And thankfully the next day is better. One of the girls I’m with volunteers at an organization in Calgary, which runs a school in Delhi. They’ve asked that she check on the school while she’s here. The four of us are supposed to go visit together, but the other two girls decide they should go to the train station to buy tickets they’ll need in a few days. So it’s just she and I. I actually have no idea what we’re going to see and I’m vaguely annoyed to be running an errand instead of exploring, but there’s no way I’m going out into the streets alone again.
We spend an hour in traffic, then get into a second car with the school director, who drives us to the outskirts of Delhi, past sprawling farm estates that no longer farm, and into one of Delhi’s infamous slums. My interest is definitely piqued.
The director tells us how the slum kids have some opportunity for education, but not enough to make a difference. He also explains that public schools, even outside the slum, are often taught by teachers who can’t actually pass the exams themselves. The quality of education is appalling low, plus girls rarely stay past primary school, with boys generally dropping out around middle school. This organization runs a school in each of Delhi’s eight slums. They are free, but attendance is limited to those who’ve signed up, since space is minimal. The school we visit has three rooms, each about 7 feet square. They have thirty students, age 6-14 officially, but there are a few tiny kids that can’t be more than four. The kids seem shy, but when we pull out our cameras they perk up, and it’s not long before they’re all demanding we take their photo, and then wanting to see the shot from the back of the camera. They are beautiful.
We take a walk through the slum, us two white girls with the school director and another man to lead us. It is what I expected, but it’s still shocking to see it in person: as far as the eye can see is a “tent village” created from scraps of metal, wood, cloth and plastic. Shelters really give the barest hint of actual shelter, and privacy is practically non existent. It is dirty, and barely contains the most basic of human needs. There is a truck that comes by daily with drinking water, that the residents must line up with their own containers to fill, and hope they have enough to get by until the next truck arrives.
And yet as we walk by most people grin and wave at us. In fact, we come upon a group of women who are shaping flour dough into circles, which the men are frying into chapatti (a type of bread), and they wave us over to join their circle for a photo opportunity. There are so many things I want to photograph in the slum, but I feel intrusive snapping pictures of their life, a white girl behind a lens who is excited by the novelty but will sleep soundly in her pristine hotel that night.
The women then indicate “food” and our guide translates that they’re asking us if we want to eat. I don’t hesitate to accept. Apparently they are having a celebration because a home has been built, a more permanent structure of concrete, and it’s ready for people to move into. About 35 people are having lunch and everyone seems excited. They take us inside the house and seat us on a small couch. We four are the only ones inside, everyone else is sitting in the courtyard on the ground. I understand that they are honouring us with the couch, but I’d rather be with the rest of the group in the courtyard. They fill our dishes with a vegetable curry, fresh chapatti, and a rich rice pudding with chunks of fresh coconut. It’s delicious. I clean my plate and when the girl I’m with only has one bite, I finish hers as well. It will turn out to be one of the best meals I have in India. And it was offered to me, a stranger, free of charge, from a bunch of people who will live out their entire life in a slum. It was humbling. And my first experience with the incredible hospitality of Indian people.
As we walk back to the school, I see a bunch of kids playing in the dirt road. One little boy is rolling a scooter tire down the road with a stick, and I try really hard to get a picture of him because the only time I’ve seen such a thing is in old-timey photos from the early 1900’s! He seemed to be thoroughly enjoying himself, and I can’t help but reflect on all the kids I see in Canada who are surrounded by piles of toys, games, books and electronics, yet they’re still whiney, demanding, bored and unhappy. How easily we become spoiled and complacent by the bounty, the excess, we Westerners are surrounded with. He’s also wearing a pair of filthy grey sweatpants, clearly his only pair of pants because the seat is completely worn out and I can see his little brown bum peeking through.
It’s so unfair, this world, this life. And I’m so, so grateful that I was born into a happy, healthy family, raised with a roof overhead and more than my base needs being met, in a country where freedom is the norm and opportunity abounds for anyone willing to step up and take it.
This is one of the reasons I love to travel. The perspective it gives. Somehow seeing a photo of a slum in India just isn’t the same as walking through one, and being greeted by the smiling children there.