India city

Finding common ground in a very foreign land

By Anna Campbell

About six months ago I was faced with a decision. I was exploring the price of a fold-up sliding door and announcing the results to my husband, to which he responded, ''sounds about the price of a trip to India''.

You see, I had been planning on travelling to India with the Otago Boys' High School cricket tour, but I hadn't paid for my tickets. Fold-up sliding door or India - what would you choose?

A Harvard professor told me - so it must be true - that research done on our memories when we reach old age highlights that we remember our experiences far more than our possessions, even though physical things last longer. In light of this conversation, I chose the experience and here I am, on day four of a two-week tour through southern India and Sri Lanka.

After four days, I am almost reluctant to write down my impressions. It seems premature, as my understanding of this country, with its layers of culture, religion and classes, is skin deep. I read about India before I came, but nothing prepares you for the onslaught of people, smells and noise.

There are 25 in our travelling group, including 16 cricket-mad boys. On our first bus trip, there was a ripple of excitement when they saw their first community cricket game. Boys playing games of social cricket on a dusty park - this was something the boys understood, less overwhelming than the traffic, the noise and the poverty.

Poverty is something that can't be escaped travelling in India. In New Zealand, if I were to give poverty a colour, it would be grey - murky and unseen behind closed doors, easy to ignore unless you're at the coal face. In India, poverty is full colour.

Gaudy stalls and bright fruit piled high as people eke out a living. Youthful men are angular, on their haunches tapping on mobile phones. Women are in the shadows, in saris, always working.

I noted to my fellow travellers that the men were standing around talking while the women did all the work, sometimes carrying urns of water on their shoulders and heads. I won't share with you their reply!

I am so moved by the women of India, I want to be able to articulate why, but I don't understand their situation enough. Like women from all over the world, I can share a smile as we walk past and they are hustling along their children. In that smile we share that international language of being a female, knowing what it is to care and nurture.

What I can't share with them is their inequity. Being a woman, born on the streets of India, brings with it a life of challenges that are beyond my imagination.

To the other language we share in our travels - our love of cricket. I have been chatting with the young boys who score our games. ''How many days a week do you play cricket?'' They look at me vaguely astonished that I should even ask - ''every day mam''.

In Dunedin, our cricket circle is tight, the boys and girls have played each other every year since they started. In India, junior cricketers grow on trees, thumping the ball over the bowler's head and switching from leg-spin to off-spin at will. Yet cricket seems such an odd sport for this country to have as their passion.

The whites and gentlemanly image of the game are out of place with the colour and pace of life. It makes you realise why India is the home of twenty20 cricket, a game more fitting of the culture and the growing distance from British rule.

My impressions of India are superficial but they will stay with me forever. Fold-up sliding doors are an extravagance in light of what I have seen. The images of poverty are confronting, but I will also take with me memories of children with eyes to melt you, being welcomed into community temples and the food, of course, always the food!