Monday, April 30, 2012

Give The Sun No Chance

"As we draw nearer to the sacred Ganges, the crowd of pilgrims that is wending its way thither, grows larger, more cosmopolitan, and more interesting.  Here are Hindus from every part of India and of every conceivable caste."--Our Journey Around the World, page 338

We trundled across the Middle East in a series of train rides and caravans, through the relentless heat of the deserts and cities that scatter the landscape.  We saw elephants and camels and monkeys, all tamed in quite unnatural ways, doing the work of horses or people in the villages.  Life here revolves around the force of the sun, and escaping the heat is always a consideration for the daily lives of the people.  People work fewer and more obscure hours, taking a nap in the heat of the day or using their precious water supply to cool off the children or animals.

Beggars and children in the streets of Calcutta, Our Journey Around the World
Poverty and disease run rampant in India, as the cold grasp of the caste system is still inescapable.  In Calcutta, the streets are lined with the saddest sights: beggars of al ages unable to move from the disease and starvation that encompasses them.  Good Samaritans try to help, and overcrowded orphanages and impromptu soup kitchens dot the edges of the “untouchable” neighborhoods.  Unfortunately, most Indians believe misfortune will fall upon them if they attempt to help the lower classes, so the orphanages are run by Westerners, mostly Catholic nuns or other charitable folk who seek to spread the kindness of their god to this world.

We visited one such orphanage, run by sisters from Ireland, and were invited to spend the day overseeing and assisting with their daily operations.  Dozens of children live in the small compound, which is really just an old house modified with beds, classrooms, and play spaces.  Many of the children are biological brothers and sisters who were brought here by a distant relative or older sibling when their parents died, or didn’t return from a day of work on the streets.  Their stories are sad, but the children are all laughs, and loved meeting new people such as ourselves.  We played games in the dirt with them outside the house, and ate their meager portions of rice and water for lunch, squatting in a circle on the dirt floor of the kitchen.  Living in filth or squalor is all relative, and for these kids the orphanage is a safe, healthy place far superior to anything they have ever known.  The nuns are kind and work hard to provide basic skills to the children to hopefully improve their standing in the world by the time they are old enough to leave.  Children older than about eight years old must work, but at least here they are able to split their time between learning in the classroom and begging or doing odd jobs in the streets.  It’s a dangerous life, but they do the best they can with what they have.  They certainly understand the value of a hot meal or place to sleep far better than any western child I have ever known. 

Bathers of all kinds flock to the sacred Ganges River.
In addition to the orphanage, which opened our eyes more than any other spectacular landscape or adventure on this entire journey we also observed the activity of the sacred Ganges river.  Men, women, and children from all classes flock to the river for its sacred healing powers.  It is brown, muddy, and certainly disease ridden, but the people feel no qualms stripping out of their saris and robes and wading right in.  I would be nervous in that still, muddled water that a snake or other creature would come with malicious intents, but apparently the power of prayer works well here.  We touched our hands and feet to the water, simply for the experience, but it was far too crowded for us to go any further, not that we had a desire to.

India is a magical land, filled with much sadness and disease but also rich with stories and human kindness.  The hot sun beats down relentlessly as we travel through, reminding us of the importance of a safe refuge and making us thankful for everything we have.

1 comment:

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