I’ve been in India a little over a week, but I’m not sure…we’ve lost all track of Western time and Western luxuries and Western garbage collection. We’ve finally left Delhi, and have now ventured into what Sally, our group leader, calls “down home” India: After a quick stay in Agra to see the Taj Mahal, we’re now in Bhopal, the capital of Madhya Pradesh. There are no tourists, no white people, no blondes. I’m getting a lot of stares. Even in agra, perhaps the most visited city in India, Indian families were coming up wanting to take their picture with me. One family even did a series of photos of each family member and me. Sally thought it was the American t-shirt; I think it’s my movie star sunglasses. Surely I must be Julia Roberts?!
We were actually quite pampered in Delhi and Agra, and that became shockingly clear when we arrived here in Bhopal. Or hotel is a “middle class option,” which means dirt roads, roaches, and a shower that pours directly onto the toilet. Te city itself (which is about 1.2 million inhabitants) was a shocker from the train station. There have been beggers everywhere, but here a boy with leprosy and therefore no feet hobbled on his arms after us, begging for chapati. There was more garbage here than in Old Delhi, and the sacred cows have increased exponentially. Here, herds of cattle lounge in the middle of the city’s busiest street. We all had a little bit of shellshock upon our arrival, particularly when Sally urged the women to wear, if not our whole salwar kameeze, at least our dupatta, a shawl/scarf you wear to cover your breasts.
Surprisingly, though, our first day here was pleasant. We visited a local mosque where the kids surreptiously waved and giggled at me, and then finally worked up the nerve to say hi. Most only speak Urdu, but one group of girls knew a little bit of English and were eager to chat with me. It was interesting to see them relax a little bit with me, but once the muezzin started his call to prayer, they quickly covered their heads and darted away. We’re getting a lot of quizzical looks on this trip. I don’t mind the kids and the women so much, as they’re clearly curious and not necessarily judgmental. But the men ogle and leer. And it’s very uncomfortable. You feel helpless…at least at home if someone’s really harassing you, you can say something, but here…I’m a Western woman. Clearly I’m meant to be ogled.
What else? In Delhi, I fell down the stairs and ended up having to go to an Indian doctor for an x-ray. They give you no protective covering, which was a little frightening. Nothing was broken, but the doctor said I either sprained my foot (?!) or pulled a tendon…Once he determined no break, he had no interest in a diagnosis. So I spent one monsoony day bedridden while my fellow travelers traipsed off to the crafts museum. I did join them for the walking tour of Delhi, although I got carted around in a bicycle rickshaw cum chariot like a princess. I was quite the spectacle. We also have had our share of the monsoon, which pours for several hours, turning every street into a river. But then an hour after it ends, everything goes away and Delhi is turned into a green paradise. The parrots even come out.
Overall, I’m still overwhelmed. I’m not really sure what to do with my reactions and the facts of existence here. India is poor. It’s dirty, it’s chaotic, it’s reckless, it’s fanatic. But clearly it’s so much more than that. There’s more than the surface level of grime and poverty, and we’re slowly starting to dig deeper. I’m astounded, but I’m also amazed. India is the largest democratic experiment in the world! More people vote in Uttar Pradesh, one of the states, than in the entire United States! And the literature and the art and the devotion and the vibrant clothes. There are so many appealing things here. But my reaction is still puzzled. On the one hand, I feel lucky for the fact of being born in the U.S….What privileges, what wealth I am granted simply because of my birthplace! But are those privileges and that wealth at the expense of the rest of the world? I suppose it’s white guilt on a grander scale. Karen, my current roommate on the trip, said she copes with everything by thinking, “This is reality for most of the world. And in the blink of an eye, I could be begging in the street.” But I don’t necessarily buy that. Life may get rough, but we all have people to fall back on. Unless disasters befall every single person we know and love, we’ll always have a support network. I’ll never have to live like this. And knowing that is the most puzzling part. What does that mean?
I’m off to go chew some pan (mmm…betel nut). Tomorrow we head to Sanchi, an ancient Buddhist stupa, to be enlightened.
While living in Mexico, I joked that speaking Spanish forced me to be far more Zen about life: Since I could only speak in the present tense, I was forced to just live in that present tense.
Like what you see? That's mostly Ross Freshwater. Check out my talented partner-in-life's photo gallery.