Osmosis isn’t just a catch phrase in chemistry, it applies to life, particularly money. Having grown up in an affluent suburb of Cleveland, to fiscally responsible parents, I was privileged to live in a bubble. It was a vacuum, but we were guarded from the extremes and lived comfortably, though nothing real seemed to happen in that vacuum.
The feeling of ‘real’ only comes from the contrast you experience in life, or else you just get lost in a purgatory of sameness. Not knowing where you begin and end, you have no real identity, no rock to hold onto. You just keep floating.
They sacrificed a lot for that life and I luckily never felt the pull of need. Everyone was on the same playing field, more or less, and osmosis can only happen when an imbalance is present. It’s why so many people caught in the salaried existence are profoundly sad. There’s no financial struggle. You’re not fighting to put food on the table. The only real dilemma is what color linens compliment your eggshell walls perfectly.
I believe that for a properly meaningful life, we need something to fight against. Most of us just don’t have it, so it oozes into our lives through toxic relationships and persistent depressions. Inevitably our lives become the thing to fight against, not the poverty. We become our own demon, a self fulfilled prophecy. I don’t know if it’s my fear of success that keeps me from making more money, or my fear of slipping uncontrollably into that purgatory, but I’ve always been afraid of it.
I didn’t experience true poverty, the kind that peels your eyelids back, showing you humanity’s resilience, until many years later. I was working with AmeriCorps, in rural Colorado, but even then I was only making eight hundred dollars a month. I was under the poverty threshold, but only by one hundred dollars, if you believe it. Poverty in America, at the time, was set at nine hundred eighty-three dollars and thirty-three cents. I had enough for rent, a small car payment, and three hundred dollars to last me a month.
I was on food stamps and shared not only a house, but a room with two other people, yet I didn’t feel poor. I was the happiest I’d ever been that year. No one knew my background. They didn’t know where I came from. The only thing they did know was that I was a volunteer. None of the families expected any money from me, because the only thing I could really give was time and love. I was just as broke, I was an equal. I was living it.
I thought I’d seen it all, but the San Luis Valley and Kathmandu were worlds apart and I wasn’t prepared.
Stepping out of my driver’s car at one of the stops along the day’s tour, something felt very different. I may as well have been getting out of a Lamborghini. There wasn’t anything particularly special about the car, apart from the air conditioning system, but the moment my foot hit the dirt there was a pull, a tug. It’s in the way you’re looked at. All eyes come to meet you, scanning you from head to toe. You can’t help it, but reflexively your hand sinks into your pocket to guard the few hundred dollars jammed in that pouch of fabric. On some level, you know it’s the only real leverage you have, so you best not get pickpocketed.
That pull is in the shame you feel for having so much. There’s no pride in having more than you need. You feel sick, you feel naked. I hated the way I morphed to the preconceptions people had of me. I was guarded, anxious, ready to fend off the crowds, so to speak. I could feel the money sticking to me. I wanted to throw it into the air and be done with it, though I knew the perceptions would remain. In their eyes, I was a white tourist, nothing would change that, so I’d have to sit with the feeling of being a means to an end. I’d have to sit with being food on the table. This wasn’t going to be a vacation, it was going to be an education, and one hell of a wakeup call.
Jumping back in time, to the winter before, I saw myself as the Brazilian businessman that dropped a five grand wad of cash into my hand. I was working sales for Snowmass, making fifteen bucks an hour, which was good for me, but I remember hating him for that display. The money meant nothing to him and I bet the skiing didn’t either. For what he spent on two days of skiing, I could easily make it a third of the year. I’d always imagined the power he must’ve felt, but in that moment, clutching my three thousand rupees in a whiteknuckled sweaty fist, I didn’t feel empowered. I felt weak. I didn’t want it. I felt like an imposter, but I wasn’t one. In the eyes of the world, whether I could accept it or not, this is how rich I really am. This is the reality I take for granted, the one I continue to - I’m not above it.
Just think, for one second, that thirty thousand dollars a year already puts you in the global one percent. Next time you’re fighting tooth and nail for a raise, or you blow off a family commitment to work, just know you’re already playing in the major leagues. You’re the gold standard, convincing yourself of a plastic existence.
Coming back to reality, there were thousands of women, all dressed in orange from head to toe. Their sarees made the blue beads wrapping their wrists pop that much more. Weaving through the crowd, wearing all black, I silently made my way to the gates drenched in sweat, doing my best to remain unassuming. I completely broke eye contact, their thoughts piercing me.
Scattered amongst the line of women waiting for the temple were beggars, some of whom were children no less than six years old. Others were missing limbs with open sores, lying on thin blankets spread out on the crumbled pavement. Clouds of flies hung in the air while the stray dogs, who’s ribs were showing from starvation, searched for scraps of trash. I couldn’t help the thought that those dogs looked uncomfortably similar to the people lying in the gutters, but the more I looked, the less I could shake it. This is what inequality really means.
I always imagined this trip would be like a documentary, one that only shows the intense beauty of the place. In reality, I wanted to be removed from it all, not a part of it. When you sit at home, watching the BBC, the pain gets edited out; it isn’t much good for ratings. In a way, you keep yourself from seeing the world for what it is. You rob yourself of perspective and everything is digestible. It all comes prepackaged, the Disney Vault sticker slapped on the box, so you take it for what you believe it to be; the truth.
It was heartbreaking, walking past these people, knowing I could do nothing. The reality was that no amount I gave, or could give, would be sufficient. They’d need more. If not for themselves, then their family, or their family’s family. The thousand Nepali rupees I gave to that little boy would buy him as much food as he’d need for a full week, but the gesture only encouraged him. He knew there was more, so his brothers and sisters swarmed me.
We walked together, through the crowds of orange, for about five minutes. Holding their scabbed hands up to my face, with their palms to the sky, the children begged as though their lives depended on it, because they did. If they weren’t getting money from begging, they’d get it from selling their bodies. Everyone has to eat and it isn’t uncommon for parents to pimp their children, assuming their parents were even alive, but I tried to keep my mind from thoughts like that.
“Sir, sir. 500 rupees. Please. Sir, please” the group of them echoed that short phrase, over and over, as we walked toward the temple. Their eyes were dead. It was like looking into a hologram. You could see a person in front of you, but you couldn’t really feel them there.
Their souls were dampened. It’s the only way they could tolerate living like that, so they completely dissociated. I’d only been there a day and I even started doing the same.
Each of them had open wounds, knots in their hair, and smelled as though they hadn’t had a proper bath in weeks. It was like nothing I’d experienced, I was in shock. I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t find my bearing. It was a profound reality check, one where I saw my life for what it was; luxurious and comfortable. The only thing that came close to comparing to this were those bible stories I’d heard as a boy of the same age in Catholic grade school, but hearing and seeing are two different experiences.
I felt ashamed of where I was from, of what I take for granted. Yet, like that little boy, I too always want more. We have different motives, but on some level, no matter how much, or how little you have, it’s never going to feel like enough. The boy was trapped by his poverty and I, my salaried lifestyle. It all exists on the same plane and eventually, you just get used to it all, accepting your paradigm.
With the temple gates in sight, a local tour guide with slicked back hair, a pressed green vest, and aviators met me with a big smile. Before greeting me with a hello, he stomped on the ground and raised a fist in the air. Yelling at the children that followed me, they scattered and merged back into the crowd, he proceeded to welcome me to Nepal.