Due to the unavailablitity of a physiotherapist to discuss living and working in India, Alan Irwin, Vice-Chairman of Dublin-based charity Calcutta Connect, agreed to share his experiences of India and in particular, Calcutta, with us.
For more information on Calcutta Connect, visit CalcuttaConnect.ie
Age at time of travel: 16-22
Length of stay: 2 weeks-4 months (6 months in total over numberous trips)
Location (area of country): Caluctta and surrounding province.
Currently working in (country + discipline): Ireland – E-Commerce Platform Integrations
1) How long ago did you go to India?
I was last in India in January this year, so roughly four months ago. I try to go over once a year and January is a great time because we run a huge sports day for all the slum schools we work with and support.
2) How did you find the process of preparing for your work in India?
I guess the first and even second time it was hugely daunting. I was just 16 the first time and it was as part of a school immersion project. The preparation process for the school-orientated trip was quite intense, we had meet ups to go though and look at different places we’d be visiting and helping out in, India meals to get a taste for the food and even went on a mountain walk at half five one morning before school to assist group bonding and get a feel for the early starts and hard work. No matter how much preparation you do however the intensity of the city as soon as you step out of the airport still hits you like a ton of bricks. You could have four people tying to carry your bags, ten people trying to get you into their taxi, three people trying to sell you Chi (tea) and another two dozen just staring. The last few times I’ve gone I’ve been much bettr prepared however and I think that’s down to the fact I’ve experienced it before. I don’t believe you can completely prepare yourself for the work you’ll do, the sights you’ll see and the people you’ll meet. We know nothing like it here.
3) Did you find it easy to integrate into your work environment?
I did and I didn’t. I’ve worked in hospitals and schools and in both instances it’s such a culture shock alone that you’re tryng hard enough to take everything in let alone getting your head focused to start digging into work. You do get right into it though, primarily because you have to - things don’t go slowly in Kolkata. The local people and those you work with really help get integrate you into your work environment. Whether it’s introducing you to students, showing you the workplace or going straight to a lesson plan or subject, they will do everything they can to help you settle in.
4) What differences, if any, did you find between working in Ireland and India?
People are so appreciative of everything - you always get treated with the utmost respect. I’m not saying you don’t in Ireland but it’s just on a whole different level. Also they will never see you stuck! Of course the facilities and resources are much more limited and sparse but nothing goes to waste and nothing is taken for granted.
5) What are the 3 best things about volunteer work in India?
The local people you get to meet, seeing how much it can behefit those involved and the experiences you get to live.
6) What are the 3 worst things about volunteer work in India?
The fact that your time is always limited, and you do see and experience a lot that can be difficult to digest. And that's not a reference to the inevitable "Dehli Belly", which isn't nice when you get it!
7) Do you think you had sufficient free-time to explore and travel during your time there?
Yeah absolutely, the hours aren’t overly long, whether you’re in a school or a hopital you’ll usually be finished by 4-5pm so you have every evening free and 1-2 days off a week. Also with most projects you aren’t strictly obliged to be there all week every week.. You can usually fit work to your own schedule: they appreciate any time you can give. On my trip last year I travelled across India for two weeks before basing myself in Kolkata to work for the summer.
8) On return to Ireland, do you feel working in India helped or hindered your search for a job? Was it significant from the point of view of your CV/Interviewing?
Absolutely, for the most part, it has definitely been an asset and I believe has played a significant role in both searching for a job (with regard to getting a response) and in the actual interview process itself. It shows a side of your character that other candidates may not have "proof" of. For example, a physiotherapist going to India to volunteer is obviously a pro-active person and willing to do "whatever it takes" to get experience. This is a big plus for an employer in any line of work.
I say "for the most" part, however, due to an instance last year where it had a semi-negative impact. The backstory is that myself and a few friends of mine set up our own charity called "Calcutta Connect", which we are all quite heavily involved in. I was doing an interview for a big bank and the subject arose. The conversation was initially about the work we do, the projects in which we are involved and our fundraising, but then questions arose regarding the required commitment to the charity and whether or not going to India could hinder my commitment to work at home (for example, could it lead to me looking for more than my allocated days leave). This was obviously a very specific case, and not one that most volunteers would encounter, and even in this case I believe it played a more positove than negative part (I got offered the job!).
1) What part of the country did you live in?
In Kolkata, very eastern India in a state called West Bengal, near the Bangladeshi border.
2) How would you describe the weather in comparison to Ireland?
It depends on the time of year: you can nearly always guarantee it will be hot or at least hotter than Ireland, however if you go during (our) summer it’s their monsoon season so you’d want to prepare for torrential rain. I went through three umbrellas last summer and waded to work.
3) Would you recommend going over with friends or by yourself?
For the first time I’d definitely recommend going with friends. It can be so much to take in that it definitely helps to have someone you can talk to about your experiences and how you’re feeling. Saying that however if this isn’t an option there are always plenty of volunteers in the city so you will meet people doing the same work and experiencing the same things.
4) What did you make of India’s culture when you first arrived?
Busy, loud, intense and don’t expect a lot of privacy! The people are so friendly, helpful and appreciative.
5) Did you have a good social life while there?
Yeah there’s always a great buzz about the city. Saying that I’ve yet to go alone. There’s plenty of nice places you can go for a decent meal, there’s bars you can grab a quiet drink in and even the odd club. During the day you can go down to the Maidan, watch (or join) the locals playing cricket or footbal, visit the Queen Victoria Memorial or even go to the cinema (which is an experience in itself).
6) What are the most popular past-times in India?
Without a doubt: Cricket, Cultural-dance and cinema.
7) In comparison with Ireland, is it expensive to live in India? What did you find was the most expensive aspect of living there?
Not at all. Kolkata, especially, is extremly cheap. You can live as cheap as you want. For example you can go and have a decent full dinner in a nice restaurant for about 120 rupees (2 euro) or you could go to a 5-star hotel and spend 1000 - 1300 rupees (15- 20 euro). The most expensive thing I’d eat everyday is my Malarone (malaria) tablet - about € 4.50 each. Accomodation is probably the most expensive aspect of living there. Saying that it’s about 300 Rupees a night so you’re looking at under €5, and you can live cheaper - that’s for a hostel smack bang in the middle of Kolkata.
8) What are the worst things about living in India?
It’s pretty much always loud so the city can keep you up and wake you up. The toilets can be pretty poor or in a lot of cases non-existant - this doesn’t aways bode well with "Dehli Belly".
9) What are the 3 best things about living in India?
The people, the culture/experiences and the food.
10) Why did you return to Ireland?
The time I can spend in India has always been determined by how long I can financially support myself there and the time I could get off from work or college. All work we (Calcutta Connect) do in India is strictly volunteer work, funded by the money we earn from in Ireland.
And finally, the big one…
How would you rate your experience overall (both professionally and personally) in India?
10/10 - Great experience every time, without a doubt: I might not realise it while I’m there but it's only when you get home to Ireland and get back to reality (as we know it) that everything you do and see in India hits home.