Bright fabrics of red, yellow and blue drape gently around three smiling women. Their shiny bracelets jingle merrily as they walk past, right before blaring car horns interrupt my colourful thoughts. The cars suddenly stop to let a cow slowly wander across a chaotic Mumbai road.
On a side street children run around in an enthusiastic match of barefoot cricket. As I walk on – eyes wide open – I impulsively pinch my nose to protect it from a stench that escapes the littered gutters, before finding relief in the pleasant aromas of various spices. India is a place of extremes. In every sense.
The sensory overload I experienced on each of my visits to India is mixed with emotions of the human extremes. Extreme wealth. Extreme poverty. Extreme happiness. Extreme hardship. Extreme pride.
As a traveller, I see India as a place of extremes and my two very different business trips provide two very different perspectives of life and travel in India. The first time I travelled to India was as a corporate management consultant, staying (reluctantly) in 5 star accommodation for a fly-in, fly-out workweek.
I say reluctantly as the comfort within the walls of the hotel was uncomfortably too different from that experienced within the shanty community immediately outside the hotel entrance. Watching families living in slum conditions while I suited up for work was unsettling. I felt compelled to do something.
With long workdays during my brief stay the only time I could spare was after dinner, so a colleague and I ordered extra food to give to families sleeping rough on the surrounding streets. We did this every evening until the final night of our trip when a mother refused to accept the food we offered.
7 years later I learnt why: she didn’t want a handout.
The primary objective of my second business trip to India was to provide a hand up rather than a handout. I led a group of 12 Australian leaders on an international volunteer program, where they worked alongside members of rural villages – helping them to help themselves so they could break their own cycles of poverty. Without handouts.
The group laid bricks for a school toilet bock, painted educational murals on a women’s health centre and helped Gopi Bi, a mother in India’s lowest caste, to fetch clean water. Unlike my first Indian experience, there were no boardrooms or business suits in sight.
The sensory extremes in the metropolis of Mumbai were just as noticeable when travelling and volunteering in the rural communities of Rajasthan. Smells, sights, sounds, tastes, touch – and more cows.
In Gopi Bi’s single-room home, made of mud and cow dung, she spoke of the education her youngest daughter is getting, which was not available before her eldest daughter married. Gopi Bi made ciabatta bread over a crackling fire in her smoke-filled kitchen, which doubles as the family’s bedroom. The basic dough would be the family’s entire dinner. She baked proudly knowing this was a meal she’d provided for her family.
She expressed gratitude for our hands-on help with her household chores, but she didn’t want anything else from the group beyond water and conversation. She asked questions to learn more about where we’d travelled from and what life was like in Australia. She didn’t ask for any handouts.