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Understanding the Stories

Illiciting intense emotions, the negative always supercedes the positive in my memory, pulling raw at the mind and drawing up the darker sides of humanity. The truth is that every challenging story from India was leveraged by a deep positive, as every harassing man was tempered by the encircling protection of women. India, in my experience, is a land of extremes: an ancient civilization embodying the human story. One of the oldest living cities on earth coexisting with progressive technology, rampant cruelty and indifference matched by truly genuine human connection and potential. To stand outside in judgment is dangerous, indicative of a divided perspective on the global community. If Earth were a single organism, then India marks the development of its human aspect. To see its violence and slf-destruction is to contemplate the dangers that humanity lays against itself — our indifference towards the earth, to our slow and unnecessarily-advancing death. To witness the fear, the seeming social decline, the brutality, must be tempered by realizing that aggression is learned, gender dynamics constructed and perpetuated, economic strife the result of unhealthy economic structures. To abandon it is to forget our united desire for life. The privileged, local or global, can choose to withdraw entirely or to engage, learn, grow, and empower others.

To travel there is to be challenged into becoming the best and worst of yourself, to crack open and gaze into the misery and ecstasy of what it means to be human. It is, perhaps, an education in humanity.

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On Chai and Perspectives

My travel experiences do not capture typical life in India for the average person, as far as I can tell. I can touch on commonalities and strive for understanding, but I am always coming from a particular history and culture (this is the case for all of us). My race, gender, and nationality can never be ignored or overcome, to bring me into any sort of “authentic” experience. Every story is translated through foreign eyes, and potentially only exists because of my unusual status: technically in the “indecent” category, yet also privileged, slipping past normal boundaries, liberated and isolated by my difference.

The outsider, privileged status allows me to move through many layers of Indian society, the novelty factor giving me a buffer space in which I can meet the economically disadvantaged — a strange enough presence to slip into people’s lives for a moment.

Of course, correct me where I am wrong.

My brain adapts to my environment, and over time I began to be more comfortable in grittier environments. With an extraordinary ability to tunnel-vision, I can forget that the United States exists, forget the shiny, tailored world of mainstream America, the manicured public space and extensive (and expensive) grocery stores. If I am away from middle-class India for long enough, I slip into a reality bound by train compartments and chai stalls, hand-washed clothes and cold bucket showers.

For some reason, the lowest economic class accepted me with less fuss than its more privileged brethren. I was less an anomaly…or, rather, equally out-of-place but less likely to made to feel the distance.

Every day in Bodhgaya, walking down the dirt road from the Bhutanese temple, I received a smattering of female voices calling out, smiles across generations — a mother and her daughter at least, if not more women gathered in their multipurpose tent. The front acts as a restaurant of sorts, a homemade bench-like table supporting pots, utensils, and a kerosene stove; two or three mismatched plastic chairs set out for the customers, all open to the air. A bed occupies the back of the tent, a wooden platform draped in mosquito netting. Every time I hear them calling out, inviting me to come in and eat, I smile but do not stop.

The last morning, I build in time to have a chai.

The young-looking girl turns out to be fourteen; she takes my order. Her mother rolls up into a sitting position on the bed, bursts into a smile, and points to one of the chairs, inviting me to sit. Her daughter prepares the chai with confident, practiced movements: pouring water and milk, measuring out the rolled black tea (it’s alright that it’s part artificial, the cup will only cost five rupees), taking out a beaten tin canister of masala spices, pumping the ancient stove and setting the pot on to boil. The mother and I can only gesture and smile without a common language, but her daughter and I are able to chat: encouraging education, discouraging early marriage. Not a lecture, just attempting to use my celebrity status to celebrate her dreams and ideas rather than standard social roles. I applaud her English skills and focus on discussing her studies. Her mother is all warmth and welcome, the daughter performance and maturity.

The chai is delicious.

Poverty in Bihar

November 27th

The auto drivers swarm when I exit the train station. This is, of course, a common experience for me in India — leaving a train station always draws at least a few offers, usually at double the price. But this is different. A few get a head start in my direction, but in a moment I am among them, twenty men clustered around me, layers of circles, waiting to hear who I will choose. I look back at the station and think about how I haven’t seen a single foreigner (I wouldn’t have noticed before, I’m often the only one) but I begin to wonder at the rarity of my occurrence. How there’s no one else looking for a lift.

I hesitate, the men wait with anxious faces, some tossing out offers. This is not frightening, as it would have been in Delhi if so many overtook me at once. There isn’t a single infuriating, anticipatory grin as I scan around the group — no well-known look of relishing imminent extortion or violation. Only strangled hope. I don’t know what to do, who to choose.

There’s no obvious “first one there” to solve the question, my usual solution. The cruel and creepy usually make themselves known quickly, but no one here is distinguishable. My hesitation drags on, a distended moment that heightens the anxiety of those waiting for my all-too-powerful choice. I want fairness and reason, and it is not coming quickly in this poverty-stricken state.

Second solution: bargain, which works in Delhi for selection and, in some cases, retribution. Here, it is a mistake. I call out for eighty rupees instead of the standard one hundred, thinking that I’ll get to ninety and we can go, but someone accepts it. Glad that the choosing is over, I toss my backpack onto the back shelf and dive in.

The young driver and I quickly pass through the simple city and out onto a long road passing fields and I wonder if the poverty is connected to the weak-looking land that cannot entirely owe its appearance to an imminent winter. Tension eases. The driver switches on his radio and suddenly I have a soundtrack to life, heightening my awareness — I really am in India.

We stop along the way, and a street-clothed man asks for a “road tax,” not even attempting to feign professionalism. I refuse to pay the ten rupees, and fake incomprehension, another common ruse of mine. The young man pays it instead; he may only be subject to corruption, and not participating. I don’t know, and I won’t be so disconnected as to pretend he has much of a choice.

Again, we stop at another cluster of stalls, mostly chai-focused, and the driver leaves me behind in his auto. He’s only gone for a moment, waving goodbye to someone and shouting. I ask, and he tells me he stopped to see his friend [unspoken: to show off his passenger]. So I figure that that’s worth ten rupees. But after crossing the seven miles to Bodhgaya, I tell him that my quoted price is unfair, and give him the one hundred rupees. It’s still an unthinkably small amount for how prices usually go; to give more would increase the ugliness of elbowing for a foreigner, unproductive for everyone.

Bodhgaya: where the Buddha attained Enlightenment 2,500 years ago. A grand temple marks the spot, with a grown offshoot of the original Bodhi tree. A town formed around it, with more temples.

There are extremely poor, begging folk all over India; there is a high concentration of them in Bodhgaya, here for the merit-building donations that praying Buddhists may give and potentially the highest concentration of any tourists in Bihar. And there aren’t that many.

The destitute are often maimed, sometimes accidentally, sometimes to intentionally elicit sympathy. Sometimes they’re organized, carried to their “spot” by others who will take a cut of their earnings. Mothers may hang back and send their children to you, or point to an infant wrapped across their chest to ask for milk (which, at least in McLeodganj, they sell back to the shop owner for cash). In lucrative tourist areas, they make more than they ever could via hard labor. It is a complex situation integrated into the society, supporting the better-off in many ways, especially by producing cheap labor.

Bihar feels different.  The pleas used to make me feel cornered, anxious, overwhelmed, helpless. Here, I am simply and utterly humbled. Pity separates: one standing above, extending a thought or a small rupee bill meant well, but keeping the others below. In Bihar, poverty manifests in broader ways, a heavy message of limited options. Perhaps I am simply able to receive the message, now that I’ve cleared my head and heart. An earnestness devoid of manipulation or disconnection. That anxious desperation. There can be no superiority in the presence of that, only great humility. Maybe it is because I was raised Catholic, maybe it was my university, but I feel as if this is what they are talking about, the Jesus of my liberal friends and family, of St. Vincent de Paul. 

I have come to visit the sacred Buddhist site, but also to see the collection of temples built according to different cultural styles: the carefully painted structures stand stark and strange against the living pain. Bizarre expenditures bent on glory and peace but decorated with suffering.

It’s around 8 AM as I am walking past the grand Mahabodhi temple. I recognize some Tibetans standing at a basket or two — there’s bread! Imagine a giant English muffin, baked fresh that morning. I can’t buy enough for everyone here, and what will they eat tomorrow? The juxtaposition of nicely-outfitted Tibetans, baskets of bread for those who can afford it, the fancy temples, and the thin, begging people scattered among it all contorts my mind. I take a breather in the known — and ask about the bread.

Buy Tibetan things from Tibetans, and Indian from India = an attempt to sort through consumer ethics. The salesperson smiles, and the man behind her gives me a price that is more than double what it would cost in Delhi. I give him a startled, critical look, but he smiles and shrugs it off, but I buy it — and he asks me for a donation, says something about hard times. I leave without answering.

Priorities. Racial conflict. Discrimination.

My delight in eased harassment among the Tibetans had been too strong an influence. This is not a condemnation of an entire community, Indian or Tibetan. Eyes opened to the few who take advantage of a situation, to the desensitization, and the troubles. Traveling in India demonstrates the worst and the best of humanity, and draws out your best and worst. It is a land of extremes, with a unique education to offer.

Still, the next morning, I purchase Tibetan bread from two young Indian woman squatting next to a large woven basket. All smiles and connection and reaching out. So much for a simple answer to ethical consumerism.

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