My first journey to India has been life-changing, and till this day holds the most significance compared to my other trips.
Because not only the trip to India shattered what reality meant for me, but upon returning from it, I suffered from mild Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), leaving me feeling sad, guilty, numb and anxious, for months to come.
Volunteering in the Deserts of India
My month-long journey to India was to teach English to underprivileged children at Sambhali’s Trust, a Women’s Empowerment Centre headquartered in Jodhpur. The programme was part of the international volunteering initiatives offered by my university.
I heard about the programme when one of my friends signed up for it the year before. At that time, I have just caught the travel bug after returning from my first Eurotrip. Itching for an experience that was more ‘real’, I signed up for this volunteering opportunity.
What could be more real than India, right?
Namaste, New Delhi
We arrived in Indira Gandhi Airport in New Delhi late at night. A van was waiting to pick us up,8 ladies clearly looking lost in their western outfits.
The first thing I noticed upon leaving the airport was the amount of people sleeping - on every corner, pavement, roadsides, little sheds, tuktuks. Sure, I have seen homeless people before, they roam around the streets back home too, but never on this scale.
The second thing that I noticed was ‘the smell’. I’ve heard extensively about ‘the smell’ from people who have touched Indian soil before, but when a whiff of it in full concentration hit me, a look of confusion appeared.
Where does this smell come from? Could it be the spices? Or sweat? Or humidity? Probably a mixture of all.
The following few days were a series of culture shocks after another...
Best way to travel through India - sleeper trains!
Not a complete Indian experience without traveling on the famed Indian railways, we hopped on a 10 hour sleeper train from Delhi to Jodhpur.
Last minute tickets only got us second class as first class tickets were all sold out.
‘Oh shit’, was my initial reaction.
In an attempt to calm down, I reassured myself,
“At least we have a bed. In third class, you’d have to sleep upright on your designated seats, next to chickens and goats brought by other passengers. I really shouldn’t be complaining.”
I settled in the top bunk, and was surprised at how decently comfortable it was. As long as I don’t turn sideways and risk falling right off my bunk, that is.
I slept through the ride like a baby, with my bagpack resting on top of me. I’ve heard all the horror stories of people coming into your bunk in the middle of the night, trying to snatch your bag as you are fast asleep. Better be safe than sorry!
Jodhpur, the Blue City
Jodhpur city is situated in the stark landscape of Thar Desert, at the heart of Rajasthan. Also known as The Blue City because most houses are painted blue on the order's of the city's founder.
Wandering through the streets of Jodhpur guarantees an introduction to the cows that litter the streets. Actually, this is not a feature exclusive to Jodhpur but to the rest of India too. Cows are a holy animal there, and royal treatment is what they receive!
We stayed in Durag Niwas Guesthouse in Jodhpur, a guesthouse which doubles as the office for Sambhali’s Trust. Founded by Govind Rathore in 2007, Sambhali’s Trust aims to empower underprivileged women and children in Western Rajasthan.
Volunteering in Sambhali’s Trust Women’s Empowerment Centre, India
As volunteers, we were offered two options. Either volunteer in the Women’s Empowerment Centre & Girl’s Boarding School in Jodhpur city OR the Primary Education & Vocational Training Centre in Setrawa Village, deep in the Thar desert.
The eight of us exchanged nervous glances. The question painted in each person’s eye - who will stay in this beautiful Jodhpur guesthouse? And who will be brave (read: crazy) enough to venture into the deserts of Rajasthan during mid-Indian summer?
I raised my hand and squealed….
‘I guess I’ll go to the desert?’
An internal monologue going in my head as I uttered those words.
‘What the hell was I getting myself into?’
A Peek into Desert Life in Setrawa Village
Setrawa is a small desert village 110km west of Jodhpur or 2hours journey by van. It is located in the semi-arid Thar desert, a harsh environment with temperatures reaching 46 degrees C during summer.
A distinctive architectural feature of a desert house was the flat rooftops which doubles as social space for the community. In the evening, most families will chill on the rooftop as the air is a lot cooler there.
It was the place we used to chill after a long day of teaching - me reading ‘The Prophet’ by Kahlil Gibran, writing in my journal, watching peacocks fly from one tree to another, observing cows with flower garlands around their neck herded by monks door-to-door requesting for alms, dogs rolling around in sand to cool themselves down…
You can see everything from this vantage point, even into your neighbour’s house. Oh yes I forgot to mention that the roof had a massive hole in the middle of it.
One of the most vivid memories of my time in India, was a humid summer’s night, so hot that we decided to sleep on the roof. Half of the neighbourhood were also sleeping on their rooftops.
At dawn, I woke up to a rough surface grazing my cheek. I opened one eye and saw a goat licking my face. Yup, a real live goat, casually giving me a good morning kiss.
I freaked the f out, of course. That startled the goat away, and it jumped to the next door neighbour’s roof.
‘Only in India’, I chuckled to myself.
Teaching Children...Or Were We The Ones Being Schooled?
The Sambhali’s Trust Centre in Setrawa Village constituted of two main activities, Primary Education for children below 12 years old, and Vocational Training to teach local women sewing and provide an income.
The Primary Education centre provided lessons in Hindi, English and Maths, as well as other educational workshops, to children who otherwise would not have access to good formal education.
The children were streamed according to their level of English and I was assigned to teach the ‘Butterfly’ class, a class for children with mid-tier English level. When someone mentions ‘mid-tier’, my expectations were;
- You can count
- You can say basic nouns & verbs
I couldn’t be any more wrong.
They spoke almost no English, so communications were mostly done via sign language. Imagine trying to teach a group of ten children, without having any common language.
We had to go all the way back to basics. To A B C…
All of our class time was spent on A is for Apple, B is for Book, C is for Cat.
At the end of two weeks, we didn’t even make it halfway through the alphabet.
We dedicated a lot of time teaching them how to write the letters properly. There were times we had to hold their hands as they trace the letter A repeatedly. These children were educated in Hindi scriptures so Roman alphabets were foreign to them.
To be honest, I was overwhelmed. I was still young, and up to that point had little exposure to the education systems outside of my selective schooling.
I didn’t understand that in this part of the world, when they had to worry about having enough food to eat for the day, education was the last thing on their family’s mind.
I didn’t understand how the environment children grew up in impacted their ability to learn.
I didn’t understand that it could lead to children developing learning difficulties.
For the first time in my life, my reality was shattered.
And that was only the beginning.
Stay tuned to the next part to find out more reality shattering moments and my experience with travel-related PTSD.