For anybody that doesn’t know, WorkAway is a platform that brings together volunteers and hosts from all around the world. It’s a bit like a dating website where you write a profile about yourself and the host writes about their place and the kind of work they need help with. If you get a match, then you “hook up”. Typically, you are expected to work for 5 hours for 5 days a week, in exchange you normally get free lodging, food and an opportunity to get stuck in and experience real, local culture.
We were really lucky with our first WorkAway. Set high up on a hill station in a rural village surrounded by mountains, paddy fields and cool clean air; we were in heaven! The Yelagiri Hills is an Indian tourist destination for the city slickers of Bangalore and Chennai. It’s very rare to find a Western tourist as nobody really knows about it and you’re at least a 4-5 hours drive from any major airport. Perfect for us as we like to immerse ourselves in the local culture as much as possible.
We were working in a delipidated boarding school called Samaritan’s Residential School which had closed due to lack of funding. Its set in about 10 acres with spice forests, a piggery and vegetable garden. Our hosts were Barnabas from the US & India and his wife Haddis from Iran. The school was set up in 1984 by Barnabas’ father and mother who are highly successful with several other prestigious schools in the country. Barnabas spent a lot of time at Samaritans as he was growing up, and after it closed, he knew it was his calling to come back home from the US and spend time reviving the school back to its former glory.
Our room was on the main campus in the Administration Office by the Gatekeeper’s house where Satihya (Barnabas’ right hand man), Parimala and Jasmitha live. We couldn’t believe our luck when we were shown to our own “suite” with a bedroom, living space and 2 bathrooms. The perks of being a couple! Just down the road, they had a smaller 1 acre campus where the school teachers would live and now Barnabas and his family stay there with several cottages and dormitories on AirBnB.
Our work was very varied and we were lucky that Barnabas allowed us to play to our strengths. But before ANY work could be done, Jack insisted that we tidy and completely re-organise the “Tool Room”. At first, we couldn’t open the door as every inch of space had been used and it made Jack feel quite queasy! Eventually all the tools were in their own place and we could get on with our main focus of improving the cottages for AirBnB. Without a constant stream of income, it’s hard for them to move forward with their fundraising and plans for the new school. We built side tables and shelves, renamed the cottages and painted plaques for the front doors and re-photographed the externals for websites. Jack was in his element sanding and waxing wood whilst Georgina reignited her passion for drawing and painting!
Parimala cooked us a delicious Indian lunch every day (our favourites were egg korma, beetroot dhal and ginger chicken) which we would eat off palm leaves to save on washing up. In the afternoons (after nap club, of course) we would go into town in the old school van to buy snacks, water aaaand the tailor shop. Without fail we would go to the tailor shop nearly EVERY day…it soon became a running gag. By the end of our stay, we were giving him our holey (clean) underpants to mend! It wasn’t dodgy we promise…
In the evenings, we loved to learn how to cook new dishes with Parimala such as chicken 65, tamarind rice and paratha. Jack was eventually (self) named the Roti King and they’d let him cook them from start to finish without Satihya trying to take the spatula away from him to show us how it was really done! We also enjoyed many campfires/bbqs under the brightest stars we had ever seen and introduced them to smores which they thoroughly approved of! Satihya also got us hooked on a famous Indian song called The Lungi Dance which Jack insisted he danced to with Satihya dressed up in their lungis (no video of Jack dancing I’m afraid, as we were all too busy laughing)
go to https://youtu.be/2kWLyInyjOE to listen to the lungi dance! YouTube won’t let us post it here!
On one of our days off, we took the opportunity to trek up the side of the closest mountain of the Swamimalai Hills with one of the other volunteers. We started climbing with a village dog we picked up along the way – we named him Sparkles (Jack has been naming every dog he strokes!). We weren’t following any map and instead walked on a goat track but couldn’t find a path to the top. It being a popular leopard area there was NO way we were going to head further into the undergrowth! We found some huge boulders with an equally fantastic view and called this the “top” (see video below). We enjoyed our dhal and gave some to Sparkles our village dog who had been following us the whole way. Our furry protector from the leopards!
We also celebrated both Christmas and New Year in the Yelagiri Hills. On the morning of Christmas Day, it completely chucked it down with rain with lots of mist; we could have been in England. We made pancakes with Nutella for breakfast (well, we tried to make Nutella by warming up chocolate with some oil, but it was pretty dire, would not recommend) so Georgina could get her Christmas chocolate fix. We then went over to the other campus to find out that the goose house had been decorated as a manger (the geese weren’t best pleased) and cut a celebration cake (Indian celebration cakes are incredibly sweet and consist mainly of cream). For New Year we dressed up in our newly purchased sarees and vesti and went out for dinner in town to the smartest restaurant we could find. Everybody clapped their hands and wanted to take selfies with us, it felt very strange!
And finally, we couldn’t finish this blog without mentioning Jack’s new women…Lula and Bella! Jack is now convinced that we should get a Rottweiler in England after seeing how beautiful Lula was.
Barnabas, Hadis, Satihya, Parimala, Jasmitha and the Yelagiri Hills will always hold a special place in our hearts. We were so lucky to have found such a fantastic first WorkAway – we were only meant to stay for 2 weeks and extended it to 5 weeks so we could also celebrate Pongal Festival (next blog). We wish them health, happiness and luck for the future. If you like the sound of stunning scenery, shooting stars, hikes and campfires (who doesn’t?!) be sure to make the trip to see Barnabas and Hadis in Tamil Nadu.
Next: Celebrating Pongal Festival in Parimala’s family village