In March 2012, I left my home in Calgary to spend a year volunteering with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) committed to social and economic change in developing nations. I chose to visit India on my journey because I felt it was a country that would challenge me and give me incredible opportunities for growth. Boy was I right! India was a chaotic mess of emotions for me and as a single female traveling alone, it was incredibly challenging. While there, I was robbed, starved, discriminated against, harassed and stalked; and I witnessed some of the saddest lives and the worst conditions that exist on our planet. In many ways, India didn’t agree with me, nor I with it. It pushed me down, tore me up, took my lunch money and made me cry.
It also opened up my eyes to what life is like for a large percentage of humanity. Most of it isn’t pretty. However, though there is a lot about India I would consider ugly, while I was there I also saw examples of beauty far surpassing what I think is possible in the most picturesque and privileged circumstances. India, in a sense, forced me to crawl through the mud, up the side of a mountain and ultimately, come out on top. Dirty, but still on top and still smiling.
If I had to choose the perfect last day in India, this would have been it. I went to Pune to visit one of four world centers of the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts (WAGGGS) and when I flew across India to visit Sangam, I did it for two reasons. The first, and most powerful, was for my mother. A lifelong devotee to the organization, I knew that my going would give her as much joy as the souvenirs I could bring home. The second was to satiate my thirst for accomplishment. Visiting Sangam, I was slowly chipping away at a life’s worth of lists: two out of four World Centres, six out of seven continents, and so on. I never expected my visit to rekindle a long lost sense of belonging that dawned early in my Guiding life and continued through my adult years.
Having been a member of the organization for as long as I can remember, I felt that I’d come too close to not visit. As luck would have it, I arrived on a very auspicious day – the first day of the Discover your Potential event, hosting about 50 members from all over the world. The staff and volunteers were dressed in beautiful saris and the entire place was abuzz with excitement. I was given a tour of the lush green property and even the morning drizzle couldn’t dampen the energy of the moment. After my tour, I was invited to stay for lunch, and enjoyed a delicious and traditional Indian meal seated next to Aruna Butala, the House and Property Manager from India and at the same table as a few other Canadians.
I’ve always been amazed at how, when traveling abroad, complete strangers can become best friends in an almost instant. The same is very much true of attending Guiding events. I was welcomed to attend the event’s opening ceremony and community tour with the participants and started to quickly get to know some of the girls. Oddly connected in ways beyond Guiding – a shared desire to move to a particular country or through similar and strangely specific career objectives – I found myself surrounded with friends almost immediately. So much so that when asked if I wanted to stay for dinner, I didn’t hesitate to accept. I couldn’t imagine peeling myself away from the atmosphere of acceptance and love at Sangam.
At dinner I sat amongst a group that had arrived from the UK and we bonded over the patience-imparting experience that is travel within India. Enjoying the tantalizing samosas, we all remarked at how far we’d come in our journey to be sitting at the same table eating foods none of us would have enjoyed back home. There is something at Sangam, and it’s not just the piquant food, that enlivens and strengthens connections between strangers.
The evening ceremony, a beautiful mix of traditional Indian rituals and long-standing Guiding customs, took place in the Lady Ratan Tata Memorial Hall, with everyone dressed in uniform. Thanks to a generous fellow leader from Canada who lent me her extra shirt, I fit right into the warm and inviting environment, which glowed from the candlelight of the evening aarti. Our foreheads were marked with turmeric and saffron and we were presented with delicate devotional flower necklaces. We tasted sweet coconut and sugar and before the evening ended, Jen Barron, Sangam World Centre Manager, sought me out to thank me for coming and to present me with the Sangam pin. I’d shown up as a day visitor and ended up being a part of the whole opening ceremonies. I was honored by their inclusion and felt a sense of belonging that I hadn’t yet felt in India.
As I got into the tuk tuk to head back to my hotel, long after sunset, the girls stood under the archways of Sangam, waving and singing good-bye. In the dark, I couldn’t help but smile to myself, with tears in my eyes. The truth is, I’d come to Sangam simply to say I’d been there, but just as they opened the gates and I walked through, the spirit of Sangam somehow opened up my heart and stepped inside.
By guest blogger Kate (Katherine) Istead.
What’s New with Girl Guides? Cookie Day in Canada 2013 is April 20 (and 21 in select locations) across Canada. Cookie lovers: don’t forget to check out our Cookie Finder Map to find a location near you! Cookie sellers (Guiders): don’t forget to add your unit cookie sales event to our interactive cookie drive map.
Sangam – one of my favorite places in the world. The Spirit of Sangam changes a person forever. Your story brought tears to my eyes.
I’m so glad you had such a rewarding experience at Sangam, even if it was so short! If you’re interested in volunteering abroad, I encourage you to apply to be a Sangam Volunteer or a Tare/Community Volunteer. (I’m sure Jen and company already did!) It is truly the experience of a lifetime.