Summary of my experience by Sara McMurry
This year I visited India as a volunteer for the third time. The highlights included the Hindu wedding of my friends Kristin and Vishal, and volunteering in the beautiful hill country of Himachal Pradesh.
I spent the first four weeks in Jaipur learning Hindi and living with a host family. The family were so kind and welcoming, and made me feel really at home. I learnt a lot of Hindi in one-to-one lessons with Subhadra, but my conversational abilities are still very limited - I need a lot more practice! Leaving Jaipur, an overnight train journey brought me to a station on the Punjab-Himachal border where I was picked up by a driver for the 3 hour drive to Palampur, a pleasant little town set among tea plantations in the Kangra valley. The countryside was such a contrast to the sandy plains of Rajasthan. We drove through tree-covered hills, and dark snow covered mountains appeared ahead. The volunteer 'camp' at Palampur is a tall building just outside the town, looking down on a river valley with views of the snowy Dhauladhar mountain range in one direction, and in the other, towards the plains, range after range of lower hills. Macaque monkeys spend the nights in the trees at the back of the building and jump noisily down onto a corrugated iron roof as they set off in the morning. They peer in at us through our balcony doors and windows, and it is essential to leave those doors and windows closed when leaving the room to avoid monkeys getting in and ransacking the place!
Kristin and Vishal's wedding was held at a wedding hall in Palampur. Around 6.30pm the bride and groom arrived in a white jeep decorated with garlands and flowers. Kristin wore a scarlet and gold sari with golden and jewelled bangles and necklace, dangling earrings with one connected by a jewelled bar to a jewel in her nose, and a piece of jewellery on her forehead. Vishal wore a long golden coat on top of white trousers, and a hat which had three white tassels hanging on either side of his face. The guests lined the entrance way and showered them with beautifully scented deep pink rose petals. A big outdoor area was decorated with pink and yellow hangings and garlands, and the religious ceremony took place in a small corner of this space. After it had been going on for an hour or so most of the guests moved away to chat and eat delicious food which was being prepared and served at long tables along the sides of the area. I stayed long enough to see the bride and groom walk round the sacred fire. When the ceremony finally ended Kristin and Vishal chatted with their guests before ascending a platform where they placed garlands round each other’s necks and then sat on a couch while the guests queued up to wish them well and be photographed with them. In a European touch to the proceedings both fathers made speeches. There was a great display of fireworks, and then more food and dancing in a large hall indoors. I managed to dance in my sari (which Subhadra had helped me buy in Jaipur) without tripping over it!
In the mornings I taught in a primary school some 1000ft up the mountain above the camp. It was a tiny school - only about 30 children in all, between the ages of 5 and 10 - and there were 12 children in my class. Most were 7 or 8 years old, but two 6 year olds who were very bright and keen were allowed to join the class. Himachal appears much more prosperous than rural Rajasthan, and
the school had three class rooms, all equipped with desks, whereas at my first school in Rajasthan there was only one classroom and the children sat and wrote on mats on the floor. The headmaster was very welcoming and supportive. I taught English and some Maths, and discovered that one of the little boys was brilliant at Maths, and got really excited when he suddenly understood my explanation of how to subtract with borrowing. One little girl was very good at English, and I managed to get them all saying English sentences such as 'I like ice cream' and 'He is jumping' rather than just teaching them separate English words. One day we took almost the whole school on a picnic. A few of the youngest ones were left behind with their teacher because they were too small for the 2 km walk up the road to the local temple of the godess Durga. Here we all removed our shoes and were blessed by the priest, and then musical instruments were produced and the children joined in singing songs of praise and dancing. After that we sat them down outside and gave them each a banana, some biscuits and a carton of fruit juice. One of the smaller girls told me she was keeping her biscuits to give to her baby brother. Then we walked back down to the school in time for their free school lunch.
One weekend I and two other volunteers visited McCleod Ganj, the home of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile. It is built on a steep hillside high above Dharamshala in the valley below. Western tourists and Tibetans outnumbered Indians here, restaurants served Tibetan food, and it seemed like a completely different country. We visited the peaceful monastery with its temples and prayer wheels, and the museum where the history of Tibet since its invasion by the British in the 19th century was documented. But there was plenty to do at the weekend without leaving Palampur. There were beautiful walks in the countryside close to the camp, through pine forests, up the hill towards the school I worked in, and through little villages and settlements where wheat was ripening on the terraced hillsides and little rivers cascaded down to join the larger one in front of the camp. The walk down to Palampur town passed through tea plantations, and on the other side of town I visited the tea factory and saw how the leaves are processed. The tea made there has a very delicate flavour and is greenish gold in colour. I got a taste for it, and brought some home with me. In Palampur itself we enjoyed mango lassi (a yogurt drink) in one cafe and ate out in the evening a couple of times in a smart restaurant. But the cook at the camp was very good and at the weekly volunteer meetings we usually recorded a vote of thanks for his delicious food. It was mango season, and we bought mangoes from the colourful fruit and vegetable stalls with their beautiful fresh-looking displays.