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Volunteer tourism is the new trend in travel: where you do social service on vacation!

As Volunteer Tourism gets popular, India’s French township of Auroville provides peace and quiet in exchange for jobs

brunch Updated: Sep 09, 2017 22:28 IST
Divya Rai
Vibrant art installations are a delight for volunteering visitors at Auroville
Vibrant art installations are a delight for volunteering visitors at Auroville (Divya Rai)

It is 5.50am and my father and I are on our two wheelers, heading towards the organic farm where we are volunteering in Auroville, the French township in Tamil Nadu.

At 6.10am, the coordinator tells us we need to pick rucula from the bed, segregate the heads after a quality check, and wash, weigh, pack and label it to be dispatched to the local prosperity system. My father, the coordinator, and I spend an hour hunched over the rucula bed. As we work, the coordinator tells us how voluntourism has changed the way people travel. Many digital-nomads (people with location-independent professions such as writing, coding, editing etc., who practice slow travel) have contributed to the farm in terms of website content and photos for an online presence. In exchange, the farm provides bed and breakfast for four hours of work in the fields.

Voluntourism is a great way to travel, but it also calls for tremendous discipline. To do physically exhausting work from 6am every day means late-night socialising goes for a toss. That’s why very few youngsters go for it. It requires the stability of a disciplined life even without fixed geographical coordinates.

After an hour, my father and I ready the harvest for dispatch. As I wash the leaves tub by tub, my father compares the ‘Indian kids’ ‘back home’ and the non-Asian youth who are working with us in the farm. The sun blazes down, and the day is getting hotter.

Such art installations can be spotted all over Auroville (Divya Rai)

Another hour-and-a-half, and we have neatly arranged 54 packets of rucula in a basket marked ‘dispatches’. In another hour, these packets will be on the retail shelf.

By now, my father is bored and fidgety. A farmer himself, this is something he has people to do for him at his farm. At 9am, a bell goes off and everyone rushes to the tool shed to deposit the equipment. Then we head for breakfast.

As we take our place on a ledge in the foyer, two girls sit opposite us. They are enthused because India seems safer than they’d been told it would be. Though they want to explore more of the country, they only have an Auroville visa, which is different from an Indian visa.

What is volunteer tourism?Also called Voluntourism, travellers participate in voluntary work while on holiday, typically for charity

Headed back to our guest house, we stop at the financial service centre to get our Auro-cards topped up. The Auro-card is the only mode of payment for most Auroville bodies. The township has had cashless economy for as long as I have known it.

Day of play

We reach the guest house and get ready for the day. Between 11am and 12.30pm, I sit at the Visitor’s Center Cafeteria. It has the fluffiest of idli, filter kaapi and good Internet connection. I am working on a story to be submitted to a publication in Delhi.

At Tanto’s pizzeria, they hand roll the base in front of you and ingredients are sourced from local farms (Divya Rai)

Visitor’s Center is the first contact point for people on a day trip to Auroville. It has shops with merchandise from entrepreneurs around the area, and information on the town.

By 12.30pm, I have used all the Internet I need for the day. I slot the remainder of work for the afternoon and head to the guest house for lunch. On my way back, I cross Tanto’s pizzeria, my favourite eatery. They hand roll the base in front of you, and almost all the ingredients are sourced from local farms.

At the guest house, my companion for the meal is a girl who is learning hatha yoga. She leaves for her class at 5am, and I don’t see her for dinner. She’s been living here for three months. We chat over our meal of spaghetti and nannari syrup, a local produce based on ayurveda.

“Indians take too many pictures!” says a non-Indian girl. “And send so many Facebook requests!”

Soon our other mealtime friend, an architect joins us. Post-lunch I take a nap, while others sit in the common area with their work. After my siesta, I finish the article I’m working on. My parents take off for Pondicherry, 7kms from Auroville. In the last two weeks, my parents have gone to theway more than I ever have in all my holidays at Auroville.

At 6pm, a friend calls to ask if I’d like to see her after her Capoeira class for a quick chai at Dinesh Dhaba. Before leaving my room, I slather on anti-mosquito cream for the fourth time this day. Others use a neem-oil concoction, but it is too hot for me to use oil.

I reach our designated place and a mini jam-session is in progress. An Indian student is excitedly making a video on his phone. “No videos please,” one of the two girls sitting ahead of me protests. The boy stops and is too taken aback to do anything for the next 15 minutes. This is the first time I’ve seen someone here more interested in recording the moment than actually living it.

“Indians take w-a-y too many pictures!” says one of the two girls to the other. “And send so many Facebook friend requests!” her friend rolls her eyes. They turn to look at me, smiling sheepishly. I smile back.

How to volunteer at Auroville
  • Go through SAVI (Auroville’s body for students, volunteers and interns). The application process is available at www.auroville.org. SAVI has details for both, informal and academic internships. It needs a commitment of minimum two months and the stay is charged according to your requirement of accommodation and facilities. September to February is the peak season for tourists, and you need to plan well in advance. The weather is warm and humid in these months; it often rains without warning. Auroville has almost negligible nightlife and it is so by design. Languages spoken are English, Tamil and French. Mode of payment for Auroville bodies is ‘Auro-card’, which is issued by the Financial Service Center.

Natural beauty

As I leave the dhaba, I see my parents riding past. We decide to see if we can have dinner at Solar Kitchen, which uses the sun’s energy to partly cook the food.

Food wastage is a big no at the Solar Kitchen (Divya Rai)

A table at Solar Kitchen needs to be booked in advance. They take food wastage very seriously: after you are done eating, you bin the leftovers in a trash can, which is then placed on a weighing scale that tells you how much food you have wasted. If you are dubious about a particular food item, they encourage you to try a small quantity first. I am in two minds about the potato and pumpkin soup, and the server offers a quarter of the original quantity. I am glad because it isn’t something I fancy, but I do not have leftover food.

After dinner, my parents and I leave for a play called Water (an English translation of a classic Tamil play, Thanneer, Thanneer).

At the venue, there is a lot of VIP security, which is quite un-Auroville-like. Sure, Lt. Governor Kiran Bedi is the chief guest, but it’s unusual. A VIP or chief guest does not fit into the ethos of Auroville.

After the play, my parents want to watch a film, but I yawn as a reply. Clearly, I’ve grown way older than my parents who are both 60+ and are able to pack much more in their day than I can. It is 9.15pm, and w-a-y past our bedtime by Auroville standard time.

The Brunch Insider’s View
  • If you are looking for a nice place for a complete rejuvenating and relaxing experience then head to the Quiet Healing Centre. It is a place where you will be able to discover a deep sense of contentment, happiness and peace. (Source: Trip Advisor)
  • The Matrimandir in Auroville is a must-visit for parctitioners of Internal yoga. Known as the
  • Temple of The Mother, it was built over 37 years. It was initiated by The Mother of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram. (Source: Lonely Planet)
  • Those who are fans of good dark chocolate, must surely pay a visit to Mason & Co. From here you can take your pick from flavours like espresso and coconut. These are made using organically-grown cocoa as well as cocoa butter from local farms. (Source: Conde Nast Traveller)

On our way back, we hear a drum-jam session at the African Pavilion. We stop for a little while to enjoy the delightful music; we feel so alive. I sit on a log of wood. Ten minutes later, someone taps me on the shoulder. I need to get up. They need the ‘musical instrument’ I am sitting on.

Finally, we head back. The night is cool, calm and alive with croaking of frogs. Auroville is magnificently washed in moonlight and solitude; the moment seems like a blessing from the universe.

Some great voluntourism options in India

Sadhana Village: Situated near Pune, this project is dedicated to residential and educational care of disabled children and empowerment of rural women. Log on to http://sadhana-village.org

Sikkim Himalayan Academy: This one’s ideal for those who love working with students. Volunteer at this free residential school for underprivileged kids who come from remote mountain areas of Sikkim. For more details, access http://www.sikkimhimalayanacademy.org

Spiti Ecosphere: Take your pick from physical labour to cultural learning here. Participate in a greenhouse project, construct a solar passive structure or experience life as a local in the Spiti Valley. Check out http://www.spitiecosphere.com

The author is a freelance food photographer and a travel blogger. She has a special love for slow travel and off-beat destinations. She dreams of having a small place of her own in the hills some day.

From HT Brunch,September 10, 2017

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