Acknowledging the power of place: The necessity of mindfulness abroad

By Chris Perrin

Dylan and I arrived in the early hours of May 25th and spent the day exploring the area, visiting local street venders, shops, and restaurants. The next day, as more Global Social Entrepreneurship (GSE) students arrived, we decided to visit other parts of the neighborhood, heading up a few blocks to UB City, where I encountered my first Indian mall. Mostly as a result of circumstance and GSE excursions, I have found myself in three malls since arriving in Bangalore. In each, the difference of dress, cleanliness, and overall environment is striking. It soon becomes evident that a specific clientele is targeted in the mall, one that is not representative of the average man or woman on the street. Malls everywhere are subject to markups, but the price of basic goods such as food or books quickly reaches a price that would be unaffordable for any but a select few to an extent much greater than in the US. One gets the impression of an almost literal bubble between the rich and the average, which makes it hard to imagine that India’s moneyed class lives in the same country, let alone the same city, as the rest.

At a time when the wealth disparity in the US is now as high as in the Gilded Age, it is interesting to note that while Americans, overall, have structured their cities to prevent the poor from living near a wealthy neighborhood, it is not uncommon to find a small shanty-town across the street from a mall that offers VIP parking for 1000 rupees ($15) an hour. The very structure of modern cities in the US is designed to seclude the rich from the impoverished, and from this perspective the sight of a small city of tents less than 50 feet from the opulence of “India’s First Luxury Mall” is unfathomable.

Photo credit: The Times of India - Economic Times Blog

Photo credit: The Times of India – Economic Times Blog

The disparity becomes even more glaring when one considers that many poor neighborhoods in Bangalore are severely under-provisioned with basic utilities, such as water and power, all while living in the shadow of air-conditioned wealth.

But it would be a mistake to conclude that the US is in any way more humane in our treatment of the poor. Economic inequality kept out of sight and out of mind does not make it any less cruel. Indeed, one could argue that the situation in Bangalore is almost more so, since at least a wealthy Indian must visually confront their own privilege, while the US maintains an aura of equality by sweeping poverty under the rug. Frankly, it is hypocritical for an American, and travelers in general, to exotify the wealth disparity present in India when the same problem runs rampant throughout Western society. Closest to home for those of us in GSE is the issue of income inequality at the College of Wooster, and in our college town. In recent years Wooster’s Living Wage Campaign has gained a great deal of traction, including a staging silent demonstration at a recent board of trustees meeting, in an effort to provide a decent living wage to the college’s staff workers.

College of Wooster Silent Protest

College of Wooster Silent Protest

So long as there are instances at our own college of staff taking on extra jobs and remaining impoverished, it would be immensely conceited to present wealth disparity as an issue unique to India or the Global South.

Based on my own experiences over the last three weeks, I think it is evident that Westerners in Bangalore fit very easily into this system, and often serve to prop it up. Even though I worked four jobs, took part in GSE fundraising, wrote to ask for help from friends and family, started a small bread business out of my dorm’s kitchen, took on impromptu taxi jobs, and played bagpipes at a number of weddings and funerals to be able to afford this program, it would be possible (though financially unwise) for me to live very comfortably for a few weeks in Bangalore. When one enters a space in which it is easy to afford the lifestyle of the wealthy, it is tempting to fall into the mindset of the elite. Why take a bus when you can take an air-conditioned Uber? Why keep a budget when everything is so “cheap?” Why eat local cuisine when you can eat gourmet every day of the week for “almost nothing?”

Ultimately, this brings up two important points: first, most expensive venues are designed for tourists and often do not reflect local cuisine or culture. It is a waste to travel all the way to Bangalore only to eat expensive or Western food, as it seems many tourists do based on the sudden demographic shift in high-end restaurants. One of the main benefits of international travel is that it presents an opportunity to explore new ideas and cultures and to expand our horizons. Living the high life in Bangalore, or anywhere else for that matter, makes it difficult to honestly interact with a new environment. It is comfortable and easier to live a sequestered lifestyle, but doing so risks giving up almost the entire point of traveling at all. In a number of ways, I believe our own program can come dangerously close to following this pattern.

The real question that must be asked is, “what is the point of GSE?” on the surface, the program serves as a hand-on opportunity to learn about Social Entrepreneurship and NGOs.However, beneath the topmost layer of GSE lies the possibility of realizing one of Wooster’s core graduate qualities, namely “Global Engagement.” We did not come to India to spend money, but to gain an understanding of the unique place that is Bangalore. If this is our goal, we must be mindful of our own consumption, and try to adopt a lifestyle and budget a little closer to our neighbors’. I believe that if one truly wishes to learn from an experience like GSE, it is critical to almost actively seek discomfort.

Of course, discomfort doesn’t always have to be uncomfortable. Thoreau’s metaphor in Walden of hiking to Fitchburg is a good example of this. Although it is possible to get places more quickly and live in greater comfort while spending money, one will ultimately have a more meaningful and vibrant experience by taking things slowly and “hoofing it.” I’ve eaten amazing food for less than half the restaurant fare by walking to a destination and interacting with street venders along the way. Especially in a city like Bangalore, the physical discomfort of walking from place to place is easily offset by the opportunity to get a more on-the-ground sense of the neighborhood around us. But even more broadly, walking provides us with the opportunity to acknowledge where we are.

In my own experience, this was clearest while walking back to the hostel from a Thursday Transformers session. As Dylan and I walked down a side street chatting about the latest presentation, we were suddenly stopped in our tracks by the call to prayer. I had heard recordings of the call to prayer online, or from far away in Bangalore, but this was the first time it had been so close and, judging by the breathiness of the singer, not a recording. Immediately we stopped talking, transfixed by the beauty of call to prayer and the setting sun. Suddenly, the street was filled with men in long white robes and caps, and women wearing the hijab and chador. As the sun dimmed and the community made its way to the nearby mosque, the street was filled with life. Children ran around us, laughing and playing down the road as friends greeted one another and two women began an impromptu game of badminton. The scene was intensely beautiful, and to me, intensely new. Having lived 20 years in the US, I have never seen or felt community as palpably as I did in that moment. It felt foreign, and more importantly, I could feel that I was out of place. The reminder that we, as foreigners, are the ones out of place may at times be a source of discomfort, but I have found moments like these are what gives my time in Bangalore meaning. I feel much more a part of the city and aware of what life is like on the ground by walking, even if it takes me longer to arrive.

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One Response to Acknowledging the power of place: The necessity of mindfulness abroad

  1. Jean C. Britt says:

    Christopher- What a thoughtful essay. I am pleased that you are immersing yourself in the life and culture of your new community. That’s what makes living abroad a life-changing experience.
    Enjoy the fruits and insights of your walking.
    Love,
    Grandma

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