Guest blog by volunteer Pawan Bhardwaj. He reflects on a Cuso International placement that would send him “out of the comfort zone.”
When I first received the placement offer for India, a large part of me wanted to decline at first glance. I’ve been to India, my country of heritage, several times. The thought alone left me feeling a little bored. I was seeking a Cuso International placement that would be a leap out of my comfort zone, exposing to me to a different culture and different ways of thinking. India was the last country I had in mind – I knew all too well about the chaos and magic. Fortunately, I went against my gut reaction and still accepted the placement. Looking back, definitely one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
I arrived at my placement site last Spring. I was the only volunteer in Bolangir, a heavily populated rural village off India’s western coast in the state of Odisha. Within a week of my arrival, daily temperatures averaged around 53-55 degrees Celsius. Water usage was restricted due to ongoing droughts, and with hot temperatures came frequent malaria outbreaks. The nights were tough, as power would regularly go out for hours on end – waking up in a pool of my sweat was a nightly occurrence. There was obviously no access to air conditioning.
As an HR Advisor, I consulted with a portfolio of internationally funded community-based organizations focusing on improving their HR systems, conducting audits to promote governance, and providing leadership coaching to senior management. My colleagues were initially extremely reserved and quiet – it was evident there were some mixed feelings about a foreigner ‘helping’ out. In addition, there was also some hidden stigma which surfaced regarding how Indians born in the western world are ‘pretend Indians’ – after all, how could one call themselves Indian if they could barely speak the language?
Suffice it to say, day-by-day I began to realize how giant of a leap out of my comfort zone I had taken.
As difficult as the situation sounds, I grew to love my life in Bolangir. It was tricky, of course; it’s difficult to create a sense of community when your mostly female colleagues can’t be seen around town with you (gossip thrives in rural villages also), and you don’t speak the native language. I opted to get a bicycle and ride around town every evening from 7-8pm. I would ride up hills, down alleys, across bridges – the same route at the same time every day. After the first week of riding around, one market vendor greeted me with a wave.
The next night, a few of the textile vendors waved to me. Slowly, I was developing a sense of community. Word slowly got around I was a foreigner (everyone assumed as much) – and instead of being met with questions and interrogations, I was asked if I was facing any difficulty or problems, and whether I required any support or help.
Everyone was concerned for my well-being and safety.
I also began to take a deep interest in the lives of my colleagues and their respective families, my neighbors, etc. Anyone who opened their heart and home to me was met with openness from my end also. We would often laugh at my attempts to speak Hindi, and after some time a colleague said in passing ‘Pawan, there’s no difference between you and us even though you’re from Canada!’
Fast forward a year, to the end of my placement, and my colleagues had surprised me with a farewell party. We sat around the common room office floor with samosas and mithai in hand, and they all took turns laughing and positively recounting their impressions of me both personally and professionally. They admitted to being very suspicious of me when I first arrived, unsure of my ways of working, thinking I would hate living in a tiny rural village, and assuming I would constantly compare everything to my western roots or family ties to Northern India (two seemingly different worlds altogether).
One of my colleagues said, “Pawan, you came and worked here not as a foreigner, but instead as a member of our family and community. For that, we will never forget you.” The sentiment touched me deeply.
Definitely a moment I will never forget.
I have gained so much from my experience in India. In addition to the professional skills and experience, I have gained a deeper level of compassion, open-mindedness, and adaptability. I’ve learned to listen without judgment, and how to build relationships that foster trust from the communities I serve.
They say life begins the moment you step out of your comfort zone. My Cuso experience in India has been nothing short of life-changing.