Time constraints & meaningful work

In our preparatory class last semester, much of the literature we read focused on the conditions under which ‘voluntourism’ can be effective. There seemed to be a consensus in the research we reviewed that opportunities for developing ‘thick’ global citizenship, participating in equal cultural exchange, and doing meaningful work increase with the length of the trip. There also appeared to be significant evidence to support the theory that opportunities for doing harm can be reduced by extending the length of the experiential learning trip.

The length of the India Field School program is something I considered when deciding whether or not to take part in this trip. When thinking about this trip in abstraction, from my regular life back in Canada, one month in India seemed like a long time. I felt that compared to some of the very popular voluntourism trips that seek to entice participants by combining a week of work with many more weeks of tourism and adventure, this seemed like enough time to dive into a project and truly get involved in an organization.

This month has absolutely sped by. While I feel extremely comfortable and settled here in Dharamshala, I also feel as though I have been here for barely any time at all. At the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy (TCHRD), where I am placed, there is a very established internship program. Most of the interns work for periods of 2-6 months. When it comes down to it, though I am here for one month, I only spent just over two weeks actually working at my placement. The discrepancy between the time I spent at TCHRD and the time spent by other international interns led me to confront the notion of time constraints. What is their implication for doing good work? What is their implication for international voluntourism programs, and do my two short weeks at TCHRD truly differ from the status quo of these trips?

Despite the very real challenges presented by time constraints, I believe that my time here is different. After some careful reflection, I have come to realize that this is due to the fact that my placement was planned around a specific project. I was tasked with creating an educational booklet for human rights defenders in Tibet to inform them of their rights under international law, as well as options for recourse should their rights be violated. The project-based nature of my placement allowed me to use every minute of those two and a half weeks efficiently. I also never felt that my presence was a burden, as I had clear instructions and timelines from the outset and did not need much direction apart from this. This has led me to reflect on whether project based voluntourism programs might mitigate the negative effects of time constraints to which these trips often fall victim. Additionally, I have been thinking about how creating longer term connections can help volunteers overcome the barrier that time constraints pose to meaningful work. I plan to stay in touch with all the remarkable individuals I met at TCHRD. If possible, I plan to do some work remotely when I return home, and to continue disseminating the information they spread though my networks in Canada.

An Afternoon in Kareri Village

This past weekend, my peers and I were lucky enough to take part in a camping trip to Kareri village. On Friday, we set out on the 4 hour trek that brought us to our campsite. We were all floored by the natural beauty of our surroundings; there was lush greenery, a river, and spectacular views of the mountains. The next day, some members of our group opted to do a 26KM trek up to Kareri lake. The rest of our group stayed behind, relaxed at our campsite and then set out to explore Kareri village with the help of our formidable guide, Sachen. I opted for the latter option.
Kareri village was very rural. Our walk took us through countless terrace farms, where we saw adults, children, and animals alike working hard to maintain their land. We continued wandering and visited a small Hindu temple and the village school. On our way back, we heard an excited chorus of “Hi! Hello! Bye!” from nearly every group of children we passed. All in all, it was a lovely afternoon exploring a stunning place. However, as Sachen told us about the village and chatted with locals as we passed them by, I couldn’t help but feel distanced from the experience.
As a white person travelling in the Global South, observation and sightseeing can quickly take on a ‘voyeuristic’ feel. The privilege and power that my skin colour codifies, as well as the fact that it demarcates me as belonging to a foreign cultural group, can sometimes put up a barrier to cultural interaction. Colonial notions of the Global South as ‘backwards’ or ‘old-fashioned’ compound this to further complicate tourism in certain localities. As I walked through the village, I felt slightly queasy as I realized how the tableau might look to an observer: the white Westerner who wanted to get a glimpse of the ‘traditional’ life of a rural Indian community.
One of the readings we studied in our preparatory course, “Communities as more than Other” discusses some concepts that allowed me ground these feelings in theory. The author speaks about how Western tourists tend to ‘other’ foreign communities, that is, to see them as entirely separate from or inferior to oneself, and how this creates huge barriers to authentic, equal cultural exchange. I felt this acutely on our afternoon in Kareri village.
As we walked by and observed the farms, I felt that my gaze alone implicitly ‘othered’ those who we saw. I felt uncomfortable in the moment, and thought to myself that these feelings could be mitigated if only I had some Indian language skills. Unfortunately, since I have been more immersed in the Tibetan community during my time in Dharamshala, I have chosen to prioritize learning Tibetan over Hindi. As I watched Sachen speak to the local families and farmers, I felt even more distanced from meaningful cultural exchange, as I couldn’t even speak to members of the community to ask them questions or tell them about myself. In the “Communities as more than Other” reading, the author speaks about how important language skills are for reducing the likelihood of othering and increasing opportunities for equal cultural exchange. This is something I have taken to heart after our walk through Kareri village.