It was a very personal journey for me. For as long as I remember, I have had the most intense passion and compassion for animals. I possess a deep sympathy for them. I don’t know where it comes from, but it’s there. I find genuine peace being around animals. There’s an inspiring innocence and a connection to nature, the kind that humans lost as we evolved intellectually. So for my holiday this year, I wanted to be around animals; to enjoy a genuine break, something completely different from my everyday life – and it doesn’t get much more different than this.
I’ve just returned from a weeklong trip to India, where I worked at an expansive animal shelter in the north of the country.
What an experience! The animal shelter itself was extraordinary. Never before have I been around such a large number of people with the same deep sympathy for animals. They perform little miracles every day. Animal Aid Unlimited, based in the city of Udaipur (about an hour’s flight from Delhi), receives around 100 calls per day from local people reporting an animal in trouble. One of their rescue vehicles is dispatched, and an animal is either patched up by vets and re-released, or stays with the shelter for life if it is deemed that they cannot survive on the streets.
It calls itself a hospital and shelter for street animals, which in India overwhelmingly means cows or dogs, and those are the majority inhabitants in this large refuge. It’s hard to explain the prevalence of street animals to those who have not witnessed the poverty-stricken streets of India. The dogs are not any particular breed, but a breed all of their own – the breed of street dog.
Characteristic of nothing we know in the West, cows wander the streets in this and other parts of the country. This is the case in both rural areas and the city centre. A large cow, or several, strolling down busy city streets is a common sight. Given the chaotic traffic (there is little to no order on the roads), accidents are common, and injured dogs and cows a frequent fallout. It is here that Animal Aid does most of its work. It’s a heart-warming mission and one that matches the obvious reverence for animals among the Indian people.
The animal shelter aside, seeing India for the first time was an eye-opener. I have never visited a 3rd world country before, and the culture shock took me by surprise. On leaving the airport at Udaipur, the impact was instant. There is simply no structure or order like we know in the West. Traffic is one obvious example, but business is another. “Shops” don’t necessarily have shop fronts, and people rest in the sun on a seemingly endless number of rubble piles. I saw people sitting in the streets, children playing on mountains of plastic garbage, and makeshift tents along busy roadsides. The poverty is stark.
It is the business practices however that caught my eye, and I couldn’t but wonder if these weren’t contributing significantly to this widespread poverty. For example, items in shops are not often priced. I bought a diary, something I do on all visits abroad, and asked the vendor for a price. He told me 700 rupees (about £7.50) and I was happy to pay. This took him by surprise; he had expected me to haggle him down. But that’s not how I do things, and I had no intention of bartering for a lower price from someone so obviously struggling. The result? A free gift on top of my purchase. On another occasion, at a restaurant, I paid a 100-rupee note for a bottle of water worth 50 rupees. I was told there was no change available. I was therefore offered the bottle free of charge! A colleague from the animal shelter changed the 100-rupee note for me and thankfully I was able to pay. Soon after, the same restaurateur tried to give me my change again, forgetting that he already had. When cash is handed over, the likelihood is it will be thrown in a drawer rather than a cash register. In other words, a cultural shift, in terms of business, is truly needed if India is to tackle its poverty. It would at least be a good start.
Overall, I loved the experience. The people were warm and friendly, and the staff at both the shelter and my hotel couldn’t have been more obliging. It is a unique country with a unique philosophy; its dominant religions are completely different from most others in the world. Its attitude to animals warms the heart of an animal lover like me, and despite its problems, it is a relaxed and pleasant atmosphere to be in.
I’ve always had a respect for India as a nation, and that respect has only deepened now that I’ve been lucky enough to be there. I wish it very well, I wish its wonderful people well. I wish them a future of prosperity, and I sincerely hope they can achieve it.
Watch the videos of my diary below