Volunteering in Varanasi: Not What I Expected

34 comments

I had planned on doing some volunteering on this trip, but this wasn’t quite what I had in mind. I was leaving my hotel to go shoot some photos when I came across four people struggling to move a huge slab of sandstone down a narrow alley. It proved to be a dirty job.

The thing must have weighed 400 pounds or more and was being dragged along the ground an inch at a time. An old woman was squatting down and pulling on a rope when she spotted me, saying simply “Help?” I didn’t mind helping out and they had the alley blocked, so I didn’t really have much of a choice.

I took her spot and we started work in earnest, lifting the stone with a pry bar and sliding a piece of firewood underneath to act as a roller. After five minutes or so, we had reached the corner –which I thought was the destination– and I realized that the next step was to drag it up a steep hill. She saw the look on my face and gave me a thumbs-up. “Good brother!”

The next leg was only about thirty feet in distance but the incline was steep and slippery — our fingers and toes were in constant danger of being nipped by the massive block. “I don’t think my backpacker travel insurance will cover this,” I grumbled as I slid on the muddy cobblestones. This garnered me another “Good brother!” and we continued on, sweating and grunting like beasts.

About halfway up, the old lady thoughtfully motioned me to the other side of the narrow alley so I wouldn’t bump into the huge patch of cow dung that was drying on the wall. I was pretty grateful for that, to say the least. At the top of the path was another tight turn and –at last– our destination, the water buffalo pen.

Volunteering in Varanasi: Not What I Expected

They were dragging stones into the pen to give the buffalo something dry to sit on. The pen was a pit full of cowshit, a foot deep in places — it was a dung factory. They dried the dung in small half-moons and then used it for fuel or sold it at the market. Without hesitation they all charged into the pen, wading through muck that reached over their ankles and up to their shins.

“Umm… I think this is where I get off. Check, please.”

I carefully stepped from rock to rock and helped drag the slab the last few feet into the center of ‘poop lake’, then stretched my back and wiped the sweat from my brow as someone untied the ropes. Without pausing, they all headed down to grab the next one.

Thankfully, the next one was only half the size of the first and I didn’t feel so guilty waving off and going my own way. With one last thumbs-up, they all bent to their chore and I headed back to the hotel to take a shower.

{ 34 comments… read them below or add one }

leon January 5, 2011 at 12:48 pm

wes – you’re a good man. and I’m glad to have the frequently repeated story, about the time I had you help me move my 300 lb. tv, replaced with another doozy.

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wes January 5, 2011 at 1:07 pm

Oh no… you’re never living that down :)

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Cao January 5, 2011 at 1:34 pm

Nice website, bro. Shitting fucking writing.

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wes January 5, 2011 at 1:40 pm

Thanks, bro :/

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Nomadic Matt January 6, 2011 at 7:19 am

Don’t listen to someone who couldn’t even insult you in proper English!
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wes January 6, 2011 at 9:14 am

Heh, thanks for pointing that out Matt. :) This isn’t one of my best stories, I admit, but hey…. they can’t all be home runs.

Jeanie January 9, 2011 at 9:39 am

Oh bah. You’re fine. :)

At least you’re OUT there doing stuff, eh?

islandmomma January 5, 2011 at 1:44 pm

Memorable story, not least for an insight into others’ lives. We see stories of poverty and hardship all the time on tv, but rarely get a glimpse of just what day to day life is like outside of our comfy, western lives. Nice writing, and good on you too!

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wes January 5, 2011 at 1:51 pm

Thanks, Momma! This more than makes up for that last comment :)

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Dave and Deb January 5, 2011 at 8:23 pm

Now that’s a story to tell the grand kids. I remember seeing the cow dung paddies all over India and you could see the finger marks in them from people flattening the cow poop by hand. I thought to myself, “Now that’s a shitty job”

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wes January 6, 2011 at 9:16 am

Haha. You went there ;)

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Jayne January 6, 2011 at 7:21 pm

haha someone had to – and we’re glad you did ;)
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wes January 6, 2011 at 7:30 pm

Ha! Thanks ;)

Christy January 5, 2011 at 9:49 pm

Great story – love how the slabs were for the buffalo to “sit on.” How often do buffalo sit down?! :)
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wes January 6, 2011 at 9:16 am

Good point. They do lay around from time to time but not a lot…

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Jill - Jack and Jill Travel The World January 5, 2011 at 11:01 pm

Wonder if the slabs would just end up getting pooped on again. I can’t imagine working on that much crap, then again it’s nice they’re using renewable fuel :)
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wes January 6, 2011 at 9:17 am

Yup, totally renewable and they’ve been doing it for thousands of years.

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Pirate63 January 6, 2011 at 3:43 am

Love it Wes,i always seem to get roped into helping when we are away,the best was helping some monks lay pavers in Luang Phrabang,it really makes the trip and sets you apart from being a tourist,keep up the good work Wes

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TR January 6, 2011 at 7:31 am

The engineer in me must ask why they didn’t use the cattle to pull the stones?

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wes January 6, 2011 at 9:15 am

Good question.

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Priyank January 6, 2011 at 6:43 pm

Pulling stone slabs is such a postmodern thing. But it puzzles me how they’d put it to proper use. Ahem we’ll never know. Thanks for the story Wes.
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Andi January 7, 2011 at 8:27 am

Wow that’s quite a story!
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Eli January 7, 2011 at 3:51 pm

Wow, Wes, way to rack up some Karma points. I hoped you celebrated with some more of that hash-milkshake stuff. :)

Even if it’s dirty work, don’t it feel great to help a stranger?

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wes January 7, 2011 at 4:19 pm

Yeah, I’ll admit that it did feel good. After I’d taken a shower and counted all my digits…

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Jeremy B January 7, 2011 at 4:28 pm

After reading through some of your posts and looking around on your site, I think we are a lot alike – budget travel with a desire to give back and experience the world. Another great post about volunteering but not sure this would have been one I would have done! :)
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wes January 8, 2011 at 10:15 am

Thanks, Jeremy. You’d have helped out, I’m sure ;)

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polly January 9, 2011 at 9:09 pm

Great story, Wes! I loved seeing how artfully the mounds of cowpatties were stacked when I was there. It’s one of my best reminders that any job well done is a beautiful thing. (And that all jobs are essentially about making shit useful). cheers!

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wes January 10, 2011 at 9:21 am

Hey Polly! Yeah, it’s amazing to see such order and beauty in poo isn’t it? We see only waste, but it’s an important resource for them.

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sarah wu January 11, 2011 at 3:41 am

Aww you’re nice helping out, but that is some hard work!! :) props!

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Gray January 17, 2011 at 7:07 am

On the bright side, you lightened their load and scored some great karma points, Wes. Good brother. :-)
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wes January 17, 2011 at 9:50 am

Awww, thanks Gray :)

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Nomadic Chick February 9, 2011 at 9:30 am

Haha! You good samaritan. I hear ya about the dung. It’s my daily life now. :)

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wes February 9, 2011 at 12:17 pm

Poop is the new black. Didn’t you get the memo?

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wes January 9, 2011 at 12:40 pm

Oh, no complaints here!

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