India is a land so rich in culture and so diverse in nature, it would be irresponsible to generalize about the people of the entire country. From the deserts of the west to the beaches of the east, India has many faces. However, throughout my three months in India, it wasn’t the ever changing landscape, the dominant religion of a region or the stark changes in cuisine that have become a part of my character. It’s the undeniable drive of the hustle that impacted me deeply. From the sweat dripping down a rickshaw drivers forehead to the relentless passion from teachers in a classroom with sauna like conditions. It’s the cheeky smile of a child, overflowing with curiosity and bewilderment and it’s the countless situations in which every terrible stereotype about Indian people was shattered with the full force of kindness and generosity that has etched itself within me.
A nation’s culture resides in the hearts and in the soul of its people
Travelers like myself make mistakes, they fall into risky situations and at times they depend on the local people. It’s at these times in which a single person has the opportunity to make an impression on behalf of the entire country. I leave India with more than an impression. I’m leaving India full of deep admiration and immense inspiration. I’m also leaving with a nagging guilt and slight disdain for my own upbringing and the virtues my own country affords. By no fault or good luck of my own, I was born into what 9/10 (if not all) children throughout the world consider luxury. I was born into a life, which was free of basic struggles and relative ease. Much of the developed world has its own set of mental and social struggles. However, the struggle is incomparable.
I hope more people visit India and let India envelop them. I hope people go beyond the temples and attractions and share countless unforgettable moments on the streets with locals. This article is just my honest opinion based on real encounters with Indian people on the street, in their homes, at night in dark alleys, on the cricket pitch, on boats, on planes, tuk-tuks, and buses. These are the situations, the people and the moments that stuck with me throughout my entire trip.
The Lose-Lose Moral Dilemma
I’m walking down the street and a child spots me from a mile away. I see them and they see me. Our eyes have locked and the face-off has begun. It’s the start of another morning on the streets of Varanasi, the cultural capital of India. As the young child, maybe six or seven strolls towards me we both know what’s about to go down. They are going to ask me for rupees, with big wide open eyes, a dirt smeared face and a look that is all but impossible to refuse. I am going to have the internal battle I have fought too many times, but who will win today? Logic maybe? Generosity? Frivolity? Compassion?
This is the situation I call the lose-lose. We’ve all heard of the win-win. It’s great, everyone goes home happy. However, while traveling throughout India you will experience the constant darkness, which the lose-lose drags you into. I have spoken to many people who have traveled to India and they say that the lose-lose really messed with their heads. These are two hypothetical outcomes:
A: If you give the child ten rupees they will eat a snack, their hunger will temporarily subside or they will buy a short term satisfaction. The child will likely continue to ask tourists for rupees instead of attending school. You will feel you still have a level of compassion until more children notice the opportunity and come rushing to you before you have no choice but to refuse the option of sponsoring all the children in the neighborhood who are eyeing off your wallet. You leave feeling incredibly helpless, but at least one kid had something to eat.
B: You refuse up to ten times to give the child money as they tug at your shirt. The kid finally walks away looking for the next opportunity to gather together some coins for a meal, candy, short term satisfaction, or money for their family. You leave feeling like a terrible person. A street kid who was dressed in ragged clothes and no shoes just looked you in the eye and you looked directly back into their pleading eyes and told them you had no rupees despite having millions of rupees in your bank account. They only asked for ten rupees. You live with that stare for life.
This is the soul crushing reality of traveling in India. I don’t use the term soul crushing lightly. There were days where I questioned everything about my life because I had told a kid, who was collecting bottles, I didn’t have any money. I’m rich and I’m a liar. That’s not me. But in India, it was at times the role I played in this situation and I struggled with that.
How you approach and handle your encounters with children and other beggars in India will likely define your experience in the country.
My advice is non-financial. As I mentioned, in my opinion, it’s lose-lose. The experts will tell you not to give money to street kids as to not perpetuate the cycle of poverty by directly financing it. Your heart will tell you there is no other option. On days I gave kids their rupees and on other days I lied and said I had no money. But there’s one thing I made sure never changed, and it was far more important. I shook the child’s hand. I asked them their name. I gave a high-five. I let them investigate my tattoos. I let them laugh at me when I pulled a funny face. I gave the first thumbs up and I gave the first smile. I cared about the kid and I didn’t stop caring throughout my journey.
The Family vs The Fence
If you travel in India with an open heart and an open mind good people will take care of you. For no reason at all. There were times when I used to walk down the street and be disappointed I hadn’t been invited into someone’s house for chai yet. I can’t count the number of times a family adopted me for an hour or so to show me their home, brew some chai and discuss their family with me in our conversation of broken English.
When I visited these families and entered their homes there was one thing that always stood out to me. In fact, it was so overwhelming and heartwarming that it was impossible to overlook. The entire family lived together. I don’t mean a mother, father, son, and sister. The grandparents stayed with the family. The cousins lived in the house next door, the relatives lived upstairs. One family, I visited in Jaipur had a small courtyard with an apartment on each side. Four families, all related, lived together in their own, intimate community.
The respect for elders care for loved ones and intimate bonds were woven through generations of living with family each and every day. This is a concept that seems to have been left in the past and long forgotten by the western world. Growing up, my relatives were spread across the country. My cousins who did live in my city were often considered ‘too far away’ to see more than once or twice a month despite being a short drive from my home. My love for my family and relatives is strong but the bonds forged when experiencing life together every day are far deeper.
We’ve created a community of compounds, hideaways, and fences. We step from the house to the garage before entering our car. We drive to work, sit in an office, drive home and hurry back into our home locking the electric gates behind us. What happened along the way, which led us to believe that the ultimate dream is an expensive house in a fancy suburb where we build big fences to hide our lives from those around us. India helped me to question this style of community and made me realize I don’t want to hide away.
I visited the Taj Mahal, slept in the sand dunes in Jaisalmer, jumped 20m into the Jodhpur Stepwell, watched the sunrise from Nahargarh Fort overlooking Jaipur, rode a motorbike to abandoned temples in Merta and swam in the Holy Ganges River. You would think these would be the highlights of my trip, but they aren’t the parts of my India journey that rush to the surface when I remember India. They bubble vividly, but when I look back on the trip I remember my interactions far more emotion and clarity than memories of attractions or places.
I was playing cricket in Jaipur with a bunch of 12-year-olds for two hours before being invited into the very courtyard of homes I just spoke about. If you are open to the unexpected, look for opportunities to hang with the local kids and families you will be embraced in the exact same way you are traveling to embrace their culture.
Is this the India you warned me about?
I don’t know whether it is curiosity, generosity or a mix of both. However, few places in the world have I been treated with such acceptance as in India. Southeast Asia is known for having lots of friendly locals and it’s true they are but India is something entirely different. I’ll share one of many similar stories.
I drove a motorbike from Pushkar to Merta, a town with almost no tourism. As I arrived into the main street everybody was staring at me as my red bike rolled slowly along the dusty, pot-hole ridden road. A young guy pulled up next to me and asked if we had met to which I suggested most likely not. Undeterred, he asked me if I wanted to go see a temple.
For the next five hours, Praveen showed me around his city. We drove together from temple to temple, ruins to forts and then back to his home to eat. His mother prepared endless amounts of food. I looked over his little brothers, foreign money scrapbook collection, and met his grandfather.
We flew the drone from their rooftop and before long, half the kids in the neighborhood had to come to hang out with us. The kids took my thousands of dollars of camera equipment out into the street while I stayed inside talking to Praveen and his mother.
This type of thing happened to me all the time in India. All of a sudden I was someone’s best friend. They weren’t tour guides or tuk-tuk drivers trying to make some extra cash. They were friendly locals who wanted to get to know me and help me see their city, of which they were immensely proud of.
I remember wondering if this is the same India people warned me about.
Inside the struggle
Growing up in Australia is a middle-class citizen I never felt rich. In India, I felt like a millionaire. I saw the struggle everywhere I looked.
When I’m describing India to people, I often use the word raw. Life in many parts of India is incredibly raw. The layers of western complexity have been peeled back and what you find underneath is incredibly real.
An old man sitting on the dusty street, day after day, selling lemons and limes. His array of fruit is proudly laid out on a brown sack smeared with stains. An enormous white cow is laying on the ground next to him, happily chewing on a chapati it found on the ground. It’s 40 degrees and the sun is stinging my skin.
He slowly raised his head to look up at me and I felt like his eyes told his entire life story. He looked tired. Not physically tired on that specific day but tired. With one look I could feel the struggle he has endured. You could feel it in his posture, as his small, fragile frame hunched over his produce.
However, the smile that followed lit a small flame in his eyes. He still had the fire, the zest, the happiness for life. It was this ability to be genuinely happy in physically, mentally and emotionally tough circumstances that left me inspired. These were moments I seldom took photographs of but the ones I do have trigger the memory of thousands of the same scenes.
In Varanasi it was searingly hot, I recall several of the days burning at 45 degrees Celsius. I still wanted to explore and often I would walk the streets, dripping from head to toe in the harsh sun. Rickshaws and tuk-tuks were the modes of transport in Varanasi and I often needed to travel 5km or more, which was just too much to walk in the heat. However, sometimes I wish I had walked. One rickshaw experience, in particular, left me so overwhelmed in thoughts and emotions.
A 60-yr-old rickshaw driver stood up on his rusty pedals, pushing with all his might during every revolution of his old wheel. He navigated the crowded streets and we brushed other vehicles constantly even having a small crash because his rickshaw only had one brake. He apologized profusely, checking if I was okay. I was more worried about his rickshaw, which he needed to provide his daily income.
I had asked him to take me to a specific cafe, but like always he had agreed without having any remote idea of where the cafe was. He pulled over continuously asking friends and locals where the cafe was. I showed them the name on my iPhone and they would all point a certain direction. We did this a number of times until I was convinced we were never going to arrive.
With no shade over the rickshaw, by this time the driver was absolutely drenched and even I was dripping in sweat and all I was doing was sitting. My frustration was growing because a 15-minute trip had turned into forty minutes in the sun and we still had no idea where we were. However, my heart was seriously aching watching my driver fatiguing and fading to the point we had to stop at a small shop. He told me to get out and crouched down beside the road drinking a coca cola. I waited for ten minutes and finally had to ask him if we were going soon. He said he was too tired but wanted the 80 rupees.
I was being asked to pay for the journey but I was not within walking distance of my destination. Judge me or not. I’m judging myself even as I write this, but it’s India. People are trying to rip tourists off all over the place. I told him I would pay when we got to the cafe he had promised to take me too. He finally got back on the bike and we went back to being lost. After another ten minutes, he got off the bike. He looked back at me, disgruntled, to say the least, and muttered something under his breath. It had been over an hour now in his rickshaw for a 15-20 minute journey and we finally seemed on the right track but he was dead out of energy. He started walking and pushing the bike.
By this point, I was saturated, frustrated and just wanted to leave but had no idea where I was. Most of all aside from my emotions for my own misfortune with this journey, I was shattered for my driver. He was working harder than I ever had in my life. He was working for $1.30 pushing a rickshaw around, on foot, in 45 degrees at 2 pm.
This same work ethic is on every street corner, every small shop and inside every tuk-tuk. The old-school work ethic revered in the western world is championed in India. Being a hard worker isn’t a strength you put down on a resume it’s real, it’s raw and it’s a necessity.
These raw moments happened on a daily basis whether I was shooting photographs or not. They showed me the enduring nature of the human spirit. I still have a photo reel of a thousand of these moments, faces and stares etched into my memory. Looking back at each and every single moment makes my heart beat a little faster. I felt India more deeply than any other country because it embraced me without holding back an inch.