Why is there so much trash in India?
It's not that Indian people don't see the trash, we were assured. "We Indians used to leave the trash inside our own houses, but now we put it outside in our neighbor's houses. We're halfway there," our friend Amit told us. That is, halfway to keeping the plastic bottles and refuse out of the gutters, off of the train tracks, and out of the waterways where it thickens and colors the rivers' edge like a bean-paste soup. But when you're so concerned with feeding your family that you'd go out and beg on the streets, recycling is so low on your list of priorities that it's, well, basically not on the list. Just as Maslow purported, food, shelter, and getting ahead are all-consuming preoccupations.
When you understand this perspective, you start to understand the decaying appearance to everything. The rat-black gutters, the heaps of broken electronics, the cracked cement floors, the beat dogs, the ancient battered woks for cooking chapati, and the positively vintage vehicles. Everything, all signage and all clothing has yellowed and faded with wear.
And yet there's no question that it's all deeply attractive in it's own clouded light. There's a certain symmetry to the people's enterprising dispositions and their well-worn tools, and how the lines in their weathered faces match the angular edges of their implements. When your first priority is productivity, true beauty lies within leathery function. The potholes covered in planks, the un-patched gaps in walkways, the door handles affixed with strings, the electrical wire rat's nests on telephone poles (which are so large that they provide substantial shade), the urinals that simply empty onto the ground (and your shoes), the purses that are sewn from repurposed bags, and the AC units that are really just large fans sitting in pans of water (to draw cold air across it), all simply just work. They groan, and they rebel quickly and often in the summer heat, but they hold fast. They're rudimentary genius. At home things are installed to replace but here, they're installed to repair. Everything is propped-up for as long as possible. Everything is used to the absolute hilt and then it finds a new purpose doing something else.
I saw all of this and I realized that if you're keeping score by calculating the return on investment for the things they own, and compare our country with theirs, they take the cake.
I also couldn't help but ruminate on how quickly I consider things like clothes, kitchenware, tires, and and appliances "done for" back home.
It gives you plenty of pause for thought around the misconception that the developing world is dirty because people simply have less. It's dirty because people are working hard and want more.
And as you stare off into the distance to small cities of unlivable cement buildings filled with glowing happy people raising their families in the shallow puddles along blackened rivers under the smog of smokestacks, you can't avoid feeling deeply for them that it all pays off, and that progress was worth it.