And now readers, time for something completely different. I don’t think that there are many of us who haven’t, at some point, had the desire to just pack up our lives and head off to somewhere completely different. To start again, or at least take a break from our own reality. To get a different perspective on where we are and what we need. Most of us though find reasons and excuses why we shouldn’t do it, and stay where we are.
Zan didn’t look for any reasons not to do it. She just did it. She packed up her life into boxes, gave up her job and overcame obstacles, to move to the other side of the world, and help people.
This is a beautiful, evocative piece of writing about what Zan did, and ultimately what she learnt.
As many things do it started with a tough time. And on top of other things, I was made redundant. I’d had enough of everything, of all of it and I was looking for an escape in the most extreme way possible. A spark of an idea became a constant thought and then I started staying awake at night thinking seriously about leaving it all behind for a while.
I’d never thought I’d actually be accepted on to the volunteer program when I applied. There were only four places, the application form was long and I figured there’d be others applying far more qualified than me. But I got a place! I was shocked, amazed, nervous and excited all at once. And even after all the visa issues (having a mum who was born in Pakistan doesn’t really endear you to the Indian visa authorities!) and the subsequent disappointment of having to do a shorter placement than planned, I still buzzed with all those initial feelings. The last month before leaving was mad, having all the jabs, finishing my job, moving 200 miles back to Manchester, putting my things into storage and then packing for India. All with an unexpected case of the mumps. I honestly believe the last week before leaving, I willed myself better – by then nothing but nothing was going to stop me going.
And go I did. Two flights and a day later, I arrived in a hot, noisy, dusty Mumbai. Four hours after that I was in Pune, at the centre that would be my home & my workplace for the next few months. It was as different from home as I could have imagined. It wasn’t just hot, it was incredibly humid – all the time. I spent the first week totally unable to sleep, feeling like a zombie during the day. There was constant noise, with the traffic honking at all times of the day and we had 3 weeks to learn everything we needed to know. I’d never really run anything, not on this scale. Certainly not a series of week-long events with trips & tours, advocacy talks, projects for local charities all with fun activities and evening entertainment thrown in too.
The training may have been intensive (punctuated by an inevitable stomach bug) but nothing really prepared us for the arrival of people. Up to 60 adults and teenagers attended each event. We’d get up to meet arriving coaches in the middle of the night and in the week that followed, organise them, take them on tours of the local area, get them enthused about the event theme. I had the extra of responsibility of being a first-aider which mostly meant dealing with inordinate amounts of vomit! After a while, I was used to being woken regularly in the middle of the night to administer rehydration sachets and hugs for homesick teenagers, call the doctor or sometimes a midnight rickshaw dash to the 24 hour hospital pharmacy was needed.
India is a country of fantastic contrasts and contradictions. Extreme poverty lives alongside ridiculous wealth, slums alongside lavish tower blocks. It’s easy to be disillusioned, but I saw such generosity and warmth in every project we worked with. We visited orphanages and mobile crèches. After-school schemes that used the money they earnt to provide twice weekly meals, baths and lessons for street children. A women’s refuge started by a fearless woman in memory of her neighbour who had set fire to herself in sheer despair at the violence she suffered at the hands of her in-laws. There I spoke to women who had walked for days with no food, water or possessions to reach it, in the hope that they’d find a safe place. It all was so unbelievably humbling and I cried as much as I smiled.
But surprisingly, it was also fun. Ok, maybe apart from the stomach bug and the days we ran out of water due to local droughts – no showers and limited toilet flushing! But I truly loved every second of it and I made so many friends. My fellow volunteers (from Canada, Malaysia and New Zealand respectively) were fantastic girls who made my time there so bright and fun and at times far more bearable that it could have been. We created ridiculous in-jokes and a strange fasciation for a Bollywood actor called Amir Khan. There was 7am yoga and midnight viewings of awful cheesy Bollywood movies while eking out the very expensive imported Dairy Milk sold by the sweet shop down the road. And the colours and the noise, the constant power blackouts, the monsoon rain that we ran outside to dance in. These became a normal part of my days and weeks. After a while it was so easy to think that everyday things like arguing over a fare with a rickshaw driver and eating pistachio ice-cream in the searing heat were just part of my life. It was almost a surprise to speak to someone from home and remember being there as it felt so different and so far away.
There was such a wonderful sense of community in Pune, not just in the centre where the local ladies were like everyone’s aunties but in the local area, where in the evening the adults would sit outside the houses and chat while the children played. They would smile and wave and the children would follow us around. We would be invited to homes, have tea and sweets pressed upon us and asked endless questions. But always with love and a desire to welcome.
What was most surprising to me was just how much I learnt about myself in that time, clichéd though it may sound. I found the extremes of my joy and sadness in those months and the limits of myself. I once stayed up for 48 straight hours and then led an advocacy session on child trafficking. I once gave a tour of the local area in the pouring monsoon rain for 3 hours. I learnt that my singing voice maybe isn’t as bad as I thought. And maybe most importantly for me, that people listened to me and were interested in what I had to say. It was the biggest boost in self-esteem I’d ever had.
Leaving India was heart-wrenching. I cried my entire last morning, hugged everyone three to four times over and cried again for the first hour of the long journey back to Mumbai airport. It had felt so long and yet so unbearably brief. I’d made a life, even if temporary and came away far restored, better and more ‘me’ than I ever thought I could be. It upsets me to think that continuing visa issues mean I may never be able to go back to India. But ultimately I came away with so much that even if short, those few months were some of the most valuable and memorable of my life.