As I’m not in India to do a lot of sight-seeing, I have to be creative with how I get shots of daily life outside of the children’s home. My time spent in the back of the rickshaw (the most common form of transport outside of a scooter – pictured in the first photo below) is my chance to make the most interesting of observations about the culture and life of India. It also provides a fun challenge for my photography as I have to be fast- it’s quite a bumpy ride and you have to kind of lean over to see out from below the awning. I also try to be a bit stealth with my big camera and not have it constantly sticking out on the way… It gives a nice glimpse into the Indian way of life.
So here’s part one of some street photography from the rickshaw:
In just a matter of a days, I’ve stood witness to both ends of the sliding scale measuring the value of life. Last weekend I listened to a story of incredulous faith and hope, which stood against all hope, of a couple who invested in the impossible: providing residential care for victims of horrendous trauma. These young girls were trafficked for sex and left broken, fragile and hardened. This couple’s choice to care for these girls has already required over a decade of commitment and costly investment, and the work is not finished. But today, I also watched the incredible audacity of a man abandoning his own nephew in shame: his flesh and blood relative stigmatized by the red blooded stamp of HIV.
How is it possible for people to do both: Complete strangers giving up their comfort (and entire lives for that matter!) for the sake of restoring the broken and damaged? And at the other end – relatives caring for one child with an unmerited disease, who are unable to bear the shame upon their own heads, and discard their own family member as unwanted trash?
Sex trafficking is a hot topic these days. There’s greater and greater awareness, and I’m glad for this as it’s an issue close to my heart after working closely with women standing behind windows in the notorious Red Light District of Amsterdam and K-street of Berlin. We probably all know the numbers by now: 27 million slaves in our world today. It’s a serious issue and no one should remain comfortable with the knowledge that slavery still exists.
But what about these staggering numbers? There are 150 million orphaned children around the world! How many sexy campaigns do you see which are promoting the care of orphans? And what about the topic of HIV/AIDS? We all know about it: it’s been around for over 30 years and yet somehow, we’ve forgotten about this deadly epidemic infecting over 65 million people worldwide. In fact, the number of orphaned children is also directly related to this disease. It is estimated that at least 25 million children are orphaned due to AIDS.
You may be wondering why I bring this up: I write this in the midst of spending time at an orphanage for HIV+ children. I have to be honest and admit that I’ve had to overcome my own little fears and insecurities about being around these kids: those questions which come up in the back of your mind, like – if he’s coughing on me, could I get it? If I somehow accidentally touch his scraped up foot (which is bleeding a bit), could I get infected too? Can we exchange bodily fluids if we’re eating the same food? Maybe it sounds ridiculous, but although I know the facts about HIV/AIDS and how it spreads, there’s still those lingering insecurities that get in the way.
But the more I hang out with them – the more the fears subside, and instead I wonder about this question of the value of life…
I think anyone reading this blog entry would agree that life is valuable and that orphaned and HIV infected children matter. But lets take a moment to imagine what life would be like if you were in their shoes: Your parents died of AIDS, you’ve been rejected by any living relatives, your life is being prolonged with ARV (anti-retro viral drugs) but you also know you’ll probably eventually die of AIDS…
What would you do with your life? What kind of hope would you have? What would you aim for in the future? We all have dreams and ideas about what we want to do with our lives… But what if you would never have the possibility to marry or get your dream job because of the stigma and reality of HIV?
I’ve only been here for a couple of days… so I’m still mulling around these questions in my mind. But one thing I do know: I’m valuing moments – yes, simple moments with these kids. I’m realizing the all important and worthy value of a MOMENT: sitting and reading a book together, exchanging smiles, goofing around with the camera, figuring out a math problem (ugh, all those years of math and now I can’t even figure out the square root of a 4 digit number!) … anyways, I realize also how much I delight in these precious moments not because of what we’re doing, but because of who I’m doing it with. I delight in just being with these kids. Being together is so precious – surely there is something in this, that speaks to the value of life. Both theirs and mine.
AFTERTHOUGHT: I’m so, so thankful for my parents unconditional commitment to my life. I’ve taken it for granted, thinking this was the norm – and now I’m realizing how incredibly blessed I am.
I just said goodbye to a relationship of the last 2.5+ years. My belongings are currently spread across 3 countries and 2 continents. And I’m about to embark on a journey (well, actually I’m already on the train, and there’s no turning back…) and I don’t know where it leads.
My body feels strained and weak from the travels, the roller coaster range of emotions that I’ve already ridden, the underlying fears of the unknown that lies before me…
I’ve already been in India for nearly 2 weeks and stood witness to so many beautiful, heart-rending, ugly, and also miraculous moments and encounters with people. India is an incredibly complex country – full of contrast and paradox. Just yesterday as I sat in my room (which per night is comparable to a night’s stay at a hostel in Europe…) I looked down from my fifth-story window and saw a woman sitting in the trash. Dressed in her bright pink Sari she hammers away at something; her pounding rings all the way to my room. My mind has difficulty grasping the scene before me. It’s so surreal to sit in my safe, comfortable place: a room which is cleaned for me daily, a comfortable bed, a fan and AC adjusting temperatures to my liking, a good meal readily available for a couple hundred rupees (3-5 euros) and the entire world at my finger tips through my personal computer which can access the internet…
What do I do with the knowledge that people – human beings with the same anatomy, mind, emotions, and will as I – are sitting just outside my window and living with so little – in the trash. Who am I that I was born to live in such wealth and excess?
I work with a small organization that is taking steps, little by little, to create small businesses and job opportunities to care for the most vulnerable in our world: orphaned street children, and HIV/AIDS infected and trafficked women. These children and women – broken and caught in a cycle of poverty, are unable to care for themselves. They’re given little to no opportunities – they are the trash of society – thrown aside and forgotten. What good can they offer if they have no education, money, or strength?
After visiting the projects and businesses we’ve started, I’m both encouraged and overwhelmed. Intending to bring good, justice, and change does not come without many challenges and bumps in the road. It can be easy to get discouraged and lose hope. And yet, we’ve also seen so much good – destitute women smiling with the opportunity to learn a new skill that brings earning possibilities, young adult women, who were raised in the children’s home, who are now beginning to study and earn money through one of our businesses, and orphans in homes, who are growing: healthy, nourished and well adjusted, without which they would still be on the streets.
While I could very easily dwell in my aloneness – and the sadness and loss of relationship – I choose to look outward. I am not, and do not want to be a saviour. It’s at this time, more than ever that I’m aware of my own brokenness and need. Perhaps this is exactly where one should find themselves when relating to the (economically) poor – I have a feeling that I will gain just as much if not more than what I can give – as the ‘least of these’ are very rich in ways that I’m presently not.