Same age. Different life.

This title was inspired by this week’s experiences of meeting women similar in age to me but with completely different life experiences. Again opening my eyes to all the privileges I have had throughout every year and stage of my life. Whether it be the privilege of the things I had, people around me, opportunities, expectations of me as a woman and my health.

This relates to the quote by Marcus Aurelius

“When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive – to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love.”

Recovered and am back at work!

Felt great to be back, really missed my colleagues, and it was so heartwarming to be missed by them! 

At different times of the day at Aastha Parivaar unit 2, sex workers from the community come around just to talk to the women, pick up supplies, come for a HIV test or counselling session. Every time this happens, I just feel so much empathy for these women. They go through so much to make a living, it can be such a dangerous and traumatic job for them, but somehow they get on with it. Also, it’s not easy for them to come to the clinic when they have been up working most of the night and usually need to sleep through the day – when the clinic is open. 

Despite me being a clear outsider in the unit, they always give me the sweetest smile as we acknowledge each other, due to the language barrier we don’t have very in-depth conversations, yet some women who speak a little English or do their best to decode my limited Hindi, really make the effort to try to communicate with me. On Monday I bought a beautiful blue skirt from women who was involved in sex work but also sold clothing as another source of income.

On Tuesday Seema (my supervisor) had a meeting with an author wanting to hear some stories from the community that Aastha Parivaar supports. It was great that he ‘wanted to give the voiceless a voice’, but talking with Seema after the meeting – this can get complicated. You own your own life story, so someone recording it and then compiling them into a book that benefits them doesn’t seem to add up. Even if some contributions of the sales come to the organisation, how is that directly benefitting the people whose life stories created the book? How do you put a monetary value on someone’s life experiences – specifically their struggles and trauma?

While we were having the meeting with the author, there was a girl that came into the other side of the unit (only 2m away from me). She was very visibly upset and crying a lot. My mind raced, just guessing about what might be causing her such distress. With the stories I had already heard so far, there were endless horrific possibilities as to what it might have been. I later found out that she had tested positive for HIV (privacy of medical information is treated very differently in these settings, as I had discussed mulitple times with my roommate Tash who was working with doctors). I also later found out that the girl was also only about 20 years old, the same age as me. Despite there being accessible treatment, testing positive for HIV still holds a lot of stigma within communities, spreading it to their partners, and especially losing out on work while going through the treatments. Luckily the woman came to AP and was able to receive support for this, yet it is still a very discomforting and painful experience to process and live through. 

Wednesday was an extremely eventual day.  In the morning, I met a little girl that the women in unit 2 knew from the community. At only 10 and she looks after her two little sisters while her parents are working; the youngest is a 1-year-old! As well as this, she also cooks dinner for her family. She had to grow up so fast, and hasn’t had the chance to be a child.

Later in the day, I went on the craziest ambulance ride, weaving through the streets, as one of the doctors that runs the evening clinic that provides healthcare to the sex workers was insistent that he take time out of his busy schedule to show me! 

While we were sitting on the green mat and eating lunch together, another young woman joined us who worked for a similar organisation. I remember thinking she looked so youthful when she first walked in. The woman who spoke English explained that she was at a different organisation supporting sex workers. While engaging in further discussion, she shared she had 2 young children, and not long after I found out that she was only 20. Same age as me. It made me think that despite how we had been alive for the same time, our life experiences and stage of life were completely different. I couldn’t imagine having a kid at this age. I felt a lot of respect for her managing so much at such a young age. 

Soon after, I needed to get some anonymous photos (just the back of a woman) of a woman sitting in a brothel that was going to be used for a storytelling initiative Seema was part of. This was my second visit to the brothel. Still felt as shocking as the first time I visited. The seedy and soul-crushing environment is confronting enough to visit, yet alone have to work in. We spoke to some of the sex workers, who felt very connected to the women from unit 2, you could tell they trusted them a lot. I later learned that one of the women from unit 2 is looked up to by the sex workers like a motherly figure (she’s roughly in her 60’s now). This is due to her personal understanding of the experience of sex workers, as she was only 14 when she was sold to a pimp for 5000 rupees (100NZD). I had heard stories like this before, through being at AP, but hearing about the experience of someone I had worked alongside for a few weeks now – was another level of eye-opening. Without disregarding how incredibly hard this would have been, it was hopeful that she was now in a better position. A position where she can use her past to be a strong and supportive figure for other sex workers. This is a significant part of Aastha parivaar’s success as a charity using a model that has a bottom-up approach.

Then, near the end of the day. I had the most beautiful ‘early farewell’ with unit 2. As some members are away from training in the next week. They were so thoughtful and generous and got me a beautiful sterling silver bracelet (with the Turkish eye in it), flowers and a cake!!! Not only did they get me all of this, they also fed me the cake and I did it for them as well!! Very wholesome tradition. Every day I have to pinch myself and think how incredibly lucky I am to be in this position and be surrounded by such lovely people!

That weekend we were lucky enough to go to Rajasthan! Specifrically Jaisalmer. Yet another incredible experience we have got to have on this trip! Incredibly grateful.

Flying in on Friday, we landed in the beautiful desert of Jaisalmer. What a sight. Never have I been in a desert before, it felt like quite a spiritual experience seeing such a new and expansive landscape. 

I still cannot believe our accommodation. We were staying in these great tents in the desert, with such comfortable beds, a bathroom set up and stone floors! 

If that’s not enough, we also got to ride camels at sunset!! Such beautiful and robust animals. Wow. WE RODE CAMELS!! While at the top of the dune, Chris made a makeshift ball out of the sand and a water bottle, and we played catch with the local people while the sun was setting. COME ONNNN!!

Soon after we went down the dunes on the camels, we had such a beautiful cultural evening with live Hindi music, dance and delicious food.

But wait…somehow, the day gets even more insane. Once it had gotten dark enough, we took a night jeep ride through the desert and star gazed!!! I actually cannot make this up. What did we do to deserve this!!

Waking up in the desert, wow. The bright contrast of the beige sand, white tents and the rich blue sky looked like a painting. Walking along the stone pathways, past the 150-year-old Bordi tree (the place was named after) with swings on the branches was one of the most tranquil moments I’ve experienced!

We headed off to the city of Jaisalmer. Oh, did I mention our coordinator knew one of the princes? And that we were staying at his hotel? And it was such an incredible building, neighbouring a massive historical fort? Well, somehow, we did. Still, can’t believes it.

Initially, we were convinced we should all hire bikes and explore the city that way. Quickly came to the realisation that only one of us could do this confidently, and we also would have to navigate the traffic (better than Mumbai but definitely not like Symonds street to say the least). Taking the safe option of catching auto-rickshaws, we visited the fort, which was like a maze of an incredible interconnected village. Then we headed to more ancient buildings surrounding a lake and had a rowboat ride! In the evening, sitting on the edge of the lake, we made friends with a local called Kahn, who owns a hostel and does desert tours with his mate. 

Now, this part is real but it doesn’t even feel real at this point. We had an exclusive dinner on a special rooftop section of the hotel. The view was impeccable, seeing the surrounding desert city and the monumental fort lit up just not far from the hotel. If this wasn’t surreal enough, the Prince and his Wife came up to welcome us to their hotel and sit down and talk with us. There are a few princes of Rajasthan, yet I don’t think any of us had met royalty before so that was a new experience. The prince could stay longer as his wife had to attend to their newborn. He was quite the comedian, making us laugh in pretty much every second sentence. He had some wild stories, such as his father getting mad at him in his 20s, chasing and shooting at him through the village (damaging a decent amount..), running away and living under a tree near a small village in the desert for 2 years to hide from his father….I mean I couldn’t even make this up if I tried!

Leaving us with complementary free drinks and to dance with music on the rooftop as we pleased.

On the last day in Jaisalmer, a few of us met up with the tour guides we made friends with the night before and went with them on bikes to the Bhagbhad and with the prince’s permission the gardens neighbouring it – where tourists are not usually allowed to visit. 

We are so grateful to get to experience this. At the same time, it was hard not to think about the absolute contrast between wealth and excessive wealth/poverty that seem parallel. My mind kept going back to the women at Aastha Parivaar and them having such different life experiences.

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