It’s a strange feeling, to be around so much poverty all the time. I had been warned about the issue before coming here, and I wasn’t sure how I would react to what I, up until I arrived here, had only seen in movies. I am very surprised by how long it has taken for reality to catch up to me, and even now it is something that I am trying to make sense of.
I am confronted daily by beggars. Children tugging on my sleeves, women with their babies asking for food, men with missing limbs looking for some loose change. I pass a mini-slum every day on the way to school where I see dirty children playing in a trash heap alongside a family of pigs that has been growing since the day I arrived in Banaras. A few weeks ago on my way to school I passed a group of tourists, many of whom paused to snap photos of these people. I felt disturbed by this, indignantly thinking, “Who are these people? How can they look at the hardship here and then crawl back in to their air-conditioned bus and feel okay with themselves?” Tonight, I have realized that by ignoring it I am no better, and it is heartbreaking to feel so helpless against it. One part of me wants to empty my pockets to every person who approaches, and the other part knows that the culture of begging is just not one I want to perpetuate.
People here assume that foreigners have money, and by Indian standards, they are right. I am reminded of this daily by my living situation. My host family has a modest income, and to be honest I often feel self-conscious about my comparative wealth. In the United States it’s normal to have a laptop, a camera, a cell phone, and an iPod, but here it feels extravagant and excessive. I feel guilty that I can afford to go out to eat whenever I want to. The running water was broken for two days last week, and at first I was annoyed and unhappy, but as I washed my face with bottled water I realized that I was being foolish, because no one is making me do this. I thought about how many people don’t have a choice in the matter, and I don’t just mean my host family, for whom it was also an inconvenience, but people who actually have no power over their basic necessities.
Sometimes I think about how possible it would be to have been born in to a different life. Seven billion people in the world, and what are the chances that I would end up with a life where I not only have basic things like food and shelter, but also access to health care and education, not to mention an amazing, supportive family? I am so fortunate.
I am not sure I have spent enough time reflecting on what lessons I am learning here, but lately everything I see and experience has been catching up with me and really dominating my thoughts. I know this post is not very happy, but I felt like it was time to address another side of my time here, one that is not so easy to bear.