Looking into the warm, welcoming eyes of the woman in front of me – well aware that exploring the rest of her face will reveal scars resulting from an acid attack – it isn’t pity I feel, but something more difficult to describe: a combination of admiration, sisterly pride and anger at the injustice of the world.
Yet anger isn’t a feeling that Madhu – or her colleagues and friends at the Sheroes Hangout cafe in Agra, India – would encourage.
“Our beauty is our smile” their T-shirts read as they serve masala chai, explaining the important lifeline that work at the cafe has offered them. They have become campaigners too, working to raise awareness of acid attacks in India.
I leave the cafe with a lump in my throat, acutely aware that an hour earlier I’d been happily wandering out of the world-famous “monument to love” Taj Mahal taking selfies, thinking mainly about my dinner plans. Travel can be hard-hitting like that – and shouldn’t it be?
Visiting Sheroes is one of a number of eye-opening experiences I have on the specially organised G For Good trip with G Adventures, travelling to some of the social enterprise projects and other causes the operator supports and includes on its India and Nepal itineraries.
The trip highlights “travel as a force for good”, as G Adventures’ founder Bruce Poon Tip puts it. He is serious about being accountable too. About 700 of G’s trips now bear a “Ripple Score” – an evaluation rating indicating what percentage of the tour’s local expenditure remains in the economy.
The will to move forward I witnessed in the women at Sheroes would prove the overarching impression gleaned from all the projects I visited.
Rewind a day and I’m in Delhi, taking in my first glimpses of India from the back of a taxi. My driver, Rajkumari, is from Women on Wheels, which works with disadvantaged women from urban areas across India, empowering them to become drivers.
Founder Meenu Vadera describes the organisation as showing travellers a face of India “which has strong, powerful women who can change the destiny of their families”. G and the non-profit Planeterra Foundation, also set up by Poon Tip, provide funding for vehicles and training. G is the first operator to contract Women on Wheels as its India airport transfer partner, helping to create a sustainable customer base.
Soon I’m meandering through the capital’s frenetic streets, enjoying the other-worldliness of the hot sun and dust. My attention is quickly drawn back to our tour guide, Asif. He’s explaining how he ended up on the streets when he was eight, after his mother left and his father died.
India has the world’s highest concentration of street children, and the Planeterra-supported Salaam Baalak Trust provides safe housing, counselling, education and support, as well as managing five safe homes across the city.
Asif is part of the trust’s City Walk programme – a youth-led walking tour used by G in its Delhi itineraries, providing guides with new skills and giving clients a different perspective. Funds raised are used to offer scholarships, job placements and resources.
After my visit to Agra and a short flight, I touch down in Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu. Walking through the famous Durbar Square, it strikes me that despite extensive building work continuing following the country’s devastating 2015 earthquake, the city centre is alive with colour and activity. G continues to aid the post-earthquake repair effort, having fundraised $200,000 in the aftermath.
Soon it’s time for lunch, but I have to make it first. My taste buds are teased by a welcome momo dumpling as I sit down for an introduction from non-profit organisation Sasane’s programme, Sisterhood of Survivors, where women who have experienced human trafficking teach tourists how to make momos and share a traditional thali lunch.
I learn trafficking is a huge problem in Nepal, with 7,500 young girls reportedly illegally taken into India for commercial sexual exploitation each year. Sasane trains survivors as paralegals, making them the first point of contact for other women through placements in police stations in the Kathmandu Valley and Pokhara.
Planeterra helped Sasane develop Sisterhood of Survivors, which has so far aided more than 40 women. With money saved through the tourism programme, Sasane has also sent 10 survivors for guide training.
The trip’s penultimate day features a hike through paddy fields to Panauti. Our destination offers a beautiful contrast to the hustle and bustle of Kathmandu – it is a Unesco “tentative” site full of silver ribbons reflecting the sun.
Panauti Community Homestay greets our group with music and shots of local liquor. Amy, the daughter of a G chief experience officer, gives a welcome speech, explaining how the project has helped women “come out of their comfort zone”.
Communityhomestay.com helps women – who in many Nepalese communities would be limited to looking after the household – take on different responsibilities. It considers applications from villages wishing to take part before providing loans to help them develop houses and infrastructure. Training in hospitality and English is provided, with 85% of the money spent via the platform going back to the community. G provides a steady stream of travellers for homestays as well as Local Living Tours.
I’m taken to the house of Anita and her mother, Nirmala, where we make and share a Newari meal while Anita explains that most of the food has been grown locally. As night falls across the valley, I look out through the open doors at a bolt of lightning in the distance. With the sound of pans hissing and my dining companions sharing stories, it occurs to me no matter where we come from, we all want the same things: self-worth, opportunity, community and a safe home.
Book it: G Adventures’ eight-day Golden Triangle tour takes travellers from Delhi to Agra, Dhula Villageb and Jaipur and includes collection by Women on Wheels, the Delhi City Walk and Sheroes Cafe. Priced from £549pp excluding flights.
Flights: There are five non-stop flights to Delhi from Heathrow per day with British Airways and Air India, and one from Birmingham with Air India.
Language: Hindi is the predominant language spoken in both Delhi and Agra, with Nepali the most spoken language in Nepal. English is widely spoken in both countries.
Visas: UK tourists require short-term visas for both India and Nepal, costing about $100 and $25 respectively.
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