Photo: Little girl in the slums in Delhi
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I wasn’t supposed to be here, in India that is. When I left the US a year ago I had many people ask me if I was going to India on my around the world tour. I said “No, I don’t want to go to India, and I certainly don’t want to go solo. I think it would be too hard for me and I would be frustrated.” For some reason India seemed liked the big leagues of travel. I had heard stories, and none of them were particularly good. In May of this year when I had come up with this crazy idea of going to India and volunteering, it still must have taken me a week to actually click on the ‘purchase’ button on CCS website. I was on the fence – afraid that I would hate India and end up being miserable for 5 weeks. I would ask my friend Natasha every day…should I do it? Am I crazy? What if I hate it?
I look back on those days and chuckle now. Staying and living in a country for a month is a unique opportunity, it gives you the chance to become culturally integrated, and to really learn about day to day life. One of the most important things that I learned is that for all the reasons that I thought I would hate India, I loved it. This goes hand in hand with the fact that India is the land of contrasts. I had read about the contrasts many times in various books and articles – I understood it – but I didn’t really understand it until now. The contrasts exist everywhere…and it’s a lot for our Western minds to take in and make sense of which is why I think that India gets a bad rap.
Colorful vs. Dirty
India is not afraid of color – it embraces color. The sari’s are bright purple, orange, yellow, pink, blue, or green. The dupatees are colorful and normally adorned with some sort of shimery sequins. Wrists, arms, ankles, toes, and noses are adorned with blingy bangels and rings. You don’t see women wearing black, grey, or navy blue…ever. Even the men dress in colorful patterned shirts. I personally think that in a land of 1.2 billion people, everyone is trying to find their way to stick out from the crowd…and that’s where the color comes in. There’s nothing more beautiful than seeing a group of women in India, dressed in the colors of the rainbow walking together…it makes the place feel alive. The woman riding side saddle on the back of a motor scooter…her colorful sari blowing in the wind, brings a smile across my face. You feel like you’ve just entered the inside of a rainbow – and everyone is searching for the pot of gold. Contrast that with the garbage everywhere, piled up high in the middle of a sidewalk, next to a restaurant, sometimes on fire, or sometimes just rotting away. Various dogs and cows are nosing through the piles trying to find food. Scratch that…the various people nosing through it trying to find food. When you come in from walking out in the market you have a layer of dust on you, your eyes sting with the pollution. Now imagine that same group of lovely ladies in their rainbow of saris and bangles walking down the pollution filled street by a huge pile of burning garbage outside a 5 star hotel.
Rich vs. Poor
This is probably the largest and most confusing contrast in the country. There are 1.2 billion people in India. It has the 2nd largest population of billionaires, yet 75% of the people are living on less than $2 a day. Add the concept of the caste system and the theory of karma to this and you’ve also got people who don’t think badly of the poor, in fact – it’s accepted that if you are poor, that’s just your lot in life – that’s how it’s meant to be. One did not do anything wrong (at least in this life) to get into this poor position, it is what it is. In contrast, in the western world we tend to look at down upon the poor as lazy – people who can’t get a job or hold on to a job, we generally think they should try harder, be sober, work at being a functioning member of society. This makes it very hard for westerners to understand and see the poor and destitute every day. Every day I would be driven to my placement. We would go under a large underpass of a highway with a 4 leaf clover ramp design that had nice well-kept grass – it looked nice. However – one day I noticed a bunch of people just sitting in the green area as if it were a city park – not a clover ramp. They were out there eating. It struck me as odd. I looked closer the next time we passed here and noticed little poorly made cots under the overpass. As my eyes achieved focused clarity – I realized that there were tons of little cots and people living under the overpass; a whole community of sorts. I’m not sure why this struck me as strange, as we have people living under bridges in the US – but this was a whole functioning community, not just 1 or 2 homeless people. I thought to myself…that’s not a bad place to live – at least they have shade, and a park like setting.
One of the strange things I saw as I drove around Delhi was the huge government estates or private estates – normally built around some large 5 star hotel. However, around the corner was a slum. There was no ‘bad part of town’…it was all completely intermixed. One theory on that is that all of the people living in the slums were doing odd jobs for the rich. Everyone had their specialty – the laundry guy, the trash guy, the cook, the driver, the ironing man, and the gardener. These people didn’t really have the means to have a long commute – so out of necessity they lived nearby. Since the poor are accepted in India and not looked down upon, no one really cared that the two communities were intermixed.
Good Smell vs. Rancid Smell
They say that India is an assault on all of you senses. As you walk through the markets you are immersed in the smell of masala (mixture of spices) tickling you nose and evoking memories of Indian restaurants in NYC. You dodge young boys bringing hot glasses of chai to shop keepers. A milky, spicy tea mixture which tastes better than anything Starbucks could ever dream of making. The smell of flowers frequently wafts through the air especially near the temples. Men sit outside of the temples busy making necklaces of aromatic orange flowers. You walk along inhaling it all – intoxicating. In contrast, as you walk along in that intoxicating haze, all of a sudden it can hit you like a brick wall…the smell of urine. There are too many people and not enough toilets in India – forcing people to go anywhere and everywhere. Men pee everywhere – there’s really no modesty and nowhere off limits. I saw little boys peeing off an overpass into a river and men (men with jobs – not homeless men) peeing in public parks. Add that to the cows peeing in the street, the rancid garbage piled up as it if were little hay bails, and the black exhaust from the cars. You try to tell yourself to simply breathe through your mouth – and then you won’t actually smell the awfulness, but eventually – you suck it through the nose and it makes you weak in the knees.