Are you a ‘voluntourist’?

We had managed to unshackle another youngster from the chains of buzzwords, says Keya Sarkar.
Illustration: Uttam Ghosh/

In order to avoid the extreme heat of Santiniketan from mid-May to mid-June, this year too, we took off for cooler climes.

Although we wanted to go to Uttarakhand or Himachal we did not want to be anywhere near the tourist spots.

So, after many hours on the Internet, we chose a small village in Chamoli district in Uttarakhand for our respite.

We decided we would divide our time between there and another little hamlet 30 kms from Dehradun.

We rented two houses in the two places and our summer was sorted early in the year, by March in fact.

We decided to get off the train at Haridwar and take the road to our destination in Chamoli, a run of almost 250 kms.

Thanks to the Modi government’s grand plan of a four lane highway all the way to the sacred Char Dhams, the entire stretch from Haridwar to Rudraprayag was a driving hell filled with loaders, tractors, bulldozers and just piles of rubble.

Added to this, of course, was the traffic caused by pilgrims, tourists getting away from the heat of the plains and river rafters.

We arrived at our destination in nine hours having left Haridwar early morning.

As we got out of the car and stretched our stiff legs, we realised that from the road the house that we had rented was a bit of a climb downhill.

While the caretaker of the property dealt with the luggage, we braced ourselves for the descent worried that our woblly legs would give way suddenly.

As we were almost there, a young woman appeared and asked whether we needed help with any of the handbags that we were carrying.

We were wondering who she was when she surprised us by speaking in Bengali.

She said she was from Bengal and was happy to have met us.

Weary from long hours of travel in the constricted space of the car, we were so happy to unpack and change and look out at the snow clad peaks that we forgot all about her till we met her again at dinner.

It was then we learnt that she was a ‘voluntourist’ there.

Never having heard of the concept, we listened attentively as she explained.

She was interested in travel writing and to pay for that, she was volunteering to stay here and help with the business of the homestay.

She was given boarding and lodging, but no money.

Apparently, after the stint here was over, she had a few more such offers lined up where the deal was no money or barely some.

Over the next few days, we tried to figure her key performance areas.

She said she was supposed to help the caretaker in his duties to serve the guests.

As she warmed up to us a bit, she let us know that since the caretaker was older in age and experience (she was 21), he didn’t take kindly to any instructions from her.

Since the caretaker did not stay on the premises, when there were no guests, she was completely alone on the property.

A property with no fencing that neighbours could access easily.

I asked her how she thought this experience would add to her resume.

That I think triggered a reaction.

Next morning, she declared she was going to leave the day we were to go, back to her home in Bengal.

We had managed to unshackle another youngster from the chains of buzzwords.

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