It is 4.30 in the morning, still dark and very still. For a moment I am not sure where I am, but gradually my body recognises the familiar comfort of my own bed and I remember that I am home. A twist in my stomach tells me that I need the bathroom urgently, a feeling that I have lived with for the last fifteen days despite the care I have taken with food and drinks. As I step out of bed, the carpeted floor feels strange to my feet, which have become used to the cool marble tiles of hotel bedrooms. In Delhi it is 9.00 am and a new day has begun. The roads are full of every type of transport imaginable, all weaving in and out of each other, trying to get ahead. The air, already hot, will be filled with the pollution of exhaust fumes and a cacophony of horns, shouts and engine noise. The children that attend school will already be at their lessons in their smart uniforms. Those who don’t attend school face a day working beside their parents, peddling souvenirs or begging from tourists.
My adventure is over and it has been an incredible one. I have seen two extremes of life in India, from the lavish extravagances of a Hindu wedding, to the unbelievable poverty that is everyday life for the average family. I have experienced the selfless hospitality and generosity of two families to whom we were effectively strangers. So many people have tried relentlessly to extract money from us, by fair means or foul, that I have become cynical and untrusting. My eyes have been dazzled by the rainbow of colours everywhere; the roadside stalls selling fruit and vegetables; the ladies' saris that sparkle with beads, sequins and metallic threads; the brightly painted auto rickshaws with their gleaming chrome, and they have looked away in disgust from the filth and squalor that is the backdrop from which the colours shine out.
Here, the birds that are so familiar to me are just beginning to sing, tuning up for the morning chorus that I so love to hear but deep in my ears there is a faint echo of the calls of the all exotic birds that I have seen and heard. I have opened the window so that I can hear them better. Tinkabelle, having picked daintily at her breakfast, is curled on the settee under the window, her ears twitching constantly. It occurs to me that she may be better feed than some of the children that I have seen play by the roadside.
I have seen and done so many wonderful things in the last two weeks my head is buzzing with the memory of them all, but in those first few moments while I tried to remember where I was, one image played on my minds eye. The pretty face of a small girl we encountered 3 days ago in Jaiphur. Her green dress is filthy and her hair matted with dirt but her cheeks are plump, her eyes bright and her teeth strong and white. She is a professional beggar, sent by her parents to entice money from softhearted foreigners. With one hand she tugs my skirt to get my attention, with the other hand she gestures to her mouth that she wants money for food. She looks into my face with pleading eyes and her most beguiling smile. I have been subjected to this so many times now that my heart has hardened to it and I try to walk away without responding. She continues to tug my skirt and constantly manoeuvres to stay in front of me. “Please, madam, please.” I tell her I don’t have any change and she immediately replies, “the ice-cream man has change” and tries to tug me in his direction. I nearly give into her pleas but a glance around me takes in more children and beggars gathering around, if I open my purse for her they will all press closer and hold out their hands for rupees. I shake my head firmly, push her hand away and avert my eyes.
Laying here in my comfortable bed with clean sheets, I am full of remorse. I don’t know what difference 10 rupees would make to her but I know that it would have done more good for her gain 10 rupees than it would have harmed me to part with it.