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Discovering the river of life
by Maria Belmonte Saldaña

Spanish university volunteer Maria Belmonte Saldaña gets stuck into the ‘Greenathon’, a clean-up of the polluted Yamuna river. (UNV)Spanish university volunteer Maria Belmonte Saldaña gets stuck into the ‘Greenathon’, a clean-up of the polluted Yamuna river. (UNV)Maria Belmonte Saldaña, a Spanish university volunteer, with some of the children who live along the banks of the river Yamuna. (UNV)Maria Belmonte Saldaña, a Spanish university volunteer, with some of the children who live along the banks of the river Yamuna. (UNV)Spanish university volunteer Maria Belmonte Saldaña was assigned to Indian NGO Swechha. “What impressed me the most,” she say, “was the spirit of hope, compassion and team work that I saw there, not only among the members of the office, but also in the support received from hundreds of people who belonged to completely different backgrounds.” (UNV)Spanish university volunteer Maria Belmonte Saldaña was assigned to Indian NGO Swechha. “What impressed me the most,” she say, “was the spirit of hope, compassion and team work that I saw there, not only among the members of the office, but also in the support received from hundreds of people who belonged to completely different backgrounds.” (UNV)
27 October 2009

New Delhi, India: Exactly one year ago, in October 2008, I set forth to accomplish one of the biggest dreams of my life. After months of uncertainty, suspense and visa problems, I finally landed in New Delhi.

It was a very special night as the country celebrated one of its biggest festivals - Diwali, the festival of lights. It was my first time in India, and after a 20-hour trip, the city welcomed me. Music and lights everywhere, people eating, dancing, singing…

I was delighted to watch the outbursts of colour all over the sky, but while some people’s expectations were being satisfied, those of others were burning in flames.

The next day I woke up to a warm shiny morning and I went to Swechha, the NGO I was to volunteer with for the next six months as a Spanish university volunteer. I was so excited! But as I was climbing the stairs, I could sense a strong burning smell, and when I finally reached the third floor the picture was bleak: everything was burnt!

“A rocket came through the window last night,” they explained, “and as nobody saw it, everything kept on burning until this morning.” Everybody was shocked, but what impressed me the most was the spirit of hope, compassion and team work that I saw there, not only among the members of the office, but also in the support received from hundreds of people who belonged to completely different backgrounds.

During my assignment I helped and supported the organization through a variety of projects - from workshops, seminars and conferences to concerts and film premiers.

One of the most exciting projects we undertook was the Greenathon, a 24-hour marathon clean-up drive along the banks of the river Yamuna, one of the most polluted rivers in the world.

It was a great success, as we reached out to thousands of people, but what was even better to see was the large number of volunteers who spontaneously joined us during this campaign. Talking to them, I got to know that almost all of them were already volunteering with different NGOs and organizations across India, and this made me realize that there are a large number of people in India who want to make a change in their own communities.

Towards the end of my stint with Swechha, I was given the opportunity to get involved in a project called the Yamuna Yatra, a 12-day trip along the river Yamuna with 21 other participants from completely different backgrounds.

I was primarily responsible for the organization and coordination of this project, which aimed to make the participants aware about the progressive degradation of the river from its source in the Himalaya, where it is pristine and blue, to Agra, where it is completely dead.

I also looked for funds for the unprivileged participants, and was responsible for managing the logistics and conducting a few facilitations during the trip. It was such a great experience for all of us! This especially came across after reading the participants' feedback forms, as most of them referred to the Yatra as a "life changing experience".

One thing I was greatly impressed about was the religious tolerance and coexistence that exists in India. My house was behind a Gurdwara, the Sikh temple, and most of my neighbours belonged to that religion.

I had only recently even heard of Sikhism. But despite our initial communication problems, soon we got to understand each other and they explained me the basic principles of their religion and even invited me to their house for Guru Nanak’s birthday celebration.

It was here that I ate halwa for the first time, a typical Indian sweet commonly served at the Gurdwara as a Prasad or offering. What was amazing to see was the heterogeneity of the attendees:  Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Catholics, Protestants, all praying together and celebrating the birth of Guru Nanak.

Apart from all the things I did during this time, I brought back with me the greatest gift - being a volunteer with UNV gave me the opportunity to know and learn from the inside about such a different and interesting culture. This allowed me to break old stereotypes and to become a model in my own community and, as a consequence, to be the change I wish to see around me.

As the Bhagavad-Gìtá says, “Whatever action a man accomplishes, it is also accomplished by the others; whatever model he gives them, it will be followed by the world”.
UNV is administered by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)