Volunteer work in Pune for ten weeks

Almost two years ago I decided to work as a volunteer in Nepal for ten weeks. It was a good experience which left me desiring for more. When I graduated for my master’s program in August the opportunity arrived to arrange for volunteer work a second time. As a consequence I had to postpone my search for a full time job until I would return home, but I think it is worth it.

Where I’m going

This time the choice has fallen on Pune in India. I’ll depart on 3 January and return on 15 March. I decided to go there because Deep Griha Society (DGS) operates in that city. I first learned about this organization from an American volunteer who I met in Nepal, she had worked there as a volunteer herself and was positive about the work done by DGS. After considering the alternatives I decided to work for them.

Actually there weren’t much alternatives because it was surprisingly difficult to find Indian charitable organizations. I was looking for organizations similar to Volunteer Society Nepal (VSN) which I had joined in 2011. They provide good assistance to foreign volunteers, and that’s what I was looking for in other organizations.

I considered Netherlands-based travel agencies offering volunteer work such as Het Andere Reizen and Kilroy, but I prefer to deal with local organizations directly. Finally, the fact that the American volunteer recommended this organization convinced me.

Besides the volunteer work I also intend to travel in India. I might reserve the two weeks of March to do this, so my volunteer work could take eight weeks instead of ten. I’ll make definite plans later. The American volunteer also travelled India, I asked about her experience. Based on her recommendations, I’m tempted to visit the state Rajasthan, but I might also go south to Kerala. And there is plenty to see in Maharashtra, where Pune is located, too.

How I’m going

Pune has its own airport, but for international flights Mumbai’s airport seems to be the best option. I remember my flight to Nepal (with two transfers) which cost me more than € 800, but once you pay € 50 for a flight from Eindhoven to Trapani you don’t take it for granted anymore that tickets cost a fortune.

After some searches on CheapTickets.nl steep fees of € 700 to € 800 were presented to me initially, but after digging through the options for flight on other dates I finally found a cheap flight with British Airways. First I depart from Amsterdam and have a short transfer on London Heathrow for a direct flight to Mumbai. Somehow it was not possible to book this flight for the same price on the website of British Airways itself.

When I proceeded to pay, I didn’t like how CheapTickets.nl started adding administrative fees to the ticket price. I also remember how they screwed up a booking with Ryanair for my father because they e-mailed a wrong check-in code. I decided to search for cheaper alternatives, it turns out that CheapTickets.nl is just one of the websites who use the same ‘engine’ for bookings. Vliegticketszoeken.nl is another one and their fees are € 5 cheaper.

The flight set me back € 545, which is quite a good deal I think. Pune isn’t far away from Mumbai, it should take four hours to get there with a train.

Why I’m going

When I look back at the post I wrote about my plans to work as a volunteer in Nepal, my motivation is still partly the same. I want to experience life in a foreign country with a very different culture. Just travelling in a country as a tourist doesn’t cut it for me. My failure to find hosts for CouchSurfing in Sicily was one reason I didn’t enjoy that trip as much, I want to get to know local people.

If I really wanted to see more of the world I should have probably gone to Africa or South America because I haven’t visited those yet, but the reason I’m attracted to India in specific is because I love its (vegetarian) cuisine so much. I hope to pick up some more culinary skills during my stay there.

The most important reason is that I want to help. I feel that I have a privileged position as a highly educated citizen of the Netherlands. This gives me an obligation to help the less fortunate. Were I born in a slum in Pune, I’d hope for solidarity from those who are better off too. But this time I’m giving more emphasis to this goal than in Nepal.

Since I returned from Nepal I’ve been concerned about voluntourism. This article in The Observer describes it well (and more extensively here). While I’m convinced that VSN had good intentions and I don’t think my presence there has done harm, I question the benefit of my work there.

I was put in front of a class of children alone without being a qualified teacher and having no knowledge of the curriculum. With some improvisation I certainly managed to teach the kids something, but I was in over my head. A qualified Nepali teacher would have been better.

Concerning the orphanages, a stream of volunteers staying for a short time to help the children is not ideal. I don’t think it’s necessarily damaging the children, all orphanages I’ve seen had loving, permanent caretakers. Volunteers can be beneficial for funding, but the sustainability of orphanages being financially dependent on volunteers can be questioned.

I want to avoid falling in the voluntourism trap. I have confidence in DGS in this regard because in their opinion volunteers should support staff and not replace them. I think I will be able to make a meaningful difference with my skills. I intend to help with teaching English and my ICT-skills. No more orphanages. Possibly also other things which might cross my path and where I’m able to contribute.

Finally, I deliberately chose to stay in India in January and February because these are the coldest months in the Netherlands. Of course it never gets really cold in the Netherlands, but I do get tired of the constantly overcast sky. Compared to the Netherlands the climate of Pune is like a paradise with 30 ℃ and sunshine in abundance.

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