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Ladies at the health centre in Aravelli, India

Living with local people in rural India: an extraordinary experience

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India

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After exploring some of Rajasthan’s mighty Mughal cities, Audley clients Rob and Jenny Drybrough-Smith spent some time at Araveli Cottages and Tented Camp.

Set in the dusky-pink Aravalli mountains, the camp has been set up by ME to WE, a social enterprise that offers visitors the chance to interact with local people in the rural areas supported by WE Charity. The We Charity model aims to remove the social and economic obstacles that keep villages in a cycle of poverty by improving access to safe water, healthcare and education. All of ME to WE's profits are reinvested in WE Charity communities around the world.

Below, Rob recounts their experiences, how they became involved in daily village life and learned about the local residents’ hopes, concerns and determination to change their community for the better.

The lawn and lake outside the breakfast area at Araveli

The lawn and lake outside the breakfast area at Araveli

Three days in the countryside at Araveli sounded very attractive after the busy excitement and glamour of the cities and their forts and palaces.

From the moment that we arrived we were made to feel so welcome. We were met by the staff performing a puja, with much drumming and a garland of flowers each. We were introduced to the camp leader, Ricky, and taken to our room, where we were pleasantly surprised. The cottage certainly lived up to the description in our itinerary. The cottage was attractive, built with exposed stone walls. The bedroom was spacious and well-appointed with two double beds and two en suite bathrooms — spoilt for choice!

Each cottage has two rooms which share a spacious common area. Each room has its own terrace, as does the common area, with lovely views of the surrounding hills. The cottages are set well apart so the views are unobstructed.

Shared area between rooms at the cottage

Shared area between rooms at the cottage

Dinner is served in a pavilion set high up with views over the cottages to the hills in the distance, which take on a pink hue as the sun sets. The chef is KK, who introduces each dish with the broadest smile, which never leaves his face.

On our first night another couple, also on an Audley trip, were celebrating their last night. In Araveli tradition, they were dressed in a sari and kurta. Soon after arrival guests are measured up, and on their last night presented with their own sari or kurta, which is yours to keep.

The evening began with a wonderful display of traditional dancing, followed by a taste of Indian street food before the main event. After which the kitchen produced a birthday cake for my wife Jenny.

Our cottage viewed from the dining area

Our cottage viewed from the dining area

The next morning, we drove out to one of the villages, accompanied by the sound of music and singing as preparations were being made for a wedding (we were apparently at the height of the wedding season). Our first stop was at the village primary school, which WE Charity are helping to rebuild and expand.

One classroom had been rebuilt and a second was being worked on. As a result, all the children aged between three and ten were in one large classroom, some at desks, others sat on the floor writing or drawing.

The teacher sets a great example for the children. She had only completed school to grade five but had subsequently completed teacher training and was now studying for her diploma. She is the first female teacher from the village.

Talking to her, kindly translated through our Araveli guide, Ricky, we heard about the outreach work that was being done to persuade families to send their children to school. There’s a strong emphasis on the benefits of education rather than making children stay at home to clean, cook and look after their younger siblings.

After the school we visited the recently built health centre. There we met a group of village women who work to improve the health of those living in the surrounding countryside.

We spent an hour or so sat on the floor with them talking about their work, particularly with women and young girls. The discussion ranged over a wide variety of women’s health issues and their work out in the community, including checking on pregnant women and ensuring that they attended their vaccinations given by the nurse who visits the health centre once a month.

The discussion turned to the marriage traditions locally and the fact that girls can often be promised in marriage as young as seven years old — though they do not live with their chosen husband until 14 years old — but then children arrive soon after and any thoughts of education are gone. They spoke of the pressures on them to have children and how a woman who failed to have children, particularly a boy, risked being abandoned by her husband and her family may well be shunned by others in the community.

Visiting one of the elders of the village

Visiting one of the elders of the village

The women expressed their hope that their work would help to change these attitudes and empower their children to take a different course. They also asked us many questions about ourselves.

They were especially interested in the fact that we had been married for over 30 years but did not have children. They were keen to know how we felt about this and if it had affected our relationships with family and friends. They said that they were inspired by our example and the strength of our relationship.

After further conversations ranging from jewellery and marriage tokens to Jenny’s short dyed blonde hair, we left feeling that we had met a group of very strong women who were determined to change their community for the better.

The next day we visited the home of one of the elders of the village. She lived in a typical one-room house with mud and dung walls and floor. She lived there with her husband and their adopted daughter. Her husband, a stonemason, was out at work and her daughter, 15 years old, was at school. We sat and talked with her as she made roti on the little wood stove in the house.

She was another strong and empowered woman who had an unusual story. She and her husband had no children of their own. She had been pregnant but had miscarried due to a serious fall. Subsequently, she had a number of miscarriages before she and her husband adopted one of his brother’s children.

Despite now being a family with a child, she explained that the stigma of not having a child of their own still remained to some extent but happily not enough to prevent them for holding a respected position in the community.

While we were with her, we were joined by her neighbour’s child, a little girl of about four. She quietly sat and watched as we talked and then moved outside to see the goats that the family reared.

We learned how WE Charity had introduced the villagers to a new breed of goat that matured earlier and tended to produce more kids than those they had traditionally reared.

Local farmers' band

Local farmers' band

Next she took us to the nearby well, which she told us she visited up to 12 times each day to collect water for cooking and washing. This entailed a walk down the hill and then carrying a full pot on her head weighing as much as a small goat. Given the chance to try and carry a pot that was just half full, I failed miserably.

It was ironic that close to her house was a large concrete water tank and a bore hole, both provided by the government. The storage tank had never been usable and the pump on the bore hole didn’t work.

That evening before dinner we were treated to a fantastic cooking lesson by KK. He showed us round the kitchen, which he had designed himself, then showed us how to make paneer makhani and vegetable samosas. As it was our last night, on return to our cottage we were met by a young girl who helped Jenny to get into her sari. Ricky also helped me put on my headdress. Feeling suitably self-conscious we headed for dinner.

Before eating we were entertained by the local farmers who played music and danced. Though not professional musicians, they were fantastic and all the kitchen staff ended up dancing enthusiastically with them.

Sadly we had to leave the next morning. It seemed like all the staff, including the chef, had come out to see us off. It was an emotional goodbye; we had such a wonderful, enlightening and uplifting visit.

We left feeling we had gained an insight into the work of WE Charity and into the lives of the local people and their determination to change their lives for the better. Our unforgettable experience at Araveli was the highlight of our visit to India.

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