Tomorrow we are leaving Hampi. Hampi, with its beautiful tropical volcanic landscape, meandering rocky river and majestic crumbling 13th century ruins, is not a place anyone would hurry to leave. We are going to spend a week volunteering at a school; a residential school on the coast for 100 children who would not otherwise have the opportunity for education. I’m looking forward to it (although less the 8 hour bus ride) but Gail… yesterday I was chatting with a local shopkeeper, talking about our plans, and when I told him where we were going next, “to do something not just for ourselves for a little while.” Gail raised an eyebrow at me and smiled, “thanks for reminding me why we’re leaving.” She was sincere, but still…
My parents have volunteered my whole life. My father would spend half a day a week during my childhood boxing up damaged products at the local supermarket to bring them to the soup kitchen. He currently assists at an afterschool program in the same area helping with homework, literacy and numeracy. My mother is one of the founders of our local chapter of a volunteer children’s advocacy charity. In the mythology of Americans, the pioneers, the rugged individualists, the heartily self-reliant, I am not from those too proud to take charity, but rather those aware of their obligation to extend it.
Which is not always easy. When I first moved to London the homeless often affected me. At 19 when a night out with friends ended at a fast food joint, I stood staring at the menu board for ages until finally I walked back outside to ask the boy sat on a blanket on the sidewalk, I remember he was about my age, what he’d like to eat. My friends were incredulous and I didn’t have much to say for the rest of the night. Back in France at work in the bar one night, a local and I were having a chat and he asked about my plans. He was incredulous, “India… Are you sensitive?” He shook his head pityingly. “You better harden your heart.” But the truth is it was hardened a long time ago. I’m still prone to giving people food if I can but I’m far more cynical, less sensitive, about it. After offering food to countless people who clearly just wanted money to buy drugs, I’m more likely to give the people who aren’t asking. I still remember the man in London Bridge Station, his head down, ignored by literally thousands of people every day, with a sign that said “Homeless and hungry. Please help.” He didn’t look up until I was crouched in front of him, holding out some warm food practically under his nose. And he said, “thank you, thank you miss, thank you” with a rocking bow that pained me with its obsequience.
But so far, India hasn’t pulled my heartstrings much, although we’ve only been in the relatively well off south. Maybe my previous travels prepared me. Maybe I’m hiding behind my vow of “poverty” ($20 a day). I’ve given out a couple of coins, some small bills. Writing this has made me think I should start carrying some snacks to share. Maybe I will. But mostly I’ve just smiled an apologetic smile, palms upturned, shoulders shrugged or shaken my head, kind but firm. I think I am so far untouched because I am still mostly lost here. Some beggars look cleaner than the women and children I buy coconuts from. I know the wandering holy men chose their fate are fed by the temples. And the people sleeping on the street, in the train stations, are they homeless? Waiting for a train? Napping? On the ashram I saw workers asleep in the most incongruous places. “This shady bit of cement will do nicely.” It will? I think my compassion is just as confused as the rest of me.
The woman sharing our bench on the bus to Bangalore cast curious eyes at our Ipods until, with a smile, Gail held out the earphones for her to listen. She pulled her green sari across her face to cover her grin and laughed out loud, crooning along as Etta Jame’s voice soared in her ears. Motioning for something new Gail tried Aretha but she shook her head unblocking one ear. “Prince?” Gail and I traded a glance both astonished and delighted. “I have Prince!” I handed over my Ipod and dj’d her through Prince’s 4-disc collection of greatest hits. “You come to my house!” she cackled between slapping her leg and warbling to Diamonds and Pearls. As we approached Bangalore her face grew more serious. “Rickshaw. Fifty rupees.” “That’s ok. We’ll still come to your house in a rickshaw.” Until finally it was unmistakable, her hand extended toward us. “Fifty rupees,” her eyebrows drawn down, her head to one side. We pressed the bills into her palm but somehow I felt cheated. As if I’d been mugged.
Confusion aside, I think my heart has been safe because it is not yet connected to this place, these cities, this country. There are still too many questions, too much uncertainty, a sense of separation that feels like distance. Meanwhile, there is the scope of the poverty, a standard of living so base that you feel dizzy, vertiginous, looking down from the comfort of your guest house and your western standards. The knowledge that no matter what you do it’s not enough, and even with the upcoming volunteering, could never be. How responsible am I? How responsible can I be?
Wherever you go, there is an automatic reference to home. Talking about American politics has grown only more impassioned the longer I’ve been away, the more places I’ve seen, the greater differences of living I’ve experienced. I’m from New Jersey, a bridge and tunnel girl, literally. I grew up eight miles from the GWB in the shadow off Manhattan. The city is a definitive part of the landscape of “home”. And I see how it’s changed. I remember the city of my childhood, how different it was. I remember avoiding Harlem and Times Square. I remember the Trade Center. I remember a lot more cardboard signs and people curled up on subway exhaust vents. I remember when you couldn’t drive in without having someone rub a dirty rag over your windshield at a red light and hold his hand out for a dollar. And those people haven’t disappeared. They haven’t moved to Michigan and magically been given homes and jobs and (for those that need it) drug, alcohol or psychological treatment. They’ve just been shoved on. And I’m not so sure that’s a good thing. Because what is it about someone with their hand out that is actually damaging. Why does it bother us? Some people say they get scared, but of what? A person who intended to rob you is more likely to come up from behind with a weapon than face you with their hand out. And a malnourished unarmed sleep deprived homeless person is in most cases a pretty feeble attacker. But still they make us uncomfortable. At 15, In the Paris Opera on a family vacation my mother studiously ignored a Romany boy, maybe eight years old, maybe nine, who sat next to her on the step making whimpering noises with his hand outstretched until he laid it on her knee and she cried out in alarm. I still remember my shock. At the end of the day, he was just a little boy.
In Cambodia I was befriended by a street girl. On our first meeting I bought her ice cream. Our second a sandwich. For the rest of the week, if she found me at night, she became my dinner companion. Yes, you can have another dumpling, yes an apple. No, you can’t have a coke. But when, on my last night I entered a shop to buy her the canister of baby formula she’d been asking for all week, with a second for her terrifyingly emaciated friend, I was met outside the door by a mob of people, shouting, tugging pulling the boxes from my hands. I turned wildly and in the end fought my way out and ran, got off the streets and stayed safely in my guest house til morning, fear still trembling in my stomach as I slept. But even now I wonder, why was I so afraid? In the middle of a busy street, did I really think I’d be torn limb from limb for a $7 bottle of formula. I suppose the fear is that we never know what someone who is truly desperate might do. And so we turn our fear to distrust to distaste to discomfort. Until we are hurrying past a bedraggled man slumped in the corner of the train station made invisible by the fear of all those things we can’t control.
I think on some level we all feel we *should* do something. “Look at this litter, someone should *do* something.” “Look at all these homeless people someone should *do* something.” “Look at that child begging, someone should *do* something.” It’s true. Someone should. But I as an individual can’t distribute enough money on the street to feed and house and educate everyone. In New York I doubt I’d have enough money to feed and house one person a week. So who is that someone? There are people in America who argue that it is not the government’s job to help people. So who then? Because someone should. We all know that. Someone should do something about poverty. Someone should do something about child labour. Someone should do something about victims of addiction. Someone should do something about the ocean and the forests and the groundwater and the air. And I personally want to do more, I try to do more, but I’m only one person. How much can I do on my own? So until we collectively absolve governments of the responsibility to help people, by embracing our humanity and our brotherhood and our compassion and reaching out to all those around us and holding out a hand to help lift them up, until then who but the government is in a position to do it.