So I've Decided to Volunteer in India
I have always had a strong desire to travel the world. This seems to be a hereditary trait in my family as both of parents, and grandparents, have traveled to various countries around the globe. I'm even related to an explorer who lived from 1789 to 1872! As for me, I've traveled to nine countries including China, and countries in Europe and Central America. I still have quite a bit of the world left to see and want to take full advantage of every opportunity I can.
So why India?
There are quite a few reasons for me to choose India over countries such as Sumatra or South Africa. The first is the sense of familiarity. I have never set foot in India, but both of my parents, my dad especially, has traveled throughout the country. My father has worked in various cities and has shared many photographs and experiences with me, even going as far as making me watch a YouTube video on how to use a rural Indian toilet. My mother has taken cooking classes in India, allowing me to try some pretty authentic dishes. The prospect of spending time in India also feels less foreign than other countries because of the privileged exposure to Indian culture here in the Bay Area. I live next to a Hindu temple, had Indian friends throughout my previous education, and enjoy authentic Indian food. I'm adventurous when eating something I have never heard of before and am slowly getting the hang of eating with only my right hand. I have also become a huge fan of jalebi and am excited to eat some in India. Becoming familiar with the culture and falling in love with the most authentic food available to me in the Bay Area has greatly increased the appeal of traveling to India. I know no one from Sumatra or South Africa, lack awareness of cultural taboos in those countries, and have no knowledge of what food could be awaiting me. Although the sounds of constant honking of cars, incredible humidity, and the prospect of keeping my shoulders and legs above the knee covered in that heat make me nervous, I feel confident venturing into India.
Well, what will I do in India?
I have recently been troubled by my chosen career path. I feel guilty that I have decided to protect animals, and not children. My argument in favor of pursuing animal conservation was always based on the fact that I want to help beings that can not help themselves. But is that not also true for children? Although I believe all lives, human and other animals included, equally deserve a chance to thrive on this planet, a part of me believes helping children may be slightly more important than saving a species. It's difficult to argue that an entire species is more important than a single child's life. And there is no longer an excuse for being ignorant of suffering around the globe with a constant stream of news being fed through the radio, television, and apps on our phones. I, for one, am somewhat addicted to reading the news. I check my BBC news app on my phone when I wake up and before I go to sleep. For those who prefer to avoid reading or listening to the news, people are now more able to learn about struggles throughout the world by heading to their local movie theater. I prefer to watch movies based on fact rather than fiction. I like to consider myself aware, but how could this be considered a positive trait if I have no plans on doing anything about the injustices that children face each day around the world? How can I, in good conscience, read about starving children on my iPhone or eat a jumbo pretzel while watching Lion at the local independent movie theater and come away without questioning my future? Is there no better way to realize one's extreme privilege than munching on an overpriced, unneeded food while watching a true story of just one individual's struggle? I came away from that movie theater with two things: a strong desire to marry Dev Patel and extreme guilt.
Don't get me wrong, I have no intention of switching career paths to international child welfare. But I can not live my life without doing something to help. Before continuing my extremely privileged life at Oxford to cement my conservation career, I must take the opportunity to spend some time doing something to help children in need. I don't have much money, but I did make $11.30 an hour, 20 hours a week, for a couple of months. Return trips to India do not cost a fortune. Cost of living in India is much lower than in the Bay Area, meaning cost of food, transportation, and accommodation will be less than a meal at the Alehouse, a ride on Uber, or staying in an Airbnb. I am also in the great position of being young with little responsibility. I live at home, meaning I have no rent to pay. I support no one else, meaning I don't need to worry about a break in paychecks. I have the time, meaning I am not currently committed to being in any one place until the end of September. There is no argument not to go.
So why not just send money to a charity?
I've always been one to prefer donating my time rather than my money. Maybe it's because I've never earned much and I enjoy volunteering. Or maybe it's because I have selfish motivations and need to resolve this guilt I feel. Whatever the reason, volunteering to help children in slums in India will provide some help, however small, and will teach me far more about life than just clicking a few buttons on the internet to send money. I will forever have a different perspective of what it means to have a tough life, something that is essential when preparing to study at Oxford. Volunteering with children in slums may also help me develop my career path. I have been toying with the idea of studying international conservation ethics or figuring out a way to connect native peoples with wildlife conservation, as I find flaws in the common practice of westerners practicing conservation science in less developed nations. Spending time to learn about what animals local people care about or tell stories about, despite extreme poverty, will teach me something that no text book can. I might even learn that sending money is more useful than a westerner volunteering for a single month.
But there are hungry children in America, so why not focus on where you live instead of going abroad?
This is a tricky question to answer because one life is not worth more than another. But suffering is all relative. To the best of my knowledge, America has no slums. American children, in general, are not kidnapped, maimed, and turned into beggars. Most American children receive food and an education. A better question would be, "so why not help Syrian children." The answer to this is much more selfish: because I'm scared to travel to Syria.
Okay, so India it is. Who will you be volunteering with?
I first began googling different organizations that help children in India. However, the price of volunteer fees shot up red flags. Why would it cost several thousand dollars to spend two weeks teaching children in slums? I then began researching reputable organizations and learned about a terrible issue. Some organizations run a phony orphanage, where children are kidnapped and treated poorly to trick westerners into volunteering with them. They charge high fees and the money goes directly into the pockets of the people in charge. Avoiding this sort of organization was obviously essential, and so I reached out to my father who suggested seeking the help of a family friend. He is a philanthropist and he and his family fund a number of Indian organizations, from scholarships for Indian college students, to a biomedical research center, and the Mahatma Gandhi Ashram. The last is a great organization that supports people in need in the slums of Ahmedabad. I'll go into more detail about this organization in another post. And don't worry, I won't be volunteering alone. A friend of mine, who I researched with at the SF Zoo, has agreed to go on this adventure with me.
So what will we be doing?
I'm not 100% sure what I'll be doing yet. I believe it will involve informal education with children, teaching basic hygiene to children, playing games with children, teaching women computer skills, volunteering in the kitchen, and general maintenance around the Mahatma Gandhi Ashram. I'll find out exactly what I'll be doing once I get there. I'll be sure to write a blog post about my time there once I return.
So when do we go?
I will be at the Ashram from July 30th until September 3rd. However, I'll be leaving a couple of weeks early to explore Nepal first. I leave the US on July 12th.
Stay tuned for more blog posts on my experience in Nepal and India.