India: The Ubiquity of Poverty
Cha Cha, our autorickshaw driver in Agra, charges tourist groups 850 Rupees a day to take them around town. That’s just shy of $14 USD. At the end of our day together, we gave him a $2 tip, but the point is – he doesn’t earn much at all. Yet, when a beggar approached our tuk tuk outside the “Baby Taj" mid-morning, Cha Cha gave him his two bananas. It's true that you don’t need much to be able to give much.
Agra quickly gave us our first dose of high highs and low lows. We started at the majestic Taj on a crisp December morning. Much bigger than I’d anticipated, the Taj was even more beautiful than in pictures and postcards. Not just a masterpiece of marble inlay and carving, but a masterpiece of calligraphy, too. But just outside its gates, poverty had crept right up to the gates. Stray dogs, camel dung, and sacred cows roamed among leaning towers of trash and scattered rubbish like confetti everywhere. I had expected poverty. I was “prepared” for the emotional rollercoaster. What I didn’t expect was the ubiquity of it all. I thought it’d be contained within slum walls – as it is in other cities I’ve visited. Sequestered and kept in neat little categories. Not peppering even spots frequented by wealthy Western tourists. I didn’t expect even the train station to suck so badly.
In other cities I've visited, poverty felt like a destination. An attraction. A slum village you see out of the window of your train. A single area of town few visit. But India was already beginning to challenge me the way I hoped it would – to help me understand my assumptions, and the limits of my personal parameters. To see exactly what I take for granted. A new, “hot shame” (as Gregory David Roberts calls it) rose in me and remained. And yet… the Indians don’t let the knowledge of their poverty this dampen their spirit. I guess you can’t when you live in it, or among it. You cannot wallow in sadness day in and out. You learn to embrace the positive. Perhaps that’s why some say your happiness is inversely correlated with the size of your home.
The people still love their Bhaarat so. Despite the alleys in Chandni Chowk in New Delhi that look like they’re out of some dystopian matrix. Gray, gray, and more gray. Despite the tight buildings in narrow alleys with just a sliver of gray, dusty, polluted sky above – a spiderweb of exposed electrical wires criss-crossing overhead, seemingly ready to spark at any minute.
They still love it, despite Delhi’s air – dusty and dirty. My snot had black in it. But after three weeks in India I knew I'd get to escape. I'd get to have Indian poverty take up just a small bubble in my memory. After three weeks, I’d be home in New York, breathing in cleaner air. Most Indians do not have that luxury. I realized I was now consciously grateful for basic provisions like clean air and water.
They still love India despite it being a place where children are used to prey on tourists' emotions – where children themselves learn how to hustle on the streets. In Agra, at the Baby Taj, while overlooking the riverbank behind the Mahal and its shallow-water islets, a small girl no older than 5 years old approached. Standing tens of feet below, she looked up at me and smiled. We waved back. Then her lips opened and she mouthed “money.” And that very moment, the innocence of the exchange slipped away. Sadly, her innocence had been partially robbed of her years before. But not fully – if you look, you can still see kids being kids on the street. Neighborhood boys gathering for a cricket game. Them ragging on each other about who is better at the sport. And you see that some things are universal.
At dinner in Agra, we hit a low. One of the early 20-something friends from home that we'd been traveling with began to feel an allergic reaction coming on. There must have been peanuts in his dinner (or it was cross-contaminated in the kitchen). I started to see panic settle into his eyes, and we rushed him to a nearby pharmacy. It’s boggling how carefree the boys were. They came to Agra with just one small fanny pack between them. One didn’t even bring a coat to India. And, naturally, on this daytrip to Agra, neither of them brought an Epipen (though there was room in the fanny for sunglasses and other trivial knickknacks). Made me wonder how much you actually need. Surely there were things in my 15-lb. daypack that were superfluous. Still, traveling with the boys is great – it’s mutually beneficial. They are tall and strong, providing us with protection and safety. They'd also learned some Hindi, and got good at haggling. We, in turn, provided some planning, caution, and experience. It was symbiotic.
Agra thus was a both a whirlwind introduction to India and the beginning of something great. It was a place of paradoxical juxtaposition – lap of luxury Mahals surrounded by barefoot children in tattered clothing and rubbish cofetti. On the train ride home I let the exhaustion in my bones sink me deeper into my seat, and leafed through the classifieds in the local newspaper calling for marital partners. I read them front to back, stunned. More on that, very soon.