The India I have portrayed thus far has been one of color and beauty, but to travel through India is to also witness crushing poverty. A type of poverty that you don't see in the States; the filth and grime are simply indescribable...human's defecating on the side of the road, animal waste littering the streets, piles of garbage burning throughout the markets.
The hardest part is to see children living in these conditions. With their dirty faces, torn clothes and dreadlocked hair, you just want to scoop them up and take them home with you for a nice bath and change of clothes. You might think that growing up with the burden of poverty would cause these children to become hardened and bitter, but they are so lively, friendly and full of personality. They invite you to play their makeshift games of cricket and hopscotch, and they go crazy for having their picture taken. When we walked through the villages, we were followed by cries of "Photo, photo?" Their zest for life is incredible, and this speaks to the unbelievable resilience and adaptability of children.
Another fascinating thing to observe is the mix of waste and recycling that goes on here. On one hand, the streets are littered with trash, and no one thinks twice about tossing their wrappers, boxes and plastic bottles onto the ground. Apparently an entire generation of parents forgot to pass along the "litter bug" lessons that we all received as children!
But on the other hand, there seems to be a second life given to every piece of waste. Cow dung is formed into paddies, artfully dried in the sun (as seen below), and used for fuel. Plastic water bottles are refilled and used as thermoses for tea. The landfills are picked over and no piece of valuable trash goes to waste. This spirit of ingenuity amazes me.
The filth and beauty exist in a strange harmony here. In the middle of a grimy village, you will find a neat little snack shop, painted the most beautiful color of blue. The jars will be neatly line up on the shelves, the front stoop will be free of dust, thanks to eager sweeping, and the packets of snacks will be hung just so. Right outside of the shop, the gutters might be awash with waste water and trash...but inside, a shelter from the storm.
During our first week of traveling, I was wracked with guilt. Here we were paying top dollar to fly over, stay in beautiful hotels, eat three piping hot meals a day and tour around in our air conditioned car. The amount of money that we spent on this trip is more than most Indians will see in a lifetime. The average daily wage (not hourly, but daily) for a laborer, whether farming or doing manual labor, is 150 rupee, or $3. Since many of the women do not work outside of the house, this is all the family has to survive on.
My grief only subsided when I learned that in many towns, one out of every two people are employed by the tourism industry. Our willingness to travel to India meant solid employment opportunities for a great many people. Is that enough to ease all of my first-world guilt...certainly not. But it is a start.
So my conclusion to this long-winded piece: Is the poverty here heart-wrenching? Yes. Is it overwhelming? Absolutely. Should it prevent you from visiting...not in a million years. Just as the color, vibrancy, history and beauty are a part of India, so, unfortunately, is the poverty. There is nothing I can write, no picture I can show you to prepare you for the images that you will see if you choose to come to India, but don't ever let that stop you from exploring. To give in to that fear, would be to let the poverty prevail.