Travel is a wonderful thing, allowing us to see marvellous archaeological sites, architecture and natural wonders, and to experience different cultures and meet interesting people. But it can also shock you to the core.
Some destinations really open your eyes to the world’s injustices. For me, India was one such place.
I’d never had a huge desire to go, but a few years ago it suddenly jumped up my bucket list. I think the Incredible!ndia tourism campaign had a lot to do with it — all those images of colourful saris and the Taj Mahal made it look so enticing. And it is.
I spent three weeks travelling throughout the country with World Expeditions, from cruising the backwaters of Kerala, in the country’s south, to seeing Hindu pilgrims bathing in the Ganges River in Varanasi. It was a truly ‘incredible’ experience.
In Mumbai, I toured the country’s largest slum. Made famous by the Oscar-winning movie Slumdog Millionaire, Dharavi is home to more than one million people.
I arrived early and waited in the car with my driver for the tour to start. Children were playing in the gutters nearby. A young man walked up with a girl, who looked to be two or three years old. He watched as she pulled down her pants and did a poo beside the road. Then, to my complete dismay, he walked away and left her. I can only speculate, but I got the impression he was heading to work and would return later to collect her. She seemed unperturbed and simply went about her business playing on the ground.
Without adult supervision, anything could have happened to that little girl. In a worst case scenario, she could have been abducted by sex traffickers and sold into slavery. I still shudder at the thought.
Founded in 2005, Reality Tours and Travel raises awareness about life in slums and funds for community projects. Eighty per cent of its profit goes to the Reality Gives charity, providing education to young people in underprivileged communities.
During my tour, I discovered Dharavi is a city within a city, with roads, health clinics, private and government hospitals, schools, restaurants, shops, ATMs, banks, a cinema and even a gym. It is divided into two sections. One is residential, while the industrial section incorporates around 10,000 businesses. These include a plastic recycling centre, where water bottles, milk crates, and petrol containers are sold to manufacturing companies to make toys and other products. The workers are mostly illiterate farmers, who roll out their mattresses each night and sleep on the factory floor. They choose not to wear safety masks, because they are too hot, and spend their days inhaling toxic fumes. Subsequently, their life expectancy is around 50 to 60-years-old.
We came across a small rubbish tip where children were playing on top of piles of rubbish. It was next to a toilet block, which my guide said was shared by 1400 people.
Beggars are a common sight in India. I found it particularly heartbreaking seeing polio sufferers with severe deformities begging at train stations. One man had a head, torso and arms, but no lower body. Another, in a makeshift triangular wheelchair, had one giant foot attached to his body. Another’s was so badly twisted he had to walk on all fours.
It was even sadder to learn people with polio were kidnapped from rural villages as children and forced to spend their lives in cities asking for money, which goes straight into the pockets of the ‘begging mafia’. Fortunately, the disease has finally been eradicated there.
Listen: The couple who retired in their 30s and moved overseas. (Post continues after audio.)
India made me question my world view, more so than any other country.
Around 1.2 billion people live there, most of whom are Hindu; compare this to Australia’s estimated population of 24 million, the United States’ 320 million and the UK’s 64 million. While I knew it already, this really reinforced and magnified for me that western society is not the be all and end all.
Regardless of whether you want to or not, or whether you enjoy it or not, I believe India is somewhere everyone should visit during their lifetime.
The writer was a guest of World Expeditions.