India – A Day that Changed My Life

A day that changed my life…

Originally Published May 25th, 2011.

So, apparently I’ve gotten a little out of order with my posts.  Forgive me!  But this is one tour day that changed my life and how I look at some of the trifles that sometimes get under my skin.  Anyway, there aren’t too many photos, but the heart of the matter isn’t in the photos.  This was a tour of an area outside of Delhi that was experiencing fast development which posed a challenge for urban planning; there wasn’t really any planning occurring.

I will write what I wrote in my journal minus some of my personal opinions.

Today was basically a slap across the face and I will explain why…

The day started out by driving a ways on the very busy highways of New Delhi – cars, trucks and rickshaws and motorcycles (thousands of motorcycles) wizzing by our tour bus nicely branded “TOURIST.”   We were going to visit an area that has in the past ~10-20 years been going through explosive development.   While driving through the area, the contrast between the very rich and the very poor is painfully seen with startling contrast and clarity.  Shanties in front of, beside, or across the street from huge, towering skyscrapers of shining glass.  We were going to visit the AIIS (American Institute of Indian Studies).  We were given a presentation of the archiving work they do of the ancient buildings around India.   After this presentation, and a nice cup of chai tea, we loaded onto the bus, and headed out to visit a near-by stepwell.

This stepwell is tucked away, out of the general public’s way and down a back street.   The bus driver tried to pull all the way in, but managed to take down a low-lying power-line of some sort, so we decided to get off there and walk the very short distance.
Walking to this well, we had to enter a school ground.  This school was for girls.   Not half a minute before the first few people walked in, a flood of little school girls rushed out to look at us.  All chaos broke loose in the school, I believe much to the teachers dismay.   The girls looked at us like they had never seen such white people before in their lives.

So many little girls.

One member of our group (not to be named) was not dressed culturally appropriate at all.  She was wearing short sport shorts, a see-through white shirt, and a hot pink (the color I mean) bra, clearly visible through the see-through shirt.   Her sunglasses didn’t help the outfit much either.  All the little girls gathered especially around her as she was taking pictures of the them.   My roommate and I did not really take part in all this “happiness” as we both felt that the group was not comprehending the realness of the situation, and what was really to be understood from this spectacle.   We were very uncomfortable, not because of our own appearance, but because we knew that she was, by default, associated with our group.   This discomfort remained throughout the rest of the day, and just added to the general wearing pressures of the day.
Now, about the stepwell that we went to see, before all the above happened, it was completely filthy and filling with garbage and putrid looking water (although not much at all).   We went up onto the roof of the school, and could look down into the well.  On the opposite side of the well were several shanties, out of which some children were sticking their heads, looking at us “foreigners” taking pictures.

A stepwell between the school and a group of shanties.  The stepwell was essentially a trash dump.

We finally decided it was time to leave, and let the school get back to their session.  I forgot to mention that this school had few classrooms to accommodate ~400 girls.  There was limited seating, no school  books, no electricity (I don’t think) and one little kind of book that the one teacher I saw was teaching from.  I have never seen anything like it.
When we got back to AIIS, we had another talk/presentation about the disturbing lack of urban planning for this area.  There was no planned sewer system upgrades (if any system at all) for this urban expansion, and it has to go somewhere.   There is no plan for the streets, and the lady was saying how easy it is to get lost in this area, because there isn’t a system to the streets being created.
When we got back on the bus, we took a drive through this new area.   This part of the day was about as awakening as the school.   Driving through the streets, the sides of which were lined with garbage, sitting in water.   In this toxic soup, big black pigs were wallowing, and sometimes eating and drinking – just an awful sight.   Hundreds of tiny shops and wagons along the road with people trying to sell their food or goods.

Plastic garbage, ponding runoff water, and pigs.  Makes my stomach turn.

Some things that shocked me throughout this day were the following:
– Men and women bathing themselves (not naked though) in large puddles of water along the busy street-side.
– There were tons of little carts with piles of sugar cane on them.  Each had it’s own powered press to juice the cane.  The juice they sold…I was not about to stop and drink any.

Sugar cane press.

– At one point, there was a little boy, not 4 years old, playing by the roadside, in the dirt, with no immediate supervision and left to himself (at least for the moment that we were driving by).

We also stopped at a temple to see.  This was another time when our one particular group-mate was quite an embarrassment.   I personally covered my head with my dupatta to try to show my respect (even though you didn’t have to).    The people came to take pictures of us with the fairer, lighter skin.

After all this, we were told that we would be going to a mall to go shopping and have dinner.  My roommate and I were like “Seriously? After what we saw today, you want to go shopping?”  Nine people from our group ( I don’t know if they shared the same feelings or not) wanted to head home.  So we left.
We took the Metro… it wasn’t quite an experience until about 4-6 stops from ours.  People jammed themselves onto the Metro, and we were all squished together.  It was rather uncomfortable with unknown men pressed up against me.  Glad I’m not claustrophobic because I would have been flipping out.  When it came to our stop, exiting the Metro was, as expressed by one of the people I was with, was like experiencing the birthing process, only from the point of view of the one being born…. the most extreme push out the door that if you fell down, you would be trampled.  It was crazy!  But everyone in our group got out together, and we laughed together about it afterwards.   It was really quite comical.

The final walk to the hotel was just making me more ancy to get away from it all….  so many people on the street.  There were beggers, two people (I saw) with a lost foot, one with severely deformed back sitting on the sidewalk.   You would occasionally get a very strong odor of feces and urine, and I would just hold my breath, and wait for it to pass.  I wasn’t going to stop….I kept walking…faster and faster just to reach the hotel.

Needless to say, I scrubbed a little extra, used a little more shampoo and body wash in my shower today than other days.  I felt dirty inside and out.  This day made me feel like I’m nothing… like I don’t matter, like the problems that I think I have are inconsequential to what these people have to live through day to day.   After visiting the school, I no longer complained about how hot the tour bus was, because it wasn’t important anymore.  I felt petty for even thinking it.  I wanted to yell at the people in the group who still did…who couldn’t see past what we had just experienced, and were still worried about themselves, and their own personal comfort.   Really?

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