The “P Word”

When we travel there is a particular aspect of human civilization that most people tend to try to avoid.  Poverty.  Most people don’t want to see it, smell, or experience it in any way.  I can completely understand and relate to this.  For the most part, when people are traveling on vacation, it’s a brief escape from the real world, to some extent.  Sometimes, though, travel can mean going to an area specifically because of it’s poverty.  Charitable aide organizations often do this.  While on a recent trip I came to experience poverty on an entirely different level.

I grew up in a small city in Alabama where roughly 25% of the population lives below the American “poverty line.”  I am from the south.  Poor people are everywhere.  Families too numerous to count have difficulties paying their bills, feeding and clothing their families, or even keeping a roof over their heads.  I’ve spent a great deal of time in rural areas and have seen these people, been to their homes, and have come to know many of them.  I thought I knew poverty.  At the very least, I believed I had become acquainted with it over the years.

Then I went to India.

In India I witnessed true poverty.  I saw the horror and hopelessness of it.  Yet the people persevere through living situations I have never seen the likes of before.  I was struck by the contrast of this developing nation as soon as I arrived.  Our hotel was admittedly luxurious.  However, on the way to the hotel, children, dirty with disheveled hair surrounded our car when we stopped at a red light.  They held out their hand, and looked like broken people, even as young as 7 or 8.  The cynic in me, rolled my eyes, and told myself that they were practicing what they had been taught, and with a stony distant look, I ignored them.  This was a technique I had acquired through years of experience in dealing with gypsies on the streets of Rome and the subways of Paris.

As we approached the hotel, I couldn’t help but see the large shantytown that lead up the road to the hotel’s gated entrance.  It was acres wide, and was covered by cheaply built structures, leaning to and froe, wood crates, tarpaulins, chicken wire, and an assortment of random pieces made up this village.  On the edge, a mountain of garbage had accumulated.  The bulk of it consisted of cheaply made plastic products that would never decompose and would sit there forever, or until the pile caught fire, and released a flume of toxicity into the encampment.  I was able to turn a blind eye to all of this as well.

Our days in Delhi were spent sightseeing, and sitting in the horrendously traffic jammed streets, but those were followed by an early morning drive to the city of Agra.  It was on this drive that I came to actually see and have an understanding for what poverty really is all about.

We left early, just as the sun was beginning to come up, and headed out onto the Indian equivalent of a freeway.  Much like a western one, the road was long, and the cars moved fast, but people, and cows, and cows pulling carts, and people riding cows, were also moving down the road.   This was something akin to living a game of “Frogger.”

As the sun came up and the morning mists began to burn away, I noticed the vast, dry fields on either side of me.  Rather, I began to notice the silhouetted figures in the fields.  Some were walking, but most seemed to be squatted down.  I thought it was odd at first, but then realized what it was I was seeing.  People everywhere around me were going to bathroom.  It wasn’t that outside of the cities there were no toilets, but there was no plumbing, not even outhouses.  There was no way to access machinery to dig wells deep enough to reach water.  There was nothing.

We moved further on, and occasionally, we could see small houses made of mud and sod, with a thatched roof.  Sometimes, we would see people living under only a crude shelter of tree limbs that had been pulled together and covered with leaves.  This was unlike anything I had ever seen before. Even people in the most rural, most remote areas of Appalachia had more access to food and shelter.  The miles clicked on, and I began to seriously consider what poverty meant.

Then I broke.  Ahead in the distance I saw something that profoundly disturbed me.  Walking along the left hand side of the road, was something I could not believe I was actually witnessing.  At first I could clearly see that it was a person, and that the person was completely nude with only a walking stick.  As we approached, I could make out that it was a man, a very old, very frail looking man.  He was as naked as the day his mother bore him.  I asked our driver about this, and his response was simply, “He has nothing.”  It was a casual response to an event I found shocking.

In a society where someone can truly “have nothing” how does a person achieve or accomplish anything?  Education?  There are no schools of any quality available to you.  Medicine?  There are no doctors or medicines you can afford.  Hygiene is clearly nonexistent.  Charity?  What does that do?  Give you a new church? A new house? A few meals?  What about tomorrow?  What happens when the well wishing workers go back home?  They feel good about themselves, and native people are still poor. I came to understand Mahatma Gandhi when he said, “There are people in the world so poor, that God can only appear to them in a loaf of bread.”

Poverty is that one thing that so many people actively ignore or avoid when they travel.  Sometimes, though, travel can open your eyes to things you never really even knew you were trying not to see.

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Categories: Asia, Stories, Thoughts

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