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.
Men vs Women
I’m well aware that there is a global contrast between men and women – women still make less, and have less opportunity – even in the western world. However, India angered me in whole new ways when it came to men vs. women. One night my roommates and I watched an old movie, Pretty Woman on DVD. We quickly learned that the Indian government edits the movies before they can be sold to the public – sex scenes are taken out, and nudity is taken out. I could deal with that considering it’s a rather religious country – it saves the need to ‘rate’ movies as they just take anything remotely offensive out. However- as we were watching Pretty Woman, we realized that a whole scene was cut out – the one where Julia Roberts unzips her long, black boot and pulls out a variety of condoms – different flavors and colors – you remember the line “I’m a safety girl!” – the whole scene was deleted once she went to unzip her boot. A little while later, there was a scene where Richard Gere lifts Julie Roberts up on the piano and proceeds to take off her robe. She is wearing only lacey panties and a bra and they are clearly going to have sex on the piano. To our surprise, this whole scene was left in tact. We stopped the movie and all got into a big discussion of horror at how they could remove the scenes about safe sex, and leave the scenes that had sex in them and scantily clad women. Our depressing conclusion – in India (and many parts of the world) women are just seen as sex objects…men learn to have sex with no consequences…no protection…the whole thing was absurd. No wonder why there are 1.2 billion people in India!
The men vs. women things doesn’t end with simple government film censoring. It’s everywhere. While we were there a woman was accused of killing her 1 day old baby girl because she didn’t want another girl. If you are only living on $2 a day…you don’t want a girl…not in India. You have to marry them off, you generally need a dowry, and they are not a good source of income to the family. In most parts of the world there are more women than men – but not in India – for every 1000 boys there are 793 girls. It is illegal to find out the sex of a baby during pregnancy…mainly because when people find out it’s a girl – there’s a higher likelihood that they will abort it.
One of the local English papers had a column where people could ask questions about sex. 95% of the questions were from men. My roommates and I would read it every day in disbelief. However one day we were all furious – someone wrote in a question that was concerned about his wife’s lack of ability to get ‘wet’ – and because of that – he said that he wife complains that it is very painful when he forces her to have sex. The Sex Dr. told him to go buy lubricant. That was it…lubricant. No mention of the fact that the man is forcing his wife to have sex. We were all going to write into the Sex Dr. ourselves and to let him know what a pig and idiot he was.
Lest you think that this is a land of male chauvinists, and sexually irresponsible men – that’s not necessarily the case…in contrast – the women who are successful here are very successful. The current President of India is a female. They have had female Prime Ministers in the past. There are many women that work and that run corporations here. Many women go to university. Even at our volunteer organization, Cross Cultural Solutions, a female ran the whole office, a staff of men. She started the company years ago and was clearly the woman in charge. The whole thing was confusing to me – should I be upset about how women were treated, or should I be happy that women were so successful?
Arranged Marriages vs. Love Marriages
This topic has always fascinated me. In India a large percentage of the population have arranged marriages. For a westerner like myself – I have a hard time understanding and accepting the fact that one’s parents can pick their life partners. In fact, it’s a little terrifying to me. However, if you look at the divorce rates – they are extremely low…it certainly make you wonder.
Since I’ve been in India, I learned a little bit about arranged marriages – such as the fact that your parents/family choose your mate. When a man is in his mid 20’s and a woman in her young 20’s the parents start on a quest to find a good match. This entails talking to various families, friends, and astrologers. The couple meets once or twice to make sure they know each other (even if it is just for a few hours) – then the family starts planning the lavish, ritualistic wedding.
However – if you refuse to have your family arrange a marriage for you, well then – you are marrying for love. This is becoming more popular in India – but it’s not necessarily the ‘better’ way. The arranged marriages seem to work within their culture. Granted there is a part of me that wonders how much simpler life would be if I didn’t really have to worry about dating – and just could have fun until my parents told me to settle down and get married. They would pick out my partner and I would simply do what they said. Right after the cow jumped over the moon.
I look at them vs. them looking at me
People just stare….not trying to be indiscrete at it one bit. In fact – as I type this right now, I have about 5 young Indian men surrounding me in the airport just watching me from the surrounding seats. They are behind me, on the side of me, just staring. I am completely used to this now In fact, if I don’t get the attention – I feel like something must be wrong! In Delhi Indians are used to seeing tourists, (white people) – however if you move out of Delhi and around the countryside – then you turn into a complete oddity. There is no social barrier space, they will come up and touch you, stare at you inches away and generally follow you around just to hear you talk, watch you facial expressions, see your body language. Many times I even caught my students doing this, they would repeat exactly what I would say under their breath not to be heard, but to just mimic. In contrast I could watch the locals all day too with the same utter disbelief that they watched me with. I watched their crazy driving, watched their patience, watched their amazing flexibility when it came to squatting, watched their head bobble and tried to decipher what it meant – yes, no, maybe? I watched them pull of wearing sequins like no other culture can. I watched them dance – always dancing any moment they could with big gestures, the use of the whole body, and an endless energy. Sure, I had seen people from India before, I worked with many. However, when you go into their culture – you see them in a different light – and that’s why I was so fascinated with looking at them.
World IT Leader vs. Dial up connections
It is a fact that India is now the call center of the world. They have partnerships with many large US company to outsource IT departments, help desk, and new development. In my past career I have worked with many of them. So here I am living in the world of IT, yet I can’t seem to get a good internet connection anywhere – let alone a wireless signal. Somewhere in India, there are big building with thousands of programmers working away diligently with good connectivity, and cutting edge computers, yet I never saw them. In contrast, when I go into a local internet cafes – I am jolted back to 1990 – when Internet connections were dial-up, monitors were small, and the computers were painfully slow. If you ever wondered where all of the old computers went that were used in corporations and schools…my answer is…they were shipped to India.
All of these things are the contrasts that you hear about and see quite often. After the first few weeks in India, nothing really surprises you any longer. An elephant in the street – no problem. The power outage 3 times a day – I don’t even flinch. The water shortage – no big deal – you can simply take a bath in a bucket.
It’s the people that really reach inside you to touch your heart. I will remember their hospitality, their smiles, their cries, and their eyes boring a hole inside of me. I will be back to India one day – maybe to teach, maybe to write, maybe to travel…who knows – but regardless of why I’m back – I will embrace it – the good and the bad. There are many things that I learned in India and some things that I ‘un-learned’. But mostly, I learned that I love the countries that intimidate me most.
I lost weight, I lost hair, I lost some decibels of hearing, I lost my fitness, I lost my ability to be on time, I lost any memory of what it’s like to flush toilet paper down the toilet.
I gained friends, I gained a head bobble, I gained an understanding of the grammatical use of articles, I gained 15 young adults in my life and my heart, I gained a ring in my nose, I gained an appreciation for being called ‘Mam’, I gained patience.