My first experience in India
My relationship with India began many years ago in 2009. After taking a gap year, I came back to Australia and decided I did not want to go to university yet, as I really had no idea what I wanted to do. So I decided to travel some more and work that out – starting with a two month volunteering stint in rural India.
After a two-day whirlwind tour of Delhi including losing my luggage, being scammed by the first rickshaw driver I saw and getting lost in the markets for three hours, I was ready to get on the first plane home. But then we left the city for the beautiful state of Rajasthan and I understood the hype of Incredible India.
After two months of living and teaching English in a rural school outside Udaipur, I was hooked. The sights, sounds and smells of India had tempted me back (basically every cliché about the place came true!) This time also solidified my want to work in the development sector and gave me the direction to want to work for a non-profit, which I took home with me.
Working with Atma in Mumbai
Following another year and a half of gallivanting around the world, I finally went to university to undertake a Bachelor of International Studies. I chose the course primarily for its internship component, through which I could gain academic credit by working at a Non-Government Organisation (NGO).
When it came time to do my internship, I found just the right place to do it, at Atma, an education NGO in Mumbai. Instead of just teaching in the class room, I learnt how an NGO works, what goes into the day-to-day operations of an effective organisation, and how it can grow and change the community around it.
Luckily, after four months of volunteering, an opportunity opened up on the Atma staff just as I was getting ready to head back to Australia. I work as the Volunteer Manager at Atma, which means I am in charge of recruiting skilled and experienced people to come work with us in Mumbai. It involves a lot of grunt work, creating tie ups with universities and corporates, a lot of interviews with potential candidates, as well as helping with the volunteers’ lives when they get to Mumbai. I’ve slept on couches in hospitals with sick volunteers, held hands while trying to get onto a peak hour train for the first time and negotiated deals about curfews with landladies. But most importantly, I’ve had the chance to work with some of the best people from all corners of the globe.
How to get the most out of working in India
India is not so much about what you know, but who you know. You should join all the groups that you possibly can and work on that network before you even step foot in the country. There are so many expat groups, housing groups, and exercise groups on Facebook that you could already have a house, friends circle and local gym sorted before you even get here!
There are of course a lot of people that will try to take advantage of the fact that you are a foreigner – brokers, agents – basically any sort of ‘go between person’ but you learn quite quickly who to trust and associate with. Again, having a good network of friends and colleagues around you that can get you through these hassles and recommend a good restaurant after it’s all done.
The joys of Mumbai
When it comes to Mumbai, there is no sugar coating. It is a city of extremes. From the moment I step outside my front door I am accosted by the constant honking of rickshaws, the stares of passersby and the smells of the open sewers. But I’m also swept away by the beauty of every woman strolling down the road in a strikingly coloured saree, the smell of fresh chai being handed out to all the rickshaw wallahs, the gorgeous weather (except maybe during monsoon) and the feeling of constant buzz and energy that engulfs this city.
Nowhere in all my travels have I seen things like I have experienced in Mumbai. The abject poverty that abounds throughout the city exists right next door to 5-star hotels and million-dollar apartments. You can be at the fanciest bar in the city, watching the sunset from the balcony in the distance then look down to see the vast blue tarpaulin covered landscape of sprawling slums. It shouldn’t work, it really shouldn’t, but for some unknown reason, it does. I’ve been disgusted at myself for shooing away or just ignoring beggars. I’ve also never been happier than seeing a little kid smile because I did something as simple as giving him a wave and a smile from my morning rickshaw ride.
Mumbai is never dull and having the chance to work there, I can’t imagine calling anywhere else home.
Check out our articles on the opportunity for you to volunteer with Atma