Tag Archives: begging

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?

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.

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…….

Baptism by Fire…………

Today we went to two more Indian markets – we had been to the more touristy market and the market frequented by ex-pats (someone living in a country that is not their own – that sounds like a great idea – sign us up).

But today, after we left the kids new school – which, by the by, seems fabulous – we jumped in with both feet. No rest for the weary – we are here to experience India. Bring it. It was a big slice of culture shock. And it was fascinating.

On the way to the market, we had a few beggars knocking on the window of the car. The driver locked the door – that was an ominous sound. Cla-clunk. If the driver thinks the door should be locked – well, hmmmmmmmmm. Begging is a tough subject and I will address it more in later posts – I am afraid it is not going anywhere and we will continue to experience it frequently. Right now, I will just say it is one of the hardest things I have seen – women with babies begging for help. Filthy children with hunger in their eyes. I am not sure if my words will be enough to bring the experience to you – but I will try – just not now. Later.

The first market was amazing. We had to walk through a metal detector to get in. It seemed as if the detector was completely unattended. Bear and I both set off the alarm. No one seemed to care. I know it was Bear’s shoes – we found out at the Frankfurt airport that his shoes have metal in the soles – I forgot to mention earlier in my blogs that he had his first pat down. He was not impressed. And I think mine must have been the cell phone I was carrying. Nonetheless, in we went unquestioned. But not unnoticed.

The entrance was extremely crowded. People on top of people crowded. That is one thing that everyone seems to say about India – that it is so very crowded. But I have not felt (over)crowded here yet – not until today. Customers stopped and turned their heads to take a look at us. The new animals at the zoo. Merchants swarmed around us. Offering to sell us everything from handbags to sunglasses to shoes to brightly colored ropes. (There were quite a few vendors selling ropes – why, I am not sure. But if you need a brightly colored rope – let me know – I know just where to get it.)

I had been told that we might be seen as “rock starish” because of being very light skinned. And the girls’ blond hair certainly adds to our mystique. The first market we went to was mostly a clothing market. I was ooing and ahing the fabrics and our hosts were soaking us in. They seemed drawn to us – I know they did not fall in love with us – but they imagined us with pockets full of money. And us eager to spend it.

Enter Number One Hubby.

Don’t forget he has been here since September – no longer a newbie. Some of the awe has worn away. We bought backpacks, aprons, and hangers. My dear sweet husband, who used to not like to return things to the store because he might have to actually talk to the clerk, haggled like a seasoned professional. Two aprons and 100 hangers – $2 – SOLD. To the lowest bidder. That would be us.

So, seriously, if you need a rope – not only do I know where to get it – but number one hubby can negotiate a great price for you – cheap.

I have to say it surprised me that he argued over $1. I was truly almost embarrassed. And, yes, I said so. But to no avail. I have more than a dollar in change jingling around in the bottom of my purse. Completely unused. But apparently, it is the game you play here. It is the art of compromise mixed in with a little bit of chess. Strategy has more to do with the negotiation than the actual price you are willing to pay. It is fascinating.

I have absolutely no doubt that I will learn to play this game too. I will probably even like it. But today – once I figured out the conversion of rupees to dollars and decided if that was a decent price – I was pretty much done with the math. Bag it.

One little boy eager for a sale wanted to guess what our country was. That is how he said it – what is your country. Holland? Oh no, not Holland. Which one then? I answered, the United States. Oh yes, I know that one. The U.S. He went off to excitedly tell a man who I am guessing was his father. That was all the welcome they needed. Easily 5 more men came rushing over. They stood very close and repeatedly offered their wares. It surprises me that I never felt in danger – just crowded. Very. Very. Crowded. I held my girls’ hands much tighter than normal – but that is just one of the gifts India is giving to me. I am keeping my children closer as much for safety as for want. They don’t argue over holding my hand here. I like that. A. Lot.

So here is my best description of how crowded it was. Imagine shopping on Black Friday with 1 billion of your best friends right after they announce an 85% off going out of business sale – and they just got in the hardest to find electronic game of the season. Then imagine doing that in a store the size of a small bus. Yes, the width of a bus. But not quite the length. Then imagine 100 of those stores in a box. There you go. Very crowded. Relatively calm. But very crowded.

Then we went to a market focused more on food items. There are plenty of American brands here. They are more expensive than they would be in the U.S. but as a creature of habit – I like the familiar and I am willing to spend (a little) more for it. And, yes, they had Diet Dr. Pepper. And, double yes, we bought some.

There in the food market, was the market I have been most curious about. The chicken booth. Wow. Flower put your seatbelt on. There really were live hens and skinned not-so-much-alive hens. The line was long. I found myself just staring. I did not have my camera – but don’t you worry – I am taking it next time. Holy hen, Batman. I think Flower might have more questions than just “why eggs are taken from their mother”. Like why does their mother live in that box and isn’t that one cold without its feather coat – and, oh yes, its head. Yikes. And, what are we having for dinner again?

The rest of the market was much like we had seen before. Lots of fabric – some household items – toiletries – fresh produce. Lots of nuts and dried beans. Some things are not labeled. I guess it’s like buying something very expensive -if you have to ask, it just might not be for you.

Anymarket – I feel like we had an adventure today. Number one hubby was concerned it might overwhelm us. I don’t think so. It gave us food for our bellies and food for thought. And, just like a baptism should – it will change the way we look at the world.