Raghuveersingh Rathore hit the road in 2018. By the time the first Covid lockdown put a spoke in his wheels he had been through Ladakh, Uttarakhand, Himachal, Telangana, the Konkan, Nepal and several Southeast Asian countries.
But ‘Raghu’ (@raghuraahi on Instagram) didn’t blow a fortune to satisfy his travel bug. Instead, he washed dishes, cleaned toilets, did garbage runs, cooked, farmed and built mud houses in exchange for the opportunity to see the world.
Hundreds of youths across India are embracing this nomadic life in a trend called ‘volunteer travel’. Raghu says he had planned to volunteertravel sporadically, “but then I started to understand this way of life and liked it. There’s no money involved, making it a truly enriching experience”.
Path to self-discovery
For Moitri Dutta the plunge into volunteer travel was triggered by her fears. Always a planner living a regulated life, she left her IT job in 2016 and backpacked for a while before starting a business. But travel was always on her mind. So, she began volunteer-travelling in February 2021 from a school in Tamil Nadu where children are taught on organic farms.
“I have come to realise that earning relationships is a lot more important than earning money. Travelling, learning a skill and taking it forward to the next community give me a natural high,” Moitri said. She’s traversed Uttarakhand, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Bir in Himachal, Andaman and most recently Sikkim while working on farms, cafes and hostels, and playing nanny for a family.
Mumbai resident Gargi Shingte (@thegargilife) started volunteer-travelling in 2017 as a content writer for a hostel in Ladakh. She’s explored Southeast Asian countries like Thailand, Cambodia and Myanmar. She has travelled toJodhpur, Jaisalmer, Udaipur, Varanasi, Delhi, Himachal, Sindhudurg and Goa. She makes wall murals, designs menu cards and maps, and takes farm tours and art sessions, among other things.
Is it safe for a woman to travel alone? Gargi says she bought into the idea that the world is a “big and bad place” and so wore loose clothing and always carried pepper spray and a knife. “But I have neverhad to use it. ” She’s realised that “it is a big and beautiful world; people are helpful, good at heart, and all you have to do is recognise the person in front of you and disengage if you are uncomfortable”.
A two-way street
Volunteer travel is a two-waystreet where the host and the guest derive value without exchanging money. So, owners of hostels, farms and all kinds of businesses have been opening their doors to ‘working guests’, only to find that with the good comes the bad. Ryan Dalton of The Dalton’s Village homestay in Himachal’s Tirthan valley has burnt his fingers a few times. “My homestay is a little secluded, so initially I didn’t want to hire women. However, the boys that came were irresponsible, drank on the job and treated it like a vacation. ” Sudden departures left Ryan scrambling to fill vacancies, but he says he’s also had some excellent volunteers who keep in touch.
Sushi Chauhan, who runs Aleph Homes in Himachal Pradesh, says volunteer-travelling can promote sustainable living. As the country’s youth take to travel they should be educated about living sustainably, responsibly, and in a way that helps develop the communities they stay with, he says.
Social-media influencers likeRaghu, Moitri and Sushi have fuelled the growth in volunteer travel. Raghu has conducted online workshops – sometimes with over 120 participants – on do’s and don’ts, finding volunteer work, etc.
“When I started off it was a game dominated by foreigners who were in the country on work visas. Today, there are hundreds who enquire every day about where to start,” Raghu says. Ryan agrees. He got over 500 applications for a recent volunteer work enquiry. “I now know exactly the kind of people I want and don’t want, and my selection criteria have become stricter,” he told TOI.
No purse strings attached
Why would a generation so dependent on screens and hooked to a comfortable lifestyle choose to rough it out? For many, the pandemic was the reason. They are “hoping to rediscover or understand themselves better. This is not possible in the bustle of cities. Travel has always been the biggest teacher,” says Gargi.
Volunteer exchange work allows youths to meet new people, build a network, and most importantly travel without having to worry about when their money will run out.
“I have been lucky to find extra work along the way, but I still have the Rs 4,000 I left home with,” says Raghu. “You learn to understand the difference between needs and wants and life becomes really easy.”