Archive for the ‘India’ Category

When ‘slumdog’ isn’t a millionaire

September 18, 2009

The Weight of Silence book cover

Fellow freelance writer Shelley Seale, of Austin, Texas, writes about traveling with a purpose. Her recently released book, “The Weight of Silence: Invisible Children of India,” chronicles the lives of some of that country’s 25 million orphans and the people, mostly volunteers, working to better the children’s lives. “Weight” is a more accurate version of the “Slumdog Millionaire” story.

Because virtually everyone I’ve spoken with who has traveled to India mentions the poverty and especially the young children begging for money, I asked Shelley if she would write something for this blog about what we travelers should do when we encounter young beggars.

Her reply came in the form of this thoughtful essay. As you can see, there are no easy answers. But, then, you didn’t really expect any, did you?

In Plain Sight but Invisible (written by Shelley Seale)

Sitting on my backpack in the Rourkela railway station at ten o’clock p.m., I am waiting with my group of four other volunteers for our train. We hover around our amassed baggage, far more than the five of us need because many of the bags contain art supplies, games and treats for the children at the Miracle Foundation orphanage in Choudwar we are on our way to spend a week with.

In Plain Sight but Invisible

Young faces of India

Two boys suddenly appear beside us. They look about eight years old and are alone. Silently they hold out their hands, then bring them to their mouths, then hold them out again in the universal language of begging.

There are millions of such children in India; waves of people step over and around them every day without ever really seeing them. Of all the vulnerable children they are the least hidden – yet they are perhaps the most invisible of all.

Shelle Sheale (left) with the invisble children of India

Shelley Sheale with some of the children she got to know in India

When brought face to face with them, it becomes impossible for me to ignore them, to say no. A struggle invariably begins inside my soul. No matter how many times the situation happens, that struggle never lessens and is never resolved. The truth of the matter is that giving money to these children will not have any significant impact on their lives beyond a few moments. It might even worsen their circumstances; many of these children turn the money directly over to parents or other adults who are either exploiting them or simply trying to stay a step above starvation.

Child advocates will tell you over and over that if you really want to make a difference for children like these, or in fact anyone in desperate need, supporting legitimate holistic programs that address the root issues and long-term solutions is the only way to make a lasting impact.

Author Shelley Seale

Shelley spent years researching her book

I agree with this. In my head, I know it is true. I donate thousands of dollars and volunteer hundreds of hours every year to groups that work with vulnerable children. It’s the reason I’m in India in the first place, volunteering in this orphanage. But in my heart it is another story every time I’m approached, every time children like these boys look up at me with their haunted or, even worse, vacant eyes. It’s so hard to look away, to wave them off, to pretend not to see them.

A few minutes later, the station alert sounds as our train approaches the platform. I grab my backpack and a team suitcase. Just before we start down the platform to where our car will board, I pull several candy bars and two bottles of soda from a plastic bag and set them on the ground. We begin to walk away and I look toward the boys. Amazingly, they do not grab the snacks and run. They just stand there, not taking their eyes off us. I look at the candy, then at the boys, and nod my head. Hesitantly the older one questions me with his eyes and looks at the pile on the floor for the first time. I nod again and like a shot, the boys quickly snatch it up and dart off at a blazing run.

Within moments after we board the train, there is a knock on the window. Two boys are standing on the platform, now with several other boys. They’re all grinning from ear to ear. “One more, auntie!” they shout. I smile and wave at them, but the train is already pulling out of the station.

As little as it seems, I’m glad we left the candy and I hope it makes them happy even if it is only for a moment. I wonder how they ended up there, what their life is like, where they will be tomorrow.

India: love, hate, and avoidance

October 1, 2008
The Taj Mahal in Agra, India was built by Shah Jahan as memorial to wife Mumtaz Mahal. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The Taj Mahal in Agra, India was built by Shah Jahan as memorial to wife Mumtaz Mahal. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

“Have you been to India?” asked an acquaintance who was soon to visit her husband, who’s teaching in southern India for a few months. I told her that I hadn’t. I also confessed that I have mixed feelings about traveling there, or to any country that is chaotic and has unsafe tap water.

It’s not that I don’t travel outside my comfort zone. I do. Such as to Morocco, Ecuador, Argentina, Indonesia. OK, yes, those places are pretty tame. See what I mean? I absolutely celebrate the rich diversity in all countries. But the older I get, the lower my “ick” threshold falls. My overly sanitized American standards interfere with my sense of adventure. I say this with shame, not pride. Of course the easy way to get around this is to stay in luxury hotels, eat in westernized restaurants, and stay off the ground and away from the common folk. But what fun would that be? What reality would that offer? I’m either going to travel sort of like a local, or stay home. So I remain torn.

Wanderlust and lipstick by Beth Whitman

Wanderlust and Lipstick: for Women Traveling to India by Beth Whitman

Someone who doesn’t shy away from India is Seattle writer Beth Whitman, whose book “Wanderlust and Lipstick” addresses women traveling solo. Beth recently published “Wanderlust and Lipstick: for Women Traveling to India,” a country she’s visited several times since 1989. Beth has seen many changes there over the years and says travel is now easier and more reliable. But still challenging. The challenges are what make it memorable, of course. Beth reports that the number of travelers to India rose from 3.5 million in 2004 to 5 million in 2007 (wow!), and that the government has launched a campaign to train hospitality industry folks about such things as hygiene, manners, integrity and safety. Of course if things get too hygienic, polite, and safe, there go the bragging rights. You can buy the book at Beth’s website, www.wanderlustandlipstick.com.

One of my favorite travel stories offers a different take on the country. In “Trying Really Hard to Like India,” writer Seth Stevenson starts his award-winning 2004 story in Slate.com with this: “It’s OK to hate a place. … Because my girlfriend wants to come back – I’m back. I’m giving this dreadful place a second chance. And this time I vow I will try really hard to like India.” And here’s the ending: “As they say in really lame travel writing: India is a land of contradictions. A lot of things to like and a lot of things (perhaps two to three times as many things) to hate. It’s the spinach of travel destinations-you may not always (or ever) enjoy it, but it’s probably good for you. In the final reckoning, am I glad that I came here? Oh, absolutely. It’s been humbling. It’s been edifying. It’s been, on several occasions, quite wondrous. It’s even been fun, when it hasn’t been miserable. That said, am I ready to leave? Sweet mercy, yes.”


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