India: Real Streets
I can’t stop picking my nose. I try to keep my finger out of there, but if I leave it alone for three minutes it just fills up with the city’s residue all over again. I’ve been in massive developing cities before: Lima, Mexico City, Shenzhen, Hanoi…but this? This is crazy. This is New Delhi.
Children are panhandling on the streets all over the place, many of them missing limbs or exploiting deformities for the chance of a pity payout. I’ve read about this in novels like A Fine Balance, No God In Sight, and Shantaram, but a part of me always dismissed it to be reserved for fiction. Seeing people beg with a marketing hook of physical defects like this is too real. Should I give them money? It’s not like my pocket change is going to grow their arm back. I’m at a loss, so I keep my eyes on the pavement grime and keep walking.
I’m “western,” and in this world, I’m “rich.” I carry wealth down these streets like a stamp on my face. I’m free to come and go as I please, sleep and eat where I want, and possess an endless supply of opportunity because I was born somewhere else…far away from these streets. Through the eyes of the people who inhabit this city, I am the fiction. I’m an item of another life that is merely something to look at. To some I’m a potential piggy bank, to some I’m the chance at new friend, and to some I’m not even here.
And what am I doing here? I’m dragging around luggage full of snowboarding equipment with my western bros. It doesn’t really make sense. I’ve never felt like such a tourist, flailing dirty money from my pockets in order to get directions, get a ride, get some food, get people to leave me alone…get whatever I want. I wander around feeling like a magnet for eyes. In a way, it’s challenging to be here–I’ve never enjoyed the spotlight, but I don’t want to leave. In a strange and hectic manner, these streets are amazing. The fetid stench is genuine and the disorder is accepting.
The following day, I will board a plane and fly north to the region of Kashmir, bordering Pakistan in the Himalayas. On the way to the airport, the driver we hire will swerve through the soul of the city like a shadow in a time lapse…too fast to be natural, yet smooth with rhythm and barely noticeable. There are massive roundabouts in the roads, where people have gathered scraps of wood and cardboard to assemble complete villages within the inner circles of the traffic merging structures. I’ll look through with window or our air-conditioned sedan at the people milling about their routines, living the lives they’ve been assigned, and know that not a single individual there has ever, or will ever, board an airplane. I’ll be en route to my ninth flight segment of the month and feeling like it’s a chore.
Maybe these people are happier than I am. I feel like I’ve always been happy and fortunate, and although my time in this city – this different world – is an honest adventure and practical fun, a part of me can’t help to feel pretentious–A user, whose standards have been set far too high. I ask myself if there was an exact moment in life where I lost sight of the big picture, or if I ever saw it in the first place. I’ll look through the window and realize that sometimes having nothing means having it all, because I can see it in these streets. I tell myself that when I board another flight and return home I’ll look at things differently, appreciate more, do a little more, and give a little more. I tell myself that I’ll stay true to that. And I pick my nose again.