By Janet Oh*
“Ear clean? Rickshaw? Guesthouse? Boat ride?” After travelling in India for a week, I needed a break from being a tourist. The constant offers for services and subsequent haggling was exhausting. I soon developed a habit of avoiding eye contact, looking down, and just shaking my head “no.” In trying to develop some street smarts, I had also lost my sense of humor.
On a flight from Udaipur to Varanasi I met another traveler, Tanya, from Switzerland. Tanya caught my attention immediately. She was smiling, laughing, and just generally having a great time. She was the traveler I wanted to be. My husband and I struck up a conversation with her and sure enough she loved everything about India. “It’s so beautiful!” she said again and again. She had been traveling in India for seven weeks. What was her secret?
Tanya said the highlight of her trip was volunteering for a week in an orphanage. She and a friend taught math classes and tutored kids. She was clearly moved by the experience. Unknowingly, she had planted a seed.
48 hours later I emailed Rashmi, the Director of the one orphanage I knew in India. My husband and I ended up there two days later. For the first time on our trip, we were out of a tourist area. Even our rickshaw driver wasn’t familiar with the neighborhood and had to stop for directions multiple times. It was on that village road that I started to feel more like myself – happy, carefree, curious, and open.
When we finally found Sri Ram Ashram, it felt like we had entered an idyllic paradise. The orphanage was on 17 acres with its own wheat fields, dairy cows, and vegetable garden. Immediately, the girls took my hand and the boys gave Graham a tour. It was as if they were expecting us. “Push me on the swing, didi!” “Watch me hang from this tree!”
For three more days that’s basically what I did. I got to know the kids, pushed the little ones on the swing, and learned the Indian version of hopscotch. To say I was volunteering would definitely be a stretch since the kids had really taken me under their wings, welcoming me with total warmth, showering me with attention, and teaching me the ropes. Not only did they seem happy and well-loved, but they were kind, generous, and playful. They all asked me the same question, “How long are you staying and when are you coming back?”
Just as it was for Tanya, my visit to the orphanage was a highlight of my three week journey in India. While there are many selfless reasons to volunteer abroad, there are also selfish ones. My time at the orphanage was definitely the most authentic of all my interactions in India – a time when I could take a break from being a tourist, laugh, be open, and connect with others.