Volunteering abroad: “anything is possible in India”

At 21 I travelled to India to volunteer for three months, something that to this day I’m still incredibly proud of but also an experience I know I should write more about. I’m often asked for advice about travelling abroad, things to do and to avoid. I blogged for a bit while I was out there, but as internet access was a rare occurrence, people were only able to read about my adventures from the occasional emails I would send when the generator was working or I could get to an internet cafe, entitled with something similar too ”Ahhh I’ve just been on a Camel!’ India has so much significance to me, that I’ve only started to realise years later- five years on now, which is pretty scary.

Shortly after I returned home I made this (pretty amateur) video documenting my journey, and started speaking at local schools and youth groups to tell my story. I wanted others to know (some of) what I experienced while I was in India and to understand the many global issues that I encountered while out there- doing this also helped me to process the previous few months. However I didn’t tell people the reasons why I was there in the first place, and how an experience like this (something that millions of 18-21 year old gap year students do every year) was so much more challenging for me because I’m Dyspraxic, and even when half way across the world my anxiety was still there.

Having just graduated from university, scraping a 2:2 when I could have achieved a 2:1, if I was in a better place mentally, I literally had no idea what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I felt overwhelmed but realised that I needed time to think, so when I came across an organisation online called Platform 2, I knew I had to apply. Platform 2 was aimed at ‘disadvantaged’ 18-25 year old’s, who wouldn’t be able to afford or go on a traditional gap year. This criteria meant that I had to disclose my Dyspraxia from the word go,  without doing so I wouldn’t have secured a place on this program- that was entirely funded by The Department for International Development, something few and far between then, and non-existent now. This also meant that in comparison to gap years we often hear about, when the majority of us would have to rob a bank to be able to afford to go on one, everyone I went to India with had a unique story to tell and a deeper meaning to why they were there. I can recall the interview so vividly as if it was yesterday, a lady interviewed me in a meeting room at a hotel in Newcastle. I remember her saying ‘I’m going to ask some quite personal questions, answer them as honestly as you can.’ For the first time in my life (having avoided any support at university) I was open about my Dyspraxia, some of the challenges I faced growing up and what the experience of travelling abroad would mean to me. I disclosed here because I had to, something that up until then had been my little secret that I shied away from talking about. After the interview I jumped on a train to a friends birthday down in Manchester, and was greeted with words similar too ”you’re brave” and ”wow, good luck” when I told them about my plans (or hopes) to travel abroad. I felt very supported with this decision.

Finding out that I had secured a place on the India departure couldn’t have happened at a better place, I was away for the week in Durham at the Folkworks Summer school, when I got a call from a lady in the Platform 2 office in London. I sat by the big tree outside Caedmon hall at Hilde Bede to take the call- being there to hear this, pretty life changing and unexpected news had so much significance to me.  In the months following, the preparations took over- I would wake up every morning feeling physically sick with anxiety at the prospect of the journey I knew lay before me. I read up on India as much as I could, tried to learn Hindi and attempted to pack about a million times. I made endless check lists, packing to go away for the weekend can sometimes be challenging and draining for me- so you can probably imagine how exhausted I felt after packing everything I would need for three months into one hiking rucksack. I stocked up on mosquito repellent, tea tree oil (mozzies hate it apparently) and brought what looked like the contents of a boots pharmacy. If you ever had a medical need- I was your girl. I didn’t really use much of it in the end, but it’s always good to be prepared.

Airport photo!

Many Dyspraxics struggle with change, unpredictability and the unknown- and I’m no exception to this rule. My wonderful friend Rosie has written this blog post about Change and unpredictability and how it can affect Dyspraxics or those with other neurological differences. My anxiety is often heightened when things don’t go to plan or I can’t predict the outcome. So much of going to India was about me confronting my fear of the unknown, I knew that I had to get on a plane to get there but after that many things could go wrong. I went to India with 47 other people, most of whom I met for the first time at the airport. My dad drove me down to Heathrow, and when we arrived I remember telling him in the car that I didn’t want to go any more and that I’d like him to drive me home. I was absolutely terrified and already missing my little sister, who was only eleven at the time, and had just started secondary school. The most we’d been apart up until then was probably a week at a time. After some food and time to asses my surroundings, the anxiety passed and it was time to check in. My face lit up when I met everyone who I’d be sharing this journey with- they were all just as scared as me, some more confident than others but we were all equally daunted by the next few months ahead. I found the plane ride particularly challenging, not because I was particularly scared of flying, but for the first time so far I started to feel very isolated and alone. The seat numbers on our tickets meant that we weren’t all sitting together, and I ended up having to sit in between two people who were part of a team from Glasgow performing at the closing ceremony of the commonwealth games taking place in Delhi. Meeting new people has always been touch and go for me, but being separated from the new people that I could have used the next nine hours to get to know was hard. Sleep was virtually impossible and worry consumed me, I kept ruminating; ‘I’m in the sky- I can’t escape from here’

When we finally touched down on Indian soil, the airport was surrounded by what I thought were the army (but were probably police) with guns. The heat hit me as we got off the plane and made our way out of the airport, to look for the bus that was going to drive us to Jaipur- where we’d spend the first few days at a home stay. As we waited outside, the smell of India engulfed me- a combination of pollution, spices and sewage. Mixed in with the hot, humid climate- you can probably imagine how we felt. I was sleep deprived and exhausted, but wanted to keep alert and stay close to the group- I had visions of being stranded in Delhi forever.

Outside Delhi airport: ”Some people wait for change to happen. Other people volunteer. Platform 2”

On that first bus journey from Delhi to Jaipur, I sat next to someone who quite frankly made India more bearable for me and seemed in some ways too confident- so much more comfortable than many of us felt. As we passed shacks on the side of the road, saw market sellers and children collecting rubbish- we had a lot of time to chat. He was from London and I told him that I’m from Newcastle, he is slightly older than me- at nearly 26 he was just in the age bracket to go. Ziad became someone, that would be impossible to forget- his infectious personality and slightly brave attitude towards life in India stays with me to this day. The one thing we were instructed not to do was to ride on the back of a motorbike, but Ziad decided to hire one and then hide it back at camp- how he got away with it, I don’t know. At the end of the trip we all left messages in each others note books, Ziad wrote this in mine: ‘From the first bus journey we were friends. I saw your text to your family saying that you hated it in India already and wanted to come home. I then tried hard to make you see why that wasn’t the best option. Since then I have seen you to be one of the most content girls on camp.’ I remember thinking ‘wow, I have really arrived now” As we passed beggars (not much older than us) on the side of the road. This moment (as cliché as it sounds) changed me forever.

The first few days were spent at a home stay in Jaipur- I stayed with five other girls at a doctor and Journalists house. I felt very safe here, although slightly uncomfortable when I learned that they had a servant. We took part in Hindi lessons and an orientation which included a trip to the slums, an Elephant ride and a visit to the Amber fort. Walking around India took up so much of my energy, as I negotiated crowds of people- who would often swarm around us trying to sell things, open drains, uneven ground and the odd stray animal. As someone who finds coordinating my movements a challenge at times, this took more time to accomplish but wasn’t impossible. I had a couple of amusing moments when I nearly fell down an open sewer, but nothing too drastic. During the home stay I felt incredibly withdrawn, overwhelmed by the culture shock of a new environment and longing for home. I didn’t take in much of the Hindi we were learning as my mind was elsewhere, so many emotions all at once can do that to you! I stayed with some of the best people I have ever met who really got me through what was to come, I shared a room with a girl who was equally as terrified as me, so during the first night when neither of us slept we made a pact that we would ‘get through India together.’ Going home early was not going to be an option. From that moment on I felt part of something and that I belonged for one of the first times in my life. We saw the slums in Jaipur the following day, something that to this day I can vividly remember, the sights, smells and noises coming from the slum area. 

An image that struck me then and stayed with me throughout my time in India was how happy and content everyone was, despite having very little. They were incredibly generous and hospitable people- a girl tried to half her only custard cream with me, I had to take it because I didn’t want to be seen as ungrateful or disrespectful (but I snuck it back into her school bag when her back was turned)

The smiles on the children’s faces were so welcoming

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Following on from the home stay we endured an over night sleeper train- something that will test anyone’s anxiety levels, even if you don’t have an anxiety disorder or Dyspraxia. It was very intimidating, an experience that we weren’t really prepared for. Navigating yourself through narrow corridors to find your correct numbered bed (when I say bed, it was more like a shelf), made me develop spatial awareness skills that I didn’t know I had. As a group of mostly white girls walked down the aisles, we’d be starred at and oggled by Indian men- we stuck together, and were pleased that we were in a big group. Our first experience of the fascination towards us was when at the cinema a few nights before and we found ourselves circled by an increasingly growing and threatening group of Indian men, shouting things in a language we didn’t understand, but could probably imagine what they were. It was terrifying. I realised why it was so important to dress modestly and respectfully in India. On that first sleeper train journey no one really slept.

Our final destination was Jaisalmer, a place that quickly became home. During the weeks that followed, we taught in a school, dealt with wild animals and cattle, lived in the middle of a desert, accidentally ended up in the middle of an Indian wedding, encountered malaria & a rabies scare, went on a camel safari and found a new love for chai. The children opened my eyes, the other volunteers became like family and I began to feel more confident than ever. Filling up a bucket of water from a pump to wash every morning became the norm and daily power cuts were our reality. During the weekend we went exploring, one of my most memorable moments was visiting a town called Jodhpur that was five hours away by Jeep, where I braved the longest zip wire in Asia. I gave up trying to explain my Dyspraxia to the Indian staff who were looking after us, when it was assumed that I couldn’t lift anything heavy during construction work.

 

‘Home’

Chai- a stray dog we adopted on camp.

 

 

 

 

 

A week before we returned home I turned 22- celebrating a birthday in the middle of the Indian desert was something I knew I wouldn’t repeat. I forgot that I was so far away from friends and family, and enjoyed the day- eating food in a roof top cafe and spending the evening surrounded by friends- the people who I had made it through together with. That evening on camp we had an award ceremony to commemorate our time in India and I was nominated for the most memorable volunteer. As someone who often fades into the background, has never been the centre of attention and struggled to fit in- being described as memorable meant so much to me. Our trip home the following week was eventful, when our train derailed my anxiety resurfaced again- I texted a friend and his reply was ‘take pictures please.’ We ended up having to walk a mile up a train track in the dark with all our gear on our backs, to catch a bus to the next station- something that I’m sure is every Dyspraxics worst nightmare, but again not impossible because I got there.

People aren’t lying when they describe Indian roads as ‘mental’ Crossing them when you struggle with judging distances and spatial awareness really does test you.

Throughout our time in India we kept hearing stories of snow back in England, which was very surreal when all we could see was sand and desert for miles. The snow of 2010 that apparently made everything come to a stand still finally became reality when it looked like we might have to spend Christmas in India. They kept cancelling planes, but luckily ours wasn’t cancelled, just delayed several hours. During this time we became very acquainted with and occasionally got lost in Delhi airport. When we eventually made it onto the plane and began to look forward to going home, many of the group became unwell, so all forty seven of us were health quarantined when we reached Heathrow. We weren’t allowed to leave the plane until paramedics gave us the all clear to do so- further delaying being reunited with our families. However stressful at the time, it’s become a story that I’ve continually re-told.

My first sighting of a Christmas tree, in Delhi airport on the 21st December 2010

When I returned home, after recovering from jet lag, the culture shock of adjusting to my old life really hit me. You’re often told about the culture shock when you arrive in country but for many returning back to the UK will in some ways be more of a shock to the system. I spent the first few months at home in a constant state of confusion and disorientation. A symptom that often comes with my anxiety is feeling disconnected from the world around you, but the feeling after returning from India was so much more powerful. I missed India terribly, I longed for the desert and the friends I made there. I remember having an argument with a lady in town who was selling henna, I was appalled at how much she was charging- having met the ladies in India who make it, and how little it costs over there. It took me a good few months to go back to my old way of life- but I didn’t lose the confidence that I’d gained in India and the attitude that I can take anything on. I realised that if I can go to India, and experience all of the wonderful and slightly scary things, I didn’t need to feel ashamed of my Dyspraxia any more.

I hope that this story has shown you, how someone with Dyspraxia and related mental health difficulties, can develop coping strategies and ways to bounce back when put in the most challenging and difficult of circumstances. Dyspraxics can be very resilient and driven individuals, something that I always knew and was able to really put into practice during those three months abroad. I knew that I had to get there- and I did. Going to India demonstrated to me and everyone around me that I can do it, and even when I struggle with things today I’m often reminded that I coped with a derailed train, so I can do whatever it is I’m trying to do. You of course don’t have to travel half way across the world to demonstrate this, but for me this experience was the opportunity to put my difficulties aside and focus on getting there, because in India failure was not an option- as we were told time and time again ”anything is possible in India” (best imagined in an Indian accent.) And they were right.

If you’ve made it to the end of this blog post, and have enjoyed this story or anything I’ve written before; it would be lovely if you could take the time to vote for me in the National Diversity Awards by following this link: https://nominate.nationaldiversityawards.co.uk/nominate/endorse/29906

I am over the moon to have been nominated, and although I don’t expect to be shortlisted your vote will mean so much to me. If however I am lucky enough to make it onto the shortlist, I will use it has a platform to continue to raise the profile of Dyspraxia and the positive traits that bring so much to the work place, the education system and friendship groups- that are often forgotten about. To reiterate the wise words I learned in the Indian desert ‘anything is possible.’

 

 

 

 

 

 

This entry was posted in Adventures, Dyspraxia, Mental health. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Volunteering abroad: “anything is possible in India”

  1. Pingback: General life reflections | alittlemoreunderstanding

  2. Pingback: Big work feelings: Just make inclusion work, why don’t you? | A Little More Understanding

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