A LIFETIME HIGHLIGHT
My 5 ½ months spent as a volunteer in India will always be a highlight of my not-unadventurous 80 years.
In 2014 I felt it was time for a volunteering challenge and searched the internet for something suitable. The answer came when I brought up the Raphael website, which spelt out a series of challenges – foreign travel,
work with people with a variety of disabilities, a different language and diet – ideal I thought!
Ignoring the well-meant objections which some of my friends came up with (too many challenges, too late in life etc.) I applied for a placement from July to mid-December and was approved after the usual checks. I noted with pleasure that no fees were payable, as is sometimes the case when volunteer agencies are involved.
Because of my age and an existing medical condition travel insurance was difficult to secure but I eventually found a company willing to insure me, albeit at a fairly high cost. The only other costs involved were flights, and a very reasonable monthly amount for board and lodging.
My flight to Dehradun was uneventful and I fortunately avoided the ingenious scams developed by unscrupulous locals to relieve unsuspecting tourists of their cash. Although the journey went well I felt tired when I arrived after having travelled continuously for 25 hours.
I arrived at Raphael towards the end of the monsoon season. The beauty of monsoons is that the rain takes up all the weather’s energy so there is none left to produce wind and umbrellas work extremely well. On the evening of my arrival I was treated to a two-hour tropical display of incessant vivid lightning accompanied by percussive thunder and solid sheets of rain. Once the rains stopped in late August the weather was constantly perfect with a maximum of 26 degrees Celsius every day.
Raphael is set among trees on a 9.3 hectare site on the outskirts of the city of Dehradun in the state of Uttarakhand in northern India. Dehradun has a variety of stores and bazaars and a local store near Raphael stocks a wide variety of western goods and there is an ATM nearby.
All road users seem completely crazy but each respects the others’ craziness, so you are at risk only if you act sanely. It took me some time to work out that drivers don’t give way to the right or the left – it’s a case of first in, best dressed. An Indian friend explained that in any case, the road laws in his country are generally advisory only
Accommodation for Raphael volunteers consists of four comfortable self-contained double bedrooms (bathroom attached) with a communal kitchen and mess area. Raphael employees prepare all meals in the kitchen. The cuisine is vegetarian but there is good variety and some of the meals are western.
You are given a choice of which area you would like to work in while at Raphael but it can take some time to come to a decision.
I started in the sheltered workshop but decided after a couple of weeks I could contribute more in the computer and photographic areas. One resident with cerebral palsy had been given a laptop computer by a donor so I helped her to become familiar with its operation. I also helped teachers with their new tablet computers and wrote a manual on their use. I archived Raphael’s photographic collection, following which I produced a photographic staff directory to help new volunteers identify staff. I also took a number of photographs of staff and residents to fit a variety of needs.
In most of these activities I was involved with staff and residents, and I was very impressed by the dedication of the staff and the cheerfulness of residents despite some high degrees of disability, both physical and intellectual.
The other volunteers undertook a wide range of tasks. Some helped out in the sheltered workshop while others assisted teachers in the Raphael school.
Volunteers are highly regarded at Raphael. They broaden the experience of residents and provide valued assistance to professional staff. Often close friendships are formed.
I was fortunate to be able to head off on two occasions with Raphael’s Community-Based Rehabilitation Team and wrote an article on it accompanied by photographs. In addition I wrote an article about my experiences at Raphael and produced a presentation to be used to promote volunteering at the centre.
During my travels with the team I met Akash Rawatan, an intellectually impaired 24-year-old who lives with his parents Urmila and Ramesh in the suburb of Badowala. Akash was quite excited about his wedding the following day to a girl from the city of Srinigar, some five hours’ drive away. The marriage was arranged by the parents although the couple have met only once and their main contact has been over the telephone. After the wedding the couple will live with Akesh’s parents and his two brothers.
Akash works at the village petrol station. Raphael staff trained him in money-handling, enabling him to obtain work paying 4000 rupees ($A74) a month – close to the minimum full-time wage.
We volunteers were able to travel to a number of tourist venues around Dehradun including the important Hindu cities of Rishikesh and Haridwar on the Ganges and also an important Tibetan Buddhist monastery at nearby Clement Town.
However the undoubted highlight of my stay was when seven of us went on a five-day guided tour of major tourist attractions in the Delhi/Agra/Jaipur regions. The tour was arranged by the Ryder-Cheshire Overseas Volunteers’ Coordinator and took place during the five-day national holiday period of Diwali, when Raphael virtually closes down.
The tour covered a variety of famous sights such as the Taj Mahal, Gandhi’s memorial and the spectacular 13-storied Chand Baorti step well in Rajasthan which reminded me greatly of an Escher etching. During the trip a mother and daughter in our group were able to achieve their bucket wish of an elephant ride.
Both at Raphael and while travelling we had to keep firmly in mind the danger of drinking the local water. It is estimated that around 37.7 million Indians are affected by water-borne diseases annually and 1.5 million children are estimated to die of diarrhoea alone. Bottled water is the only way to go.
Another problem is the ever-present smog, which smells like rancid cooking oil. Medical scientists have estimated that smog reduces life expectancy by one month for each year a person spends in Delhi. So, it was with a degree of relief that we returned to Raphael’s forested site where the air is a lot cleaner and the water in the mess is safely filtered.
It was with genuine regret that I left Raphael and the many friends I made there, but one last pleasure awaited me.
Before returning to Australia I spent a week taking photographs in the hill station town of Mussoorie, located in the foothills of the Himalayas. The hotel is situated at a height of just over 2 km above sea level. To take photographs of the snow-capped peaks I travelled by taxi to a height of 2.6 km. The views were spectacular and I spent hours with the viewfinder glued to my eye.
Since my return the photographs I took during my stay have helped to refresh my memories of a wonderful experience.
There are many things you will find to criticise in India, but the lasting impression is of a colourful and intelligent race who have a lot to teach the world, especially when it comes to religious tolerance.
Volunteering at Raphael is an experience I can recommend to anyone.
For a full understanding of Raphael’s invaluable contribution to Indian people with disabilities I suggest you visit the web site http://www.raphael-ryder-cheshire.org/ where you will find descriptions of the various areas of possible volunteer involvement.