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It’s a wonderful Berkshire life

That was the lesson I carried back with me to the Berkshires. If the Whagri family could be happy with so little, certainly I can be with so much.

Every spring, the Great Barrington Waldorf High School closes its doors, sending students out into the world. For three weeks in April, those taking languages go on exchange trips to Germany and various countries in South America, while the rest look for jobs or projects in the community.

I was one of the students who took German, but I chose to stay behind. Instead, I took an internship at The Berkshire Edge, a startup publication aimed at providing a new, alternative in-depth brand of news for the Berkshires. When we first met, The Edge creator, David Scribner, said, “We want this to be more New York Times than The Times itself.”

For the past six months I had been living with my family in India, and the thought of traveling to another country a few months after seemed overwhelming, especially after being gone from home so long. The trip came about unexpectedly, when my mother – a composer of classical music — received a grant to write the music for her next opera. Her piece was based on Khaled Hosseini’s “A Thousand Splendid Suns,” and the music would need what my mother called “a Middle Eastern feel” about it. She had always dreamed of traveling to India, and the opera was her excuse.

Three month’s later our family left for India, on a trip, my mother convinced us was, “a journey that would change our lives.” And it did, but not in any way she could have foreseen.

After two days of flickering seatbelt signs, airplane food, and enduring cabin pressure, we walked off the plane into Mumbai, where a cloud of smog greeted us and through which we found our way to a long line of small black taxicabs. On the drive through the city to our new home, we gazed in awe at the men and woman who sat in the streets, chewing gum, and playing games. Their children ran wild, and every time our car stopped, a few of them would rush to us, and pound the windows with their small grimy fists. We soon discovered that they were begging, and our driver advised us to ignore their antics.

During our stay we must have seen hundreds of them, but every time the peasant children pounded on our windows, or confronted us on the street to ask for food, we always felt guilty walking away. The friends we made during our stay in India, warned us that if we gave to one beggar, the others would see, run after us, and stay by our sides until we gave in.

Writing this article, and looking back on the past six months, my time in India seems to have faded into the background of my memory, but there is one day I distinctly remember.

Midway through our stay, my father and I went to talk to one of the families living in a slum near our apartment. They were a family of five living in a small hut made of the walls fashioned by sheets of corrugated fiberglass they had stolen from a nearby dump. There was a small bed in the corner, some stones for chairs, a single gas burner, and a television. The place was just barely large enough to park a car in, but somehow this Whagri family managed.

We spoke to the father, who worked washing dishes for a local caterer and had never had a proper education. Despite this, he was clearly a bright fellow, and he spoke just enough English to tell us that he wanted to give his children a better education than he had received. The daughters were enrolled in a local public school and their English was already more fluent than their father’s.

In talking with them, we discovered that these girls would kill to have what we in the West would call a “boring 9-5 office job,” and that anything would be an improvement from the one dollar a day they were living on then. Many people in their position would be pitiful and hopeless, living out the days until their demise. As it was, we did not feel sorry for the Whagri family, not because my father and I are heartless, but because the family exuded so much love and happiness toward us and each other, that we felt that they were in many ways better off than some of our wealthy Indian friends who were angry and sad.

As we said goodbye, my father and I realized how confortable we had been inside the Whagri family’s modest home, and during the rickshaw ride to our apartment, I wondered if all the families in the slums were happy despite their poverty.

That was the lesson I carried back with me to the Berkshires. If the Whagri family could be happy with so little, certainly I can be with so much. It’s a simple idea, one that I must have heard dozens of times, but it never held much significance for me until I traveled to India and witnessed real poverty for myself.

Since my return I have begun to notice things that were right before my eyes for years, things that I had never before bothered to pay attention to. Little details like the neatly swept sidewalks on Main Street in Great Barrington, the ornate stone carvings at the top of each building, or simply the polite greeting from a stranger passing by keeps me admiring the place I live in. We in the Berkshire live in a brutally different world than the peasants in the slums of India. If you ever find that the people seem more cold than usual, or the buildings on Main Street strikingly drab, take a look at my video blogs from India to win back your appreciation for where we live. They can be seen on the New York Times Upfront section ( ).

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