I can feel the dirt floor beneath me as my eyes adjust to the darkness. To one side, a young mother holds a young baby, swaddled in dark green cloth. The baby’s eyes gleam in the square of vague daylight that shines through the doorway.
A small orange fire glows in the farthest corner—a teapot sits on the low-lying wood stove fashioned from clay, bubbling away. Crouched in front of me, Dalludi Bai is already mixing the flour with her hand.
“Like this,” she says, speaking the native dialect here in Rajasthan, and encouraging me to mix the dough. Dalludi adds flour as I cautiously knead the mixture in a wooden bowl. With all the care and patience of a mother, she shows me how to form a round chapatti. I imitate her motions but the finished product is less-than-circular. Dalludi frowns in disappointment.
“Try again,” she encourages, and I start shaping the next chapatti while she throws the first into the hot steel pan on the woodstove. Immediately, the smell of fresh, warm bread hits my nose.
“Much better,” she laughs, taking my second, rounder chapatti and baking it on the stove.
At age 42, Dalludi Bai is already a grandmother to 3 children. She makes over 20 chapatti a day—like this, by hand—to feed her family. Making chapatti is just one of her many daily chores, and only one of several chores that I will do during my time with her.
Partnering with the ME to WE charity, Uniworld gives travellers like me the incredibly rare opportunity to meet locals and know their life, experiencing the destination intimately. Once the bread is baked, Dalludi Bai guides me out of the one-room mud hut and down the hill.
“Now we fetch the water,” she commands, handing me a round clay pot. It’s a decent walk—nearly a kilometer to the big stone well shared by the community. I push the wooden turnstile by hand, leaning forward with all my weight and trudging in a circle as the metal pails are lifted up out of the well before flowing into our pots.
We carry the water back to the hut—on our heads! It seems an impossible task, but Dalludi Bai does this at least twice a day—without spilling a drop. My own pot splashes down my face, but I get enough water back to the hut to contribute to the family’s daily supply.
“My biggest fear is not having enough water—either to drink or farm,” she explains. As India’s high desert, Rajasthan receives less than 700 mm of rain per year—that’s one percent of the rain in India to sustain ten percent of the population. Traditional wells often dry up or are contaminated by open defecation. ME to WE responded to the challenge by introducing higher parapet wells to stop pollution while deepening wells to ensure a year-round supply of clean water.
“The ME to WE programme has been a big help,” Dalludi tells me. “Before, we got sick quite often, but now we boil our water like we learned. We grow lentils that give us food, and I have this new stove that burns less wood and makes the air in our house cleaner.” All these are initiatives introduced by the ME to WE community-based partnership and supported by tourists like me. By coming to Aravelli Camp, I am contributing directly to all these programs for clean air, clean water, and food security for people like Dalludi and her family.
“I have two sons and four daughters,” Dalludi tells me, “And I gave birth to all my children in this room.” That all of her grandchildren were born in the hospital shows how quickly life is changing for the tribal people of Rajasthan.
“My dream is for all my children to go to school,” Dalludi says, after we return from feeding her goats. ME to WE’s programme helps provide full education for girls and boys from the tribal areas in designated “We” schools and create better economic opportunities for the future.
What is her biggest dream? “To build a better house, with big windows, more light and a strong roof,” she says. In fact, she has already started building the house with the money she has earned from the new opportunities of the ME to WE programs. She shows me on my way back to the road.
In her entire life, Dalludi Bai has never traveled past the town. She has never left this beautiful and mountainous bit of Rajasthan, let alone India. My life is so completely different than hers, but for today, for a few hours, I get lived her life. I felt some of the real burdens she carries, did the work of a farmer in rural India, and changed my perspective forever.
This is exactly why Uniworld partners with ME to WE. They understand that the most meaningful travel is not a passive experience or spectator sport, but rather, life-changing moments of real learning. I have been to India before, but ME to WE is the most intimate travel experience I’ve ever had in this country. Driving across the dusty roads of Rajasthan, I have passed hundreds of huts just like this one, but now that I’ve been inside and made a new friend, I can truly say I know India in a way that few visitors ever do.
I thank Dalludi Bai and promise to send her prints of the portraits I took of her family. She waves goodbye, along with her youngest children who have lost their shyness and are now gleefully playing in the yard.
This is the India I will remember. Not the Taj Mahal or the luxurious palace hotels—but this woman in Rajasthan, working so hard every day and sharing her life with me so honestly and openly.