Elephant blessings, monsoon thunderstorms and copious amounts of head wiggling – all in the space of one short week for DiA’s India Volunteer Co-ordinator Joe Bird, who sends this exclusive report on the recent summer volunteer orientation week in Pondicherry.
Jaded, bleary eyed and lightly dusted with dirt from the road between Chennai to Pondy, I arrived at Pondicherry bus station little over a month ago. Having left India following the completion of my 5-month DiA placement with Deep Griha Society in February, I’d been waiting for this moment. Returning to this wonderful, diverse, amazing country of such profound contrasts and fascinating cultures. As I met Mr. Pattanaik, the landlord of DiA’s Pondicherry flat (now affectionately nicknamed ‘Mr Tiny’ by our current volunteers, owing to his Lilliputian stature) I was grinning from ear to ear. This strange, tired looking white man with a thick brown foundation of dust covering his face, grinning inanely must’ve been quite a sight for Mr Pattanaik, but fortunately he still gave me access to the flat.
Having enjoyed an Orientation week in Pondicherry the previous September, Pondicherry immediately felt comfortable. I new my way around and found the pace of life easy to get into sync with. Furthermore I knew exactly where to go to get all the essentials – a blessing from Laxmi the elephant and tarot cards picked out by parrots (parot cards, if you will). Having partaken in these necessities, I felt ready to work.
With orientation week starting on 4th September I began making preparations. Remembering the great work done by Lisa Durassier (the previous years IVC) and the importance the week had had in my following 5 months as a volunteer, I felt I had big shoes to fill and a responsibility to the 6 volunteers to deliver a great week. I worked long days and through weekends reviewing training workshops, sorting logistics of the week and onward travel and booking guest speakers and trips. Demanding though it was I managed to intersperse the work with time meditating at the ‘Shri Aurobindo Ashram’, making good friends with the hawkers on the seafront promenade (I became renowned for my lack of money but wealth of time) and enjoying the wonderful cafés and restaurants of Pondicherry.
The first fortnight passed relatively stress free, owing much to the support I received from the Sharana (on of our Indian partners) staff to whom I owe a huge debt of gratitude for their patience, kindness and support, and before I knew it I was back at the Pondicherry bus station at midnight in the middle of a thunderstorm waiting to collect Jonny – the first DiA volunteer arriving in Pondy.
Wide eyed, tired and covered in the same layer of dust I had enjoyed, the volunteers arrived over the next few days and the Orientation Week began.
Having endured long days and sleepless nights worrying about arrangements for the week it was great to get it under way. In spite of just arriving the volunteers made it really easy on me, approaching every workshop, visit and interview with a great sense of curiosity, enthusiasm and respect. We visited Angalakuppam, a village in which Sharana worked and a Spirulina farm they ran, saw the amazing work Arul Ashram did with people with HIV and enjoyed the tranquil rooftop ‘Bistro’ at Sharana where the bistro manager Mugil and I playfully battled for airtime in leading the volunteers through various workshops – Mugil won.
The week passed quickly and enjoyably and Catherine and Camilla (the Pune volunteers), Jonny and Andy (the Udaipur volunteers) and myself were soon back at the bus station, enviably looking back over our shoulders at Cat and Alex (the Pondicherry volunteers) who had a 10 minute walk back to their flat rather than a minimum of 30hours. Arriving at the station in plenty of time we checked the train chart to discover our RAC tickets had not been upgraded and so, getting on the train we were two to a bed. A great way to get to know each other better but not necessarily the best way to get some much needed sleep. Much to our relief the stunningly efficient, fastidious ticket inspector found us beds within the first few hours of the journey – I could’ve kissed him, though given that only I’d only recently delivered a cultural awareness workshop to the volunteers about acceptable behaviour in India, I resisted. I settled for a tired smile and a head wiggle.
24 hours in and we said goodbye to Catherine and Camilla, 28 hours in and Andy, Jonny and I arrived in Mumbai, 28 hours and 48 minutes in (the time around 4am) and we were all passed out in our Mumbai hotel. Sunday saw Jonny and Andy undergo the final leg of their journey to their Udaipur placement – a paltry sixteen hour train ride. Having helped them onto the train, shook hands and exchanged goodbyes I headed back toward Mumbai, a strange sense of missing the volunteers I’d spent such a fantastic week with coupled with the great relief and pride of having delivered my first DiA Orientation Week.
I enjoyed the next few days in Mumbai reading in the Oval maiden, walking around Colaba and marine drive and enjoying some quality Indian programming whilst getting some DiA admin done. Leaving on the 13th having endured a long night of fever and frequent visits to a toilet twenty meters down the hall (twenty meters never felt so far!) I boarded a train for Pune, departing some 6 hours before the terrorist bombings. A tragic event inflicting indiscriminate harm on Mumbaikers as they made their daily commutes home.
Pune felt like coming home. Having spent 5 months there quite recently I was returning to some good friends and hoping some colleagues and beneficiaries of the great work DGS do would remember me. Entering the Tadiwalla Road office unannounced I felt somewhat nervous. What if nobody remembered me? What if they got my name wrong? My fears were immediately laid to rest as I was greeted at the door by Dr Prakash, a long handshake and a head wiggle. Over the coming minutes, hours and days I was pleasantly surprised and deeply humbled by the number of people who welcomed me back with big smiles and open arms, reasserting the great pride I have in the time I spent with Deep Griha and the affection I have for all those I was privileged to work alongside.
Having been here a week now it’s great to see Camilla and Catherine taking to the work and social side of DGS life so well. I myself feel like I’ve never been away and it will be with a great mixture of emotions I depart once more on Monday. Next stop, Udaipur.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.
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