them that their obstacles could be used to their advantage when learning. I enjoyed teaching English and Maths, including the alphabet and times tables but these were already common subjects in the school and they were almost teaching us! So I decided to have them engage in more sensory activities, which I found more beneficial as I could guide them whilst they actually teach themselves what they're learning. below are the more successful lessons we carried out:
Science: A popular task I set was using bath bombs in tubs of water to show the children the way different chemicals react with water. The bursts of bright colours appeared fascinating to them, as they got stuck in with mixing the bath bombs to create an array of colours. I also use balloons and newspaper to make papier-mâché planets, which gave me a platform for teaching the solar system, and some even designed their own planets and could communicate their ideas behind their design which helped test their English and boost their confidence for communicating with others.
Arts Therapy: I used this to introduce new colours, textures and patterns for the students to observe, including a variety of flashing toys, kinetic sand, different sized soft balls and glitter paints. I left these sessions to the imagination of the students, helping them to engage with each other by incorporating their ideas to create or construct something from their own/each other's imagination. During the final week of teaching, we collected the art work done by the children to renovate the notice board in the entrance of the school.
Physical Activity: During some lessons, I would take the students out for a walk around the school to look at the different plants and flowers, and for fresh air which they loved. I believe after the walk, it helped them concentrate as they knew they'd been given a break from the lesson so were able to continue concentrating and feeling refreshed. However, a popular activity we found was teaching the students to dance, so often we would split the assemblies into two halves; the first being arts and crafts for approximately 45 minutes, and the other half dance. We would play some upbeat music and teach them dances like the Cha Cha Slide and the Macarena, before playing slower music for a cool down. The children loved the levels of energy that were introduced to them, and I believed it really helped them to bring out all the energy they were holding inside to show to their fellow students and the teachers their abilities.
Before visiting India, I had never been out of Europe, nor travelled without family so the whole experience was extremely nerve-racking. After several team meetings, we built friendships and planned some fundraising and teaching activities. This made me feel a lot more comfortable as there was no pressure on an individual to bring lots of ideas, and equally there was no pressure on bringing ideas to the group each meeting - we were there to help both ourselves and each other prepare.
The team meetings occurred every 6-8 weeks or so, and they allowed us to share our ideas whilst also asking each other opinions on these ideas. Collectively, we were able to create a fundraising plan which included an abseil from the top of the main university building, a thrift sale, bake sale and general coin collection. By myself, I managed to raise over £400 for the Tibet Relief Fund, which will help them provide a variety of resources such as equipment in schools and facilities to care for both disabled children and the elderly.
Before going to India, it was stressed to us that we would have limited WIFI, the weather will be unbearably hot and we wouldn't have the privilege of hot water. The first week was difficult as it was on average 40 degrees in the day and about 28 at night, but this got easier as we familiarised ourselves with the area, people and the weather. We were, however, surprised to see the amount of food stores along one road and the guesthouse we stayed in fed us like royalty (if you get told you're eating rice and Dahl for 2 weeks, it’s a lie). We were also near to the outskirts of the city so there was a shopping mall nearby, making us feel like everything wasn't so surreal. However, do not confuse this for the shops in England - these are almost garages or iron huts with only stones holding the roofs down. The roads were also extremely dirty and full of rubbish, which triggered the changes I have made since returning to England in relation to my daily routine.
Volunteering for the benefit of the less fortunate has made me think about small things like how much water I use i.e. leaving a tap running or using the shower. Making these changes is all due to actual experience of visiting an area like this, and not just watching adverts on TV, and now I have experienced such a country, I feel ignorant for thinking I understood the extent of the living conditions for people in poverty.
We briefly visited an elderly home before teaching, which raised the topic of human rights. The residents are ex war veterans, but I class the whole Tibetan community as soldiers themselves. Prior to visiting India, we were told about the history of the movement of Tibetans from China, so were able to discuss this at the elderly home. It was interesting meeting people who had physically fought for their lives, to discuss inequality they were subjected to, as they shared their views on how life has changed residing in India. While they stay within the Tibetan community, their rights are much more appreciated in India, although still not equal to. They are however involved in celebratory ceremonies such as Indian Independence Day, which everyone enjoys.
Overall, the trip has been a major success and I have learnt so much about other religions, lifestyles and rights. If I had any advice for future volunteers, it would be to stay opened minded, have the enthusiasm to study and live in their culture and don't expect too little nor too much. Have no expectations as you don't know what experience you will return with! One thing is for sure - it will be a life-changing one.