Thursday, 10 March 2011

Madurai, India

"Almost everything you do will seem insignificant, but is is important that you do it."
~Mahatma Ghandi

Madurai got me thinking about wealth.

Leaving Mamalapuram, my backpack was getting full and I knew that I needed to downsize.  I left a gray sweater and a pair of green cargo pants at the hotel.  For some reason, leaving behind those two pieces of clothing bothered me.  A lot.  I realized how addicted I am to my possessions, and how scared I am of losing the material things that I have. 

Outside the Hindu Sri Meenakshi Temple.

Basically, I'm clinging to what little wealth I have, afraid to give anything away.  I realized that I need to learn to let it go...

India is an interesting place to have wealth thoughts.

Close up of the exterior.

I expected full-blown poverty before I arrived, and there certainly is some of that, but the funny thing is that the poverty hasn't bothered me as much as I expected it to.  Maybe that's because people here don't seem any more unhappy than people in the United States.  In some respects, they actually seem happier!

A view from the inside, of an interior courtyard.

I'm not sure why that is.

My friend, Julie, and I were talking about this supposed contradiction in Varanasi.  We agreed that where we come from (the United States and Australia) we've both met people with loads of money who are depressed, hate their lives and jobs, and are generally miserable.  One hypothesis that we drew is that maybe money really doesn't buy happiness (as long as we have enough money to fulfill our basic needs like food and shelter).   

Julie and I drew some other hypothesis to explain our observance that Indian people appear as happy or happier than Americans, despite the fact that most Indians are less wealthy.  Maybe it's because Indians are more family-focused than we are in America.  Maybe it's because Indians are generally more religious and/or spiritual-minded than they are in the States.  Maybe it's because, although it's crowded, there isn't as much of that "rat race" mentality here.  It's OK to stop what you're doing and to spend a couple of hours in the middle of the day drinking chai with a friend you've just met (as opposed to America where that kind of behavior would be frowned down upon as downright "lazy"). 

Interior, ceiling.

I'm not sure what the reason is, but I can honestly say that people seem as happy (actually, I would argue more happy) in India than people who live in the United States.

Cow statue.

This observance made me hopeful.  In the past I've always wanted to "save the world."  Now my view has changed.  I'm still a humanitarian, but I honestly believe that the western world could learn a thing (or two, or one hundred) from the developing world.  Us westerners need some saving, too.   

It was dark inside the temple, so it's hard to see, but this elephant is giving people a "blessing" with his trunk.  I watched this elephant give a two-year-old girl a blessing and she started screaming and crying in fear in her dad's arms. 

There's only been one time on this trip so far when the wealth discrepancy affected me.  It was when we hired a cycle rickshaw driver to take us back to our hotel.  The guy was old, and he looked tired.  The rickshaw moved along at a slow pace.  And it was hot outside.  

Hindu ceremony going on inside the temple.

The guy said he'd take us back to our hotel for 30 rupee, which is about $0.75 USD. 

After a few minutes in the cycle rickshaw, I started feeling like an ass.  I couldn't believe I was only paying this guy 75 cents to do this job.

Every time we reached a hill on the road, he'd either have to stop and push the cycle rickshaw up the hill from the back...or else he'd have to take a foot off one of the pedals so that he could put 100% of his weight on the other pedal. 

Pulling my ass around town was no easy job.

My cycle rickshaw driver.

He was barefoot, and his feet were dusty, dirty, cracked and callused.  For some reason, his feet reminded me of elephant hooves.

His feet.  

It took him at least 30 minutes to bike us from one side of town to another in the stifling heat.  The entire time, I felt guilty.  Guilty is not even the right word.  I felt like a shithead.  For all the frivolous ways I've spent money over the years buying clothes, alcohol, airplane tickets, IPODs, triathlon gear, laptops...when all of that money could have gone such a long way to help people in places like India. 

When we reached our destination, I handed the man 500 rupee (equivalent to $11 USD).  I don't even think that I was being a Good Samaritan.  I think I was just trying to make myself feel a little less like a shithead.

I walked away without saying a word.  After a few meters, I noticed that my friend, Manu, wasn't at my side.  I turned around to make sure I hadn't lost her in the crowd.  That's when I saw the cycle rickshaw driver's face.  He was staring at the 500 rupee note, disbelieving.

His eyes were huge, and he was smiling, and looking at me, bowing his head in gratitude.  I hope he bought something nice with that 500 rupees...or took a day or two off of work. 

India has made me reevaluate wealth.

Money certainly can't buy happiness, and many of the poor people I've encountered seem just as happy or happier than the wealthy ones.  But as Americans our money can go a long, long, long way in India.  After being here, I believe that even $5 USD can make a difference and I encourage people to find a reputable charity if they are so inclined.

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