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Thursday, March 15, 2007

Rotary Foreign Exchange Program - Part 1

In 1991 and 92 I lived in Mumbai, India for ten months. I left after celebrating my Summer of emancipation, following my graduation from North Kitsap High School. At 17, I set off for a destination diametrically opposed to where I stood on the globe. And I celebrated my 18th birthday immersed in a culture completely opposite as well. Fifteen years after having been a Rotary Foreign Exchange Student, I still find myself attempting to quantify the experience.

I believe in pivotal, life-changing experiences in life; more so when you're 18 than 33. These events, when they happen, consume a person with a feeling that they have been indelibly altered, often in ways that cannot be fully understood. Maybe these things are phenomenological. Maybe they cannot be quantified or objectively studied. From that perspective, I will probably fail in any effort to demonstrate exactly how it affected my development.

But it seems to me that profundity charts the course to our destinations. So I will catalog those things that stand out in my memory, that seemed profound at the time, in the hope that they will guide me to understanding how that year impacted me.


As a teenager, I fancied myself an intellectual rebel. Declaring myself a vegetarian, atheist and socialist since junior high, I thought I understood what constituted a provincial attitude. It loomed in all directions in the form of small town frowns. When I flew to Bombay I wanted to find something radically different, and perhaps (in the bosom of another culture) I would feel less alien.

I blithely assumed I would find a human connection at the core of my experience... an ultimate similarity that transcended East and West and would allow connection at the most important levels. This was not my experience. Instead I was impressed at the resounding enormity of the chasm existing between my own perception of the world and that of my hosting Indians. I became acutely aware of my own assumptions and ethnocentricity.

Poverty, the most striking example, is redefined when you live in India. I equated poverty with growing up in a trailer park, leaving one's teeth unstraightened by braces, owning just a single television, or using the Fishline foodbank. I was ignorant when it came to indifferent streets full of dead and dying bodies; allyways bursting like blood vessels overfilled with homeless families, beggars, bicycles, hucksters, prostitutes, con men, holy men and business men; railroad tracks used as public toilets; masses of people living under tarps, eating nothing but rice cooked over open fires.

While navigating the urban jungle of Mumbai, beggars stalked me from blocks away, many of them grotesquely disfigured. Seeing white skin, they locked eyes and raced toward me. I remember an emaciated and legless man, whose lower body consisted of a small cardboard box. He spotted me from a block away and pursued me with incredible speed, swinging forward on his rag-wrapped knuckles like crutches... his box clomping down on the broken sidewalk with desperate rhythm. Another time, at a train station, a band of gypsies dressed in screaming colors and done-up like drag queens brandished bullwhips and began lashing themselves. They only stopped once the tourists gave them money. Holding out only increased their masochistic self-flagellation.

In a city of ten million inhabitants, probably 80 percent came from India’s lowest caste. Begging, prostitution and servitude are the three popular career paths for the city’s untouchables. I was told that many of those destined to become beggars are deliberately maimed at early ages to increase their profitability. This might include amputating a limb or deliberately breaking an arm and twisting it backwards so that it would result in a horrible contortion.

In the tent cities at night, the chaos of hundreds of children orbited small circles of men and women. The adults squatted around open fires… the men in shorts with skinny knees almost touching their ears, eyed a shared bottle of rotgut... women adjusted their soiled saris and stirred pots of boiling rice. Everyone was yelling and laughing and spitting and eating and shitting and sweating and arguing and boiling over with the very processes of life.

Up in the penthouse apartments, families sat quietly in their respective rooms... or gathered for a civilized game of carrom. There was peace, and relative sterility. People worried about a sick family member, or a cousin's efforts to get into an American school. The adults were all very obese and depressed; the children thin and nervous. We read the Times of India where I learned about a man who killed his wife by putting cobras in her bed, and about an apartment building that burned down killing 450 people, and about how people are losing limbs because they’ve fallen off of (or been run over by) the trains. These stories were reported with none of the outrage or tragedy I’d come to expect from the American media. Human life started to feel like a depressed currency.

Getting around town required use of the public transit. Hopping onboard a bus often meant literally jumping onto a moving vehicle. Buses generally didn't stop so much as they slowed down occasionally. I often boarded overcrowded buses where my only chance was to get one foot onto the floor and grasp ahold of the steel pole handgrip, hanging the rest of my body off the side until I could pull myself fully onto the main floor. Eventually, securing myself safely aboard became less important. I even began to enjoy the added ventilation of hanging off the side of bus and train compartments... And if my own life or limb were at risk, well, it stopped feeling quite so important.



At 3/16/2007 08:44:00 AM, Blogger molly said...

The change in you was so remarkeble when you came back, and it attests to what you experienced. It's funny, though, I don't know a single soul who has been to India and not been changed by the experience.

We're quite lucky, aren't we, to grow up poor in the US.


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