“A bed of strife is domestic life,
Full of toil and need,
But clear and high as the pure blue sky
Is the life the homeless lead.” – Buddhist saying
Some people are homeless by choice, but the vast majority are not. There are possibly more than 78 million homeless people in India (Action Aid 2003). In our travels we have come across a number of ‘professional’ travellers and vagabonds. Sometimes this is just a temporary state of affairs, lasting a few months or years, but occasionally one meets a truly homeless soul. The question of homelessness was on my mind as we arrived in Margao (Margadon).
The route to our room was blocked off as we entered the town: another festival was underway.
A procession of dancers and floats followed by a large crowd filled the streets, and we had to make our way on foot for the last two or three kilometres to the hotel. Loud music, incense smoke and colourful decorations filled the atmosphere, but the last hill proved almost too much for our weary muscles. We were happy to take a rest. Room prices are three or four times higher than in Arambol, but that is the price for traveling without a plan. We were headed for Hampi, but trains were full at the time, and so we had to stay on an extra day. From our balcony we watched the movements in the town square below. One family in particular caught my attention.
They had claimed one corner of the sidewalk around the public park as their own. At night they would take down an old iron bed, presumably for mom and dad and the little ones, and the rest of the clan, grandma included, would gather boxes and mats around, and that was home. A small fire in a drum provided a kitchen, and as for a bathroom – well, anyone can describe the smell around certain places in India. Next morning they would turn the bed back on end, make some space, and life would go on.
What impressed me most, speaking as a South African who is no stranger to the problems of homelessness, was that they seemed content, or if that seems too optimistic, there was a sense of acceptance about them. Compared to the violent, lawless country that I call home, it was really intriguing. In South Africa, there is a general feeling amongst people, not just the poorest, that they have somehow been cheated, that the world owes them something, and that, given the opportunity, one way or another, by begging, stealing or borrowing, they are going to take whatever they can. People are angry and bitter. But in this little corner that we called home for a day or two, things were different. There were plenty of smiles on that corner.
We caught an early train out of town, and enjoyed a warm cup of Chai, my new favourite thing in the world – spicy tea brewed in milk – and headed for the mystical town of Hampi.