"How was your trip?"
"How was India?"
"Did you have fun?"
It is the question of the week and one for which I have no succinct answer.. There are so many layers to my two weeks there and trying to sum it all up in a 30 second exchange before the school bell rings is impossible.
It took me nearly a week to just make the most rudimentary sense of Delhi. For the first few days it felt like an assault on my senses. It was dirty and loud and chaotic. Litter and garbage everywhere. Dilapidated buildings. Slums and shanty housing. Congested streets filled with drivers who appeared to be reckless. Poverty in my face at every turn.
(just outside our flat was a couple who ironed laundry in a little walkway, using an iron-iron and coals, and a bike to deliver the finished clothes)
Between jetlag and sensory overload I was exhausted every night by 8 PM.
And then one morning I put on headphones for our hour long drive to placement. I began to sway side-to-side with the car and the driving suddenly made sense. In a city of about 15 million people, it is rude to take up more space than you need and 6 inches in front of you is truly more than you need. Same with vehicle capacity. If you are going to add to one of the world's most polluted cities, you better make it worth it by transporting as many people as possible. High-occupancy vehicles include motorcycles when ridden by a man, his young child, and his wife (sitting side-saddle and holding both their groceries AND the sleeping baby). In almost 50 hours of being on the roads in India, I saw only one (yes, one) fender bender. There is a flow to those streets. As I listened to Alison Krauss I noticed that those white lines on the road really do make for pretty decorations.
I returned home that day and discovered that the food that had a small kick yesterday suddenly needed some spice. And from then on I was always dumped on the chutney.
(our middle class neighborhood, backside of buildings)
I began to look beyond the exteriors of buildings, the ones that were covered in soot and with crumbling facades. I noticed the beautiful drapes or the arrangement of chairs on the balcony. I realized that in India what's inside is more important.
(also in our neighborhood, garden entrance)
Every morning I watched people sweeping the street in front of houses and washing cars. I saw men dressed in button-down shirts and vests riding rusty bikes. It became apparant that they held a certain amount of pride for their own small space and took great care to be presentable. Someone noted the caste system (technically illegal but still in effect in some form) and that it's always someone else's job to pick up the trash. I am not sure of the accuracy of that comment but it made sense in the moment.
(believe me when I say that he has a small load)
My heart never stopped breaking at the sight of a two year old raising her hand for food or a man hobbling along the road on his two stumps of legs or the long long line of people waiting for a handout of food. I felt a pang of sadness each time we passed the slums. I asked one of our in-country coordinators, "Is 'slum' the correct term to use? Is that what the homeless call it?" He looked at me and said, "Yes. Slum is the correct word. But they are not the homeless. The slums are their homes."
I had to take off my western filter. What had looked like homeless encampments, were in fact homes. And in them I began to see connection and community. I saw people laughing. I saw children taking care of each other. I saw animals that provided their food and laundry draped over the bushes to dry. I saw people living their lives.
I began to get it. I began to get this place that only days before had seemed so outrageously foreign to me. And I began to really like it.