This is a guest blog post by Vaila Macintyre, who is the Service Learning coordinator at Himalayan Explorers in Dharamsala. Vaila has worked closely with the India Field School coordinate and students to organise the program.
Our journey began some time ago and I count myself very lucky to be one of your guides on this experiential trip through the vast depths of the voluntourist galaxy. I think it’s safe to say that so far it’s been a bumpy ride, perhaps you’ve experienced some turbulence without a seatbelt. Not to mention the paralysis-inducing doubts, questions, fears, levels of discomfort and frustrations.
I’ve been travelling/living/working in alien places for a number of years and in my early days, did not stay long in one place. While planet-hopping is fun and very eye-opening, it does not provide much insight into cultures and people, nor does it often facilitate long-lasting connections. This is not the type of travel I wanted. I wanted to be there, really be there. But what does that mean?
So, first stop on the trans-voluntourist’s guide to the galaxy is the planet of short term volunteering. How long to stay? And does staying a short time really mean we’ve been there at all? Are short term volunteers of any use? What can possibly be achieved in such a short time? This is an extremely valid question, and one that will be asked over and over in years to come. Long-term goals are great and Western civilization would not survive and thrive without them, and there is no question they are needed. What I would say though, is, many of the people you are encountering and working with here (especially Tibetans) are people who strive to be in the now. Many of their futures are so unclear – where they will go, what they will do and so here they are, in today, in this hour, in this minute. And if you really really think about it, we are in the same boat. So, as much as we shoot for long-term efficacy, this is what we have here and now and who’s to say you didn’t bring joy to someone by teaching them a new word in English, by sharing your perspective, by raising awareness of their organization, or by making a child smile? That said, I am definitely not a fan of blind voluntourism. I’m just playing devil’s advocate and highlighting the fact that although you may not think you are helping someone, a short conversation with a Tibetan refugee could open their eyes to new things in some way, or allow them to share their story. Life is transient, and so by the same logic, so is everything else in it.
Next stop: Preparing for your galactic journey into voluntourism. Can it be done? The answer is yes and no. When it comes to you Guelph students and the preparation you have done for this programme, I have found it to be an inspiration. Professor Paras has done a stellar job of making you aware of so many of the eventualities and pitfalls that go along with this. From your writing though, it is clear that one cannot be completely prepared for the challenges of working in a non-profit in India. For me this simply highlights the benefits of experiential learning. You do not know unless you go. If India teaches you one thing, it will most likely be to go with the flow. I think most people would tell you that being prepared for India is a fool’s game. Expect the unexpected, take a deep breath, be patient and if you ever end up working in a foreign NGO, this experience will have been invaluable.
We’re well on the way now in our epic journey. Here’s a biggie: the bright shining star of cultural exchanges. We’ve come up against a few already haven’t we?: How do you have dialogue about sexual health without mentioning condoms or safe sex? How do you remain tight-lipped when what you are hearing goes against everything you’ve known or learned? How do you criticize someone’s work who comes from a completely alien culture? Who are you to tell them you know better? How do you even communicate sometimes? After years of living and working abroad I still do not have the answers to these questions. What I would say though is listen, try to understand where they’re coming from, don’t get frustrated and take something positive from the interactions. Not everyone is open to hearing our points of view as foreigners, others are delighted by it. Gauge the situation, respect it and reflect on it later. Two shining examples come to mind from your reflections so far. One is Erin’s story about chuckling with her work companions on their trek when one of the ladies went off into the bushes to answer nature’s call and her friend mischievously started pointing and shouting. The other is Carly and Alex’s invitation to drink chai in an old lady’s home in the slum and hearing her life story. Deep down, we’re all human, we all like to laugh, cry and drink chai.
Now we come up against something sinister: the black hole of detrimental effects. I have to say this is something that has bugged me for a long time – volunteering to do something you’re not trained or qualified to do. Here in McLeod Ganj, it especially bugs me because there are so many English teaching voluntourists. So, as an experienced English teacher I get really frustrated that most of the classes that are being taught to Tibetans are poor quality, thinking to myself ‘it’s no wonder Tibetans can’t speak good English on the whole’. However, having observed the whole scene here and having taught Tibetans myself, I have come to realize that it is not necessarily because of voluntourism that many Tibetans don’t progress in English. I’ll detail some of my observations. Learning English is hard, for Asians especially. Having attempted to learn both Tibetan and Hindi myself, I can confirm that it is a huge hurdle having to learn to read and write from scratch, like a child. Secondly, due to life restrictions, most Tibetans are not here for very long, they have a poor base in English having been taught by Tibetan teachers in the transit schools, and most don’t attend class regularly. The final reason is that I am not even sure if our methods of teaching work with Tibetans. Their style of learning, studying and expressing themselves is so different to ours that no matter how dynamic your classes are, it just doesn’t stick. One thing though that I think is most definitely a positive for Tibetans, is being exposed to conversational English from around the world. There is no substitute for real everyday language, accents and thoughts expressed by native speakers. So, before you assume that you are having a detrimental effect on the people you’re working with, try to find out what the bigger picture might be. Are you damaging these people? I very much doubt it, but it is critical that you’re asking this question because we know that some voluntourists do. The English teaching is just one example, but as you can see it’s not a black hole in this case.
We’re nearing the end of our voluntour around the galaxy, however I would like us to make one more stop which will take you back to the very beginning of your voyage: motivations. How did this all come about and are you just another voluntourist? Many of you said that before you came, you thought of yourselves as ‘different’ in some way but since arriving are worried that that is not the case. What I would say to you is that you can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs. It is so very clear to me that you all had to go through this experience to have anything real to say on the matter. Anyone looking at you guys roaming around town going to your placements may just think you’re another voluntourist. I know better.
Travelling the galaxy as trans-voluntourists, I think by the end we’ll all have found our spot to set up camp. We’ve started something here, and it’d be grand if some more earth inhabitants jumped on board.