As a teacher, deciding how I’m going to spend my precious summer breaks is a responsibility I don’t take lightly. Usually, travel wins out. Since I’ve become a teacher, I’ve spent summers everywhere from the East Coast of the U.S. to East Africa. I love exploring new places and discovering things I didn’t know about the world’s diverse cultures.
Volunteer travel is rapidly on the rise, and for good reason. This past summer, I was fortunate to have an opportunity to direct a volunteer vacation in northern India for high school students. It was one of those experiences that truly changed me for the better, and I couldn’t be more grateful for my time working there.
I walked away from my summer volunteering in India completely transformed. For travelers who want to gain a deep understanding of the subcontinent and what it’s like for the 1.2 billion people who call it home, a volunteer vacation is the perfect way to do so.
Here’s why I think India is the perfect place for a life-changing voluntourism experience.
Local Insight is Key
When you’re traveling in India, you’ll witness things that both inspire and bewilder you, especially if it’s your first time there. Coming from the US, many people experience what can only be described as sensory overload.
On my trip, we visited 4 major destinations over the course of 3 weeks: Amritsar, Dharamsala, Agra and Delhi. These places range from small townships to the fourth most populous city on the planet, but one thing remained constant throughout our visit.
There are so many sights, sounds and smells to take in as you walk through the streets that you’ll have constant questions: “I wonder what spice that is?” “What religion is practiced by the majority of the people who live in this town?” “Do the cows ever run away when they’re left to graze all day on the side of the road?”
This isn’t meant to scare you away. In fact, quite the opposite! I loved every second of my time in India, and I appreciated the hustle and bustle of daily life there. But my helpful local guides proved a major factor in my enjoyment of the regular stimulation.
When you volunteer in India with Discover Corps, you always have locals along to guide you. This local knowledge is very important in the quality of a guided trip, especially in a place as complex and diverse as India! Our guides were always available to answer whatever questions we had. Without their wisdom, I would’ve felt overwhelmed.
Of course, the local staff isn’t just convenient for asking questions when you visit a new temple or stop by a tailor to have a sari fitted. Our guides also made sure that we got to do things most other travelers didn’t know about nearly everywhere we went!
From visiting a hidden swimming hole while on a hike in the Himalayas to eating at the most delicious roadside dhaba while road-tripping to Delhi, they always made sure that we got a true taste of India.
There’s Work to Be Done
Another reason volunteering in India is so rewarding is that the country is primed to make short-term volunteering a success.
There are many existing NGOs doing incredible work in India. In order for voluntourism to be meaningful to both the volunteer and the local community, it’s important that the work being done contributes toward a greater goal, or continues work that is already being accomplished on a smaller scale in the community.
Unfortunately, when organizations travel to a country and make assumptions about the people who live there and what their needs are, their volunteer vacations are often not as beneficial as they claim to be.
But the project we contributed toward was an extension of work already being done by a Tibetan cultural center. The community supported this work, and the project needed extra sets of hands during the busy summer months, when children are on their school holidays.
This allowed our group to not only gain first-hand insights about life in the community, but to better understand the important work that is being done by locals. The results were important improvements to the local infrastructure and social supports available to the people who live there.
Plus, we had the opportunity to spend our mornings with the most incredible children and teachers. I’ve never laughed so much while working in my entire life!
Work Hard, Play Hard
In India, there’s so much to do and see that it can be overwhelming to plan travel in the region. Do you prioritize seeing the lush and mountainous north, or the tropical, exotic south? Do you spend all of your time in major cities, or explore the tiny townships that dot India’s rural center?
When you’re volunteering in India, much of the work and stress of decision-making is taken off your shoulders. You travel to places in which you can be useful. And for me, this ended up being a perfect compromise.
Not only does this take pressure off you in the planning stage, but you will get to see more diverse places and people during your time in India. By volunteering in a small town, but still checking items off your bucket list (like seeing the Taj Mahal and the Golden Temple) in more touristy places, you’ll fit a lot into your short time in India.
Another perk? When you finally visit these big-ticket places you’ve always dreamt about, you’ll bring a whole new level of experience and understanding gained during your time as a volunteer. With luck, you’ll also have new friends– both fellow volunteers and local people– alongside you when you do! –Sara McDaniel
BIO: Sara McDaniel is a San Diego-based educator who uses her summers to explore the world, often alongside her students! In addition to writing for The Volunteer Traveler, she has directed international programming for various travel organizations. When she’s not writing or researching, she can often be found swimming in the ocean, eating all of the delicious foods she can find, and teaching in San Diego State University’s College of Education.