Posted on February, 21st 2013 by Marie
“Oh my God, what is that SMELL?”
The words popped out of my mouth, as we were being transported back to our 5 star hotel well into the wee hours after having played a gig in the City of Mumbai, India. We were going by one of the poorer areas of the city, and of course I knew what the smell was… it was the smell of people living with limited access to running water and little in the way of sanitation facilities. It was the smell of poverty, it was the smell of sewage, of human beings existing crammed into tiny spaces, piled on top of each other. It was the smell of people making a living from sorting through garbage, begging, or if lucky working low-paying jobs.
In Mumbai over 20 million people live side by side. Middle class, rich and poor areas are intermixed in ways that are very foreign for a consummate Westerner such as myself.
Having lived my life equally split between Western Europe and California, there was much about how Mumbai looks, sounds, feels, and – smells – that I found to be so very different from what I am used to from our world of organization and rule-abiding comfort.
There were women with small naked and skinny children draped over their shoulders walking around the busy streets of town begging for alms. There were children, deformed, disfigured or burned reaching out their little hands to you, beggars with legs that do not function pushing themselves around on little square boards under their bottoms as they reach out their eyes and hands to you begging for money.
This is the framework of Mumbai. It is estimated that about half of the 20 million people in Mumbai live in slums. And this is the story many of us feel compelled to tell, when we visit places like Mumbai or the Sub-Saharan Africa, where over 70 million people are squashed in similar (or worse) squalor: We cannot believe that this kind of obvious human suffering really goes on. It is jarring, shocking and devastating for us to come face to face with real, deep and devastating problems as they exist in so many places in our world.
The slum rates are on the rise – as people leave rural areas and flock to the cities – and it is a serious problem for our world. A problem that begs comprehensive and international attention, and for which there seem to be few good ideas and fewer sustainable solutions.
Yet I have to admit that I am tired of being faced with touristy photos of the suffering. I am tired of hearing of how Western people’s hearts got broken, when they visited the slums, and their minds were blown by witnessing what they saw in places like this. I am tired of yet another travel blog where Western tourists point their probing photo lenses at the poverty they witness, and then head off to the hotel to upload the pictures and write from a place of emotional paralysis about the sense of powerlessness they feel, the sense of guilt, the sense of injustice, etc.
We all know the story. We have many opportunities to have the images of human suffering blasted onto our awareness if we care to look. And many of us when we come face to face with it, feel a jolt of adrenaline fueled sensationalism at the root of our curiosity. We thank our lucky stars for what we have, we donate a few bucks and get on with our lives.
Yet the guilt, the sense of powerlessness, and ultimately the sense of not being able to help in a meaningful way often lingers. We talk with other people about what we saw, smelled and heard on our “Reality Tours” through the poor areas of the world, where our travel takes us, and we somehow believe that our stories will help change things.
And somehow, knowing this – being confronted with it up close and personal – does nothing to affect any kind of change. Hopefully the sense of powerlessness can lead to a willingness to volunteer for organizations that work to improve such conditions, or at least can spur us on to give some cash to worthy organizations, of which there are many. Maybe some of us can go deeper in and actually work directly and affect real change. IF so – great. This is a great outcome of such Reality Tourism.
However, I suspect many of us simply feel a sense of powerlessness and retreat into a sense of despair.
I decided that in my four days in Mumbai, I would not do this. It seemed so obvious to go into the slum areas and take pictures or videos of the suffering, and to try to tell that story – yet I could not bring myself to do it. Maybe I was afraid of the images that I would point my lens at. Maybe I was scared at being mobbed or being robbed. Maybe I did not want to feel the powerlessness of being unable to even begin to aid these people.
These are all elements that undoubtedly played a part in my avoidance of direct contact with the slums. I drove past them, and saw some things, but I just did not feel like walking in there with my camera cocked.
If we want to take a look at suffering in our world, we can youtube “Mumbai slums” and find it, we can see images, we can google statistics. And although the sensory overload of coming face to face with this kind of human detriment is disturbing, in ways that seeing images on a screen or reading facts cannot convey, I still believe that this is a story that is well told. If we are honest with ourselves, we know that our world is bogged down by a level of poverty, suffering and inequality that is beyond our capacity to even begin to fathom.
You know that – I know that.
However, there was another story that emerged for me to tell. A deep level of gratitude for the opportunity to experience a tiny bit of what the Indian people are like. And oh, how limited my vision and my experience really is. India has 28 states and 7 union territories. These states and territories are further subdivided into districts that all have different languages, different cooking styles, different ways of tying the saris, different levels of economic and cultural development, etc. India is a huge place of 1.2 billion people – and so my vision is per definition extremely limited, as my entire encounter with Indian culture was my brief stay in Mumbai.
Yet the story I want to tell, the story that blew my mind, is centered around what the camera cannot convey. I do believe there is much for us to learn – cross-culturally – and we in the West miss the point, if we think that we can come riding in with the cavalry to save “those less fortunate” in the “developing countries” by applying our standards of living and our definitions of human contentment, which is often defined by our cultural measure. In fact, there might be a real possibility that we are ourselves poorer in many ways than some of the people I observed out on the sidewalk cooking potatoes and working on the trash heaps. We might be richer in economic, organizational and social terms, yet our souls and our spirits often wither in the dry desert heat of galloping egocentricity.
In India I encountered an amazing level of kindness and a gentleness of spirit. Our group of musicians was the recipient of a hospitality that was so beyond what I have ever experienced. Our hosts were beyond generous to us. To the point that I would lay awake at night worrying about how I could ever repay them – how I could ever match that level of kindness. And resigning myself to the fact that I couldn’t, was eye-opening. I think many times we venture into the world with a missionary mindset. We want to help other nations improve. This is a pure thought that is often polluted by a mindset that has a good measure of arrogance to it. Often we venture out only to be met with a culture so vastly different from our own that applying our standards and expectations to it might do more harm than good. And in fact, if we open our minds, we might discover that those other cultures has as much to teach us in the West as the other way around.
Here are some of what I noticed during my stay in Mumbai. These are things that are not easily conveyed in photos. And just as it is true that a picture can say more than a million words, I also believe that there are subtle things that are impossible to show in images. Many of these stories are overlooked and indeed missed, when we just point the camera and shoot. Please note that Mumbai is the “New York City of India”, and so very progressive compared to some of the more rural areas. Here are some of the things I noticed:
We have much to learn from other cultures – as they have much to learn from us. However, we often we venture out into the world with a proselytizing mindset. And thus we miss the huge learning opportunities that are mutually available to us in our evermore accessible world.
We in the West do not have it all figured out, and neither do the people of Southeast Asia – or in any place I know of. However, it seems to me that when cultures inter-mingle and openly share of their experiences, there is much to be learned. And I stand humbled by what I observed on my brief visit to India. I am curious about learning more – and to figure out how this inter-cultural exchange might open doors of awareness that I didn’t even know existed.
On my last day there, I was taught how to put on a sari by Charmaine. She invited me into her home, and shared the secrets of putting on this mysterious piece of clothing. She helped me pin the fabric in the right places and do the pleats just right. Her maid came in and watched as this Western girl was battling the fabric. Charmaine offered to Skype with me, if I forgot how to put it on. She would then put on her sari and I could watch and duplicate on my end.
Our world is indeed getting smaller, and feeling like I made friends on the opposite side of the earth in a vastly different culture from my own, was a beautiful experience for me.
Finally, I stood there clothed in this traditional Indian dress. I believe I might gather the courage to wear it on occasion. And it dawned on me, how natural it is for us to see people from Asia walk around in jeans, yet how strange we still might find a European-American girl dressed in an Indian sari. Namaste…