New Delhi

Earth Day & the Developing World

What is Earth Day? The concept falls flat to me here, where I drive by endless slums and open sewage drain-off daily. If sewage is even the correct term for describing the most basic disposal of human waste imaginable. Sewage feels too sophisticated for the things I’ve seen, but I am a privileged person. Sheltered all my life from even my own waste.

As for the waste of others? Not once, prior to the present, had I given two shits about shit. The dirty bits a living body created was simultaneously an unspoken fact and a mystery. No one was having open conversations about diarrhea in my youth.

There’s a somewhat sweet term for it here, though, one I can’t help but find a little funny — loose motions. It was a great shock to me just how often I would experience loose motions in this place, and an even greater shock to learn people, mostly children, actually die of complications related to such an antiquated affliction. Who worries about death from diarrhea? Not me. Not you. My greatest lesson in dysentery came from playing Oregon Trail.

As I’m being driven to work, I have about an hour to ponder all these experiences, and they far exceed my new found familiarity with the business of bowel movements. A whole world of foreign tableaux whiz by on the other side of my backseat window — the glass of which is safely rolled up against the assault of pollution and flying insects. There are the ragged brick dwellings housing multiple families, ones that looked like ancient Native American ruins I’ve toured on vacations around my home state of Arizona. There are juggies made from scraps of metal and plastic, tarps, and stolen building materials. Some of them form brightly painted squatter communities full of what looks to me like micro-economies. There’s a barber, a small room where a man sits in front of a tiny round mirror getting shaved with a straight razor. There are huts with pre-packaged food for sale, rows of bright metallic bags hanging above their counters. I see older men and women lounging on sofas parked in the street, none of them wearing shoes — a level of casual relaxation found only inside the home where I’m from. Cages of sad, smothered looking chickens for sale alongside fruit and vegetables being eaten alive by flies. The other day, I saw a man transporting one of these chicken cages on bicycle. It was nearly empty, save for one dead soul splayed out in defeat on the bottom. Horses, goats, pigs, dogs, and people milling about the same street. Rivers of murky water flowed through trash filled banks where children roamed in packs. I’ve seen naked babies and grown men taking baths in public spaces. When my car slows to a halt at a stoplight, I am wakened from the dream of these images by rapid tapping on the window. The elderly, the able-bodied, the cross-dressing, the teenage down to the newly born, all ask for something — money, food, for me to buy a book or pencil or some other, and painfully useless, good. I ignore some, pretending not to see them. A behavior I have learned against every fiber of my being. To others I offer a smile and a polite no. If I have a bit of food to share, I’ll hand it over to the younger ones. When I start becoming overwhelmed with guilt, I give money. Something I was told not to do.

Once, as I sat at a busy traffic light, I watched a group of people living on the street go about their lives together. The children held balloons and I imagined them celebrating a birthday party. All was well and good until one of the men struck a pregnant woman across the face. She buckled over in a seated position and he brought his fist, hand closed, down upon her back. I was frozen by the unexpected violence of it. Was it the worst thing I’d ever seen, no, but I’d also never seen anyone physically harm a woman. Let alone a pregnant one. My eyes darted around to see if anyone else was paying attention to these strangers on the street. All the cars around me watched with blank faces. I searched them, trying to find someone whose face resembled my own. The man struck the woman again. No one changed their expression. Apathetic people looked on, no spark of emotion in the set of their brow. At least none that matched my growing level of anger and disbelief. I opened my car door incredulous — how dare he. The shouts from my driver stopped me in my tracks. He yelled NO repeatedly and told me to shut the door. Everything inside me felt conflicted, so I stood in place and yelled. I yelled in a tongue the people on the street wouldn’t understand, but I knew the sound of my voice would deliver the message: STOP. I raved like a mad woman, without fear, and with confidence. Another privilege I hadn’t realized I had until that moment, the ability to forcefully show displeasure in another’s actions.

Everything froze after that — all the street children gathering for my make believe birthday celebration, the pregnant woman, the man assaulting her, and every person who could see me from their car, whose heads now turned in my direction. No one got out. No one rolled down their windows. They stared at me with the same blank eyes.

After a beat, like a light switch had been flipped, every single kid on that corner ran in my direction. My driver yelled for me to get back in the car and close the door. I listened. They swarmed, hands rapping on the windows — tick, tick, tick, mam, mam, mam. I had packages of biscuits in my car and began handing them out through a rolled down window. As my biscuit supply drained and the kids wandered back to their “party,” all that remained was the pregnant woman. Begging, she held her hands to her mouth as if to say — food. Guilt bubbled up to the very top of my head, threatening to pop the seal of my scalp from my skull. I reached into my purse and pulled out more money than I would typically ever give away. She grabbed it and immediately walked back towards her gathered group. That bubbling feeling inside receded down to my neck. The light turned green, and as we drove away, I watched as the man cruelly ripped the money from her hands. The force pushing her back down into a seated position.

When I first started coming to India, I ferociously sanitized everything. My hands. The doorknob. The toilet seat. I didn’t know what was giving me loose motions, but I was hell bent on stopping it — bacteria, amoeba, and all manner of invisible nasties my kryptonite, with Lysol my Superman. I went to a gastroenterologist back home out of paranoia. Did I have a parasite? If anyone was going to get a parasite, it’d be me. Providing the first feces sample of my life turned out to be hilariously degrading, especially considering nothing was found. In time, I learned to be less concerned. It would always clear up on it’s own, and I’d taken enough medicine in my day to kill off the good as well as the bad. It was time to give into the natural changes in flow for a few weeks.

The one thing I’ve been more reluctant to let go of is the sadness and shock the tableaux of life outside my window brought me. I asked the person here I am closest to, “Do you get sad?” She had no idea what I meant and answered simply, “no.” Or maybe she did understand, but our realities are so different, our worldviews are actual worlds apart.

I still don’t know how to reconcile my feelings about the developing world. Sometimes, in my deepest thoughts, I feel disallowed to have an opinion at all. I’m not of this place, what right do I have? My observations feel like judgments I don’t want to own. If I am truly honest, I will say I sometimes see nothing at all to love about parts of this city. Every bit of it assaults my core, rattles my reality, and unhinges the safety in my own world. It points a giant mirror in my direction, reflecting back all the things I didn’t know I had. All the power. All the “rights” I thought I deserved. All the confidence I wield without fear of retribution. That’s the thing of it, I think. The key. We are all in this together, but we do not all live the same reality. When you accidentally walk through the door of another’s space and time, it can feel bad to learn your life is good. Even feeling as though your life is good can be a confusing realization — your perspective is a narrow view.

So when I see my peers pleading for all of us to protect the Earth they love on a day designed for environmental awareness, I think: not all of us love it. Then the guilt claps back: a life you wouldn’t want for yourself still belongs to someone.

I don’t know what it means to protect the parts of the Earth I love — are we not already doing that? The filth, the trash, the polluted environments of the world’s backbone aren’t shared by a single person I know as evidence of our need for an Earth Day. Our main concern is keeping what we have.

When the day is over and my trip is done, I will go home and continue to live the comfortable life I am accustomed to. Earth Day will ultimately mean nothing and do nothing to change my daily routine, aside from the minor task of filling reusable water bottles rather than tossing another plastic one. The things I do will be small, and have no impact to my quality of life. There will be a tiny flicker of guilt lit at the back of my mind, and it will burn just enough to rage through my body the next time I’m plopped back down into another reality. One where I’ll think again about the things I love in comparison to the things I think need to change — from the perspective only I know how to see, my own.

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