When I first got to Dharamshala to meet up with my FSL-India volunteer group, I had no idea what to expect. I had read about the culture and the project we would be working on, but nothing could have prepared me for the experience I would have during my stay there.
Dharamshala is so entirely different from my home, but the beautiful guest house in Dharamkot allowed me all the comforts of home, while also directly immersing me into a new culture and way of living. Our meals were hot and freshly made, and almost always consisted of traditional Indian dishes. We were also within walking distance of the main strips of local villages, making it easy to explore, shop and connect with the locals. The locals aren’t just people though; the villages were littered with the likes of monkeys, cows, goats and countless dogs and puppies. It made exploring town that much more exotic and intriguing. However, at work is where the real connections were made.
We were a group of ten volunteers, and each day, we walked 1 hour through the forest to the school where we bonded over laughter, sweat, tears, and a few bug bites. But most importantly, we bonded through hard work. In our 10 days of work at the school, we were able to build a retaining wall, teach a few English classes, do arts and crafts, play games, and paint the classrooms with murals. The days were long and the work was tiring, but there was no greater reward than to connect with the students. They wanted nothing more than to play and practise their English with us, and they were more than happy to share their space. It was an honour to play even just a small part in making their school a little safer, and a bit of a brighter place to learn. But the work didn’t just connect us with the children, it helped us to connect with each other as well.
Being far from home can be hard, but the friends I made through this work camp quickly began to feel like family. We shared each meal as a group and ended each night with a meeting to discuss our experiences for the day and how we were feeling. Our nights often lead us to one of the small cafés in town to hang out and have tea while discussing life, love, work and cultural differences. Though most of the volunteers spoke English only as a second or third language, we always found a way to understand each other and as a group, we learned from each other. We were able to plan weekend excursions together, leading us to visit the Golden Temple of Amritsar, shop in McLeod Ganj and even go paragliding in Bir Billing! Through our work at FSL-India, we were all able to make memories and create friendships that I am confident will last a lifetime.
Aside from adventuring, working at the school and checking out all the best spots for masala chai, our group also explored Indian and Tibetan cultures in ways we would not have been able to without our guide from FSL-India. We teamed up with Waste Warriors to learn more about the waste management issues throughout India and to volunteer to do a cleanup trek of the Bhagsu waterfall. We all felt so accomplished having helped to preserve the beauty of such a magical place. Waste Warriors also helped us to organize an up-cycling workshop with the kids from our work camp school. With their help, we created pencil cases, animal masks, and wonderful mosaics with the students, all using recycled materials! It was a powerful experience to contribute to a fresh mindset in the Indian youth and to help them look at recycling differently.
Learning about Tibetan culture was entirely different, but equally exciting. With our guide, we went on excursions to the Dalai Lama Temple, Tibet Museum, LHA Charitable Trust, The Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts, Tibetan Children’s Village, and the Norbulingka Institute. We were all humbled and changed by our experiences in each of these places, leaving us with a better understanding of the current social and political states of Tibet, and the hardships the Tibetan people have faced. We also developed an appreciation for all of the beauty and complexity that is Tibetan culture.
After 2 weeks of soaking in all of that, the trekking adventure was like a giant cherry on top of an already amazing trip. It was a great physical and mental challenge, but the payoff was beyond worth it. After 2 days of walking, climbing, sitting under the stars and camping out in a temple in the mountains, reaching Triund was a magnificent triumph. I can’t put into words the feeling of awe I felt on the third day when we reached the snow line of Triund. We sipped tea surrounded by bulls, clouds, and mountains, and exchanged our feelings of pure joy from all we had accomplished over the past 3 weeks. We spent 2 nights in a guest house at Triund, having dinners by candlelight and breathing the freshest air our lungs have ever felt.
When we returned to the guest house we had one last night together before the group started departing one by one. It’s still so bittersweet that the adventure has ended, but I am going home with an experience I would not trade for anything and with friends from 5 countries around the world. I know we will all see each other again, and I am hopeful to be able to return to Dharamshala again and contribute more to this diverse and magical place. Until next time though, my heart is happy and full of thanks to FSL-India and all the individuals I have met along the way. Thank you!