A reader emailed me, excited about being accepted into a school program – a cultural exchange – that will send her to Delhi to do volunteer work in an orphanage for four months. But what if she gets homesick while volunteering in India? She really wants to go but already knows she’ll be dealing with homesickness and loneliness.
“I want to go to India but I’m scared of getting homesick,” she said. “I’ll be volunteering with kids at an orphanage in Delhi. Sometimes I get homesick and I feel lonely when I go away for the weekend. What if I get homesick in India and want to come home?”
Great question – and what an insightful traveler! She knows herself, and is already looking for tips for coping with homesickness. Much smarter to do that now, which she’s still at home and can come up with comforting ways to take care of herself while she’s gone. These tips work for me when I feel homesick while traveling. I haven’t done volunteer work in India, but I did live in Kenya, Africa for three years. I was homesick a lot.
When I lived overseas I missed my friends and family – but I think I was even more homesick for just being home. Africa is a whole different world, and so is India! Feeling homesick while you’re volunteering in Delhi or even somewhere closer to home is normal, and even healthy. It shows you’re aware of where you are, who you left behind, and how you feel.
My first tip is to expect to feel homesickness in India. You might even read articles about living as an expat in countries foreign to you, such as Moving to Africa? 10 Things You Need to Know.
6 Ways to Cope With Homesickness in India
Here’s the rest of my reader’s email: “I’m not sure if you’ve been on Facebook lately but I just wanted to let you know that I got accepted into a volunteer program at an orphanage in India for 16 weeks! I’m starting in the summer. I know you spent some time traveling and I’m just wondering if you have any tips to make it as amazing as it could be?”
After I emailed her back with a few “enjoy every moment, even when it sucks” comments, she talked about her fears of being homesick. Instead of sending her a 1,000 word email about coping with homesickness in India, I decided to write a 1,500 word blog post. This is my first official article on my new Travel Blossoms blog. Welcome to the first step of my journey into travel blogging! :-)
1. Understand why it’s normal to feel homesick
The feeling of homesickness isn’t just something travelers or overseas volunteers experience. One of my favorite homesick quotes is from Carol Nelson: “Christmas is a time when you get homesick – even when you’re home.” There is something in us that longs for connection and love. Our hearts yearn for something more, the Roar of Something Greater. I think we’re homesick for God, for that feeling of peace and joy when we’re in the presence of the Holy Spirit. This is a homesickness that philosophers call existential angst or loneliness.
At home it’s easy to distract yourself from these deep feelings of longing or loneliness. When you’re volunteering at an orphanage in India, however, you can’t just distract yourself with your usual activities. In Delhi you’ll also see extreme poverty, suffering, and pain in ways you just don’t see in North America. This will make you homesick for home. India is completely and totally foreign – but that doesn’t mean it’s bad, or wrong, or even scary. It’s just different.
I was when I volunteered in Haiti for just one week, on a medical missions trip. When I came home I wrote Help for Missionaries Coping With Homesickness.
2. Notice when you’re most homesick (when you’re tired? hungry?)
When I lived in Kenya, East Africa for three years I was scared most of the time. I taught at an international school for missionaries’ and ex-pats’ kids, and lived on a huge compound on the outskirts of Nairobi. I wasn’t prepared for the depth and breadth of life in Kenya. I never felt totally comfortable there because I wouldn’t let myself relax. Instead of living in the present moment and accepting Africa as she was, I fought feelings of homesickness and loneliness.
Now, reading my old journals and looking through my “Memories of Africa” scrapbook, I realize that I was most homesick on the weekends. I was lonely, but didn’t talk to people. I was sad, but didn’t share my feelings. I was homesick, but didn’t explore very many healthy ways to feel less lonely (I actually relied on one thing that helped me feel less homesick, which I share in the next tip). But I was too scared to do anything fun or interesting, like make friends or go to concerts in Nairobi or even join teachers on games or Survivor night.
Imagine yourself volunteering in Delhi, India. You’ve spent the day with kids at the orphanage. You’re exhausted, physically and emotionally drained. You’re sad because these children don’t have parents or families. So many kids, some sick, some scared, some disables or wounded. This may be when you start feeling more homesick than ever. It’s not just homesickness because you’re in India, far away from home! It’s sorrow and grief for these kids, and the world.
3. Allow the homesickness to move through you
I coped with feeling homesick in Africa by walking the track in the school’s compound. It was an outdoor track, America sized, with white powdery lines and red Kenya dirt. The sky was immense! It was pitch black at night – the sun goes down at about 6 pm in Nairobi. The stars filled the sky, all sorts of different constellations than I saw at home. So many stars, all the way down to the horizon. I walked that track and talked to God. And I felt less homesick.
How will you cope with homesickness when you’re volunteering at the orphanage in India? Make a plan now, before you go. Decide that you’ll write in your journal, or listen to podcasts, or talk to your fellow volunteers. Maybe you’ll read about Delhi and the history of orphanages, or talk to the teachers. Maybe you’ll spend extra time with the orphans themselves, playing games or reading together.
You can plan some activities that you think might help you cope with feeling homesick in India. But, I also encourage you to be open to new possibilities that will arise when you get there! For example, I could never have planned to walk a track in Africa as a way of coping with homesickness, but God knew. I felt the peace and joy that surpasses all understanding at the same time as I felt homesick.
If you aren’t sure how to cope with feeling homesick in India, read Are You Traveling Alone and Feeling Homesick? Pay attention to the readers’ comments – you’ll see that you’re not alone.
4. Let pain and grief move through you
Doing volunteer work in India – especially with children in an orphanage – will make you sad. Your heart may break for the kids you’re spending time with; many will be sick, malnourished, physically disable. Crusty. Missing limbs. Blind. I did some volunteer work at orphanages in Africa, and my heart broke for the kids. Their faces were often dirty and crusted with pus and snot, their eyes runny, their clothes shabby, their bodies skinny. But oh, the joy on their faces when we came to visit! They were so happy to see us, and didn’t care what activity we did together. All they wanted was attention, love, kindness, compassion. Hugs.
Again, let the pain and grief move through you. Feel it, express it by writing and weeping and talking. And let it go. The orphanage will give you ideas and guidance about what activities to do with the kids. Ask if you’re permitted to bring books, toys, or craft items to India. Bring things that you and the kids can work on together.
5. Focus on the kids at the orphanage in India (not your feelings)
It’s taken me this long – almost 15 years – to realize I was far more focused on me than I was on my students, or the Kenyan people, or even my fellow teachers when I was in Africa. I didn’t learn Swahili or immerse myself in the culture. I certainly didn’t consider the impact I was making on others, both positive and negative. I just thought about me me me me me.
To truly make it make this Indian volunteer experience meaningful for you, focus on connecting with the kids in the orphanage. Put aside your fears, queasiness, concerns, judgements, and perspectives. Get out of yourself. Feel how you feel, think what you think – but then shake it off. Yes, you’re homesick in India. Accept it. Then, focus on the kids in front of you, and concentrate on making your time at the orphanage deep, rich, and memorable.
6. Make yourself comfortable, like you would at home
“If you are planning to stay in India for long, particularly if you are volunteering or if you are going as student, the Cocoon Silk MummyLiner can come in handy,” says Shalu Sharma, author of Essential India Travel Guide: Travel Tips And Practical Information. “Made of silk, it’s ideal for India where it allows one to feel cool in the hot Indian summer and is warm in the cold winters. Its hand washable, and can be washed and dried easily in India.”
Shalu Sharma’s Essential India Travel Guide: Travel Tips And Practical Information will give you a good idea what to expect while volunteering in India. This book stems out of her experiences of traveling in India and around the world. She portrays true pictures of the realities and issues facing women who travel – and doing volunteer work at an orphanage in India definitely counts as travel. :-) You might also want to read her blog post: Essential Travel Items for India.
Take a few “comforts from home” with you to India. This will make your volunteer work experience more comfortable and enjoyable. Maybe a stuffed animal, pictures of your favorite pet, or even your mom’s scarf or your dad’s t-shirt. Comforting yourself with familiar items, scents and pictures will help you cope with feelings of homesickness when you’re traveling.
For more tips on coping with homesickness, read 7 Easy Ways to Make Friends When You’re Traveling Solo. I wrote it for an Indian traveler who was visiting Vancouver and feeling homesick!
What have I missed? Feel free to share your own tips, or write your story below. Writing can bring clarity and insight, and help you cope with feeling homesick when you’re a solo female traveler.
Travel in faith, and be transformed.