As we gathered our carry-ons and began to exit the plane I started to prepare for my first taste of India. I eagerly wanted off the plane after 26 hours of travel, but was a bit hesitant for what I was about to experience. I replayed all the stories I had heard about India from my friends and fellow travelers. I reviewed scene from The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel I had seen while flying over. I braced myself for the tidal wave that was about to hit me.
We walked off the plane. We moved down the gangway into the airport. I steadied myself. We entered the terminal and…nothing! There was no one there. Not only was the terminal empty, but as we headed for baggage claim to the left of our gate, I glanced right to see about a half mile of terminal that resembled a ghost town more than an airport in one of the most populous countries in the world.
As we headed to get our bags, our load of passengers were the only ones headed in that direction. At customs we saw another plane load of people waiting to get processed, but that was it. The Indian officials stamped our passports an moved us along in a matter of minutes, not hours like we expected. We claimed our bags while looking at rows of empty carousels. We walked through the nearly abandoned airport a little bewildered.
As we headed outside to meet our friends we began to experience India in accordance with the stories we had heard. First was the heat. Even at 2:30am it was still hot and humid. I would later describe the heat as “oppressive.” Second was the smell. It was not the smell I had expected. After greeting Ryan, our host, I asked, “What’s on fire?” Because that I what I smelled, smoke. Having left Colorado for India just weeks after the statewide fires, the smelled was still in my nostrils. Ryan’s response did not have its full impact on me until days later. “Trash,” Ryan replied, “so all of India.”
What I did not realize at the time, was that there was enough trash in India to burn until the end of time (and then a few more days). This was probably the part of India that gave me the hardest time. There was trash everywhere! And I mean EVERYWHERE! Not just some litter strewn about, but trash, filth and garbage. I soon came to understand the answer to my initial question.
As it turns out, the biggest (Delhi), the smallest (Kachhwa), the holiest (Varanasi) and the most visited (Agra) cities and villages we were in, were all trash heaps. Now, I can’t say the whole country is like this, because I am assured it is not, plus I have not experienced all of India. But we were in enough different places to see a pattern.
As I said, this was probably the most puzzling part of Indian culture for me to grasp. Why would they live like this? Why doesn’t someone clean it up? Why don’t people put throw their trash in trash cans or dumpsters? Don’t they know they could live in a clean city?
(Side note: Part of me wonders if these are not questions God asks of about us and how we live. “Why do they live this way?” Don’t they know another way is possible?” “Don’t they want to be clean?”)
The answer to my questions is long and complicated. Lets just say it has to do with the caste system and people’s lack of responsibility. Everyone thinks it someone else’s job to clean up or that someone else is not doing there job by cleaning up. Either way, it was one of the first things I noticed in India and one that I am still trying to process. Viewing India this way has made it difficult for me to see the beauty of the people and the country. But I know beauty is there. I traveled with people who see the beauty and experience the charm of India. And it is from them I must trust and learn.