New Growth in the Green Woods of Sirsi, India

My first visit to the exotic subcontinent of India did not begin in Delhi, nor in Rajasthan, nor anywhere along the well-trodden backpackers trail. It was in Sirsi, for the second volunteer expedition of the year. I went with colleagues of my company drawn from across the world.

Sirsi is a modest little town in the shadow of the Western Ghats range in Karnataka, India. The people are Hindu, and so overwhelmingly the cuisine is vegetarian, which bore down on some of us by the end, whose nations are more culturally carnivorous.

To be honest India wasn’t even near the top of my bucket list. Not because I didn’t want to go – I did. But it seemed too risky for a single female to go on her own. So India was near the bottom of my bucket list, tagged for ‘later’.

However Sirsi was peaceful and clean and quiet and rural. It felt so safe and respectable. 

A most interesting thing about Karnataka was that it is also teetotal. Like, alcohol is actually banned. Like, respectable people would politely decline to drive you to the one seedy bar of uncertain legal status.

No, not because they’re Muslims. But because the local Hindu community valued sobriety. (This bore down on the Australian of us within the first week…!) I read the local newspapers and learned a little bit about the local views; it was illuminating. Up to that point, I had not heard of a non-Muslim community that took sobriety in quite the same vein as we do. 


Temple in Sirsi | Karnataka, India

Temple in Sirsi

Perhentian and Sirsi: A tale of two volunteer programs

I was determined that year to volunteer my vacation time.

Although I later committed to a voluntourism project in the Perhentian Islands, Malaysia, actually my first attempt to realise this pledge was by applying for a company-sponsored volunteering programme at my place of work. Basically it is a corporate responsibility and awareness building programme related to sustainability issues, in partnership with an NGO called Earthwatch.

It’s a pretty competitive programme, and quite hard to get in. I submitted my application. But I did not get a placement. However, I did get onto the waiting list, which is still pretty good.

Nonetheless, I was not going to bank my year’s plans on getting lucky on the waiting list, and so I booked myself to the Perhentians.

The foothills of the Western Ghats | Karnataka, India

The foothills of the Western Ghats

It turns out, good things come in pairs?

Is that even a saying?

In any case, when I was finalising my Perhentian volunteering plans, I received an invitation to take the place of a colleague who had to decline a Borneo project. However the schedule was no good, so I turned it down.

Free range animals of Sirsi | Stray dog and cow | Karnataka, India

Free range animals of Sirsi. We asked, but it remains a mystery how people know where their cows are.

Besides, if I was going to go under this programme, it should be relatively low risk and so I would rather try out going to an unfamiliar country. I could go to my own country, on my own.

Then I got asked a couple more times, for other Borneo batches. I declined again.

And then finally they invited me to a project in Sirsi, India. It was a special expedition, involving awareness activities related to sustainability issues of the day, alongside fieldwork to support environmental research.

I had not chosen one of those expeditions initially, because I am an environmental professional myself. Surely it was pointless for the programme to spend this effort on me. I would rather join the expeditions which were solely about contributing to the research.

But I was on the coveted waiting list, and have been asked… how many times? It was not in my own country, and this batch did not clash with my work schedule. I had just about enough leave to spend to do both Perhentian and Sirsi. There was no excuse to refuse it – except my attitude.

I did not turn down the universe another time.

There is more than one way to give

Once again, the universe in my Blue Period showed me that I really do not know how to choose. Not knowing who I was evolving to be, I still thought I knew how to get there.

Tree sampling survey sheet | data collection | Earthwatch volunteering | Sirsi Karnataka volunteering

The fact is science mostly consists of tedious data collection. :(

Quite arrogant of me, really.

I half-thought this was going to be a waste of time.

I had just returned from Perhentian, where I got along stupendously with the more vagabond, unmoored types of world travellers. So I had misgivings about going on a volunteer project with ‘corporate types’ with whom I never could relate. I might come away with my eyes permanently rolled back in their sockets.

But I would go with an open mind. I was going to focus on what I could take away from it, myself.

Essentially I was going to allow the universe to instruct me.

Besides, the research itself would be interesting to learn about – carbon sequestration estimates, and amphibian species surveys. (OK, honestly the frog bit I wasn’t really into. You can read more about the expedition here.) At the least, perhaps I could hang out with the researchers themselves, and work on the social development that I needed to become a better environmental professional.

I know nothing.

To my surprise, I discovered it was far from pointless to send an environmental professional to participate in activities about basic environmental awareness.

No, I did not learn very much that was new. I was right on that score. (We did, however, get to hear a lot of entertaining gossip about delegates and world leaders negotiating the climate change deals).

vegetarian Indian breakfast | Sirsi volunteer program | Earthwatch | Karnataka India

Typical vegetarian Indian breakfast. Delish!

But, I learned (again) that you can be right, and still miss the point big time!

Even though I felt I never did relate to dedicated corporate types, I do spend a huge amount of time in my day job sincerely trying to explain important things in however many ways corporate executives can understand. I never thought I was very good at it, though, since the outcome had always been mixed.

But there, removed from routine organisational pressures, everyone put the expedition first. Everyone shared, and listened, to the frustrations and dilemmas we all face in trying to make changes for norms too tightly locked in.

I discovered that I could help the facilitators explain environmental issues.

And for once, a corporate audience reacted the same way that an external audience usually does when I facilitate similar forums and workshops – they understood.

It gave me many things to think about in the year ahead.

The mirrors that speak

It’s true that in life, you attract situations and people that hold up a mirror to yourself. But how much more of a blessing it is, if the mirrors would speak!

We think that incredible things we see in people must be as obvious to them as they are to us. The better those things are, the more real and authentic, the more we think it must surely go without saying. Consequently, most of us never tell others the good things that we see in them. 

And that’s why we all end up going around never knowing the ways in which we are special.

That’s the thing about travel. You go to new places, and you meet people you wouldn’t cross paths with had you stayed home. They may tell you different things about you, than you’ve heard before. Like the internet, there’s a degree of transience and anonymity that makes it easier to people to take a chance and speak out, when they would not do so at home.

Waking up from the cave

I had a revelation during this trip, that made me question the entire way I saw myself, and the way I engage the world.

Taking down measurements in the Western Ghats forest | Sirsi volunteering | Earthwatch

Taking down measurements in the Western Ghats forest.

I am a logical, analytical person by nature. This is probably why my social skills lag behind all others, to begin with.

The way I answer queries and explain things, would be rational, methodical, with a clear structure. For reliable precision, nothing beats this approach. This is a mindset very much aligned with my company’s corporate ‘personality’.

But in recent years I went through experiences that taught me that not everything needs reliability and precision.

And at that point I made a crucial choice. Instead of choosing to disparage this notion and continue as I was (as regrettably very many intelligent analytical people do), I went with my faith and leaped to learn another way.

I opened my mind.

(Then was told by the universe I was getting it wrong. Tried again. I opened my heart. Was patted approvingly on the head…)

Come into the (spot)light

So what was this revelation I had in Sirsi?

Well, there was a point in the programme when we were all asked to come up with a sustainability project, for after the programme ended. I had my misgivings about this, because I could not think of a ‘project’ that would truly be useful, original, as well as within my power.

Two choices were before me. I could think up one anyway, and then do this extra thing for the sake of doing it. I didn’t like that choice. 

Orange mushrooms among leaf litter | Western Ghats | Karnataka, India

Mushrooms on the forest floor

Or, I could refuse.

What was of real value to me, in terms of a personal contribution to sustainability advocacy, was to develop those skills that I lacked, which was holding me back from being more impactful in my work. Nor did I wish to confine how I would achieve the outcome. My recent life experiences had taught me that for certain things, there is a better way to grow, a more organic way. So I couldn’t even describe milestones and measures.

The problem was… this wasn’t a ‘project’ that a corporation would recognise as a ‘project’. Could I get away with it? 

I made my decision.

As my colleagues worked on their flipcharts to flesh out the ideas that were important to them, I did something completely unprecedented for me. I lay back and just… meditated, I guess.

When it came to my turn to share my project, I mentally shut off all my rational circuits. Then, I just… spoke.

Not from my head, where the defiance lies. But from the heart, where I could refuse as gently as the welling of a spring.

It was the first time I had ever done such a thing. If not because my audience was made of strangers I would likely never see again, I don’t think I could have done it.

I made no lists, and drew no charts.

There was no presentation aid – nothing but my voice. Because I shut off my analytical mind, I don’t remember the speech. I can’t reproduce what I said, nor how I said them.

sustainability | personal growth | Western Ghats | Earthwatch volunteer expedition | Sirsi, Karnataka | India | Yana Rocks

All I knew was that essentially, what I was offering as my sustainability project, was myself. Though I was also supposed to describe how I would execute this project, I did not. I would let the universe take the lead, and flow pliably – evolving in submission.

But I became aware of a strange thing that happened as I continued speaking, a most unprecedented thing.

My audience was rapt. Every single one. I did not know why. You could hear a pin drop, it was so incredibly still. I felt a panic rising – what was happening?

I kept going.

And when I was done, the spell eased gently as a breath. And I was told by my mirrors, my blessed mirrors, that my speech – the speech that defied what the activity actually asked for – was the most inspiring thing they had ever heard.

Damn, if only I had heard it myself.

By this time, I had already become convinced that the heart was a stronger path than the head, to change people’s minds.

But that was the first experience that made me think maybe my heart, perhaps, could do it.

It took me over a year full of ups and downs, through attempts that seemed to be failures. But yes – via its own meandering, baffling, emotional, humbling way – mine is the project that succeeded in ways it could not have, had I tried to specify its path with my old limited mind. 

Sunset in Sirsi

I think Sirsi was where my Blue Period set. I think it happened when I chose to decline my analytical approach, and gave that speech.

It was like waking from a long dream.

My experience in Perhentian may have nudged me awake. But in Sirsi, I got up.

I engaged. I was social. It was somehow doable, to wander about and presume to join others in random conversation. I could assert myself – my genuine self – and felt people respond positively to it.

It baffled me why this was working, when all through my formative years, it did not. But new me decided it was more important that it was happening, even if I would never understand why now.

Sunset over a lake in Sirsi | Karnataka, India

Apparently in the frog mating season, the shores of this lake are overrun with horny frogs. It was not the frog mating season, said the researcher, with a ruefulness that was not shared by 100% of the female volunteers.

Morning dawns over Yana.

There is a place near Sirsi with the most curious karst rock formations – Yana Rocks. On a free day near the end of the expedition we were taken on a day trip there.

It was nice to be outdoors and not have to classify trees for a change. We hiked leisurely on the trail to where the rock formations were.

For me, the hike was easy, although I still wasn’t quite fit enough to speed along it. Being Malaysian, I did not have as much trouble with the heat as some of my colleagues did. The vegetation, humidity, and overall feel of the forest trail felt very like home, so I felt confident.

Yana Rocks looms imposingly tall, on the approach. It looks almost like a sprawling church organ, with its merging vertical columns. There were beehives under the overhangs, and we watched as swallows and bees face off against each other in the air in the predator-prey deadly dance.

There was a temple by the rocks, and you could go on a footpath all the way around the back of the rock formation, which was what my fellow participants did. However, as the base of the rock formation is sacred ground, you have to take your shoes off, and walk it barefoot.

No turning back

Feeling like keeping my shoes on, I did not walk by the rock formation. I opted to follow the trail further down to catch up with one of us who had gone ahead.

There was supposed to be a waterfall nearby that we were all going to hike to next. It did not seem to be difficult, since there looks to be just the one trail. I briefly had misgivings when the first snake crossed my trail though.

It was a black one, and I did not see the head. It stopped me dead in my tracks. Could it be a cobra? However it did not seem to take any notice of me, so I took a video while I waited for it to pass.

I could turn back, or I could press on, knowing that snakes cross the hiking trails of Yana.

It took me hardly a second’s thought – I pressed on.

I caught up with my colleague and we explored the rest of the trail. It turned out that the waterfall was not actually down the trail. So I had to turn back after all.

Fly now, butterfly.

Even though throughout my Blue Period I have gone on hikes where I have chosen to go past my anxiety (stories here and here), this hike was different.

This time, there was no more anxiety at all. For the first time in my life. Even despite the snakes. I was only calm. Yet in Katoomba, within the same year, I was neurotic and doubtful.

In my whole life I had never achieved growth as fast as when I stopped trying to do it myself – and submitted to how the universe thought best to do it through the travels of my Blue Period.

And then, as we made our way back up the trail, we came upon a celebratory rush of white butterflies.

Among them, just a single one – a butterfly with wings of blue.

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16 Responses

  1. neha says:

    You definitely chose a beautiful and offbeat trail for your trip to India. The thing is that some destinations in India are highly popular while there are so many others like Sirsi which are kind of untouched. It’s a delight visiting these

    • Teja says:

      I have to admit that I had my preconceived notions of India before I went. Then I arrived in Goa and was like, hey this feels just like Malaysia of maybe, 20 years ago – I mean in the building styles, and the feel of the streets, and the kind of plants people choose for their gardens, etc. And Sirsi – just like any of our rural villages. Haha

  2. Ketki says:

    There are so many volunteering programs in India and i am so proud it is finally happening. Had never particularly heard about Sirsi but it super interesting to know about it. I am definitely looking up Earthwatch to check out their volunteering programs. Thank you for this article.

  3. Nam says:

    I think it’s great to volunteer and step outside of our comfort zone. There is no point going to well-trodden places to volunteer! I have never heard of Sirsi but I love reading about your experience!

  4. Charmaine says:

    Sounds like an amazing opportunity to go and I’m glad you took the leap! You can never know what you will find! :)

  5. Gina says:

    I think I would enjoy Sirsi because I’m recently becoming more and more vegetarian and I would like to see more of their cuisine. Sometimes the universe has a way of giving us what we need. Good to see you kicked back and mediated!

    • Teja says:

      Oh Indian vegetarian is the best! It got a bit repetitive for two weeks though – but that’s because I’m Malaysian and we’re used to being spoiled for choice food-wise. Actually I would guess pretty much all of India would be good, for vegetarian transitioning.

  6. Sandy N Vyjay says:

    Wow! this is the first time I heard about a town who practice sobriety. Usually when someone goes on a holiday chilling while drinking is part of socializing. Sirsi is green and lush and a lovely place. I was not aware that there are volunteering opportunities there.

    • Teja says:

      No, you see… apparently all of the Karnataka region is sober. But then, it’s not really an international tourism spot, so the locals are more able to go with what they feel benefits their own social outcomes, I guess. Without conflict with tourism revenue loss. There were even border checkpoints with Goa to check for smuggling.

      It’s not the first time I know of it. Some inhabited islands in south Thailand are sober. All the local inhabited islands of the Maldives are. But that was certainly the first time I encountered a place that was sober – but not Muslim. But yeah – it was incredible how much it improved the *quality* of socialising with my international co-participants. It was much more real and honest. Much less bragging and pretense.

  7. Iza Abao says:

    I can relate to you. India is not the first country that I would want to add on my bucket list. I am still hesitant to go even I have read a lot of good articles about India. Well, let’s see.
    I understand your thought process because you are smart. You think all the things that could happen whether positive or negative. I like that you are taking chances and doing things outside of your comfort zone.

    • Teja says:

      LOL smart only goes so far. First, you still need faith and courage. :) I’m still terrified every time I push the boundary still further, like I plan to this year.

  8. I’m a true believer that the universe send us little signs all the time. And what a journey you’ve been and followed your gut, put yourself out of your comfort zone and come out the other side. I’d have to say India has never been top of my backlist either and my partner wants to take me this year.. lets see. Maybe good things will come from it too! Perhentian island also sounds nice, I have a friend working in a resort there.
    Kristie – you.theworld.wandering

    • Teja says:

      India is sooo big! I’m sure it must run the gamut of experiences. I’m going again this year, to a different part, so… don’t know whether that’ll be more intimidating than the relatively comfortable Goa/Karnataka. :) Which resort? I probably know all of them by now.

  9. Penny says:

    I’m from India. Goa to be precise but I stay in Karnataka at the moment. I have honestly never heard of volunteering programs in Sirsi. It is an interesting aspect that I have never thought off. Thank you for enlightening me on a different aspect of travel.

    • Teja says:

      Our group met up in Goa before being taken to Sirsi! It was quiet when we were there though, which I thought didn’t match what I heard about Goa. There were these lantern things hanging everywhere, with tassels at the bottom. I thought maybe it’s because there was a festival recently and people were still away.

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