January 12, 2010


This society is both self-perpetuating and self-sustaining. Each person fulfills some pivotal role, whether it is house-cleaning, knife-sharpening, bringing chai, hair-cutting, shoe-shining, sugar cane juice-making, hotel-running, bag-weaving, trash-collecting, or rickshaw-driving. The range of services here feels fundamentally different than the span of jobs we have in America, since they all address basic needs and services. Jobs that I might have thought to be menial and demeaning, or at least a sign of poverty, now seem essential and dignified. They are literally the cogs that allow life to run here. Not only that; the people seem happy, though I certainly have no real place judging that except for the fact that many seem grateful to provide the services they offer. There is this compelling sense of duty to do one's job for the greater good, even selflessly so.

Unlike where we live, people don't seem to necessarily seek a "passion," having explored all of the disciplines of philosophy, the arts, and the sciences to find their talent; rather, they find their niche in whatever trade they must use to make themselves a living to survive. Certainly they may find things they enjoy relatively, but the whole concept of fulfilling a dream or pursuing happiness appears to be unrealistic, unnecessary, and perhaps even undesirable, at least for the vast majority. Instead, labor is focused on providing for basic daily needs like food, roadwork, hygiene, clothing, and other goods. It also strikes me how very hard people work, their bodies thin and lean, perhaps from their genetics, fitness, as well as malnutrition.

But I am fascinated by one profession: beggars. Though it may sound cruel, they appear to be putting on a show of sorrow and a hope for pity that I did not expect to experience. In fact, beggars are nearly always members of a higher institution that gives them only a tiny percentage of their earnings, the superpowers forcing them to give up most of their money. Tragically, many of these exploited people are mere children, whose innocent appearances make them perfect for gaining sympathetic pocket change. I have even heard of people inflicting wounds upon themselves, or worse, their own children, in order to appear more destitute and miserable so as to be worthy of more charity. It is an absolutely disgusting practice, and a horrifying reality, especially as a medical organization serving the poor, since sealing a wound actually reduces a person's chance of making their living. Many NGO's have tried to reach out to these women to empower them to take a different mode of earning, but the women usually give up the micro-financing business opportunities saying it was too much work. Even locals do not tolerate the laziness of these beggars. I was already followed and seduced by one woman's pleas of feeling cold, and bought her some dal to cook for her children. However, I felt oddly taken advantage of, partly due to her dramatic and unbelievable overacting, and also knowing that the woman, though certainly poor, was probably working for some terrible exploitative mafia man. Though I felt deep sympathy for her, I was torn between giving in to the request for charity and rejecting the disgraceful practice that she represents. I walked and talked with her for some time, only to feel guilty at not giving her as much as she had asked from me--to buy her an expensive new pashmina. I am glad to have helped her with her groceries at least, and I can tame my conscience by justifying it as a transaction, as I participate in the commerce of this country where people find absolutely every way to survive and begging is in fact a profession.

On the other hand, my heart truly feels for the old, the disabled, the street children who are strewn about on the margins of society. They are not lucky enough to play a role in the specialization of labor. There are those poor that do not even resort to begging and is these people who fascinate me most: the street people. Today I saw an old man sitting in the grass of the Maidan just staring at the sky. He was wearing rags and had only a bag of belongings. His stare said he had no purpose in life or ability to fulfill a duty. It is images like this where I can feel the caste system still in place, even in the first few days of living here. I am looking forward to learning more about these people, since it is they who I feel so compelled to help.

I am drawn to this place. As a woman I feel respected, and I have yet to hear a catcall or witness a butt-squeeze. There is a genuineness that people exude, whether it is the local businesspeople, hotel owners, cooks, taxi-drivers, or the staff I have met at CR. They have a pride in their country and a dignity regardless of the job they have, and a very welcoming, selfless attitude toward foreigners, always wanting to help others. People here are also very honest. There is little theft here because such an act would be condemned by the entire community, the criminal viewed as a threat and perpetrator of the silent, unwritten law of respect, pride, and integrity.

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