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G for Good in India and Nepal
The traffic in Delhi is about as chaotic as you would imagine for India’s enormous capital city. Sitting in a car from the airport, weary from a long flight, I watch as vehicles pull unexpectedly in front of each other and lanes just seem to disappear for no reason.
I feel in safe hands, though. The drive to the hotel is comfortable and smooth, a professional behind the wheel.
But often for women in Delhi, feeling in safe hands is not about the driving, but the driver. Getting into a taxi alone with a man can sometimes be a worry. And that’s where Women on Wheels comes in.
Women on Wheels
This fleet of taxis only has female drivers – offering a layer of safety that some people are looking for. The organisation started in 2008 and now its drivers are used by some of the country’s biggest company executives and Bollywood stars.
Now, clearly I’m not a Bollywood star (yet!), but I’m getting a ride from Delhi Airport with Women on Wheels because G Adventures also uses these female drivers for all its arrival transfers.
It’s one of the ways that the tour company supports the organisation – by guaranteeing customers. It has also helped to provide some of the cars and funding for training programs.
Women on Wheels is a very convenient and comfortable way to start my visit to India – and, as it so happens, it’s actually one of the reasons I’m here. I’ve come to India and Nepal specifically to see projects like this.
As you may know, I am a ‘G Wanderer’, which means I work with G Adventures to showcase what it’s like to go on their tours around the world.
Normally that means going on a trip like a normal traveller and then writing stories about that. But this time it’s the founder and CEO of the company, Bruce Poon Tip, who is taking some of us on a visit to India and Nepal specially to see these projects.
For years, G Adventures has made an effort to support the local communities where it runs its tours. That has come in different forms previously but now there is a clear approach for the best way to help.
When I ask Bruce Poon Tip about that, he says the focus is now on ideas like Women on Wheels, which he describes as ‘social enterprise’ projects.
“We were a little bit out of control really because we thought we could accomplish everything, ” he tells me.
“But now that we really focused it down to social enterprise where tourism intersects with extreme poverty, that’s our sweet spot – and nobody does that better than us.”
What does Bruce mean when he says ‘poverty’? Because didn’t I just say that Women on Wheels drives around Bollywood stars, company executives, and foreign tourists?
Well, what I hadn’t mentioned yet is that all the drivers come from impoverished backgrounds – often from slums and resettlement colonies – where there are few opportunities for them to find work.
Aside from obviously offering great service to passengers, the real goal of Women on Wheels is to help move socially-excluded women from the margins to the mainstream of the economy. It wants to empower these individual women to improve their lives – and change the perception of female participation in the workforce.
This is what is meant by the ‘intersection of tourism and extreme poverty’. This is the idea of ‘social enterprise’ in the projects that I’m here to see in India and Nepal.
Sheroes Hangout in Agra
The day after arriving in Delhi, we head south to Agra. As the sun goes down in the afternoon, I spend a couple of hours at the Taj Mahal, marvelling at this marble mausoleum.
Built as a symbol of love, it is one of the most beautiful buildings in the world. It radiates from more than just the magnificent architecture – you can also feel the devotion that the 17th-century emperor Shah Jahan had for his wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who is entombed within.
It’s with the afterglow of finally seeing the Taj Mahal for the first time that I arrive a few minutes away at a cafe called Sheroes Hangout in Agra, another project that G Adventures supports.
The cafe is run by women who have been the victims of acid attacks. It’s a disturbingly-common form of violence here in India and it’s particularly heinous because the main intent is to scar permanently, to not just hurt for a moment but to cause emotional pain forever.
You might worry that there’s a cruel juxtaposition going from the majestic Taj Mahal one moment to a cafe like this the next. But beauty comes in many forms.
When I meet these women, I don’t see them as scarred. Instead, I see as much love and devotion radiating from them as I did at the Taj moments earlier.
It’s a love of themselves and each other, and a devotion to living their best lives. But they didn’t always have this confidence, this courage.
As I sit and drink a cup of tea, I listen to the stories of these Sheroes. Acid attacks are normally perpetrated by people known to their victims – a jilted lover, a rebuffed suitor, even an angry mother-in-law. The aim is to make them outcasts in society. And, unfortunately, it often works.
One of the women, Madhu, puts it like this:
“It was the first day of my college when I faced the acid attack. He used to tease me and when I opposed, he threw acid. After the attack, I was looking for a job but all recruiters denied after they saw my face.”
It’s one of the common problems that survivors of this kind of attack have to deal with. And so Sheroes Hangout helps them with that. It gives them a job and that, in turn, gives them confidence with other aspects of their lives.
By bringing tour groups here, G Adventures offers regular customers to Sheroes Hangout. They have a meal and perhaps buy some handicrafts. And the money earned doesn’t just go to the individual women, it’s also used for advocacy work.
The women here have been part of successful lobbying efforts to increase the mandatory minimum sentence for the perpetrators of acid attacks. They are also pushing the government to restrict the sale of acid, and they are involved in other awareness campaigns.
When G Adventures is choosing projects to support, there are quite a few things to consider.
Firstly, it’s important that it’s not simply charity. It’s also about finding organisations that already exist but would benefit from some investment and regular customers. The whole idea is to make them sustainable in a way that also benefits the tourists.
“It’s a lot of work,” Bruce Poon Tip tells me.
“When you look at our competitors and they just donate to an NGO. You know, a competitor says ‘we’re going after girls programs’ and really they’re just donating money to Plan International. That’s really easy and that’s greenwashing to us.”
“But I don’t want to criticise, because I’m glad there’s been a tipping point where companies are doing something. I just hope that travellers realise the hard road that we take – and that’s why I’m really happy to be here sharing it with you.”
Bruce is right – you really do need to experience it for yourself to appreciate what’s being done.
I’ve been on quite a few G Adventures tours now and these moments with the social enterprise projects are often some of the most meaningful. When I meet people who have been on multiple tours with the company, it’s often this reason that brings them back as repeat customers.
And Agra, here in India, is a perfect example. In the same afternoon that you will see the Taj Mahal, you also spend time with the courageous women at the Sheroes Hangout.
Which one do you think has a bigger impact on the people in the tour?
I find it really encouraging that there are a lot of travellers who want to do more than just see the sights. They want to know that the money they spend is staying in the local community, and that social issues specific to the region are being addressed because of their visit.
I ask Bruce how important he thinks it is for his business that this is part of the tours.
“Ultimately G Adventures is a for-profit company and, just like any profitable company, we are aggressive in our growth, we are somewhat aggressive in every aspect of doing business,” he says.
“But we do have a philosophy that there’s just a right way to do it. And that’s the heart of it.”
“I think the danger is G Adventures being mistaken as a charity or a non-profit. And we’re not. We believe that we can be an entrepreneurial and innovative company and have these values and just do it the right way. And we can have this purpose-driven model.”
After a couple of days in India, we fly to Nepal to see the work that G Adventures is doing on the ground here.
Right after the devastating earthquake in 2015, the company organised a fundraising appeal that raised more than $200,000 to help with emergency assistance on the ground. Many of the donations came from travellers who had been to Nepal and had a special affinity with the country (it’s hard not to feel that way once you’ve experienced the kindness of the people here).
Walking around the Durbar Square in Kathmandu, for example, you can see that there is still a lot of reconstruction work to do – but there’s also been a lot of progress in the past four years.
The earthquake relief campaign is not typical for G Adventures, though. Most projects that are being supported here in Nepal have longer-term ambitions.
That’s what brings me to SASANE, where G Adventures has funded the renovations of the kitchen, equipment, and furniture in the space where I am getting a lesson on how to cook momos. (Although what I really need is a lesson on how not to eat so many momos, because this is my favourite food in Nepal!)
A momo is essentially a Nepalese dumpling that looks quite similar to a Japanese gyoza but has a taste influenced by Indian spices. It can have different fillings meat or vegetarian – and is usually steamed over a soup.
I’m being shown how to mix together the filling for the momos and then how to position it within the dough. For me, the hardest thing seems to be closing the dough to complete the dumpling in a way that doesn’t leave it looking like an ugly blob.
Our teacher laughs and smiles as she helps everyone practice their dumpling-making. But behind the fun, there’s a darker story.
She, like the other women who take the cooking classes here, is a survivor of human trafficking.
SASANE is the name of the organisation that runs this project but this particular cooking class program is called ‘Sisterhood of Survivors‘. Although making (and eating) the momos is a fun and worthwhile experience in itself, the name tells you that there’s a deeper aspect to why G Adventures brings its tours here.
It’s also about awareness and giving these women a chance to talk about how human trafficking is a big problem in Nepal. They don’t talk about their personal experiences, but the numbers are shocking enough.
About 7500 girls and women are trafficked out of Nepal and into India each year, with about 54 children disappearing every day. It’s now estimated there are about 200,000 Nepalese women and girls in forced working conditions in Indian brothels.
What makes it particularly tragic is that even when someone escapes, they often feel too ashamed to go home. That’s where the Sisterhood of Survivors part of SASANE comes in, offering training in hospitality and tourism so they can find jobs and build a new life.
But there’s another part to this project that I think is fantastic. SASANE is short for ‘Samrakshak Samuha Nepal’, which translates as ‘Protection Group Nepal’. And for these women, it’s the idea of protection that is the most important.
Not for them – they’ve escaped. But for all the other women who are currently trapped by trafficking.
The momo cooking class is one of the ways SASANE raises funds. And, with this money, some of the women here are trained to become paralegals.
They then work in places like police stations and become the first point of contact for women escaping (or threatened with) human trafficking. Who better to help than someone who understands the issue firsthand?
There are now more than 70 social enterprise projects that G Adventures supports through its Planeterra foundation and there are more added each year.
There are projects in more than 40 countries around the world with more than 60,000 local people impacted. Each year, more than 100,000 travellers visit at least one of the social enterprises.
In this story, I’ve only talked about projects that focus on the empowerment of women but there are other projects that deal with youth issues, disadvantaged communities, and the natural environment.
I’ll tell you more about some of them soon because they are all interesting in their own ways. And they are just as emotional too.
When I ask Bruce Poon Tip how he feels coming here and seeing the difference that the company he founded is having on the ground, he doesn’t answer the way I expect him to.
“I find it difficult to connect to that sometimes because it’s so overwhelming,” he tells me.
I don’t quite understand what he means at first, but then he explains. Bruce doesn’t see G Adventures as a saviour, or as some kind of charity. The way he views it, these local organisations are giving just as much to the travellers who visit them as they are receiving.
“We get so much back,” Bruce says.
“We are super successful as a company because of Women on Wheels, because of SASANE. Yet they’re so grateful in a way that’s overwhelming and emotional.”
“It’s very difficult for me to reconcile those two things because they are equally as important to our success and so I’m equally thankful.”
This is the core of what makes social enterprise different from charity. It’s what makes projects sustainable for the long term, not just for the period that they get allocated funding.
It’s what opens our eyes to the world and makes travel so special.
Time Travel Turtle was supported by G Adventures in his role as a G Wanderer but the opinions, over-written descriptions and bad jokes are his own.