Often seen perched above the clouds, in the foothills of the Himalayas, stands the village of Sainji. Not dissimilar to any other that dots the valley side, the only real difference is that you can go and live in this one, integrating into village life, as you volunteer at the local English medium school.
Getting to Sainji village
The journey from Delhi (where most will enter India) to the village is straightforward and yet not straight at all. Beginning with a rather civilised journey on the Indian railway system to Dehradun you are then on a bus that hurtles round hairpin bends at breakneck speed. Even if your nerves aren’t completely shattered and you’ve managed to keep your aloo tikka down by the time you reach Mussoorie you’re not there yet. You must then get into a Jeep which with it’s tighter turning circle makes those bends into a never ending fairground ride you’ll either love or hate. However, on arrival in Sainji you’ll soon come to realise it was worth the journey.
Living in Sainji village
There are many English projects in India but the reason this one is so special is that you get to integrate into village life. No one speaks English and you may think learning Hindi would have been a good idea. But even that wouldn’t help in a village with it’s own local dialect and distinctive way of doing things. That said, any attempt is better than no attempt with many laughs in broken conversation that eventually lead to the answer you need!
The village, like many of those in these foothill areas, is agrarian with life focused around the growing of crops and rearing of cattle. Surprisingly (from a Western perspective), the majority of this work is undertaken by women, with the men often working much further afield to earn money on construction and other manual-intensive projects outside the local area. Depending on the time of year, the village houses will be adorned with crops stored in the outside eaves (we were there when the corn was recently collected) and any available floorspace outside dedicated to drying crops for later used.
Unusually for India, Sainji’s streets are not shared with the plethora of animals such as cattle and goats usually found, with only the typical domestic dogs and cats to be seen within its perimeter. These other animals are instead held in sheds and fields surrounding the village, the result of which is one of the cleanest communities we have found anywhere in Northern India.
There is a small village shop that stocks cheap packs of biscuits (about 5 INR each!) with a more comprehensive selection available in Kandikhal village, a 20 minute walk away.
Whilst volunteering at GEMS you will reside with Lori and Kunwar’s family in one of several homes across the village (most of which overlook the village square). Rooms are well proportioned with beds and seating, mosquito netting on the windows and doors, power points and lighting connected to the battery backup (given the daily power cuts that affect most of India and rural communities particularly). Depending on how many volunteers at the time, you may be sharing with other volunteers or have a room to yourself. The bathrooms are shared with a western or squat toilet and hot water showers (a novelty for anyone spending extended time in India, especially in the cooler months). In addition, a purified water system is available at all times to provide safe, clean drinking water for volunteers to drink.
There isn’t a washing machine in the accommodation (given India doesn’t have them in the Western sense) so bucket washing is the order of the day – ample space for hanging your hand-washed items to dry outside is provided.
Meals for volunteers
Meals are provided either at Lori’s home or with the family and, whilst vegetarian (Sainji is a dry and vegetarian village), are varied and very delicious.
- Breakfast will typically be toast with honey/jam, porridge, cereal and boiled eggs. At weekends, French toast may be available too as an extra treat.
- Lunch in the week is provided at the school and, at the weekend, will often be a simple affair of curried vegetables with roti.
- Dinner will typically comprise of rice, dhal (lentils) and a vegetable dish, served with roti – wholesome, healthy and delicious.
All meals will include a mix of water and hot drinks including tea, masala chai and coffee to personal taste.
Sainji’s location means that you can easily disconnect from the outside world if you so wish – there are no landlines, no wired internet service and only a dirt track to connect you to the valley’s only road.
Should you wish to remain connected however, mobile technology is a viable option. Mobile phones and dongles with local SIMs will provide a GPRS (sometimes 3G) service which may prove sufficient for simple purposes like sending text messages or downloading simple articles such as news through a phone app. Better reception can be achieved by climbing higher up the valley up to the road or waiting until you go to school where reception is better still.
For those more complex online tasks, Kunwar will take you – for free – the 15 km journey to Mussoorie where you can spend the day using a better quality mobile reception or take advantage of one of the free WiFi connections provided by a number of cafes throughout the town. He’ll even bring you back in time for dinner too!
GEMS relies on volunteers to provide high-quality English-based education to its students. We were fortunate to visit GEMS and stay in Sainji thanks to the generosity of VPO who place volunteers here for short and long term placements. For more information on this and other voluntary projects, visit their website.