India being so close to the UAE makes it an exciting, easy getaway, so with a week’s holiday left to take this year we ventured to Varkala in Kerala, in the very south of India. The trip gave me a lot of food for thought, so there will be a few posts coming up on related topics, but the first one I want to start with today is to address the stark reality check I got by visiting Varkala: the reality of the luxury and consumerism we live in, and the reality of the poverty and hardship other people face. For many, none of the experiences I share here will be news, and I was obviously aware of the stark contrast of India vs my world already, but the trip provided a much needed reality check and a thirst for making a difference.
Varkala’s beachfront is a little village located on a cliff above a beautiful white sand beach. It is a destination for yoga retreats, surfing, and Ayurvedic treatments. Online, it looks like a little paradise amongst palm trees – a place to kick back and relax, and to forget the stresses of our everyday busy lives. Many tourists who are there may continue to view Varkala through this rose-tinted glass. It is easy enough: attend your beautiful retreat, sip a latte at Coffee Temple with your friends, buy some souvenirs at super cheap prices from the Indian vendors, and take a walk at sunset on the endless beach. What more do you want?
But when you remove that rose-tinted glass and view the reality of the world around you, the place can look very different.
After the first day, I noticed that many shop keepers, and their families, sleep on the bare floor of their shanty-town shops.
On the second day, I found myself at a nice little surf break and watched 30 old men labor for hours to pull a huge seine net out of the ocean with their bare hands to catch what could only be called fish fry. The catch was divided up among many, and the men went to sell their small share by the roadside. They did this several times a day. Many of them looked older than 70.
On the third day, I found myself on a beautiful rooftop for a yoga class, looking down over the plastic-sheet covered roofs, of the shanty-town like shops along the Varkala beachfront. I could see the patches and leaks within the plastic covers. I could see the grotty paths behind the shops, where the people cook, wash clothes, use the open air toilet.
On the fourth day, I got up early and saw the piles of rubbish set on fire outside the shops, in an attempt to make the place look cleaner by the time the tourists get up.
And so on and so forth…
On our last day, after a whole day of rain and no power, I went over to the Indian girls that look after two little shops (corrugated metal shacks) just outside the hotel I stayed in. They had retreated to one of their shops that actually had a door, in order to protect themselves from the rain. Electricity had just come back on, so I ran over to spend my last few rupees with them to make their day. As soon as I entered the shack, the electricity went again. What followed was a few hours of genuine conversation by candle light, about the reality of life for many Indian shopkeepers here in Varkala. I will write more about Sangeeta and her family specifically in a later post, but the point of this article is the reality that the many Indians in Varkala face, and what many tourists may ignore. Poverty. Living day by day. Working hard to try to keep the family alive. They sleep on the floor, cook out the back, have debt and bills they cannot pay, are often exploited by those around them and get to listen to tourists complain that they could get their product for a few rupees cheaper online, so they don’t buy. They have no money to send the kids to school. No money to cover essential medical bills. And when the season is over in Varkala, they shut the shacks and return back home to their villages, where there is no work, and they live in even less fortunate conditions. This is the reality of many Indian people that greet the tourists outside their little shops on Varkala cliff every morning, with a big smile and a “Yes, please look at my shop”.
When you look at their reality, it is not that easy anymore to sit back and relax, and forget the stresses of our busy everyday lives. Because suddenly, our lives, our stresses, and our problems, seem so minimal in comparison. So silly.
Despite their hardship, these people showed kindness. They make do with the little they have, work hard to support their family, and hope for a better future. In my world, I meet many rich people who are always unsatisfied with what they have; always complaining about everything; always asking for more. A roof to sleep under, education, medical treatments, will never be a problem for them, yet many of these people lack kindness and the wish to share their wealth with others. Even with their own family. They consume and consume for the sake of consuming, and not to satisfy a real need. What a contrast.
As I said at the beginning, these insights are nothing groundbreaking. Nothing that many won’t tell you, when you ask them about their travels to India. But sometimes a simple eye-opener like this is what we need to bring us back to reality, and make us put our own problems into perspective.
Walking through some of the shops on Varkala cliff I came across many banners with quotes, and one of them that particularly struck me was the following:
THE PARADOX OF OUR TIMES
Is that we have taller buildings, but shorter tempers
Wider freeways, but narrower viewpoints
We spend more, but we have less.
We have bigger houses, but smaller families
More conveniences, but less time.
We have more degrees, but less sense
More knowledge, but less judgement
More experts, but more problems
More medicines, but less wellness.
We have multiplied our possessions, but reduced our values.
We talk too much, love too seldom, and hate too often
We have learnt how to make a living, but not a life.
We have added years to life, but not life to years.
We’ve been all the way to the moon and back
But have trouble crossing the street to meet the new neighbour.
We have conquered outer space, but not inner space.
We’ve cleaned up the air, but polluted our soul.
We’ve split the atom, but not our prejudice.
We’ve higher incomes, but lower morals.
We’ve become long on quantity but short on quality.
These are the times of tall men, and short character;
Steep profits, and shallow relationships.
These are the times of world peace, but domestic warfare,
More leisure, but less fun; more kinds of food, but less nutrition.
These are the days of two incomes, but more divorces;
Of fancier houses, but broken homes.
It is a time when there is much in the show window, and nothing in the stockroom.
A time when technology can bring this letter to you,
And a time when you can choose,
Either to make a difference …. or just hit, delete.
Although this post might sound very negative and gloomy, it is not meant to be a bad review. I don’t see my experience in India as bad. I enjoyed Varkala and I met beautiful people, which I am so thankful for – about many of them, there will be blog posts to follow. But the moral of this story is meant to be this: Open your eyes and see the reality of what is happening in the world around you, and focus more on looking outward and making a difference than looking inward and focusing on your own problems. This was my lesson from the past week in Kerala.