Question: Is poverty, or wealth, in the eye of the beholder?

As I near the end of my month in India… And now will have regular access to Internet in the coming week… I’ll take a retrospective approach to sharing my stories. I’ve been writing and reflecting all month. Now that the time soon approaches for me to transition back to America (reverse culture shock, if you will) it’s no better time then now to recap myself and share with you. Perhaps even– you, as readers–can aid in my transition. Let the stories begin… —————————————–


“When you arrive, you’ll gather your luggage from baggage claim and walk out door 6. Find pole 17; here you will be greeted by your driver who will be holding a sign with your first name and CFHI written underneath.”


Straight forward and specific directions, this is what I need to help calm the angst of the unknown of the travels ahead. Since I received a confirmation from CFHI that my flight information was received and my driver would indeed be there, I stepped off the plane with confidence and followed the directions to a T. As I walked through door 6, guarded by 2 Indian policemen, my gaze met a crowd of shouting men before me all waving signs around. Pole 17, pole 17, pole 17 — I kept the mantra in my head (the first of many, more pleasant ones I’d learn for this trip). There! Pole 17–phew! But no driver, no sign, in fact– no people. Pole 17 was baron despite the crowds of people just feet away from it. I decided to skim the crowd in the event my driver was mixed in. No sign.


Phone. I have a phone with international service. Contact number – got it. Well, in another world-literally-things aren’t quite that simple. The iphone decided to have a tantrum and I decided I needed a payphone. Since the policemen wouldn’t let me back in the arrivals sections I trugged up to departures with me 17kg bag on my back, drenched in sweat and the stentch of New Delhi in the air. The place was near empty with holes in the walls, homeless sleeping against them and not a resource in sight- nevermind a payphone.


Luckily, when I returned to the crowd of men with signs –none of CFHI, I spotted a younger Indian girl, about my age and most importantly, my height. She had friendly eyes and gave a welcoming smile when she met my eyes. “Do you speak English?” She did and so kindly agreed to let me borrow her phone to dial my contact. I never got to tell her that she saved the day as I was then able to meet my driver –back at post 17 so maybe the karma of thanking her through this post will pay forward somehow. Thank you kind Indian 5 foot girl.


Her friendly energy must have permeated through the thick polluted New Delhi air to meet the energy of my driver as he welcomed me with a similar smile – but one that rang of apology as well. We both exhaled in relief as he started the trek to deliver me to the Delhi guest house for CFHI participants. Along the way I experienced the culture shock we are all warned of before travel to the third world. Deserted streets lined with mounds of trash and scavenging dogs; shops, homes and businesses made of tin, thick branches and crates; broken down brick walls one could trace the outline to imagine would have made a beautiful building if complete, instead the remnant bricks pilled along the wall sides and dressed with the warnings of crime and poverty. The driver wizzed through on-coming traffic weaving in and out of cars, trucks and motorcycles with no regard for traffic signals. At one point he pulled over alongside one such broken brick wall and a dog sleeping in a pile of filth when I realized, this wasn’t a pit stop at all, but we had actually arrived.


He helped me with my bag and directed me to a darker gated enterance that seemed to lead nowhere. I asked, “Here?” hoping he’d say no and direct me elsewhere, but secretly knowing this was indeed my destination. He gestured yes and with a deep breath and the vision of my guardian angels at my side, I stepped through. At the other end of the gate was a small staircase and with no other outlet I chose to embark up them to find a chubby Indian man standing with a screen door open and ushering me in. I saw a Ganesha statue (Lord of success, pictured above) and knew all would be well. I threw down my bag and within minutes collapsed on the rock hard bed for just a glimpse of sleep before the morning train ride up north.


The train ride north, though more scenic, housed similar scenes of destruction and filth. The difference was that I was able to people watch a bit as well. The crowd in the country varied from women in sarees to children running naked, men peeing openenly onto the train tracks and thin elderly persons squatting along the road edge. Mixed in were some free range livestock (which I came to learn were quite literally considered “holy cow” ‘s) and piles and piles of trash. In between the harsh realities of civilization in the country of India was breaks of beautiful grass plains, colorful clotheslines of linens and animals grazing at peace (often appearing more satiated then the humans). But the breaks never lasted long enough before another plot of broken bricks or glimpse of a crippled man struggling to walk without crutches took over the view again. At times, I couldn’t take my eyes off the surroundings and at other times I escaped to the world of ’50 Shades of Grey’ to remind myself that spoiled Western society still exists somewhere out there.


However, as the train ride moved along, these sits became more “normal” and I began to concentrate more on the expressions of the people.


At times the view was saturated in poverty and, surprisingly, at other times the same scene left me with a feeling of peace as I noticed the people in them seemed content. Perhaps they were, perhaps this was all they knew, or perhaps they were too immersed in survival mode to reveal their true emotions on their face.


Did they know what they were “missing”? Did they know what it was like to live with clean water, a four wall, multi-room, multi-bed home? Did they know what clean streets devoid of garbage looks like? Do they know what it’s like to indulge at an “All-You-Can-Eat” buffet? …or were they not “missing” anything after all?


Was this poverty I was seeing after all, or was this just a way of life unbeknownst to me and so foreign in so many ways that I was just quick to label it? If the people are smiling, the children playing and the environment colorful to the eye – is it not wealthy with the richness of life just the same as friends and family gathered for fun in America? Is a broken brick wall lined by trash and wild animals and more impoverished then a penthouse sweet in the first world housing a lonely, depressed Mr. Scruge?


My overall impression was beauty. In the harsh reality before me, a world I couldn’t even imagine to survive in–humbled by the thought of my fortunes in life–I saw colors, smiles, children at play and-selfishly-a new perspective on life, waiting for me to open my eyes to it.


I think there is no denying that this country I was now in was poverty stricken and, yes at many times, “dirty”.


In fact, I learned that in many parts of the country there’s a cast of people (“scavengers”) dedicated to waking every night to manually clean the feces (human and animal alike) off the roads, and trust me, there’s more feces on the road than pavement in most places I’ve walked).


So in reality poverty and filth is a “norm” built into the culture and even the socioeconomic burdens of the civilization here, but In this post I simply wish to offer an additional layer to the word poverty — as wealth isn’t always monetary.


In deviating from chronology here if I may — in fact, **I** indluged at an all you can eat buffet during my stay in Jaipur. It was a welcomed contrast to the harsh realities of living in the cold without hot water (or any shower), and devoid of healthy clean food. But it was an indulgence to me specifically because of what I KNEW to exist on the other side. (Caveat: the true indulgence was in sharing this with my new beloved travel buddies and friends and sharing gratitude, love and memories). What if one knew no other way? What if there was no indulgence and rather your only mode was survival? Would you be impoverished? Perhaps only if you lacked love, affection and basic human interaction and happiness?


I aimed here to introduce you, as I was, to the poverty of much of northern India as I experienced it. However, I hope to have painted a picture of more than economic status and more of perspective. I came in with my view of the world as I know it from that of a middle-class American medical student with opportunities at my feet, supportive family and no understanding of the concept of a struggle for basic survival necessities. I boarded the train with this perspective challenged by the outside world I was passing through– passing in to. I left the train with a willingness to open myself to the perspective of others. I will soon leave India with a true understanding of yoga as a practice of self-realization and a new collection of a wealth of experiences. I wrote this post to invite you to investigate your inner wealth and so, I pose to you… is poverty, or wealth, in the eye of the beholder?


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