WORKING HOLIDAY - TRAVEL IN LUXURY
A WORKING HOLIDAY --Foreign tourists to India are beginning to look beyond the exotic and reaching out to lend a helping hand, says Deepesh Das --The Amanbagh resort in Alwar, Rajasthan makes the perfect case for exclusive living, says Deepesh Das --

These are holidays for people who want to understand different cultures and make a contribution while doing it

It might have been mistaken for an exotic scene from the colonial era. A posse of foreigners riding on horseback through the heart of the Tharp Desert. The small team cantered over sand dunes and slowed down as it came to the dusty villages along the way. As they passed through, they waved to the villagers whod lined up to watch their progress into the wilderness.

The riders on horseback hadnt returned to India to re-live a colonial past. They were holiday-makers on a mission of mercy. Theyd signed up with a group called Relief Riders International (RRI) and there objective was to make a difference in remote Rajasthan villages. So they helped conduct medical camps, donated educational material and gifted goats to poor families.

Cross the country to South India. Here, British travel company I-to-I is taking a small group sight-seeing even as they teach and help with reconstruction work in some of the worst-hit tsunami villages.

Or move to Than Gaon, a tiny village near Dehradun. Here, youll encounter tourists like communications major Jennifer Anderson and high school teacher Luke Reynolds of Connecticut, and Nora Hutchinson and Josh Welner, students from Montreal. The couples are on a service learning experience offered by Mumbai-based India Study Abroad Center (ISAC). That means that theyre volunteering and taking classes in yoga and naturopathy.

Welcome to a new way of experiencing the world and, of course, India. These are holidays for people whove had enough of sightseeing or lounging on the beach. They want to understand different cultures and make a contribution while doing it.

Says Colin Carpenter, managing director of Australian travel company, Antipodeans abroad;"Travelers are seeking a deeper level of communication with ordinary people. They dont necessarily want museums and monuments, they want access to small communities and want to feel that they can offer their services in some way".

So volunteer tourism or volun-tourism – also called meaningful tourism – is gaining ground with both travel companies and non-profit organizations stepping into this niche.

Take RRI, founded by Alexander Souri in 2004. It was while dealing with the loss of his Indian father in 2002 – his mother is French – that the film professional, whos done the special effects for film like The Matrix, began to think about how he could help villagers in remote Rajasthan.

Souri launched his first ride in October 2004 after tying up with the Indian Red Cross Society and a horse outfitter. Six riders traveled 200km over 15 days to five villages in the Shekhawati region."It was incredible. I couldnt believe that my idea had actually come to fruition," he recalls.

Since then, Souri has conducted two rides a year with 10-12 riders per tour. This February, he expanded the medical camp to provide free cataract surgeries to 87 villagers."We are focusing heavily on eye surgery now," he says, and plans to conduct 600 eye surgeries in 2006-07. Plus, he will add a third ride – a New Years one costing $6300 (minus airfare) against $5950 for the others.

The desert adventure isnt just attracting young people. RRIs riders have included investment bankers, single moms and even seniors. Like Barbara Jenkel, 65."Every five years, I try to take and adventure vacation that will challenge me," says Jenkel, a full-time volunteer in US. Barbara certainly had "a once-in-a-lifetime experience" in Rajasthan. As a volunteer I was rewarded equally, if not more, than those I was serving," she says.

Volunteering to work abroad isnt new in the West. Most famously, there are the Peace Corps, which take Americans to poorer countries. And students commonly take a gap year between high school and university to travel. But in recent years, companies like Cross-Cultural Solutions (CCS), Antipodeans Abroad and I-to-I have arisen to meet the demand for shorter volunteer assignments.

Take CCS, a non-profit founded by Steven Rosenthal in the US. In India, he teamed up with Bella Singh, therapist and NGO veteran."We didnt know anything about volunteering but we had our heart in the right place," recalls Singh.

Today, CCS runs 13 programmes a year in Delhi and Dharamsala. And compared to 1000 volunteers last year, Singh expects to place 1500 this year. CCS has tied up with NGOs, where it places volunteers based on their skills and the NGOs requirements. Three-week placements cost around $2400 (minus airfare). Volunteers range from students to working and retired people.

Like occupational therapist Corinne Slade from USA, who runs a brain injury rehabilitation business, and her husband, a colon and rectal surgeon, who spent three weeks in Delhi with an NGO for disabled people? Now, close to retirement, Slade feels that "volunteering would be a way we could travel, share our skills and learn more about different cultures".

Meanwhile I-to-I, which began by placing English language teachers overseas, has expanded to offer "meaningful tours" in eight countries. Six months ago, it introduced its South India tour, costing $2595, though it entered India eight years ago with volunteer placements."It has really grown now," says Asha Dey, I-to-Is India coordinator. Today, I-to-I gets over 30 volunteers a month across Bangalore, Calcutta, Shantiniketan, Darjeeling and Jaipur. Now, it is expanding to Delhi, and also plans to conduct one tour a month. Almost 95% of I-to-Is customers are students.

For instance, theres Jennifer All sop, 19, from England, who spent four months teaching in Calcutta and Jaipur last year. A whistle-stop tour at 16 inspired her to return and "really experience this country for myself, not to merely see the so-called highlights through the glass of another air-conditioned coach".

Professionals too are taking career breaks to volunteer. Take market researcher Richard Woods from UK, 40, who spent four months at a day care center in Tangra, Calcutta. Now he says,"Im considering re-training as a teacher".

Antipodeans Abroad too started by taking studentleadership expeditions to Gangtok and Manali. It launched gap year programmes last year. This year, Carpenter has launched two Detours Abroad for adults at Pestolozzi School in Dehradun and Than Gaon in partnership with ISAC."We see the Detours Abroad programme having an increasing appeal," says Carpenter. It is certainly drawing Aussies like Fabio Cavilli, who owns an engineering company, and spent a month at Pestolozzi School. I wanted to give back something to the world and thought the best way would be to help children," he says. Now, he has sponsored two Tibetan children to the school.

Others are also entering the segment. Like Andrew and Sarah Yallands Different Travel Company of UK, which plans to launch "responsible tours" in India next year. Says Andrew,"The future lies in the kind of travel we are advocating".

Similarly, companies like ISAC also reckon that service learning experiences are on the rise. Says ISACs CEO Safeena Husain,"A vacation is no longer about seeing sights but about bettering yourself today". So Reynolds believes his stint at Than Gaon will help him "become a better teacher in America". Husain, who first started learning experiences for medical students at Children Family Health International in San Francisco, decided to replicate this when she returned to India two years ago. Today, ISAC brings 200 medical students to India. Besides, it offers teaching experiences at Dehradun, Than Gaon and Rishikesh. On a slightly different note, it also has a film learning experience in Bollywood. Of course, volunteer vacations arent all smooth sailing. Local communities are skeptical and volunteers too get frustrated. But some visitors are philosophical and understand there are limits to what they can achieve. Law student Josh Welner admits that he doesnt expect "to make a big difference" and is happy "learning what I can while Im here". Recounts Adam Watkins, 25, who volunteered at Bangalore charity, Arivu,"Indian Stretchable Time became a way of life after a while. But to begin with, trying to organize things was stressful.

Admits I-to-Is Dey,"The volunteers feel they are going to change the world, which is a misconception. But they do make a difference because they open up the world for these children". For instance, Singh recalls how a student was inspired by a marine engineer volunteer to enroll in an engineering school.

Its not as though volunteers dont have regular tourist experiences. Hutchinson, for instance, says teaching at Than Goan is as challenging as navigating around Delhi. She says,"It was exciting to go out on your own and experience the unease and also to have this organized programme. I definitely want both experiences". And thats exactly what a volunteer-vacation allows.

         LUXURY IN THE DESERT

Costing a princely $900 a day, the splendid Pool Pavilion, as the name suggests, opens out at the back onto its own private pool.

We could have easily missed it. We were driving down narrow, dusty roads with corn and paddy fields on either side or the Aravalli hills in the distance. Wed passed innumerable villages and made way for farmers on overloaded tractors carrying gigantic sacks of grain from their fields. And, we had been warned that our destination had no signboards or hoardings advertising its presence. So, we drove slowly, keeping our eyes peeled in all directions.

Amanresorts is a global hotel chain famous around the world for its discreet properties that offer seclusion as its own special form of exclusivity. And the 18-month-old Amanbagh in Rajasthans Alwar district is no different – its camouflaged by its rural surroundings.

So it was hardly surprising that, after driving five hours from Delhi, we almost missed the resort. But, Aman staffers who suddenly appeared from nowhere to guide us to our destination saved us from the exhausting fate of wandering around Rajasthan like modern-day Flying Dutchmen. In his smart outfit topped by an impressive Rajasthan turban, he led us through what looked like an abandoned path with weeds and trees growing wild on the side. But as we kept driving we suddenly stopped a low-level beige building behind rows of palms.

Our entry into the hotel was very traditional and aimed at the tourists – foreign ones that is. A petite sari-clad hostess stepped forward and smeared vermilion on our foreheads and tied a mouli (red thread) round our wrists. Then, we were led to our rooms – or, should I say, apartments because room is too inadequate to describe the accommodation at Aman. Amanbagh has been built inside a walled compound where the Maharaja of Alwars hunting parties used to camp when they went in search of tigers to shoot. It goes without saying that there are no tigers here nowadays.

I found myself in the splendid Pool Pavilion, which, as the name suggests, opens out at the back onto its own pool. To reach the suite, I walked through a courtyard with an impeccably maintained lawn in the middle. As I plunged onto the king-size bed and sank into the super-soft pillows, I found myself looking up at a domed ceiling above me. In case you are wondering, the Pool Pavilion costs a princely $900 a day.

In the rarified world of luxury travel, Amanresorts is a chain thats entirely in its own league. The group puts up hotels and resorts in the most unlikely places and still fills its rooms. In fact, there are people whove become famous in the world of travel as Aman junkies who will travel anywhere the group puts up a hotel – they arent sightseers or ordinary tourists. They simply pay big bucks to get away from it all with Aman.

As I took stock of my suite, I began to understand why. This was a few cuts above the standard five-star room that most hotels provide. The bathtub, for instance, was carved from a single piece of marble and so was a large rectangular table in the living room. The bathroom and the dressing room that led to it were huge. And, of course, there were all the standard extras that one expects in a smart hotel, like a well-stocked bar, a pictorial book and even a music system. With great foresight, Id brought my own music so I didnt have to listen to ghazals all evening.

What does one do in the lap of luxury? In one word: swims. I eased myself into my private pool and stayed there all morning till I was exhausted and ready for lunch. So, I caught up with my friend who was waiting for me and checked out the restaurant with its soft lighting and paintings of birds on the walls. What were the most unusual dishes on offer here? Well, for a start there were four types of organic salads and a few organic side dishes. Amanbagh grows its own vegetables and herbs.

For foreigners eager to get a feel for the flavours of India, the best option is probably the Indian Tasting Menu for Rs.1600 per head. That seemed a bit too filling, so we opted for Rajasthani fare. We had Lal Mans (a Rajasthani, gravy-based meat dish), salads and hot naans – OK, thats not a very light meal either.

Our food came in silver plates and we drank from silver glasses. The service was extremely quick but perhaps that was because we were the only guests in the restaurant at that time. The only other guests in sight, a French family and a Japanese couple were enjoying their wine and snacks by the pool.

But Amanbagh certainly has enough staff to ensure that your every whim is catered to. And, in any part of the complex, there are always staffers eager to attend to your needs. For about 40 rooms, the resort has approximate staff strength of 240 people. That means about five to six staff to each room.

After that heavy lunch who would have missed an afternoon siesta? And thats precisely what I did. Even though I came with lots of plans, I ended up doing nothing but relaxing. Id thought of heading to spot the wildlife at Sariska, which is only a 35-minute drive. Alternatively, I couldve trekked to the nearby Somsagar Lake. Strangely I didnt feel like venturing out. Even my plan to visit the nearby village was abandoned. What happened? Who can tell? Perhaps I was rapidly becoming an Aman junkie.

The only time I stepped out of my room was for a meal. So, to make up for my overindulgences, I stepped into the health club. Surprisingly, compared to the huge rooms, the health club was a bit disappointing. It has only limited equipment and theres just enough for three to four guests to work out at the same time.

But the resort real beauty is revealed only in the evening. Thats when the sun slowly disappeared and darkness enveloped the complex. Suddenly there was pitch darkness all around and complete silence. Then, candles and tiny fairy lights broke the darkness. I watched it all, sitting by the pool.

The next morning was again a new experience for a city-dweller. I was woken early by the chirping of birds. I looked out of my window and saw rich green leaves everywhere. Even the birds looked cheerful and happier than they do in the city. So, I once again surrendered to the calm.

Highlight: Indian residents can avail a 40% discount till September by producing proof of permanent residency. Rates are subject to 10% service charge and 5% tax. Rates include airport transfers between Jaipur and Amangagh.