The relativity of comfort

It is the sound of the city awakening that slowly carries me out of my slumber. The brumming of the rickshaws, the mooing of cows, the laughter of street children. I make myself a delicious, milky, south Indian coffee and sit on the terrace, surrounded by the natural green vegetation, watching monkeys scampering up the coconut tree.

Or not.

It is funny for me that even though I have been to India and don’t consider myself an especially naive person that I had even for a second believed that this is how my life would be here. Although I am really not the one to blame for this slightly outdated and unrealistic view of living in India. My parents are.
Travelling around India as a child with my parents I recall the magnificent places that we would stay. In Delhi we would stay in a beautiful old house on one of the University Campuses . I remember I could see monkeys swinging around on the trees while I sat eating my childhood Indian breakfast of Chappatis, Nutella and Milo. When in the larger cities my parents would find the hotels or B&Bs with the most character. That generally meant small but expansive old crumbling Victorian houses with lots of character and beautiful attention to detail. Owing mainly to my Dads fluency in Hindi and my parents astounding bargaining skills we would inevitably end up in the biggest, brightest rooms with the best views. Broad bay windows with carved pillars and Persian rugs and wide staircases. Chipped white paint and cracked marble revealing decades of use and enveloping the whole pace with a sort of timeless mysticism. The places never had all or any of the luxuries but AC and running water was a small price to pay for such exquisite beauty and charm. Of course I conveniently have forgotten most of the other places we stayed. The places that had a constant smell of pig sh#!, cockroaches the size of my fist and bats that would nest in the chimneys..Nevertheless even those discomforts were exciting to me as a child. Beauty, like truth, is relative to the time when one lives and to the individual who can grasp it I suppose…

In retrospect I should have known that living in India, and living in India as a poor student, was going to be entirely different. I am currently living in what is called a “ladies hostel”. It is in essence a residence for female students and unmarried working women. In reality, I awake in the morning to the sound of my cell phone alarm, stumbling into the bathroom. The shock of the coldish-water that I dump over myself with a bucket awakens me to the sound of screaming children, barking dogs and ever-present sound of cars baking up which drives me a little madder every morning. Cars in India play this tune when they back up instead of just beeping. It’s sort of a do-di-do-do-da-da-doooo…do-di-do-do-da-da-dooo…for as long as it takes them to back up. Considering no moving entity in India will stop for a slowly backing up vehicle (unless, that is, it is a cow or an elephant) this process on the street, and the subsequent tune, can go on for what seems like forever.
When people think of living in a developing country I think there are often strong romantic ideals or expectations attached to that thought. There is a certain novelty that arises from living in a place that is devoid of all the luxuries one usually has at home. It is almost a sort of “poverty novelty” if I may be so brash. Perhaps it is because in our silent, sterile world we miss the vibrant colors, smells and sounds of life and living life, with all its dirt and stenches and discomforts. However this novelty is entertained with the knowledge that eventually we can return to our clean, quiet, private homes. After about two weeks of living here, the novelty of constant cockroaches, no hot water, no privacy and constant noise had slowly worn off. I was at that stage where I really hated everything. I was annoyed that there was a layer of dirt on absolutely everything, hated the fact that every time I opened the cupboard a cockroach would jump out at me…I wanted desperately to have 5 minutes of privacy which in a shared room in a cramped hostel in the middle of the fourth largest city in India is virtually impossible. In short, I was pretty upset and frustrated and p#$% off at everything.
And then I took a ride through the city. I remember what my Indian-Malaysian friend told me a few days ago : “You are always looking out the side, Sarah. I suppose there is not much to see on the streets in Canada? Maybe that is why people like it here in Asia so much; there is so much to see it almost feels like you are experiencing life at every moment”. It is true; streets in Canada or Germany are boring in comparison to streets here. Everything happens here on the streets and there is almost a direct relationship between privacy and income. The more money you have, the more you can hide your life between walls and doors. The less money, the more your life becomes public here. That means with no money to even afford a door, everyone has an open view into the one-bedroom palm leaf shack that you share with your parents and 3 siblings. It means that there are no walls to hide the one water pump shared by 50 families, waiting in line for their turn. It means that luxury for the most part is not being able to have high-speed Wi-Fi or hot water, luxuries are the essentials to staying healthy like clean water or electricity. It also means that the dire circumstances that a large percentage of people live in make my humble accommodation seem like a palace.
Needless to say, the novelty of living in a dark, shared room with no hot water is back now. But it is not the novelty that arises from coming from somewhere that has more and living briefly in a place that has less; it is the novelty that arises when you are surrounded by less and counting your lucky stars that you have more.

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