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Stories of Inspiration

Battling Stereotypes, Hitting the Headlines & Making a Difference

In 2008, Slumdog Millionaire’s success put Mumbai’s slum community on the world stage. Millions around the world felt as if they really were a part of it, engrossed in the film, as they followed Jamal through the crowded streets of the city’s underworld.


Finally being on the world stage, in many ways, was one of the worst things that could have happened to the image of India’s slum residents. For the vast majority of viewers, the pickpockets, gangsters and helplessness depicted in Slumdog will be their permanent recollection whenever they hear that word ‘slum’. They will never visit India, and certainly not any of its underprivileged areas. “Dharavi? Where they blind the child beggars so they’ll earn more? I’ll pass, thank you very much.”

Plastic sits on rooftops waiting to be recycled.

There’s no sugarcoating the fact that slums are tough places to live. Dharavi, India’s largest and one of the world’s most notorious, faces a host of problems due to overcrowding – one million people inhabit just over 2 square kilometres, in a population twenty times as dense as the rest of the city.

 Scratch beneath the surface, though, and there’s another side to Dharavi. Amid the narrow alleys and open drains, a thriving ecosystem can be found, fuelled by an entrepreneurial backbone which sees the slum export over $660 million worth of goods every year.

Denied a head start in life because of where they were born, Dharavi’s residents are determined to break the cycle of poverty – and the existence of so many successful business owners, restaurateurs and tech start-ups reveals the community’s strong spirit of determination.

A local-led approach to quality education

Reality Tours & Travel, a socially responsible tour operator founded three years before Slumdog was released, has made it its mission to show people the true nature of India’s slums. Its signature Educational Slum Tour of Dharavi has revealed to visitors from more than 100 countries that there’s more to the area than Slumdog Millionaire’s misery.

The company’s focus on social and urban development issues is refreshing: 80% of profits fund a sister NGO, Reality Gives. Reality Gives has reached over 6,000 children, youth, and adults with their education programmes since 2009 in Dharavi and also Delhi’s Sanjay Colony slum since 2015. Using quality curricula developed through a blend of local and international expertise, their focus is on bringing quality standards from leading overseas institutes to India’s slum communities, all the while monitored closely by a Director of Education recruited from Harvard University.

On the face of it, there’s nothing remarkable about another educational NGO based in Dharavi; Reality Gives has many peers, which, some argue, reduces people’s ability to create their own change. This is the aspect where Reality Gives takes a unique approach. It hires and trains staff locally to deliver its programmes, with the vast majority of its teachers and operational staff coming from the communities they serve.

This local-led model has produced some remarkable stories of slum residents determined to create their own destiny in life. Karthika Nadar’s journey, which began when she joined Reality Gives’ Dharavi Girls Football Academy when she was 17, is one such example. Having grown up in Dharavi where she still lives with her family today, Karthika had reached a point in her life where she was happy but unable to choose the career she wanted. Employed as a compounder at a local pharmacy, she worked unsociable evening hours for a very modest salary. Her dream had always been to become a teacher and provide education to the community. Karthika took her first step towards this goal by joining the Academy. Quickly developing into a popular leader and seeking further preparation for her goal, she signed up to Reality Gives’ Youth Empowerment Program (a curriculum of English, Computer Classes, and Life Skills, which aims to help young adults tackle the world of employment). This proved to be a turning point for Karthika, who fulfilled her ambition by graduating from the programme and joining Reality Gives as an IT teacher. From the Community Centre where she once studied and now teaches in, she describes the programme as “the chance I needed to develop my English and begin my career. More than just learning, I began to feel strong.”

As Reality Gives continues to grow, its focus will remain on empowering slum residents. Together with Reality Tours & Travel, the two organisations are determined to redefine what the word “slum” means to the rest of the world. Rather than giving handouts to Dharavi, Sanjay Colony, and other underprivileged areas, they want to put educated, empowered residents on the world stage so that they themselves can challenge the stereotypes.

This article was originally published in The Logical Indian

Who Run Reality? Girls!

Dear readers and fellow travellers,

Today marks International Women’s Day! (Though in Reality, every day is Women’s Day.) We asked our girls who run the Reality Tours Mumbai office what the day means to them.

Here’s what our formidable ladies have to say:

Evelyn, Reservations Manager

Every day is Women’s Day! I don’t think this day should be only for a day. I believe in gender equality. It is no doubt that women have contributed to our society and we have proved time and time again that we are no less. I’m proud to be a woman!

Simran, Tour Guide

I think Women’s Day is particularly important because we need to celebrate togetherness. Together we must remember our moments and achievements together. We–both women and men–need to support one another to achieve our goals to become successful, to live our dreams.

Think of Mahatma Jotirao Phule and his wife Savitribai Phule who started the first school for girls in Pune in 1848. We are celebrating all people who have helped the plight of women. We are celebrating our sisterhood. Happy Women’s Day!

Laxmi, Tour Guide

Women represent strength, courage, love. Today we celebrate women’s day, but really, it’s not just a single day!

Priya, Tour Guide

We celebrate women’s day to give importance to the women in our world. It’s a reminder to treat each and every woman respectfully every day, not only on this particular day. As I came from a Hindu medium school, it was difficult for me to speak English at first. But with the help of Reality I learned to speak English and day by day, I’m getting better. So thank you to Reality for empowering women like me!

Divya, Tour Guide

It’s important to celebrate our achievements, to remember how we demanded for our right to vote, to hold public office and much more. Every day is Women’s Day! We should be recognised for our achievements without regard to divisions–be it national, economic, cultural, political. We should be able to express ourselves no matter how we look or where we come from. We should never be ashamed of our true selves. We deserve to have the freedom to make our own choices and be respected for them. Happy International Women’s Day!

Swathi, Tour Guide

Every day is Women’s Day. It’s not just one day for us to talk about. We need to constantly strive towards a better world, a more balanced world where women and men are treated equal. I’m a proud woman and tour guide, having the independence to go where I want to go and be who I want to be. Today I stand with my sisters, my girls, as well as the boys and men around me. We all need to work towards achieving equality. Let’s not forget that! Happy Women’s Day to all.

 

 

What Is It Like Travelling Solo as a Female in India?

“Wait, you’re all alone? I could NEVER travel all by myself.”

I can’t relay the number of times I’ve heard people say this to me, a solo female traveller. And every time, I return their question with a smug smile and respond: “but of course you CAN!”

India can be a daunting country to visit: the disorienting traffic and number of people, the (at times) overwhelming smells, the astounding beauty, the hospitality and warmth, the sheer diversity. It is nothing short of an exhilarating and rewarding hodgepodge of experiences.

But is it truly safe? Yes it is—partially because there will always be people around. You’ll find that you’re actually hardly ever alone.


SURPRISES AND KINDNESS

As a lone female traveller, I’ve found that time and time again people go out of their way to point me in the right direction. Several strangers have taken me or dropped me off exactly where I needed to be, out of kindness and concern. Strangers will offer you food and snacks on trains and public waiting areas. Meandering about the streets of different towns, you’ll likely get invited by families to join them for chai and a snack, even homemade mealswhich are always authentic.

I remember while I was travelling solo around North India, in the pink city of Jaipur, I stopped by a popular neighbourhood chai stall. Only locals were milling about, shouting their orders from all corners of the space. I was staring up at the menu painted on a board and could not read a thing.

A kind man with his family noticed me and quickly stepped in, taking me under his wing. Before I could protest he had ordered tea along with a plate of buttered bread for me. Standing in front of his family, I sheepishly obliged. When we had finished off our chai and bun-maska (a buttery, creamy centre enveloped by a warm soft bun), I thanked him profusely, and he scoffed at melooking almost insulted that I had even thanked him. “Enjoy the rest of your trip around India,” he replied.  Then he walked off with his kids in a hurry. This is just one of several examples of benevolence I encountered.

SELFIES AND STARES

Yes, you’ll be stared at and approached by all sorts of people. Staring can be responded in two ways: smile or ignore. I find that smiling opens a window of opportunity for conversation and connection. Ignoring is effective if don’t want to engage. Do draw attention if their stares make you uncomfortable. Making a scene is always effective at warding off unwanted action.

This also means that you shouldn’t be surprised when asked to take selfies with groups and strangers. I find that most people who do approach, do so out of curiosity towards foreigners. Some have rarely if ever seen a lone female travellerlet alone a foreigner.

Again, two things can happen: you can accept their request and share a few laughs. However, if you’re uncomfortable or tired of it, don’t be afraid of refusing with a polite “nay.” People will respect your wishes.

As in any other country, any other city, any other community, take note of behavioural norms and safety precautions. General safety precautions include being wary of how you’re dressed (cover up or dress according to where you are), avoiding being out alone at odd hours in an unknown neighbourhood (common sense, no?), letting people know where you are (always).

For example: in a city like New Delhi, unfortunately reputed to be an unsafe city, make a point to dress conservatively and avoid venturing out past a certain hour alone. Even if you do, be sure that you have safe and reliable means of travel, that people know where you are going and can reach you.

Do your research, know your options:

On that note, these days ride-sharing apps like Uber and Ola make travelling around cities simple: just book a ride and you’re on your way. No need to haggle, no need to worry about safety, a straightforward solution to ensuring you get to where you want to go.

I know, you’re thinking “I can just take Uber everywhere?” The answer is a resounding, “yes!” I find that cities in India are at times more technologically savvy than other places in the world. You can order anything to be delivered to where you are. Everything is now at your fingertips: you’d likely have connectivity in all cities and even in remote areas up in the mountains.

But don’t shy away from taking trains and public transportation! In New Delhi, the metro system is an absolute life-saver. Air-conditioned, cheap, reliable, it makes travel easy (especially if you want to avoid traffic). There’s also a women’s only compartment, which is heavily enforcedby women within the compartment and officers alike.

In Mumbai, riding the local trains is an experience every visitor needs to partake in. This way, you circumvent the city’s notorious traffic, making getting around faster. Moreover, auto rickshaws in Mumbai run by the meter, at any time of day (note that you can’t take an auto down South).

Lastly, hiring a local guide is an amazing way to navigate and explore a city. You’ll get insider information and the security of being guided by someone from the area: all the contextual details to enhance your adventures and exploration.

What are you afraid of?

Sureyou may get caught, as in any other part of the world, in an uncomfortable situation. In these cases, don’t be afraid to reach out to security or policemen. But trust that people in India will treat you as a guest, always ready to lend a helping hand.

Follow your “gut” feeling and err on the side of caution. Be wary of scams, be wary of your surroundings, but ultimately be open to new experiences. Take an auto-rickshaw, learn to haggle prices, fend off shop vendors. Be open, but be firm.

Travelling alone will teach you to learn the art of balancing being kind and open, to being assertive and brave. It’s an artful dance between adventure and sensibility, a life skill that travelling alone as a woman in India will also impart.

So come ready to be taken spontaneously through the streets by a well-intentioned stranger, come ready to be treated to copious amounts of food, come ready be asked to take selfies.

Come ready to be swept away by the nation: teeming with love, with historical and natural beauty, full of contrasts and contradictions, but consistent cups of sweet masala chai.

Balaji’s Story: Living & Working In Dharavi Slum

My name is Balaji and I am 27 years old. I live in Dharavi and have worked as a tour guide at Reality Tours and Travel for over 5 years now.  As a local from the slum, I have a lot to say about my neighbourhood –  the way it has changed with time and the changes that have happened to me in this time too by learning new skills in my job.  

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Manoj’s Story: Making a Dream a Reality

My name is Manoj Ramesh Medwal and I was born and brought up in Mumbai. My parents both come from Delhi and I have one elder brother and one younger one. We live together with my mum. My elder brother is married and has two wonderful children. I’m really proud to be a nice uncle. We live in Mahalaxmi, an area in the South of Mumbai, not too far from Dhobi Ghat, the famous open-air laundry place of the city. This is my story… (more…)

Taking Tours & Challenging Conventions, All In A Day’s Work

My name is Shehnaz and I am working as a tour guide at Reality Tours and Travel. My family is originally from Bihar but my father moved to Delhi about 25 years ago to work and sustain the family. I was born in Delhi in a middle-class family and we are six siblings. My father is a tailor but I would like to call him an artist and, of course, my superhero…

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Further Reading – Six Books To Help You Understand Slums

Salman Rushdie once wrote that “to understand just one life you have to swallow the world“. In Dharavi there’s an estimated one million lives. In Sanjay Colony, there’s a not inconsiderable 50,000.

As we try to convey on our educational tours, these communities are incredibly complex. Whilst the word ‘slum’ evokes a negative view (The Merriam-Webster Dictionary definition runs to ‘an area of a city where poor people live and the buildings are in bad condition‘) the reality is not so cut and dry. Yes, the challenging conditions show a lack of fairness in our societies and a failure of government  but there are also positive aspects; a strong sense of community, rents which make a rural urban migration possible and the potential for residence to play a part in shaping and moulding their environment.

Slums do not conform to a simplistic Dickensian definition of dirt, squalor and crime; neither should we assuage our sense of guilt at all that we have by romanticising the lives being played out there. The reality is it’s far more nuanced. To that end, here’s a few books straight from the Reality bookshelf which might help shape your understanding of what is an incredibly complex topic.

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What The Dabbawallahs Of Mumbai Can Teach The World About Sustainable Business

Freshly cooked dalokra, rice and roti are packed safely into a metal tiffin when the doorbell rings. A white capped dabbawallah is anxiously waiting for the lunchbox but he is sure to flash a smile before he speeds away on his bicycle.  At the local train station, he adds six more lunch boxes to a wooden plank that is hoisted onto his colleague’s head. It weighs 65 kilograms (143 pounds). Fighting the remainder of rush hour commuter traffic, the second dabbawallah steps into the luggage compartment of a Mumbai local, sets his cargo on the ground with the help of two colleagues and chats idly as the train pulls out of the station.
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Five TED Talks We Love, And Why We Love Them

Since 1984 ‘Technology, Entertainment, Design’ (more commonly known the world over as ‘TED’) have been sharing ‘ideas worth spreading’ relating to all things, from education to business, science to development. In the last 30 years, they’ve shared over 2,400 talks in more than 100 languages which have been viewed 500 million times.

These talks are a regular source of ideas, information and inspiration here in the Reality Group office – here are a few we love, and why we love them. (more…)

What’s Life Like When The Monsoon Comes To Mumbai?

The months of monsoon bring joy to millions of people not only in Mumbai but all over India. The torrential rains arrive after a torrid, long and tiring summer. The monsoon begins during the first week of June in the southwest coast. It then travels up through the Indian state of Kerala, up towards the North and usually reaches the city of Mumbai around the second week of June. (more…)

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