Travel exposes me to folks in a range of economic situations typically unknown to a middle-class American; and, with limited writing space, my stories tend to focus on the less mundane experiences. But the problem is that following my simple budget potentially risked a skewed perspective on India.
For there are air-conditioned malls, art markets, sophisticated restaurants with careful interior decorating, a modern airport and metro system, and even a version of Starbucks — Café Coffee Day. If you know where to go, you can access modern amenities like any industrially developed country. Of course, the average backpacker is not going to the mall, she or he is exploring the old market area’s back streets thinking that all of Delhi looks like that.
Gratefully, some Delhi friends opened up my experience. From seeing their upper-middle-class homes to visiting the prettier sides of town, I was able to form a better idea of the range of economic situations coexisting in India.
It’s actually harder to see than I expected, because I didn’t know what to look for and, most significantly, I was conditioned to expect wealth to manifest in a particular way. The discussion of Delhi’s differing economic statuses eventually led to mini road trips, expeditions to see the wealthier neighborhoods. I don’t think I would have found them otherwise.
The wealthiest live a street or two away from middle-class apartments and around the corner from the poorest laborers. To say, “The rich live in South Delhi” seems to only name the most expensive homes, not a distinct area solely dedicated to the most financially advantaged. By expecting to see divided neighborhoods, Chicago-style, I was missing the economic diversity.
While skirting around potholes, my friend pointed to this or that mansion on a street that was wider and less-trashed than most. Coming from a country where wealth clusters and then builds walls, the external appearance clashed with his descriptions of the internal financial display. I struggled to believe that these were truly millionaires. There’s enough money to clean up the road and make it an entirely aesthetically pleasing space, but there isn’t that impulse in a culture where streets surge with people, with lives literally done in public. Cultivating beautiful, personal internal space is logical. I suspect that with a population of more than a billion people and no privacy in your childhood home, it’s the greatest thing you could ever purchase.
When I am asked about the States, I explain that there is much more space in between things. Wide, green laws separating suburbia, stretches of highway between Western towns, alleys neatly sorting out Chicago. In India, with my current understanding, space is felt differently. They don’t have much of it in the cities; and when you finally get some of your own, you focus on the most important part — that it is your own. Privacy is a luxury.
“This time there’s no child to guide me,” I silently laugh at myself, standing in the mid-morning sun. I’m waiting for the third train, the one that will take me to my original destination — Chennai. I’ve already rejected one over-packed, sans-ladies-compartment option. The two other women on the platform leave it alone as well after some inspection, and we collect in the shade to wait for the next. I’m told it will come in thirty minutes, and I don’t mind, because compared to the total delay, it is a momentary pause.
The strained anticipation of last night is nonexistent. An old hat now — psh, second class? SO done — I forget that this is not my typical mode of travel, and can enjoy the carefree energy at this end of the platform. Sitting on the ground, leaning against my backpack, I reflect on the night before.
Thank god I pack light. I can’t imagine anyone fitting the classic 70-litres-to-break-your-back monstrosities into that crowded space. The primary reason that I made it into the train car was my ability to toss my bag over my head, sending it into the outstretched hands that rose to receive it. My curious companion, the ten-year-old girl, had later asked me about its contents.
I couldn’t open it or explain. What would I say? That I have one more shirt and some socks. Plus a small laptop, a light solo mosquito net, a handheld water purifier, books and three different spiral notebooks, a pile of malaria prophylaxis, and that, at departure, 50% of the pack was medical content. How do you say that to a self-assured family whose combined objects fit into one shopping bag and a bundle of clothes?
A train arrives, chugging and hissing, and the few women climb into the small ladies’ compartment. I turn down welcoming offers, and reject a seat for the spot at an open door. The questions that began the night are answered — I will make it to Chennai in time for my next train; but there’s no fear left to ease, and I nestle into door’s adjacent corner to see the unfiltered world.
In the night, a grandmother and the mother had pulled the door open after a good half of the hallway’s occupants had disembarked. This had enabled the chai man’s last efforts to supply the train, and after we had rolled slowly into the dark, they left it open, gazing out at the countryside, sipping chai. I remember the grandmother. Her age and oppressed female status was irrelevant, as her strong body leaned against the door frame and her leg swayed out into the air. Her inner energy smoldered under her skin, her peaceful, confident face seemed to be appraising the land that lay before her. The younger ones, myself included, were sorting out sleeping positions; but as we were drifting off, I thought about her, saw an inner strength played out in her body, laced with an acceptance that was far from defeated.
Bright sunshine heats my right side as fields and trees zoom by under the train’s pace. I let one leg loose, but keep it in line with the car so my mind isn’t invaded by images of losing it. Hours go by, and I wiggle and adjust my pack. No books, no music, just experience and silence in the racket of wheel-on-track. Exhilarated by the train’s speed and open space between myself and this confusing, complicated country, I feel elated and connected.
We snake through towns, revealing patched-together slums (because who would choose to live next to the tracks?). At best, stones are stacked into walls and bridged with tarp-covered metal sheets, then weighed down with rocks. Animals mix with drying clothes and running children. I don’t hide my whiteness, the anomaly sitting in the door of a second class train car, but I am still removed. I can absorb and observe at a distance. But, then again, they can return that gaze. A seeing and seen exchange, poverty as a suspected vulnerability — but that cannot be assumed.
I am thrown out of myself later, in an air-conditioned, quiet restaurant complete with white tablecloths. Dumped into a frenetic train station, officially the most people I’ve seen in one place in my life, I’ve come for a place to discreetly access my laptop, and it is the only discernible candidate in the area. Was I really so comfortable in second class? I felt more accepted and far less unusual there, where I had expected the opposite. Where everything about our economic and cultural differences demanded the opposite, but that was not what happened.
The waiters are staring at me, and my discomfort increases.