Water, water, everywhere

by

I’m writing this from the backseat of a rickshaw in stop and go traffic on my commute home.  The giant bus next to me is rattling like its engine will shake apart its axles.   The rickshaw driver is chewing some kind of tobacco and spitting it not quite in my general direction.  The exhaust is exhausting.  You can see it from afar – a ghastly ghost in front of each headlamp – but deep inside me I know I’m consuming it the same way it consumes me.  It’s like a foggy afternoon in San Francisco except less cold and wet.  The keys on my laptop are covered with a thin layer of dust from the air.  My screen shakes in the dark in front of me as my driver bobs and weaves and shifts from first to second to first to second.  But that’s not why I’m writing.

I’m thinking about immersion and what it means to me.  An analogy – SCUBA diving: Immersed deep underwater, you can temporarily forget what it is like to breathe air.  You can see the surface from afar but it is blurred by the ripples and waves and many feet of water over your head.  That faraway world feels like a dream you once had.  While you’re down there, you can get close to fish but you can never be a fish.  You can reach with your hand and try to touch one but they will always evade you.  The fish around you know that you are not one.  Some free-divers perfect a skill of becoming “one” with their environment, even if only temporarily.  They meditate underwater and achieve lower heart rates.  The fish can sense their ease.  These people can get closer to nature because they are less threatening.  I can never be a rural villager.  Can I be immersed or am I walking around town wearing pounds of SCUBA gear?  Can I learn skills that make me more approachable and less “other”?  I hope so. 

When I arrive in a village in a big car, everyone knows senses the arrival of different.  I’m a tourist.  I came to learn and to help – but without wishing to, I become a distraction from the purpose of the day: eye care.  The villagers assume I am the doctor.  They gesture signs of respect when I approach.  An old man shows me the elephantiasis on his foot.  A woman brings me her blind albino children and says what should I do?  Please say something to them in Telugu, they will like that.  All I can offer are reading glasses, I say.  I’m so sorry inside.  Is that all I have to offer?  We can only refer these people to the hospital because we are not qualified to diagnose or treat other health problems.  A woman beyond her years is crying in front of me.  Nobody has come to her village like this before.  Her husband’s eye is shriveled and badly damaged.  We have no money, she says.  We are very poor.  We have small children and I can’t leave them.  You tell me about a referral?  Her hope was piqued by our arrival and now it is broken. 

People ask how much my camera costs.  Should I lie?  Should I defer the question and keep people ignorant of the economics of life in other places?  I had to get money at an ATM this morning to pay my translator and my driver.  I made a rounding error in my withdrawal so my pocket is literally bulging with cash.  More money than someone here makes in a year doing hard work.  While I’m standing here looking people in the eye saying I can’t help them.  I feel embarrassed.  

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One Response to “Water, water, everywhere”

  1. Kj Says:

    John,
    I was moved by your post. I feel your sense of alienation, your helplessness as well as your strong desire to fit in, to be immersed.
    Do not feel disheartened!! Do not despair!
    With time, you will , be immersed and you will be able to contribute to the empowerment of the people you meet.

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