Udaipur, India: A Photo, A Girl, A Lesson

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been uploading the remaining photos from our travels through India and Nepal in 2008 (This New Year’s resolution, if you’re wondering:  NEVER EVER allow ourselves to get this far behind on photos.)

Experiences, emotions, and even memories of certain smells came back to me as I added labels and descriptions.

Sometimes a story behind a photo really stays with you.  While sifting through our images from Udaipur (a terrific town in the Indian state of Rajasthan), I came across this photo of a girl we’d met in the market there.  In some ways, it looks like so many of our other photos of children and people in India – colorful, human, evocative.  But to me, this image carried a story — and a lesson.  

Excited to be Photographed - Udaipur, India
Girl at the market in Udaipur.

She was a garbage scavenger, one of many making a living from finding spare scraps of metal and other discarded bits and pieces that could be sold or recycled.  She walked through the winding streets of the main market in Udaipur.  She was dressed in simple clothes that bordered on rags, a contrast to the school kids passing us in bright, pressed uniforms with shirts so white they almost glowed.

As we made our way through the market, she followed us through the labyrinth of streets, a woven plastic bag slung over her shoulder, half-filled from the fruits of her morning’s labor.  But she kept her distance. Each time we would stop to speak with a vendor or explore a market stall, she would hover just a few meters away. The expression on her face: pure curiosity. Perhaps she wanted to know what it was that two foreigners found interesting at her market, what we talked about with vendors and why we took all those photos.

Each time we would emerge from an interaction, I’d turn around and give her a smile. In response, she’d put her head down in shyness.  When we’d begin moving again, she’d continue following us, keeping the distance that made her just comfortable.

She wasn’t begging.  She didn’t appear interested in getting money from us.

After about twenty minutes, I approached her and asked her name and a few other simple questions.  She didn’t speak any English — not surprising considering that she’d probably never attended school. So verbal communication didn’t really work.

As a way to connect, I pointed to the camera, smiled and motioned to her so as to communicate, “Can I take your photo?”

She nodded excitedly.  She was thrilled.  Then she broke into a smile.

After our interaction, she picked up her sack and headed on down the road to continue her day.  Perhaps her curiosity had been satisfied. Perhaps she just wanted us to take her photo the whole time – to give her the same attention and care we’d given others at the market – but she was too shy to ask.  We’ll never know for certain.

As I looked at the photo and thought about her, I was reminded how easy it is to keep walking and never turn around to acknowledge the people around us.  We’re busy, we’re tired; there’s to-do lists to check off, places to go, people to see, events to fill in the white spaces.   There are so many reasons to keep moving.

And sometimes in the midst of all this, opportunities are missed.  The littlest of opportunities that we’ll never know. And it’s those opportunities that can enhance one’s life and make a difference, however small.

In this case, I did turn around. I don’t kid myself that this was a life changing experience for either of us. But, my life is enriched for the experience; I can only hope that perhaps hers was, too.

So on this New Year’s day, I’m reminded of this girl, our brief encounter on the streets of Udaipur and what it all means.

Happy 2011.

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Comments

  1. Alfonso Montealegre says

    What does it all mean? You “can only hope that perhaps hers was, too.” You could have done more than hope. Like, you couldn’t have given her a sandwich? Or a buck? She scavenges garbage to survive, and you apparently took quite a bit from your interaction with her, but you gave her squat in return? Really, the poor of the Third World just exist to provide enriching experiences for privileged yuppie backpackers. You people really are such nincompoops you don’t even get how bad a post like this makes you look, do you?

  2. says

    I am touched by your encounter. When we travel, we often go as tourists refusing to reach out to the locals out of fear. I am sure you made her day by taking her picture more than by giving her some money and hoping she goes away.

  3. says

    Great post. One of the things I realized is that even looking someone in the eye is something we can forget to do. We’re too busy, in a rush, need something right away that we can sometimes treat people like robots or just obstacles in the street.

  4. says

    One of the things I’ll take away from my time in India is how much the kids LOVED having their photo taken and how much more they love seeing their own faces in the LCD screen. It really does just light them up!

  5. says

    @Alfonso: I’m sorry you didn’t find this lesson of showing respect and acknowledging people around you worthwhile or relevant. The example I used here was of a girl of a low socio-economic class who is usually ignored by locals and tourists alike. However, the lesson of taking time out to treat people with respect and not rush through life ignoring those around you applies to everyone, from the richest to the poorest. I’d also add that calling someone a nincompoop like this does not exactly exude respect; there are other ways to make one’s point.

    I don’t mean to diminish the physical needs of the poor at all and I’m sorry if this came through to you in the piece. I would have been happy to have bought her some food if she had stuck around after this interaction. However, as Maharani points out in her comment, sometimes tourists and locals alike throw money and food the way of girls like this in order to get them to “go away” because they make them feel guilty instead of trying to make a connection and treat them as a valued human. In our work with microfinance organizations and the poor in rural and urban areas in India and Latin America, we’ve seen that investing in people, which includes both financial help in the way of a loan and treating them as an equal and valued member in society, has much more effect than just giving money away.

    @Retrotraveller: Thanks. Glad you enjoyed this.

    @Maharani: Thank you for your comment. It really sums up the reality so well. When surrounded by so much poverty and need, it’s often easier for us (the privileged) to give money as a way to get rid of our guilt and often to get people to go away rather than acknowledge and realize the humanity in them.

    @Priyank: Given the way that the others in the market seemed to not notice her, I’m afraid you are right that this girl doesn’t get a lot of attention every day. What I did doesn’t make me any better than anyone else, but remembering this experience provided me with perspective that I could be better at acknowledging those around me, both strangers and those close to me.

    @Jennifer: Your comment really means a lot to me. Thank you. Hope your 2011 is a full one!

    @Ayngelina: So true. You said it much better than me. We tend to get caught up in our own busyness that we forgot to acknowledge the humanity around us by just looking someone in the eye and smiling to say hi. This is true at home, as well as on the road.

    @Connie: Kids in India were so gregarious in front of the camera and loved seeing their images and then proudly showing them to mothers, fathers and friends. Several of the women in the vegetable and basket section of the market in Udaipur wanted us to take photos of them and of their kids – they were very proud of them. I mailed them back to the address they gave me, but have no idea if they ever got into the right hands.

  6. says

    Great heartwarming story with a good lesson to it.
    Years ago I was in China and was giving out balloons to some of the children in a small city called Qufu. One of the adults wanted a simple balloon. It seemed odd to me because balloons are usually only for children. And, I only has a certain amount with me.

    However, this man pulled a heavy brick cart all day and to him the balloon was something special. I gave it to him and he was as happy as any child. You never know when you can make someone’s day! It feels great as well.

    Best,

    Chuck

  7. says

    @Naomi: Thank you! Hope to bring even more great content your way this year!

    @Timothy: Thanks for your comment & glad you enjoyed this.

    @Chuck: Great story from Qufu. Sometimes it really is the little things that can make – or break – someone’s day. Perhaps he wanted that balloon for himself, or perhaps he wanted to take it to his kid/grandkid. We’ll never know the reason, but the simple act is what’s important.

  8. says

    An excellent observation on how important it is to just be aware and open up a bit. Happy New Year. I’ll look forward to reading more of your posts.

  9. HUSEN UDAIPURI says

    Thanks fr wrting the abve essons.The world is full of Rich and poor peoples.The good people can help forpoorpeople in the world.Udaipur city in Kashmir of Rajasthan and anatural city giftof God the Almighty.We may walk on the right and constructive path of humanity. Many many thanks.

  10. says

    From one point of view, such kids and even adults tell themselves, “these people are rich enough to be able to travel the world.” You can’t say they’re wrong, can you? To them, such travelers have got the money. All that occupies their minds is how to go on living the way they do, how to make a living, how to get fed and dressed, etc.

    You are there, a stranger with a camera in your hand, look different, and smile to everyone! You are definitely a weird being to them. So, they are confused.

    I was guiding a bird watching group some 8 years ago at some of the most poverty-stricken parts of south of Iran. At a village, people wanted me to swear to convince them that some people have come to their village to look at the birds and go. They even thought they were doctors who could vaccinate their kids. So, they asked me all those weird questions.

    We should cherish what we are and what we have.

    Rahman Mehraby
    Destination Iran Travel & Tours

  11. says

    @Rahman: Thanks for stopping by and for your comment. Yes, we all should cherish what we have. I never take for granted how fortunate I am to be able to travel working and traveling around the world. As we have spent most of this journey in transitional and developing countries, including working with microfinance organizations involved with poor rural and urban populations, I have seen many challenges and successes in all levels of societies. Approaching people – those similar and different to you – with respect helps to break down barriers and confusion.

  12. says

    @Erica: Thank you for this kind comment and for sharing this piece on Ex Officio’s Facebook page as well. I think back to this girl often and try to ground myself in acknowledging and treating people with respect.

  13. karen says

    HI Audrey, I am just about getting ready to head to Nepal for some extended travel … and it’s stories like this one that speak to why and how we travel, and what compels me now again to set out: its that travel is full of opportunities to be touched in beautiful, meaningful and sometimes mysterious ways – that aren’t so readily available in our day to day. Whether by the landscapes, people or experiences that surround us when we immerse ourselves in that way. I aspire to travel like you – with an open heart as well as open eyes! Keep on keepin’ on!!! And thanks for writing about it. Karen

  14. says

    @Karen: Thanks so much for your kind and thoughtful comment.Being aware and traveling with respect will open you up to many such opportunities and experiences. Safe travels and I hope you enjoy your time in Nepal. It’s one of those countries where I wish had been able to spend more time and go a bit deeper. I hope to return one day.

  15. says

    Hey Audrey,
    Such a beautiful post. Even i went through the same thing in a recent trip.There were 2 kids who were trying very hard to sell us something (which we obviously didn’t require), but we still bought it. Still they wanted us to buy more. Then i started interacting them, asking them small personal things and then finally took their pics. Their smiles were unbelievable. That’s another thing, that even after that they didn’t give upon us and wanted to sell more. Forgot what i had bought but the smiles still stay with me. :)

  16. says

    @Alekhya: Thanks for your kind comment and sharing your similar experience. I always try to make an effort to ask kids about their school or family or favorite sports or whatever. Makes a difference to everyone I think. And, although they are often selling things because they need to provide for their families, they are still kids at heart and that attention and play time can mean so much…for everyone.

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