A new company claims to give you the cultural holiday you need for your mind, body and spirit and it is not a spa treatment. Hands Up Holidays offer a luxury two-week tour of India but set you up for a few days volunteer work. Sharron Livingston asks: could this be the perfect bite-size option for caring travellers who don’t have time to volunteer?
Perched atop a rickshaw picking our way through the traffic, we delighted in the dusky incense and spicy scents that perfumed the hot morning air. We had already been in Delhi for three days, and by now had acclimatised to the noise, the heat and indeed the loss of personal space. Indian culture, we found, is so friendly that it is practically in your face.
So far, we had enjoyed the elegance of colonial India and the exquisite Indian textile markets by night. In a few days we were scheduled to visit Agra to see the Taj Mahal and then onwards to the pink city of Jaiphur. But for now, from our elevated viewpoint on the rickshaw we were able to enjoy the vivid red and orange tuk-tuks, the women in gorgeous, flowing saris of luminous pinks, yellows, greens and lilacs that offer cheerful relief to the dusty, dirt walkways that straddled the tarmac.
We were following Gary Kumar from the non-governmental help group Asha (meaning ‘hope’) – just one of the many help agencies that work with Hands Up Holidays. He was taking us to a slum in South Delhi for our stint in volunteer work. We knew we were to be immersed into a world far removed from the fineries of the five star hotels and restaurants of New Delhi barely a few miles away. Finally we arrived. Our feet had barely touched the ground when we heard them.
Namaste! Namaste! Hundreds of voices, of all pitches, were shouting out this Hindi greeting as we entered the slum. Tightly surrounded by a group of lively women, we were propelled through the crowd, past a group of giggling kids and a mangy dog lying in the hot dirt, into a small ramshackle building. They plied us with cold drinks, fussed over us until we were seated and took their places on the floor.
We were visiting one of the 1500 slums in Delhi that collectively house over three million mostly illiterate people who spend their lives scratching out a meagre living. You can spot them on the streets, begging, haggling or doing menial work. Their kids are labourers, roadside fruit or fast food vendors or take jobs as part-time domestic help.
In this slum, it was all about girl-power, a committee of women called simply the Woman’s Group. Shamika, a committee member told us how they get things done. “When our toilets broke we realised that the problem could be resolved if there was a pipe. So we lobbied the attendant who collects 1 rupee each time it is used on behalf of the contractor and forced him to pass over enough rupees to pay for a pipe. The contractor was not happy but what could he do when faced with thirty angry women?”
When the attendant had a knife-held to his throat for the money he had collected, it was the Women’s Group he turned to for help. “We knew the culprit; he wanted the money for drugs. So thirty of us went to his family home, he was ashamed, and the attendant got his money back. We now help the boy to stay away from drugs”.
Gary rhapsodised about this achievement. “Ten years ago, TB, infant mortality and lack of hygiene were at unbearable levels, but it was not easy to help suspicious people. First we placed our mobile medical unit at the front of the slum. Initially we cured one, then two people of TB and other conditions. As we built up trust, some women became interested and were eager to be trained. They created the Woman’s Group to bring order to their slum. Since then crime levels have fallen by 70%.” It is a model Asha have successfully implemented in 30 slums around Delhi. When asked if they wanted the help of volunteers, the group erupted into sound nodding their heads eagerly. All sorts of help is welcome from carpentry and renovations to teaching English and IT skills. That day, a group of 12 students from Edinburgh were on-site all tooled-up. Their mission was to decorate and paint a dilapidated school building that had been donated by the government.
Elsewhere in Delhi in Girin Agar, is Project Why, a smaller but no less effective organisation where volunteers may well find themselves. Founded, run and funded by Anuradha Bakshi, the daughter of a successful diplomat, Project Why, whose head office is located in the slum itself, empowers children, keeps them healthy and educated from cr?che to secondary education. They also have a disabled children’s school, a sanctuary for kids that would have otherwise been thrown onto the streets.
“We never turn a child away”. Anuradha told us “Utpal was just a few months old when he fell into boiling fish soup. Doctors wrote him off, but we did not give up on him. We nursed him and though he is scarred on his body, he is a happy, healthy child.”
Many staff members are slum dwellers trained by Project Why to teach, administer or just help out, tasks they hope volunteers will get involved with. They live, typically, in a one-room home with a tiny, basic kitchen, housing up to seven family members. Enjoying cup of hot chai – a sweet milky tea with parents Raju and Sandhya, (who also work in the school) they showed us, eyes gleaming with pride, their children’s excellent school report. It was a moment pregnant with poignancy.
Enjoying a thali lunch (a plate of small amounts of different Indian dishes) with Anuradha, she told us; “Our kids love interaction, they love to know about the outside world, to hear English and French, to learn new songs, anyone who loves kids can teach them and it gives them a future.” Later when we gave the kids a (toneless, we thought) rendition of Frere Jaques, the kids revelled in learning this quirky French ditty. Their joy was apparent and it left us feeling virtuous.
Before we left Anuradha left us with this thought: “India is still a land of snake charmers and Maharajas, but people may be poor in property but are rich in smiles. I can enter any poor man’s home and be given a drink. If I entered the home of a rich man I would probably be bitten by the dog. It puts things into perspective”.
And that is the point – perspective, but not just ours as the visitors, but of those who received us. In just a few days, apart from the practical help, visitors bring as many insights and as much cultural enlightenment as they take away. It is a fair exchange and one worth putting your hands up for.
Hands Up Holidays offers “A Taste of India” - 12 Days touring the Indian Golden Triangle with around 5 days contributing to community development. This could be teaching English, assisting, house building etc. The rest of the holiday is exploring and sightseeing.Cost ?900 (not including flights)
Community Development Project
Repairs & Renovations, Teaching English with Asha and Project Why
• Delhi’s Gandhi Memorial, and temples
• The Taj Mahal
• Sariska Tiger Reserve/Ranthambore Reserve
• The “pink city” of Jaipur
• The deserted city of Fatehpur Sikri
Hands Up Holidays (0800 7833554, www.handsupholidays.com).
Add Your Comment