Category Archives: poverty

Unwritten part 2………………..

If you would like to read part 1, it is here.

We saw so much in India that we had never seen before. Some of it was absolutely amazing – the history, the people, and the beautiful children with charcoal lines painted around their dark eyes to keep evil from peering at them.

But a lot of what we saw sank in our gut like a meal riddled with hidden poison, so scrumptious in the consuming, so vile in the digesting and all of it leaving you sick for days. In some of the scarier moments, we saw a man beaten at the zoo, blind children begging in the middle of the night and the middle of the street, and children simply unattended. We saw a hoard of men lunging with lead pipes in hand toward the driver of a car sitting in line at a tool booth.

Once, when my friends came to visit, our car was stopped by a group of men on a dusty side road in the middle of truly nowhere. Our driver got out of the car and I feared for him and selfishly feared what would happen to us if something happened to him.

More than once, I saw a dead body strewn across the side of the road and completely ignored.

It’s hard to reconcile that. The very nonchalant way that someone can distract herself from a human being lying forgotten on the side of the road. Sometimes covered. Sometimes not. There are no reporters dreaming of headlines. No crowds of people gathering and gasping in disbelief. Mostly just people moving on – or moving around – busy with their own way, barely glancing over to see what happened other than to avoid the inconvenience of it all.

I always wondered who was at home waiting. Who did care that someone had stopped breathing through no fault of his own? What story would the family have to create with the absence of a caring witness?

Most of these memories simply dissipate into the haze. They fade and lose their sense of reality. In fact, unless you were armed with stacks of my own words right in front of me, it might be hard to convince even me that some of it truly happened. It couldn’t. It wouldn’t. But wait, maybe it did.

In most of those situations, I was eager to avoid danger and remove myself completely from acknowledging that anything dreadful was going on. Usually my kids were with me and I was trying to distract them so I would not have too much to explain later. I could busy myself with keeping them safe by keeping them unaware.

Words always failed me in those tenuous situations. I didn’t understand the “why” of what was happening any more than my children could and never found the strength to make sense of the different scenarios for my kids. So, if they could be preoccupied with counting people on a bus or looking for camels – so be it.

But there is always a moment when you can no longer pretend that you live in a world where suffering doesn’t fall like rain. There is always a memory you cannot escape or deny.

It happened to me right after a few of my friends and I decided to venture deep into Old Delhi. One of the best memories I have from my time in India was tainted and stained by one of the worst.

Many westerners are hesitant to travel into Old Delhi. But we were having none of that. Old Delhi is alive with all that India is about. It is a fascinating and wonderful corner that is best explored with open eyes, an adventurous spirit, and an old pair of shoes that can be thrown away later.

My friends and I donned colorful dupattas (scarves) and climbed the steps to the Jama Masjid mosque and removed our shoes and rang the bell at the Jain Temple letting the gods know we were there. We visited our favorite jeweler and his family and spoiled ourselves with shiny trinkets. We laughed that our new jewels were really for our kids and our grandkids and that we would just hold them in safe keeping until they were mature enough to have them.

We felt humbled by the seriousness of the students study and chants and prayers in the Fatepuri Mosque. We inhaled the dust and braved the stares of the male-dominated Spice Market, where we dined on delicious raw cashews and pistachios as we watched men bathe in buckets.

We enjoyed the Sikhs bowing in reverence as they entered their Gurdwara and admired their dedication to feed those who are hungry. We relished the fact that just up the street of Chandni Chowk was also the home to a Baptist Church and a Jain bird sanctuary. All of the world’s major religions had a presence on that street and we boasted how wonderful that was.

We moved on to the famed Karims restaurant and laughed as we asked for our sodas in cans and paper plates for our food, brave enough to eat the food but not brave enough to eat it off of their potentially uncleaned plates.

It was one of those days where everything clicked. We learned, we laughed, and we wore ourselves out. Our glow grew with every stop – the spirituality, the friendship, and the jewelry.

On the way to the car, we continued to marvel at the sights, sounds, and smells of Old Delhi. The alleys were alive with crazy electrical wires hanging from every single building serving as balance beams for the monkeys who danced across them over our heads. We did our own dance over unknown splats on the crackling walkway and tried to identify what each might be. Ultimately, we decided some mysteries were better left unsolved.

We kept pace with the men and animals pushing and pulling carts and women covered in veils. Children coming home from school and merchants delivering their wares. Spices that made us sneeze a little, then gag. Brides shopping for invitations. Incense burning right around the corner from the used auto parts shop rich with its own smells of rubber and grease.

Old Delhi was vibrant in a way that my neighborhood in the Unites States never could be.  And whenever I visited this part of Delhi, I always tempted time by staying for just one minute more. There was forever a window that had not been seen before or a corner that had not yet been turned.

As time dripped away, we realized we had better hurry and bustled to the car in a little bit of a panic that we might be late for school pickup. We got in the car and immediately started calling the different school offices to be sure they knew we were on the way – explaining that just this time, we would be just a smidge later than normal. “Traffic is horrible,” we said and winked at each other while holding our hands just right so that our new rings reflected the sun streaming in the window.

As I was putting my phone down and sinking into my seat, I looked around at the busyness on the street. It was chaotic and endless. It was hard to pick out a single scene and soak it in.

But then just over to my left, a man came into focus. There was no reason, really, that I should be drawn to him. He was defined in the same dusty, brown haze as the foggy air that surrounded him. He wore a simple and stale, used-to-be-white robe and was standing in the middle of the road. In between traffic and blinks, he could have easily disappeared. He looked drunk and obviously wanted something. Help.

But it was not immediately obvious just how truly desperate he was. You can unfortunately and intentionally become numb to the desperation in India a little too quickly. Even with the biggest most generous heart, the realization that you simply cannot help everyone graciously lends you an excuse to ignore someone who is clearly struggling.

My friends were still on their phones and I am pretty certain that they never even saw what happened next. I do not know how my driver could have possibly missed it but he showered me with the gift of never discussing it.

As traffic slowed, the man in the middle of the road slowly began lifting the skirt of his tattered robe.

At first, I only saw his bare and wrinkled feet. His toes seemed to be bent in half from holding on too tightly to the melting asphalt. Then he revealed his far too skinny ankles. Followed by his knotted and bent knees. His skin was ashen and taut, stretched tightly over bones that were very likely brittle and deteriorating. They were bones that had probably never tasted milk. Maybe they had never even had the chance to be strong enough to allow him to hold up his slight frame with pride and determination. With hope.

It took me a few seconds to fully comprehend what he was doing. To really understand. To allow myself to believe I wasn’t just imagining it. But not enough time to distract myself from it. To delve into conversation and disappear.

With his skirt fully lifted, I finally realized what he was doing. This man had taken straw-colored raffia, or maybe it was old rope, and tied it around one of his testicles. His testicle had swollen to nearly the size of a basketball. He would lift his robe to show the passerbys how profoundly he needed help. Their help.

How are you supposed to respond to that? How do you digest that? How do you explain it? What are you supposed to do?

How do you say, from an air conditioned car with a full belly and new rings on your fingers, that you are not going to stop?

We drove away but I can never forget his face. His destruction.

This time I think I was so stunned that I could not act. Even if I had thought to empty my purse at his feet, I could not have done it. I was frozen. I never even turned my head away. Our eyes met as we were rolling away and he just looked at me as if to say, “Yes, my dear, you are seeing exactly what you think you are seeing and what are you going to do with it?”

I sat in disbelief that I totally and completely ignored a man who had intentionally mangled part of himself beyond all recognition. His marketing plan was to be the most disfigured – the most in need. And even that was not working.

I still am not quite sure what I am supposed to do with his image. I am not sure how to handle this experience. What to do with it.

Who really cares what this man across an ocean did. How does it relate to life here and now? I am not really sure. But I know I don’t want to forget it. Well, that will be easy enough because I cannot forget him.

But what now?

Through the Glass…………….

As soon as we knew we were moving to India, we made plans to take our cats with us.

Unfortunately, our one cat is diabetic and it really didn’t make sense for her to be on a plane for over 24 hours without access to water. I wrote a very fun resume for her when we were trying to find a place for her to live. If you want a chuckle, you can read it here. A lovely family adopted her while we were gone and spoiled her rotten.

We decided it would be very helpful for the kids to have their other two beloved furry siblings with them – and, not for nothing, someone else was going to be cleaning out the litter and wiping up the inevitable furball throw-up. Yeah. In case it’s not painfully obvious why that was awesome, you can catch up here.

Our first attempt to get the cats to India was a colossal fail. I do not heart United Airlines and if you want to be mad at them too, you can read about that here.

Now that you are all caught up on the history, let’s get back to the story.

Eventually, the cats made it all the way across that big ocean. Alive and well and very confused – kind of like the rest of us.

They settled in quickly and were very well cared for.

But our staffs initial reaction to them was hysterical. They could not believe that we had cats as pets. I should explain that cats aren’t really kept as pets in India. There are tons of stray cats on the streets but it is very rare for someone to actually bring them into their home, feed them, care for them, and make them a part of the family. To love them.

I guess it’s hard to worry about stray animals too much when there are so many stray humans without food and shelter.

Someone also told me that Indians consider cats to be bad luck. I cannot verify that, but it might be true.

Cats are so rare as pets that India does not even have a manufacturer of cat food – at least not one that delivers Indian cat food to any of the pet stores in Delhi –  there may not be an Indian dog food manufacturer either because most dogs are simply given table scraps. The only cat food I could find was imported and ridiculously expensive.

Good thing we brought, not one but two, very large cats who really like to eat.

When we first moved to India and lived in an apartment, the cats very rarely saw the light of day. But then number one hubby found us a house and the cats had access to glass doors at ground level. (We did not feel comfortable letting them actually go outside because there were hawks in the area and tons of stray dogs and cats.) Our cats seemed happy enough to just look outside and they immediately discovered that they were not alone in the world. That other cats lived just beyond that glass horizon.

The difference between our American house cats and the Indian stray cats was nothing short of amazing.

Ours – big and fat and shiny – not a scratch on them. Loved and cuddled. Not afraid of humans in the least. Not particularly fond of every single human, but not one tinsy tiny bit afraid of them. No front claws.

The strays – little bitty – boney – ears ripped – dusty and dull fur with patches missing – never touched by humans hands and terrified of people.  Their faces looked more alien than feline – too wide at the eyes and too narrow at the lips. And their bones nearly poked through their fur. They would never survive without their claws.

They did love our patio though. Largely because it always had a bowl of fresh water and some very expensive cat food on it. The shade from the scorching sun didn’t hurt either. And it was enclosed by a gate, so the dogs could not get in. I wonder if they felt safer in it. But I believe they must have been curious about our cats too.

They would sit and watch each other through the glass.

Part of our morning routine as humans was to put food in the bowls for the cats outside and watch them slink in and get breakfast. It was always fun to see who came first and we worried when one of them didn’t show up for a few days. We noticed who had new scratches and delighted when kittens arrived one morning. We counted them and named them and wondered if we could catch even one and bring it inside.

The pet store that carried the cat food and the cat litter I liked best was not very close to our house. So, I would often send our driver to pick up several packages of each.

This means that the cook, housekeeper, guard, gardener, driver, and the man on the moon all knew just how much money I was spending on these ridiculous creatures that pooped and threw up in the house. And I am sure they compared that to their own salaries and calculated in their own minds what they could do with that kind of money. To us, it wasn’t a hardship – but to them it could have been all the difference in a nicer house or better schools for their kids.

I am not sure why I am stuck on the thought of all of this. How anorexic the stray cats looked compared to our literal fat cats. How the staff must have been fascinated and miffed by the resources we dedicated to them.

One day, our cook was finally able to say out loud what he must have been thinking for months….

Francis: Ma’am, why do you feed the outside cats such expensive food
Me: They look so hungry
Francis: They will eat your leftover rice
Me: I guess that never occurred to me. Let’s try it.
Francis: Duh.

We did try it. And those cats had grown too accustomed to the the tastiness of the meat flavored cat food. They merely picked at the rice.

Francis was not about to be outsmarted by a street cat. He started adding leftover gravy to the rice. They were happy once again.

One of the things that struck me was that those stray cats never got any fatter. They knew what “full” meant and never seemed to gorge themselves.

I guess that is what was hardest about helping others in India. It was easy to feel taken advantage of. To feel like generosity was expected. Those cats came and took only what they needed and left the rest for the next cat who might pass by.

But now that I am once again an ocean away from the struggles of so many, I am left to wonder why I didn’t do more. How I might better define the lines of graciousness that I was willing to tiptoe around but never fully cross over. I am not sure there is an answer but I am sure I will always question why those of us with too much (including myself) aren’t more generous to those with much too little.

Let’s Stop the Snack Madness………..

I have been trying to figure out a way to be more helpful to others and I think I might have figured out a small little way to make a difference.

It will relieve stress on parents, address childhood obesity and pollution in America, and possibly feed some hungry children in the world. Sounds good, right?

If you have ever had a child in a rec sport, then you probably already know where I am going with this. But in case you don’t, let me ‘splain.

Take little Suzy Quzy. She’s 8 and she loves soccer. It’s Saturday and she has a 10am game.

Her mom gives her a good breakfast because she has a game. She’s going to need the energy. Suzy goes to the game and warms up. During warm ups, she drinks some of the water from one of the tw0 bottles of water that she brought with her. Then she plays about 15 minutes of soccer.

During half-time Suzy’s mom comes running across the field with oranges slices. She is slightly frantic because half time is such a short period of time to give out a snack. There is real pressure here to make sure everyone has a snack. Seriously, the children might actually starve because they have not had anything to eat in the last 45 minutes. Those aren’t airplanes people, they are grumblies in their tummies.

And not for nothin’, these kids better love these oranges. Afterall, Suzy’s mom went to two grocery stores to get oranges because they didn’t look great at the first one (where they had been on sale because it’s not really orange season and they are expensive, so a sale sounded good). And there was traffic. Jeez Louise the traffic. It took her an extra 20 minutes to get home. Now she is running late. She yelled at her kids to leave her alone because she had to get these oranges sliced for the game. She cut her finger because her husband tickled her when he walked by. The sheer nerve of that man. Now he is in trouble. Suzy cannot find her soccer cleats but mom cannot help because she is slicing oranges.

While the coach is talking, Suzy’s mom sees that most of the kids don’t have oranges. Suzy’s mom really wants everyone to know there are orange slices. So while the coach is talking, she is weaving in and out of the kids just to be sure everyone knows there are oranges. Oh, and diaper wipes. She wants to make sure no one plays soccer with sticky hands. That is critical to soccer play because – fyi – you don’t even use your hands in soccer but, sure, it is probably better if they are not sticky.

During half time about three kids have one orange slice each. But one of the players has a three-year-old brother who just loves oranges, especially when they are sliced and bought (out of season) by someone else. So, deflated, Suzy’s mom gives him the bag of oranges and he plays with eats them with very dirty hands. The husband is wondering why they just spent $20 on oranges but he is way too smart to say it out loud. He compliments his beautiful bride on having the best snack ever. Oh, yeah, those diaper wipes kicked it up a notch. How is it possible that no one had thought of that before?

The kids open their second water bottle because they cannot figure out which ones are their original bottles. There are 8 bottles on the ground, all only half empty. But, they can’t drink out of those because they might catch a real-life cootie. Don’t laugh, I have seen it happen and it ain’t pretty.

Finally, the kids finish up their soccer game. Another frantic parent comes over with a peanut-free, glutten-free, and dairy-free end-of-game snack and another drink. They must be famished by now.  Holy cow, it’s been an entire hour and a half since they have had a proper meal. Yeah, Suzy’s mom thought she was all hot stuff with those exotic, organic orange slices, but we see where those ended up – abandoned and alone in the dirt.

The kids forget both of their original water bottles and suck down a juice box. And honestly, they are glad to have another drink. At this point, water is so two hours ago. Now each child has 3 bottles of trash. Only one of which will actually be claimed. The rest of the bottles nearly filled with perfectly good water get left on the field. Along with some  orange slices formerly known as perfectly good. The kids all open their snacks but it’s not one they are crazy about (maybe because peanut-free, gluten-free, dairy-free snacks actually taste like cardboard) so they don’t eat it. The overachieving mom brings a trash bag to pick up all the leftover pieces – take that Suzy’s mom – diaper wipes indeed. But a lot of trash still gets left on the field.

Oh, wait, the coach has one more announcement. It’s Stephie’s birthday. Everyone sing and there are cupcakes. And boy, are they cute. Another fyi, the cuter the cupcake, the more likely it is to go uneaten. Kids love looking at them, but if it’s too complicated, eating them very quickly becomes not-so-much.

More trash is created by the cupcake wrapper and one-bite-taken-out-of-cupcakes.

Suzy’s family gets home exhausted. And Suzy’s mom announces, “It’s lunchtime!” They are having fruit salad with dirt dressing. However, Dad is not hungry. He has already had a really cute cupcake and a half of a bag of cardboard.

I therefore propose that if your child really cannot go an hour and a half without eating, plan ahead. Bring them a snack. One that is safe for them and that they like and that they will actually eat. And the parent responsible for snacks can take the $50 s/he would have spent on snacks and drinks and donate it to the World Hunger Organization or their local church or local food bank or whatever – you get the point.

Really hungry children would get the resources they are truly desperate for, husbands would once again be allowed to tickle their wives, moms could help their children find their soccer cleats without cut fingers, kids wouldn’t overeat as much, fields would have less trash, and the list goes on. I am not sure what to do about the little brother who really likes playing with expensive orange slices in the dirt, but hey, Rome was not built in a day.

On Track…………….

Many of the differences of living in India hit you hard and fast. But some of them emerge slowly over time and creep into your everyday life.

One such change was the availability of sports teams for my kids. Now I promise this is not a post about how my kids are rock stars and how they were cheated by not having adequate sports opportunities in India. It is not an “if only” post. India us taught a lot of things including how to adjust. And in many, many ways stepping back was a tremendous gift.

Before we left the U.S., my kids played soccer year round and swam year round. In between they played basketball. They were busy every day, every night, and every weekend. That came to a screeching halt with the plane when we landed at the Indira Gandhi International Airport in Delhi. Sports seasons are only eight weeks long at best and we missed the swimming season totally and got on the wait list for soccer. But, you guessed it, we never got called to teams.

The first real season my son could participate in was track. Eager to get moving again, Bear signed right up. He had done a tiny bit of track in the U.S. – maybe three or four practices and one mini meet – but he was by no means accomplished.

One of the things that makes me the most proud of my kids is not when they succeed but how they handle new challenges. They are not intimidated by trying new things and they are not intimidated by not being the best at something. It is really awesome to watch.  If you are someone who is mainly concerned with your child winning, step back and watch how they lose or what they won’t try because they are afraid of losing. It really is a more important skill. To be graceful in defeat. I would argue it will get you much further in life than always winning.

But I digress.

Bear went to practices and got better and worked really, really hard. It was not easy and he didn’t particularly enjoy all of it. But he never gave up. He showed up everyday in the 100 plus degree heat and he ran and jumped and threw the discus. He was way out of his comfort zones.

The team was narrowed down to seven athletes. And would once more be narrowed to the final five official members of the team with an alternate. Bear was one of the seven.

He continued to go to practices and gave it all he had. When the final five were chosen, Bear was number six. And he was justifiably disappointed. He had done his best and it was not enough to compete. He was not used to that at all.

That night there was a party for the 6th graders at one of the kid’s houses. I was thrilled that he wanted to go because he was already starting to separate from his disappointment.

But this was a new experience for me. I did not know the parents who were hosting the party or the kids or the neighborhood or what to expect.

I told Bear he could go but that I would take him and I had to meet the parents to know that adults would be home. This wasn’t his day at all. Not only did he not make the final team, now his mother had to accompany him to a middle school party in the land of everyone else is driven by their drivers and dropped off. It turns out that out of 100 kids in 6th grade, only two parents went in to make sure parents were there. It was truly a whole new world for me.

Poor Bear.

But he knows me well and did not fight it.

What a gift that ride to the party was.

Because I was not driving, I had the chance to talk to Bear without any distractions. We both sat in the back seat in the dark and talked. Even the dark was a gift because he did not have to really look at me, just listen and periodically mumble, “I know Mom”.

I told him how proud I was of him for trying something new and that I was amazed by how he handled this whole move to India. I bored him with my thoughts on how he should still be so proud of himself because it is the journey that counts and that I completely understood why he was disappointed. I even said that he had a right to be disappointed but that he had to understand that the coach was picking the best team he could. It wasn’t personal. And it did not mean he didn’t do an amazing job.

Then we heard…tap…tap….tap.

We both knew what it was. It had already become a too familiar sound. Someone was knocking on our window to ask for food or money. We were becoming a little immune to it, sadly. Immune is not the right word – maybe we were allowing ourselves some distance from it.

This is one of the hardest things to admit about poverty. When you are living in the middle of it everyday, you allow yourself to ignore it. You feel helpless and there are times when you will actually be irritated by the fact that someone is struggling. At times, you will become dismissive and even rude to a person who is starving and homeless. Even a young child.

Gulp. You will actually resent that someone needs help. And you resent it not because you don’t care but because you feel so overwhelmed by it. That is the hard reality of living comfortably in a poor country. You cannot pretend real poverty does not exist because you slide through it every single day but you have absolutely no impact on it. Helping doesn’t change it and ignoring it makes you sick to your stomach.

We both turned to the window and could not see anyone there.

Bear looked down to find a man on a small, wheeled wooden box. He had no legs. He was unnaturally thin and dirty and had an empty look in his eyes. He had to brush his hands along the hot asphalt to move himself forward.

This is another thing that is incomprehensible. Even when someone who is living it is tapping on your window. You have to make a quick decision. Ignore it or help. I am not proud of how many times I chose “ignore”.

People who are really poor with absolutely nothing are willing to maim themselves because it makes them more competitive in the begging world. The more pathetic you seem, the more help you are likely to get.

We do not know if this man hurt himself or if he had an accident or if he was just born this way. But sometimes people really believe that their best option is to become as desperate-looking as possible and will damage their bodies to achieve that.

That is about as hopeless as it gets.

Bear and I looked down at the man and looked at each other and I simply said, “how much would that man love to be an alternate on the American Embassy School track team?”

That quickly became one of the many lessons we learned.

 

How did you decide who to help……….

Talking to my youngest child is like having a conversation with a racketball – in the middle of an olympic match with gold medal implications. She comes at you from all different angles at one hundred and ten miles an hour. It’s really too bad that Johnny Cochran is no longer with us because she could have given him a run for his money.

The other day we are riding in the car – just me and her – on the way to swim practice. Her mind is racing about anything and everything and we have this conversation…

Angel: Mom, remember the other day when we were riding in the car and we saw that lady in the middle of the road?
Me: Yes.
Angel: Why was she there?
Me: She was asking for help.
Angel: Why was she doing it there?
Me: Don’t you want to give me your Christmas list? Seriously, now is a good time to ask for just about anything because I will promise the moon if we can talk about regular old 9-year-old stuff.

We saw this woman in Silver Spring, Maryland. She was begging in between cars at an exit ramp right off of 495 – one of the busiest roads in this area. She had a severe limp and was bundled up not so warmly on a pretty cold and very windy day. I asked the kids if they had any snacks. They didn’t. So we drove by carefully and quickly, leaving her standing still empty handed right in the middle of the road.

Apparently she made an impression.

Angel: How did you decide who to help?
Me: You mean that lady? We didn’t have any food to give her.
Angel: No, in India.
Me: It just depends, honey.
Angel: But sometimes you gave them money. And sometimes you gave them food. And sometimes nothing.
Me: (humming All I want for Christmas is my two front teeth.) Any progress on that Christmas list sweetie?
Angel: No, really. Remember, there was the one guy you gave money to. The one on the corner on the way to school. And then you stopped giving him money. How did you decide who to help.

That conversation made me realize that I still have a lot to reconcile and digest about living in India.

My husband suggested the other day that maybe we should stop talking so much about it with other people. It always seems to creep into the conversation and he thinks maybe people are tired of hearing about it.

Maybe.

But it is part of who we are now. It will come up.

And I hope to spend the next few weeks reconciling the effect that seeing so much poverty had on me. Some of the posts will surely be tough to read – believe me they will be tougher to write. And I will write them comfy and cozy from my office knowing that it is harder to exist in poverty than write about it from a distance.

But I do hope that we can stick through it together. I hope that I can articulate with clarity and compassion what we experienced in a way that captures your attention. Because simply clicking away from these posts will not diminish the existence and impact of poverty.

This should be fun, right?

What does it all mean……………….

Yesterday, I wrote about a man taking my shopping cart in the parking lot for me. You can read about it here.

I have been thinking about why that had such an impact on me and this is what I came up with. I think I will ramble a little – so please stick with this one – I promise there is a point at the end.

Living in India was an absolutely amazing experience that took me way out of my comfort zone. It jumbled up my routines and took me away from my favorite people. Living there gave me opportunities I would never, ever have here and it made me question a lot of what I thought I knew to be true.

I mostly think of myself as a kind and even generous person. It’s true that I can be cranky and selfish just like anyone else but I truly do enjoy giving other people a reason to smile and (mostly) don’t mind helping out.

But here comes India full force – where people really need – and not just a hug or a dinner brought over or a carpool for their over-scheduled kid or someone to take their shopping cart in the parking lot – they need food and water and a way out of horrible, horrible situations. And please know that I understand people in America need too – I know that – and I understand that the needs in America can be very real and can be overwhelming too. People are sick and people are hungry and people are hurting. I get that. But not in the same magnitude as in India – not so many people all at once and not so desperately and not without options. Right now, I live in a bubble – a green, lush, over-fed bubble with people who do not hesitate to help each other out. We are getting by just fine. Sure we endure struggles – but it is really not the  same.

I will show you what I mean – this man is taking a bath outside in a busy market area. The water is not clean and he is in public and I am taking his picture.

The streets are dirty and there is human and animal waste all over the place. That means that you have very good chances of getting pretty sick at some point. Especially if you do not have a nutritious diet and clean drinking water. And this is the road outside the entrance to the neighborhood we lived in – an upscale area. This is not a slum.

It is not only not uncommon – it is actually quite common – to see children unattended on the streets.

We have been having some pretty significant storms in our area and many people have been without electricity for several days. News reporters were interviewing several people affected by the outages and one councilman said, “people here feel like they are living in a third world country.” Dear heavens. Really? I understand he was going for the dramatic effect – but please.

Again, I appreciate that the people who lost power probably lost the food in their fridge and were hot as heck in their houses and were certainly inconvenienced. It probably is a hardship for some of them to replace their food. And of course, the elderly and young children and anyone who is sick could be in real danger. But it is temporary. And it will be fixed. Welcome to America baby where there are churches and libraries and friends houses to go to. There are options. The temporary pain of a power outage is certainly not like living in a third world country. I promise you, it is not.

I miss that about India – that the people of India don’t let bumps in the road slow them down. And I think I learned to calm down a little bit myself. I learned that if it will end up as a funny story one day, you can get through it. That the Indian people as a whole don’t take so much for granted. I would like to believe that clean water is a right and not a privilege but that is just not a reality – and electricity – well, that is icing on the cake. It really, really is.

Anyway, back to why I appreciated the man taking my cart.

Like I said, I used to think I was fairly generous and kind. India really made me question if that is true. I volunteered, sure – but I never fully committed to any one group. I gave myself a pass because I was still pretty involved in my kids classrooms which took up some time – and moving to India was a huge adjustment for me so I gave myself time to settle in before raising my hand too much – but you know what that sounds like – the excuses that they are. I know I contributed in many ways to help out people, but frankly it wasn’t enough. I truly could have done more. And why did I let myself get too overwhelmed to dive fully in. Because I knew I would eventually get to escape and move home to the land of temporary problems.

The hardest thing to accept about my time in India is how many times I turned my head away from a young child knocking at my window. If I remembered to bring crackers or cookies I would share those every time. But honestly putting food in the car wasn’t top on the list in my routine of getting out the door. I tried to remember – but I could have done better about it – and I should have. I regret that I simply did not do better.

Begging in India is a tricky thing. And helping beggars is even trickier.

Most people will tell you absolutely not to give to anyone begging for several reasons. Any money you give them usually goes to some sort of ring leader (read gang leader), if you give to one person you could end up with a flock of people around you and the mob mentality in India is not safe, giving to beggars encourages begging, it’s illegal, if you teach a man to fish, blah blah blah.

And it did happen to me more than once that I gave to one person and more people surrounded me. It was certainly uncomfortable. I even saw a woman have her change purse stolen. It was snatched right out of her hands. She was trying to give every child in front of her some change and one child said, “uh-uh lady – that is going to be all mine.” And we said, “see why you don’t do that?” And she said, “what difference does it make if he has all my change, I really don’t need it. It’s just my change.” And that was the right attitude. But it’s hard to get there.

When you see a small child knocking on your window, you let all these reminders run through your head. Why it is not a good idea to encourage begging – there is real danger in it – but how do you end it. You know that you cannot – it is much bigger than one person. And when the car, thankfully and finally, pulls away, you are still left with a pit the size of Texas in your stomach.

And then, when you have to explain all of this to your own children -augh.

The one thing my children never asked me was why they got to ride in an air conditioned car with a driver while so many children barely had enough to eat. They understood so much about our experience there and I am very proud of the way they took so much of the whole experience in and made it a part of who they are. But this is the one question that never escaped me. Why them and not me? I counted a lot of blessings in India – but that didn’t do the kid knocking at my door a whole lot of good.

And then you get back to your little oasis called home and you close the door and you want to shut it all out. In India it is particularly important to have a “home”. With familiar things and pictures of family that you miss and just some good old macaroni and cheese. But you cannot get away from the need that others experience.

At first, I would even say I was even proud of how we treated our staff who worked in our house. Pride goeth before a fall, no doubt. We paid more than most people, we gave lots of time off, we gave frequent bonuses, we gave them the things we did not “need”, we didn’t ask them to do things we would not do ourselves, we shook our heads at those who haggled too tightly over what was a reasonable salary to hold on to a few more pennies, blah blah blah.

But it was never enough. Our cleaner wanted help with tuition for his son and housing. Our cook and his wife just took what they wanted – no matter how much we gave, they always took more, and our driver started off his first day by telling me he had made a bad investment and lost all of his savings and tuition was due for his kids school. How do you balance that? When is enough enough? What is enough? What is not enough.

I know we made their lives easier – or at least we tried to. I feel good that we were reasonable enough to work for. But the problem for staff that works with expat families is that eventually those families leave and nothing is permanent. We have been paying our housekeeper for the past few months and we haven’t been living there. We have told him it is time to get another job and I did a lot to put him in touch with the right people. But he doesn’t seem to believe it. Eventually we are going to stop paying him but, but , but…………

So, when the guy in the parking smiled because I had done something nice – even though it was really insignificant – it made me smile. I said in my original post that being so happy about the whole event was over-reacting. And that is true. The world is not going to change because someone put away someone’s shopping cart – but maybe if we all are a little nicer to each other we will at least make it through the days a little easier. Especially in a country where most people don’t need much – maybe we all need kindness. Maybe that is the best start of all.

Unfortunately, today, I am right back where I was before. I want to be really helpful to people who really need it. Hopefully I will figure out a way to do that.

Old Delhi – part 3, the people

People, people everywhere! Delhi is crowded and Old Delhi is more crowded. The alleys are narrow and the streets are full. But that gives you a chance to slow.down.and.look.around…

Indians are some hard-working people for sure. There is hardly a street anywhere in Delhi that doesn’t have a man pushing or pulling a bike or wagon with some heavy-arse stuff on it. Old Delhi is clearly no exception. And, yep, these guys are maneuvering between cars, trucks, buses, scooters, people, and cows. And they just never seem to have the right shoes. Can you imagine?

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I mentioned before that Old Delhi has a lot of men roaming around.
There are certainly women too, but really, it’s mostly men.

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The children on the streets of Delhi always take my breath away. This little girl was with
some of the vendors. I am guessing they are her parents or at least a relative. At least, I really, really hope so.
She is a little bitty thing and she was just in the middle of the hustle and the bustle. Right in the middle of it all.
And she seemed totally unfazed. She looked at home on the streets.
I am not really sure how I feel about that. Not that it matters. It is not changing. At least not for her. At least not right now.

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And I think this was her brother. This is how India is changing me. I wonder how I can walk away from this country
without taking a child in need home with me. And how could you possibly pick just one. Which one?
Then I come home to my own family and I am exhausted by their own energy. I wonder how I could even consider taking on more.
Living in your own bubble in the midst of such great need is overwhelming – it is nearly impossible to find a practical way to help –
to find a way to make a difference without trying to change the way India works.
To walk away from this as simply a tourist who just wants to “see” Old Delhi. Not absorb it – not really even embrace it,
but maybe just understand it a little bit better. But then what?
(p.s. I do not remember this boy being handicapped, as least not physically – certainly financially, but I think I just got his eyes closed.)

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This guy has absolutely the right idea. I left Old Delhi very much in need of a nap.

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I rode on my first bicycle rickshaw. My only advice – hold on! They actually go at a decent pace,
but mostly the roads are really bumpy and, because it’s crowded, they swerve a lot!

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Tell me how many women you count in the next photo. And no fair counting the one taking the picture….

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These three young chaps from London were amazing. They were breathing in the city and wanted to share it.
They sought us out as we were waiting in line for a table for dinner. Two in our group followed them up on a random
roof top to see Old Delhi in a different light. Yep, one of the two was me. I have not decided if that was very adventurous or very stupid.
(Shhhhh, that was a rhetorical question. I made it out alive – so I am guessing adventurous. No need for further debate.)
They had an absolute childlike amazement about Delhi and especially the kites.
They saw the beauty in the dirt and felt the soul of the people walking the streets. They were poets walking thru their own poem.
And, yes, in my pessimistic mood, I asked if they were going to have us mugged. They weren’t even insulted by the question.
Ah, to be young and unencumbered once again. Or to at least live vicariously thru them.

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I “met” this guy across the roof. We stared at each other with the same bewilderment.
And we soaked in the same scenes with the same amazement, the same appreciation.
We looked at each other and wondered together, “who in the heck is that”.
Across a roof and across cultures, we melted into the same world of amusement over kites.
And held the same respect for men bowing in prayer.
(Okay, admittedly you have to work with me on this one – he looks very uninvolved in sharing much with anyone in this moment,
but trust me, he was swept across oceans and we laughed at the same sky. I just didn’t want
him to know I was taking his picture, so I did it when he wasn’t looking at me. Please just suspend your reality and go with that, ‘kay?)

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This could be any street anywhere – in Tokyo or New York or anyone’s Chinatown.
Sometimes life is universal.

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These men joined together to break their Ramadan fast.

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All in all it was an amazing night. Exhausting and exhilirating – just like Old Delhi itself.

Poverty is the worst form of violence…….Gandhi

In honor of India’s Independence Day, Number One Hubby and I watched the Gandhi movie. It is so sad how much history I do not know. But I learned some today.

62 years ago, Indians were released from British rule and became free to run their country as they wanted – free to keep their resources as their own and to keep the profits generated from them. Congratulations!

The level of violence that was involved is amazingly little, especially given the potential for an all out war. The restraint practiced against the British soldiers and police was almost unfathomable. Congratulations again! It seems there was more internal violence between clashing religious groups than anything else. Unfortunately.

In the movie, Gandhi said this quote, “Poverty is the worst form of violence.” Now, I cannot know for sure if this is an actual quote from Gandhi or a Hollywood writer’s scripted idea – but I am fairly sure it is at least a sentiment he must have conveyed at some point. Later in the movie, Gandhi’s wife shared that Gandhi fought against injustices for women and the poor.

Another thing shared in the movie was the idea that material possessions trap you and make it hard to comes to grips with what is important in life. They are distractions that we should relinquish in order to become more resolute in our faith. Gandhi himself seemed to have nothing material. He even made his own clothes.

Now I do understand the distinction between giving up material possessions and being “forced” into poverty – or at least pushed back into it if you try to overcome it. But still, the dichotomy of these two ideas strikes me – especially because they were both echoed by the same man. Their premises are certainly intertwined. I do not know where I stand on it – but which is it – poverty is the worst form of violence – or a lack of material possessions can lead you to a purer life?

Your thoughts…………..

No Touch………..

One of the hardest things about being back in Delhi is the poverty. The dirt ain’t so great – but the poverty. Seriously, there is no way to describe it – you have to see it for yourself. And you don’t really see it, you feel it. It is like the dirty air on your skin – smothering – it falls on your heart and constricts it. It hurts to see it and you cannot brush it off. I cannot even imagine what it does to a person to live it.

People (many, many people) here are truly starving – not just for food, but it would seem they must be starving for some sort of self worth. Starving for some way to care for themselves and their families. They cannot all be resigned to this – they cannot all believe that there is no higher purpose for their lives. There must be some spark inside of them that has not died out yet. Some survival instinct that is ready and waiting and literally begging to kick in.

Many people have said that human life isn’t that valuable in India – I had to admit it – but I think it might be true. At least, very poor human life. Otherwise, how could this continue?

In India, there is begging pretty much everywhere you go. It’s hard to accept as simply ” just the way it is” when you didn’t grow up with it constantly in your face. It’s hard to turn your head and close your wallet when you see it. Very hard to believe that a quick fix of a little money really does not make it better – but just perpetuates it.

The problem quickly becomes that if you share with one person – you better be ready to share with many. This is a horrible analogy – but it is like roaches – if you see one, you can be sure that there are many more watching, waiting for the crumbs to drop. There is also the reality that a great deal of the begging is really equivalent to organized crime. The beggars do not to keep the money.

Most beggars are not aggressive. Anyone begging is not allowed to physically touch anyone they are begging from. My understanding is that it is actually illegal for beggars to touch while begging. Most of them follow this rule – no touch – I think naturally, they just don’t touch people they do not know. But like everything in India, there are levels and some beggars push the limits. They will touch you and follow you. It can become quite uncomfortable and sometimes even a little scary. I have given myself permission to say “no touch!” firmly. But you do not walk away untouched whether they physically reach out for you or not.

It is hard to instantly become unsympathetic to those in need – even if it is a situation of neediness they choose. It is impossible to come to grips with the idea that they truly see this as their best option. That this is the best, most economical use of their time. The best way to feed their children and themselves.

It is hard to understand that giving a little money or a lot of food is not helpful. It is nightmarish to see children maimed and living in filth and selling ridiculous trinkets while standing in between cars on a busy street full of unsympathetic drivers. It is hard to keep the window of my air conditioned car closed.

In some respects America is not that different, there are poor people everywhere. Sure, America has people dripping with diamonds while others are simply dripping. It is not all even Steven. But in America, there is more of a real chance to rise out of a situation, if you are willing to work hard for it.

This is not to say that there are not a number of people fighting the good fight in India. There are. I have written about two women in previous posts. One is Karin Bedi and the other is Anou with Project Why. Can Support is another great organization – I will be joining their fight next week and working on the Walk for Life. There are quite a few wonderful people working hard to make life better. But clearly more are needed.

The problem is so vast that it must be hard to know where to begin.

That was true for me. I was overwhelmed by how to be helpful. So, frankly, I did not do much. A little here and there – but is was like a dropping a lit match in a volcano. Yeah, any impact was surely very quickly melted away. This time I hope to do better. You can scold me if I don’t.

I hope to leave India very much touched…….