This post is written by our Volunteer Robyn Kurdas putting her experience of volunteering with our traditional Medicine program to words.
I was 18 and stuck in the suburbs, holding on to a dream that had haunted me everyday: a dream to live in India.
I’ve been stuck in the suburbs of Chicago my whole life. Always feeling like I was different, an outcast to my peers because my ideas of a successful life never followed the standard of the classic ‘American Dream.’ I never longed for a car, a house or a family. My dreams lied somewhere beyond the sea. I had always imagined myself traveling, experiencing new places and things, becoming one with people of different cultures and perspectives on the world. I was curious, so I sought my answers in books, studying different religions, philosophies, and art. I became enthralled by the history of India. It was then that I knew that that was the place for me.
As the hard worker, I am, I slowly saved up all my money and sold most of my belongings until I was legally eligible for my parents to decline on my decision to not matter. I was ready to take that leap to pursue my dreams and I was willing to do anything to get it. Of course, I took into mind that this was a completely foreign country and I would have absolutely no idea what I was doing. I came to the conclusion that the best way for me to start on this journey was to meet people that I could stay with until I was backed up with enough knowledge to get me on my feet. I figured I would need a good support once I got to India, meet people who would show me the ropes and be there for me if I ever needed them. So I looked online and decided to do volunteer work for a month.
This is when I found Volunteer in India. Every program I looked into seemed to be so great! It simply didn’t matter to me where I went and I could tell that anywhere I’d go I would find fulfillment in what I was doing. I sent along my application, listing all my accomplishments thus far; background in Oriental medicine and massage therapy, working at a yoga studio, etc. Keeping an open mind, I told them that anywhere they needed me would be fine. They ended up placing me in a perfect program in Kannur, Kerala. Little did I know, at the time, that this place would offer me more opportunity than I could ever imagine. I saved up some more and by my 19th birthday, it was official. My one-way ticket had been bought and all my friends, family, classmates and co-workers couldn’t be more happy for me. I was on my way to “Gods own Country” to work with different Gurukuls and learn Ayurveda (ancient Indian medicine).It didn’t really hit me that I was leaving until I got the last glimpse of my parents crying as I walked down the terminal. I was armed with all the information I needed to get me to where I needed to go and who I was to contact if things went awry. As I watched the mountains float below me and the fireworks shoot into the sky on the plane (it was the 1st of January), I listened to a local from Mangalore speak to me of Keralas richness— my excitement was building.
Everything was so incredibly easy when I got off the plane. My passport was checked, polite workers helped me find my bag and a nice man was waiting for me outside in the darkness at about 2 am. He took me on a raging ride around the city of Bangalore— already I had a feeling that India was nowhere near what I could have even imagined. I stayed in a little suburb of Bangalore for a couple of days at the Lovedale Foundation which was another volunteer program. I had to wait for the holidays to be over because the buses didn’t run at this time. That didn’t matter much to me, this place was fantastic. The families barely spoke any English but they were so incredibly welcoming. I never ran out of hot chai and felt like a movie star with all the pictures they requested to take with me. I walked up and down the streets admiring the beauty of this small town. I can still remember even the smallest details from the way the local church hung its cross and the silly paintings of cartoons on the school wall. These were the first days I spent in India and already I had made a friend. He was a local pastor and we got to talking about all the things I loved like religion and culture. I was sad to leave so soon but at the same time, I was excited to see what awaited me in Kannur.
Everything was set, I had my bus ticket to Kannur and managed to figure out which bus was mine. It wasn’t very full and the seats were comfortable, the only problem was the bumpy ride! I can’t remember if it was that ride that kept me up all night or my sheer excitement as I stared out the window watching the city lights turn into rolling hills of palm trees. After about 10 hours I had finally arrived— though I wasn’t entirely sure of it. Luckily for me, a kind looking man popped his head in the parked (and now empty) bus and said, “Robyn? Robyn?” My ears perked and I jumped up, “HI!” I yelped. He took me to get some chai and we walked over to a cute yellow car (a.k.a an auto rickshaw). The sun was just rising yet I had been so drowsy that my head was falling over as he invited me inside. I passed out on a bed and was awoken several hours later by the sweet smell of coconuts and quite a laughter. I was introduced to the other volunteers; Petra from Germany and Josh from Australia. I was told there were two other women at a homestead down the road, staying with a Yogi named Sri and his family. Their names were Shana and Avery and they were from Canada. I quickly became acquainted with all the volunteers and the host family I was to stay with. Ranjit and his wife Katja were the coordinators of the program and Ranjits parents lived below them. I was moved into a small room with two beds and within a couple of days I got a roommate from the USA’s Florida, her name was Jessica and we quickly became good friends. We shared our gifts that we brought from the States like magazines, picture books, and classic American foods. They were so delighted and entertained by everything we gave them and we were so happy to see them enjoy the gifts throughout our stay.
That very same day I arrived, Katja took me on a tour of the town. She showed me where I was to get my bus to the Gurukuls practice, where to buy the best food, where to eat the best ice-cream and where the beautiful Payambalam beach was located. We walked around the beach, watching people ride the camels and talked about how she met Ranjit when she came to India from Germany and how life was like living in a Kannur. I quickly found out that, yes; there are cows all over the streets, you may get Delhi belly (diarrhea), there is a lot of garbage but you shouldn’t add to it, the water is from a well so you should sanitize it, there are no screens so be prepared with something when you sleep, they eat with only their right hand with no silverware, and yes, the left hand is used to wipe their butts! For the first few days, I trailed along the other travelers in the program, making mental notes on how to get around, what to wear and what to say. I caught on quickly to the Indian ‘head wobble’ and learned words like namaskarum (hello in Malayalam) and Nani (thank you) that I used almost too much. When I finally got the hang of routine I felt a sense of pride and joy.
Every morning before I headed out to one of the first Gurukuls I was to work with, I would take a walk with Ranjit and Katjas cute dogs and admire the colorful cement homes and Indian architecture. I would eat one of Katja’s many delicious home recipes like banana sandwiches with coconut crisps or her modified version of pancakes. I never left unsatisfied! When it was time for me to head out I would sometimes be greeted by a man named JuJu who worked with the volunteer group and would take me on his motorbike across town. Every time it was so exhilarating, swerving in and out of traffic, flying over the bridge that connected the two sides of a vast lake. It was incredible to leave all your cares and worries behind just to enjoy the pure adrenaline rush brought by the maze of the amazing view. When we arrived we would place ourselves in the back of the room to observe the Gurukuls work as he would set bones and wrap up wounds. We watched as he would mix his own medicines, herbal compresses and charge hardly anything to grateful patients. He would have us bend down and palpate for ourselves to get a sense of the damage done on particular people that suffered from biking accidents or labor intensive jobs. He gave us the opportunity to bandage the wounded and massage those with back pain. He barely spoke any English but I was able to communicate well with him on everything I knew about Chinese theories and Thai bodywork. We were so excited that we could bond over these connections that I quickly gained his trust and respect. He would let me work alone with certain patients, treating them with massage and working with any women that came in. I was so blessed to have met such a generous and hardworking man to teach me so much through little words.
After several hours of work and a traditional Keralan meal, we would go back home to learn more about the theories and practice of Ayurveda. Juju would teach us how to give oil massage which was fast pace and super messy! It was the first time I had ever gotten an Ayurvedic treatment before but I fell in love immediately. Other days we spent learning a sequence of assisted yoga stretching acupressure that was similar to what I learned in school.
Only there were some moves I had never seen before and techniques I couldn’t wait to use. Sometimes were spent with Ranjit, learning how to shave a coconut and prepare fresh coconut oil or make herbal extracts through an intense heating process. Before we sat down to have dinner, we got to practice yoga and wind down from a long day. We were taught about the importance of breath (pranayama) and posture. We learned sun salutation and other sequences and always closed out with a little laughing therapy—which, as you can imagine, was always fun.
Being a vegan was not hard at all in India. Katja always found a way to scavenge up a perfectly delectable meal. We would go out to the grocery store and buy more specialty items such as tissues (because they don’t have toilet paper in every bathroom in India) and trail mixes which I took with me everywhere. Katja also helped me with getting a Sim card for my cell phone which made my trip a bit easier to document and stay in touch with people at home (there’s no wifi anywhere). I liked to go shopping with the girls at a local fashion store where we were treated like princesses. Tens of girls would gather around us and ask if they could help or select breathtaking saris and tunic dresses for us to try on. It was a little intimidating at first but we realized that this kind of treatment was standard and something to embrace as tourists. We would leave with bags of fabric and walk down to a seamstress who would take our measurements and have the outfits ready within a few days.
Meanwhile, I started working with another Gurukul who was a master at Kalari (an ancient form of Indian martial arts). He was an older gentleman that spoke no English but Juju was by my side to translate. I would scribble down notes of everything he said and asked as many questions as I could think of. We discussed the connection of all things and the importance of energy and prayer. He got up and showed me certain Kalari stances and moves then dismiss us to continue the lesson for the next day. As a week went by with him I was then told I was to be working with another Gurukul: a traveling Gurukul. This man would come and pick me up bright and early every morning and we would ride around on his motorbike, with his medicine bag in the back. He stopped at three different patients houses. Each patient had suffered from some sort of nervous system damage such as stroke. I got to put all my knowledge and experience from the previous weeks to give full body oil massages and head massage. When we were finished, the families would offer us coconut water or snacks of some sort and we would munch and talk about his work. I truly admired what he was doing to help these people. They weren’t incredibly well off and their loved ones were clearly suffering. However, you could tell that this daily treatment was working as they described the state they had been in before they sought this man’s help. It was so heartbreaking to watch them in pain but all the same so heartwarming to give back to those in need. Even after he dropped me off after a few hours, he would continue his services well into the night. I had a lot of respect for that man.
When the weekend came we would all gather on the roof of the homestead and talk about what we wanted to do. See the coffee plantations of Coorg? Visit the wildlife of Wayanad? Go parasailing on the ocean? There were so many options to choose from and Ranjit and Katja would plan it all out for us so we needn’t worry. One weekend we went high up on the hills and hiked all around and down into a jungle where we stopped to have lunch. Another weekend we traveled to Wayanad, our trip being interrupted by rattle snakes and a slew of monkeys on the way. That weekend we stayed in a gorgeous hotel that sat high amongst a collection of trees. A stream ran below and we would watch as hundreds of white butterflies trailed and swirled in a perfect line just above the ripples of the water. It was so peaceful, a place I’ll never forget.
As my stay was drawing to an end, other volunteers left and new ones came in. It was time for me to decide what I was going to do next. Ranjit and I got to talking about my growing love for Ayurveda and my growing talent. He suggested I go to a school to actually study the art more. I was so enthralled with this idea that we took a day off to travel around the town and check out all the local schools. Once I found the perfect one he helped me find a place to stay and the rest is history! I am so indebted to Volunteer in India for giving me an experience of a lifetime and bringing so many amazing people into my life. I know I will forever remember the generosity of Ranjit for helping me take my next steps towards a successful future and Katja for her kindness and guidance. The family I stayed with were so welcoming and caring and the other volunteers were inspiring and now life-long friends. I hope to someday return to the beautiful state of Kerala and give back all they gave to me.
Volunteer in India gave me all the tools I needed to assure a safe and enjoyable stay. I would recommend this program to anyone who wants to experience India in the most profound way. You don’t only help others but others help you; help you find inspiration, enlightenment and the manifestation of all your dreams.