Saturday, April 26, 2008


Charminar Hyderabad
Originally uploaded by JustABoy
Before I say anything, let me forewarn you that this is likely to be my lengthiest post yet…but it’s the weekend so you’ll have lots of time to digest, if you’re not too bored.

The time I spent recently in India delivered all the contradictions and ironies I had been promised. It’s a wonderful place to visit, and I truly enjoyed my stay there. It was the first time in ten years I’d been outside of North America or Europe, and it reminded me of just how different life can be in different corners of the globe. The number of trees I need to plant to offset my travel notwithstanding, I do think it’s important from time to time, if possible, to interact in a deeply meaningful way with another culture.

I was there for the first of my two weddings (we’re doing it again in the US this fall for all our friends and family here), and spent five weeks, mainly in Hyderabad. I don’t mean to claim that I speak about all of India, and want to just put out the disclaimer that this is just my experience and observations that I’m sharing.

I think my relationship with material things is what I’ve reflected upon most since my return. This really surprised me. I thought before I left that the poverty and unequal distribution of wealth would be most difficult for me to stomach. There certainly were days that I had tears in my eyes, when the poverty was just overwhelming. I felt like throwing up more than once (separate from the times I felt like throwing up from the three or four stomach bugs I contracted).

For some reason, however, I was really slapped in the face by how much STUFF we have in North America…and how much of it is absurdly unnecessary. I don’t know why I didn’t notice this on my past travels. I suspect it’s due to my lack of maturity at the time. For whatever reason, it’s been a very heavy weight I’ve been carrying with me ever since my return.

I believe that simple is best, so I’ll try to summarize as briefly as possible, the ironies, from a simplicity/frugality/environmental standpoint, that I witnessed.

Here’s what was not cool:

1. There is trash everywhere. Public trashcans were difficult to find or non-existent. I asked the driver of our car one day what I should do with a gum wrapper and water bottle I had, and he told me he’d take care of them. I found them later on the street in front of the house. Not quite what I meant. So I started saving my trash and throwing it out in the house. Then I realized that the man who took care of the house was burning it all every morning. Not sure that’s super healthy. There was a super smelly impromptu landfill that had sprung up about 2 miles from where we were staying. The trash that was officially collected from that side of town was being dumped here because the official landfill was too far away, and well, nobody had complained.

2. I didn’t see a single way to recycle anything the entire time I was there.

3. Air pollution is a major problem. It was often hard to breath, and I could never get my face to feel clean for more than half an hour at a time.

Here’s what was awesome:

1. Everybody eats local. There’s not really much choice. Most people still buy their produce from vendors on the side of the road, and those guys only sell what they’ve harvested recently. I’m worried that as the middle class grows, this may begin to change. Grocery stores are just starting to spring up everywhere, and the huge conglomerate is not something that only exists in North America (check out Tata or Birla). I was glad to hear my MIL say that she still goes out of her way to buy things from the local shop owner when she can because she knows it’s getting more difficult for them to make it with big corporate competition. I hope more people feel the same way.

2. Everybody eats a lot of vegetarian food. I know we’ve been hearing lots in the media about how the increased demand for meat from India and China are driving up food prices and causing grain shortages. I do not dispute the accuracy of this argument. I would stress, however, that “increased demand” doesn’t mean that Chinese and Indian folks are now eating meat three times a day. I don’t know what the case is in China, but I imagine it’s similar – increased demand means that a lot of people now eat meat once or twice a week rather than once a twice a month. A lot of people are still totally vegetarian for religious reasons. I think that if the US demand per capita for meat was equal to that of an average Indian person, we’d be patting ourselves on the back for a job well done.

3. Lots of people have electricity, but very few of them expect it to function all the time. There are frequent power outages of varying lengths, some announced, and some not. The funniest part to me, is that the conversation never skips a beat, even when the lights go out, it’s totally dark, and everybody is fumbling to find candles and matches.

4. Water is trucked in and stored in tanks. Everybody is cognizant that there is a very finite supply, and uses it much more carefully than we do in the US. Showers, for example, are taken by filling a bucket (maybe four gallons or so) and using a smaller bucket to dump the water on yourself to wash and rinse with.

5. Nobody uses toilet paper. Actually I’m not sure if this is actually awesome or not, because they use water instead, so I guess it’s a matter of “dueling resources” at this point. Either way, I wasn’t brave enough to try this method - although I probably should have, because good luck finding anything other than single ply. What is awesome is that paper towels and facial tissue are also virtually non-existent.

6. Each power outlet has an on/off switch. I’ve heard this is also the case in Australia, and probably other places as well, but it makes it really easy to ensure that appliances are really off and not sucking energy. This is important because electricity is super expensive - so much so that despite the fact that it’s hotter and muggier (at least for parts of the year) than anywhere here in North America, almost nobody has air conditioning. There are fans, and “coolers” that work by somehow circulating water through this big thing that has some hay (I’m not a real technical person, if you can’t tell) but these both use much less energy than an air conditioner. Life without AC is possible!

7. Everybody squeezes in – everywhere. Fuel is expensive, so a van for ten people will somehow manage to accommodate twelve to fifteen people for a six hour trip. There are small little vehicles called autos – sort of like giant motorized tricycles with roofs – that look like they’d comfortably seat three passengers and a driver. I’ve seen them packed with seven and more passengers. Safety concerns, I know…I’m just saying that I’ll think next time before taking a second car somewhere just so somebody doesn’t have to sit in the middle seat. Buses are another story altogether. If you’re claustrophobic, you just wouldn’t make it. People literally ride the bus with one foot on the step, holding on to the door frame, because the buses are so crowded.

8. Along with the squeezing in theme, growing up and getting married is not automatically a reason to get your own house. Again, I’m not sure I’d like to do this, but lots of people live with parents and/or in-laws.

9. Because electricity is so expensive, people make do with smaller refrigerators. Humans originally started using spices for a reason, and lots of spices in the foods help them to stay edible without refrigeration.

10. Clothes are always dried on a line. I don’t think dryers are even readily available for purchase.

11. Packaging is much more minimal. Bulk purchase of many items is the only option – you can’t buy a box of rice; it comes in a large sack or you scoop it from a bin. Leftover food in restaurants is packed in folded newsprint rather than Styrofoam containers. Nearly everything you will find for sale has little to no packaging – and almost always, there is less packaging than you’d find for the same item in North America.

12. Stuff gets reused…even when it’s not in pristine condition. I sent my laundry out one day in a bag whose handle was about to break. I figured I’d get it back in a new bag, but I got it back in that same bag – with the handle taped back on. There’s a value placed on things that seems to be lacking in North American culture.

What worries me is that the reason why we don’t do some of these things here in the US seems to be simply a matter of financially not being forced to. For example, we have clothes dryers because we have inexpensive electricity. When I stopped looking at things in terms of dollars is when I started being able to appreciate the true value of how things are done elsewhere in the world, and when I started wanting to live less like a “typical” consumer.


Green Bean said...

Interesting post.

As to the travel, I've eschewed major travel since I "went green" because it is such a carbon suck. I just finished Common Wealth, though, and at the end, the author (a UN dude) lists 8 or so ways that an individual can act. One of them was travel. I'm not sure how I feel about that on one hand but his point was that we need to experience other cultures, get face to face with the not so pretty side of life that people outside of North America live on a daily basis. Compelling argument.

My other thought was that you might want to check out Hungry Planet: How the World Eats from your local library. You commented on how much STUFF we have here and I thought you might enjoy this book which gives visual images of families all over the world with their food for a week. I didn't even read the book - too many books, too little time. But the visuals were arresting. They really drive the point home.

Heather said...

Your trip reminds me of my visit to China back in 2003. It has to be one of my all time favorite trips, but it was a real learning experience too. I have a photo of an area in Shanghai of a gold-ish looking building (financial district) next to a slum area. You can see both in the photo and it's very striking.

The other memory that comes to mind is I got talking to a woman on the train from Beijing to TaiAn and I asked about clothing because I could see poverty was an issue, but their clothes were just gorgeous. She told me that people bought one or two outfits a year and they just wore them everyday. I was amazed. Can you imagine anyone in the US doing that, but it's real life in other parts of the world.

Traveling truly is an amazing learning experience and has helped shape who I am today. It also can be brutal to the environment. But I think that somewhere there is a balance (what Buddhists would call the middle way). Learning about other cultures is wonderful and I want it to have a place in my life, but I also think it should be done with great mindfulness.

arduous said...

Great post!

I have a couple of points. First of all, there isn't "recycling" as such in India because glass bottles get reused. If you have a drink at say a small snack stand or such, you're not allowed to take it with you because the shop keeper needs the bottle back.

Second of all, one of the huge reasons that Indians don't use washers/dryers/other convenience items has to do with the cost of labor relative to capital. In non-econ terms, that basically means that in India human labor is cheapar than machines ie it is cheaper to have a washer woman wash your clothes than to get a washing machine.

That's because India has such a huge population. Even middle class Indians tend to have at least a couple servants who come in to sweep, wash clothes, etc. It's an important aspect of the Indian economy. So unless the population takes a sharp turn downward, I think you are unlikely to see most Indians, even upper-middle class and upper-class Indians, start to purchase these convenience items. Why buy a washing machine that you'd have to load, when you can hire someone to wash your clothes, dry them, and fold them for less money?

Melissa said...

green bean - travel is an issue that is a struggle for me; our families live on the east coast and India, unfortunately, so I am trying to find a balance - but it's tough. I'll check out that book - pictures work for me!

heather - isn't it amazing how much stuff we "need" in this country compared to other places? I think you're exactly right about the with most things in life, it's key.

arduous - I totally forgot about the glass bottles; you're right...I was thinking about plastic, since I drank a crazy amount of bottled water trying to not get sick, but the glass bottle thing is a good point. When I was in Zimbabwe they did the same thing - I imagine lots of non-US places do since outside of this country resources seem to be valued more; I wish we reused bottles here (for things besides milk, which can be hard to find in the glass anyway).

And I was totally amazed at how the labor vs. capital thing. I'd heard that before we went, but I could not believe how inexpensive it was to have the laundry done, like you said...and even my pajamas came back ironed all nicely!

I also meant to mention that I thought it was very cool that there are people who come around to buy old rags, and newspapers and such. So even though they can't be recycled, they're not regarded as garbage either.

Green Grrl said...

I spent 6 months in India in 2001 (mostly in Vijayawada but also spent about 2 weeks in Hyderabad).

It truly was a turning point in my life.

It really opened my eyes to how it is possible to live (and be happy) with so much less.

I remember those bucket showers well!