Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Fascinated by India

     I  have been trying to write a follow up blog to my last post two months ago but I honestly don't know how I feel about India. Some days I wake up so angry that I have to live here and sometimes I am truly fascinated to be able to have this experience with my family.
     I will never love India. I can say that without hesitation. Apologies to my husband, and his family who all lived here 30 years ago and still have magical memories of the country. Different city, different decade, different experience. This is considered a hardship post by the US Department of State. It is labeled thus for a reason.
     I have to bleach my vegetables, take my chances with local meat products, or whatever is on offer at the commissary, and live in a house that I would have been delighted with 20 years ago but now, a three bedroom apartment built roughly 50 years ago just doesn't scream "I've made it".  As I write this, my housekeeper, who shows up sporadically since she is always having some kind of crisis, is mopping the floors. I know what you're thinking. Poor me, I have a housekeeper. If I didn't, I'm certain I would have left months ago. Everything needs to be cleaned here every day. It's dirty. I don't know how the dirt gets in but it does. And, now that it's trash burning season, the air is a putrid mix of noxious fumes and dust. The poor people in the slums cannot afford to heat their huts so they burn garbage to keep their children warm at night.
     My younger son, Ewan, had his first soccer game the other day and I offered to walk with him to the field at the British School, which is just down the street from our school, and close to the compound. I had never been there and so we set off hoping to find it. We did find it, it is located just past the enormous slum stuck between the two schools. Apparently, the workers who came to Delhi to build the schools put up these make shift homes close by and then just never left. Generations have now lived there. I cannot believe that I had never seen it before. I could certainly smell it but I thought that was just the natural smell of New Delhi. We passed by tiny little boys playing cricket in the filthiest clothes I've ever seen. They seemed happy and even said hello. Amazingly, they didn't ask for money or food. People were coming and going, children were playing and laughing, if I hadn't seen the actual slum, I'd have thought it just an ordinary neighborhood with kids playing on the periphery.

     I do what I can, I know I could do more. I also know what my limits are and there are some days when I wonder if I will make it through this posting intact. I actually wonder if prolonged exposure to a place like this could make you bipolar? I am just not one of those people who is comfortable going out to lunch and spending more for one meal than most of these poor people will earn in a month. I feel guilty but I also like to eat lunch out sometimes so I get angry, then I feel sad. I know I have to carve out a functioning and happy life here for my boys and my husband, and I do. But, I sing a little less, never have impromptu dance parties in the kitchen anymore and drink way too much red wine. I know it will get easier once I wrap my head around the fact that I cannot fix this place. I always thought that I would be one of those people who would change the world or make a huge difference in someone's life. I was spared in Christchurch because I had something really important I had to do on earth.
     Coincidentally, today is my anniversary. I've been married to a great man for 19 years and we have two amazing children. I suspect that the lives I am meant to enrich here are theirs. And that, I can do.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Finding myself yet losing my soul in India

 Isn't that what everyone hopes for when travelling to India? To "find themselves"? The difference is, I didn't want to come to India. I never even gave it a thought. Ever. I'm not a religious person and I know exactly who I am, I don't need validation. But, the past month has made me question who I am to become.

  Now that we are part of the State Department, we don't really get to choose where we'd like to live. So India was chosen for us. I don't really mind, that's the nature of the job - a lifestyle that we freely chose. So when we were given India, we just went with it. Adrian had lived in India before as an adolescent, so he knew what it was like. Though he lived in a totally different part of India under very different circumstances, he knew what to expect. I, on the other hand, was told what to expect and told accurately. However, when you are told something, you always wonder how much is exaggerated and how much is truth.

  The truth so far about my India in New Delhi, is that it is heartbreaking. Granted, I arrived during Monsoon season so there is mud everywhere and since the antiquated drainage system cannot really handle the deluge, garbage tends to float in the streets. The smell is overwhelming. Nobody uses the public garbage receptacles here. I've witnessed rich and poor alike throwing garbage our their car windows, off the back of motorcycles, etc. It's accepted here. Most people just pretend it isn't there. That seems to be the underlying theme here. If we just pretend it isn't here or isn't happening then our conscience can be clear. After all, we didn't do it.

  I'm not going to tell you about the weather and that there is corruption and the mosquitoes carry more diseases than I knew possible (ones we cannot be vaccinated against). You can find out all of this on Wikepedia. Instead I'm going to tell you about some of the people, and there are lots and lots of people. New Delhi is grossly overpopulated and there is not enough housing or employment for everyone. Some of the more industrious have fashioned homes out of scrap wood and metal along the river banks and alongside strip malls, virtually anywhere they think they can. These slums house hundreds of people. Some have electricity and even cable TV pirated from a nearby utility pole. None have running water. The toilets, as far as I can tell, are anywhere you can get away with. It is not uncommon to see people pissing off the sidewalks. Though I've not yet seen anyone defecating in the streets, I've heard it happens often. The homeless wash their clothing in the public fountains and dry them on median barriers alongside the cows and stray dogs.

  Some of the slum dwellers have jobs and some hawk whatever they can in the streets; peacock feathers, balloons, dishtowels, water guns, flowers. Some simply make an eating motion with their hands and bang on your car windows. Most are children. I don't blame them. I'd do whatever I could to feed my family too. I'd bet that most of these beggars would take an underpaying job in a heartbeat if one was available. They simply are not available.

  In the Muslim neighborhood of Nizamuddin, they seem to have a system of welfare. Rudimentary as it is, it seems to work for them. The poor and infirm line up together along the alleyways and almost every adult male Muslim that I saw dropped a coin in each one's hand. At one corner there seemed to be a meal station for the poor. I was urged to buy a packet of 20 or so tickets for 20 rupees each that I assume are distributed to the hungry homeless huddled around the ovens waiting for the evening meal to be ready. I didn't buy any because at the time I had no idea what they wanted from me and why I would spend money for tickets when I had no idea what they were used for. Next time I will buy some. Sure, some of the beggars will take their ticket I give them and resell it to another beggar for maybe 5 rupees then go buy himself some liquor but it's no different from our own welfare system really except that theirs isn't subsidized by the government.



  We are asked to not engage the beggars. It can only lead to trouble, either for them or us. If one beggar sees another beggar receiving money from us, we would be swarmed and it is not safe. If we are in a car and we hand money out our window, more little children will come to us in the street and run the risk of being run over. So, we are delegated to volunteering for an NGO or other charitable entities like churches, and orphanages, etc. But, you just know that if you give money, someone pockets 95% of it along the way. Very little of it gets to those for whom it's intended. Like the street children who are forced to beg then hand over their earnings to the boss who drops them off in the morning in his Mercedes SUV, leaving the kids with no food and no water all day to beg. I assume he feeds them eventually since none of them look emaciated. Thin to be sure, but somewhat healthy. I guess a sick and starving kid is of no use.

  This is where I have trouble. Every instinct in my body tells me to help, to give. I want to feed and clothe these children when I see them. I know I cannot help them all, but I want to help the ones I can. I feel like a hypocrite sitting in my chauffeur-driven car, heading to a restaurant to drink a $30 glass of champagne then come back to my safe, clean and air conditioned home that someone cleans for me for minimum wage.

  Last night I dreamt that I was being attacked by beggars and I was stuffing 10 rupee notes into their mouths. According to the local government, you are not below the poverty line if you earn more than 33 rupees a day. That's 53 American cents. I guess in my dream I thought I was feeding them.

(photo from the Times of India)
  I know that there will likely be very little I can do to change India or its people. I won't "fix" anything. I am not a savior. I will spend the next two years pretending, like everyone else, that it is ok to have naked children on the sidewalks and old, sores-covered men sitting on blankets in the alleyways. I will continue to buy my $2 sunglasses off the hustler downtown and feel magnanimous because I just got him above the poverty line single handedly. I will ignore the little girl banging on my car at the stop light and step over the sleeping mangy dog covered in fleas with its ribs poking out. I will take day trips to the Imperial Hotel to feel civilized and spend all of our hardship pay visiting places that gives me glimpses into my former life.
  Can I maintain my dignity here? Can I somehow rationalize my aloofness? Will I observe this country like a journalist, just gathering information and not getting involved? Like those National Geographic documentarians that film the cheetah with the broken jaw and document its suffering as if they are incapable, not just unwilling to do anything to help? Will I be able to look at myself in the mirror every day? Will I continue to have nightmares? I suspect that every time I think of India I will think of that little girl and wonder what has become of her. But tomorrow, if I see her again, I will feed her.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Week one in New Delhi

We've now passed the one week mark. It actually seems like we've been here a lot longer but there you go.  The boys and I have been settling in and recovering from our jet lag and are getting to know our new home. Nobody is as eager to explore the city as Morgan has been. Our previously not too social kid has been out almost every day since we've been here thanks to some very friendly girls from our compound that will also be seniors at his new school.
Morgan has been to several Malls which range from high end super structures similar to those in the USA to back alley markets that are really just slums with stuff for sale. I am amazed by him, and proud. While I was initially surprised by Morgan's instant popularity, I am very happy that he has been getting out and experiencing his new home. The girls' parents are usually a bit more cautious with where they can and cannot go but, with the addition of our 6'3" son into the mix, they've been given the keys to the city so to speak. Nowhere is off limits as long as Morgan is in tow. It's funny, the seas of humanity really do part for Morgan when he walks through the markets. Not so much because he is tall but because he is blonde and tall. Nobody hassles him. So, for now, Morgan is content.

Ewan is another story. Most of the kids his age are back in the USA for the summer holiday. The summers here really are miserable for kids when its too hot to play outside and the Monsoons make everything damp. Lets not even talk about the mosquitos or the diseases they carry. So, Ewan has been socially challenged for the first time in a year. The final indignity is a bad ear infection that has laid him low for the past few days prompting our first emergency doctor call. It's comforting to know that we can receive good health care while here, even on a Sunday.
While New Delhi is obviously fascinating and full of rich history and culture, I've not yet had the time or inclination to see much of it to be honest. I've seen a lot in my first week here, don't get me wrong. I've been to three markets, a few forts, the City Gates, the big western mall and out to two restaurants off of the compound. So, I haven't been hiding. I just need to ease into India. It kind of smacks you in the face. It is incredibly crowded. It is dirty and yes, it smells. There are people living in highway medians and bathing in puddles. And yes, they really do use the city as an outhouse.
There don't really seem to be any traffic laws. The roads are well paved at least. The taxi drivers are....well, I'm having a hard time explaining. They get you from point A to point B and lets just leave it at that. I will worry less for Morgan, who has been taking cabs and rickshaws, once we get our car and driver.
I will try not to sound negative because I know there are good things about living in India and I intend to find them, just not this week.




Friday, February 22, 2013

Remembering Christchurch Two Years Later

  I intended to mark the day by doing something special to remind myself how good life is. I had several ideas all involving spoiling myself. But, then I remembered the 189 who were not so lucky and it seemed a bit shameful to celebrate.

  I've always been a lucky person. I don't win lotteries or raffle drawings but I have a good life, good friends, a great marriage and amazing kids. However, escaping totally unscathed from the earthquake on February 22, 2011 was just plain luck. I don't believe in a higher power and don't think that "God" was watching over me, I was simply in a little pocket of safety in a sea of destruction. I was lucky.

  So today I am not marking the day in any special way except to hug my kids a little longer, tell my husband I love him a little more often and just enjoy this crazy trip that is life. I am grateful that I no longer have hives or nightmares, I don't jump out of my skin when I hear loud noises and I no longer check on geonet.org upon waking. I am even beginning to miss New Zealand a bit. I still don't really ever want to go back but at least I don't feel resentful about having to have to live there for 16 months after the quake. I still keep the newspaper articles from the day after and I still get freaked out about all the people who were killed in places that I had been in just moments before and I feel sad for them and their families. I never really thought "what if", I don't think that's productive, but I do think "Whoa, be grateful Amy" and  I am.