A report received in September 2007, from a LEAPYEAR group leader after a week with her group in India – reflecting on the simultaneous experience of beauty and suffering that assails many Western travelers in India:
Varanasi has been wonderful so far. Our first morning here we took a sunrise river trip along the banks of the Ganges River. The rising sun cast a golden, warm light over everything as we watched the people of Varanasi engage in their daily activities that bring them to the river each day. They bathe themselves and their children, they brush their teeth, they wash their clothes, and more than anything they seem to be connecting with their spiritual selves — praying, meditating, chanting…. It really is so very special to be able to witness. I have been struck by the effortless way spirituality is intertwined in all parts of life here in India. There appears to be no separation between spirituality and the individual, or community, or tasks, or nature. Here there is divinity in all things.
And, I am still struggling with the poverty — it truly is inescapable here. I am constantly being asked for money, and cannot avert my eyes from homeless and starving people. It is very, very difficult for me to know what to “do”… should I look at the person, engage with them, acknowledge their suffering? If I do that, can I do that with everyone? And, then it gets so daunting and draining that I don’t have the energy to leave my room. Should I give them something because for me it is so easy to give, how can I have a pocket full of money and not give? But how can I give to EVERYONE, and when I give a little, everyone follows and wants more? And do I want to be in that kind of relationship, continuing that cycle of white American savior?
And for sales-people and vendors, should I believe them as a demonstration of trust, as a way to bring possibility in the world, a way to shift the relationship of distrust…trust in human goodness, shift the prevailing belief that people are out to trick me? But if I do that, am I just another gullible woman who doesn’t see the reality of the world?
Do I have to put up defenses to function successfully? And if I have to do that, disconnect in some way from people to function, than what possibility is there in the world?…accepting that idea would be devastatingly sad to me. I find myself going through this train of thoughts every time I walk down the street and it is starting to feel draining. And yet what was even more draining is the way that these experiences affected my worldview…they leave me with incredibly deep and difficult questions like… What does authentic human connection look like? What is possibility in this environment? Why do I have what I have? What is my obligation to end suffering if I can? Can I? What does it mean about the human experience and what is possible in the world if I shut off to people who are trying to connect with me?
And of course these all lead me to deeper questions about the meaning and purpose in life, my goodness and worth as a human being…. There is so, so much to think about here.
But these are all questions that are there for me all the time, India just gave me the gift of bringing them into my consciousness like a sharp stick in a small moment to trigger growth and learning… and I think that India is teaching me how to sit with the questions. And that is what I am choosing to do now — to live with the questions and let them carve deep reservoirs of love and intrigue and growth in my heart.
The suffering of animals is also very hard for me to be with — sometimes even harder than with people. There are cows everywhere here. Sometimes I feel as though I am seeing more cows on the streets than people. They are generally healthy, but the last two days I have been watching a young calf who seems to be very sick. Today I left my guesthouse and found the calf laying down in the alley. It was filthy — literally laying in its own excrement, and surrounded by hundreds of flies. It did not look good for the calf — I thought the swarming flies probably knew something that I didn’t. I wanted to do something to help… but I wasn’t sure how to approach the subject with people on the street. How could I be offering to buy food, or medicine, or a doctor for this suffering calf but not give money to the homeless women and her tiny baby begging me for money right next to the calf? I feel so guilty for wanting to help the calf. Perhaps I just want to feel that my gift can make a difference and that is easier to see in the short term with the calf. The sick calf was eating away at me for a couple of days so I eventually called my contact here and asked him what might be possible. He found the cow’s owner and learned that the calf has already been given some medicine for worms and gas. I am going to check back in tomorrow — I hope she makes it.
On a lighter note, our days here are fantastic. We start each day with a 1.5 hour yoga class on the roof of a yoga ashram that sits right on the banks of the Ganges. It starts just after six, so we get to see the sun rise as we practice our yoga. Our yoga teacher is unbelievably good — the best I have ever had. Our yoga classes are followed by breakfast and then 2.5 hours of Hindi class — which is quite difficult — I find myself hoping that the teacher doesn’t call on me. But, its pretty hard to escape getting called on because there are only 5 of us in each class. Then there is lunch — I have lunch with a different student each day. Next, the students go to their service internships. Some of the students are volunteering at this wonderful orphanage and school. The children there are warm and energetic and full of life. They love my name because they also have a dog there named Jamie! The students teach them English and also get some practice with their Hindi learning. The children love to make fun of the way that we pronounce Hindi words!
India is everything I remembered and so much more. The vibrant pinks and oranges and blues are everywhere. The women in their brightly-colored saris, the vendors selling fruits on the street, the signs on the buildings — everywhere there is color. And sounds, and smells! I feel like it would be impossible for me to describe it all with words. It is both beautiful and grotesque at the same time, bright and happy and then dark and terribly sad at the same time too. The poverty is very difficult to be with. Never has the world’s disparity been more evident to me than it is now. Actually, it is so hard to be with, that I sort of haven’t been with it yet, not in an authentic way. I know I will be, and I am entering slowly and lightly with all of it.
On our first day here another co-leader and I, Jane, went to the train station and tried to buy train tickets to our next destinations — and it was the most perfect first day experience for India. The outside of the train station was swarming with people, rickshaws and taxis. We tried to enter the station through one entrance and were stopped by a guy claiming to be an Indian government official. He said that we could not go to the tourist office that we needed to go to another off-site office to buy our tickets because the train station office was closed for construction. He said that he would arrange for a rickshaw to take us to the office which was now located off-site because of the construction. We tried to ignore him and tell him that we were not interested, but he would not leave us alone, insisting that he had nothing to gain, even pulling out an official looking business card, and walking us up near the train station so that we could see the construction. He would not give us even a moment to think or allow us to escape him for even a brief moment of peace. Jane said “don’t listen to him — this doesn’t feel right”, but I thought what if he is right and then we can’t buy our tickets today (because he told us we only had 30 minutes to get to the other office before it closed for the day) – the guy was brilliantly convincing and of course I am brilliantly gullible. So, we fell for it and they drove us away from the train station to some private tourist office where all the people who had helped us get there would have gotten a profit. We looked inside, saw it was not the official government of India travel office and left. Then, we got in another rickshaw and asked to go to the Official Government Tourist office, even showing the driver where it was on the map, and got taken to another private tourist office! It is hard to know who to trust around here! Eventually we made it back to the real train station, went upstairs to the tourist office and bought our tickets. The lesson: anyone who is insistent on getting you to go somewhere, or do something or wont let you think for a minute is DEFINITELY not an Indian official. The real officials move at the pace of snails and could care less what you do. It took me about one hour to work with a train station employee to buy my group’s tickets, and as soon as I got finished and Jane sat down to buy her group’s, the guy said “shift change” and made us wait another hour while he just sat at his desk and did nothing. It was the perfect first day Indian adventure!
Today we are in a very busy market area buying Indian clothes so that we blend in more. There are people everywhere, cows roaming the streets, drums, horns, monkeys — probably exactly what you think of when you think of India! It is fantastic. I just got the most incredible henna tattoos on my hands. It was the best part of my day because I got to speak with the artist for over an hour while he did my hands. He is also a doctor of Ayurveda, so we talked a lot about that and his family and Delhi and Indian clothes. It was the best part of my trip so far. I also had tea with an India woman and her baby earlier this morning.
Tonight we take an all-night train to Varanasi!