We So Lucky

Gina writes:

In my last post, I mentioned that when we were offered placements, we didn't know enough about the volunteer experience to ask good questions about them. That got me thinking about something that Corey and I have talked about now and then since we arrived in India.

We got lucky...really lucky.

Looking back at the three placements that we were offered and thinking about the experiences of other volunteers in India, I think we could have easily landed in a situation that was too much for us to handle. Our philosophy was "we're in for an adventure, what's the benefit of being picky?" so we would have said yes to basically any offer that came our way. While this outlook has served us well on a day-to-day basis during our time here, I think it would have been better to ask more questions (of VSO and of ourselves) before saying "yes" to any placement.

So this post is to ennumerate the ways that we feel lucky, but also to encourage prospective VSO (or similar programs) volunteers to think about things before saying "yes" to an offer.

1 or 2 years really isn't a long time in the big scheme of things, but when you're in the midst of that time, it can seem like a LOOOONG time. Which is great when things are going well, but intolerable when things aren't so great.

Hot, Hot, Hot

When we were in Mumbai in March, it got up to 107 degrees. Now, in the summmer months of April and May, it's at least 100 degrees in most places where volunteers are and can sometimes be 110 or more! Koraput is 1,000 meters (3,000 feet) above sea level and is relatively cool. I think the temperature reaches 100 during the hottest part of the day, but it cools off at night and there's a breeze most of the time. If we were in a place any hotter than Koraput, Corey would be fine, but I don't handle heat as well. I think I would be miserable in a way that would affect my enjoyment of the whole placement.

City girl or country bumpkin?

Of the dozens of volunteers in India, we live in one of the most rural areas of anyone. Koraput town has 40,000 people, which is tiny compared to the 13 million of Delhi or even the 600,000 of Bhubaneswar. Spending a month in Delhi at the beginning of our placement, for training, was enough for me to know that I would not have been as happy in an urban setting. Sure, there are movie theaters and lots of restaurants and bars. But there's also pollution and noise and it's too expensive for my volunteer stipend. I LOVE Koraput! So many people recognize us by now (read: less staring), the rickshaw drivers seldom have to be told directions to our house, the kids constantly say "hi" to us, we have relationships with the shopkeepers, anyone we ask is willing to help us with whatever we need, and we've always felt 100% safe.

Then again, I know of at least one volunteer who was in a more rural setting and hated it. She was a city girl at heart and missed the social opportunities. So it's important to think about what fulfills your needs before accepting -- 2 years is a long time in an environment that's not your style!

So Many Hats!

It's common knowledge that the work you end up doing in your placement is likely to be totally different from what's listed in the placement description. Whether it's because the description was written years ago or because the organization itself wasn't sure what they needed most, the actual projects are sometimes very different from what you might expect going in.

That being said, I think Corey and I are lucky that our work experience is broad enough to allow us to be flexible with our organizations, meeting their actual needs rather than the needs written on paper. Corey's skills with computers include hardware and software knowledge as well as people skills that help him in training and project management. My communications skills cover a lot of ground -- graphic design, strategic planning, writing, project planning/management.

I think that volunteers who have a lot of knowledge and experience about one specific area, whether they've been working in that area for 2 years or 20, could find themselves in a very difficult situation, being given a task that they just don't have experience with. Journalists, computer programmers, lawyers, and other skill sets might fit in that category. It's difficult to say "I don't know how to do that" in India, so I'm glad that I haven't had to say that too much!

How Are You I Am Fine

The NGOs that the volunteers work with are staffed with people of varying levels of English. Usually the director is a fluent English speaker, but it's not unusual for the rest of the staff to have little or no English. That makes it hard for the volunteers. (Note that I'm not saying everyone in India should learn English, only that it makes relationship-building more difficult.)

We were lucky to be placed at SOVA where the staff composition was perfect for making some good Indian friends to help us assimilate into Indian life. There were 15-20 people working in the office, maybe 10 on any given day, that spoke excellent English. That, combined with the fact that Corey and I, as a couple, could make friends with both guys and girls, led to some great social experiences that I think other volunteers didn't get to have. In most cases, those friendships were not deep or serious, but at least they weren't too awkward, so we could truly enjoy some fantastic cultural experiences in a genuine way.

For prospective volunteers, think about how important it is to you to make local friends. If it is a goal of yours (like it was with us), don't underestimate the difficulty of connecting when their's a language barrier.

Side note: Nearly all of the children of Koraput know 2 English phrases: How are you? and I am fine. Sometimes the kids are nervous and mash the words up into one continuous phrase or get is slightly wrong, like the little girl on my way home from work who always asks in her sweet little voice, "Hi are you fine." So cute!

Home Sweet Home

The house that we live in is really nice. There's lot of room, the sunlight pours in when the windows are open, it's quiet, there aren't a lot of bugs.

If our house was like some other volunteers' (e.g. no running water, no working shower, right by a railroad in the path of noise and coal dust, far away from the market area, in the same building as our office), we would certainly have managed, which is why this item is last. But I'm glad that we live where we do.

For future volunteers, keep in mind that your home will become your refuge, the one place where you can truly relax and let loose. If you're not comfortable there, it could have disastrous effects on how you perceive your whole experience. Think about your must-haves and your preferences before saying "yes" to a housing offer.

So...while we made a mistake by being too flexible and not asking some important questions, it didn't matter so much for us. We got lucky! Don't make the same mistake that we did, because you might not be so fortunate. (As always, anyone thinking about volunteering in any capacity is welcome to contact us for advice!)