Melissa Mamayek - 2015 Program Participant

A volunteer petting an elephant in India

Gulab is the coolest elephant

Why did you decide to apply for an international program?

I was planning an extended trip around the world and knew that I would like to keep busy and do some work while away from home.

Why did you choose Volunteering With India?

I was looking for a program where I could work with elephants in a humane setting during my travels. The organization and its offered programs seemed well organized and had minimal fees associated.

What was your favorite part about Jaipur?

Jaipur is a beautiful city with much to see, and I mostly enjoyed the arranged homestay/guesthouse with a local family.

What made your experience volunteering abroad unique?

I think the program set itself apart from other volunteer programs I've worked with because of the closeness you feel with the community.

How did local staff support you throughout your program?

We had a volunteer coordinator with us all the time, and also a regular tuktuk driver who helped in a couple activities. We got a true feel for the importance of each task we worked on, learned about the elephant business in tourism, and the history of the Elephant Sanctuary and how it cares for the animals. I asked a number of questions and always got a ready answer. All staff I worked with were wonderful and kind. I even had fun learning a bit about cricket from the volunteer coordinator in the midst of the World Cup.

Elephants bathing in a pond in India

Elephants playing the sanctuary pond

What's one thing you wish you would have done differently?

I wish I had spent more time going out and exploring Jaipur. It was a truly beautiful place and had the most friendly people. I think I'll have to go back again and likely work with VWI again.

Describe a day in the life of your program.

I woke up around quarter to 5 a.m. and met our tuktuk driver around 5 a.m. We drove to pick up the volunteer coordinator and then made our way outside the city to the Elephant Sanctuary. From there I cleaned up the elephant's pen and gave her a good scrub down. We usually finished there around 8 a.m. and then we'd drive back into the city. Twice a week we worked together making elephant sized chapati (round bread), and our last day we got to paint the elephants for a wedding. It was nice to have some variation in the days, and then the weekends free to sightsee.

What was your favorite activity outside the normal day-to-day schedule of your program?

I loved painting the elephants for the wedding. It was a really interesting group project, as the elephant owner drew the patterns and we all helped to fill them in. This was also a day where we got to meet more of the elephants with homes in places outside the sanctuary (until the sanctuary buildings were complete).

Volunteers painting an elephant in India

Decorating an elephant is definitely a fun group project

What type of accommodation did you have? What did you like best about it?

I stayed with a family who ran a guesthouse. They were a lovely family and really treated me and my fellow volunteers as if we were part of the family.

What was the hardest part about volunteering abroad?

There wasn't anything difficult or hard about volunteering abroad. Volunteering with India made it a very simple process. Granted waking up before 5 a.m. and cleaning an elephant's pen isn't a cakewalk, but it was by no means hard or unexpected.

What surprised you most about India?

India seemed to be a busy and hectic place, which you see a lot if you're out and about, but what you don't see is that the people are relaxed and very hospitable.

Unlike most Western countries, the prime objective isn't success, but happiness. I was surprised by how relaxing and uplifting India was.

How difficult was it to communicate with locals?

While not everyone speaks English, most people know someone who does and will instantly go to get another person to help. Also, even though someone can't speak English, they do understand enough. I had very little difficulty during my stay.

What is one thing you wish you would have known before volunteering abroad in India?

I anticipated spending all my time volunteering, so I hadn't researched what else to do in the area. Luckily Volunteering with India had a sightseeing itinerary for the volunteers and the host family was also very helpful.

Do you have any packing tips for individuals headed to India?

Keep in mind that the local people dress more conservatively (even in the heat) than most Western people. Bring clothes that breathe and cover shoulders/chest/knees.

A movie theater in India

I love movies, gorgeous theaters, and even the latest Bollywood hit in Hindi!

Now that you're home, how has volunteering abroad impacted your life?

After working with an elephant every day, I know so much more about them, not scientifically or factual information, but real experience with their attitude and human like qualities. I feel so lucky to have worked with one so closely. Later in my trip I was on safari and was able to see wild African elephants and see the difference between that wild animal and the well trained one I scrubbed down each day in India. It was a great experience to see the impact of an animal in local culture and economics. I can't help but smile when I see an elephant now.

Would you recommend Volunteering with India to others?

Most definitely. I used to work helping students plan volunteer trips and VWI is doing everything right.

If you could volunteer abroad again, where would you go?

I don't actually have a plan for where to go next, but wherever I travel I look into volunteer programs to see if something interests me. When I left India I was headed to South Africa and looked into building homes in Swaziland, the scheduling didn't work out but it also sounded like a good opportunity.