The town of McLeod Ganj, just northwest of Dharamsala in the Indian Himalayas, is the home of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile. For tourists, McLeod Ganj provides relief from the heat and mosquitoes at lower elevations, a base for hiking and camping in the Himalayas, and the ideal place to attend a lecture by the Dalai Lama.
For Tibetans, it is the first stop in the new lives of refugees who cross the Himalayas by foot from Tibet in search of greater cultural, religious, political, and economic freedom. McLeod Ganj's refugee centers tend to the sick and injured after the month-long Himalayan trek; cultural organizations promote Tibetan culture, crafts, and industry; and several non-profits provide free services to get new arrivals onto their feet.
Even as a traveler just passing through, you can volunteer with one or more of these local organizations in need of help. The sheer need for eager workers makes McLeod Ganj a welcoming and easy place to volunteer. Here are three ways you can turn your trip to northern India into a volunteer vacation.
To get started, seek out the free magazine Contact, available in bookshops and hostels. Contact has short articles about local issues, an events calendar, and ads for volunteer opportunities. Be aware that it can be hard to find if you're in town a few weeks after its monthly printing. Otherwise, posters and flyers are pasted up around town with information about volunteering as well as the numerous courses -- language, yoga, massage, meditation -- lectures, and concerts in McLeod Ganj and the nearby villages. Volunteer Tibet (www.volunteertibet.org.in), across from Gu Chu Sum on Jogiwara Road, can also place volunteers in a variety of local organizations; stop by their office Monday to Friday 10am-5pm.
Offer Your Clothes
Donate usable clothes to Lha (tel. 01892/22-0992; www.lhasocialwork.org), on Temple Road, across from the State Bank of India, or Rogpa (tel. 98-1665-9549; www.tibetrogpa.org), on Jogiwara Road. Both distribute donations to refugees, and Rogpa resells some items to raise money for their childcare center.
Offer Your Friendship
The simplest way to volunteer in McLeod Ganj is to hang out with Tibetan students under the auspices of teaching English. At least four non-profits in town run informal English conversation "courses" for their Tibetan students. All you have to do is show up and be open to the conversation and cultural exchange. Classes are on weekdays at varying times. You are paired with a Tibetan student, typically a youth over 18, to swap stories for an hour or two. Many of these organizations also offer classes and services for travelers.
The Gu Chu Sum Movement of Tibet, Ex-Political Prisoners' Association (tel. 01892/22-0680; www.guchusum.org) provides housing, education, and assistance to Tibetan political refugees who are either former political prisoners or are related to one. Their classes (from 4:30pm-6:30pm) at their residential school above (and affiliated with) the Lung Ta Japanese restaurant on Jogiwara Road -- look for the hand-painted conversation class sign. Class is held on the roof, though you'll just as likely be invited into the students' dorm rooms.
Just down Jogiwara Road from Gu Chu Sum is a small cluster of shops on the left hand side. To the left between them is Tibet Hope Center (www.tibethopecenter.org), a school and community center founded in 2007 on the concept of "Think Globally, Act Locally". Their conversation classes (from 4:30pm-6:30pm) meet at a communal table and often focus on community activism and organizing, the main tools of the Tibet Hope Center.
In the same shop cluster is LIT (Learning and Ideas for Tibet; tel. 94-1879-4218; www.learningandideasfortibet.org), with conversations from 2pm to 4pm. Free cooking and Tibetan language classes are also available for visitors -- check their schedule. Evening events with dinner (100 Indian rupees, or a little more than $2) start at 7:30pm and attract curious travelers looking for a crash course in Tibet's political struggle: for example, Monday is movie night; Tuesday is a lecture by a former political prisoner; Friday features three tear-jerking documentaries about Tibet's recent past.
Lha Charitable Trust (tel. 01892/22-0992; www.lhasocialwork.org), is on Temple Road across from the State Bank of India (though they have plans of moving to another building closer to the main temple). In addition to conversation courses (from 4pm-5pm), you can also sign up to be a language tutor in English, Spanish, French, and Chinese. LHA also offers low-cost classes for travelers, such as Tibetan cooking, yoga, and a massage and reiki course.
Rogpa (tel. 98-1665-9549; www.tibetrogpa.org) runs a child day care center and a coffee shop. They need volunteers as companions for the children and babies (up to 3 years old) at their center for four hours a day (including diaper changing) and to work in their shop (see below). Stop by their shop on Jogiwara Road for information on childcare volunteering. They prefer volunteers who can stay for at least two weeks.
Offer Your Time
The organizations above are run by Tibetan and international staff and volunteers. Often time there simply aren't enough workers to get the day-to-day business of running a non-profit done. All the organizations above gladly accept longer term (at least two weeks, ideally at least two months) volunteers for their offices and are in need of skilled language teachers, graphic designers, computer specialists, and healthcare workers. Kunsang Tenzing, the 25-year-old co-founder of the Tibet Hope Center says they would never turn away anyone who wanted to help. If you have the time to spare and are looking for a longer term placement, spend a few days talking with each of these organizations to get a feel for their own mission and how your abilities can best be utilized.
Lha can place volunteers according to interests and skills in a number of related organizations within the community. Volunteers can arrange one-month homestays ($450 includes room and board) with a Tibetan family.
Rogpa seeks volunteers to split 3- to 5-hour shifts at their simple coffee and crafts shop on Jogiwara Road. Responsibilities include extremely basic coffee and tea preparation, supervised baking in the morning, selling small crafts, and counting out the register at closing. The small shop's intimate and inviting setting makes it an obvious gathering place for travelers, so volunteers will meet customers from all corners of the globe.
Educational Support Tibet (tel. 94-1648-5784 or 98-16436384; www.estibet.ch) has a residential school outside of McLeod Ganj for Tibetan students ages 18 to 25. Up to three volunteers teach English and live with the students on their small and simple campus for a minimum of three months.