Background: Standing at the window of my elegant hotel room in Agra’s Oberoi, I catch my first glimpse of the pale domes and spires of the Taj Mahal floating over the horizon, gleaming dully in the moist dawn light. Foreground: Below me is the sparkling sapphire square of an enormous swimming pool, its arcades and columns a whimsical nod to Mughal architecture. The fringes of colorful umbrellas flutter in the breezes; jasmine spills over pots. Middle ground: A few acres of empty field, scrawny trees scattered about, the earth hard-packed, dusty and dry. Several barefoot men walk along paths, carrying small water bottles, another dozen are squatting at the edge of an embankment, pants down, shitting on the ground.
The night before I left for India I had dinner in New York with an artist who had recently installed a mural for a ballroom in a 27-story mansion in Delhi. Driving into Delhi from the airport, I pass dozens of building projects, multi-story developments for office parks or apartments. Leaving Delhi for Agra, we pass miles and miles of villages, makeshift homes barely propped up, canvas or corrugated metal hoisted over rope beds. Elaborate stacks of dung cakes are neatly lined up along the road; they are precious fuel for cooking and heating. I glimpse a young woman teaching a child to mix the straw and cow dung, shape the roundels, spread them to dry. Along the way, tall smokestacks of cement plants and brickworks and power plants belch thick, black soot.
There is nothing to say about the extreme poverty of India--and its contrast to extreme wealth--that has not been said a thousand times over the centuries. I knew about toddlers wandering the streets, pressing their faces against car windows, begging in clogged traffic. About camels and cows and donkeys and water buffalo and dogs and monkeys and pigs rooting through the garbage strewn by the roads. But nothing--no book, no article, no warning--could have prepared me for the shock. Three hundred million people living without access to electricity, or clean running water to drink, much less for plumbing. Think of the millions of gallons of clean water used to flush toilets in middle class homes; our waste has better treatment than do millions people.
In sharing this journey, I must note the poverty--right up front--because it confronts every visitor, right up front. I have nothing to add to the conversation about it. But I am somehow honor bound to bear witness.
While I was watching the sunrise over the Taj, my gaze kept returning to the men shitting in the open field--it took me a long time to understand what I was seeing. I kept wondering, where are the women? A few days later, I happened to meet someone whose husband, she told me, is “obsessed with the subject of waste treatment.” It is always amazing to me how, when you ask the universe a question, you soon get an answer. I learn that the women shit only at night, under cover of darkness. The chronic diarrhea that plagues the poor is not just a health issue for women; it causes a terrible social stigma as well.
I learn that the government has been subsidizing toilet installation, but that the money either doesn’t get into the plumbing, or worse, it goes down the drain: the toilets are built, and then used for grain storage. Subsidies are useless if people are not educated about why plumbing is good. My new friend’s husband tours poor villages, giving a lecture about sewage; beforehand, he places a pile of human excrement on the ground, and a few feet away, a plate of food. These sit behind him while he talks. Soon enough, flies buzz about, landing on first one plate, then the other. At the end of the talk, the man turns to the plates. He asks the villagers to watch the movement of the flies as they walk on the waste, and then on the food. He shows the villagers how the flies contaminate the food; how the people are eating their shit. How it makes them sick. And they begin to understand.
There is no way to be hard-hearted about enormous poverty, yet it is equally impossible to be always heart-broken. We need, perhaps, soft hearts, hard eyes--a clear gaze? We see how environmental degradation plays out: who gets the clean water and filtered air; who lives under the belching smokestacks and bathes in the sewage. Who eats shit.
The panel of fabric at the hotel windows are a mere scrim; no amount of embroidery can hide the reality of poverty from the pampered visitor. There is a more powerful way: hotel chains linking their brains, their resources, their contacts, and deciding to better the lives not only of their guests, but of their neighbors. The hotels can bring the plumbing and clean water past their own doors, into the villages. Clearly, the hotels, too, would benefit from Open Defecation Free zones, as the term of art goes.
If anyone understands that we’re all in this together, it has to be the travel industry. After all, the hospitality business is all about sharing this world’s bounty. India and the United States are brimming, booming, beautiful countries. We have a choice about how we will go on living: up to our eyeballs in shit? Or cleaning up the mess we’re all making.