On the scenic yet very windy ride up the mountain many kids got motion sickness exacerbated by their exhaust. Our bumbling 4WD tank vehicle was driven by Macho Mountain Indian Guy, who Teju and I decided was attractive after observing his fast yet efficient, rough-and-tumble driving style. We stopped at various roadside shanties- each with their own phenomenal view of the Himalayas, becoming only more breathtaking the higher we got.
Traffic jam :P
Upon reaching Uttarkashi, the view was indescribable. Our accommodations were simple yet lovely- a room with two beds that Teju and I shared with a two kind ladies and one sweet little boy of four. Although still exhausted from the severe sleep deprivation and constant travel, we took a walk to a bridge I think I saw in a National Geographic.
The next day- yet another obscenely early morning after an obscenely late evening- we departed for a day in Gangotri, a holy town even farther north. The historical beginning of the Ganges river. We were utterly exhausted. It was so beautiful there however, surrounded by gorgeous snow-topped mountains and a divine chill in the air. (meanwhile. Ahmedabad was soaring to 120/50 degrees). We had taken the holy Ganges dip in Hardware and Rishikesh already- Gangotri is also a site of Gangaji immersion, however due to the low temperatures, freezing water and already sickly state of the children they were encouraged to submerge their feet only.
Teju and I took a moment to sit on the rocks while the Ganges bubbled softly by, talking about life and culture and what it means to have multiple identities between lives and cultures. What it means to be an American abroad. What does it mean to have privilege, as Americans abroad, and to be sensitive to this privilege? I’ve wondered about privilege in New York, how it dictates my behaviour, or the behaviour of others- although it’s such an incredibly difficult topic to discuss. Everyone has their own vastly different experiences with it, and it's so fluid- is it actions? Is it thoughts? How does privilege permeate our regular world at home on a daily basis? How can we be sensitive to our privilege in everyday life, and to uplift our fellow folks who might not have so much?
When traveling, especially in eastern countries- general western privilege is a completely different animal. The widely varying levels of socioeconomic statuses and confusing cultural exchanges come into play. I knew I didn’t understand what it meant here, although I’ve been in India for five months now. We’ve been living quietly in a house with various other women, hand washing our clothes and eating simple vegetarian meals. We don’t have wifi, there’s no TV or dishwasher or anything machine really. Nothing is fancy and it’s nice. It is very different from the life I was used to in the US. We had all the conveniences yet complained significantly more than it appears people do here (in my specific experiences), people who have much less yet seem considerably happier in life.
Yearly Spring ceremony at the Gangotri temple- Hindu pilgrimage sites are now open for 2016. People from surrounding villages bring all their unique deities in celebration.
So, what does it mean to live in a slum like these children? How does it affect their development, how does it affect them as individuals? In comparison to the western life on abundance and intimidating consumerism in which both Teju and I had been raised. How do these kids see life, how do they overcome obstacles? I wanted to know how different it is from the world that I have known- I wanted to check my privilege. That’s what people say, right? “check your privilege” when someone is being ignorant. I’d been to the slums a few times, but that’s not enough to know anyone.
:sidetone: -the slums here are not sad, deprived places as many of us might have imagined based on our knowledge of underprivileged communities at home. People are generally jovial and will greet you with a heartfelt "Namaste!" while offering chai as the children follow you screaming happily "DIDI!" What country? Name? didi hello!" ('Didi'= big sister)
We had been told that this trip would not consist of amazing accommodation. We hadn’t expected such a thing anyway, and we accepted. The organiser- a kind soul- tried to turn us away in strange ways, discussing obtusely the “lack of conveniences” and “potential for large insects”. Maybe he couldn’t articulate the reality, maybe he didn’t know the extent to which events would unfold. Either way, the more he spoke ill of the journey, the more I knew we needed to attend. To learn about the children, to try to support them at any difficulty, and to check that privilege. What does “simple accommodation” even mean? Simple to who? To us western women he assumed lived considerably more decadent lives than our actual realities? (my apartment in new york was by no means luxurious, I assure you) and Teju- I know she has a nice house, but I’m sure it is not a Beverly Hills mansion. Or simple to even the children, perhaps simple for himself? We went regardless.
That Gangotri night changed everything. In addition to extreme exhaustion of all involved, lack of regular food consumption (a rice/yellow dahl combo twice a day at random times) and sickness of multiple children after days of restless commotion, our accommodations-reached by jagged uphill stone steps- did not have electricity or running water and there were not nearly enough double beds to fit even three people each. Had our trip been smoother and more restful thus far I wouldn't have felt nearly as anxious as I did that evening. It wasn't the worst place to stay for one night only. However, between traveling to the children from Ahmedabad, and then traveling with them up around Uttarakhand, it had been almost a week of very little sleep or mental security and I began to worry that I'd go insane and become useless as a chaperone. Gangotri reaches freezing temperatures at night, despite this however I had hoped to find solace sleeping on the floor.
Morning time clarity speaks life, I wanted this. Based on the organiser’s pre-trip determent, I knew there would be some difficult encounters. I was hoping to understand what it means to make do and exist extremely simply, perhaps even lacking some basic needs temporarily. And seeing these kids- to the best of my knowledge, the children were very uncomfortable as well but said nothing. In the most inspiring way, they endured. They are so strong- and so hardworking. Every night they hand washed their clothes themselves, and one day they cooked dinner for us. The cutest 11-17 year olds peeling potatoes and rolling rotis like we'd never seen!
Things were different after that. A little more beautiful and worthy of understanding. Expectations ceased to exist, replaced by the gratitude of presence. The depth of energy surrounding these sacred spaces was no longer lost. We slept well the following evening back in Uttarkashi. The kids were no longer sick. I took a run to recover in the mountain air and began to understand why the Himalayas are such a spiritual place.