Jo in the yard with some of the long-term shelter dogs. (Jo Carnegie/Yahoo Travel)
Jo Carnegie, celebrity journalist and author of nine ‘chick lit’ novels, gave up her posh life in London to volunteer for three months at Tree of Life for Animals (TOLFA), an animal shelter in Rajasthan, Northern India. Yahoo Travel caught up with her to find out what it was like.
What made you go? To an outsider, I was living “the dream.” My home was in a beautiful part of London, and I interviewed stars like Daniel Radcliffe for a living. I had disposable income and a busy social life. Yet, on a fundamental level, I was… bored. As nice as my life was, there were no surprises. I was starting to feel guilty for spending all this time and money on myself. My creativity had also dried up — another sign that I wasn’t fulfilled. I knew if I wanted to write about life, I had to get out there and experience life. I’d always had a yearning to work with street dogs abroad. Now seemed like the right time.
What did people say when you told them you were swapping celebrities for street dogs? Barring the reaction from one or two non-dog-lovers, everyone was really positive. Interestingly, the most enthusiastic response came from those higher up the career ladder, the friends who supposedly “had it all” — the ones I’dalways aspired to be. “I’d love to have an adventure like that,” one person told me wistfully, “but I’ve got too many responsibilities.” That only confirmed it: I was single, and I had a very understanding landlord and a job I could do pretty much anywhere. I was off!
Tell us more about TOLFA. Tree of Life for Animals is a busy animal shelter and hospital eight kilometers outside the town of Pushkar. It was set up 10 years ago by Rachel Wright, a veterinary nurse from England, who lives on site with her family. Predominately dedicated to the welfare of street dogs, TOLFA also carries out sterilization programs and life-saving vaccinations against rabies. It’s not just dogs, though: There are cats, donkey, cows, goats, and even a resident tortoise. TOLFA’s rescue ambulance is on call 24/7, and there are new animals coming in every day.
TOLFA is set in tranquil countryside outside the town of Pushkar. (Jo Carnegie/Yahoo Travel)
Do you need a medical background to volunteer? Not at all. TOLFA’s emphasis is on kindness and compassion. I’m what they call a “nurturing volunteer.” My job is to spend time with the animals and give them lots of care and attention.
So basically you get to cuddle puppies all day? If you want to, yes! There’s also dog walking, feeding duties, giving animals baths. There are over 160 kennels at TOLFA, so lots to keep you busy!
Dog walking in the beautiful Aravalli Mountains (Jo Carnegie/Yahoo Travel)
Are there are difficult parts of the job? There are some very sick and injured animals at TOLFA, and some of them don’t make it. But you have to take comfort that in their final days they were warm, fed, and looked after — as opposed to suffering a horrible death on the streets. So bring tissues because you may well shed a few tears, but you also get the most incredible stuff out of it! Just by showing an animal some affection, you can make such a difference to their lives. And that makes you feel pretty good about yourself, as well.
What happens after the dogs recover? Some of the older and infirm dogs become shelter dogs at TOLFA and live here permanently. Others go back to their “caregivers,” local people who look out for the dogs and feed them. Street dogs tend to live in their own little communities, and as long as they are healthy they are perfectly happy. Pet ownership is also now on the rise in India.
Weren’t you worried about catching rabies? You have to have all the relevant vaccinations before you can volunteer, and the chances of coming into contact with an infected dog are slim. Thanks to TOLFA’s heroic efforts, rabies rates in this part of Rajasthan are very low.
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Phew. What have been the best parts of the experience? Every morning, walking in and being greeted by all the wagging tails is one of the best things about this experience. Another personal highlight was getting a puppy that I’d fallen in love with a home with a local family. I think my housemate was quite relieved because I was starting to talk about bringing him home.
Jo with Wilf, the street puppy she found a home for. (Jo Carnegie/Yahoo Travel)
How has this experience changed you? I came out to India to help street dogs, but it turns out they’ve ended up helping me. Some of them have known such cruelty and suffering, and yet they are the most peaceful and affectionate animals you could ever wish to meet. These dogs teach you about the power of forgiveness — as well as the resilience to bounce back from hard times. From now on, I’m not going to sweat about the small stuff. On a more superficial level, I’ve also learned to be more patient after experiencing the Indian internet.
Seeing these guys every day will make your life happier. (Jo Carnegie/Yahoo Travel)
What advice can you give to people about taking a sabbatical? Lots of us won’t consider a sabbatical because we think it’ll harm our careers — but not taking time out can do even more damage. Having a new experience will refresh you, at the very least, but it can also help you make bigger changes in your life. See if you can come to an arrangement with your employer. Any enlightened boss will see the benefit of your long-term happiness.
Tell us a bit more about Pushkar. It’s a crazy, colorful little town famous for its lake, where pilgrims from all over India come to take puja (prayer). The bustling market is a shopping and (vegetarian) food paradise. Be wary of being offered a flower on the street — you could end up being enticed down to the lake, where a “holy” man will offer to say prayers for your family and friends for a steep fee. But that’s really the only negative. Pushkar is a friendly place that, despite the constant cacophony of motorbike horns, has a wonderfully chilled-out shanti vibe. It is also a holy town, which means that it is officially “dry.”
Pushkar at sunset against the backdrop of the Aravalli Mountains. (Jo Carnegie/Yahoo Travel)
Jo’s Quickie Guide to Pushkar
Sip chai and people watch at Gopal’s Chai Shop, which is situated in the main square. Sonu Juice Shop is down the road from the Sikh Temple. It serves delicious shakes and smoothies.
For delicious home-cooked food try Honey and Spice in the Old Rangi Temple. Nature’s Blessing is its charming sister restaurant on the Panchkund Road. Sunset Café offers good-quality Indian food and views of the lake.
Hotel Ratan Haveli is a clean and comfortable “home away from home” that is a great value for your money. The friendly owner, Sunil, has seen many TOLFA volunteers stay over the years.
A 100-year old former mansion, Inn Seventh Heaven is set around an inner courtyard festooned with rose petals. Sip chai and enjoy the view from the rooftop restaurant.
Three kilometers outside Pushkar, Ananta Spa and Resort is a serene place of landscaped perfection. Staff members are attentive, and there is a luxury spa and gym.