I was lecturing at a library the other day about the Third World and a woman who had been adventurous enough and curious enough to have visited India, my favorite destination, stated that it was dirty there and she was quite discomforted by the poverty. She did not enjoy her visit because of that. At least she had first hand experience because she chose to go there in the first place. Almost all the other folks who attend my lectures use those visceral aversions as reasons not to go. Are there great pockets of poverty in India and Cambodia and Yemen and Africa and many other places? Of course there are. First of all about a third of the world's people earn less than $2.00 a day. That is poverty. At that level most people can barely afford to eat or build themselves decent shelter or clothe themselves for protection against harsh weather. They are constantly in danger from epidemics or turbulent weather or other environmental events they cannot protect themselves against. They surely have little choice about where to live and very few have access to decent education. In some places poor people are more apparent than in others. In India, because of the dense population, poverty is especially visible.
Yet few of us actually live very far from folks who are poor, who simply scrape by day to day if they are lucky. We usually protect ourselves from confrontation with that phenomenon by zipping past such areas in our car without stopping or by circumventing the "dirty" or "dangerous" streets by riding on expressways to our destination. Poverty is something that we read about but rarely are thrust into the middle of. Not so for the traveler. In areas of Cairo or Mexico City or Mumbai, we are more likely to be walking through neighborhoods where folks live outside or are clearly in need so we have to acknowledge the existence of aspects of life and society we can avoid at home if we are so inclined. As a matter of fact, travel is an opportunity if it is viewed as such. We can more safely and more genuinely interact with folks who are poor than is the case when we are at home. Travel provides a chance to sensitize ourselves to the existence of such life and to ponder the downside of society and its implications for us and others who do not have to endure such hardships. One of my earliest travel experiences and a true epiphany was taking a young woman to her home in the slums of Acapulco and seeing the conditions under which she lived from day to day-the unavailability of clean water, the sewage floating alongside unpaved roads, hungry babies crying under fragile tents. I knew that, from then on, I would work to help such people in any way I could.
So that is another possible reaction. Maybe we could label it the Mother Teresa Conversion. Each time I travel to places like rural Burma or some small African village, I become more and more aware of the hardships that some people have to endure just to go on living. We read about AIDS here but there are places where as much as a third or nearly half of the residents are infected; we are conscious of the existence of hunger even in America but distended bellies and skeletal figures abound in parts of the Third World reminding us how common and how painful hunger is; we see multititudes of children and adults living on the streets of overgrown cities in underdeveloped areas and cannot avoid those scenes intruding into our consciousness. These are people just like us, born in a less fortunate place, heirs to less opportunity, subjected to the whims of their weather or economy or cultures and trapped in their circumstances. Such images and experiences have impelled me to reevaluate what I consider important and what I take for granted. Such scenes can make us more human and help us to grow ethically if we allow them to do so. Visiting poverty can be an opportunity but only if the visitor takes as much interest in it as he or she does in the beautiful buildings or colorful costumes or captivating ceremonies one comes across all over the world. More knowledge and greater intimacy with all aspects of human life can have a greater effect on us than the easier aspects of world travel could ever afford. I don't like poverty either, at home or away. That's why I make an effort to diminish it in any way I can. Visits to India help increase my resolve.