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A different sort of experience

HAZY DAYS: Watching the sunset over Goa, India.Picture by Tobias Matthews
IT GETS PERSONAL: It doesn’t take long to get to know someone when you take a train for 36 hours from Varanasi to Goa.Picture by Tobias Matthews
THE EDUCATOR: After bartending for almost a decade the unqualified Jack Marshall flew to India to teach English.Picture by Tobias Matthews
PRAYERS: Along the river Ganges, the holiest in India, ceremonies are done at night bringing thousands of people to the water.Picture by Tobias Matthews
THE SIGHTS: Although the writer (in the paisley jacket) asks you to skip the tourist sites, he has visited the Taj Mahal twice and loved it.Picture by Tobias Matthews

What kind of traveller do you want to be? Jack Marshall suggests giving volunteer tourism a go.

New Zealand’s stone cold border, that kept out Covid-19 for so long, has begun to crumble.

As the world opens up and international travel is once again on the cards, you will have to decide: What kind of traveller do you want to be?

There’ are myriad ways of exploring the world. Some people book a one-way ticket and let the road guide them, explorers find mountains, gullies and adventure. Holidaymakers lie at the beach.

None is better than the other — it depends on what you want to take from, or give to your travels.

I argue it’s time to try something different. Don’t bother with the Taj Mahal, Eiffel Tower or Stonehenge. One is a very pretty tomb, one is a metal tower and the other is a bunch of rocks. If you want a real experience, get off the beaten track and have a yarn with some locals. It is time you tried volunteering abroad.

There are many methods. Depending on what you want to do you can sign up for Wwoofing (Willing Workers on Organic Farms) or contact charities directly. When I gave it a go back in 2016, I signed up to Workaway because I’m afraid of calluses.

Workaway members arrange homestays for a cultural exchange. Volunteers are expected to contribute a pre-agreed amount of time per day in exchange for lodging and food, which is provided by their host.

I contacted Naveen Godiyal, a teacher who lives in the Himalayas mountains in the north of India. After explaining I had no idea how to teach English, Naveen invited me to one of the schools he helped run, so I stepped on to a Boeing 747 at Auckland Airport.

If you are fortunate enough to visit India you will never forget the smell of the country. The dust, chai, food and aroma of gasoline make it seem like the world has been spiced with cardamom and cinnamon.

Merchants crouch on the side of the road selling thimbles of chai tea rich with spice and sweet beyond comprehension for a few cents. At first taste, the chai is sickly sweet to the Kiwi pallet, but within a day or two you will be seeking out a chaiwala for your fix.

I boarded a train in Mumbai — what many, even in airport terminals, still call Bombay — and spent three days in a railcar, bus and four-wheel-drive before my first step in Barkot city, 4000 feet above sea level, population 15,000.

Nestled in the mountains, Barkot overlooks the often timid, sometimes torrential Yamuna River, the main tributary of the Ganges, the holiest river of Hinduism.

Both the Yamuna and Ganges are sacred in Hinduism, to the extent they are worshipped as the goddess Yamuna and Ganga.

Off the bus and with the holy river flowing below, I sat around in my t-shirt and jeans, sipping chai tea while watching a cow eat tomatoes from a crate. As I watched, a man parked up beside me on his motorbike and smiled.

“Welcome to the Himalayas! Did you bring some warm clothes?”

I hadn’t. Three days ago it was 40 degrees in Mumbai. In Barkot it felt like winter.

India is enormous.

As well as the weather, it takes a while to culturally acclimatise to India. Things are done differently. Poverty and beauty are on display like nothing in New Zealand. The key is to not fight it.

“Sometimes, in India, you have to surrender before you win,” wrote Gregory David Roberts, author of Shantaram.

After buying a rather nice lime milkshake-coloured hoodie, I sat on the back of his motorbike and leaned into the corners as we sped down a single lane road carved into a cliff face, to a village called Kharadi, population 300, where I would teach English for a month.

I worked six days a week teaching English, singing songs on ukulele and playing I Spy for the kids. And at the same time I ate breakfast, lunch and tea with the family down the road and talked about the weather. I had a home instead of a hostel.

It is one of my favourite adventures I, not because it was exciting, but because it was boring.

There were no tourists, no monuments, and instead I spent a month in a culture completely separate from what I’d known, and at the same time I got to give back to the community that took me in.

So as the world opens up, think about taking your time and going off the beaten track where you can do a little good.