Saturday, February 04, 2006

Pashminas & Poverty: Probably Ready To Leave India

In Rajasthan, both Andy and I felt a bit of India's charm rubbing off. Sometimes literally on us, as beggars constantly grabbed our bare arms asking for rupees or we stepped in livestock crap in the street when looking up to admire a temple. Other times, it wasn't as literal but getting asked at least 53 times a day whether you need or want to buy something, and having to haggle for every price and every rickshaw ride gets tiring.

India is fantastical, colorful, chaotic and complex. And sad. The masses of humanity, their deformities and smiles, their poverty and diverse daily routines, the jarring intersections of primitive and modern are hard to digest, let alone ignore. Andy and I agree most everywhere else will be tame after India.

Yet, I loved seeing the relics of its fairy tale history, I deeply respect the fact varied spirituality is present everywhere in everyday life, and the magic of Indian spices and cooking will live in me for a lifetime. Children in markets and beaches greeted us with disarming smiles, shared their snack food and screamed "photo, photo" with glee, and adults helped us get the right rickshaw at the right price at 4:00am after 14 hours on a train.

But, it's not easy travel. India is a feast for your senses with a very dark side.

Never, ever have I seen so many stinking, horrific piles of trash...with cows and goats grazing on its decaying remains! It gave us both pause and was tough to take. I simply have to admit it. Especially seeing cows and goats, which I love, eating their daily meals from disgusting garbage. It just doesn't seem right that livestock has to make a meal from a tossed bag of potato chips, rotting fruit and paper waste--and then make milk for human consumption.

I actually kind of lost it a bit when I saw an autorickshaw laden with boxes trying to squeeze by a cow on a narrow road and its cargo hit the cow hard in her side. Involuntarily, I yelled loudly and angrily at the driver: "That was a cow!!! You hit something alive!"

After that outburst I felt like it might be time to go. Not home, but at least somewhere that is a change up in culture and country as to rest from all that is India. And reflect. Which feels to me a little like I've failed as a traveler. Yet, rationally I know that's not true because I'm here, I'm experiencing India instead of drinking at Club Med. But, triggers a lot of complicated thoughts.

The Jaipur train station was one of the last places we spent an unexpected few hours and it reaked of urine, dirt and hot oil. So much urine you thought it must actually be embedded in the stone walls. Temperatures hovered around 40 degrees, which is extremely cold for Rajasthan, and every person--male or female--was bundled in a pashmina, its wool length snaking around their heads and then wrapping their bodies tight for warmth and survival. Pashminas, the same accessory we use in the West more frivolously for warmth and flair.

And these people lay everywhere, inside and outside the station, most without train tickets, and some fortunate few with a primitive fire for heat. It was really something, yet I noticed a touch of desensitivity to it. And that's what scared me! Six weeks there and still not a world away, I knew this is just how things are at times in India, especially North India, and you kind of grin, bare it and walk around them with your backpack.

I guess I don't want to be desensitized to it, yet at many times, that is a necessary way of survival. If we give all of our money away to the omnipresent askers, we don't travel and don't experience more. And do we even make a difference?

But...are hardened hearts, averted eyes and minds that don't process, the answer? I don't know. Neither does Andy.

We got on a plane back to Bangkok without answers, but seduced by all of the thoughts. Perhaps that is the magic of India I questioned upon arrival...? It's the potent 'masala' of thinking which India triggers, and the reflection that its blend of horror, beauty, history, color and humanity demands. One that pinches the heart and opens the eyes.

Whatever it is and whatever the answer, we're grateful for India and the unforgettable perspective now sharply awake in our consciences. And truthfully, even more grateful that it's not our reality.


Anonymous Mommy Moore said...

What you saw in India "Pinches your heart and opens your eyes!" What an amazing statement--it kind of says it all about India and how that country has affected you. I'm glad you saw it because I know it has been a dream of yours, but I will be happy to have you home, too, to love you up and let you know that sometimes, I, too, wonder why I was born an American! I'm so thankful that I was/am!!

9:28 AM  
Blogger gknaddison said...

Greg here - Andy's friend from high school. I've been reading along and vicariously traveling with you two.

That does sound rather exciting, trying, and confusing. There are so many issues involved in international aid, travel, trade, culture, business - it can be overwhelming!

One topic I've been discussing with some friends on our travel blog is the idea of the "study abroad curve". Clearly this was a concept presented in the context of a study abroad trip, but I think the same concepts apply to any travel situation.

The idea is that your emotions travel along a sine curve while you are abroad - initially hesitant and homesick, moving towards excitement and infatuation at new found cultural experiences, getting into a rhythm in the new place and finding comfort, perhaps there are setbacks (breaking a camera, "policemen" stopping your scooter to get baksheesh) which take you back down.

Nikki's college friend Heather talks a bit from this perspective in two posts A not so good day on the study abroad curve and A good day on the study abroad curve

3:45 PM  

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