The students went home over an hour ago, but peering through the dusty glass windows, I can see their square desks lined up in a row, and each one holding a new computer. Most of the children who use the new computer lab live in homes with mud floors and without electricity or running water, yet by day they are learning programming and computing, while taking part in a high-tech interactive education. This is part of the rural revolution that is catapulting India forward and today, I get to be a part of it.
Mixing concrete by hand is backbreaking work. We are only an hour from sunset but already, I am sweating as I slosh water into the cement and sand, kneading the mix with a long shovel. After a long while, the quiet Indian foreman nods approvingly and we carry the dark, grey slop to the construction site.
Without speaking, he shows me how to lay bricks—horizontally, with a thick layer of mortar below. I timidly slide one brick into place and he gently corrects me, picking the tilted brick back out and then plopping it in firmly, nestling it forever into the long wall we are building. He shows me the pattern and I get to work, slopping the mortar and pressing the bricks in place. I finish a row in about thirty minutes and the foreman nods me back to the beginning, where I start laying another clean line of bricks.
This entire wall was built by foreign travelers like me, who came to Aravelli Camp and took part in the amazing ME to WE experience in India. When we are done, this will be one of many classrooms added to double the size of this school that prioritizes gender equality and female literacy. With the clean new women’s toilet blocks funded by “ME to WE”, enrollment will go up and the drop-out rate for girls will go down—research has shown that most girls attending “Me to We” schools make it all the way to high school graduation.
One could argue that there are more efficient ways to build schools—I know. I could merely send money to hire local laborers with far more expertise than I, but that is not the point of this amazing project. ME to WE offers a unique bridge between travelers and locals—to the long-term benefit of the local community. Breaking away from the kind of exploitation that mainstream tourism brings, ME to WE has created a once-in-a-lifetime travel experience where my presence and my tourist dollars are directly benefitting the destination I am enjoying. In turn, I get to literally help—with my own hands in a real way, and give something back to this beautiful, quiet part of Rajasthan.
This is a tender balance to strike, between the outside world of wealth, luxury, and opportunity, and this remote and traditional community in rural India. But I am here now, giving what I can—my money, my time, and my strength—but knowing that after I leave, the project goes on.
No, I have never built a school before. I am not a builder or even a bricklayer—but today I am. I worked until dark, laying row after row of clay orange bricks. Then I shook the foreman’s hand and left. But I know, long after I’ve left India and years from now, there will be students—hundreds and hundreds of students, who will sit and learn in this classroom in remotest Rajasthan, and lean back against the wall that I helped build.