Last year I was invited to join a group of women for a two week trip to India being lead by Jacqueline Lundquist whose husband Richard Celeste was the US Ambassador to India from 1998-2001. Jacqueline became a passionate advocate for the country while they were there and since they returned to the US, leading trips to share her love of the people, culture, and geography, helping women build the networks they need to market their businesses, and finding ways to build bridges amongst people. She has tried to convince me to visit India for ten years but until now it never interested me.
I had friends that told stories of stepping over the bodies of beggars to go to dinner and others who spouted on about the life changing moments on the hippy trail. Neither version of India appealed to me. Something changed when Jacqueline and I sat chatting over a cup of tea last year. The idea for this trip that there would be 10-15 women invited and each one of them would bring a friend. We would be a diverse group but one that I knew would be dynamic, well-travelled and interesting knowing Jacqueline. I realised that if I was ever going to go, this was the moment. I would be in safe hands and seeing things in a way few people are able to. I was thrilled to be included in the invitation.
The other thing that excited me was that we would be helping to fund a new clean water centre through WaterHealth. Their strategy combines the use of decentralized purification centers in partnership with local communities to create a scalable and sustainable solution for processing healthy drinking water. Local women are employed to maintain, test and dispense “always pure” water at an affordable cost. Women helping women and their families to a healthier life and financial independence gave the trip purpose that simply ticking off the Taj Mahal didn't give me.
The opening of the water centre in Bangalore was something uniquely Indian with Bollywood stars mingling with the local people. No velvet ropes just people reaching their hands out to help one another. The opening was followed by an evening meal hosted by Rotary, a partner with Water Health, where we discussed the major initiatives they are undertaking to improve the lives of people in their communities and around the globe. The time and effort these businessmen and their families put into these efforts was eye-opening. It is easy to forget sometimes how much charitable groups, not government, are responsible for positive action in our communities.
The first challenge for me was that none of the women I hoped would be able to join me - the timing was tricky, the trip expensive, and the schedule exhausting. When my friend that thought she would come changed her mind, I was suddenly going on my own. For all of the business trips I've done on my own all over the world, I had never gone really gone on a big trip like this alone. Joining a group without knowing anyone but the hostess had my introverted self in a mild panic. Luckily, another woman found herself in the same position and we were able to meet in London before the trip and decided to travel together.
The second challenge was the entire idea of joining a group trip at all. Suddenly I had no control over the itinerary or schedule. I hadn't realised I was a control freak used to being in charge until I was about to get on a plane and have to open myself up to doing what other people had planned.
And so I followed the advice I give my children - I threw myself into everything. I joined in at every opportunity, I didn't sit out a single meal or expedition no matter how tired I was (well I skipped a nightclub partly due to asthma and partly fear of feeling old in the midst of young hip people. But mostly the asthma. Really.) And, just as I tell the children, I made new friends and had incredible experiences because I said yes to everything.
I was fortunate that the two indomitable Australians on the trip took me under their wings and over the course of the trip, I became a little more intrepid. The three of us happily explored the villages meeting people, talking, and finding out about their lives. I stopped being shy about asking people if I could take their picture. I rode a motorcycle for the first time - in a properly ladylike fashion sitting sideways. I was taken to visit a local school where I met the children who were being supported because their parents couldn't afford to educate them. And when a family invited us in to sit and visit, we went, had a cold drink of water and a refreshing cup of yogurt. How much more enlightening travel is when you're a little intrepid and outside of your comfort zone.
In Delhi, Bangalore, and Mumbai we were fortunate to be welcomed into people's homes where they had gathered groups of local businesswomen and politicians. We laughed, drank great wine, danced, and ate amazing food. We talked about everything from helping our children deal with exam stress to how to improve access to funding for women-owned businesses and increase the representation of women in government (29% of the UK House of Commons, 19% of the US House of Representatives, and 12% of the Lok Sabha in India).
As the boys and I have found in all of our travels, it was clear over the course of these evenings that wherever we go in the world, people share the same joys and concerns. It is these similarities and our ability to connect that gives me hope we will learn to work together on issues like climate change and global poverty. People have asked me how I could go to India and drink champagne when there were people living in extreme poverty. But there are people living in poverty in the UK and the USA as well. There are children going without sufficient food, particularly in the summer when they don't have school meals. I think the difference is that in those countries we hide that side of things away. We know where to go and stay in our comfort zone. In India, the extremes of wealth and poverty sit next to each other (and the middle class is the size of the entire US population). This isn't to say that there isn't a problem and continued action isn't needed but to question the morality of visiting seems short- sighted.
I was also asked if I found India life changing in some sort of mystical way. Unlike others I know, I did not have some sort of great awakening of my soul or feel that I had found some place I loved and returned to again and again. But, like any trip, I added to my understanding of my world and I pushed myself more outside of my comfort zone more than usual. And that is never a bad thing. Oh...and I developed an insatiable desire to spend my free time watching Bollywood movies.