Friday, December 19, 2008
challenges in east india
India is filthy. From the moment we stepped from the plane we were bombarded with grime, scum, dirt, exhaust, feces, urine, vomit, spit, trash, burps, farts, mice, rats, cockroaches, flies, mosquitoes, and miscellaneous bugs. People are poor here, the population is exploding, filth is to be expected.
But seeing past the grime reveals a world unfocused on the external and casually retaining its history. Older women let their often soft sides show through elaborately decorated saris and men with dyed red hair chew betel nut (a mild stimulant) as they stroll through the streets. Every person is cognizant of their caste, a system which delineates sectors of society by birth. The lighter skinned people are the highest caste, Brahman, succeeded by three lower castes down to the 'untouchables,' people who are cast out from society altogether.
Calcutta is a difficult place, challenging to handle for even this experienced traveller. We spent most of our time there seeing the remnants of British colonial architecture and one afternoon strolling through the neighborhood where people have burrowed homes into piles of trash. To see a child climbing out of her home which was created from the waste of others is just staggering.
We moved on quickly to Varanasi, the holy city along the Ganges River where Hindu people come for good karma. They bathe themselves in the river, and if they die here they are said to be released from the cycle of death and rebirth, which makes it a popular place to lay to rest (certainly different from Florida!). We spent most of our time here wandering through the Ghats (areas of steps down into the water which serve different functions). Saw people swimming in the (now officially sewage) water in the mornings, waking up and starting the day with a jolting cold swim, and watched the bodies burn from a distance at the cremation ghat. Private moments are public here, and the inevitability of human suffering is on display in all its varying forms. Children and cripples beg for food and animals (dogs, goats, cows) pick through trash for their next meal. India is both sad and fulfilling, educating and difficult, exhilarating and fundamentally moving.