As we started off in the raft, we joked about how we picked the coldest day to go rafting. The sun was completely obscured and, after tackling the first few rapids, we were soaking wet. I was so cold, my teeth were chattering and my barefoot feet felt frozen. While we rowed along the tranquil water between rapids, I examined the sites around us. There were other rafters, a few people in the temples and then I saw the little boy. He was probably a few months older than my 14-month old Munchkin. He was standing with his mother, about 10 feet above the river, on the rocky bank. His mother was washing something as he watched and spoke to her. What broke my heart though was that he had a long sweater on, but no pants, no socks or shoes. I looked at my feet and back at his and thought how cold he must feel on this gray morning.
Seeing this little boy brought home the fact that our beautiful India of adventure, warm family gatherings and delicious home-cooked meals was very different from the India of streets lined with people, crumbling facades and small bonfires set to keep shopkeepers warm. Despite repeated trips to India, I still find the discrepancy hard to reconcile. How could I worry about Munchkin's attempts to climb stairs and eat rocks when so many children were dodging cars, maneuvering through slippery riverbanks and not wearing shoes on their feet? Here I was chattering in the cold in the name of fun and adventure, while others used the same waters for bathing and sustenance, without the luxury of warming their hands next to a toasty warm heater.
I am hardly the first person to see this dichotomy, nor is India the only country that forces visitors to confront the reality of poverty. My family comes from the poorest country in South America, Bolivia. My travels have taken me all over Central and South America, where I've seen variations of this little boy many times over. What sets India apart--and what makes it so difficult to grasp--is the relentlessness of the poverty. Next to many lovely polished homes are shacks that have no running water or electricity. For every expensive car we see in Dehli, there are hundreds, if not thousands,of people commuting to work on the highway on a rickety bicycle or on foot.
How dare I worry about my children riding without car seats in India, when I see so many babies held in the arms of their parents on scooters and little children clinging to the backs of bicycles or walking in the dusty, traffic-filled streets? I, who have loved city life for two decades, who have eschewed living an over-protective and sheltered lifestyle, sometimes want to stay behind the walls of my in-laws welcoming and beautiful home and never leave.
But outside the walls, the other world of honking horns and roaming cattle awaits us. It is where we can find delicious treats, soaked in sugar water and fried right in front of us. It is where my father-in-law picks up the eggplant and lentils that my mother-in-law cooks up into mouth-watering meals. It is here life is lived and reality is faced. After all, no one can hide forever.
My son, like many three-year-olds, asks questions non-stop. About cars, people, animals and things I would never dream up. He did ask why people had lit fires next to the street one night, but he equated it with the bonfire we had lit in a fire pit on Christmas Eve when we had eaten kebabs and delicious bread. I'm not sure how I'll answer the questions he and Munchkin will ask on future trips. I want them to love India and feel comfortable traveling and living there for the rest of their lives, but I don't know if I'll ever have the answers to their questions, as I still don't have answers to mine.