When to Work & When to Wander 

Finally arriving in and navigating a place you’ve prepared to volunteer in and explore like Dharamsala can be a rightfully disorienting and exciting experience. As our India Field School clan zig-zagged up mountain roads anticipating the complex cultural, spiritual, and economic hub nestled in the foothills of the Himalaya, I grew eager to get started with Students for a Free Tibet (SFT) – India, and to exercise the critical thinking and cultural preparations we fostered prior to arriving.  After a fulfilling week, Mike and I had our first full day of work with SFT and I was confronted with a range of feelings about ‘volun-touring’ in a complex place of identity, politics, and cross-cultural exchange.

Mike and I met with our Intern coordinator and the rest of the staff at SFT India, receiving a very warm welcome. We were then encouraged to participate in local public outreach the following day for the final day of SFT’s Earthquake relief collection for Nepal. I was secretly quite anxious to be in the streets of McLeod Ganj, allocated the responsibility I had anticipated to receive for months now. Part of my preparations for coming to Dharamsala included learning some Hindi and Tibetan language. I took this street campaigning opportunity as chance to challenge myself in exercising these skills in practice, hoping to facilitate more meaningful dialogue between myself as a visitor and volunteer, and local peoples. A number of interactions with the diverse local, domestic, and international public affirmed my expectations that understanding local languages in places you may travel to volunteer in can foster more intimate exchanges and relationships. However, as the day continued I realized my linguistic skills were in fact too limited – that I perhaps underestimated my cultural preparations beforehand and would be faced with limitations in my capacities to engage with, learn from, and understand the communities I’ve studied so hard to do so. 

As a town made popular largely from the exiled residence of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and increasingly, from international awareness of the Tibetan situation, a diversity of visitors, expats, students, and researchers have become more commonplace. Dharamsala, I’ve learned, receives a vibrant range of visitors that may come to explore in leisure the great mountains, waterfalls, temples, and Eastern cultural heritage, or study yoga, Tibetan or Indian cultures, or work/volunteer at local organizations. It has occurred to me that our group, here, may grapple with a multitude of roles/perspectives/aspirations for ourselves during our short time being here. This may challenge us to question the attitudes, behaviours, and assumptions we carry with us each day, and whether or not international volunteering + travel can combine well to facilitate efforts of social justice or povery alleviation, cultural learning, and responsible travel. 
From the range of challenges and lessons I’ve taken thus far, arriving at the volunteering component of our field school has solidified the potential for us Field School students to embark on meaningful reflection about the experiences we have here as travelers, students, and global citizens. It will be challenging to strike a balance between these roles we adopt here in India, while I believe we each will strive to do so at best.
– M.
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