Monday, January 7, 2008

Extreme Poverty

Joie Lemaitre Guest Blogs for Americans for UNFPA

Just popping off another note to you all. It makes me feel connected in some way and the images here are so profound and foreign.

Someone once said to me that India will feel more foreign to you than any other place on earth, but having been to Cambodia and Turkey, I didn't put much stock in that. Well, it's not the "foreign" aspect so much, but the dehumanization that happens here.

I will never forget the young woman holding a baby tapping on our car window while we were stuck in traffic, pantomiming that she needed food (hand to mouth) and the baby mimicking the same gesture. It's impossible to react to one person because once you do you will have 10 or 20 more surround your car demanding a handout. It's truly the most dehumanizing experience. It's very difficult for me to ignore another human being, but you must.

I saw poverty, and extreme poverty in Cambodia, but there was a dignity and honor the Cambodians have that is not as visible here. In fact, outside of the newer downtown area of Delhi, all that you see in this country between Delhi and Agra is crumbling facades, piles of debris, corrugated roofed-cinder block buildings with nothing appealing about them and masses of humanity seeking out a living with little life or hope on their faces or in their eyes. And the holy cows are just as bleak and depressing. They may be free to roam, but roaming in the streets picking through garbage is not much of a life. I don't think I saw one smile on a face yesterday as we drove back from Agra (either human or bovine).

One of the more fascinating places I visited in Agra (aside from the monuments) was a crematorium. All Hindus and Buddhists are cremated, so it's a very busy place. Only male members of the departed’s circle of family and friends are allowed to view the burning. Katie (one of the delegates) and I were the only two women allowed in with our guide. It all takes place outside along the river. The bodies are placed on brick platforms and then the male family members place a pyre of branches around the body. A priest lights the pyre and the family and friends will stay for about a half hour and say prayers or chant. It takes a body 3 days to burn. At that point male family members return and take some of the ashes (the rest are dumped in the river by crematorium workers) and then will sprinkle the ashes at the holy places in the Ganges River. The holiest of these is Varanasi. Again, the women (not even the wife or mother or sisters, etc.) are allowed to participate in this ritual either.

I'd write about the daunting information we have received about the sex slave trade here in India, particularly Calcutta, but I feel like my letter is filled with such depressing information already, so I'll stop. As much as we may have our own battles to fight in the U.S. and other places in the western world, we are so damn fortunate.

I'm off....a day in Delhi as a tourist with the delegation and then site visits with UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund begin tomorrow. My friend Anika who is the president of Americans for UNFPA arrived yesterday, so we had dinner together last night and caught up on news, it was great to see her.

My love to all of you ....will hopefully be able to write some more hopeful news about progress in this country once I'm with the UN guides.

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