What's All This Then?

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What's All This Then?

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The City of Joy
by Dominique Lapierre

Field-Tested by Heidi Moorman

in Mumbai, India

In the summer of 1987, I took a summer job working with a landscaping crew on an Air Force base in south Georgia. No one understood why I wanted to spend my summer picking weeds, especially my new co-workers — a mix of ex-con types and social rejects. My dad, an Air Force Colonel, was the base commander (kind of the mayor of the air base). Being the commander's daughter and a college student, I immediately was looked upon as a privileged kid and not cut out for the job. The hours were long; the work was very physical; and heat next to the runways was brutal. It was the highest paying summer job I could find, and I was determined to prove that I could handle it. All summer as I picked weeds, planted flowers, and trimmed bushes, I thought about the day I would leave for my semester abroad.

St. Mary's College had a program called ‘Semester Around the World.’ As soon as I read about the program, I knew it was for me. Five weeks traveling around Asia, followed by three months studying and traveling in India. Ever since my family had lived in Europe, when I was in grade school, I had wanted to go to India. Our summers were spent traveling around Europe with my mom in our VW van. She dragged us to every museum, monument, and mausoleum she could find, always with her big art book in tow. I spent hours in the back of our van, looking at the pages of art, but was always intrigued by the Taj Mahal.

In 1987, going to India was unconventional. Finding a book about India in Valdosta, Georgia was unfathomable, so I special ordered a travel guide. My mom also found a book by Dominique Lapierre called The City of Joy, so I packed it in my bag.

Somewhere between Japan, China, or Thailand, I began reading about the struggles of an impoverished Calcutta rickshaw driver and a priest he befriends. The images of the slums, disease, and human misery horrified me. The social injustice angered me. And the compassion and love for fellow human beings inspired me.

When I arrived in Bombay, now Mumbai, I felt as though I was entering the book. Mile after mile of makeshift cardboard houses and people sleeping on the ground. I felt like I had been there before. I never picked up the book again to finish it; it almost seemed pointless. I felt as though I was living the book from the sidelines. I could smell the stench of the streets and the jasmine in the women's hair. I could see the the beautiful smiles and twinkly eyes through the filth on the children. I could witness, first hand, the vividly colored saris of the women begging on the streets. I could hear the constant honking of the overcrowded buses and the lovely ragas coming from the temples. I could taste the cardamom and mustard seeds, and the tangy guavas picked on the roadside.

More than any tour guide could, The City of Joy prepared me for what I was about to experience. Though I didn't live my three months in India like the rickshaw driver in the book, I was able to have a better understanding of the people with whom I came in contact on the streets and in the college I attended in Madras.

Heidi Moorman owns Big Delicious Planet Catering in Chicago. She loves to read, travel, and cook Indian food.

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