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India.

I've been in India for four days now and some observations come to mind:

It's hard for a feeling, well-meaning, and self-conscious person to get punched in the face by their privilege. Hard, but necessary. Here I sit at the Taj Hotel, in the marble lobby, drinking tea and writing about this experience. Privilege positively drips from the marble fountain in the middle of this cool lobby with the Indian classical musician in the corner playing a raag and the efficient, whispering waiters asking if Madame would like another cup of chai.

It's illuminating and contextualizing to be in a country in the midst of an ecological crisis. We drove to Agra and along the way, the brickmaking furnaces belched black smoke into an already hazy sky. The air smells like gasoline here, everywhere. That exhaust smell that Americans notice in city alleys where a delivery truck has been idling? In Delhi that's just air. The smell of gasoline leaks into the hotel at different times of day, and it's disturbing. We take for granted the cleanliness of our nation, the good and functioning public services, where the water crisis in Flint is the exception rather than the rule. I watched a TV program here last night about arsenic-polluted wells in Bangladesh and thought immediately of Flint - and how lucky we are that our infrastructure is good, largely. But again, my infrastructure is good because I am white, and affluent, and educated. It's better in the US, but not assuredly so. Privilege.

We're white women, and this causes some notice. Men take photos of us, the polite ones ask first. Men stare, suck air through their teeth, hiss at us and mumble with their friends about us. It's rude, sure. But the thought I had was this: it seems rude and desperate and threatening and low-class. It makes me jumpy and fearful. Men of my class, in my culture, don't act this way, precisely because it is rude and desperate and threatening and low-class, BUT...this doesn't mean that they don't have subtle and even more powerful ways of threatening us. But I'm used to those. I don't have to worry about being assaulted in my day to day existence, because I know where to go and be and what to do and wear. Here, I'm by definition out of place, so thus the risk gets higher. Here, I can focus my frustration at the "annoyance" of feeling vaguely unsafe all the time. At home, I can focus my frustrations on being paid less, mansplained to, and having unequal health care policy. Privilege.

We saw the Taj Mahal on Monday - it was 105 degrees and there was a line about a half mile long to get into the monument. Because we were "high value ticket holders", we got to jump the line. Our tickets were 1,000 rupees (about $15) and the domestic rate was 40 rupees (about $.60).  I got to go in first, because I paid more. Privilege.

We've been pursued on two of our morning walks by an auto-rickshaw driver who is extremely persistent. The extent of his pleas usually relate to how overpriced the market we were going to was, in relation to the one he wanted to take us to: "It is ten times high price for you!" Finally, I was quite firm with him when I told him to go away by saying "but we CHOOSE to go there. Not because the hotel sent us there and we are stupid and do not know better, but because we are confident we will find beautiful things there that we like, in shops that make us comfortable, at a price that seems appropriate to us. It is my choice. I am not stupid, nor do I need to rely on you to help me. Now go away."  I admit that in my head I did the calculation of what I make per hour and how much I had wasted in rupees arguing with him. Privilege.

I was sick yesterday, run of the mill TD with a fever and aches, and I was so totally grateful to be ensconced in my air-con down-comforter palace of privilege, because I felt like shit and it was hot. That was the extent of my thought about it. I was safe and able to get better, and get some care that I needed. End of story. Privilege.

I have mixed feelings about travel. Mostly stemming from a rootless, almost homeless, childhood and an introverted nature, coupled with a tendency to panic attacks. I like my home, and I like my place. I feel safe there. This is in direct conflict with my inquisitive and curious nature, a sense of wonder and a wide interest in the nature of things. I like to see things. I like to do things. I am brave and outgoing. So, travel. But I've learned I have to travel in the way that I can, and stop apologizing for it, because as we all know, the world will take whatever wonderful thing you do and find a way to tell you it wasn't good enough, right? For some people, this kind of travel - good hotels and guided tours, monument heavy with good food and shopping and some rest built in - isn't "authentic enough" or "seeing the REAL India". If I'm not staying in a hostel or a homestay in the heart of Chandni Chowk, somehow I've cheated myself or I'm showing my essential lack of good taste and appreciation for real things.

Even privilege has its privilege. I remember in college a well-meaning professor was chatting with another student about when the paper was due and the Prof cheerily said, "Turn it in and then you can be off to Hawaii or wherever!" and the dour, self-important undergraduate said, "I would never go to Hawaii. If I traveled, I would go somewhere IN-TERESTING like PRAGUE."  David Brooks called this "downward nobility", but it really is Privilege. I'm so privileged, I can look down on people who are privileged and accept it. Double Privilege.

For me, I struggle with resting and having pleasure in my life. Not everything has to be the hard way. This is a mantra that I have to keep repeating to myself over and over.

Not everything has to be the hard way.

I can have pleasure and comfort and luxury if it makes me able to see places in the world that I want to see - and have experiences that help me understand what it means to be human. I don't need it all the time, but sometimes it helps. I have chosen to live more simply at home, but this experience is one I have earned and that I am able to appreciate, I think, all the more for it. Maybe that's privilege too, but in a good and not perjorative use of the term. I am privileged to be here. Privileged.




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