A night-talk in the desert: When Am I Poor?

I am doing something completely crazy and unimaginably beautiful at the same time. I am lying in embracing silence under the bright firmament on a bed and stare at the full moon. I can see every detail, every crate and all its shades. And despite its passive luminosity, I can also see as many stars which you might just find in a clear night-sky in the mountains. I feel incredibly rich. Every person who has slept in the desert under the sky, will understand this. And this is where I am. In the Indian Thar desert, somewhere in a village.

Taking a busride into the desert. Sitting on top, without knowing the destination.

I have left the last bigger city, Jaisalmer, earlier that day on the top of a bus. I don’t know in which direction. When I reached the village, I sent my location to my mum. With the last percent of my battery. And that was it. The only energy-source here is a little solar-panel, which serves 5% in one hour. So probably about seven minutes for my phone. I have to be thrifty with my battery. But yet, I feel great, while I am lying here. Next to my friend and his mother, without a roof or walls in front of the house.

But then the situation changes. The question, which had to come, comes and takes my attention away from the infinite worlds above me, down to the bitter reality. “What do you work over there?” I pause and think. Usually, I try to avoid these answers and just tell a part of the truth. I am a student. But I like the family, I’d like to share something to build up trust, to get closer to each other. But how do you get closer, when you display your differences as obvious like that?

I will try it anyways. I explain, that I work for two or three months a year, to survive with the minimum and that my father also supports me a little. But what is a little, what’s the minimum? In Germany there is again an upcoming debate about how little money is too less. As a student, I am indeed living significantly below the poverty line in Germany definitions (That was 1033€ per months in 2015, I can just laugh about this amount). And that’s been a while also. Yet, when I work for just two hours, I earned the monthly salary of my friend, who daily guides tourists on camel safaris through the desert. 3000-4000 rupees a month. Whoever feels like can calculate how far he or she would get with that amount. How can I explain my salary then or even justify it?

For about 35€ a month, my friend guides tourists through the desert.

First of all, I make references. To rent a room in Münster is already 350€ per month these days, about 30000 rupees. My audience is surprised. That is twenty times more than here. Still, I earn hundred times more. Then I explain that food is also more expensive and that we also have to give a lot away from our salary. “What is your government doing with this money?”, the mother wants to know. I reveal our system, and almost become a little proud German. “Most of the money goes away for health insurance. Whenever we are sick, we can go to a doctor and it is for free.” Two heads are turning away from the sky into my direction. “What? Hospitals are very expensive here.” Here comes the envy, that I wanted to avoid. But these is what you get when you start to tell the truth about global differences. Now I can also give them the full programme. Free school and university education, and our little highlight: Money, even if you do not work. I do not tell how much, because that would probably burst their imagination. I am already demanding too much from people whose horizon is as far as the sands of Rajasthan go. And a few stupid video-clips on their mobile phones.

I talk and talk to somehow explain what poverty means to us. Not just in Hindi I am lacking the right words. It is how it is: We are standing on the opposite sides of the winners and losers of globalization. And honestly spoken: The desert is really not the most supportive environment for economic advancement. I am privileged. What can I do? Live a life of poverty? That’s what I am doing at the moment. Okay, I have a choice to leave it at any time, I do not have duties and I am not bound to this place, I have perspective. But I come and take part. That is all I can do, because – even though some people are expecting this – I cannot drop the white man. It’s my embodiment. By the way, I also do not believe that every white man is per sé privileged. The only thing I can do is trying to understand what that is: a life of poverty.

And I am getting closer. I meet many happy people with a mini-income, but I also witness a lot of despair. My friend says he is happy in the desert. He loves his animals and is happy with his work. In the society in the mountains, where I spend most of my time, another friend told me: “I love this community. But I also hate the atmosphere, the bad manners of the people, who just sit there everyday doing nothing.”

There it is again: the lack of perspective. My own definition of perceived poverty. Poor are the people who are unhappy and cannot change anything about it or are not ready to do it. Poverty is a prison is poverty is a prison… maybe. I live from less than the state support, but I have cultural and social Capital. My poverty is not a prison and hence not poverty. I know how to help myself.

In the desert village you live really close to animals. The waterhole for camels, cows, horses and other animals is also the people’s basin after going to the open toilet behind the bushes. Everything is shared here.

What can I do for others? I can just give them my friendship and support. I can stretch my arms out, above the whole range of privileged and unprivileged and built small small bridges. That is Hippie-talk, but I also give free tuitions here, motivate people and support an NGO, which works for the people of the lowest caste. And I meet people, whom I tell how amazing I find all those little things that they do. How amazing the tea from fresh goat-milk tastes and how impressed I am about the fact, that the mother built the house out of stones, cow-poo and sand all on her own. How happy it makes me to see the family living together with all those animals, feeding even the useless animals like dogs and birds. Respect is the best way to take the feeling of poverty away from people. Not that stupid romantic babbling about the unnecessity of money and that they have all they need. My friends can measure themselves if they are happy or not, I guess. I am talking just about recognition for other peoples lives. And thus, I end the evening with thanking the people for everything. For the nice day and the opportunity to sleep here at this wonderful place under the open sky. With such amazing people.

Then everything becomes silence. As silent as you can just witness it here, in the desert. It is a silence, that is so embracing that it is louder than any noise. I realize how much I have talked, now that this emptiness fills my ears. I continue staring at the stars until I fall asleep. For me, in my freedom this is a perfect place. Just the goat which for some reason crouches under my bed at night, to ram its head into my back, disturbs a bit. And my knowledge about the fact that my friend will soon ask me how to get a Visa for Germany.

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Uff…the last line.