On The Roads of Delhi
Blackthorn - September 2009
I visited India in 2005. I had heard of entire generations of people who lived on the streets but still I wasn’t prepared for what I saw. There are indeed people who are born on the streets, live their whole lives there, and die there. I stayed in a hotel that I can only describe as a Motel 6 with four stories. It was clean, but not fancy in any way. On the next block over from me were these tents, pitched on the sidewalk, with at least ten people living in them. I strolled by and glanced inside (but didn’t take a picture, so as not to make it look like I was thinking of them as animals in a zoo) and saw that there were numerous cots inside. As you can see, there were cars parked next to them. The tent dwellers had jobs so they could afford cars, but not a dwelling with walls. Sad to say, tents like these were a common sight:
These folks are by necessity industrious, scraping out a living any way they can. Some make a living by transporting goods on bikes that have been turned into carts:
Some of those haulers work much harder than others, too. Note this guy from the front and back…
Since there are so many bicycles, bike repair can be a good business. This boy, probably about twelve years old, had a bike repair business on the sidewalk. His repair shop is a box built onto the back of a bike:
Coming from a modern place like California, I was surprised to see that some forms of labor haven’t changed in a few thousand years. Here were two men loading bricks onto pack animals:
This really astonished me. This woman was one of three who were carrying firewood. In a city of 12 million people, many of them homeless but still needing to cook for their families, how is it that there is any wood left? And where in the world did they find it? You know life is hard when you spend part of each day scrounging for firewood to cook for your children:
Here was a sidewalk barber shop, one of many I saw. His customers are the homeless who have jobs, so they need to look presentable, but they have no place to live, so there is a market for this kind of business:
I didn’t know what to make of these guys, squatting down and sweeping bare dirt with whisk brooms:
I ran across a sidewalk market place in downtown Delhi where many were selling their wares or offering services. This man had no fingers and sat on his feet the whole time I dickered with him. My grandfather was a cabinet maker who continued working into his eighties and was constantly cutting off fingers or parts of fingers, so I thought this man must have been a carpenter. He was selling coins of all kinds, some of them hundreds of years old (according to him). I bargained with him through a friend who speaks Hindi, and after several rounds of “I’d never pay that much for this garbage,” and “I’ll pay that price but for the older, rarer coins instead,” we made a deal. As I congratulated myself on being such a shrewd bargainer, he wrapped the coins in a newspaper and taped it shut. As I walked away, my buddy leaned over and said, “Do you think he had leprosy?” Suddenly I looked as his “no fingers and sitting on his feet” in a whole new light. And I was carrying a bag that he had wrapped. At the earliest opportunity I washed my hands with all the soap I could find, then disinfected them with the Purell hand sanitizer I carry whenever I travel. I was so horrified that I didn’t open the bag of coins until after I got back to the States. Then I put a newspaper down on the floor of my condo, took scissors and tongs, cut the bag open and dumped the coins onto the ground. It was only then that I realized that he had wrapped the cheaper coins and given them to me, not the ones I had bargained for! So this man with no fingers did a sleight of hand maneuver and outsmarted me. Hats off to you, buddy, you won that round!
These yellow topped, three wheeled “taxis” are everywhere. They carry two or three passengers and run on two stroke motors. They are noisy and they belch pollution into the air:
These guys try to earn a living by running passengers around on these “pedicabs.” I’m including the picture not so much to show them or their vehicles as to show the air quality. This isn’t a picture taken with the wrong exposure, but one that truly shows just how bad the air is. Delhi airport has actually been shut down due to lack of visibility caused by smog combined by the wood smoke of the homeless cooking their meals:
At first I was surprised to see Buddhist priests in India, but after getting home and researching it I found that Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, “attained enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree in Bodhgaya near Benaras,” which is in India. Buddhism thrives in India:
Among the many colorful people I saw, here are some random shots:
No article on the streets of India would be complete without mentioning the beggars. It’s heartbreaking to see these kids begging, but before I went, an old India hand (a Buddhist priest, actually) told me not to give them money, since they don’t get to keep any of it. All the money they get is taken by their “handlers” each day. Knowing this, I refused to take pictures of them, even though they were everywhere. The reason I didn’t take pictures of them was that if I did, I was obligated to give them money, money that would encourage their “keepers” to continue enslaving more kids. Some of these kids simply beg, but others had entertaining acts they do, juggling or dancing, and they are always beautiful children. One of my traveling buddies was upset that I took this picture (taken through the window of a car we were in, stopped at a traffic light), but I felt an obligation to tell others of their plight wherever I can, and no words can take the place of pictures like this.
I visited a large slum while I was there (population: 1,000,000) and saw that there is no city water system in those places. The city brings in water trucks each day and fills barrels of water, and then the slum dwellers come fill their buckets and bottles from those barrels.
It took me a while to figure this scene out, but it seems that these men had been hired for the day to work in a field but had no way to get there, so the driver is giving them a ride to the place where they will spend the day working together:
What we have heard about the sacred cows is true. This one brought traffic to a standstill until it decided to mosey on:
The cows are everywhere and are just a fact of life:
One thing very hard for my American mind to grasp is that the Hindus don’t eat meat and the Muslims don’t eat pork, so hunger is rampant while feral pigs roam around untouched:
One thing that made me laugh several times each day were the traffic lights. The red lights have “Relax” written on them. And it’s in English, in a country where very few people aside from the merchants speak English...
I had a very hard time dealing with India due to the extreme poverty and the air quality. Since there are so many hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of homeless with no public toilets, the smell of urine and feces is everywhere. When you combine that smell with the smog caused by the numerous two stroke motors, diesel exhaust and wood fires, it’s emotionally overwhelming. I love to travel, but India defines culture shock.
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