Reducing Our Footprint

About two weeks ago when I first started cycling through Andhra Pradesh, I started noticing these rickshaws that were packed with 8 or more people in the early mornings. Then I would see them again in the late afternoons, just before sundown. They were carrying an amazing amount of human cargo for what’s essentially an oversized motorcycle. Men, women, and children were packed like Tetris pieces around the driver, and sometimes more would hang off the sides and the back. At first, I thought they were large traveling families. I’d seen that sort of thing in Bangalore before. But later, someone explained to me what was really going on. They were day laborers, being shuttled out by farm owners to pick their cotton fields.

Their income? Only two dollars a day.

Don’t assume that the land owners who hire them are doing that much better – on a bad rain year owners can end up with less in their pockets than the day laborers. Last year was one such year.

My point is to say that the farming communities in Andhra Pradesh are living close to the line; they are poor. Since we arrived here and started writing a story about cotton farming, we’ve appreciated the cutbacks families have had to make just to keep their children in school, or hold on to their homes, or ensure a brighter future for their kids.

In such an environment, Morgan and I feel it’s important to be as least invasive economically as we can. We didn’t want families to spend money on us, because no one in these communities has ever seen the kind of resources we have. For instance — we don’t even tell people the price of our bicycles, even though they ask often. We already made that mistake a couple times and people were shocked to know that at $1200, a Trek 520 cost more than their family motorcycle. Now we lie and tell people we don’t know the price tag because the bicycles were donated from a sponsor.

We’re also about as far from needing handouts within these communities as it gets. Our $20-a-day budget between the two of us is what many farming families can live off for a week.

Yet despite all our best intentions, since we arrived in Brahmanapally we’ve seemed to incur costs on people everywhere we go. This is especially true with our host, Father Raja — a Catholic priest, and uncle of a friend of mine from Los Angeles. With Raja and others, what we’ve been continually combating is an overwhelming culture of Indian hospitality.

The most immediate way we’ve been over-treated is through the food served to us. Most meals get changed to include meat when we’re at the table. We’re talking about a community where many families can only afford chicken once a week, and red meat is only brought out on special occasions like weddings. I can’t remember a day we’ve been here that we haven’t had meat, or at least the option.

Other luxury items we commonly receive are sodas, or beer. At a recent town gathering to celebrate the opening of a community room, a small boy walked up to me and served me a cola called thumbs up. I didn’t really feel like drinking soda, so I told him no thank you.  

“But it’s Thumbs up, mannn!” The kid looked hurt and confused. How could I refuse it? Someone had purchased two sodas specifically for me and Morgan. I realized I better just drink the cola.

Such things like the soda and the meat are done without our asking. But other times, it’s our own requests that are misunderstood. There was an episode just the other day with Father Raja, when I asked him:

“Hey do you think you could pick up a few bananas and apples for us on your way back home?”

An hour later Raja’s household helper surprised us with a knock on the front door. His arms were loaded with more fruit than we could possibly eat before it spoiled – about 25 bananas and a bag full of apples. Raja had sent him to get the fruit for us, so I tried to pay him. He wouldn’t accept any money. I grimaced. Somehow instead of me buying a dozen fruits, I managed to get four dozen bought for us.

Don’t get me wrong. All of the hospitality is much-appreciated on our end. The farming families we’ve been spending time with ask nothing from us in return, and we get almost more thanks for visiting people’s homes than we can give in return for the pitchers of tea and plates of biscuits that seem to materialize on every porch. Though the unnecessary gestures often make us feel uneasy, their generosity towards us has made me reflect on my own, about how I can learn from their examples and work towards being more selfless.

But on that continuum of generosity, there does come a boundary where it becomes uncomfortable. That line has been crossed a couple times while we’ve been in Brahmanapally, and we’ve been confronted with the uneasy challenge of dealing with it.

The first such occasion was when we were invited to a lunch with the Catholic Sisters at their convent, which is just on the opposite side of the church where we are staying. After yet another giant feast of meat, the sisters told us they had a gift for us, and handed us two envelopes. We thanked them and folded the envelopes into our pockets.

Later that evening Morgan got my attention. “Chris, have you seen what’s inside the envelope?”

I took the folded piece of paper out of my pocket, and lifted the seal. Inside was a 1000 rupee bill. Morgan had one too. Between the two of us, that’s only $40, but it still managed to leave an empty feeling in my stomach. The Sisters had just given us enough money to pay one child’s tuition for the convent’s primary school. This was right after we had learned that not all farmers have been able to afford it.

The second incident has actually yet to happen, but is right around the corner. After nearly two weeks of touring this struggling farming community — seeing the growers’ vulnerability to the rains, learning how many haven’t seen a profit in years, and finding out about how the local schools are struggling to retain teachers on such low salaries – Father Raja told us the most humbling thing we could have imagined.

His congregation is planning a collection for us next Sunday.

All efforts to dissuade him have been futile; we cannot stop it from happening. Of course, we also cannot in good conscience use money from a town that was just able to buy its first water purifier. So we then considered what it’d look like to return the money, along with the Sisters’ contributions. We quickly saw how offensive that would be.

So here’s our solution: We’re going to use the money to contribute something lasting to a school, or an orphanage, in Hyderabad. We’ll make the donation in the name of the town, New Brahmanapally.

We’re thinking it would be nice to plant a tree with a plaque in a schoolyard.

Or if anyone else has any suggestions, we’re all ears.

Travel Adventures, Permalink

5 Responses to Reducing Our Footprint

  1. pH says:

    It’s a priviledge to be asked for input on the question of what you might leave behind annonimously. The tree is a good idea, as an imagery for strength against odds, aside from the pleasure it might give to adventurous young limbs and heated cotton pickers after bagging.

    One of the most extraordiary gifts you can give to a community, and to individuals, is recognition of one of their best…a trophy, a scholarship, a book order, a special opportunity. It lifts the community in pride, it creates a role model, it rallies people around a cause that is theirs, and celebrates a standard of excellence which they get to define. It also creates a sense of history, as citizens look back and trace a tradition. So the tree can be a symbol of that prize, or just the fruit of their generosity.

    Thank you

  2. anonymous says:

    Set up a scholarship fund for the children. Or buy some kind of equipment to be housed in a church or school that would be useful for the community. I think a tree would look nice symbolically and all but it would be kind of a waste as it wouldn’t really benefit anyone.

  3. Anand says:

    Dear Chris,
    It is really beautiful to read your experiences. Its not only well written and formulated, also giving very honest accounts and bringing out the most positive picture. The region you are talking about is going through big changes and as Morgen pointed out in his account- ”Watching Globalization: A Portrait of an Indian Village” the forces of socio-economic changes are the biggest challenge at the moment. By now, you might have heard the trend of farmers committing suicide in the region. You have already mentioned situation of farmers and must have realized the gap between the classes. And yet, people, who have so little, always surprise you with their kindness and generosity. I’d request you to please accept/respect their gesture of humanity and do not think in terms of “returns”.
    You are already helping them by somehow raising the issues related to them, making people in the world aware of them and their situation. (Doesn’t corporations pay heaps for advertising? lol ). My suggestion would be- keep them and their kindness in your heart and accept it with gratitude. And, when time is right, give them enough space in your accounts/publications. It’s not about money, it was never about money.

  4. BAbzy says:

    Generosity is such a great experience , sometimes is easier to give than to receive , but we learn from both ! :)
    always instructive to read you :)
    Cheers take care !

  5. Ahilya says:

    Well Written Post ! A Scholarship would be something that would really affect the Kids of these Families Giving them an opportunity to continue studying and not losing Hope !
    This would Really Help Mold the Future of these Kids !

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