In college I took two French classes with a girl from India. In French 3 we became friends, friends enough that I practically invited myself to visit her in India over the summer.
We planned a whole trip with the help of her parents. So in August 2014, we started in Mumbai (where she lived), then hit New Delhi, Agra, Jaipur, and Udaipur (where I caught a cold- but that’s besides the point) before heading back to Mumbai. All around in the North in 10 days.
I had not expected to learn some very important lessons that I will carry with me throughout my development career.
A college professor that I was a teaching assistant for, who is also from India, told me a million times that India is “organized chaos,” and “the ultimate paradox.” She said that, “On one side of the street you will see a fabulous mansion with slums in its shadow on the other side of the street.”
When I told her I was going to India she also said, “see the sites, but more importantly, see the poor.” The way she said it made it seem like I might have to hunt for them, like I’d have to ask my friend where I could find a “poor neighborhood.” I learned pretty quickly that was not the case. The poor and the rich are not so strictly divided, they live in the same spaces.
Slums are threaded throughout society. Next to the mall, on the side of the road, on the state border crossing of the train tracks, and outside the living room window of my friends condo on the 16th floor of a 36 floor building. Even from up in a window seat of the plane you can spot the tall tale sign of blue tarp over shacks, rustling in monsoon weather, before they disappear beneath the clouds.
A few jarring instances:
After a day of sight seeing my friend and I headed to a restaurant for dinner. Unable to finish it all we got the food to go and headed out to find her driver. Only a few steps from the front doors a girl, perhaps 12 years old, wearing a dirt smudged red tunic came up to my left side in the middle of a cross walk. I took little notice of her until she began tapping me on the arm and saying, “hey lady, give me food,” repeatedly in English. Unsure, I looked to my friend who shrugged and said, “if you don’t want it then sure.” I immediately handed her the plastic bag. The girl zipped off to a group of 5 other children, watching her as she pried open her prize.
Zipping around in her families car (equipped with a full-time driver) I stared out of the window wide eyed at the seemingly endless rows of slums. Men peeing on the side of the road and bare butted children sitting in the mud.
When the buzzing traffic stops people dart between the cars selling things. Toys, food, balloons, flowers, the list goes on. My friend tells me, “Don’t look at them or they will come and knock on the window.” They do that anyway. A little girl, perhaps 10 years old, dressed in a grubby white shirt knocks on my window. I don’t look at her. She goes to the other side and knocks on my friends window. My friend is moved and rolls down the window, speaking to her in Hindi I don’t understand. She hands the girl money and takes the white roses. My friend turns to me and says, “I told her to take the money and sell the flowers to someone else but she said she just wanted to go home, she couldn’t go home until all the flowers were sold, she didn’t care about making more money.”
Waiting for our car while shopping in Mumbai lead to a older lady begging us for money. Tapping us on our shoulders, pleading in Hindi, as my friend tried to convince her to leave us alone. The car pulled up, bright red, we slid into the back seat and pulled away from the curb to the sound of her banging on the window and trunk.
In New Delhi, more people thread between the cars. Some selling and some begging. I was just ignoring people as usual when out of the corner of my eye I spied a man coming toward the car. Thin, gaunt, with a missing right arm and horrible scaring. I can only imagine how he lost it (my experience watching horror shows and thriller movies gave me a good imagination to work with). My friend saw and said, “don’t look,” as he knocked on my window, but I already had.
I’ll be honest. I’ve long prided myself on being a worldly person. Someone who grew up traveling, but I was mentally unprepared for India. Studying poverty and learning about the economic strives did not prepare me for slums, begging, and tragically missing limbs.
I remember trying to explain to my friend what it was like being in her country and experiencing the differences between poverty in the U.S. and poverty and India. She said that she was just used to it in a way because she lived it everyday, and I needed to realize there was nothing I could do.
My own mother had a similar reaction. Basically just telling me she would teach me how to steel my heart, and that I needed to learn to experience life without letting it affect my emotions. Being retired military, I know she has experience with that sort of thing.
Ultimately, I would say I had a decent time in India but I appreciate it the most for the lesson it taught me.
Lesson 4: No matter how well you have traveled, you will never be prepared for everything.
Bonus lesson: Pity helps no one, only action does.