Imagine, if you will, a nice spring day. Your main front door is open and you are letting the sun and breeze enter your home through the screen. A knock on the door is answered by your teenager and a stranger, with 3 other people, tells him, “These people are my guests and they want tea.” What would you do?
I know my inclination would be to tell them where they closest coffee (tea available) shop is located.
Imagine instead, flinging the door wide open and inviting the four strangers inside, making tea and spending an hour, your family gathered around you, listening and learning about the strangers who entered your home.
Come with me into a poor neighborhood of Agra….feel this one with me.
When Kamal and Nilal met us at our hotel and asked what we wanted to see with our personal tour with them I had thought it was all organized already. I had been in email discussion with the BuddhaPath office in Delhi and was promised a tour of a Buddhist Temple and a mediation session and then some other things. That sounded great as I have read some about Buddhism but know the real life exposure would be meaningful. But the guys had not gotten the memo.
So, basically Lisa and I told them we wanted to stay away from the tourist areas. We wanted, while staying safe, to see how people live. We also had a list of items we were trying to find for friends and wondered if they knew of any market where regular people shop that might have them.
Nilal got on his cell phone and within 20 minutes we were out the door and into the car. We headed to an area of town SmartTours never would have wanted us to see. This was the real deal…the place where people in the middle middle and lower economic areas live, work and play.
Walking through the market itself was amazing with the narrow street, the moving traffic (I inadvertently walked into a moving motorcycle at one point and was vigorously told off ), the animals wandering around. The mass of humanity.
Shopping was more fun. First of all, the prices were not super-inflated for tourists to begin with. For example, I knew I did not want a sari; I would never find a real occasion to wear one, but I wanted a shalwar, an outfit with pants, tunic and scarf. I had priced one earlier in Delhi and it was over $70. So, with some hope, we entered a shop. Open to the street with an metal overhead garage type door, the store itself was probably 15 feet wide by 20 feet deep. This was a large shop (larger than the shop with jewelry Lisa is exploring in the photo above). Shelves stacked to the ceiling were loaded with plastic bag wrapped clothing items. With Nilal getting into the spirit of the shopping, the request was spoken, the estimate of my size was made, and the stack started growing on the counter. Every bag was opened. Every item unfolded. Soon there were about 10 choices on display. When requested the price was given…equivalent to $40. That was better, but we already knew the system. Bartering, arm wrestling over the price, is expected. Nilal quietly asked me what I was willing to pay, Giving the equivalent in rupees at $25, he then went into his discussion in Hindi. In a few minutes it appeared I had purchased my new outfit for $15.
We hit a few more shops and made a few more purchases. In this market, unlike the ones where the tourists go, the vendors did not chase us. There was curiosity about us; we were the only Westerners on the street. But courtesy and interest was the action.
We wandered south along the street and crossed some railroad tracks, entering into an area where small factories lined the narrower street. Metal works included pots and pans and also what we figured were evaporative coolers similar to what is used in the American Southwest as a less expensive alternative to air conditioning.
Nilal lead us on and then took us into a side alley. He said he hoped we could get to see the inside of a house, and then he knocked on the door, the teenager answered. He disappeared for a few seconds (probably to check with mom) and then ushered us in.
After crossing the small entryway we entered into a courtyard about 10 feet by 10 feet and open to the sky above. To the side was a room with a few plastic outdoor chairs and several platforms of woven canvas webbing. A middle aged woman offered us the chairs and then asked Bilal in Hindi if we would like some chai. I had no idea what he had said to the teenager that we wanted tea so we looked at him and he nodded and we smiled and nodded.
The room filled with people and they piled on to the platforms. The family living in the house includes a grandmother, 5 adult brothers, their wives and their children. We counted about 25 people and only met one of the men who was sewing in his room upstairs. (When I noticed his sewing machine I immediately flashed on the family history that my mother’s father was a tailor when he immigrated to the United States in 1905 and had probably worked in a similar setting in New York before leaving the city for literally greener pastures; he became a farmer.) We learned that the family had owned the house for at least 5 generations. That the oldest boy was soon to take his college entrance exam.
Understanding that offering them money would be an insult I told them a bit about New York City and then, using paper and pen we drew a map of the United States and showed them other places we had lived. They knew California but nothing else, including Nashville. Marketers for Music City USA would be devastated.
When asked if we would like to see the house I grabbed the opportunity (once again thinking how my house would look if strangers came to call). I watched one of the women make our chai.
The tour wound up and up and up five flights of stairs. We poked our heads into several of the rooms and one was nicer than the others; the man must have a good paying job.
The view from the roof gave us a glimpse that life in this neighborhood is vertical and that not all is as it seems on the street level.
We talk a lot about hospitality in this country, especially in our church communities. Since 9/11 we also are very quick to think poorly about people who are Muslim. It is so easy to generalize when you don’t know anyone.
These people live at the lower end of what is considered middle class in India. Here it would be poverty level. But the house was spotless. The people were curious and friendly and involved. They had little but were very willing to share with the strangers.
How we measure riches? How do we show acceptance?
Getting off the beaten track is what Lisa and I like to do when we travel. The Taj Mahal, visited that morning, was the highlight of the trip for many in our SmartTour group. For us, the day only got better and better…..to be continued.