“I was in a coma. 10% chance of making it. My memory was deemed gone.”
I dip into a make-shift classroom, trying to escape the unbearable summer heat of Delhi. A little face peers out from behind a brown stained cloth that has no place between her dry lips. Slowly, her confused glare fades as a wide grin takes over, her mother patiently untwines wool behind her.
I settle into a seat on the floor, throwing a smile and a wave at my friend Sonu. In the distance, a familiar voice is telling a group about the importance of empowering these women with both new skills and employment opportunities to, so they can shape their own future.
I have heard this conversation before, but this time it comes with context.
Simla, a Mauritian born lady, stands small in the corner amongst the remains of paper and rubber offcuts that litter the floor. Her eyes dart around the ladies who are at various stages of scarfs, jumpers and colourful hats, running their own business, and the same wide-faced grin I just saw takes over her face.
“I had a whole collection of Tiffany jewellery, hundreds of shoes and worked as a bridal model. I dreamt of being a wedding planner while working as an accountant.”
The word ‘Bucket list’ might as well have no meaning any more. I mean, we use it so much in the travel world you can find it hashtagged on the greyest and drab beach shots. In the film that made it famous, we see those experiences one man dreamt of being lived out before cancer took his life.
But what if it hadn’t? What would be on that second chance bucket list?
When you escape death twice what list do you start writing then?
“When I walk into villages such as Dhatta in Siem Reap, I see a bit of myself in a lot of these children in need. I look into the beautiful smiles and eyes filled with unspoken words and see a familiar face staring back almost like a mirror.”
Hands on Journeys came about through the love and passion of Simla. It became her bucket list after undergoing two life-saving operations and losing two months of memory all by the age of 25. Her childhood dreams used to be to sit on a plane and take to the sky. Her early adult years wish was to make shopping trips in Singapore, open a wardrobe to a land of shoes and model the latest khafti while planning lavish weddings that only the richest could dream of.
After a cancelled wedding, an eye-opening experience and a miraculous recovery all those dreams changed. It was the creation of this new tour company that has brought me and Simla together as friends. And through her, this close-knit community living on the fringes of Indian society had so graciously welcomed me into their schools, their homes, and their lives.
“What is happening and why am I here, that is what I thought every moment of each day as I lay in the ward while others around me faced death and lost. ”
We arrive at another slum, dodging a train wearily winding itself along the tracks. My lungs weigh heavy from the dust and smog. I hadn’t ventured to this newly opened school on my last visit, and my mind feels full from all the questions I have. A slither of a curtain lifts revealing a room of small faces studying addition, and I settle down on the mud floor outside, keen not to disrupt the class in action.
When I first spoke to Simla, I instantly decided she was crazy. Words blurted out at a million miles an hour; her face seemed to be electrified not electric. The excitement and passion she lured me in with over Skype made me ponder how explosive that energy would be in real life.
She was a lady with a plan, and nothing or no-one was going to get in her way. I loved it.
It took time for her to open up about her life and share the reasons for this new found purpose. Before that I was sceptical. Maybe it is from seeing the exploitation in the third world or the abuse of volunteer time and money by some NGO’s.
The more I learnt about her, the more I learnt about myself. I’ve never really coined or written a bucket list, but if I did, I have to admit it would probably be filled with world-class heritage sights, natural beauty and breathtaking experiences. Things you typically hear one mention when they dreamily compile their bucket list. Seeing the northern lights, traversing Machu Picchu, swimming in waterfalls in Mexico, all things travellers aspire to experience in their lifetime. It certainly wouldn’t have a knitting workshop in the slums of Delhi on it once, let alone multiple times.
But I haven’t faced death once, let alone twice. I haven’t woken from a coma wondering where I was. I haven’t stared at a mirror, seen a bald head I didn’t recognise looking back and asked who on earth is that because I have never lost 40 days of my memory.
I have never been forced to ask myself why I have a second chance, and I am also well aware as a white, western passport owning male I haven’t faced much of the reality that many in this world have.
“I used this opportunity to reflect upon the things that were happening in my life. I have a second chance to live; I am here for a greater purpose.”
The smiles on these kids faces warm me more than the polluted Delhi sun beams tearing through the holes in the asbestos roofing. As times tables are recited, I am glad to be here to help, not hinder. I almost feel slightly out-of-place. I glance over at Simla who looks almost at home.
“Growing up on a small island, smiles were not common in the house I lived. Conflict was common between my parents, broken plates and foul words aplenty. An arranged marriage brought the two together when my mum was 16, and my father was 33.”
When travel bloggers and digital nomads, like myself, give this whole bullshit spiel about how we are not ‘Lucky’ to live the life we have because of all the hard work we put in I can’t help but argue. There is no denying many of us do put our heart and soul into chasing our dreams and making it a reality. But the fact is, many of us were born lucky.
Lucky with our nationality. Lucky with the passport that came with. Lucky with the currency in our pocket. Lucky with a family who could provide food, love and a roof. Lucky with the fact that our brothers and sisters didn’t run the risk of dying just from drinking water.
“Feuds and economic woes continued to plague us as a family. A 7-year old and her 1-year old brother, living in a home that was becoming darker and darker. The idea of saving for the future of our family was a foreign concept; living only for today and never for tomorrow.”
As I wave goodbye, my eyes water from the dust and the emotions I am trying to distance my brain from in my heart. A little hand catches mine for a handshake. ‘Thank you’ utters a young boy. For what, I am not sure. My legacy here will be short-lived, but I know Simlas and Hands on Journeys won’t be.
When Simla finally realised her dream of flying it was with a heavy heart. Leaving her family behind and holding the hand of her grandmother as she breathed her last breath it wasn’t long until she relocated to Australia to live with her Aunt and Uncle. She talks about them with love, and the word Aunt never leaves her mouth, just simply Mum.
“From 2008 to 2013, I had the chance to volunteer in Fiji, India, Cape Town, Johannesburg, New Zealand, Cambodia, and, of course, the beautiful country of Australia. Through my travels, I built loving connections with people who were begging and fighting for life in the street.”
But can you really blend Travel and Charity? Is volunteerism sustainable? I noticed her recoil at those words. This isn’t just about volunteering she replied confidently. This is about empowering.
Taking jobs from locals is the last thing on her mind. Providing a house that might fall down in a few months is also not on the agenda. Two-way conversations, she stresses, are the key. What do these communities actually need as a pose to what we think they want. How can we create job opportunities for them, so they are simply sustainable and not relying on sustainable tourism. How can we empower them, and their children, to create a better life by themselves with a helping hand.
“Tattered clothing and teary eyes are able to raise more money in one month than the family could in an entire year. The sorrowful truth, I found, was education is a vital luxury.”
As I step over mud-covered shoes that had long-lost they counterpart, an idle boar wanders over to enquire my presence before routing through the rubbish. It seems a million miles away from the beauty of the Taj Mahal I witnessed days before. The concept seemed mad to me once upon a time, seeing the sights while also giving back but it works. Funds help support sanitation and give people jobs, we, the ‘tourist’ are educated in the real world, and those we meet are empowered in a new way.
I look across as Simla casually wipes cow crap off the bottom of her unbranded flats. How was her dream to be a model? How did she go from Gucci sprees to here? The power of each individuals journey can be a truly inspiring catalyst for change.
It’s a question I’ve ponded countless times since. Why wait until we potentially die, for a disease to come and take our chance away. Why not hunt out that passion and purpose we all bang on about before it really is too late?
“I was made aware of my redundancy. I came home that day knowing that I needed a change. Abandoning the idea of becoming a wedding planner, I committed myself to becoming a tour operator that could transform people’s lives.”
Sure, my ‘bucket list’ still has the Northern Lights on it, sailing on a yacht and visiting Antarctica but it is also now littered with social change and making a difference on my travels.
I guess the real question isn’t what should be on our bucket list but, simply, what do I want to be remembered for?