The woman pulls my hair tightly. She stabs my scalp with a bobby pin while looping a garland of orange and white flowers on either side of my ponytail. Stepping back to examine her handiwork, a proud grin reveals a mouthful of rotting teeth.
A few other women have gathered by now, watching as if we are a live spectacle. Another lady opens her bag, scrounges around, and reemerges with a red bindi dot which she swiftly places on my forehead as a finishing touch. Now the ladies smile wide. One reaches out and adjusts the bindi. Another hands me the tiniest mirror so that I can examine their handiwork. All three are happily bobbling their heads. I hand over twenty rupees. The flowers smell quite lovely even though I didn't want them in the first place.
When to give and when to not—this is something I continually struggle with while traveling in India. The emotional pressure is constant, intensified by the population density. Everywhere we go people want something from us, and it's not always just money. Yes, there are beggars, but there are also vendors trying to sell flowers or trinkets, people trying to scam us, doormen trying to carry our backpacks or offering us services we don't want, families trying to have their picture taken with us, people asking us to take pictures of them, kids trying to shake our hands, men staring invasively. As foreigners here, it's obvious we stand out. This fact alone seems to be an open invitation to the handfuls of Indians with whom we cross paths.
After awhile, the pressure from this barrage of needy people can get exhausting and confusing. When is it right to give and when has it already been too much? I know I can't help every person I encounter in this country, and I'm skeptical of the many tourist scams, but I don't want to be stone cold and distant from the realities before me. The truth is, if you can afford to travel to this country, you are comparatively well off.
Basically I've come to think of travel in India as a money redistribution project. One cannot travel in India as simply a voyeur, a tourist. I consider giving back to be an obligation, even if I'm traveling on a limited budget myself. Poverty is inescapable here and it's no one's choice. To see this disparity, to really understand this—unless you are blind or cruel—brings forth an undeniable need to give back.
This is how I ended up with a garland of aromatic flowers on my head.
This is also one reason I believe travel is necessary. Being thrown into unfamiliar or uncomfortable situations causes a complete reevaluation of one's construct of normal. If we're open to it, travel can force us to react selflessly, to cultivate awareness of our actions and to question what we've been taught as truth. It is not always easy, but the long-lasting effects of this critical thought process are incredibly valuable.
Here are some ways I attempt to deal with the emotional barrage of suffering and needy people while in India: I resolve to spend a bit of money on someone who is selling something artisanal every day—even if I don't necessarily want whatever it is. I do this in order to discourage begging, or at least to not contribute to it as a lifestyle. I generally avoid giving money to beggars because I've read about the bigger impacts of this and recognize that it might not have the most positive impact.
I used to try to ignore the suffering, but now I acknowledge beggars, nodding sorry and recognizing what seems to be very real pain (although I've been told that some are quite good actors). I vow to practice patience with the photo requests, even those who are sneaky about it, and oblige everyone who asks. On top of that, I work to endure the staring, even if this feels invasive. While the unwavering stares make me feel like a monster/celebrity, I recognize that this is my own cultural schema and I may be misinterpreting this behavior given the context.
These efforts are small, but a large part of the greater journey towards empathy and understanding required of travel in India.
We spend the rest of the day touring remains of beautiful temples from the 15th century. Back then the Vijayanagara empire likely had a population twice the size of Paris. What remains now is spectacular.
I have the feeling that I've sure done myself in with these flowers. It seems like everyone is staring at me, more than usual. As an introvert, this excessive attention makes me uncomfortable. It's not long before some guy approaches to ask for a photo. I agree, as always, but before I know it I'm surrounded by about thirty people. The entire family—kids, parents, grandparents—materialize instantly from behind pillars and boulders. They all want to pose together for the shot. I smile stupidly. This is what it must feel like to be famous.
After the family photo, one of the kids asks to shake my hand. I oblige and before I know it they all want to shake my hand. I work my way through the family as they stare, fascinated. One boy asks my name. A man asks if I'm married. Someone else asks where I'm from.
We finally peel away from the crowd to continue our tour of the temples. I can't help but feel silly and awkward whenever this photo-taking frenzy happens. Besides leaving mystified by their fascination each time this happens, I also walk away with a collection of amusing photos.
I ask our guide, Harumon, for an explanation. Why do Indians go so crazy for foreigners?
He tells me that our souls have been together here in this place before. He says that this is why we feel such happiness to see each other, this is why the large family was so drawn to me.
I like his way of thinking and smile because it feels so classically Hindu. But regardless of a belief in reincarnation or not, Harumon is right. If there's one thing I've learned from my travels, it's that we really are all part of a bigger family. We're all in this together, and this crazy unexpected place called Earth is our shared home to destroy or to protect. That's our choice.
We destroy each other when we blame, hate, alienate, fail to acknowledge or give. We tear apart the fabric of society when we fail to take a closer look, when we stay stuck in our perspective, or hold onto our political or religious agendas too tightly.
I can't solve all the world's problems, I can't give enough to help all of India, but I can choose to open my eyes. I can choose to give others the honor and respect of awareness, understanding, acceptance and empathy. That's a start at least.
Do you give to beggars in the street at home or when you travel? Share your perspective in the comment section below.