It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see. – Henry David Thoreau
The way to India
A few years back I was backpacking through South-Eastern Asia to finish my journey with 6 months volunteering in India.
I was almost to not make it as the Indian authorities from Kathmandu refused to grant me with a volunteering visa for 6 months. Fortunately enough I got the visa (every 2 months I had to renew my visa).
I took a bus from Kathmandu to New Delhi. A trip that supposed to be only a few hours transformed in more 16 hours. Imagine a bus from the 70′ that makes a perturbing noise and gives you the feeling that the next km is the last one it will cross.
Somewhere in the night, the bus stopped in the middle of the road. No prrrr prrr anymore. Late in the morning, our rescuers came on a motorbike and with magic, they restarted the engine that would protest again.
It was well passed over lunchtime and I was starving. Passing through so many villages where a combination of dust, smell from the street’s garbage, the food being preparing along the road, mixed in a bizarre scent that would make me throw up and have munchies in the same time.
Finally, we stopped in a so-called restaurant improvised on the side of the road with some old and dirty plastic colorful chairs and tables. It was full of locals and tourists enjoying their Dhaal, naan or chapati (a flatbread baked directly on fire).
The baker was wearing a kind of shorts that were looking more like panties. They were originally white but now they were grey with some darker shades of black from the dirtiness. From time to time he would clean his hands by his buttocks. The smell of his chapati was so inviting though. After a while you become immune to the dirtiness, you seem to not care anymore and you blend into the culture’s flavors. I ate praying I won’t get food poisoned. The food was so tasty though and I asked for a second portion.
I got used with the garbage that was lying around in every corner of the street from the other Asian countries I visited before, but somehow in India, the piles of stagnant garbage had an unmistakable stink.
The Indian slums’ reality
Note: India is so much more than slums and poverty. It’s an incredibly beautiful country with happy and warmhearted people (and also lots of wealthy people)!
The first visit to the Indian slums was ghastly and uplifting at the same time. Together with the just born babies, children, women, and men from the improved plastic and cardboard tents dwelled rats of a dimension I have never seen before in my life, pigs, dogs, and cows.
There are, however, 2 standards of slums – those where people live in tents made up from pieces of plastic and cardboard and those where people live in hovels.
In a 2 square m room live up to 7-8 people. There are no beds just some segments of a plastic-like carpet. They sleep, eat, and cook inside. There is no water other than the sewage water from the canals, canals that are not covered and where sometimes some pieces of plastic and textiles lie on the bottom.
The makeshift shower is common for all the dwellers of the slum. Between 2 hovels a piece of textile is hanged over. In the luxuries slums, the water would come from a hose but in almost all the others the water is fetched by women and children in plastic buckets.
Children are playing in the piles of garbage looking for treasures and pieces of garbage that they put together to construct toys. Flies, so many irritating flies around.
The smiling faces
In penury and living conditions I have never could imagine, everybody is happy. People laugh and they laugh a lot. Genuine laughs.
How it’s even possible? In a country of over 1 billion people from which the vast majority believes in reincarnation and the cycle of death and rebirth (samsara), it would be at least strange that people don’t accept their existing life. Each life experience on earth and each incarnation of soul offers the being an opportunity to learn and overcome its inconsistencies and blemishes so that it can become the whole.
To be also the fact that you can’t change the cast you are born in? It’s a destiny that you have to embrace and rejoice.
To be the fact that when for generations you grow up and get accustomed with poverty you see such life absolutely normal?
To be a laid-back attitude?
To be the power of community and the unity of family?
To be about the religion and the values they are raised in?
Whatever the reasons the Indians are merry people with big smiles.
What I learned from my experience
People have a great deal of power and potential despite being told we may not have any because of the family life, the cultures we are raised in, the sexual orientation, or the economic status.
I learned how giving human beings are, even when they don’t have much to give (especially then!).
I learned that a smile and enthusiasm is much more important than any material gift.
I learned that it takes time to see changes and that we have to have patience with each other.
I learned that the countries where we are raised in, with their own traditions, customs and values are shaping our personalities and the way we act.
I learned that no matter how much you get from a situation you can always give so much more – life is about sharing feelings.
Our community is a diverse fabric of human beings and I learned to appreciate people around me.
I learned to appreciate life – as it comes.
Did you have any volunteering experience? How it was? What did you learn from it?