Growth Through Volunteering in the Western Ghats

My first visit to the exotic subcontinent of India was not in Delhi, nor in Rajasthan, nor anywhere along the well-trodden backpackers trail. It was to Sirsi, in the UNESCO Heritage region of the Western Ghats. 

That year, I went on two volunteering expeditions. The first was a personal trip, to the Perhentian Islands. The second time, I went to join colleagues of my company drawn from across the world.

Perhentian Islands and Sirsi: A tale of two volunteering programs

I say 'the second', but it was actually my first attempt to realise the pledge to give from my free time that year. With the encouragement of my boss-dad, I applied for a company-sponsored volunteering programme at my place of work. It was a corporate responsibility and employee awareness building programme on sustainability issues, and was run in partnership with an NGO called Earthwatch.

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

Nonetheless, since I was not going to bank my year's commitment on getting lucky on the waiting list, I concurrently booked myself to volunteer in the Perhentians with the Blue Temple.

How I ended up volunteering abroad in India

The foothills of the Western Ghats | Karnataka, India
The foothills of the Western Ghats

When I was finalising my Perhentian volunteering plans, I received an invitation to take the place of a colleague who had to decline an Earthwatch Borneo project. However, as the schedule was no good, I turned it down.

Besides, if I was going to volunteer through this programme, it would be a very managed experience. I could afford to take more risk, and take the opportunity to go to an unfamiliar country. I had preferred to go to Kenya, because Africa would be a totally new continent for me (I'm not counting Morocco, which is really more Mediterranean), and the project was a coastal one. After all, I could go to my own country by myself - I was actually preparing to do exactly that!

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

The special expedition to the Western Ghats

And then finally they invited me to a project in Sirsi, India. It was a 'special expedition'. The program included awareness activities related to learning about sustainability issues of the day, alongside the typical fieldwork segment associated with supporting ongoing environmental research. The one in Sirsi was a forestry research project, located in the Western Ghats. 

To be honest India wasn't 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 stayed near the bottom of my bucket list, tagged for 'later'. 

But I was on the coveted waiting list, and have been asked... how many times? Sirsi was not in my own country, and this batch did not clash with my work schedule. I had just about enough leave to do both Perhentian and the Western Ghats. Is it that big a deal that it wasn't a coastal project? After all, I was doing a coastal project already, on my own effort.

I had no excuse to refuse it - except my attitude. So I did not turn down the universe another time.

Sirsi: My first introduction to India

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.

Sirsi is a modest little town in the shadow of the Western Ghats range in Karnataka, India. We were driven there from Goa, where Earthwatch gave us our first briefing on the programme. There, they housed us at a local guesthouse, which was to be our base for the next two weeks. 

The impression that I had in my mind, when I thought about India, invariably involved hyper-dense populated areas, ascetics, questionable water quality, and uncertain safety for lone females. It had always been the balance to the things that I wanted to come to India for - the Taj Mahal, Rajasthani architecture, and a culture of sheer, overpowering variety. (I did return to India for some of these things, and through the experience I learned which of my impressions were true, and which were not). 

However, Sirsi was nothing at all like these impressions. It was peaceful and quiet and rural. It was not crowded in the least. Sirsi felt safe and respectable, and generally just very clean. In fact, it felt quite relatable and familiar. Why, it's not so different from villages in Southeast Asia!

Culture shock in Karnataka

The people in Sirsi are Hindu, so overwhelmingly the cuisine is vegetarian. As a Malaysian, I could roll with this because South Indian food is a beloved component of Malaysian cuisine. But the vegetarian aspect of it bore down on some of among us by the end, whose nations are more culturally carnivorous. 

vegetarian Indian breakfast | Sirsi volunteer program | Earthwatch | Karnataka India
Typical vegetarian Indian breakfast. Delish!

One thing I found very interesting about Sirsi - and the whole state of Karnataka - was that it was teetotal. Like, alcohol was actually banned. As in, respectable people would politely decline to even drive you to the one seedy bar (which seemed to be of uncertain legal status anyway).

No, not because they're Muslims, or that there is any local Muslim community at all. But because the local Hindu community valued sobriety. (This part of the culture 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. 

Environmental volunteering in the Western Ghats

There was another reason  why I had not chosen one of the 'special expeditions' initially. It was because I am already an environmental professional. Surely, it was pointless for the programme to spend this effort on me. I already knew the stuff. It would be more valuable for my colleagues who were not from environmental departments, to be exposed to these issues. 

In fact, I purposely chose the expeditions which were solely about contributing to the research, because I missed being around practicing scientists. When your job overwhelmingly involves trying to guide business decisions towards environmental compliance and responsibility, and mostly involves explaining things to non-scientists, it kind of gets old.

It's often very frustrating for all of us world wide (also why this corporate program was started in the first place), but especially so when you work in Asia, where the business people have an extremely low awareness of environmental issues and just, well, science. Because neither are embedded into the modern versions of the regional culture. I mean, both were once embedded in the pre-colonial cultures, but modern Asian culture is characterised mainly by capitalism and economic competition. 

So I avoided the 'special expeditions', because my intention that year was to give, not to receive. I wanted to give all of my volunteering time, to the research projects. 

Temple in Sirsi | Karnataka, India
Temple in Sirsi

There is more than one way to give. 

This was going to be a waste of time.

I had just returned from Perhentian Islands, where I got along stupendously with the more vagabond, unmoored types of travellers. I had just learned that in fact, these were the people I clicked with, but simply had never crossed paths with, due to my family background. 

So I had misgivings about going on a volunteer project with 'corporate types' with whom I could never really relate to. Doing fieldwork together was fine enough, but having to sit in classes together? And what could we possibly have in common? I might come away with my eyes permanently rolled back in their sockets. 

Still, I got a place in the programme. I might as well see what I can gain from the experience. 

And 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.

You asked to give, didn't you? Wish granted. 

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

Tree sampling survey sheet | data collection | Earthwatch volunteering | Sirsi Karnataka volunteering
The fact is science mostly consists of tedious data collection. :(

No, I personally 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 from an invited speaker about the delegates and world leaders negotiating climate change deals at the UN - that alone was worth the expedition!).

However, I was shown (again) that you can be right, and still miss the point big time!

Even though I never felt I could 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 civilisational norms too tightly locked in.

And for once, an internal corporate audience reacted the same way that an external audience usually does when I facilitate training forums and workshops - they understood. I discovered that I could help the non-corporate facilitators explain environmental issues.

There, I learned that communication is both about how well you give the information (which I provided), and crucially also about the state of mind of the recipient (which the setting provided). 

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. They must know. Consequently, most of us never tell others the good things that we see in them. 

So 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.

Revelations from volunteering in the Western Ghats

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 insight and continue as I was (as regrettably very many intelligent, analytical people do), I went with my faith and leaped to learn another way to be.

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...)

The sustainability project

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. We were supposed to work on it after the programme ended, as a way to keep the momentum we had gained from this programme. 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. I don't like starting projects I didn't know upfront that I could finish. 

Two choices were before me. I could think up one anyway, and do this extra thing for the sake of doing it. Something easy and probably not impactful. I didn't like that choice. 

Or, I could refuse.

The controversial (un)project

Or... could I create an option that no one has dared before? Have a project, and refuse, at the same time?

In a different sharing session, I had said that I am neither a visionary instigator, nor a follower who carries out the visionary's project. I am a third kind of person - the catalyst. 

The real project I wanted to do, was not to change bulbs to LEDs, or phase out paper cups. It was to upgrade me. A me with expanded skills would be a more versatile catalyst. I could quicken or untangle many, many more projects that others are already working on, in the things they tend to get stuck on.  

The problem was... this wasn't a 'project' that a corporation would recognise as a 'project'. Could I get away with it? After all, I couldn't describe 'milestones' and 'measures' the way they wanted.

Well, I could, but I did not want to confine the way that I ought to learn. It was already clear to me, that my own choices to improve myself pale in comparison to simply listening to the universe's guidance. But the universe does not tell you beforehand what it plans for you in Gantt charts. That's not how people learn wisdom. 

I made my decision.

Sunset over a lake in Sirsi | Karnataka, India
Sunset in Sirsi

Come into the (spot)light

I made no lists, and drew no charts.

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 my turn came 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 give my refusal 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.

Sustainability begins in your heart

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.

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.

The sustainable sustainability project

By this time, I was already 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 believe that maybe my heart, perhaps, could do it.

It took me over a year full of ups and downs, and attempts that seemed to be failures. But yes - via its own meandering, baffling, emotional, humbling way - mine was the project that succeeded.

It did so in ways that it could not have, had I tried to confine its path with my old limited mind. It has revived, sustained, connected, spurred, and fertilised different projects, some of which you can read about somewhere on this very blog. Each interaction grows it - and me - still more. 

It is now a living project - self-sustaining. 

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.

Orange mushrooms among leaf litter | Western Ghats | Karnataka, India
Mushrooms on the forest floor

A new dawn over the Western Ghats

There is a place near Sirsi with wonderfully 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 but not have to classify trees for a change. We hiked leisurely along the trail to where the rock formations were.

For me, the hike was easy, even though 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. 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.

There's no turning back!

I felt like keeping my shoes on, so I chose not to walk by the rock formation. One of us had ranged ahead, further down the trail. There was supposed to be a waterfall nearby that we were all going to hike to next, and I assumed he had pressed on to the waterfall. I decided I might as well catch up with him and be early to the waterfall.

The way did not seem to be difficult, since there looked to be just the one trail. But I briefly felt misgivings when the first snake crossed my trail. It was a black one, and I did not see the head.

The sight stopped me dead in my tracks. Could it be a cobra? However, the snake did not take any notice of me, so I took a video while I waited for it to pass.

Then I contemplated the situation. 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 we had to double back after all. 

Fly now, butterfly - out into the blue.

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.

Throughout my Blue Period I had gone on hikes where I have chosen to go past my anxiety, in Perlis and Katoomba. But this hike in the Western Ghats was different.

This time, the choice came with no anxiety at all. For the first time in my life. Despite the snakes, I was only calm. Yet in Katoomba, within the same year, I was neurotic and doubtful.

As we made our way back up the trail, we suddenly came upon a celebratory rush of white butterflies. And among them, just a single one - a butterfly with wings of blue.

A fitting closure for a blue-themed year

Carbon offset information to India

A return flight between Kuala Lumpur and Goa (Vasco de Gama) produces carbon emissions of approximately 2,700 lbs CO2e. It costs about $14 to offset this. 

Thank you for reading! Want to be reminded to think outside the box? Pin for the future!

You may also like...

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!