Eva Bradley: The poor who dare to gaze at stars

By Eva Bradley

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Oscar Wilde once famously wrote that we are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars. I've used the line a few times when an insult with a smattering of intellect has been required, to good effect.

I have always interpreted it to mean that while we wallow collectively in our human inadequacies and most fail to conquer them, a determined few will at least aspire to.

But what I have discovered recently is that one man's gutter is another man's path to paradise and the one which we are inadvertently born in might have so much smog above it you couldn't see the stars even if you wanted to.

Two things overwhelmed me as I walked out of the international terminal in Auckland late on Wednesday night; the roaring silence, so free of horns and noisy humanity that it seemed as though my life had been put on mute, and the clean streets that looked as if they had been newly minted for a movie set. Verges and roundabouts that in India would have housed entire families were instead lined with neatly clipped hedges and lush green grass.

The gutters to which I had paid scant regard three weeks earlier, now seemed so sparkling and polished-looking that I could hardly manage to look at anything else.

It wouldn't just be the population of the Third World who would be happy to have a home there - after the sights I'd seen and some of the beds I'd reluctantly found myself sleeping in over the past few weeks, even I would be proud to call a stretch of Auckland airport guttering home, if only for a while.

While I had thought I'd bring home with me a bit of a tan and a few wooden bangles, I hadn't banked on having excess baggage in the way of a new and sad understanding of the difference rendered by the accident of birth.

And it wasn't just evident on the streets. Even the people here and the way they operated seemed lacking in a way in which I'd never before been able to see.

Checking in for my domestic flight I found an automated system stripped of any personal service, bar a disinterested Air New Zealand baggage assistant who watched while I struggled to put my suitcase on to the conveyor belt with - I kid you not - her hands in her pockets.

At an airport cafe where I paid an Indian Prince's ransom for a coffee and a squashed panini (which wasn't even the one I'd ordered), I had to stand at the counter while it was prepared because the staff getting paid a fortune by Indian standards wouldn't have a bar of bringing the food to my table.

The gutters are filthy in India, and on the outside the people often are too, but they are illuminated from within by a cheerful bonhomie, a willingness to help (albeit motivated by the hope of a small tip) and an inbuilt work ethic born from knowing that without it you wouldn't survive.

Nothing on this earth would ever make me wish to be born in the gutter of India instead of the privileged and spotlessly clean one in New Zealand, but I couldn't help but observe that poverty and a Darwinian fight for survival has at least bred a population there that will work hard and fight for a fleeting glimpse of the stars instead of idly gazing at them day after day with little intention of ever reaching out to grab one.

- NORTHERN ADVOCATE

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