What I learned from my month of volunteer travel
I had no idea that a month spent in the freezing Spiti valley volunteering & cooking will leave such a big impact
It is a beautiful place, it is an unique place, it is a place that changes because mother nature does , it is a place that doesn’t change because it is not inhabited by many people. It is a place that changes you, it is a place that made me feel that we are nothing in front of nature , nature so grand that will make you bow down, make you feel small and big at the same time. Small because all your problems melt away and big because you understand that you are a creation of nature too. I felt part of Spiti, I felt connected to the mighty Himalayas, I felt humbled by the wonderful people , I realised for the first time that you need nothing to be happy, that living in the midst of nature, is sometimes enough.
Spiti deserves to be preserved, its natural , & cultural heritage and the mighty Himalayas where it lies
I wrote this after I travelled to Spiti for the first time in 2015, I went again on September 2018.
I am 32 years old, with a decade of corporate career behind me. I am married to a wonderful partner and we share an amazing life. My career was going well then why did I live my job to take a sabbatical? That is a question best answered for some other time. But in short,
I took a sabbatical from my corporate job and main career as a Communications & CSR professional to travel, to cook and to do things I always wanted to do , but most importantly I wanted to get a fresh perspective about myself. Travel can be a life-changing experience , travel can make you look inside yourself and know yourself better. I recently travelled to the remote Spiti region in the state of Himachal Pradesh in India.If you ever wondered if it is possible how to travel & volunteer around the world, keep reading.
I went to Spiti for the first time 3 years ago when I was looking for a place for a solo trip. It was an unusual choice, it is remote, it took me 2 days to reach. You travel through hard terrains, and narrow roads cut on the side of the mountains, you cross streams, pass glaciers that never quite melt. At a height of 3600 metres, this Trans -Himalaya region in India is also called a ‘cold dessert’ sharing borders with Tibet in the east & Ladakh on the north, temperatures in winter reach up to -30 C, when it is almost cut off from the rest of the world. It is home to a buddhist society with Monasteries which are centuries old. It is a place that you cannot forget soon, it is a place that lives within you.
I volunteered with the non-profit organisation, Spiti Ecosphere which is working towards the development of the community in this remote valley, towards conservation of the environment & the Himalayas & it’s natural resources.
I was working for a small cafe located in the Himalayas. The cafe is owned by a nonprofit organization. So the menu dishes I created had multifold purpose 1) I created dishes using the lesser known local Himalayan ingredients like seabuckthorn, black peas so that they get a spot in the sun. 2) And international travelers get to experience the ingredients , buy the dishes, hopefully buy the raw ingredients and spread the word about these ingredients. 3)All profits from the cafe goes towards development projects for the community & environment so every dish adds to that 4) If the local produce is in demand, overtime the local farmers are encouraged not to stop growing them (they are trading these local produce for popular crops which need more water, so not good for the environment). Hence the menu I created will hopefully help in preserving those ingredients
My experience there made me realise a few things:
I am more privileged than I knew : It made me realise that if I have the means to travel , you are already more privileged than you think: I could travel for almost a month non-stop without worrying about funds, I had worked hard all these years and while I was afraid what it would mean for me for my career. I realise that a. I have earned this b. I will probably be working the rest of my life, taking some time of to do this will give me education that will hopefully help me grow as a person and I was not wrong . Plus, I have a super supportive partner who helped me alleviate all my fears and supported me to take this step in more ways than one.
I realised that happiness requires very less: I travelled to remote villages and worked with locals who live in harsh cold weathers at the top of mountains, walk everywhere, whp have to literally wait for snow to melt to get water, farmers who have to tend to their land with manually with the snow at their feet, have electricity issues, have no access to internet or modern amenities, no phone network and yet they are happy. Living there with them with so little, with no entertainment except the books I had to read and the conversations I had with the people there, made me understand that all the materialistic things that we desire are just just things we make ourselves want but actually don’t need.
3. I don’t need to have a lot to give a lot: Before I volunteered I always thought that I don’t have enough skills to make a difference. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The very fact that most of us had access to good education, exposure from everywhere, the fact that we have travelled , often around the world , have held jobs, had access to books and libraries and access to reach the world meant that we already had everything at our disposals. What we need is some amount of sensitivity , some understanding of the environment around us. What we need is consciousness and the ability to connect a little and we can make a huge difference to someone else’s life. I am not a professional cook, I never had formal training but I worked in commercial cafe (that fueled the funds to the non-profit) and developed recipes that could highlight local ingredients. What I did had the small impact of highlighting locally grown ingredients, the bigger impact was that these ingredients are superfoods but not popular because they are not marketed. Highlighting the same in the menu not only exposes them to an international audience but also induces sale of raw ingredients. With time the objective is to ensure that farmers stop trading them for other crops which use more water and cause the ingredients are preserved. So you see a little here & a little there can amount to something big. I met people who previously had been working in corporate jobs & were working towards developing systems to reduce plastic consumption and recycle. All you need to be is a bit resourceful. And you already are even, if you don’t realise it.
4.Sharing ideas with people from all over the world is education enough: I sure meet people when I travel and I have conversations that lets me learn a little bit about another country, another culture, another viewpoint. But this was different, here I was meeting people from a new country almost everyday, of all ages and all kinds of backgrounds. I met both volunteers who were working on different projects like me and also travellers. Some volunteers were on a sabbatical like me and were using the time to give away their skills for something useful that could create a real impact. While some had left their jobs for good and this was the start of a different path. Some were students who had just graduated and wanted to use this time to learn something more about the world which their immediate and cushy environments would seldom allow to do so. Most of the travellers I met were slow travellers , travellers who did not really come there to finish their bucket lists but rather to experience the place in a way that can help them learn something about themselves. The conversations I had there ranged from politics, to economics, to environment, to music,religion , love, longing , our purpose on earth and everything under the sun. The conversations have stayed with me, the opinions and perspectives will be something I will remember forever. I learned that there are different ways to look at the world and that is something invaluable.
5. I will not make assumptions about people before I have a chance to know them: Ok so we all do this more than we realise. And while reading this, some of you may go, na, I don’t do this anymore think about it. I thought I am a very open minded person and I don’t really judge people but I realised that I would do this a lot. I will give you an example. As part of my volunteer program I helped run a café and there was a head cook there who ran the kitchen (let’s call him L). He is 26 years old, has lived all his life in the small settlement that is Kaza in Spiti and grew up in an even smaller village in the mountains. He had no formal training in cooking and follows recipes that were created by someone. He has never really browsed the internet ever in his life since there is no internet there . In the few weeks that I was there I found that he was not only a great cook, he had creative ideas for other things.He had learned everything by trying. One day I was struggling to make bread in the 6 C cold weather as my bread won't rise, I was wishing that I could google how to solve it when he suggested a much easier way, by keeping the dough in a sealed ziplock and putting it in the sun and within 2 hours I had the best dough that I had ever seen. He managed orders with superb efficiency and kept a clean kitchen. He guided the people around him and had advice for everyone. I found out that he had found and introduced a new way to farm in his village and learned english so that he could interact with customers and volunteers. His wisdom and understanding of human nature was beyond his 26 years and certainly more than mine. So, think before you put people in a box.
6. The time to give back is now: Till I took my sabbatical I had almost no extra time for anything personal . I guess I was just so worried and tied to my job that I never got the chance to look around. I may have lived in the Himalayas for a month to volunteer but the fact is that we can make a difference with whatever time & resources we have got. If you have a little time , you can do so much. Maybe you can help in writing the communication materials for an NGO or just help in understanding a subject better with your expertise. The NGO I volunteered with built greenhouses to grow produce that couldn’t grow naturally in the harsh cold weather. An architect who came to volunteer there just helped in re-designing these greenhouses to make them more efficient. It was actually quite simple for her and yet it made so much difference to the lives if those living there. Sometimes all you need is an intent to do something without expecting anything in return.
I volunteered for this amazing organisation in the Trans Himalayan region of Spiti, in the state of Himachal Pradesh in India called The Spiti Ecosphere. You can get details on how to volunteer with them on their website, if it’s not something that they already have, you can always suggest how you can contribute.