Friday, November 25, 2011

7 Days In India - Our First Day

Thursday, Nov. 24 - New Delhi

Our true Indian experience began not outside the walls of the home and church facilities we were staying in, but in the middle of the night, in our bedroom.  Having arrived at our host's home at nearly 2 in the morning, we were lovingly greeted by the pastor who offered us some delicious Indian food that his wife had cooked for us.  Although exhausted, and wishing we could just crash and go to sleep, we gratefully swallowed down some delicious home-made roti stuffed with curried vegetables.  However, that is not where our true Indian experience began.

We dropped into bed, completely worn out, and dozed to sleep.  The last 24 hours had been a blur of driving, flying and wandering around airports and we were thankful to finally be in a horizontal position, not in a squishy, compact airplane seat in a plane with 400 other people.  Suddenly, in the dark of the night, a loud voice boomed, startling us from our slumber.  Chanting began in a language we didn't understand, and we soon realized that there must be some sort of temple or mosque nearby and this was the "call to prayer".  While that was certainly a jolt to the reality of being in a new country, after being sound asleep, it held a hauntingly mysterious quality, and for a while, I enjoyed the foreign melody.  However, after 10 minutes and no sign of slowing down, my fascination wore off and I rolled over, put my pillow over my head and tried to get some more much needed rest.  We later found out that there was both a Hindi temple and a Mosque nearby, and everyday we would be "treated" to a taste of their musical prayers.

For our first morning, our hostess made us an all-American breakfast, and once again I wasn't very hungry because my body clock was so screwed up, but I made an effort to eat a little of everything she had kindly prepared.  Once we were fed, we spent some time getting to know our hosts, talking about our church in Canada and asking about their lives here in India.  Finally, the question we had been waiting for:  "Would you like to go and see some of Delhi or stay here and rest for the day?" asked the pastor.

REST????  No way!  "Oh, we'd love to go out and see what everything looks like in daylight!" we responded, enthusiastically.

A short while later, we were seated in the back of another small Indian-style vehicle - this one a bit more like an SUV, and we headed out into the streets of Delhi.

At first, I had to readjust my thinking to the manner of driving, realizing that although we were continually breaking Canadian traffic rules and etiquette, that this driver must know what he was doing because I hadn't seen any dents or scratches on the vehicle when we climbed in.  In order to take my mind off of the driving - which is next to impossible with the continual honking of vehicles and jostling back and forth as we swerved through traffic, I began to concentrate on my surroundings.

Many of the brick buildings on the side of the road were extremely run down, but being fully used and occupied by vendors and families.  The streets are littered with garbage and many of the sidewalks are uneven with broken areas that you would have to walk around - you would never be able to push a stroller around these city streets, that's for sure!  And the people... there were people EVERYWHERE!  I suppose that is entirely reasonable for a city of 20 million, but it takes some getting used to.  People are running to the bus, they are running across the road, winding their way through the cars, buses, rickshaws and motorbikes.  There are mothers and children and there are men walking, working and some just squatting by the side of the road with no apparent agenda.  There are well dressed, beautiful ladies in colorful saris and there are woman with worn out, dirt-stained saris.  There are men riding bicycles with home-made wooden trailers carrying large barrels, or mattresses or metal pipes.  There are rickshaw carts set up to sell treats: ice cream or chips or sweets or roti.  I saw a man with a large mirror set up on the brick wall with a stool, shaving another man's head. I guess the noisy, smelly, busy Delhi street was his storefront and that was his barber shop.  Oh, and every so often there was a man in front of his parked vehicle, or just randomly stopped on the side of the road, facing the trees - or just a brick wall - peeing.  I don't mean to be crude... it's just how it is here!

We drove on and on for what seemed like miles but probably wasn't very far at all considering the traffic and all the weaving around our driver had to do.  Then we were stopped near a large overpass and we saw a woman, modestly dressed with a headscarf, albeit dingy and well-worn, approaching the nearby vehicles, begging.  She came up to our window, her hands in a prayerful position, up by her face and was talking to us through the window.   She asked with a blank stare in her eyes, reaching toward us for a moment, then bringing them back in humble prayer position in front of her face.  Moments later, the traffic moved us forward and I was at a loss, not really knowing if I should have done anything.  I braced myself, thinking of how this was totally normal here.  I reasoned in my mind that she was perhaps one of the less needy, being a full grown woman.

A very short time later, traffic had us stopped again and another woman approached our window.  This time, she was younger, and she carried a young baby on her hip.  He was tiny, clothed in a dingy brown shirt, bare-bottomed against his mother's hip.  He looked to be about 8 months old and his hair was dirty and his eyes were crusty.  She approached my window and this little baby began to pat his tiny, chubby hand against my window, staring into our vehicle.  The mother pleaded and looked at us, holding out her hand, showing a couple coins.  She made motion of eating, obviously saying that they needed money for food.  Again, I felt in such a quandary.  I felt panicked, wondering how to appropriately respond.  My memories of the movie Slumdog Millionaire made me wonder if this woman was merely using the baby to get more money as a beggar - perhaps he wasn't even her child!  I wanted to give them some money, but we had only just exchanged our Canadian cash and had no small change to offer.  All too soon, the opportunity passed and our vehicle whisked us away down the road, away from the need.

After that point, with my heart melted and my eyes teary, I felt unable to forget the vision of the little baby innocently banging on my window, just inches away from me. I had to ask our host what should be done; how to react.  He told us that many of the beggars, particularly the able-bodied, older ones, treat begging as a profession.  As for the younger children, it was true that they were hungry, but there was a risk involved in handing money over to them because of the corrupted circles of slum-lords over them - people who were exploiting these children and demanding that they earn money for them.  I resolved to hand out a snack to the next child who came begging at our window, knowing that at least the food would not be taken away from them, and could be of use.  But the opportunity was missed for that day... before I knew it, we were driving through the rich area of town to do some sightseeing.  I felt a sense of loss, wishing that I could have a chance to re-do that experience and give the poor baby some crackers.

For the next little while, we looked in awe at the splendor of some of India's beautiful architecture.  Such an enormous contrast to the run down, common areas that we had seen thus far.  We stood and took a picture in front of an enormous palace, with heavy security and other tourists gawking at it's grandeur.  After some photo opportunities, we piled back into the vehicle and headed to a tourist district with shops and street vendors selling their trinkets.  We stepped out onto the street, and I was glad to have my feet on solid ground again, feeling a little car sick from the extremely intense driving experience.  The air was heavy with heat, humidity, the smell of smoke, burning incense and an occasional whiff of urine.  Everything was extraordinarily colorful with people selling saris, wall hangings, scarves and jewelery.  Multiple times we were approached by intent vendors "Madam... hello... Madam, come and see!" and having been experienced in the art of discouraging vendors in Thailand, I willfully avoided eye-contact and continued to walk forward.  After viewing the wares of a couple streets, we circled back to return to the vehicle to find some lunch.

Suddenly, at my side was a gorgeous young girl, probably 7 or 8, like my own daughter back home, with long curly hair flowing down and her aqua-marine sari accentuating her cocoa skin and brown eyes.  She carried several dozen loops of bead necklaces on her arm, and ran her fingers up and down the colorful beads.  "You buy?"  She asked me, and began to chatter away: "Just 10 rupees... 10 for 100 rupees... you will be my first customer" and she kept in step with me, dancing in front of me, showing off the beads.  I smiled at her, this pretty young girl who was so precious and cunning, but gently shook my head.  "No."  I replied.

She spent another 30 seconds, keeping up with me and chatting about how it was such a deal, that I should buy her necklaces.  I really wanted to buy them too, I was totally convinced. But once again, we had no change to offer, only large bills... and she was just one of thousands of street kids... and I couldn't help them all.

Later in the day, as we drove home from our outing, I remember thinking "What am I doing here?"  It would seem that I was in a place that would break my tender heart again and again, especially considering my soft spot for these beautiful, dark skinned children.  And I had lost the opportunity to offer food to any of the kids - we never did see any on the way back home because traffic kept us moving along at a consistent pace, and no little ones approached our vehicle, giving me a chance to reconcile the feeling of heartbreak.  I thought to myself that I could spend my days walking up and down the streets, handing out food to the hungry.  Yet, would it make a difference? - or just serve to make myself feel better, that I had done something, that I wasn't entirely helpless.

I have a lot more to see and learn and do here in India.  I don't think it will be easy.  I know my heart will be broken.  I don't know what I can change.  But I'm here... and I'll keep praying that God will use me and I hope you will pray for me too.

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