Wednesday, December 31, 2003

Chaos and Quiet

One of the questions Jody and I have been asked again and again on our return from just over ten days in India was: has it changed you? Do you feel you’re a different person as a result of the trip?

The answer surprised even us. How could such a quick trip have any kind of long lasting psychological influence? But it did. And here it is in a nutshell:

We, in Israel, have nothing to complain about.

Well, that’s not entirely true. The impulse towards national and self-improvement is one of our most basic human drives and we should never cease trying to make the world a better place. But Israelis – and even more so the substantial Anglo immigrant community in Israel – are known to kvetch about every little thing. You know what I mean:

The streets are filthy.

There’s too much noise.

Everyone’s corrupt.

Well, let me tell you, we’ve got it made in the shade. Israel is a paradise, a Western wonder compared to so much of what we saw in India.

Which is not to say that we didn’t enjoy ourselves on our trip. We did. Tremendously. Every day provided a full curriculum in exotic fascination. There is no place in the world like India for the sheer sensory overload. The overwhelming and non-stop newness of everything around us provided a buzz like no other.

But that only enhanced our appreciation of home.

For example, I was walking to synagogue with the kids on the Shabbat after our return. And I was struck by the incredible quiet.

Now I know that most visitors to Israel complain of the exact opposite - that Israel is such a noisy place. And it's true. There' s no denying it. Israelis are loud. Storefronts blast disco and people in general speak several decibels higher than their North American counterparts.

It’s just that everything is relative.

In India, for example, there were times we couldn’t hear ourselves speak above the din of trucks barreling over potholes while leaning on their horns non-stop in what we discovered after a few days in the country was actually a form of polite discourse, a way of saying “Look at me, here I come…aint I fine?”

In the crowded streets of Varanasi, the power grid is so outdated that many of the shops have their own generators out front to ensure enough electricity. That’s right, gas engines chugging away without even a car frame to muffle the ruckus.

Sure, you could argue that my experience of quiet back in Israel took place on Shabbat, a day of rest, where in Jerusalem at least, the traffic is significantly less that at, say, rush hour on a Monday.

But back in Varanasi, Jody and I had gotten out one morning well before dawn on our way to a sunrise cruise along the Holy Ganges River. Even at that ungodly hour, the streets were packed with touts and hawkers and rickshaw drivers puttering in all directions, all desperately driving...usually directly towards us.

No question about it, Indian streets are colorful and exciting. They’re also incredibly chaotic, run-down and dirty. Everything you’ve heard about the preponderance of stray animals is true. The authorities report some 35,000 ownerless cows and 5,000 unclaimed monkeys in Delhi alone. And you know, when a cow’s got to go, a cow’s…well, you get my drift.

Same with people. I was amazed to discover the urban Indian phenomena of the outdoor urinal. A block of concrete and a gutter, smack dab in the middle of a marketplace. Privacy? That’s something for prudes. Everything in India, it seems, happens on the streets.

In makeshift storefronts just inches from the speeding taxis, we were alternately astounded and intrigued by exactly what you can procure on an Indian street corner. We saw one man getting a shave, another having his teeth cleaned by a roadside hygienist, and yet a third waiting patiently while a man with a solitary iron pressed shirt after shirt for waiting customers.

Back in Israel, we strolled through a park that I used to deride for being full of broken down playground equipment and dirty sand. No complaints now. This park was a picture of sophisticated design and planning, full of decorum and order.

Same for the streets. Jerusalemites moan all the time about the endless state of disrepair of many of our roads. In India, we decided at one point to take a “shortcut” to bypass the congestion in Agra, home of the Taj Mahal. The map said we’d save over 50 kilometers of driving. Let me just say that you have never experienced potholes until you’ve been on a Bharatpur-Mathura “Highway”– if you can even call it that.

Now, no one can deny that not everything’s rosy in Israel. Unemployment and taxes are too high; poverty is rising, and hunger and homelessness are, sadly, no longer unknown. Our economy isn’t recovering at the same pace as our NASDAQ cousins overseas, and everyone knows we have some serious problems with our neighbors. But I never saw a beggar with no legs, an eight-year-old boy with leprosy, or a wild pig rummaging through my recycling.

They say that travel is broadening. For Israelis, it’s a chance to see palaces and monuments far grander and more opulent than anything back home. Unfortunately, when they return from from their trips to Europe and America and the Far East, those same Israelis are compelled to kvetch with even more fervor about what they they now see as their small dingy little country.

For us, India had the exact opposite effect. That’s not to say I’ll be complacent the next time a wedding hall collapses due to the contractor bribing City Hall so he can open without a permit. Nor should we stand idly by when we read of another 50 dead on the roads because of unnecessarily aggressive driving and unimproved highways.

But for all our complaints, our troubles are nothing in comparison with those in other parts of the world. It’s not just a line that “we made the desert bloom.” We did and it’s gorgeous. Rather than kvetching, we should be counting our blessings.

As we usher in 2004, I know I will be.

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