This past summer I was fortunate to spend a month volunteering as a Counselling and Art Therapy student in Southern India through OneVillage Community Service Foundation. It was part of my Masters of Counselling Psychology and Art Therapy program at Adler University in Vancouver, BC. My voluntourism experience took place in and around Mamallapuram in Southern India. Allow me to share my India travel tips that I learned from this enriching voluntourism experience in this 3-part series.
Our group arrived late at night at the Chennai airport and headed straight to Mamallapuram (or Mahabalipuram, depending on when your map was printed). Mamallapuram is a beach town in the Kancheepuram District of Tamil Nadu, India and located approximately 60 km South of Chennai. The population of 15,000 relies on fishing, sculpture and tourism. There are a number of beautiful historical sites in the area including the Shore Temple, a UNESCO World Heritage site. To my surprise, surfing is popular and there is even an international surf competition in town.
My travels have never taken me to a place like Southern India before, and despite all the advice, research and coordination from our group leaders, I found myself quite unprepared at times. In my experience, India, especially travel in Southern India, is a place of dichotomies. Every part of my trip was both amazing and terrible at the same time. It was beautiful and tragic, lush and humid but also dusty and dry, and on and on.
Living in a sleepy beach town for a month means relaxing and taking things a little slower. It also means the most delicious curry, sweating more than you ever thought possible, the loveliest people, flexible time schedules, the most striking contrast between the haves and have-nots, and potentially the most enriching experience of your entire life.
Watch for these ridiculously amazing things around Mamallapuram, Southern India
There are cows everywhere – hundreds of them, literally everywhere; in the shops, on the beach, in the roadside café’s and yes, blocking traffic. I thought this was exaggerated in stories; I was grossly mistaken.
“Fast and Reliable Internet” is a myth – if you are expecting to work and live in India for any length of time then buy a wifi stick. It took me a month to build a website that would have taken me three days at home. Alternatively, it was nice to not be “connected” every minute of every day.
It takes about 2 days to get a SIM card. I was so surprised by this; at home, I can buy one in about 5 minutes at the drug store. In India, you need a stamp-sized photo and your passport. Then the phone store needs to do something with this information for a few hours before you return to sign the photo, pick up your card and if you are lucky (like we were) the guy at the store will program it for you (some of our group was not this lucky).
There are some super nice people who can come across as aggressively nice. Since people’s livelihoods rely on tourism they can be, by North American standards, pretty aggressive in trying to get you into their shops. But most of the time, they really just want to connect, tell stories and learn about your country (and sell you beautiful scarves and small carvings). I have never met such hospitable people in my life.
We found the most amazing restaurants and had the most fun when we asked the locals for suggestions on where to go. Which restaurants serve meat? Who will sell you beer? (Tamil Nadu is a dry state). Which of the side-by-side school supply stores has the best deals? How do I take the bus to another town? Where should I stay? Everyone wants you to have the best experience and they’ll give you honest answers.
Since Mahab’s (the shorter version of Mamallapuram) is a tourist town, you will notice that nearly everyone speaks at least a little English. A lot of people also speak French and German, as there are many European tourists that holiday there.
Coffee VS chai
Southern India is known for its coffee more than its chai, although both are delicious. I personally found it more difficult to find a good masala chai than a really good milk coffee.
When taking Auto-ricks (rickshaws) or hired cars, drivers don’t often know your destination. There are too many streets with the same name, and tons of construction everywhere. Here’s an easy solution: before you hop in, phone the destination and pass your phone to the driver who can then ask for directions in Tamil (the local language). Also, hang on tight—some rides are terrifying!
Quick tips for travel in India
- Pack a reliable water purifying system. We used Pristine Water Systems: you can buy the water bottle and filter as well as the treatment pills at Mountain Equipment Co-op in Canada, and reduce the number of plastic water bottles you use in India.
- Take tea tree oil and eucalyptus oil (or buy it there). A cloth with eucalyptus oil and water helps with those overwhelming odours and also keeps you cool in the crazy summer heat. I also put eucalyptus oil and water in a spritz bottle and carried it everywhere to instantly refresh and cool me down.
- Don’t forget bug spray; although you can buy it at some roadside stalls, you will go through more than you think. A bad bug bite could mean a hospital stay, or even put an end to your trip, so better to avoid them off the bat.
- Bring a mosquito net for the same reasons.
- Take lots of sunscreen. I have red hair and fair skin; I burned in 5 minutes when I forgot to put it on.
- Relax into the chaos; you’ll have a much better time!
- Eat as much curry as possible. It’s delicious. Warning: you can say “no spicy”… but there are no guarantees. Take the plunge if you dare to test your taste buds!
- Bring along toilet paper everywhere you go. Some guesthouses don’t supply it and it can be expensive to buy there. Bring hand sanitizer as well—lots and lots.
- Pack dry shampoo—sometimes the water runs out, just when you’re all lathered up in the middle of your shower.
- Drink as much water as you can fit in your body. You’re sure to sweat it all out.
- Very important: You cannot enter the Chennai airport unless you have a paper ticket, so be sure to print it out! Some of our group learned this the hard way.
Fishing boats on the beach. Most restaurants in Mamallapuram serve fish caught daily.
As you can see from my volunteer experience, South India is definitely a destination where a traveller doesn’t have time to think twice about the importance of travel medical insurance. Knowing you’re covered for medical emergencies, traveller’s diarrhea and other gastro problems, or other travel misadventures will give you more confidence to enjoy this colourful place.
After 15 years in marketing and communications, Cassandra returned to school for a BA with a minor in psychology, and is now completing a Masters in Counselling Psychology and Art Therapy at Adler University. Her studies and internships focus on working with those who’ve experienced trauma, particularly refugees, newcomers to Canada and those with addictions and mental health issues. She’s passionate about travelling to make a difference and is excited for more adventures like this one!