November 14, 2010
11:30PM: I step off the plane in Mumbai and immediately start sweating from the 90-degree heat and heavy humidity. I can feel my pores clogging from the thick layer of smog and the putrid smell of rotting garbage in the streets. With two senses already overwhelmed I enter the arrivals terminal and am immediately bombarded with a loud colorful scene of thousands of people in bright clothing milling around me shouting to each other and at me. Three young girls come up to me and touch my bare white arms and my long unwashed curly hair then giggle and leave. Men try to grab my suitcase to offer me rides while beggars grab the edge of my dress and motion to their mouths for food. I make it past the rickshaws to a waiting taxi and am whisked away to one of the most luxurious hotels I’ve ever seen- and it’s only an airport hotel. Welcome to India: land of the highest highs and lowest lows and the greatest culture shock I have ever experienced.
India is a complex country with a long history of oppression of the poor and lavishness lifestyles for the rich without much in-between. With the advent of new technologies and new business (like the call centers we all love to hate back in America) a new middle class is slowly emerging. However the poverty in India is still some of the worst in the world and the amount of people living below poverty line is the worst than anywhere else in the world. You can not go anywhere in India without children and adults coming up to your car window or pulling on your clothes while you walk down the street begging for food or money. There is no such thing as a “nice” neighborhood and beautiful houses and hotels will be right next to slums where children are starving to death living on the streets. You feel the poverty everywhere you go and in everything that you do. Even walking to the supermarket in a predominately new middle class area you pass children who are going to school and dressed in clean clothes and even they come up to you and beg for a dollar. It is startling and upsetting to see and it becomes completely overwhelming constantly being surrounded by it. When I visited a rural village on the way from Agra to Jaipur my group brought pens, coloring books, and candies and the children got so excited they literally attacked us leaving visible scratches on my arms- one girl even going so far as to bite me making me drop the bag of candy, which they then descended upon kicking and punching each other for the sweets.
In a stark contrast to the extremely sad poverty I witnessed, I experienced some of the most lavish luxurious palatial hotels I have ever seen. Some of the hotels I stayed in literally had been palaces hundreds of years ago and inside their walls I was treated like royalty and was completely transported from the devastating poverty right outside my door. The shopping was also amazing with some of the largest rubies, sapphires and emeralds I have ever seen on display. I definitely did a lot of shopping in India buying scarves, jewelry and a few other souvenirs. I always tried to buy from smaller merchants instead of large department stores in order to support the local economy. I never quite felt comfortable though in those settings though knowing what was right outside. Everyone says you must just ignore it and when the kids knock on your window just look the other way. Tourists are not supposed to give to the street children because often they are being controlled by organized crime bosses (like in Slumdog Millionare) and the money does not go to them. That is why I bought some candies to give to them, but after getting attacked in the village by the children I stopped. If you want to help the children I suggest donating to local orphanages or larger international organizations like UNICEF who will make sure the money goes to the right places and not to many of the corrupt local authorities around India.
It is hard to say what the future will hold for the country. When exploring India it was clear that there is a long history of extreme wealth and poverty that can be seen in the lavish palaces and forts around the country. This disparity between the classes was common in most of the ancient world. However when most western countries developed a middle class in the mid 19th Century during the Industrial Revolution India was under colonial British rule and never had that opportunity. Those western middle classes have continued to build and because of the ability social mobility in the west new levels have emerged like upper and lower middle class so there is less of a stark difference between the extreme rich and the extreme poor. India’s middle class is just beginning to emerge so maybe it will just take time. But the Caste system can still be felt there and it is very hard to improve from the life you were born into. Charity is also very big in Hindu culture and can be seen everyday when people leave food out for the cows, monkeys, goats, and dogs that wander the street, but not that much charity from the very wealthy is evident and while I was in India the first house worth over 1 billion (yes B as in billion) dollar house was constructed in Mumbai literally soaring over the poor slums. It is completely incongruous to imagine a house worth over a billion dollars situated next to squatter’s tents and starving children.
I don’t say all this to discourage others from visiting India, because while it was overwhelming and at times unpleasant I think it was an important experience for me to have and I encourage others to see it for themselves. India ended up being a bit too much for me and I left my elephant project after only 2 days and ended up flying to China a week and a half early. I will get more into those reasons in a later post when I talk about my experience at the elephant village in Jaipur. In case you were wondering I did get to see a tiger- a beautiful 3-year-old girl in Ranthambore! I learned a lot about conservation efforts in India and the long history that is still clearly evident on the streets of mistreating wild animals for tourist’s amusement. I will write plenty more on the subject in upcoming posts.
Every one of my senses was deeply engaged by the duality of India. The colors of the buildings and clothes were bright and beautiful, but everywhere I looked I saw starving children in rags and garbage building up on the sides of the road. The horrible smells of rotting sewage on the streets mingled with the fragrant spices deliciously wafting from local restaurants. The food was wonderful (albeit spicy), but also dangerous and caused many a stomach bug for me and my fellow travelers. The music from the local musicians was wonderful, but often drowned out by the constant blare of the car horn, which is used every few seconds without fail. And the wonderful sensuous feeling I got from trying on all the beautiful silk and cashmere scarves juxtaposed greatly with the uncomfortable feeling of strangers coming up to me and invading my personal space by reaching out to touch my skin and hair. Overall India was a whirlwind experience and a visceral assault on my senses resulting in some of the most emotional and thought provoking moments of my trip thus far.