Wahoe Commune Volunteer Programs
Helping Local Communities in India and Nepal.

Untouchable Siri village, Shimla Himachal Pradesh

Siri village is situated 144km outside the city of Shimla, in the Himalayas. The type of volunteer work you will be doing here is called ‘Village Empowerment’. You can help out on the farm, teach English or other subjects to the children in the village or teach and council the women in the community. After making your way up to Shimla from the New Delhi you will catch the bus or car from Shimla to Nerwa, from there you take a bus or car to Tendori Nala. Our contacts in Siri village can then meet you at Nerwa, and take you to this remote village.

This is one of our most popular programs and one you will no doubt enjoy immensely as it gives a real ‘off the beaten track’ experience.

The Wahoe Experience at Siri Village for Volunteers

By Ian Johnson ( U.S.A. Volunteer )

To the potential volunteer:
By the time you leave for Siri Village you’ll no doubt be affiliated with Wahoe at large. No matter, even if you’ve toured the slums and enjoyed meals in the community kitchen, the experience at Siri is still different.

Layout and accommodation:
Siri village isn’t exactly a village. It’s a collection of 40 or so people spread out on the mountainsides that flank a small river, an area of tens of square miles. You’ll be able to see other houses in the village, but the closest one is a fifteen-minute walk away. Everyone is connected by a well-traveled network of paths.

The point in the village where you will be staying contains three houses in close proximity, on a jut in the valley up from the river. The Wahoe house is a two-story building, the middle in the line of three. The bottom floor is laid out with concrete and is divided into two sections, a bedroom for your hosts and a kitchen/dining room/classroom room. If you visit when the weather is nice, there’s a stretch of concrete just outside the bedrooms where meals are prepared and eaten, and it’s also a place where people congregate to chat and sip chai.

To get upstairs, take the wooden ladder-steps at the front end of the house. Up it, there’s a balcony with a couple of lounge chairs that are nice to sit in. Just like the downstairs, there are two rooms on this level, a bedroom/storage area at the far end and guest accommodation to your left immediately up the stairs. This is where you’ll stay. There will be a couple of mattresses and sheets and blankets. If you want, bring your own pillowcase. This room provides some privacy, but be aware that it’s not the same as you might be used to out of India. The wooden flooring is thin, sound permeates easily, and the second-floor rooms are only divided by a thin curtain. If it gets hot, you can drag your mattress outside to sleep.

The river sits about two hundred meters below the small cluster of houses. It takes about twenty minutes to walk down there. It looks and sounds relatively close, but because you’ll be dropping in elevation, it can seem like a lot farther down than it looks from above. If the weather is nice, it’s a great place to swim and bathe. If you want to walk around, there are numerous trails that weave in and out of the village. Ask someone to show you around one day or go carefully exploring yourself.

There is an outhouse fifty meters or so down the stone path, back the way you walked in. It is a squat toilet. You will need to bring toilet paper. A cloth curtain provides some privacy but there is no door. The outhouse was installed primarily for volunteers and you’ll likely be the only one using it.

To bathe most days, you’ll fill up a bucket and carry it around the house to a small shower shack. You can heat the water in colder weather if you need to. Bring soap and shampoo and a towel.

Food and water:
Your hosts will provide all your meals for you. The menu is simple Indian food, and is more or less the same for most meals. Rice, lentils, and assorted vegetables make up the bulk of the fare. Chapati is also eaten at every meal. It’s a kind of flatbread that is cooked over the fire, and you’ll probably have had it before you get to Siri. There’s always plenty to eat, and if you want more, just ask, but be sure not to leave anything on your plate. Best to ask for just a little at first to see if you like it. All meals are fresh and made from scratch. If the weather is nice, meals are prepared on the concrete ground outside the house, and there’s a mud kitchen just off the house for colder weather. A clay oven over a log fire is the primary cooking method.

Meals are eaten sitting down on the floor. The Indian custom at Siri, as it is elsewhere in Inida, is to eat with your hands, but they’ll provide you with spoons. Chai is sometimes offered, made with fresh goat or cow milk.

Be aware that standards of hygiene at Siri are vastly different than in other parts of India and from those in Western countries. It’s all ok, as everything is fully cooked, but if you’re the germy kind, recognize that you could have some trouble. Also, if you are a big eater, maybe bring a box of two of protein bars to supplement the food you’ll be served.

All water for any purpose in Shiri is drawn up through a river hose that everyone shares. It’s used for cooking, to fill up your bath bucket, for washing your hands, for cleaning plates and silverware, and for drinking water. Bring a water bottle. Generally the river water is clean, but if it’s monsoon season, you’ll have to look at other options. One option is to boil water, but this can be tough as there’s usually only one fire and it can take a while for water to boil. Another option is to bring plenty of water tablets. Even if it’s not monsoon season, and you don’t feel comfortable drinking river water, bring the tablets.

Teaching and activities:
The villagers will know you’re visiting, and so there’s no need to send out advance warning that you’ll be available for lessons. You’ll be in charge of any number of students, from 2 to 15 or 20, depending on the day and who is available. The age range will vary, too, from 4 or 5 to high school or older. Teaching English will be an important function, but you can engage in any number of activities with them. There is really no rules on what kinds of activities you can do with the students. Reading and writing should be on the list, but everything else is great, too. Art, drawing, sports, miming, drama, you name it. If it’s fun to you, it’ll be fun to them. The kids love seeing pictures of people’s lives, so maybe bring photos of you and your everyday life and family.

There are some materials available as teaching aids in the village, but it’s best to bring what you think you’ll need, like pens and paper, easy reading books, and whatever else.

Be prepared for all levels of English. You may be able to address your students as a whole in some activities, but most likely you’ll have to assess each individual and set them to work on activities tailored specifically to him or her.

Most lessons are held in the afternoons around 4 or 5 pm, and last at least an hour, sometimes two, depending on the how things are going and what you have planned. There are often kids hanging around the village during the day, so be prepared for impromptu requests for English lessons. On some days there will be no lesson.

Also be aware that things can get chaotic in the classroom. With so many young kids, this is inevitable anywhere. Just stay patient and things will move along.

Day to day:
Because your official teaching capacity will only be a couple hours a day, you’ll have plenty of time throughout the day to yourself.

The villagers generally get up around 5 or 5:30, at dawn. They’ll let you sleep as long as you want, but generally breakfast is around 6:45-7:15, if not earlier. After breakfast some students will make the two-hour walk to school over the mountain, and the adults will get busy with any number of daily chores: milking and walking the ox and goats, tending cattle, shearing grass for the cattle to feed on, tending the farm and garden, preparing shipments of tomatoes to be loaded onto the backs of donkeys to be taken down into Nerwa, collecting firewood, and any number of other things. It’s hard, often grueling labor, particularly in winter. You’re under no obligation to join in, but asking to help out is a great way to get a feel of everyday life in the village. You might end up just watching and feeling helpless, but that’s ok, too. Keep in mind that it’s best to be assertive. If you want to be, let it be known that you’re available.

Laundry is done in buckets outside. If you think you’ll need to do laundry while there, bring along some mini-laundry tablets.

Lunch is in the early afternoon, and dinner is usually some time after your teaching is done. Cooking is often a drawn-out affair, so be ready to be patient. Things settle down pretty quickly after dinner, and make your way up to your room for bed whenever you like.

To remember:
Siri village is an hour and a half from the nearest road, and most likely will be one of the remotest places you’ll ever visit. Why live here? Although the caste system is no longer officially recognized in India, it lingers on. The villagers in Siri and the surrounding areas were once the “Untouchables”, or part of the lowest caste. They moved up here to be independent and find some peace. For centuries the Untouchables were treated unfavorably by the upper classes, to say the least, and in many places around India the abuse continues. As a volunteer, you’ll be attempting to bridge the culture gap and help provide opportunities to the villagers that they’ve long been denied.

For a lot of Siri volunteers, there is a large language and cultural barrier. The hygiene standards are very different. There will be bugs you’ve never seen before. It can be exceptionally challenging to hold lessons. It might seem like they don’t even want you there. You’ll question what good you’re actually doing. There is electrical power in Siri, but it is sporadic and most likely will go out every night, if it even comes on. In other words, your stay at Siri could be exceptionally challenging. If you’ve never done something like this before, most likely you’ll be way out of your comfort zone. It’s important to consider that before committing to a stay.

On the other hand, even if it’s challenging, it could also be the most amazing experience of your life. Despite the cultural barriers, the villagers will respond to your interest in their daily lives. Make an effort to get to know them and you’ll be rewarded. The kids will appreciate the effort you put into teaching, even if it’s tough to see. Share what you’re passionate about. The views are spectacular. Immersion into their culture will change how you look at the world, and when you leave, you’ll have the memory of a lifetime, and the experience will most likely be more yours than theirs.

Good luck!