“Do not think that love, in order to be genuine, has to be extraordinary. What we need is to love without getting tired.” – Mother Teresa
Volunteering makes the heart grow larger and fonder and enriches a Big Trip travel experience. In my opinion, I think it should be a part of every Big Trip. There’s everything to gain like helping others, learning about another culture, being invited into witness how things are instead from the viewfinder view of the tourist trail. And there’s so much to lose when volunteering as well: stereotypes, hardness in one’s heart, and expectations on how things “should” be.
I’ve volunteered several times on my first India Big Trip and when I look back at the pictures and read the blog entries, I can feel my heart swell and they are my fondest memories. My inspiration to volunteer at the Mother Teresa Mission Charities came in two ways: One from my cousin Wendy, who had volunteered in the home for the dying, and in the book Volunteer Vacations. I’d wanted my first India trip to be about opening my heart and how perfect would the Mother Teresa charities be in doing that.
Before my Big Trip, I went to research on how to actually sign up to volunteer and I only found things like “just show up” and “arrive at the Mother House between 3 and 3:30 on Monday.” Well, the planner in me was not having any of that, but that’s actually was the case. Thankfully, there was something for my brain to grab onto in planning, which I found with a little detective work. The Mother Teresa web site has details on volunteering, but not all the logistics.
How to Volunteer at Mother Teresa Mission Charities
- Get to Kolkata. You don’t make any prior arrangements. No one needs to know that you are coming, just show up. I recommend by train, but there are also buses from Darjeeling that can get you there. Loooong bus rides.
- Take a taxi to Sudder Street. I highly recommend, that if arriving by train, to take a pre-paid taxi from the station. I believe the ride was about 200 RS. Since Sudder Street is a highly touristy area, the hawking cab drivers will try to get much more money out of you.
- Find a place to stay. I stayed in two hotels during my eight days there. Hotel Maria was awful – it was also only 250 RS a night. The Salvation Army hotel is gone, despite what the Lonely Planet says. Hotel Diplomat was much much better. They are both backpacker dives, but Hotel Diplomat was very clean and had a TV and was 400 RS a night at the time for five nights. The staff was very helpful and when I came down with a cold (from Hotel Maria’s dank dark rooms), I healed while President Obama win the 2008 election.
- Go to the Mother House – everyone on Sudder Street knows where it is – at one of these times (check the official web site in case this is out of date).
- Orientation and Registration at 3 p.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Address is Nirmala Shishu Bhavan (Home for Children), 78, A.J.C. Bose Road, Kolkata – 700016
- Bring your passport and talk to people from many other places.
- You’ll get an overview of the seven or eight different places to volunteer in the Mission Charities and the nuns will give you all the start times. Sundays are off and you can show up as you want. I signed up for Shanti Dan, a home for about 300 developmentally disabled women.
- Sign up for a place to volunteer and then begin the next day.
What to expect each day:
Every morning I arrived at the house for breakfast at around 7 or 7:30. The volunteers and sisters served us bananas, tea and bread and then we gathered for a prayer. I’m not religious anymore, so I kind of forgot about the whole Catholic aspect to this. But I prayed nonetheless to bring the good vibes. There’s no organized anything after this part of the volunteering experience. Transportation is as you can get it. I found others who were going to Shanti Dan and we took a public bus and a rickshaw to get there. I highly recommend finding other people who have been there a while and following them. I did it on my own one day with another newbie and we were lost lost lost. She ended up paying an extortion fee of a 100RS to a taxi driver to get us there on time.
Once at the Shanti Dan house, there were no plans, no agenda, just the other volunteers expertise on what to do for the three hours at Shanti Dan. The complex is clean, the women well taken care of, especially give that there’s no other alternative for their lives other than compassionate family members. The more able ones run a laundry on the top floor and the others hang out around the courtyard. I learned over the week that the first order of business is making beds, and the second is entertaining the ladies. Bring nail clippers and nail polish, lotion to apply, and crayons and coloring books. The latter meant that I had a nice little art time going with six or so ladies throughout the week. Another volunteer commented that I looked very happy when I was showing them how to color.
By the end of my week there, I was an old pro and introducing the new volunteers – three Japanese girls – how to manage time and get to know the ladies. I only stayed eight days, but some women stayed three months making Kolkata their home. I loved Kolkata the city and used the day off and the afternoons to walk around it, eating only street food and taking pictures of the daily life. I also finished the book A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry and it came alive while there because I could see the city type that he described so beautifully.
The best way to volunteer and get around is talk to other volunteers and be very loose. Have no expectations, but realize you are doing good and by showing up and making the most of your time there, you are helping. The cost is free to volunteer, there is no administration to cover or housing fees. You are free to volunteer at the houses you choose.
- Volunteer Vacations: Short-Term Adventures That Will Benefit You and Others
- Mother Teresa Mission Charities Web Site
- Hotel Diplomat on Sudder Street
- Seattle University’s Volunteer Guide. I downloaded this guide from their site and cannot refind the link. Here’s the original document. Their copyrighted, material not mine. I’m posting it because I can’t find it on their web site.
- NYTimes article on volunteering at Mother Teresa Mission Charities
Help in Planning a Trip to India
- Check out my Planning a Trip to India in 11 Easy Steps: There are many more links to Indian blogs and advice on planning a trip to India.
- Is it safe for a woman to travel alone in India? I found it was, but I definitely had to change my behavior to be less open than I am used to the states. This article from a blog called Genderbytes on safety tips, while alarmist in tone, is actually very accurate in some basic things to keep in mind to stay safe.