Duncan Thomas (above left) set off on an overseas adventure expecting to learn a little about the world, but three months' teaching in a small Indian school taught him even more about himself
very early into my final year of school at Lockerbie Academy, in Dumfries and Galloway, I felt ready to move on to something new. I had gained entry to university based on my fifth year Higher results and the idea of a gap year had always appealed.
I investigated the possibility of a few months' unpaid work in another country and chose Teaching and Projects Abroad as the organising agency. It allows you to pick your own departure and return dates, rather than fit into pre-arranged projects.
The next few months were spent fundraising - my target was about pound;3,000 -so I hardly had time to be excited. It was not until I was on the plane to India that suddenly I couldn't wait to begin, to have my reward for hard work and to justify my decision to leave school.
By the time I landed in Chennai, on the south-east coast, I was in no doubt that I was going to have an amazing time. Within half an hour of stepping off the plane, I was in fear of my life. I was met at the airport by a TPA staff member and guided through the frantic crowd to a taxi. Like most cars in India, this was a white Ambassador, 1950s-style, with a complete lack of safety devices, such as seatbelts.
The taxi driver was playing a blockbuster soundtrack at top volume through struggling speakers, while passing drivers tried to out-blast each other.
A garish, psychedelic velvet paisley fabric covered the seats, doors, floor and ceiling, punctuated with brightly coloured, flashing lights.
I was hurled from side to side as the driver tried to keep me alive. The only form of traffic control appeared to be a flawed effort by the city police, who had placed barriers across the busiest stretches of road, hoping to slow the traffic by creating a bottleneck. The logic of the mob, though, dictated that it became a race. Huge lorries, mopeds carrying entire families, my taxi: all were trying to squeeze through the rapidly narrowing space first.
After days of travelling like this, I arrived in the small town of Kayathar, in the province of Tamil Nadu. It was here, at Baba school, that I would be teaching for the next three months.
Though much of my first week is now a blur, I clearly remember the reception I received when I walked through the school gates. Through the babble of what seemed like thousands of children, I caught snatches of English: "Hello, how are you? I am fine", "What is your name? My name is Kalimutu".
The concept of private school is very different in India. Most charge less than 100 rupees (pound;1.20) a month, so the majority of families can afford to send at least one child. Research by Harvard University in 2005 found only 54 per cent of children attended government schools.
Another difference is wage levels. Private teachers in India are almost always paid less than government teachers, the average being around 1,500 rupees (pound;200) a month.
Because government rates are so high, schools can only afford to pay for a few teachers, so class sizes are huge, and little money is budgeted for other resources. So, many parents turn to schools like Baba. It has been able to buy sports equipment and two old computers, and keep a fairly well-stocked library.
Despite the warmth of my reception, I felt very nervous the first time I had to teach. Souvenirs from home - postcards, pictures of my family and loose change -proved of huge interest to the children and invaluable for lessons. Using these and games (splitting into teams was popular), I managed to get through my first week.
Very soon, I had grown to know most of my host family who, along with Harry, another volunteer, made it easy for me to feel at home. As I settled into daily life, I became more confident in class and began to stray from the booklet provided to help plan lessons. I quickly learned that confidence is the most important thing: they do not expect fully qualified teachers.
The range of abilities in each class generally meant the more flexible I was prepared to be with my lesson, the more successful I was. Building lessons around simple themes (home, family, daily routine) helped each child to go into detail. Unusual topics, such as cockney rhyming slang, were especially popular, as they allowed more creative thinking in English.
I also discovered the art of effective time-filling. As the only rule in my lessons was that conversation was in English as much as possible, a game of chess or a mime could be useful, as the pupils had to explain situations to each other in English.
The most popular game was hangman. The children lost no time in demonstrating their vocabulary, using a huge and unpredictable variety of words, including "condiment" and "micro-organism".
Though poorly equipped, Baba provides excellent education. The standard of maths, physics and written English was amazingly high. Perhaps more important, though, was the ambition that came with knowledge. "I want to be a professordoctorlawyerpresident" were some students' hopes. For the children of sandal repairmen and tea salesmen, bound to their professions by the caste system, such open desire is a new phenomenon. The primary thought of each is to bring benefit to others. So it is not blind ambition.
For me, this was an unbelievable experience. Being away from home has prepared me for whatever lies ahead. Receiving such hospitality from people far poorer than anyone at home, made me feel lucky and ashamed to have so much wealth packed into my rucksack that I struggled to carry it. Hopefully, I helped the children learn English.
Teaching and Projects Abroad requires no specific qualifications, though there is an interview.
TPA provided excellent support all through my trip and the chance to socialise with other volunteers.
Organising your own flight and visa is much cheaper than TPA doing it, but they give a helpful luggage list.
Don't forget vaccinations: mine cost pound;460. Talk to your GP surgery or the Edinburgh International Health Centre: www.eihc.org
The entire cost of my trip for three months was about pound;3,000.