“The core of mans’ spirit comes from new experiences.”
Those damn rats! Their tiny pitter-patter is multiplied into a roaring thunder, at least to my sleep deprived brain, as they scurry to and fro on the tin metal roof above my head.
They have kept me awake all night, though I silently acknowledge that they aren’t the only reason I can’t sleep. There is also a passed-out drunk Indian lady curled up half-on half-off the blanket we are using as a bed, and someone is rattling the scrap piece of metal that doubles as a door to the shack next to mine.
I am sleeping in an Indian slum, one of the last places in India you would expect to find a young Western girl who is traveling solo.
I didn’t exactly plan to be sleeping here, but I can’t really say I’m all that surprised either. I have been taken in by countless Indian families throughout the last few months, so why not experience life in a slum if the opportunity arises?
After all, it’s just a different kind of home. And thank goodness I’m here. Though I’m not exactly sleeping in my current arrangement, it is far better than being stuck on the side of the road with nowhere to go, which was the position I was in the yesterday evening when the girl approached me.
She was young but confident, sporting short hair and an absolutely radiant smile. She asked me, signaling with her hands as neither of us spoke each other’s languages, if she could ride my bike, and I somewhat hesitantly agreed.
It was late in the evening and I had yet to find a hotel or flat piece of land for my tent, but I figured I might as well let this girl have some fun while I was deciding where to go.
She had obviously never ridden a bike before, so after she climbed onto the seat I pushed her around, a difficult feat considering my bike was already fully loaded with all of my gear.
Pretty soon her younger sister, who had been watching us shyly from the side of the road, came over for a closer look. I helped her onto the bike as well, and began pushing them both to their home across the street, where a lady was waiting in front of six or seven tin shacks that had been built alongside the road.
I was surprised to see this women and her children here because I knew these to be the makeshift homes of construction workers. I passed these workers, predominately men, on a daily basis as I made my way along these treacherous mountain roads, which are always in need of maintenance due to snowfall and landslides.
The construction crews work all day, breaking the large rocks into smaller ones with a hammer before carrying the heavy loads in a basket on their backs. They spend their days in the beating sun, breathing in the pollution and dust from the passing trucks while putting themselves in danger of being hit.
It is difficult and dangerous work – road workers in India have a very low life expectancy. The woman, who turned out to be the girls’ mother, was herself a worker on these roads. She smiled slightly as I approached with her children and quickly invited me into her home for tea.
As I was sitting in their small shack, a one bedroom contraption that looked like it would fall over with the slightest wind, the girl who approached me first signaled that she wanted me to sleep with her tonight.
I looked at the mother unsure of how to answer until she gave her approval with a nod. Though there were already five people living in the hut, I knew we would make it work.
One of the neighbors, an older lady who had watched me arrive with the children, came over and laughed with me as I struggled to answer her questions in Hindi. After a few minutes she pulled me up from where I was squatting with the others by the fire and led me into another room.
This space seemed to be a communal shack with the dual purpose of a kitchen and shower. There were a few pots and pans on one side, and a lady squatting in the corner with a bucket of water and soap on the other. Needless to say, she was very surprised to have a Westerner interrupt her shower!
The lady who had pulled me into the “bathroom” made me strip as she unraveled a beautiful cloth I have come to know as a sari. She wrapped it around me, giggling all the while as she redid it multiple times until it was perfect. She then added oil to my hair and pulled it back tightly.
I was at last ready to be presented, so we marched around the small compound as everyone admired my transformation into an Indian girl.
Just then, as I was parading around in my sari, a note arrived: “Send the girl down here. We need to talk.”
I had no idea who or where this note came from, nor was I excited to find out. One of the women escorted me down the hill and into a small building where three men in their thirties were drinking tea. Apparently these men were the heads of the construction project these families belong to, and they wasted no time explaining that they were in charge.
They asked me why I was here, and who I was with, but in reality all they wanted was to look at my Facebook profile. After leaving them a fake name I quickly excused myself to join the two children who, much to my relief, had followed me down.
I headed back up for dinner, which was rice and dal like everywhere else in India, before following the older lady into her shack. There was more room there than with the girl and her family, so I laid down and tried to ignore the drunk men (and much to my surprise, women) outside.
In the morning I pedaled away just after sunrise as everyone was leaving for work. There were young ladies, no older than me, who jumped into the back of pickup trucks with small children strapped to their backs.
Though these families have hard lives, they wasted no time inviting me into their home, feeding me, and giving me a safe place to spend the night.
All through India the rich warned me to be careful around the poor, uneducated population, and yet it’s been the poor and the uneducated – those with the least to give – who have ended up helping me time and time again.
Shirine Taylor is a 20-year old solo female traveler cycling around the world, and a regular contributor to The Happy Passport. Follow her journey at awanderingphoto.wordpress.com.
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"All through India the rich warned me to be careful around the poor, uneducated population, and yet it's been the poor and the uneducated - those with the least to give - who have ended up helping me time and time again."
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