Rethinking worldliness

What would you do if a gang of monkeys threw coins at you? How would you escape out of a bus if it fell on its side during a rainstorm? I thought about these on my trip to India. In mid-2012, I was lucky enough to be sent off to India for work purposes, and was able to take vacation days to stay around after the meetings and see more than just the inside of a hotel.

At the airport, the hotel had sent 2 people to pick me up. We arrived in the perfectly luxurious hotel, tucked away from the center of Delhi. Meetings are what they are, but it was interesting to experience the biggest blackout in Indian history that took out most of Northern India but also be minimally affected by it. It is easy to complain. The elevators were not working. The lights flickered. The A/C turned off in the middle of the night. But in the bigger picture of things, many more people suffered much more devastating results.

In all honesty, we could have held the meeting without electricity, although we would have been in a room full of sweaty men. Yes, men. That’s the reality of that part of the world. There were about a handful of women present, with most except one being of lower position or administrative support, but that is still an improvement over no women. I was one of those women and was proud and happy to be there, but also cognizant of the conservativeness of the country and dressed as appropriately as I could. Most of these men are not accustomed to being spoken to by women as equals and professionals. By being a guest in their country, I felt as though it was my duty to respect and observe customs as best I could and that meant covering up even though I believe I hold the rights to choosing what I can wear and that women should be allowed to work and aspire to successful careers.

Contrast to this: the slums of Noida, a district to the southeast of Central Delhi. My friend was completing a fellowship at an architecture firm that had bought up this plot in the slums because of the cheap value of the land. The firm’s building was surrounded by high walls, always had at least 2 security guards on duty, and stood at least 4 stories tall. It was not the fanciest of buildings, but leaps and bounds above the 1 story slum houses that surrounded it. On the way in, locals set up stalls by the main road, children played in the streets, and stray dogs ran about. Inside the walls of the firm, employees were fed lunch every day, could order coffee and tea at any time, had running water and functional electricity, not to mention internet access. It was surreal to arrive and walk into this compound, and know that the people just outside have only a fraction of the amenities found inside.

Three of us took a weekend trip to Nainital, a hill station town a few hours outside of Delhi. Work life can be great, but the cubicle does not compare to a mountain view. It just simply cannot! We took the overnight bus, which if we had known better we might have avoided it, but turned out to be one of the most memorable parts I will take away from the trip. First of all, the bus was crowded. The back row, which was a cushioned bench instead of the regular bus seat, didn’t have much space but was forced to seat at least 5 people including our Finnish friend of larger than Indian proportions. The seats just in front of the row, when reclined, also took away a large chunk of wiggle room. Add to that a downpour, and tiny dirt roads being colonized by ponds of rainwater, you get one bumpy and scary bus ride, sometimes with the bus tipping several degrees in one direction or the other. When I woke up at 4AM to rocking that would make you think you were on a boat at sea, I realized “This bus was built for this.” I seriously thought of ways I would maneuver if the bus so happened to tip a bit too far over. Though with many threatening close calls, it never happened (thankfully, but I was secretly hoping if we did fall over, it would be onto the side I was NOT sitting on).

We spent 3 days breathing in the mountain air, walking in the hills, and checking out the town by the lake. It was on the walk back from town that we came head to head with a gang of monkeys. They were on their way downhill, and we were going up. After a few moments of no one moving, we won the face-off, but not before one monkey hissed aggressively at us and another threw a coin at us from above on the tree next to us. Naturally, we picked up the coin. Life seemed more balanced than in Delhi, and the locals who helped us were some of the nicest people I met in India. The owner where we stayed studied tourism management in Europe, and had worked on safari in Africa for several years before returning home to open up a campsite. On the way back to Delhi, we took the train instead. We sat in an air conditioned car, and were even served a few meals. It was another strange contrast on this trip, when I think about the hours I sat looking out of the bus window on the way there, eyeballing the ponds of rain water as we eked through.

What I have really learned from this trip is that it won’t get easier for me to travel in countries where women do not have many rights, or where the median citizen has to live in poverty. The mini conflicts in my mind will always be there, such as the one about limits to my freedom in dressing myself, or about not getting a fair price for a rickshaw ride. I felt like a hypocrite walking out of the architecture firm and hailing a rickshaw driver, who probably made half or more a day’s pay on our ride. But it also stings a little to know you are getting the foreigner’s price, but it takes a pretty black heart to bargain for a quick ride as relatively cheap as they are.

While riding in the back of an auto-rickshaw, I caught myself wondering what the driver’s life was like. But that IS his life. Driving his rickshaw is his life. Not everyone has a mysterious story behind them, and sometimes they are just what they seem to be. There won’t be an award winning documentary about this.

The larger conflict eclipses these little things that I dealt with from day to day. I won’t really be helping anyone by paying a few extra rupees for a ride, but the stark lack of upward social mobility and which has spawned a collective mentality that Westerners are cash cows still really bothers me. I won’t be considered an activist by wearing form-fitting pants and shirts that reveal my collarbone. I would just get stared at. How can I help on the larger scale, because the small scale is not good enough? It is a bit mind boggling to think about it, and I am guessing that most people would rather not think about it.

To the average traveller, poverty and such life situations are novelties. It is something to be photographed and brought home to your friends and loved ones who were unable to go “see the world” with you. But the “world” does not exist distinctly outside of your bubble; it includes and envelopes it. There is right now a homeless person on your street whom you could take a photograph of and call it worldly. In reality, there are also people in India who also choose to live in their bubbles. I was able to attend a opening night party in New Delhi for a music studio, started up by a rich Indian man’s daughter, where the drinks were just as expensive as they are in New York City. There was probably even a similar party going on in New York that same day, just with different faces. I’m sure that this woman also never took public transportation in her life, which, much like the overnight bus, is predominantly avoided by people who can afford more. The women in this circle can be more daring and bold, but what of their countrywomen?

The point is, I am willing to bet that there are people that fit into all of these scenarios and everything in between in many countries in the world. It is just a matter of what you see, or what you are willing to see. But, worldliness doesn’t come from just seeing the world. It also comes from recognizing the world we live in.

  • Interesting essay, Chewy, with lots of thoughtful comments about what you saw. I hope you write more longer essays like this with your thoughts about what you saw. (More pictures would help me visualize some of the scenes too.)

    • Chewy

      Hey Nat, thanks for the comment. I didn’t actually take that many photos while in India, and sometimes felt like it would be insensitive if I did. That could be an entirely different post. What do you think?

  • And unfortunately, I’m not sure if I can answer some of your tougher questions. Making a difference seems very hard–you have the analyze the system, identify the major causes, and predict possible results from making changes that affect these causes. It’s a complex, stochastic, non-linear system and knowing how best to change it to produce the desired results certainly isn’t easy 🙁

    • Chewy

      I agree. Things are also always changing, but it is discouraging when all the terrible things which seem like we should be past by now as humans still happen. I don’t know where I’m going with this line of thought, but I am hoping that at some point in my life I’ll be able to do something.

  • Chewy

    In addition, Ismo mentioned to me that the main reason why women don’t take public transportation is because they don’t feel safe. I hadn’t thought of that, and I wish it weren’t that way.