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A working holiday
(From top): Volunteer tourists ride through Rajasthan with Relief Riders International; Fabio Cavilli with the children of Pestolozzi School at Dehradun; a CCS volunteer with children at Vidya, an NGO in Delhi; an i-to-i volunteer with underprivileged children in Bangalore

It might have been mistaken for an exotic scene from the colonial era. A posse of foreigners riding on horseback through the heart of the Thar Desert. The small team cantered over sand dunes and slowed down as it came to the dusty villages along the way. As they passed through, they waved to the villagers who’d lined up to watch their progress into the wilderness.

The riders on horseback hadn’t returned to India to re-live a colonial past. They were holidaymakers on a mission of mercy. They’d signed up with a group called Relief Riders International (RRI) and their objective was to make a difference in remote Rajasthan villages. So they helped conduct medical camps, donated educational material and gifted goats to poor families.

Cross the country to South India. Here, British travel company i-to-i is taking a small group sightseeing even as they teach and help with reconstruction work in some of the worst-hit tsunami villages.

Or move to Than Gaon, a tiny village near Dehradun. Here, you’ll encounter tourists like communications major Jennifer Anderson and high school teacher Luke Reynolds of Connecticut, and Nora Hutchinson and Josh Welner, students from Montreal. The couples are on a service learning experience offered by Mumbai-based India Study Abroad Center (ISAC). That means that they’re volunteering and taking classes in yoga and naturopathy.

Welcome to a new way of experiencing the world - and, of course, India. These are holidays for people who’ve had enough of sightseeing or lounging on the beach. They want to understand different cultures and make a contribution while doing it.

Says Colin Carpenter, managing director of Australian travel company, Antipodeans Abroad, “Travellers are seeking a deeper level of communication with ordinary people. They don’t necessarily want museums and monuments, they want access to small communities and want to feel that they can offer their services in some way.”

So volunteer tourism or voluntourism ' also called meaningful tourism ' is gaining ground with both travel companies and non-profit organisations stepping into this niche.

Take RRI, founded by Alexander Souri in 2004. It was while dealing with the loss of his Indian father in 2002 ' his mother is French ' that the film professional, who’s done the special effects for films like The Matrix, began to think about how he could help villagers in remote Rajasthan.

Souri launched his first ride in October 2004 after tying up with the Indian Red Cross Society and a horse outfitter. Six riders travelled 200km over 15 days to five villages in the Shekhawati region. “It was incredible. I couldn’t believe that my idea had actually come to fruition,” he recalls.

Since then, Souri has conducted two rides a year with 10-12 riders per tour. This February, he expanded the medical camp to provide free cataract surgeries to 87 villagers. “We are focusing heavily on eye surgery now,” he says, and plans to conduct 600 eye surgeries in 2006-07. Plus, he will add a third ride ' a New Year’s one costing $6,300 (minus airfare) against $5,950 for the others.

The desert adventure isn’t just attracting young people. RRI’s riders have included investment bankers, single moms and even seniors. Like Barbara Jenkel, 65. “Every five years, I try to take an adventure vacation that will challenge me,” says Jenkel, a full-time volunteer in US. Barbara certainly had “a once-in-a-lifetime experience” in Rajasthan. “As a volunteer I was rewarded equally, if not more, than those I was serving,” she says.

Volunteering to work abroad isn’t new in the West. Most famously, there is the Peace Corps which take Americans to poorer countries. And students commonly take a gap year between high school and university to travel. But in recent years, companies like Cross-Cultural Solutions (CCS), Antipodeans Abroad and i-to-i have arisen to meet the demand for shorter volunteer assignments.

Take CCS, a non-profit founded by Steven Rosenthal in the US. In India, he teamed up with Bela Singh, a therapist and NGO veteran. “We didn’t know anything about volunteering but we had our heart in the right place,” recalls Singh.

Today, CCS runs 13 programmes a year in Delhi and Dharamsala. And compared to 1,000 volunteers last year, Singh expects to place 1,500 this year. CCS has tied up with NGOs, where it places volunteers based on their skills and the NGO’s requirements. Three-week placements cost around $2,400 (minus airfare). Volunteers range from students to working and retired people.

Like occupational therapist Corinne Slade from USA, who runs a brain injury rehabilitation business, and her husband, a colon and rectal surgeon, who spent three weeks in Delhi with an NGO for disabled people. Now, close to retirement, Slade feels that “volunteering would be a way we could travel, share our skills and learn more about different cultures”.

Meanwhile i-to-i, which began by placing English language teachers overseas, has expanded to offer “meaningful tours” in eight countries. Six months ago, it introduced its South India tour, costing $2,595, though it entered India eight years ago with volunteer placements. “It has really grown now,” says Asha Dey, i-to-i’s India coordinator. Today, i-to-i gets over 30 volunteers a month across Bangalore, Calcutta, Shantiniketan, Darjeeling and Jaipur. Now, it is expanding to Delhi, and also plans to conduct one tour a month. Almost 95 per cent of i-to-i’s customers are students.

Colin Carpenter of Antipodeans Abroad; (below) Alexander Souri of Relief Riders International

For instance,there’s Jennifer Allsopp, 19, from England, who spent four months teaching in Calcutta and Jaipur last year. A whistle-stop tour at 16 inspired her to return and “really experience this country for myself, not to merely see the so-called ‘highlights’ through the glass of another air-conditioned coach”.

Professionals too are taking career breaks to volunteer. Take market researcher Richard Woods from UK, 40, who spent four months at a day care centre in Tangra, Calcutta. Now he says, “I’m considering re-training as a teacher.”

Antipodeans Abroad too started by taking student leadership expeditions to Gangtok and Manali. It launched gap year programmes last year. This year, Carpenter has launched two Detours Abroad for adults at Pestolozzi School in Dehradun and Than Gaon in partnership with ISAC. “We see the Detours Abroad programmes having an increasing appeal,” says Carpenter. It is certainly drawing Aussies like Fabio Cavilli, who owns an engineering company, and spent a month at Pestolozzi School. “I wanted to give back something to the world and thought the best way would be to help children,” he says. Now, he has sponsored two Tibetan children to the school.

Others are also entering the segment. Like Andrew and Sarah Yalland’s Different Travel Company of UK, which plans to launch “responsible tours” in India next year. Says Andrew, “The future lies in the kind of travel we are advocating.”

Similarly, companies like ISAC also reckon that ‘service learning experiences’ are on the rise. Says ISAC’s CEO Safeena Husain, “A vacation is no longer about seeing sights but about bettering yourself today.” So Reynolds believes his stint at Than Gaon will help him “become a better teacher in America”. Husain, who first started learning experiences for medical students at Children Family Health International in San Francisco, decided to replicate this when she returned to India two years ago. Today, ISAC brings 200 medical students to India. Besides, it offers teaching experiences at Dehradun, Than Gaon and Rishikesh. On a slightly different note, it also has a film learning experience in Bollywood. Of course, volunteer vacations aren’t all smooth sailing. Local communities are sceptical and volunteers too get frustrated. But some visitors are philosophical and understand there are limits to what they can achieve. Law student Josh Welner admits that he doesn’t expect “to make a big difference” and is happy “learning what I can while I’m here”. Recounts Adam Watkins, 25, who volunteered at Bangalore charity, Arivu, “Indian Stretchable Time became a way of life after a while. But to begin with, trying to organise things was stressful.”

Admits i-to-i’s Dey, “The volunteers feel they are going to change the world, which is a misconception. But they do make a difference because they open up the world for these children.” For instance, Singh recalls how a student was inspired by a marine engineer volunteer to enroll in an engineering school.

It’s not as though volunteers don’t have regular tourist experiences. Hutchinson, for instance, says teaching at Than Gaon is as challenging as navigating around Delhi. She says, “It was exciting to go out on your own and experience the unease and also to have this organised programme. I definitely want both experiences.” And that’s exactly what a volunteervacation allows.

Photograph of Alex Souri and RRI by Preeti Verma Lal; CCS photograph courtesy Cross-Cultural Solutions

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