“The use of traveling is to regulate imagination with reality, and instead of thinking of how things may be, see them as they are.” – Samuel Johnson
There’s something about traveling that makes my eyes open wider. When I’m continually confronted with scenes, people, and approaches vastly different from my own, I can’t help but to see myself more clearly. I can’t help but to see the whole world more clearly. There’s no single factor where I’ve found this more true, than when I look at my concept and understanding of poverty.
It’s not a very popular subject, poverty. We don’t like thinking of children starving, men and women forced to beg for a few scraps of food, or people lying in the streets because it’s the only place they have to rest. I freely admit that when I first arrived in India I had to close my eyes. The pain I saw on the faces of old women and toddlers alike broke my heart.
But my eyes could not remain closed if I hoped to grow.
When I started looking, really looking, I saw far more than desperation. I saw hope. I saw love. And, most surprising of all, I saw unending generosity.
Growing up in the United States I learned to be very careful with my money. I know that not everyone receives and buys into these particular messages, but for me the idea that I had to keep what I earned, and only spend it on myself, was pretty strong. There was a brief time in my life when I wholly depended on the kindness of strangers, but other factors got in the way and instead of letting their generosity sink in and change me, I pulled back and hardened myself.
I may have been able to keep that barrier between me and the people I met in India, but it was already crumbling by the time I boarded my outgoing flight. After my initial culture shock wore off and I was able to walk around Rishikesh without my sunglasses on and headphones plugged in, I started watching. My shell kept on cracking.
Blogs and news articles warn people of the dangers of Indian hucksters. The games they play are notorious, and I’m not about to tell you any of that is wrong. However, it’s not the whole picture. What they don’t tell you is that the same man who tries to sell you a necklace for five times what it’s worth is the same man who will give you a ride on his scooty if you’re stuck on the side of the road. The woman who asks 100 rupees for a single banana will ask you back to her family’s home for dinner if you have no money of your own.
There’s a whole, strange dichotomy that seems to exist whenever I encounter extreme poverty. The cheater and the giver, existing side by side in the same person. Sometimes even in the same breath. Why are the most poor the most generous? Why do the richest cling so tightly to their money? You can find a dozen theories about this, all of them with some kernels of truth. I don’t pretend to know the answer.
What I do know is that seeing these qualities portrayed so keenly and beautifully in person after person changed my own approach to money and generosity. It also kindled in me a deep, raging fury at those who keep these broad socioeconomic gaps in place for their own profits. How one can look into the eyes of a bone thin man asking for bread and say no, I will never comprehend. So thank you, India, thank you, travel, for opening my eyes and breaking my heart, to make room for the huckster and the helper alike.
Written by Sarah Hirsh, edited by Bethany Naylor