“If you have been watching the BBC’s The Real Marigold Hotel will you have become familiar with the octogenarians (and some who are a little younger) celebrities visiting Fort Kochi exploring the possibilities of retirement in India.

I found myself in Kochi in November on a volunteering programme following a conversation with Shelia Greenman in The Flowing Well. I visited India several years ago on a work trip and fell in love with it and have wanted to go back every since. It was only when I had supper with Sheila that I realized that short term volunteering was a possibility. Sheila and James are visiting northern India this month. Sheila talked about some of the places they planned to visit and the volunteering that they hope to do when they are in India.

Following our evening in The Flow, I came home and Googled short term volunteering in India. I discovered an organization called Volunteering Journeys that offered a number of projects in various parts of the world. They seemed a small organization with a big vision and this appealed to me. I booked onto their Woman’s Empowerment programme and a couple of months later flew with Emirates to Cochin, the city that contains Fort Kochi.

There are a number of organizations that offer volunteering holiday but I was attracted by some of the values of Volunteering Journeys. Their aim is to broaden your horizons and change the way you view the world. They talked about deepening your experience of life and enhancing your understanding of other people’s lives and their culture. It is aptly called a journey and this is fundamental to the experience you have on one of their projects.

One of the rewarding aspects of the programme is working alongside volunteers from other parts of the UK and other parts of the world. It was good to plan the day with others and I learnt a great deal from Justine from Australia and Annemarie from South Africa. During my second week in Kochi, we were joined by a couple on honeymoon.

Volunteering Journeys have two programmes in India, one in Kochi in Kerala and the other in Kolkata.  I decided on Kochi because it sounded an interesting destination and had some great weekend excursions. I ended up working with some women in the mornings and at a school in the afternoons. The women’s project was about a fifteen minute Tuk Tuk journey from our homestay. They were very special people, a mixture of Hindu and Christian. Their vocabulary was excellent but they lacked the experience of speaking English. Some of them made ornaments (jewelry) and longed for opportunities to sell them which is somewhat limited in Kochi. Some of them had started a teaching qualification but had to give that up for the moment to focus on their responsibilities of being mothers. We had lots of fun learning about verbs followed by half an hour of conversation.

The afternoons we went to Mattancherry to work in a state primary school. We spent an hour with the children playing games, colouring, writing stories, doing word searches AND crowd control! It was a complete contrast to helping at Messy Church in Sunningwell!! We are incredibly fortunate to have so many craft materials available and other resources. In Kochi we just had a box of colouring pencils and crayons. The children’s English was very good but at times they lacked creativity. Discipline was a real problem in the school and Justine, who has a sociology background, spent time with the teachers exploring some of the issues they faced and talking through possible solutions to create an environment that enabled effective learning.

When you arrive at the homestay, you are looked after by the project manager, Geetha and the programme coordinator, Midhu. Zakki, one of the local Tuk Tuk drivers, takes you on a tour of Fort Kochi introducing you to some of the key sites. Fort Kochi is famous for being a fishing port and for the Chinese nets. There is a wealth of history in Kochi, lots of colour and fun. Geetha helps you organize trips at the weekend. I thoroughly enjoyed visiting the tea plantations in Munnar and staying in a hotel with hot water! I also spent time exploring Kerala’s backwaters. There is much to explore and is very easy to get around.

Volunteering Journeys is a great organization and have some special people who work for it. I am glad that I didn’t go out there with high expectations or thinking I would make a huge difference. You return having learnt so much and being enriched by the people you have met. India can be immensely frustrating and you have to learn to ‘go with the flow’.

If you are looking for a holiday that is going to take you out of your comfort zone, enable you to roll-up your sleeves and experience another culture, take a look at Volunteering Journeys. They offer a variety of programmes including teaching English, wildlife conservation and several other options. For more information about Volunteering Journeys visit their website: https://volunteeringjourneys.com

Review by Karen Laister (Women’s Empowerment Program, Kerala, Dec 2016)