We hope everyone has enjoyed Rosie’s adventures as much as we have. She is jetting off to Kenya this week, so we are sure to have some more adventures from her shortly. But for now, the tail end of her India trip escapades unfolds…
Playground build #5, Bhadohi, Uttar Pradesh, Northern India
I am afraid that this update is a little less enjoyable than those sent previously. After a bloody ripper weekend in Ipswich with a couple of legends listening to some phenomenal country tunes, I headed back to polar-opposite-India. I have entered a state which is known to be unsafe, hot and a terrible place for women.
My first transition into the state was after 32 hours on the road, in the plane and at airports, I was KNACKERED. On arrival the team had selfies with me before allowing some much needed sleep.
I helped Socheta final paint her current project before gearing up for another 6 hour journey.
After travelling 200km (which takes around 6 hours) we arrived at our next project in the evening. The area is very rural and traditional, looking around there are many many men in sight and no women. Our accommodation was to be at the office of our local partner surrounded by cropping fields, which unfortunately was not ready for us on arrival. Instead of clearing the room of boxes, putting light bulbs in the sockets, securing the building and setting up beds, the local representative had called all of the neighbours over to see and have selfies with the white girl. To say I was unimpressed is an understatement, anyone who knows me when I am tired knows I will stab anyone who stands between me and sleep. Throwing in the extreme levels of sexism, becoming a sideshow for entertainment and putting a camera in my face surrounded by strange men, you can imagine the mental breakdown swelling under the surface.
We ended up staying at a dodgy local hotel, where bucket showers are a standard, glow in the dark galaxy stickers are a ceiling feature and flushing toilets a luxury. In the morning we heard of some locals attempting to steal the drivers car outside the office. So it is safe to say we are not staying alone in a remote area, with no lights, no women, no knowledge of local language or customs. This is the first location in India where I have had real and severe concerns for my safety. It is terrifying to know this is thousands of women’s reality across India, where the sheer lack of respect and support within the communities prevents them from leaving the home alone.
Although the team and I (now down to 3 women, Cambodian-American, Indian and myself) were pretty ready to call it on the project due to safety concerns. We spoke at length about how maybe 3 women managing and building a project in the area is exactly what this community needs. How either consciously or unconsciously, local men, women and children might see that women can have roles other than in the home. Which may be a tiny step to appreciating how badass the women they are lucky to surround themselves with, are. We decided to stay and finish the project, because if there is any community who needs a little bit of inspiration, a little bit of joy and a few women telling the men what’s up and to jam it, this is it.
The project itself isn’t particularly tough, lots and lots of tyres, a maze, a snail trail and a swing set. The weather is the hard part. At 38-40 degrees each day, it wasn’t long until this cold weather dweller (thanks Melbourne) managed to suffer heat exhaustion. FYI – would not recommend. Shout out to AB for being my international nurse! The perseverance of the labourers and welder through the heat is truly mesmerising. Especially considering not many people I know would get out of bed in the morning for $5-10 a day, let alone work their butts off in 40 degree heat.
The culture of the area and school, unfortunately didn’t get any better from first impressions… The male gaze, while present and constant throughout my entire time in India, is next level here. It is almost a feeling of predator and prey. Truly terrifying. The school itself appears to have less and less women as the grades go up, apparently girls drop out in about 7th grade to learn domestic skills. The teenage boys appear to believe they run the show. Speaking of teachers, spending days on site, it became apparent that scare tactics are how the children are controlled. Each teacher carries a big stick and isn’t afraid to use it on the children, no words for this barbaric behaviour from the dark ages.
On a positive note, this area is famous for carpets, the storage and transportation of yarn is epic in colour and textures. We had the opportunity to go into a couple of carpet factories and the process was amazing.
As always the tiny humans are superb, and so stoked to be getting a playground and having strange looking humans to stare at. The local press have jumped onto this project as well, printing in 3 different newspapers, ‘Rojie from Australia’ is mentioned with an unnecessary amount of photos.
The TukTuks are next level, serving as school bus, bike transportation, rock & steel delivery, additional height where ladders fail, you never really knew what was going on, in the most hilarious way possible.
While the community as a whole was incredibly sketchy, the families of the labourers we had on site were amazingly welcoming. They cooked for us each day, invited us into their homes and we played with their children for hours on end. They were clearly shocked that we were interested in their lives, cultures and families (see image of the whole clan). Which we later came to realise, was a deep routed caste thing, as managers never interact with labourers other than giving orders.
In completing the project, I am both stoked we came to UP, provided some joy, challenged the local caste system and the typical image of women. But also incredibly stoked to be leaving, as I miss being able to walk on the street alone, or not be creepily watched as I drink a chai. The simple joys.
I hope you are all well, missing Australia like crazy between all these antics, off to Pune next,
Varanasi, Pune & Playground build #6
Don’t worry, you won’t read this one and think, ‘COME HOME NOW’, vibrant, beautiful and challenging India is back!
Known as the holy city, Varanasi is where the main holy river passes through, where priests study, yoga was invented, most Indian make pilgrimage to once in their lives and bathing, cremation and scattering into the river is sacred. It is also known as the highest level of scammers in India, which is an interesting contradiction to religion and holiness. We only spent a day and a half in Varanasi; strolling the river ghants (steps into the holy river) and old laneways, watching the religious ceremony and prayers at dusk, sunrise from an old rickety boat on the river and lots of poori baji (my new favourite Indian meal).
It was long enough to understand the deep connection to this place, the views, architecture, culture and cows everywhere are magical. Tourists here, while targeted, scammed and harassed by humans of all shapes and sizes, are also of a more mellow tone. Although this could be due to the legalisation of weed due to holy reasons in this city. Alcohol on the other hand, not so much, have been dry since leaving Australia.
Pune, what can I say, what a welcome surprise! After UP, in all its glory, I was beginning to loose faith in India. But Pune, is green, vibrant and welcoming. It has the feel of a young population (with exceptional taste buds), rich culture and a progressive attitude.
The project is in partnership with a couple of legendary humans who quit their jobs and started working for ‘Teach India’. Essentially volunteering to teach in schools with minimal funds to pay salaries, they crowd funded to support the school and build a playground. We are staying in one of their apartments on the lounge room floor. There is the standard India challenges of water supply (available for 3 hours each day), power cuts and heat (a/c not available). But it is nice to see how the average 20 something lives in India, an opportunity we haven’t yet been afforded.
The school grounds have two schools running, a morning school and afternoon school to service the sheer magnitude of children in the surrounding area. Unfortunately for us, the playground zone is on a rocky hill at the back where students have been utilising as a bathroom. Terrible ground conditions and permanent smell of sewage, not ideal. This project has particularly poor organisation and progress as the partners are busy with school exams and don’t really understand the whole ‘construction’ thing. The whole thing would be pretty stressful and frustrating if we couldn’t fill our bellies with superb feasts each night – Italian, Japanese, Chinese, Mexican all taste like Christmas when you have eaten a form of Indian curry for every meal for as long as you can remember. Side note, I am absolutely loving the Indian food across the nation, but it is incredibly nice to have a break and the option of cutlery!
Unfortunately, Pune is my last project in India and I must say it is sad that this adventure of playground building and village exploring is over. I would probably continue this fulfilling work if it wasn’t for India’s strict visa rules. As Departure Day rolled around, it was sad to leave a project unfinished, a team (Socheta) who had become family and a cause that I am becoming more passionate about each day. I am glad that I saw the good, the bad and the ugly of India. I wouldn’t change this experience for anything. While it was challenging at times, it is always important to check your own privilege.
Headed to the airport at 3am I barely had my eyes open and was not prepared for the strangeness to unfold. You know when you pick up a hire car, or jump in someone else’s car? Strolling along the bays, searching for the correct vehicle…. this is what Pune airport was like, but with planes. Yes they had the big airport loading arms (are these called the ‘gates’?), but instead of using these, every passenger cruised down the steps and strolled along the Tarmac in search of the correct company plane headed to the correct location. Phenomenal India, a smash in the park description of how simple yet complicated everything and anything can be here. Love your work.
I am currently in Malaysia, holidaying and exploring which is incredible.
Hope you are all well,