Things Get Harder Before They Get Easier

Mar 19, 2014 by

I had been in India, in Mumbai to be exact, for a week and a half when I wrote this. Thinking I had been coping well, I was surprised when I came home after a long day – 6:00 am wake up, hour long train ride to Nallasopara, the second school I teach at, a full day with 6 or 7 classes, an hour long train ride back and all the honking rickshaws and dust and people in between – and my back completely seized up, the city demanding that I forfeit to the constant onslaught of stress on my mind and body. Shortly after I wrote this, Delhi belly decided that this emotional breakdown was a great opportunity to visit for the first (and only?) time. As I lay on my hard and lumpy bed, fighting off tears, this was what came from my fingers through my pen.

*

Surrounded by the energy of 1.2 billion people, one can really get a sense of life’s persistence, humankind’s relentless push forward…

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Things get harder before they get easier.

I have been told countless times that nothing prepares a person for India. The unparalleled energy of the subcontinent finally had me in its clutches, dragging me along.

I have been places, even lived in places where there is great poverty, just as I have both visited and lived in places where the sun is scalding and only nighttime brings hope of respite. I have visited plenty of places where I don’t speak the language, and I have been to countless busy places, noisy cities, filthy urban areas. I have seen slums and animal abuse, and I have said no to beggars around the world… but all of those experiences combined only begin to tease the edge of all that is India, all that is living in Mumbai.

Eventually things weigh a person down.

That eventually happened for me today.

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My everything hurts, and there’s nowhere soft to put it. My bed is hard, the wooden boxes I sit on at school are hard. The rickshaws are hard, and the road is bumpy and jarring. There are no chairs in the apartment so my chair is my bed, the back of the chair being the wall – erect and stiff. Or I sit on the cold tile floor, and the bed becomes the back of the chair. The train ride is beautiful, but the seats give no rest or comfort. Today I can’t figure out if I’m sore from the daily conditions or if I am actually sick. My skin is hot to the touch, but it is hot here. My muscles ache like crazy, but I have had long hard days working with children, giving of myself (me, the introvert) so that I might hope to teach them something, that they might learn just one valuable thing while I am here.

This introvert needs her quiet, and there is no quiet to be had in India. If it’s not my chatty roommates in our teeny tiny apartment, it’s the honking horns and shouting people outside in the streets. If it’s not them, it’s the children at school, ignoring me in class and yelling at each other in Hindi. If it’s not all these things, it’s the neighbour who sneezes so loudly I could swear he is in our apartment. It’s the crows outside my window, or it’s the distant din of the constant traffic. The smells and sounds seep in through my window at all hours of the day so that between all the odours and noises, there is no neutral moment in this country.

None of this has become easier.

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Everyday, it gets harder to watch the children walking around in bare feet or to know that some of them sleep on the street. It gets harder to go past the slums beside the railway and see how they stretch out endlessly and are stacked one on top of the other creatively, while people hang laundry and brush teeth nearby. It gets harder to see these people, countless people, some practically side by side, squatting over the railway or in a bush beside the tracks or over a cement block in order to have their morning dump. It gets harder to see kids wearing no bottoms, sitting in the dirt and playing. It gets harder to go downtown and have mothers ten years younger than I pawing at my clothes, begging with a small baby in one hand and nothing in the other upturned hand. It gets harder and harder every day to see all the un-cared for animals in the street: the dogs that are just too hot and tired so they sleep anywhere – on train station platforms, under parked construction vehicles, in the middle of the road – or the cats that are always too skinny and hungry and ratty, and the tiny kittens that just look like rat food. It was nearly impossible to walk away from a kitten that looked too young to be away from its mother, that stood there, in the middle of the road, mewling desperately, its mouth open and crying, open and crying, over and over again. As I fought the urge to scoop it up and dash away with it (and deal with the consequences later), I saw that its back was bleeding.

And what a brave hero I am for going through all of this… because I have a bed to sleep on and a toilet to shit in and water to drink every day… because I know I will not only eat today, but I will eat more than once today… because my cat and dog are properly cared for and have nothing but long walks and rays of sun to fill their days… because I have access to free healthcare and the best education in the world. Because of all this, somehow I’m the one suffering.

Well, no. Not because… but despite.

Despite all of my great fortune in life, I am suffering in the name of all these things I find hard to witness every day. This is the beginner’s experience in India. One simply does not have the emotional capacity or reserves in order to care for everything she sees or to hurt for all the pain that is out there in the slums and in the families with abuse and alcoholism (which is abundant). One simply cannot take on all the feelings that India’s buffet has to offer.

It is natural to want to hurt for these people, and it is probably even possible to hurt for them on a smaller scale as a traveller passing through. I saw great poverty in Mongolia, people who live without running water, electricity or easily accessible schools and hospitals. I saw people dropping their pants in the middle of a field to relieve themselves. But I travelled on, and this experience was but a mere fragment of my experience in Mongolia. The memory washes off with my next shower and is put to rest in my journal where I no longer have to bear the burden.

Why do you think you can turn on the television and see ads asking for money for those in need overseas without a second thought to changing the channel? I have that reaction when I see these advertisements for the same reason:  emotional simplification. Mongolia was but a change in the channels for me; I was able to emotionally disconnect myself from the experience and not hurt more than I could handle for what I saw. Here in India, it has so far been impossible to shut off, disconnect, change the channel. It took Tania, who started One! International, six or seven years before she was able to emotionally disconnect in a sustainable and healthy way.

People just aren’t meant to feel that much. There are not enough feelings in one person to be able to cope with all the tragedies of a place like India.

On my first day in India, I felt like I was in a movie. The sets were so vibrant and realistic, the extras so hardworking and convincing. I knew this feeling would pass, as do all first impressions. Now I feel as though I’m in a place that is anything but a delightful movie but a place I can’t believe exists. Likely, I won’t be able to masterfully turn off my feelings for the two months that I will be here, but I will do everything I can not to scoop up baby kittens in the road, and I will make sure I rejoice when one of my students stops skipping the number 15 when he counts to 20.

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Since I wrote this last week, the Delhi belly has gone away, and I have returned to my normal routine. I only missed one day of volunteering, but in that day, I thought I might really be dying. Undoubtedly, I feel stronger again, both physically and emotionally now that I am no longer restricted to two positions: horizontal and on-the-toilet. Things are no longer steadily getting harder to witness, but they aren’t getting easier either. I think it would take years, as it did for Tania, for a feeler like me to be able to shut off enough to cope with all that is India. It just can’t happen in two months, but for the two months that I am here, I am going to feel as much as I can stomach.

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39 Comments

  1. Sajid

    Very good post, Colleen! I’ll text you that later 😀

    SAJ

  2. Wow Colleen – you NAILED this one. Perfect capture – I felt like I was right there in India too. I’ve had a hard time shutting off from the stuff here too, and it’s been two years! For people who have compassion, I don’t know if you can ever really turn it off. But you can change how you react to it… for example, I’ve finally accepted the fact that I cannot help all the starving and beaten animals here. I used to cry every time I saw them. Then I started to think, “all that animal is seeing and feeling is bad energy from people”… so now when I see them I yell out “helloooo puppy! I love you!” and think about hugging them. I know I can’t save them all, but at least I know a human spoke kindly to them and sent them good energy at least once in their life, and that’s something.

    • Colleen

      I’m glad you can relate. Being in a developing country is a unique experience when we come from such a privileged place like Canada (where people still have the nerve to complain, ha). I’ve realised that the animals are what is hardest for me to see. Generally speaking, there will be at least one person out there to look after someone in need, be it a parent or a charity. Usually there is someone. But animals here are ignored and neglected. I will take neglect over abuse though if I have to choose. And I do the same as you… Even though the animals are flea ridden and scaggy, I always make kissing noises at them and if they come over I might give them a head pat. I don’t care for the consequences. I had a moment with a dog today that was heartbreaking. It was so ratty looking and I made a kissing noise at it. It looked at me right away, looked me dead in the eyes, and it was like the dog could see my soul. I just wanted to hug it and take it away with me.

  3. So, so hard. I can’t even imagine. Perhaps that’s why I op for avoidance all together — I’m not sure I could handle it.

    • Colleen

      Listen, after this, it’s going to be beers at the lake and bike rides to get ice cream.

  4. Zhu

    This is beautifully written and expressed. India seems to have this effect on people, many travelers report mix feelings of powerlessness. I think it is good that the environment affects you to a certain extend. That is what makes us human beings, feeling empathy.

    • Colleen

      Thank you… yes India, as one of my friends told me, is a place that pulls you in. I see how this happens now.

  5. “People just aren’t meant to feel that much.” Well said. This post was very raw, real, and honest. I want to say that it was enjoyable to read but I would be lying. I got extremely emotional just reading this so I can’t even imagine what you’re feeling or what those people go through every day. Just know that you’re doing so much good over there and hopefully the children will learn and grow and teach you something about yourself along the way. We need more people in the world like you to feel and empathize with those that suffer daily. Thanks for sharing your experience.

    • Colleen

      Thank you for such kind words, Lauren. I wrote this when I was at a really low point – the Delhi belly, a long hard day and no creature comforts to really speak of. That is always the risk of sharing something written at a time of turmoil. It can be powerful and honest but doesn’t always represent the overall experience. Day to day, I’m happy to work with my kids, walk through the markets, share smiles with strangers. It’s definitely not all bad, but the bad that there is can be overwhelming.

  6. You basically wrote out all my fears about visiting India in one blog post. I’m sure it’s a beautiful and amazing country, but I think I would need to mentally prepare myself before I can even think of traveling there. I admire you for being so courageous and to not go there only as a visitor, but to live in their everyday reality, deeply immersed in their lifestyle. As hard as things are now, I’m sure they’ll turn around and I hope, in the end, you’ll look back on them with the biggest smile on your face.

    • Colleen

      Well, as I said, there is nothing you can really do to fully prepare yourself for India. All you can do is be prepared to not be prepared. India will knock you off balance, but this doesn’t have to be a bad thing. I say go for it. Dive in the deep end. 🙂

  7. Emy

    One of the reasons why there are places I fear visiting is obviously the poverty but mainly the animal abuse. On a rational level I know and think both are as umbearable and terrible, but for some strange reason I just cannot for the life of me witness anything negative that has to do with animals. That’s always been the case, and to be honest I even cried while reading about the kitten.
    There’s no right comment to do, I think, as a french girl comfortably sitting on my bed, typing on my computer having a roof and everything I need what kind of decent comment could I make.
    All I hope is that you’re doing fine, and handling that in the best way possible.
    I am sending you lots of energy!
    xx

    • Colleen

      Actually I completely agree with you. Animals are helpless and at the mercy of people, especially when they are animals like cats and dogs. These kinds of animals can kind of look after themselves, but really thrive with human companionship. I wish I could save all of the poor animals here. On the bright side, the issue is mostly of neglect than it is of abuse. People just ignore the animals. I can’t say there is *no* animal abuse in India, but I’ve seen abused animals before (in Russia) and they cower away and hide from people. Here, the animals just mind their own business and keep to themselves; no one bothers or harasses them.
      Thank you for your well wishes, it is always so nice to hear from you. xo

  8. Wow, so very powerful Colleen. I would be devastated to see the animals and the children in that state of not being cared for properly. Like you, I too am an introvert (blogging contradicts that I guess) and must have quiet and tranquility. When you described all of the continuous noise and hardened seats, the classroom and your apartment…MY back started to tighten up. You are such a strong young lady of heart and soul and will always persevere. I’m glad that things are looking a little better in how you feel yet I realize you can’t escape the daily vision your now intertwined with there. So very proud of you, our friend…

    • Colleen

      I knew my fellow animal lovers would find this hard to read. I have thought about you on more than one occasion when I see dogs that would be just so very happy to have a dad like you.
      Thank you for your kind words of encouragement. I am doing the best I can. 🙂

  9. Wow, such an honest and beautiful read. As a traveler around India I feel like I did shut off sometimes too, like you did in Mongolia. It was hard but at the end of the day the fact I was just passing through did something to lessen the emotions. (that sounds so awful!).

    This sounds like such a tough and incredible experience Colleen! I’m so glad you are no longer sick and avoid getting sick again. I know how that feels, it’s terrible!

    • Colleen

      Not feeling too much really is a self preservation tactic, and I don’t think it is anything to feel guilty about… especially if you are a feeler like me and tend to take on other people’s feelings, or the feelings you assume an animal feels.
      Thank you for your kind words. Hope you are well too. Keep eating delicious things in Madrid for me. x

  10. Oh my God! It’s really tough though a lifetime experience. I know you will push on, you are a strong lady, we need people like you to impact life’s of many needy people especially in developing countries. Trough my effort, your efforts, their effort we promote change to situations like this.

    • Colleen

      This time in India will definitely be a period in my life that I will never forget.
      Thank you for such a kind comment… I don’t know what changes I’m actually making here, but I know I’m certainly not doing any bad!

  11. Best post I read all week! Can’t wait to share it.

  12. ben

    I love this post! You put so much heart on it and I can feel that. Can’t wait on your next article 🙂

  13. I’m such a firm believer in this saying although I’ve also found from personal experience sometimes they don’t and you just have to deal.

    Reading your words, the only thing that comes to mind is “I can’t even imagine.” Regarding the kitten, it’s always tough traveling to a developing country and seeing the emaciated/malnourished animals that we in the “developed” world keep as little princes and princesses sometimes.

    I’ve never been to India but you are definitely seeing a side of it that many tourists there I’m sure just try to “block out” and make their way to their 5 star hotels and photo opps at the Taj as quickly as possible.

    Your words resonate even thousands of miles away. I hope you encounter no more stomach maladies too!

    • Colleen

      Your first sentence – YES. I titled my post this because it was the overlying sentiment at the time that I wrote it. Things were just NOT getting easier, and before they were going to (if at all), I felt like everything was getting harder. Since I wrote this, I have accepted that I will never be okay seeing certain things, like the poor, hungry, neglected animals or the deformed people in the streets. I don’t think it should be easy to see that stuff, but some people have higher tolerances.
      So thank you thank you Julie for your kind and thoughtful comment. I sincerely appreciate it.

  14. What a read! I feel for you, but as you said, it’s easy for me to let the moment escape me. What an important experience for you being there, I cannot even imagine how strong and grateful you will emerge. It’s ok to feel sorry for ourselves someday. Someone always has it better and someone always has it worse. Don’t be hard on yourself for feeling that way. You have the right perspective.

    • Colleen

      Hey Alex, thanks for the kind words. You are right in what you say… I am understanding that I can feel this sadness – for myself and for the people and the animals. Today, one of my students was crying because of problems at home, and I almost cried with her.

  15. You’re so brave to write this, that’s one of the things that I really admire about your blog. I think not being overwhelmed by everything around you would be a pretty bad sign, really, and these feelings are what you came to India to experience in the first place. Because they change you. That’s what this trip is all about when it comes down to it.

    Embrace the emotions, let them roll through and know that they will roll on through and you’ll come out the other side.

    • Colleen

      Sally, I like that you call this brave. I admit, it was scary to publish, but I’ve heard it said that if you are scared to publish something, chances are you’ve written something great. So hopefully this is true in my case! 🙂
      I have tried to embrace the feelings I have here ever since I wrote this – I’ve learned that India is not a place for soft emotions. Everything here is powerful, and there is an energy here unlike any I’ve ever experienced before. It’s a place and an education everyone should experience.

  16. India is a paradox of a place. It is full of wonder still untapped by the Western World
    English type sensibilities,
    Middle-Eastern type manners
    Ideology that is distinctly Indian, and yet,
    It’s hard to compartmentalise it until you actually step foot there,
    feel the dust on your hands, your face,
    the spices at the back of your throat.
    The roads are a joke, in fact, they’re simply a guideline to keep rickshaws out of houses
    and off the chickens.
    Even in the poverty though, you’ll be hard-pressed to ever find as much colour,
    or children who know how to smile regardless.
    India is chaos.
    That’s the word I use to anyone who wants to go there for anything other than a holiday.
    India is chaos.
    And if one doesn’t know chaos, they’d better be open to the thought of becoming best friends with it,
    quickly,
    Because nobody from the West can ever hope to step into that alone and flip chaos,
    especially if one doesn’t know chaos.

    You’re going to come back with all sorts of wisdom you’ve never had before. Because I believe India does that to people.

    • Colleen

      I’m so happy to hear from you. I had been missing your comments lately. Dead serious.
      I love how you’ve described India… you’ve nailed it. When were you here? I would love to read or hear about your experiences!
      And that wisdom… I think you are right. It creeps in. It’s unavoidable. “India does that to people.”

  17. India is a paradox of a place. It is full of wonder still untapped by the Western World
    English type sensibilities,
    Middle-Eastern type manners
    Ideology that is distinctly Indian, and yet,
    It’s hard to compartmentalise it until you actually step foot there,
    feel the dust on your hands, your face,
    the spices at the back of your throat.
    The roads are a joke, in fact, they’re simply a guideline to keep rickshaws out of houses
    and off the chickens.
    Even in the poverty though, you’ll be hard-pressed to ever find as much colour,
    or children who know how to smile regardless.
    India is chaos.
    That’s the word I use to anyone who wants to go there for anything other than a holiday.
    India is chaos.
    And if one doesn’t know chaos, they’d better be open to the thought of becoming best friends with it,
    quickly,
    Because nobody from the West can ever hope to step into that alone and flip chaos,
    especially if one doesn’t know chaos.

    You’re going to come back with all sorts of wisdom you’ve never had before. Because I believe India does that to people. ..

  18. I am going to read and re-read this post before we arrive in India…I am a feeler like you and know that landing there will be a serious wake up call despite all the other sorts of travel I’ve experienced. Thank you for sharing, and I hope that you won’t have anymore bouts of Dehli belly!!

    • Colleen

      I am happy to hear that this post can be useful for you in some way. If you are a feeler like me, you can be prepared to hurt while you are here. That said, if you are a feeler, there are some powerful feelings here that you won’t feel anywhere else in the world, and that is kind of a beautiful thing. I hope you can come here one day soon!

  19. Loved this post, Colleen. Even though I’ve yet to visit to India, I understand so many of the emotions you conveyed here so well. You’re right that when we’re in new places that are so far outside our comfort zone that for a while things are REALLY HARD and sometimes it seems the challenges will never stop. I’m not sure that certain things like pervasive, crippling poverty ever get easier (I mean, we’ve been in Asia for nearly 2 years and I’m struggling with it anew here in Laos. Next to our hotel in our previous city, a man who was obviously mentally disabled would spend all day sitting in a trash heap just rifling through the garbage looking for things to eat and making toothpicks, talking to himself. I just could not deal with it and pretty much bought him food every single time I saw him.) and even if we have to learn to harden our hearts a bit, I think it’s important that some part of them always feels the dull throb of pain. I’ve heard so many people say that the only way to get through India is to avoid eye contact and pretend that the beggars don’t exist… I just don’t know if I can deny other human beings in that way, though!

    • Colleen

      Steph, you have a beautiful way with words… a true gift. Thank you for sharing it with me. I’m so glad I found you through blogging. Your comments are so thoughtful and well written. It’s always nice to hear from you because you find a way to relate and understand. I don’t think in the 2 months I have here I will get used to India and all that it is, and I think part of my experience here is that I’m not supposed to get used to it.
      As for the eye contact thing, I’d like to say this. I am working with poor families and children in Mumbai… so my experience with them has been to be close with them, hug them, play with them, laugh with them, even discipline them when they are naughty in class. These are the kinds of poor people who are ignored by other travelers. When I walk down the street, I make eye contact as much as possible, and whenever I smile, 99% of the time I get a warm smile in return. These are not beggars but normal (albeit poor) people. In touristy places where non-Indian people become the attraction, this is a better time to ignore; this is a means to avoid a crowd. Even if you stop and stand in one place for too long just to take a picture, Indians will be flocking to you asking for photos with you. I even had a man try to shove his baby at me for a photo!
      Steph, I know that whenever you come to India, you will experience it with an open heart… 🙂

  20. This post really brought me back to my low moments in India. You described it better than I ever could- I think I’ll just copy and paste this to my site 😉 lol, but really I can relate and it’s almost a good feeling (that sounds horrible) to know that I wasn’t alone in those thoughts. And it’s the best knowing that they pass… and they come back… but they pass again. Luckily in Goa, I don’t have all that every day but It’s still rough knowing that I’m living a luxury life while just hours away people are suffering so greatly, and actually there is a “secret” slum in Goa near the airport that people pretend doesn’t exist.. it’s a strange life- I had a friend explain to me it’s what keeps the faith strong. She said “We believe so much in Karma because how else can we be so rich and them so poor? They’ve done something to deserve it… this is why the rich don’t help as much. They must be good in this life and the next will be better.” Anything to help sleep at night I suppose…

    • Colleen

      I like that you can relate to this post and that I’m not totally off my rocker. You speak of this secret slum… well interestingly, my friend met a guy at the bar on Friday who was born into a wealthy Indian family here, and he tried to argue with her that there is no poverty in India. With the drinking that was involved, the debate got pretty heated!

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