Don’t waste your life - reflections on poverty

I feel like all of my blog posts so far about India have been really happy – and I’ve gotten great feedback which is awesome. But sometimes India isn’t always a happy place. Sometimes it’s hard, sad, and confusing. I guess lately I’ve been wrestling lately with the idea of purpose – and what my purpose is here in India. I’m a student. I’m Canadian. I’m 20. What am I doing here? And am I just taking from India, or am I giving back at all?

To start with, I love India. I love the country, the people and the culture. Sometimes it can be stressful or confusing, but I love the moments of pure joy when I realize that I’m exactly where I need to be. That has been one piece of confidence that I’ve held close for the past 11 weeks. I know that India is 100% where I need to be right now. Even though I love Guelph (and the people in it), there’s nothing for me there this semester. So if India is where I’m supposed to be, then what am I to achieve here?

Red Fort near Agra 

Red Fort near Agra 

I often think about this the most when I’m in a rickshaw – watching the world go by. Watching people live their daily lives. We take auto rickshaws here in Jaipur everyday to school and back since I live a little ways away from campus. In Jaipur there are a serious of roundabouts every few blocks. The city is planned pretty well and traffic rules are followed remarkably well (which is surprising but sometimes not very exciting haha). There is one particular roundabout that we often stop at on our way to and from school. This street corner seems to be a notorious hang out for beggars or all kinds: children, parents holding babies, and disfigured people. As soon as your rickshaw stops the children race across the busy road to you. Our white skin stands out and is often equated with money. These kids have the dirtiest skin, their hair is absolutely fried and they hold out their hands wanting anything you can give them. Sometimes they pull at your clothes and bags and don’t let go until your rickshaw starts to move again with the flow of traffic. And while all of this goes on, with their large brown eyes staring at us, we ignore them.

Giving, or not giving, to the beggars of India has been one of the largest conflicts and complicated issues during this trip. Before coming to India we all spent a few months preparing and we were all told countless times not to give alms. Giving alms (donations), to beggars is an aspect of Hinduism and Indian daily life. But there is a lot more to the issue than the face value of a child begging on the street. Whose controlling this child? Are they working for someone? If you do give alms, how do you know it will be used by that person? Does this child actually need alms or are they pretending? The lack of discernment in this situation makes it impossible to make a decision that I feel fully satisfied with.

Basically, we’ve been told not to give to beggars because it perpetuates the system. It reinforces the stereotype that white people come to India and have lots of money to give away. It supports the infrastructure, systems and culture that place these people on the street in the first place. If it’s more profitable to beg than work, to place kids out on the streets to collect money for you, why would you stop? The problem is, there are legitimate people who have nothing and need the help of others to live.

Fortunately there are alternative ways to give in India. We spent all first semester raising money to give away to select NGO’s that we visit here in India. I am also able to tip Indians that provide a service who already have a job (i.e. pay a little more to rickshaw drivers, servers, and hotel staff). But when those kids come up to us in rickshaws or we see beggars on the street I have to harden my heart and turn the other way. And overtime it catches up with me and breaks my heart. I remember in Hampi at the train station,there were a lot of little kids and women with their babies. I saw a street dog jump onto the train tracks and I burst into tears because it was all so heartbreaking.

Last weekend when we were in Jaisalmer our group loved to spend time at this German bakery which had the BEST peanut butter cookies I’ve had in India. On our last day there I was feeling piggy and bought 2 cookies for myself. But then I saw two little girls who were collecting garbage and plastic off the street and they wanted us to get them something from the bakery. I was already eating a roll of bread (I must have been hungry that day =), and so I gave those girls my cookies. I tried to ask them how old they were but the man close by told me that they were desert children. They are not educated, neither are their parents, and therefore don’t know their ages. The spend their days collecting trash and plastic for his caste to sell. Now the caste system is an extremely complex issue, but the societal build up is so foreign to me.

As a foreigner when is the right time to give? And what is my responsibility as an international traveller? I feel like I take more from India than I give back. I’ve literally been waiting years for this experience and I don’t want to waste it. I want to leave India knowing that I did my very best possible. That I was compassionate, loving and learned as much as I could. Perhaps I am supposed to be in India because this is the foundation for something even greater ahead. Maybe this isn’t my chance to make a difference on a large scale but to prepare for a time when I will.

I love writing about my fun adventures and day-to-day activities, but I also want to be transparent and authentic about what travelling in India is really like. It’s crazy, overwhelming, phenomenal, and makes you think. India leads you to look inside yourself in new ways and question yourself, taking accountability for your actions and intentions.

Maybe I’m not in a position to give money to all the beggars of India. But if the little kids are able to walk away from my rickshaw with a smile on their face, then I’ve accomplished all that I’m able to. =)