Amongst all of these weekend excursions I have been volunteering for the last three weeks. Actually, it’s closer to two as I spent the first week with the toilet. But having finished my first ever volunteering exhibition on foreign soil, I thought it would be good to talk about this challenging and rewarding experience.
So what was I doing with iSPiiCE? I had two jobs in two different locations. One was more familiar to me than the other. From 1.30pm to 3pm I would teach two 45-minute English classes in a private high school. It was a similar experience to Korea – the students were very obedient and enthusiastic, and I was left to my own devices in terms of what i taught and how I went about teaching it. The students, though aged 13 or 14, had a similar level of English (probably slightly better, in reality) to my Korean students, which also made things similar.
I made life easier for myself by rehashing some of my lessons from Sorae High School in my new establishment. I had to make changes to account for the diminished level of technology – no laptop hook-up here. It was great fun, and I did actually feel like I was teaching them something. Similarly to Korea, they use ‘I am fine’ way too much for my liking in response to being asked how they are. Consequently, one of my lessons was my now infamous derision of this phrase and the introduction of viable alternatives. It made me quite happy to hear a group of twenty kids scream ‘I am over the moon!’ when I asked them the question in later days.
Over the two weeks we looked at describing people and the students’ future aspirations. Many want to be in the army. Many gave the reason that they wanted to kill terrorists. This was in the immediate aftermath of Bin Laden’s demise, so was possibly understandable. Bin Laden was the subject of one of the funnier pictures drawn as a result of our description lessons, but was trumped by the man who authorised the operation that killed him. That picture below of a girl is actually Barack Obama. Promise. More concerning than this caricature was one boy wanting to be in the police force so he could ‘beat the people’. Lots of Pictionary was also played, which is fast becoming one of my go-to games for an English lesson.
Nothing ever runs smoothly and efficiently in India, and teaching in a school was no different. I missed most of one lesson because the director of the school wanted to drink chai with me. One particularly vociferous game of Pictionary was interrupted by a female teacher entering and smacking one of the boys over the head. It was very nice to be back in this environment (by that I mean school, as opposed to a hothouse of corporal punishment), and to be working once more.
After an hour’s break, during which time I would be fed yet more amazing food at the compound, I would move to my second teaching location, where I taught a community class of computers and English from 4pm to 5.30pm. The second location was very different to the first. It’s safe to say I don’t know too many people who have taught computer classes on a farm before. The group of us, ranging from seven to fifteen in number and from eight to twenty-seven in age, would sit in an outdoor area near the one electrical socket, whilst cows were set to work around the corner. A very strange place to teach.
I found this class more of a challenge. It was English at its most basic level, and all of them wanted to use the computers at all times. The machines we had are those ones that were advertised as being able to allow Africans to become computer-literate as, aside from the good one in the picture above, they are only $100 apiece. We had four of them. Four computers into fifteen with people who don’t want to share – difficult.
The work I set them for most of the fortnight revolved around a children’s book called Duck in the Truck. Pretty good read, actually. I made them type up each sentence into a slide in PowerPoint and then locate a picture to use with it. It may sound boring, but they really enjoyed it. They are all very engaging and interesting individuals who are great fun once you develop a rapport with them. Seeing them returning to work on the farm as we were leaving also reminded us of the importance of the time we were spending with them, and how it was a welcome break from their monotonous routine.
Though my main adventures were on weekends, that is not to say that we didn’t have fun during the week. I spent one night up at McLeod Ganj hanging out with Steph, Niamh and Bailey. We went for Korean food, something I have definitely missed. Oh Bibimbap. After that we went for my first beer in a month – don’t act like you’re not impressed. The bar was home to a giant, evil-looking rabbit, which was kept in a sliding drawer. Animal rights obviously not too high in this part of the world.
After the police closed down the bar – breaking curfew isn’t a clever idea – we were chatting to people in the street when two motorbikes ploughed into one another on the steep road. Everyone was fine but I realised that, for all of the crazy driving, I haven’t really seen too many accidents or crashes in India. It would have been messier if it had involved the gentleman below. We had also broken the curfew of the guesthouse the girls were staying in, so we had to roll under the shutters in the manner of Indiana Jones. Sleeping on the floor at 2am and waking up at 7.30am to return to the compound doesn’t help you prepare for a day of teaching, but I’m used to this from Korea.
We were also invited to numerous events closer to home. One such event was a housewarming party, which basically involves everybody from the neighbourhood showing up, saying Namaste, eating the food provided and then leaving. It was really good food, but we felt sorry for the new volunteer who, pretty much straight off the plane, had to learn how to eat with her hand in front of hundreds of glaring eyes.
Cooking is also an important aspect of our lives up here. I tried my hand at making chapattis. I made a couple, but then was swiftly moved back to the sofa to let the professionals work their magic. Pancakes were always a highlight when they were dished up. Alcohol seems to be slowly working its way back into my life as well – from Ramesh and his friends demanding I drink whisky with them to the army beer we tasted and decided never to want to drink again.
These three weeks have been fantastic. Everybody who lives, works and breathes here has been a pleasure to become friends with, and they have all made my stay here very happy. The teaching was great fun, and reminded me of why I love this career path that I have chosen. It makes me so happy to be able to give something back to this great place which has given me so much, and has only fuelled my desire to return to teaching.
I leave Dharamsala with plenty of great memories and visions of smiling faces but alas, it is time to leave. India is far too big to traverse in three months, but I still have some time left to visit more of her treasures.
Love you all