Life of a ‘Volunteer’

Brandon Michael   |   08 April 2020

I first came to Mumbai two years ago, and instantly found a sense of home even though I was so far removed from my family back in Kansas, USA. I still can’t totally explain what it was about this energetic city that drew me in, but over the course of the last two years it was always on my mind. I knew that I had to have a reason to come back, and was in search of an opportunity that would at least put me in the city working for some purpose. I, like many other foreigners had come to India before in search of a yogic journey and some sort of spiritual awakening, but then I realized that no matter where you were in the world you could come to know yourself. The geographic location never really mattered when it came to self-discovery.

Although India is full of beautiful opportunities to learn yoga and meditation, I knew Mumbai had something else to offer me. It is the city of dreams after all, and maybe I could plant the seed of my dreams here. That is when I found Atma, on what I’m sure was a 3 AM google search where my restless insomnia had me wide awake in search of my next journey. I immediately knew it was the place to atleast get my start. I’ve always been in love with the social sector, and back home worked in education in many different ways. As a teacher, researcher, but most importantly a forever student, I wanted to bring my set of skills to an organization while continuing to grow within myself professionally and personally.

Atma has been more than what I asked for when it comes to those affirmations I had made myself for my second stay in the city. While I’ve been learning skills that will eventually become part of my professional toolbox, I’ve also been refreshed by the overall mentality at the office. Our team focuses on the mental health and wellness of the organization, and has even allowed me the opportunity to lead with the knowledge that I have from my own yogic journeys. I’ve gotten to share my love for yoga and mindfulness through writing, meditating, and practicing with the group and I am so grateful for that opportunity.

When I filled out the application for the volunteer/internship I checked off that I would be involved in Monitoring and Evaluation because I had held a data collector position for two years in Colorado. I thought I knew something on the subject, so I felt like it was my best chance at getting an opportunity with Atma. Honestly, now looking back I have no idea what I was thinking. Monitoring and Evaluation is so much more than just collecting data, and as it relates to the social sector most organizations don’t even have a well put together plan for this.

So began the learning curve of back to basics excel spreadsheets 101 and feeling like I was back in freshman year computer class, because it had truly been years since I had regularly used this technology. This is what I wanted though, right? A challenge. Not only did I have to brave the local trains, sift through the open air market in Dadar, zoom through car and cow traffic, but now the skills that I thought I had to bring to Atma weren’t necessarily the right ones. This was just day one. Soon though, I would get into a groove. I finally started to feel comfortable enough with the traffic that I would stick in my earbuds giving the exotic Bombay buzz a soundtrack of Post-Malone and Lady Gaga. I was actually loving this. There’s nothing like a boost for your confidence as you hurriedly glide off the local train before being shoved off, skillfully weave your way in and out of moving cars, and soak in the Bombay sun all to the stylings of Natasha Bedingfield’s “Unwritten” circa 2004. Yes I was late, yes I was drenched in sweat, but I was beyond happy that I was getting it. I was part of something that was so beyond myself and inexplicably Mumbai.

There definitely were a few times when I hit the lows. Like the time when a pigeon pooped on my shoulder just as I was headed back from the office, and then that other time when a pigeon pooped on my shoulder again while I was on my way to meet a friend. They say it’s good luck, but I don’t believe that, I think that’s just a thing they tell you so you don’t feel as bad that poop literally fell from the sky onto you. I’ve stepped in things that I don’t think I can even discuss here because nor is it appropriate and to be honest it has given me a little bit of post-traumatic stress.

That’s honestly why I love being in India though, you actually never know what to expect. I’ve seen men shaving other mens armpits, I’ve had chewing paan spat directly on my shoe, and one time a man was clipping his toenails and one of his nails launched across the sidewalk and I don’t think I’ve ever reflex dodged so fast. When I tell these stories to my family and friends back home, they often question, “Why are you even there then?!” Without hesitation, I say, “It’s the people.” The strangers who help you when they can tell you’re lost. The constant exchange of food at lunch or snack time. The uncertainty you feel when you see the Indian head bobble, and the genuine kindnesses you witness on a daily basis.

Whether it’s a blind man on the train who three other men instantly come to the aid of or a taller man helping a small guy struggling to shove his heavy suitcase into the luggage bin on the local train, once you look beyond the chaos you really witness the most extraordinary acts in this country. I’m not saying that it’s not without it’s problems, but again my answer to those disconcerning family members is and always will be, “It’s the people. It’s the chaos and the peace all thrown into one thing. There’s nothing like it and nothing that ever will be. It’s a place that I love and will always come back to for the rest of my life. It’s special. It’s India.”


<   View All Case Studies