Welcome to Incredible India!

14/02/2015

There aren’t many things that will get me out of bed before 6am. Without being able to instantly down a decent coffee, there are even fewer. But seeing the sunrise over the Taj Mahal on Valentines Day with my 13 trusty Valentines, yeah, that made the cut.

I don’t know why I was so excited to see a building. Maybe it’s the history behind it, a great 17th century love story where an Empress dies in childbirth leaving the Shah to erect a magnificent tomb in her honour. Or maybe it’s the “Wonder of the World” status, of this marble creation built by elephants and thousands of men before the time of cranes and OH&S. Or perhaps it was just the sheer fame of the Islamic structure, visited and marvelled at by millions of people every single year. Whatever the reason was, I knew I was about to experience something extraordinary! (As did my fellow traveller Caitlin, who likened it to the feeling she had before she saw JT live- big call).

In my experience of visiting worldly monuments, I often find myself underwhelmed (e.g. The Mona Lisa, the leaning tower of Pisa, the Parthenon). But the Taj Mahal was just as grand and amazing as it is made out to be. Not only is it huge and stunningly beautiful from a distance, but close up all the intricate details are so perfectly designed and created that I have a whole new respect for Islamic artists and their patience. I think we were all still so in awe of the Taj as we were leaving that we all bought tacky, over-priced merchandise from the stalls out the front just to savour the memory.

As if we had not experienced enough historical/architectural amazingness for one day, we back up our visit to the Taj with a visit to Agra Fort. The masterpiece and home of some of India’s most famous dynasties, the most well known being the Mughals.

400 years ago, to get into Agra Fort, you would need to overcome a moat filled with crocodiles, a 15 foot wall with men tipping hot oil on you, a ledge swarming with lions and tigers, and another 15 foot wall with men tipping hot oil on you (just to be safe). Today, we just presented our ticket and strolled through a pretty slack security check. Our in-country guide Adi was a bundle of information within the walls of the Fort, taking us from room to room and describing what it was used for and who had lived there. Even after centuries of degradation the palace is still pretty mind blowing. I can’t even begin to imagine how breath-taking it would have been with its gold and jewel encrusted rooms.

And before we knew it, it was time for the final dinner. True to form, it was spicy and delicious, full of laughs, and left us all with impressive food babies. With our stomachs content and our bags packed all we had to do was get on a train to Delhi and be in bed by 11:30. Or that’s how it would have worked… If our train wasn’t running 2 hours late.

Now I really do think there is a charm to India’s chaotic and bustling nature, but I cannot bring myself to see the light in the train stations. They are dirty, packed with commuters and homeless people, and the stench of the “human waste” on the track does not make for a happy Caity. Nor does the weight of my pack (which has definitely been stacking on the kgs since I arrived) which needs to be lugged around said station. But that’s the thing about India, you have to be flexible and patient, because you’re frustration will get you nowhere.

My head finally hit the pillow at 2:30am. I wasn’t in a marble palace, and my bed wasn’t golden or encrusted in jewels, but after a 5:30 start I had never been more grateful for sleep. What a day!

Caity Hall, Melbourne

10/02/2015

Yesterday was our last day in Dharamsala. Most of us have agreed that it was our favourite place so far- a beautiful sprawling village beneath the Himalayas that saw gorgeous warm sunshine during the day and chilly temperatures at night. The snow capped mountains in the distance were a breathtaking backdrop to the faded but vibrantly coloured buildings scattered across the cliffs.

After catching auto rickshaws down the mountain to the village centre, we walked past the markets selling beautiful Tibetan yak wool socks, pashmina scarves and little trinkets and had brunch at a quirky little rooftop restaurant overlooking the town. Some of the group strolled down to the Buddhist temple and Tibetan museum, but a ‘closed for lunch’ sign meant we missed it on our last day (I think we’re getting used to India’s mostly endearing way of running on its own ‘India time’!).

After our lunch of momos and a little more shopping, we went back to the hotel to pack our bags for the long 12 hour overnight sleeper train to Rishikesh. Some of us were a little apprehensive about the train ride but I think it turned out to be relatively pleasant. It was nice to be able to finally lie back and get some sleep on such a long journey!

One of the issues that we’ve been faced with as a group of 13 females (plus one male) is the unwanted male attention, which became pretty apparent on the sleeper train, with men lingering around our bunk beds. This issue has been something that we’ve been able to engage with on a few different levels, which has enabled us to look at it more critically. One the one level, we’ve been able to have a bit of a laugh about it, which I think has helped the group bond more closely, since we’re all in the same boat. On another level, the nature of this study tour and its objective of harnessing ‘purposeful travel’ with young people, has meant that we’ve discussed issues such as gender equality, patriarchy and culture in meaningful ways, which I don’t think would have necessarily arisen had we simply been a group of women on a regular vacation. If this were the case, I think I would have been more likely to return home with rather negative views of Indian men and their behaviour, rather than thinking about the ways in which globalisation and poverty have engendered unfavourable representations of Western women in Indian men’s imaginations.

Chatting about gender issues during our evening debriefs has also made us question our preconceptions of the subjugated Indian woman and the nuances in feminist ideals across cultures. We’ve also been able to draw parallels between patriarchy in India and the ways it manifests in Australian culture, in the home and in the workplace. So far, it’s been an incredibly insightful journey and one that I think has brought about a lot of meaningful reflection and debate! I’m looking forward to exploring beautiful Rishikesh and seeing the Taj Mahal at sunrise as we wrap up this incredibly memorable trip!

Megan Giles, Melbourne

09/02/2015

The moment our taxis started struggling up the steep climb to Dharamsala I felt my pollution beaten body being rejuvenated. One deep breath in, one deep breath out and the sweet mountain air began to detox any remnants of Delhi and Amritsar from my lungs. Don’t get me wrong I loved the hustle and bustle of Old Delhi and the institutions we had the privilege to visit, but sometimes all you need is a change of scenery to fully appreciate the unique qualities of each city.

We’ve been here for almost two days and I still marvel at the fact that everywhere we go, the Dhauladhar mountains of the outer Himalayan range tower above us like majestic jewels fringed with several layers of snow. After being in Delhi for a week I was beginning to forget what clear blue sky, being able to see 100m in front or walk a flight of stairs without struggling to breathe felt like. You also feel safer walking up the mountain roads as a lone female here considering the male to female ratio isn’t 100:1 like in Delhi!

The start of Day 8 found us visiting the ‘Church of St. John in the Wilderness’ which is one of the oldest cathedrals in North India built in 1852 AD, known for its unique gothic character and memorial of Lord Elgin, the British Viceroy of India. It is one of the many signs of British colonisation in India which brings me to the point that although a remote mountain village, Dharamsala is quite well off and the quality of life here seems to be excellent. Apart from the health benefits which come from living by the Himalayas in the fresh mountain air, there are private schools and universities up here where past UN officials were sent, and the locals specialise in agriculture. Now you can be the judge of whether the disadvantages of colonisation outweigh the advantages, however another stark difference I observed was the humble (or soft spoken?) character of people living up here, which brings me to our next activity…

Dharamsala is inhabited by quite a lot of Tibetan people which is why they built the Norbulingka Institute, a foundation to promote and preserve Tibetan culture where you are able to experience their ancient way of painting, woodcarving and more. Surrounded by the green fields of the Kangra Valley the institute (meaning Jewel Park) was built in traditional Tibetan style following a design based on the proportions of Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva of compassion. There are three main sects of Buddhism and the Tibetans are red hats which is said to have been at the heart of the conflict between them and China, who are yellow hats and still do not recognise Tibet as a country, having tightened their control over them to the point that they aren’t allowed any form of technology and limited contact with the outside world. This display of greedy power just blows my mind, but who wants to mess with China the superpower hey?

We then went on to visit the Dalai Lama temple before losing ourselves in the market stalls running up the mountain roads where quality jewellery, ponchos and Tibetan style jackets are many to be found. Heaven knows I need them as I am currently sleeping with 6 blankets as the temperature drops to -3 degrees at night. One final observation I’ll make is that even near the Himalayan mountains globalisation is evident with Dominoes pizza available. This is due to Dharamsala being a popular honeymoon destination during on-season, yet it makes you wonder what kind of future we’re building?

Naomi Baisy, Melbourne

07/02/2015

After feeling the toll from train rides, crazy traffic and being dragged into numerous photos with locals in Delhi, I found Amritsar to be a welcome change. Exhausted from the late night train arrival the night before, we woke to a classic Indian “continental” breakfast; stale cornflakes, toast with questionable butter, a banana and chai.

We ate what we could and then made our way as a group towards Jallianwala Bagh, a site in which approximately 1500 Indians were shot by the British in 1919 as they performed a peaceful protest. Now a park in which families sit peacefully together and picnic, it was hard to imagine that such am atrocity was committed almost 100 years ago.

After reflecting on the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre we made our way to The Golden Temple, a beautiful display of Sikh infrastructure. We covered our heads and removed our shoes outside the temple gate and followed a great crowd of religious worshippers into the temple gates. The Golden Temple was surrounded by what we would see as a moat. To the followers of the Sikh religion however this water is much more, a way of cleansing themselves. Many men and women bathed at the temple, dipping somewhat unwilling children into the chilly water. Many selfies were taken, chai was given and new friends were made. At one point as I wandered around the temple, I was ushered in to have chai with Caity and Erin. Knowing it was rude to refuse we went along with the process in which we were given delicious biscuits and sweets.

Already feeling touched by the beauty and generosity of the Sikh religion we made our way to have lunch at the Langar, a feast in which anyone from any religion or background could come and enjoy a free hearty meal. The experience was incredible and the food was delicious. To be welcomed into this religious practice with such genuine kindness was something to aspire to. I left feeling that Sikhism was a religion in which the human race should definitely admire and look up to.

The day for me had already been very impressive, but Amritsar still had more in store for our tour group. We made our way to the India-Pakistan border where we would witness the Wagah Border closing ceremony, a daily display of the tensions and battle for dominance between the two countries. Men in funny red hats displayed great flexibility with their high air kicks, Indians danced and cheered and it was all accompanied by the playing of a drum kit by a man on the border control office roof. We were quickly ushered away after the ceremony to avoid the stampede of patriotic Indians who rushed to the border gate. Previous worries about the safety of the ceremony left our minds as we made our way home to our hotel, impressed by the performance we had just witnessed.

Amritsar surely was an experience to remember!

Caitlin Joensson, Perth

06/02/2015

In one day in Delhi it is possible, and almost inevitable, to feel and experience a multitude of emotions. The first adventure of the day is always crawling through the noise-polluted traffic. The road signs indicate to stay in your lane, but it seems that Indians have figured out a more unique way to navigate the roads by honking and hoping that the oncoming traffic gets out of the way! Whether this be in a taxi or cycle rickshaw, Indian roads certainly test one’s nerves and danger tolerance.

The fear quickly turned to relief as we met our guide Noor on the relative safety of the streets. Noor works for the Salaam Baalak Trust Shelter Home, an organisation that provides shelter for children who have run away from their homes and families. The phenomenon of street kids is unfortunately not uncommon in India, as household abuse, poverty and lack of opportunities instils a need to escape. In 2011 Salaam Baalak Trust was honoured with the National Award for Child Welfare.

Noor, 24 years of age, left his home when he was 11, a victim of abuse from his father and brother. He courageously got on a train, and when he discovered its destination would be Delhi, that is where he decided to go. Luckily he was found by a member of Salaam Baalak and through their support successfully completed his secondary education and went on to study tourism management at a tertiary level. After hearing Noor’s story I was saddened that a young child would leave what should be the secure environment of a family, but then filled with optimism as Noor proudly recounted the achievements of the shelter home and clearly what he has been able to achieve via its support. It is encouraging to see social developments and programs within India that enables its people to help one another and seek a better future for its youth.

We went and visited the children currently using the facilities of the shelter, and were greeted with an unexpectedly enthusiastic chorus of Namaste. The language barrier was far from sufficient to stop the children from interacting with us, playing hand-clapping games and sharing with us their most simplest joys, yet what so effortlessly brought a beautiful smile to their faces. I tried to play a game with one of the children, but an older boy, using simple gestures, motioned that the child couldn’t speak nor hear. He gently brought the younger child over, and simply held him on his lap. Knowing the chaotic environment outside of the shelter, this peaceful moment reinforced how you can find compassion and gentleness amidst the harshness of the India’s dusty exterior.

Being in India has highlighted the importance of survival – whether on the roads, on the streets or in the market. Markets in India are a vibrant amalgamation of colour, smells and noise. Every item is “cheap just for you” and you quickly feel lost in the sea of goods that fill the narrow street as each vendor desperately tries to sell to you. Frustration and exasperation slaps you like the constant shoving of belts and watches in your face.

Writing this blog on the train to Amritsar after day 5 of our study tour, I finally get the chance to catch my breath whilst looking at the glorious burnt orange sunset. India guarantees a rollercoaster of emotions, and it is important to experience and be open-minded to its many facets, social struggles and cultural idiosyncrasies.

Melissa Liberatore, Melbourne

05/02/2015

Our first experience of the real India – Old Delhi – after a mercifully peaceful introduction to the country in a pleasant suburb South of the city. We began our day exploring the explosive gardens and ornate Islamic architecture of Red Fort. Then we faced out first Old Delhi market with a stroll down Chandni Chowk. Just around the corner, and down an inconspicuous alleyway, every imaginable Indian wedding accoutrement and accessory in any colour, and varying degrees of ostentatiousness spill out from stalls lining the narrow street. The experience can be harrowing or exciting, depending perhaps, on how much time you’ve spent in India already, or how much you value you order and personal space. After a quick lunch of lassi and parathas (delicious filled and fried Indian flatbread) at Paratha Walla Gully, we eventually made our way back to the Fort on cycle rickshaws.

In the evening we arrived at the beautiful India Habitat Centre for a presentation at the International Labour Organisation (ILO). We heard an introduction on the organisation from Program Officer, Andanan Menon, in which he outlined its chief objectives – decent work for all, and social protection for workers through tripartite cooperation and social dialogue. Reiko Tsushima, ILO Specialist on Gender Equality and Women Workers’ Issues, spoke informatively on challenges in the female labour market, such as lack of education and the presence of females in unorganised, or informal work arrangements. She also outlined the difficulties in accounting for women’s participation regarding home-based, family and domestic duties, which contributes to a perception of women participating less in the workforce, or as she termed them, ‘invisible.’ Lastly, we heard an engaging presentation from Sher Verick, about the need to create better quality jobs in India. He outlined the statistics relating to employment in the formal and informal sectors for both male and female workers, as well as education rates. He showed that even a small increase (or 1.3%) in formal employment in India results in a meaningful increase (10%) in employment of informal workers in the formal labour sector. He also noted a drop in participation of women in the workforce, largely due to the type of work available to women in rural areas. It was fascinating to the hear how the ILO works to tackle legal and cultural change through education, training, and policy to improve the quality of jobs, and the rates of participation in the Indian workforce.

Libby McCabe, Melbourne

04/02/2015

Day 3 on the YOA India Study Tour saw us visiting the Kripa School in Gurgaon. The school was founded by Sanjeev Nagpal, the son of the owner of Grace Home (the home in which we are currently staying), which exists to prepare children from the surrounding slum areas for school.

The children were very well behaved, waving and smiling and saying “Hi Ma’am!” with enthusiasm when we all said our hellos. A few children stood up and did some reading, others sung, and two boys even danced for us. We then proceeded to sing them “Waltzing Matilda,” “A Home Among the Gum Trees,” and taught them the Hokey Pokey, which had them laughing at us.

We had brought along a packet of chips and a juice box for each child, and they sat patiently while we handed out the snacks to all 58 of them. Around this time a few mothers had come to pick up their children, and after a few shy waves and giggles, they then performed traditional Rajasthani songs and dances for us, which the children loved as well.

All in all it was a lovely day. When you hear about slums and their disadvantaged inhabitants you are generally overcome with horror and sorrow, and while of course those reactions are warranted and the slum situation is abysmal, our day spent together was very joyous. The children were laughing and the mothers were smiling and dancing, and I think it was this humanity that really solidified the realness of the impoverished areas. Poverty is not this unreal dystopia where all you see is deprivation and helplessness, it is a very real human situation, which brings with it people with great hope and potential, who have to deal with the crushing weight of poverty on a daily basis.

An issue with poverty and the impoverished, I believe, is people’s tendency to label the issue as an individual fault, rather than a social establishment to which we all directly and indirectly contribute and benefit from. Placing yourself within the an impoverished environment, and interacting with it’s inhabitants directly should be enough to make you realise, if you didn’t already, that poverty is not an individual fault but a weight placed upon those unfortunate enough to be born within an apathetic society.

I have studied human rights and specifically slum development, but books and reports and studies will always be removed from social issues on a very important human level. Coming face to face with children who are taking part in a home-grown development initiative provides a weight to your understanding of poverty in a way that statistics never can. It also, for me, showed the importance on local grown initiatives, rather than having Westerners come in and interfere with a problem they only understand on a technical level (I hope the only lasting impression we had was a love of the Hokey Pokey).

I am not a huge fan of the Western Saviour complex, or volunteer tourism, in which people step in and out of a social issue as they please, and I think it is important to note that we weren’t there to gawk at the less fortunate, rather we were there to interact and understand the faces behind a corrupt social institution. I think we made a connection between all the academic talk and real life, and I think that is an integral step to changing attitudes and behaviours towards the poverty issue. It was only a day we spent together, but what an important day it was.

Caitlin Cataldo, Melbourne

03/02/2015

I decided to come on the study tour not only to indulge my fascination with Indian culture but also to learn more about the country’s history and politics and how that helps to shape Australia’s bilateral relations with India.

Day 2 saw the tour hit the markets of New Delhi to get some much needed shopping in. We went to Dili Haat, a tourist market that sells products from every state in India. Whilst it is a tad more expensive (and a lot quieter) then your average Indian market, we all managed to snag a few bargains and practice our bartering skills.

After the market we went to Gandhi Smriti, which is a museum dedicated Mahtama Gandhi, the man who lead the independence movement in India from 1915 – 1948. The museum is the site where Gandhi lived the last 144 days of his life and he was assassinated in its grounds on the 30th of January 1948. The museum is also home to the Eternal Gandhi Multimedia Museum, which presents Gandhi’s life and work in a series of interactive multimedia displays. The museum was interesting in that it presented Gandhi’s story in a variety of different mediums, including pictures, videos and dioramas (not to mention all the weird and wacky displays up in the Multimedia Museum).

We were joined at Gandhi Smriti by local development expert Anshuman Sharma. Anshuman is an Indian academic and Fulbright scholar who, for the past few years has been working with BBC Media Action to inform people in remote villages about the dangers of bonded labour via a weekly radio program. It was fantastic to have a local with us as we wandered around Gandhi Smriti who could answer all our questions and provide insights into how Gandhi’s political party went on to heavily shape India’s future and how that influence impacted on India’s latest election that saw right wing conservative BJP party win government.

Anshuman also joined us back at our guesthouse to give us a presentation about his work with BBC Media Action. More then 90% of India’s labour market is engaged in informal labour and the market is rife with bonded labour, which is equivalent modern day slavery. Bonded labour is “characterized by a long-term relationship between employer and employee, is usually solidified through a loan.” As there are no records of the debt kept, it becomes an inter-generational loan that grows through compound interest. In fact there are more slaves now then ever before. Anshuman and his two colleagues produced a weekly radio program aimed at rural villagers in three states around Delhi. The program provided information about bonded labour, government programs for the poor and labour rights. The program reached a remarkable amount of people (estimated direct engagement of 250,000) and is a fantastic example of how communications can be used in a development context to help raise awareness of important issues such as bonded labour.

Madelaine Sexton, Melbourne

02/03/2015

“Welcome to Incredible India!” my colleague exclaims, as we exit Delhi airport approaching a taxi that has certainly seen better days. Like many Australians, I have travelled extensively throughout Southeast Asia. India, however, is a whole new experience. So when Erin Lynn, Founder of Generate Worldwide, approached me with the idea of running a study tour together some six months ago, I jumped at the opportunity. India has certainly always been on my bucket list. That my partner’s family hails from Kolkata might have something to do with this. But it was that first meeting with Erin when her passion for the country really rubbed off on me, and sent us both on a journey of creating a purposeful travel opportunity for young people to not only learn more about the social, political and culture histories of this ‘incredible’ country, but also to develop personal and professional skills that would see them better placed to compete in an increasingly globalised labour market.

The mission of YOA is not only to connect young people with opportunities for personal and professional development, but also to connect them with their community, leaders and peers, both local and global. What better way to do this than to facilitate a structured travel experience where one can learn not only more about another country and its peoples, but also about themselves. Numerous studies have highlighted the benefits of travel in this regard. A recent report from the European Commission found that ‘young people who study or train abroad not only gain knowledge in specific disciplines, but also strengthen key transversal skills which are highly valued by employers’. Skills like adaptability, flexibility, teamwork and cross-cultural communication. The study also revealed that ‘graduates with international experience fare much better on the job market. They are half as likely to experience long-term unemployment compared with those who have not studied or trained abroad and, five years after graduation, their unemployment rate is 23% lower’. International travel is thus not only important from a personal perspective, in terms of increasing cultural awareness and understanding, but there is also an economic argument to be made about supporting young people to engage internationally. This is particularly relevant in the context of youth unemployment reaching epidemic proportions both in Australia and aboard.

Over the next two weeks 14 young Australians will undertake a study tour of Northern India, journeying from Delhi to Amritsar, Dharamsala, Haridwar and Agra, to explore the themes of democracy and governance, social stratification and religion. Over the course of this travel and learning experience we have asked each of our study tour participants to reflect upon and document their own personal journey. This daily blog will culminate in an event two weeks after our return on March 3, where participants will share their experiences directly with the YOA community in Melbourne. We invite you to follow us online using #YOAIndia2015 and join us on this truly incredible journey!

Namaste.

Margaret Quixley – Founder, Young Opportunities Australia