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Reflections on Visiting an Indian Slum

I recently visited India for the first time, spending a grand total of 30 hours there.  During that time, however, my experiences ran the gamut.  I spent the day in the Zakhira slum in New Delhi, and then just a few hours later, enjoyed a sumptuous dinner sitting next to former Australia Prime Minister John Howard, his wife Janette, and other luminaries.

(Photo: Nate Gray)

My first impression of India was that the chaos on Indian roads was beyond belief: people walking and riding bikes on what appear to be freeways, motorcycles with three riders, open trucks crammed with people, the constant din of honking everywhere by everyone. On top of that, the people driving me never seemed to know how to get anywhere. It took over an hour to get from the airport to my hotel, a seemingly endless series of turns (including numerous u-turns) and my driver rolling down his window and yelling for directions at nearly every stoplight.  I was surprised when the return trip to the airport, with a different driver, took only 20 minutes and was nearly a straight shot.  I will say, however, that I saw only one cow on the trip.

The Zakhira slum is wedged between two sets of railroad tracks that run in parallel maybe 100 yards apart.  As we cross the first set of tracks to enter the neighborhood, my first impression is how well dressed everyone is.  Not fancy, obviously, but not dressed any worse than I am.  This seems incongruous, given the huge piles of garbage along the railroad tracks, the smoldering fires, and the powerful stench.  My guide and translator Shayak (whom I will write much more about soon), tells me that every few months people from the railroad company come by and take the garbage away using donkeys, which I don’t really understand, but I don’t bother to question.  There is a pile of diarrhea just off the path we are on, although it is the only sign of human excrement I will see on the visit, despite the fact there is no plumbing.  I ask Shayak where people go to the bathroom.  Shayak tells me that there is an area further down the tracks where they “take a dump.”  If we were to go near there, he tells me, I would vomit.