Eugene Weekly : Viewpoint : 12.29.11

Disturbing Journey

Traveling in India can be heartbreaking

I have long been ambivalent about India. I longed to go there and I dreaded it at the same time. As it turned out, I was right in my concern. I wasn’t tough enough for India. I’ve been home for a while now and have taken time to think about the experience. Since I left you, mid-trip, with nary a good-bye, I thought I’d try to sum up my feelings about my experience.

One caveat: I was in country for three weeks, traveling to six cities in only a few states by, plane, train and bus. I stayed in one heritage hotel (a former grand home), two tourist hotels, and many small, inexpensive guest houses. I stayed in the old towns of the cities and traveled out of the cities on tours and to arrive at new destinations. 

If I had traveled by private car and driver staying in nice hotels as one friend did, or gone to one place with a specific mission as another friend did to adopt her child, or traveled with an organized tour, my trip would have been different. I can only report my experience as it happened and do not intend my comments to apply to all of India and other forms of travel. I am reporting only what I experienced. 

I traveled on the economy, I stayed at mostly cheap places, I wandered at will, and spoke with local people whenever possible. I must correct that statement, I didn’t speak with local people, I spoke with local men. I found the women of India to be almost invisible. I spoke with exactly two Indian women during my time in country. When viewing my photographs, I scan the crowd scenes for sights of women and see, perhaps, one woman for every 10 men. 

I came home a week early. My journey was scheduled to last for one month, but after three weeks, I was heartsick. There is no other way to describe it. In retrospect, it was a good decision and I have no regrets. Since my return, I have spent a great deal of time walking around Eugene and feeling immense gratitude that I was born and am able to live in the U.S. As you also know, I am a flaming liberal and so, this is, in no way, a flag-waving statement. It is just pure fact: India is hell for their 99 percent and even their 1 percent have to live in garbage up to their armpits and the acid air.

So, the specifics are: un-breathable air, nightmare traffic, garbage-filled streets, a poverty stricken populace, hugely oppressed women and a major cause of the aforementioned problems: a government that every single person (man) I spoke with described as completely and totally corrupt. Please bear in mind, I am a traveler. This is not my first trip, this is not my first poor country, this is simply the worst I have ever seen. The slums of Africa, Mexico and China did not compare with India on the awfulness scale!

The air around the Taj Mahal is killing that magnificent building. The sky is not blue as depicted in the photos, they must Photoshop it in. The sky is gray, thick with haze; it made my eyes sting and my head ache. The air pollution is eating away at the lovely marble. Agra, home of the Taj Mahal, is the worst of the air pollution I experienced . However, every city I visited had gagging air pollution. The air pollution is aggravated mightily by the presence of the “tuk-tuk,” a two-stroke engine spewing pure oil-gas fumes into the air. 

Another pollution source is the many, many, many motorcycles that poor people ride with up to four passengers each, sans helmets and good sense. These people are so poor that they turn off the motorcycle engine while going downhill to save gas; this also turns off their headlight making the extremely hazardous traffic conditions even worse.

How to describe the traffic? Try to imagine a huge intersection with tuk-tuks, cars, buses, an occasional camel/ elephant/ cow, and bicycles entering the intersection with no traffic control at all. I’ve seen it, many times. Everyone tries to out-maneuver everyone else while breathing the poison air and continuously beeping their horns. I thought I had descended into hell. Granted, Mumbai was better: there I only had to try to cross streets (with light and crosswalk) without meeting death. No one in India pays attention to such nicities as traffic rules and crosswalks — ha! People drive the wrong way on one-way streets, run red lights at will and pass three abreast with abandon. It made Boston and New York City look downright civilized!

In my three weeks in country, I saw exactly one police officer stopping a motorist. Generally, law enforcement occupies itself with standing around jawing with each other; other than that, a chief occupier of time (according to the men I spoke with) is extracting bribes from the citizenry. 

The garbage, ever present, is contributed freely by all. This wasn’t Mexico by-the-side-of-the-road garbage. This was piles, piles, and piles of it everywhere. I read an excellent novel about India, The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga. Highly recommended. To paraphrase the protagonist: “You can tell how rich the family is by the amount of garbage around their gated house.” I saw garbage burned on the street in a large city touted to be the best, most prosperous city in the region. I watched a seemingly well-to-do Indian woman throw her trash on the floor of a palace and laugh when the guard chastised her. The sub-continent is awash in garbage and no one seems to notice or care. 

I visited a lovely city with many human-built lakes. However, the lakes were used by the populace as garbage dumps as well as places to bathe, wash laundry and swim. I saw huge, ugly malformed fish in one lake and was told the fish were inedible. In any case, I avoided eating fish during my trip in fear that these desperately poor people would catch and serve the fish anyway. A guide explained to me that the once lovely water lilies in one of the lakes were dying due to the government’s refusal or failure to provide them with sufficient water to survive.

Which brings me to the poverty. About 75 percent of the people of India live on less than $2 a day. I can’t even imagine what that means. As I ate my small vegetarian meals in cheap cafes, I was unable to find a meal for that amount. Cheap, yes. But not that cheap. Many, many of these folks live on the streets sleeping on a piece of cardboard. And, yes, many of them are children. I saw horrid slums with open sewage running in the narrow paths between the hovels. Yet, the story is that the government wants to tear down these hovels because the rich want the land in Mumbai. At least these hovel dwellers weren’t on the sidewalk on cardboard.

One particular street sticks in my mind: women cooking dinner on a pile of twigs on the side of the street, children everywhere, women with babies begging for “chocolate” for their babies. I tried to buy food for the children in the tiny stall like stores that lined the street, but nothing but junk food was for sale. The owners shrugged their shoulders, puzzled by my questioning, and replied that the junk food was what the children liked. I finally found a fruit cart and bought as many bananas as I could carry. I didn’t make it to the end of the street before I ran out of bananas; the need was too great. I was swarmed by children and adults hungry for a simple banana. 

And yet, side by side, was extreme wealth. Huge, multi-story apartment buildings, lovely estates and many expensive cars were evident. A guide showed me, with pride, the (reportedly) largest private home in the world. It was a multistory home belonging to a man who owned some huge Indian conglomerate. However, he had not moved his family in because the Indian equivalent of feng-shui was wrong! My heartsickness level was raised not only by this obscene opulence in the face of such despair, but the pride with which the guide described the building to me. 

Of course, we have homeless in the U.S., in Eugene. However, our folks are mostly young travelers, mentally ill and people with alcohol and drug problems. People may not like to sleep at The Mission or the warming centers generously provided by our local churches, but they can. Our safety nets are insufficient, but try nothing. That’s what the poor have in India: nothing. The poor in India are reed thin, dark skinned people, who live on the streets on nothing. Frequently, they are the “untouchables,” Indian’s horribly repressive caste system and religious orders have condemned them to a lifetime of misery. 

This misery, too, is condoned by the populace. One man explained that the widows’ fate is their karma. Widows are women given over to their husband and his family at very young ages and when the husband dies, are often cast aside by these families. As they have no training, experience or education, their only options at that juncture are begging, prostitution or death. Another man explained to me with a straight face that the rich needed huge opulent castles while “the poor can sleep anywhere.” A well-to-do Indian woman on a train gently chided me for paying a man who repaired my suitcase too much money when I gave him about two dollars. I could see no empathy or compassion for their fellow human beings in the Indian people I spoke with.

What I saw were hard-working, motivated, mercenary people with little or no regard for other human beings. I saw no parks, open spaces or libraries. I saw nothing built for the people; only for owners, corporations and commerce. I went in search of museums and found only small, derelict, concrete buildings holding a few artifacts; each time, I was the only visitor. I visited the Prince of Wales Museum in Mumbai, built by the British. The building and the grounds were lovely; the exhibits all seemed to date to the time of the British. Somehow, it is maintained, but does not appear to have been added to other than a small, ramshackle snackbar made of bamboo and black plastic. I guess someone figured out how to make a buck out of it.

The schools are a joke. No one I spoke with that had a nickel sent their children to public schools. They described underpaid teachers who failed to show up to teach, classes holding up to 50 students and students taught in Hindi, rather than English.

The folks who were able all sent their children to private schools. I guess the poor were the only children left in the public schools.

And the women, the beautiful women in their colorful, lovely saris. As I mentioned earlier, they are mostly absent. Of all of the working men I spoke with, I don’t recall one where their wife was “allowed” to work outside the home. All of the women were home, behind doors, behind veils, captive. On the street; if present, they travel in flocks of lovely, colorful saris. Even in their homes, they must often wear a veil if a man (other than their husband) is present. However, this does not prevent the poor women from working: I saw women carrying huge bundles of wood on their heads, hoeing fields by hand and constructing buildings of brick by hand — in their beautiful, colorful saris, of course. 

Apparently, most marriages are still arranged and dowrys are huge and literally break the bank for many families. No wonder female fetus abortions are rampant. Now that families are thankfully smaller, gender-determining ultrasounds are all the rage and the birth ratio of girls to boys is about 7 or 8 to 10. In another generation, this may help to curb India’s continuing explosive population boom. 

The one free woman I spoke with ran a guest house in her parents’ home. She had worked overseas for years earning the money necessary to add a second and third floor to their humble home so as to start the guest house. However, she told me she would not inherit the house or share in it in any way. Rather, her brother, who I didn’t see lift a hand or do anything for the guests, would inherit the home. Her labors of the last 20 years were for naught. But, no worries, she told me she was soon to marry an old boyfriend, as soon as his divorce went through, and he wanted her to move to his home “to take care of him and his parents.” 

The practice of graft and corruption is deep, pervasive and long standing; it permeates every level of commerce and government. I heard stories of monies stolen from village schools, water projects and roads. Every guide or hotel staff who directed me anywhere sought a kick-back from the shopkeeper. Most every taxi driver attempted to overcharge me. When we visited the desert, I heard about how the government had sold the tribal people’s very limited water rights to the big hotel builders so that tourists could visit the huge hotels being constructed in the desert. I didn’t stay at the desert but in the town. 

I had my final taste of this corruption when I arrived at Dehli Airport to leave the country. If a traveler arrives without a ticket to leave within two hours, she is not allowed in the airport proper. Rather, I was restricted to a tiny waiting area and the staff person for my airline would not return for 10 hours. Happily, I spotted a young man in the “Passenger Assistance” booth and asked for help contacting my airline. He said he could not call or email my airline for me. However, he was able to contact Air France and arrange a new ticket for only $1,350. As I sat waiting for my airline representative for the next 10 hours, the young man approached me three more times to tell me it was illegal for him to contact the travel agent, so I’d best hurry up and buy the ticket from him. Finally, after my 10-hour wait, I was able to change my ticket for $250 and leave the country.

And now for the good news. I wrote earlier about the man and woman I met who operate the “Women’s Empowerment Center” in Jodpur. As I read about it and arrived unannounced, I believe I saw the real thing. For the past five years, they have run a guest house where they teach young “untouchable” women how to read Hindi, speak English, basic hygiene and sewing (both hand and machine). When the women graduate, they are given a sewing machine. The couple also operate a boutique where they sell the women’s handicrafts. Although the men in their families take their earnings, the women earn a little respect in the family for the money they bring in. 

The man told me of his grandmother married off at age 12 and his mother repeatedly beaten by his alcoholic father. After his father’s death, they decided to start this NGO to help the most desperate women — the untouchables. I spoke with three women of a certain age who were volunteering there: a German, a Canadian and an English woman. They all spoke well of the program. I hope to be able to return some day to work there and make a small contribution to their effort. Of course, the horror will have to fade first and that may take some time; in the meantime, I can only support them financially. If you have any interest in their work, their website is HYPERLINK “”

So that’s my story of India. Someone referred to the trip as “a vacation.” But it was never a vacation. Rather, I saw it as an experience – and that it was. I don’t know yet whether or not I regret going. Its kinda like childbirth: The horror is fading. Only the future will tell whether or not I return to help at the Women’s Center. I hope I will. However, as I age, I seem to be more saddened by the inequality that I see and I don’t really know if I am tough enough to return. 

There is a lesson though, I think. Our country could be like India. We need only to gut our EPA and allow industry to foul our air and water, to starve our schools and force all but the poor into private schools, to bust up our unions, to not fund our parks, libraries, museums, NPR, and every other entity that is for everyone. We can allow graft to control our government and bring all services to a grinding halt. We can continue to send our jobs overseas so only the wealthy owners prosper and the vast majority cannot earn a family wage. We can not tax the rich and thus make the great divide between the rich and the poor more and more vast and squeeze the middle class out of existence. We can allow religion to enter our political lives and dictate its ideas of how women should be relegated to service at home. We can do away with all affirmative action that gives women and people of color a leg up to combat the ever present racism and sexism that continues to poison the thinking of so many people. We can do away with Headstart, unemployment insurance, food stamps, housing assistance and every other social service that gives a person a step-up, a outstretched hand out of abject poverty. 

How could it happen here? How could the mighty United States of America become a third world country? Very simply, it seems. Just let unrestrained people grab all they can without government policies and laws to stop them. If you don’t believe me, take a trip to India and see for yourself.







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