I am waiting for my travel partner at the boarding gates for a flight to Mumbai. I have met Rachel once, but apart from that she is a virtual stranger. We are embarking on an adventure to far-flung cotton farms in the north of India. It is our mission to gather footage to advocate the benefits of Fairtrade cotton and how it can improve the lives of poverty-stricken cotton farmers. I was working as a product manager for a Fairtrade certified leisurewear company, and Rachel was the representative of the company whose audience we wanted to educate.
Buy Fairtrade, enrich a life, make a difference.
As the boarding time approaches, I am concerned that there was still no sign of Rachel. Where the hell is she? Hanging back as long as possible, I board the plane, perturbed as they make the final boarding calls. The entire trip had been planned around Rachel’s schedule. It had been complicated to say the least. As I clip in my seatbelt, scanning the aisles, my phone begins to ring. It is Rachel, her flight from Manchester had been delayed. She has just been advised that she would not be allowed to board the connecting flight. Our cabin crew had just made their own announcement that our flight is delayed and I bark instructions that she must plead with them to allow her onto the flight.
We were to have 5 hours in Mumbai the next day, where we would meet our film crew and fly on to Raipur, the capital of the state Chhattisgarh. Once in Raipur we would immediately leave by car to make the four hour journey to the village of Kantabanji, located in the Balangir district in the state of Odisha.
My phone rings again. There is a man on the phone. He identifies himself as Dave. “Who?” I snap, thinking it might be my plumber, it’s the first Dave I can think of. It’s my financial director. Must make more of an effort to save people’s phone numbers, I think. He’s calling on behalf of Rachel. Evidently I had been a little more forceful than I intended. Send in the big guns, phone a director to calm down the crazy lady who really doesn’t fancy screwing up her insanely tight schedule of six flights in six days. He explains that Rachel will not not be on my flight and that I will need to make the necessary adjustments to the schedule (I’m gritting my teeth, biting back a string of profanity). She will be arriving one day later (yes, many colourful swearwords as I hung up, closely followed by three gins).
I arrive in hot and sticky Mumbai on a Friday morning with 5 hours until my next flight, some of this time would be spent contacting our hosts from the Cotton co-op, booking an extra night in my hotel in Raipur. Lingering at the boarding gates for the flight to Raipur, I manage to find my film crew. I guess I’m not hard to spot, being the only pale skinned westerner waiting at the boarding gate to a destination not entirely on your average tourist’s bucket list. During the flight, they explain to me that there is a strange atmosphere in India. Following the longest election in the country’s history, the result had been announced that day. I’d be lying if I claimed to be up to speed with Indian politics, but I got the sense that the result was considered to be a controversial one, by the film crew at the least.
In Raipur, there are two men waiting for us. One is Anil, the owner of the organisation that manages the cotton farms, the other is a man called Venay. A representative from a certification board, he had flown from Hyderabad on Anil’s request. Anil needed his assistance, he was anxious that his own English was too limited to be the translator and spokesperson for our film.
The next morning we collect an exhausted Rachel from Raipur airport and after a short briefing we depart in two cars on our long journey. I curse my inability to sleep as I watch Rachel nap at intervals, but there is too much to take in and too much terror that we will plough into a stray a cow, wandering across the desolate roads. The driving in Dhaka has always been a great source of wonder to me, but the driving in India, without traffic to temper the kamikaze disregard for safety, was a completely different kettle of fish. A terrifying kettle of fish. I fervently hoped that I would make it home alive.
On route to Kantabanji, we experience a small amount of delay. We had entered a state where the support for the newly elected president is tremendous and in one village, we are briefly caught up in riotous, colourful, noisy and jubilant celebrations. The car shakes as the happy crowds pass by, singing and firing gun shots. Harmless gun shots we are assured as we duck and glance around in alarm.
Days before our arrival in India, Anil had implored us to consider rescheduling our trip. He was concerned that the temperatures were incredibly high. We’d scarcely noticed the heat in the haven of the air-conditioned car, but it’s as we stop at the cotton mill, we are presented with flowers, limp and wilting, that we are assaulted by the 49 degree heat. Fans blowing, barely making a difference, we are given a presentation of the farming process and the benefits of Fairtrade certified cotton to the farmers. I am shocked to find out how little the farmers are paid for their cotton and understand why they so fervently desire the premium they are paid for Fairtrade certified cotton.
At last we are taken to our hotel. It is the only hotel in Kantabanji (Oh boy. It had beds and running water at least). We only have time to leave our suitcases (hoping that we will see them again), our schedule shrunken by delays, we set off to the first of the farms. Anil wants us to visit five villages, each one an hour’s drive from the other. Jetlag, what’s that?
We pull up to the remote and barren cotton farms, the cotton picking completed in January, the scorching sun casting a heat haze across the plundered cotton field. The entire village swarms to meet us. We are like a presidential fleet or famous celebrities, I am the buyer of cotton, I am more important than a celebrity in their eyes. We are providing hope of extra income, money which will improve their simple existence. Humbled, embarrassed, overwhelmed whilst they perform a ceremony of pouring water at our feet and all the villagers bowing and touching our feet, their form of blessing and welcome.
The village is small. We are taken to the dam where each and every inhabitant of the village bathes and washes their clothes. An elderly lady shows me her knobbly hand, an injury from falling on the muddy banks of the dam. Today we are performing an inauguration ceremony, because the Fairtrade premium has paid for concrete steps to be built down into the damn. These steps will help prevent the elderly and young from falling and injuring themselves. We are shown how to perform the ceremony of burning incense and scattering the rice. We cut the ribbon to cheering and jubilation. It’s hard not to feel overwhelmed and emotional, coming from a world where so many things are taken for granted.
We are shown their water well. It is one of the things built with the Fairtrade premium. There are no taps, no running water. This well, paid for by the premium has enabled them to have clean water. Witnessing their pleasure, their pride in something so elementary is hard to watch without getting a lump in your throat.
We move to the village meeting area, we sit cross legged on the floor whilst the villagers gather around us. They beg us to buy more Fairtrade cotton, they are struggling to make ends meet. The Fairtrade premium would mean that they could buy more books for the school and ensure that teachers are employed enabling the children to have an education. For all cotton that has been certified as Fairtrade, a premium is paid and the village council decides how that money is spent to enrich the lives of the villagers.
We are shown their tiny one-roomed homes, where up to eight family members might sleep. Some have no doors, no windows, no escape from the elements, no privacy, no water, no lights. It’s overwhelming, I bite back tears of sheer emotion, the realisation of how little they ask for, how important this Fairtade premium is to them.
Feeling emotionally spent, we move on to the next farm, where their story is much the same, their existence every bit as simple as the previous village.
Dusty, exhausted and covered in a film of perspiration from the oppressive heat and the long day, we find out that there is a celebration that evening. An annual party for all the surrounding villagers, funded and arranged by Anil’s company. We are the guests of honour, seated in the front row, next to the stage, with a paper plate of traditional snacks. Anil’s wife, a gracious and elegant woman, something of a first lady, sits next to me with her family. Her English is broken, but I make out what she asks “What is this?” she asks, pointing at the moles on my arm. I explain that they are freckles and moles, she looks concerned and asks me if I need medicine for it. It’s hard not to smile, not to marvel at this alien world I have landed in.
Rachel and I are to be the judges of the talent contest that forms the foundation of the evening. Everyone travels far and wide for their opportunity enjoy in the limelight. We decide to call it “India’s got talent”. We had no idea how many people were performing. The evening goes on. And on. We shift in our seats, we look around. A few seats away from us, there is a little boy dressed in a large moustache and an oversized baseball cap, we presume he is dressed up for the show. Rachel and I smile and wave at him, giggling at his costume. He looks over at us, a little perplexed. We giggle, he looks comical, we’re fascinated. Anil’s wife leans over and says “he has dwarfism”. Oh how mortified we feel. He was sitting with his mother who did not look very old and he looked very much like a young boy, but the embarrassment is no less. I am grateful that it is dark and no-one can see my flaming face. Suddenly he lurches forward and runs over to me, I shrink back in surprise and he bends to touch my feet in blessing. I want the dry dusty earth to open up and swallow me whole.
Rachel falls asleep in the chair next to me, we are the expert judges. I see a large spider scuttle out from underneath the stage. I hate spiders, automatically I lift my sandalled feet. With a certain measure of concern, I see the co-op’s first lady and her daughters lift their feet too. My brain works overtime. Living in this sort of environment it is unlikely that you’ll be afraid of a spider without reason. She leans over and tells me ” very poisonous”. I didn’t think it was possible after enduring the heat of the day, but I start sweating a little more. We are 4 hours from anywhere that resembles civilisation. What happens if you are bitten by a spider in the middle of nowhere? I hyperventilate. Get goosebumps. I don’t think, that somehow, there will be a helicopter to airlift me to medical care. I keep my my feet raised, not taking my eyes off the spot where the eight legged beast had first made himself known. Our judging excellence has gone up a notch, Rachel is sleeping and I am staring at the dry dusty ground, at a patch beneath the stage. Ignorance is bliss, as is the sleep for Rachel who naps unaware of the dangers that lurk. Earlier that evening our hosts had explained that the villagers eat rice which is stored in their house (no doors, no windows if you recall). This attracts rats which in turn brings snakes, a large cause of death in the villages. I am not a celebrity, get me out of here!
It’s 2am when the show finally ends. I think Anil has noticed the outstanding quality of our judging skills, as we are not expected choose the winner. They stand on stage, however, and they are repeating something over and over. My tired befuddled brain does not register that they are saying my name, calling me to the stage. I am expected to do a little celebratory dance with the winners. These villagers do not see westerners, they all want to hug us and kiss us (and swing us around the stage). As the awards are presented, I suddenly find all eyes on me. I am expected to make a speech. As if dancing on the stage wasn’t enough, I have to address the crowd of villagers behind the glaring light that is shining on the stage. I hate public speaking, I talk too fast. Quickly I mumble some words of encouragement and gratitude, which is translated by Venay to the crowd. The evening finally ends after being thoroughly hugged by every man, woman and child in the village and at last we are despatched back to our hotel which is an hour away.
It is around 3.30am when we are dropped off at the hotel. Our escort enquires if we want dinner. At least that’s what I think he’s gesturing. I decline, it is too late, we just want to sleep. With a deep feeling of relief I stagger into my hotel room, desperate for some respite from the emotional onslaught and adventure of the day, jet lagged and exhausted. Prior to the trip, I had been told that the hotel’s bedding is not what you might expect under normal circumstances and it would be useful to pack my own sheets. In my small backpack I had managed to fit a thin lining for a sleeping bag which I crawl into after washing away the day’s dust and grit. Adrenaline has kicked in by this stage, and I find myself unable to sleep in the heat, the noisy drone of the inefficient air-conditioning taunting my sleep-deprived brain, watching a large line of ants marching through my room into the bathroom.
Suddenly there is a strange noise. I’m startled, I have no idea what it is. I settle back into my sleeping bag lining, wondering if it’s too late for a sleeping tablet. We have a 7am start planned for the morning. Again, I hear the noise. It’s a bizarre sounding noise like a demented budgie. With a loudspeaker. I see a light flashing near the door, and I realise it’s the doorbell. “What the….” Gingerly I open the door, not sure if it’s the right thing to do, but uncertain that the persistent ringing will stop if I don’t. Standing outside, is our escort from the car holding a black plastic bag. “Beer” he says, as he thrusts the bag containing a few can of beer towards me. “Food” he gestures down the hallway. There is an entire trolley of curries that has been cooked for us. “No, too late” I say shaking my head apologetically. He looks crestfallen and says “Rachel?”, “No, no, please, sleep” I say, feeling awful, thinking of those villagers living on rice, but knowing it was physically impossible to eat a meal at that time of night.
Bleary-eyed and exhausted the next morning, we set off to visit a few more cotton farms, all of the villagers treating us with adulation, imploring us to buy Fairtrade. To buy them bicycles to reduce travel time to nearby villages and schools, to pay for teachers and educational materials for the children. At one village they explained to us that, if a teacher was sick, the children would miss school during that time, and there were no substitutes or any support system to ensure that the educational process wasn’t disrupted.
At another village, they simply wanted a handrail to hold onto for the concrete steps, so that the elderly people could get to the dam more easily
On our last morning in Kantabanji, we visit one more village before returning to the hotel for lunch. We walk into the restaurant (and I can only loosely refer to the room with a trestle table and no menus as a restaurant). There is a long table in the center of the room and around it are about twenty seventeen year olds. It is Anil’s son and all his fellow students from the final year in school. As we enter the room, the excited chatter stops and everyone turns to stare. Anil insists that we join them and we are placed at one end of the table. The young people fan themselves and look like they are going to feint. They stare without saying a word, and I wonder if one of my eyebrows has slid to my chin in the heat. I feel like an exotic insect in a glass jar, being shaken and examined by a curious child.
As soon as they realise we are joining them, they clap their hands in excitement and one by one they produce their phones to start taking photos. I have a little insight into what a celebrity feels like now. As soon as lunch is over, we take turns to pose with each of them for a photo. They want to know my name so that we can become Facebook friends. They want to play a game. Of truth or dare. Is this really happening? Fortuitously , Venay steps in and explains that we are about to leave for Raipur. They sigh and beg us stay longer. Venay explains that it is not is not safe to travel at night to Raipur, a fact that doesn’t go unnoticed by me. We were due to do the journey at night if Rachel had arrived with me as planned, so perhaps her delay had been a blessing.
And so we drive back to Raipur, dodging cows and trains, to return from our adventure. It’s been astonishing and overwhelming.
I want to go home and clear my life of clutter, I want to teach my children how lucky they are. I want to teach them to appreciate that they have taps with running water and that a new toy does not matter. Toilets and food and their own bedrooms. Fridges to keep food chilled and fresh.
There are so many things that we take for granted. Seeing these villagers, their simple demands, their simple pleasures has hit home.
Not everyone can afford to buy higher priced items, but if you come across clothing that bears the Fairtrade symbol, if you are able to, please buy it. For the children of these cotton farms, their future, their education.