Volunteering in India

Indian Lady with many blue pots
The lady with many blue pots

“INTERNET CAFE!” screamed Anne as the Tuk Tuk bumped past groups of people walking to work. “Ya must ask the young people, its them that know” she said for the tenth time whilst I tried my hardest not to laugh or cry, or both. It was the weekend and I had just met my fellow volunteers as well as Samvit, the guy running the projects. Anne was a retired Scottish teacher and was convinced that she recognized all of the many Indians boarding the shared tuk tuk. The vehicle was transporting 16 people, a goat and a sack of potatoes. I say transporting rather than containing as six of these people (myself included) were hanging onto the side of the tuk tuk rather than actually sitting inside it. We jumped off and a grubby street child instantly lurched towards us “Baksheesh (money) madam, Baksheesh sir”. “Aww isn’t that great, he recognizes me from the school”. I didn’t bother to correct Anne and led her towards the cafe so I could help her book flights home. Three hours later and we finally left the cafe. Anne had succeeded in kicking the off switch to the computer on two occasions. I wearily stuck my thumb in the air and a moped promptly stopped and allowed myself and Anne, who was the worst pillion rider in the world, to board and for her to begin screeching “it’s too fast, ya got ta make him slow down” into my ear as we puttered along at 20km an hour. We finally made it back to the guesthouse where we are being put up and fed in exchange for our varying volunteer works. I stumbled into the common room whilst Anne continued to talk loudly and excitedly into my face and found a place to sit down so that I could study the other volunteers and find a more likely ally.

Samvit is thirty two years old and, being a Sikh, wears his hair in a turban. He was obviously somewhat self conscious about this however as he had covered the turban with a ridiculous red beret and so appeared to be wearing two hats. He was tall, bearded and friendly but rarely looked at anyone but Vanessa, who was a mere 14 years younger than him. Vanessa, a sultry French girl, said little, ate less and rarely looked at anyone but Samvit. Often the two would disappear for hours at a time to conclude ‘important business meetings’ and it didn’t take a genius to work out that these meetings were somewhat more intimate than they should be. Jade was a Canadian with a great love for Africa and an Africa shaped tattoo upon her back. She had never been to Africa and spent almost all of her time in her room. When she did come out she would avoid talking at all costs. Worst of all was Isaac, an Australian, who had travelled “absolutely everywhere man; New Zealand, Thailand and now here”. When I asked if this list was any longer he went a little quieter and continued to play with his goatee. He wore rings on every finger, denim jeans despite the cloying heat and thick, perfectly circular, fashion glasses. Isaac was in a band at college, he was the singer, but “just had to get away from all that pressure man”. I hated him instantly. All of the other volunteers were not travelling around India and were just staying in Udaipur; they were here to teach cute little kids and were having to make a donation to the school. I was here to clear land, dig holes in said land, fill said holes with cow shit and other refuse, and plant tomatoes. My work seemed less likely to provide pictures with much “awwww” factor but I was being put up and fed in exchange for my labour and was hoping to save a bit of money whilst I stayed in Udaipur.

Digging permaculture beds with Couchsurfing friends in India

Feeling I had very little in common with my other volunteers I instantly turned to Couchsurfing and posted a somewhat desperate message on the Udaipur board asking anyone if they wanted to hang out. Three days later and I was busy churning up the ground with a pickax and my new best friend Martin. I had met him the night before for dinner and had offered him a place to crash in my room in exchange for some help with the labour. He was a super funny guy and as strong as an Ox. On the first day we produced not only some excellent banter but also the foundations for my first permaculture bed. A permaculture bed is a raised vegetable patch with multiple levels of different stuff. I had learnt about permaculture whilst volunteering on an organic farm in Israel and was planning to build four large beds. The first level is made up of manure; this is then followed by newspaper and cardboard and then a layer of vegetation and branches which needs to be thoroughly soaked with water before finishing the bed off with more manure, loose soil and finally a covering of wood chips to stop the sun drying out the soil. Throughout our digging Martin took a photo every ten seconds to produce an awesome time lapse movie, Martin was pretty serious about his online blog and even had ‘backpacker business cards’ to give out to people he met on the road. The next day we were busily hacking up the ground again and this time had the help of a wonderful Dutch couple who I had met in a German Bakery. Femke and Dylan oozed cool and had bought a bottle of rum to add an incentive to finish the digging before it got dark. Later that night, with the rum gone, I made plans to meet the Dutchies the next day for a bike ride around one of Udaipur’s many lakes and bid goodbye to Martin who had to leave for Jaipur. I weaved my way through the, worryingly deserted, streets and began the long, twelve kilometre, walk home from the centre of town. I need not have feared as the first motorbike that passed me, ridden by an elderly Muslim man with a bright orange beard and white robes, instantly stopped to give me a lift. For the next week I would work during the days and hang out with Couchsurfers and the Dutch couple in the evening before hitchhiking home. I found I was increasingly disinterested in the other volunteers and was particularly unimpressed with Samvit who was a constant source of philosophical bullshit and buggered off for a two week business meeting in Pune, the tantric sex capital of India, with Vanessa in tow. It was blindingly clear to me that Samvit only ran his organisation to fund his drinking and to try and get laid, he told me on multiple occasions about his relationships with past volunteers.

When Femke and Dylan finally left Udaipur my social life slowed somewhat and I began hanging out with Israelis (shock, horror) and having quite pleasant, albeit somewhat heated, discussions about the Middle East. One thing I will say for Israelis is that the older ones (i.e. the ones who aren’t just out of the army) can be very generous and will often buy you dinner, a fact which I took full advantage off. In the afternoons it is often simply too hot to swing a pickaxe so I joined a crappy local gym with weights that have sticky labels stuck to them telling you how much they supposedly weigh. The crowd in the gym is pretty awful and consists of sex starved Indian men who spend most of the time looking at themselves in the mirror and bench about 10kg at a time. They tend to have their hair slicked back, wear tight jeans, leather bomber jackets and drawl in a terrible improv American accent. All of them possess a diamond earring and dog tags. Unfortunately for me they are incredibly friendly and constantly bug me as they think I can give them the ultimate prize – a western ‘girlfriend’. Everyday a different one has pressed gifts upon me to take back to the house and give to Jade or Vanessa and although I refuse to do this I find the whole thing to be really pathetic and very irritating. The one good thing about the gym is that I get spotted by ‘Mr Rajahstan’ who is actually an alright bloke, largely because he already has a western girlfriend, and can speak passable English.

Without Dylan and Femke to hang out with I sometimes ended up watching terrible Indian television in the evening. The only reason I really turn on the TV is to find my favourite Hindi advert which stars a fat little boy with half a dozen chins and a great hatred of the cartoon wasp-fly-things which are buzzing around his head. After a few unsuccessful attempts to kill them with a plastic hammer his horrifyingly obese mother heaves her body across the floor to hand him an aerosol disguised as a shitty space ship. The boy then jiggles around the room happily firing lasers from the aerosol at the unfortunate wasp-fly-things which fall to the ground dead and allow the family to finally get on with some some quality eating time.

With just a few days to go before I left Udaipur I was getting more and more frustrated. My project was becoming increasingly stagnated due to Samvit being absolutely useless when it came to providing me with the tools and materials I needed to finish. Every morning I would ask for him to arrange for a delivery of manure and woodchips and he would always promise to do it and then run off on an ‘errand’, usually I would not see him until the evening. This was really pissing me off as I had been working hard and was looking forward to finishing the project. Samvit had proven to be a terrible person to work with and was pretty much just full of shit. Although better than the average Indian his efficiency and management skills still left a lot to be desired. Figuring that there was little I could do I caught a ride into town and sat in one of the nicer coffee places hunched over a glass of chai. This is when I met Sandy. She strolled straight over to my table and sat down quietly with a paper. We started talking and she asked me if I knew somewhere to buy some weed. I was somewhat surprised; Sandy had short graying hair and was in her sixties. She sported a gold nose stud and flowing hippy trousers and although I had quickly decided she was not on a guided tour she didn’t really fit the backpacker demographic. She had used to work with the peace core and had then made her living working in Hollywood where she told me she had embraced the heady lifestyle of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. I found Sandy to be absolutely fascinating; she was in Udaipur living with her Indian toy boy who in his twenties, she was chilled out, broke and most certainly up for a laugh.

We wandered up a spiral staircase and into a bar I knew where we ordered a couple of bhang lassis. Sandy had never tried bhang before but within half an hour we were both giggling away and watching monkeys traverse the network of roofs and telephone wiring dominating the skyline. I could see her pupils were massive behind her bright red glasses and after a while we just sat there, somewhat stupefied, enjoying each other’s company and the warm glow of the bhang. Over the next few days I would see Sandy a lot, we would meet for a late lunch or a coffee with some of her friends before heading up the spiral staircase and chilling out for the evening. It was fantastic to have someone to relax with and to watch the lights come on with. From any of the town’s many rooftop bars you could see the huge central temple lit up gaudily and the massive ink blots of the surrounding lakes. Some of the lakes had small islands complete with lit up palaces. Udaipur is where the classic Bond Movie Octopussy was filmed and it plays constantly in most of the cafes and restaurants. I had never seen the movie before but was instantly hooked when I saw a scene in which James Bond hides inside a fake crocodile in order to check out his target from a close distance. I can’t help but feel binoculars might have been more practical.

Over the week I became more and more impressed with Sandy, she is one of the most enthusiastic and chilled out people I have ever met and she is a grandmother! I guess it just goes to show that you’re only as young as you feel and Sandy obviously felt like she was still in her twenties. She could hold her own in any drinking contest, knew a little bit about everything and grew her own pot back home. Eventually it was time to leave Udaipur for Goa where I planned to meet my brother as well as Dylan and Femke. I found myself a little reluctant to leave the garden city of Rajasthan, I had only stopped by for a few weeks but it had become a kind of home, I had developed a routine and made some good friends. The nature of travel however is to move and so I prepared to leave. I spent my last evening chilling with Sandy, said a brisk goodbye to Sam and jumped on a tuk tuk headed towards the station. Sam had failed to produce the materials I needed and so the project remained unfinished. I had written out easy to follow and simple instructions for its completion but I doubted that any follow up work would ever be done on my permaculture beds, he was simply too lazy. Sam’s main project aim seemed to be to try and sleep with western girls; according to him he achieved this frequently. Ultimately he was abusing his position as the head of a charity and simply trying to get laid all the time. A liar and a thief, I am certain all the money donated by well-meaning backpackers went straight into his pocket. Samvit is a typical example of the types of people that India seems to be infested with. With these less than charitable thoughts on my mind I boarded a train for Goa, my journey was going to take nearly two full days to complete.

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