A single month does not contain enough days to unravel the mysteries and wonders of India. While I may be leaving the country without unearthing much at all, I have had the fortune of experiencing twenty-eight days of shocking discoveries. Every time that I stepped through the threshold my senses have been immediately assaulted. From the sleepy ocean side towns in Goa to the bustling urban centers like Delhi and Jaipur I have fallen in love with this diverse country and the people who inhabit it.
My first two weeks were spent in Goa, the smallest – but wealthiest – state in India. With several bikinis and tanning lotion unceremoniously stuffed in my backpack I envisioned the next 14 days spent lazing on one of the many white sand beaches with a beautiful view of turquoise water and the salty sea breeze blowing through the palm trees. Knowing full well that it was monsoon season before I arrived, I naively assumed that it would consist of fifteen-minute bursts of rain followed by that gorgeous blue sky. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
For two weeks the rain relentlessly came pouring down. For two weeks I darted. I darted from one shelter to the next, from the car to the school, from the school to the car, from the car to the shop, from one shop to the next shop - and the list goes on - all in the vain hope of avoiding the torrential downpour but still managing to become a soggy mess in the process. A new word needs to be invented for the amount of water that miraculously came from the sky because rain is nowhere near adequate. It was so much more than mere rain, it was a lake in the sky.
Even though I did not experience the Goa I had imagined with the beachside cocktails and the glorious tan I am honestly and truly happy that I was denied the experience I thought I wanted. Goa comes alive during the monsoon season. The world outside your door is transformed into a vibrant, green fairytale. The women’s dresses in all the colours of the rainbow starkly punctuate the green and grey landscape as they work in the rice fields always picking rain or shine. This constant toiling of the women can only be described as remarkable. Knee deep in water and bent at a 90-degree angle for hours upon hours they somehow manage to stand up smiling. I have been humbled watching these women. They have demonstrated a level of resilience and strength that I did not believe possible. They do not break they bend. They bend and they pick and they do it today and they will do it tomorrow.
The women of India that I have had the privilege of interacting with experience unbelievable hardship and seem to face it every day with a sense of clarity and realism. Although I would assume that their souls would be as hardened as their calluses, the exact opposite is true. They smile with unbelievable warmth and affection, they laugh quietly but frequently, and they take great pleasure in sharing everything they have even if it is hardly anything at all.
I spent a little time in the home of a woman who hosted a female empowerment workshop every day for girls between the ages of 18 and 28.Walking through the rows of ramshackle homes, pulling aside the tarp that acts as her front door and sitting on the clay floor of her ‘living room’ along with ten or so other women was daunting. I had no idea how to relate to their suffering and how to talk to them about female empowerment because lets face it, I have always had the space to be empowered what do I know of their struggle? I initially wore my Masters degree in development studies as armor; acutely aware of the limitations I faced when trying to make any sort of difference. What I very quickly realized is that whatever issues these women face – whether it be early marriage, poverty, oppression etc. – it does not define their character or their lives. You cannot give someone empowerment. You can assist with creating a space for people to empower themselves but it cannot be packaged and it cannot be distributed arbitrarily.
I was struck by how normal it all was. How the women greeted each other and how they knew each other’s secrets and gossip, how affectionate they were with the children, how they giggled and teased – it all just felt so normal. These women did not need me to explain their issues and how to work towards becoming more independent. What they needed was a space where they could be amongst other likeminded women and let their worries go for a short while. They frequently teased me for being unmarried “and at 24!” They said that I should wear more jewelry and “why don’t you wear a sari!” They were absolutely beautiful inside and out sparkling in their silken fabrics and jingling when they moved in their colourful glass bangles and silver anklets inlayed with little bells.
One of my first thoughts after leaving Goa and arriving in the bustling city of Jaipur – a city with approximately three million inhabitants – was that the sheer number of people is suffocating. Driving down the street I had this sense that all three million Jaipur residents just happened to be out and about as well. The human congestion and the byproducts of this are apparent no matter where you look. This is compounded by the fact that a garbage disposal system seems to be either nonexistent or completely inadequate to cope with the volume of human waste. This is a country where the past and the present seem to collide and the evidence is there for everyone to take note of. It is a place of both incredible freedom and extreme oppression. Nothing is off limits for the right price and the number of people provide you with a sense of anonymity and liberation. Wealth and destitution coexist and interact on a daily basis. It is common to find yourself at a stoplight sandwiched between a BMW and a cart driven by a camel. Not a single day passed where I did not experience shock and amazement at the sights to behold in India. I also experienced a deep sense of conflict. While I enjoyed dining at fabulous Indian restaurants where a delicious meal may only cost me four American dollars I also felt keenly aware that it was only a result of the struggling economy and the low wages of the workers all along the supply chain that this meal could be so cheap.
With so many people and such troubled national infrastructure, how can these issues ever be solved? The rows and rows of dilapidated houses built with wood, tin, clay, blue tarps and anything and everything else you can imagine which have sprung up on sidewalks, beside airport terminals and train tracks are everywhere. The sense of guilt I immediately experienced was overwhelming. I felt guilty for being a voyeur, for seeing and not doing anything about it, I felt guilty for how temporary it all was for me, how my shiny new Canadian passport could whisk me away from the chaos and back to a life of clean streets and sanitation. Where was their escape? The more I saw however, the more aware I became of the beauty and the amazement held within these communities. The way they took pride in their front stoop even if it was mere inches from a train track – always sweeping it and keeping it tidy, how orderly it was inside their shacks with everything stowed in its rightful place. Children and adults alike bathed in the open, people cooked over open flames outside their homes, and men could be seen lending a hand to patch a roof or carry a load. The slums at first glance appeared destitute, but looking with an open mind revealed the beauty and incredible richness of the lives sheltered within.
I think it is easy to assume that the problems in a country like India leave a stain on every day existence. Partly due to sensationalized media I think we imagine that people living in slums are constantly miserable. Always laboring, always disheveled, and always with a look of absolute unhappiness on their faces. While I am in no way attempting to say that a massive amount of people in India don’t face incredible hardship, I do believe that a new narrative needs to be told. One where regardless of these incredible hardships people still gossip about their friends and their husbands, children cause a ruckus playing with neighbours, friends invite friends into their homes to chat, and the community looks after one another.
I traveled to India afraid of what I would encounter and very aware of the danger to a lone female tourist. I left India without feeling threatened and without being scared. I remained careful and alert but I think in order to experience a country and to understand the culture and people these preconceived notions sometimes need to be suspended. You cannot be distrustful towards everyone. Sometimes you have to look into person’s eyes and believe in the good as cheesy as that may sound. Don’t cloak your eyes solely in suspicion because if you do the beauty in the chaos will remain unseen.