A year ago I was wrapping up a two-month stint in a busy little seaside town on the Adriatic coast of Italy and if you had told me that 12 months later I’d be prepping to go to India I probably would have laughed in your face. I’m not even sure I believe it now and I leave in less than two weeks. Truth be told, until I stumbled upon Development in Action’s website at the start of July I’d never really given India much thought as a destination of choice. It’s not that I wasn’t interested, it’s just always seemed so much further away than the 4000+ miles.
People’s reaction to my news has been interesting; an unspoken question of ‘why there?’ lies beneath the bemused smile. I admit, there is a small part of me that thinks the whole thing is crazy and ridiculous but I’m becoming more inclined to think, why not there? The more I actually think about it, the less sense it makes that I’d never considered it before. It may only be one country but it is also 28 states, 7 union territories and more than 1.2 billion people. The cultural possibilities are practically endless.
At that time in July, I had just firmed up my offer to continue with higher education by requesting a deferral for my masters in Cultural Heritage and International Development which starts next September. A combination of education fatigue and a yearning I’ve had since I was a little girl, a gap year abroad seemed like the best option. Earn some money, get planning and be ready to leave after Christmas. Simple!
I’ve never been that sure on the details, although for a while I was daydreaming of a 6 months whistle-stop tour to see as much as possible for as little as possible. However, a three week stint around Europe a few years ago cured me of that pretty quickly. It’s exhausting and besides, everything’s a bit of a blur these days. I had also turned my attention towards volunteering but short-term placements never really appealed to me and the incredible rise of voluntourism in recent years made me wary too.
Perhaps this is why Development in Action’s mission statement appealed to me in ways many others didn’t. Whilst it begins with me going off to India for half a year, that’s not all it’s about. DiA’s long-running partnerships with grassroot NGOs in India is part of a wider scheme to “engage young people in global issues”. To date this has meant not only their volunteer placements but talks and workshops tackling development issues.
For me, the enthusiasm of past volunteers who make up the committee and the request to complete a project surrounding a global issue of choice is a testament to the importance of the volunteering experience they offer. Not only in India or for me personally, but the potential of its prolonged significance here in the UK. An opportunity to better equip younger generations with the knowledge they need to continue international efforts to reduce poverty and improve quality of life the world over.
It was the nagging feeling in the back of my mind that I’d turn up at UEA next September and have no idea what I was actually talking about which spurred me on to fill out the application. After all what were the chances I’d actually get any further anyway?
My family and friends have been more generous than I could possibly have imagined in sponsoring me to do the Yorkshire Three Peaks (August 27th) to fundraise so that neither DGS nor Development in Action incur costs for hosting willing volunteers and providing continued support. Stanfords have been kind enough to commit to adding to this running total and so for the next several months I’ll be sharing the highs, lows and discoveries of my time in India.
So here I am two weeks away from what by all accounts will be a life-altering experience. I’m going to be based in the ‘Oxford of the East’. Pune, a name acquired due to its large student population is a few hours outside Mumbai and the 8th largest city in the Indian sub-continent, I have been assured that despite its comparison to our oldest university town, it is still very much India. I will be working for Deep Griha, a local community organization with 30 years experience of running projects tackling issues surrounding healthcare, childcare, education and empowerment in the city and its wider area. I hope I will have the chance to get to know these projects, meet some like-minded people and above all learn more about development, in action.
As I write lists, Google travel blogs and flip through travel guides I realize I have absolutely no idea what to expect. One way or another, expectations have a tendency to disappoint and for once I feel truly open to the possibility of being surprised. India is a vast country with countless traditions and complex history, not least its colonial encounters with the British. It is inevitable that there are many contradictions. How to reconcile the numerous urban slum-dwellers with knowledge that it has one of the fastest growing economies in the world? Eduardo Galeano once said that he didn’t believe in charity but solidarity; where charity is vertical, solidarity is horizontal and “respects the other and learns from the other.” He concluded he had a lot to learn from other people and the way I see it, so do I.
Isobel is currently on a gap year break after graduating from Warwick University in the summer.
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Author: Isobel Wilson-Cleary