It isn’t as though I have not seen poverty before. I saw it growing up in San Antonio. I have seen it in American cities and rural poverty in the deep South, in Latin America, the Philippines, and elsewhere.
Yet I was not prepared for the salt pan workers. Even the photos cannot do this justice. We drive across featureless dried mud for miles. Around us there is an endless expanse of perfectly flat, perfectly brown nothingness. I am wishing I had a GPS unit and had “dropped a pin” at the start, for I have no idea where we are or how we could possibly find our way back. We pass some wild asses along the way and wonder what they eat out here.
Finally we arrive at the camp. We get a tour of the well, the pump, and what look like rice paddies with white salt at the bottom of a few inches of brine. The salt workers camp out here for six to eight months. Entire families come. They walk out here, carrying what they will need. The season begins with women smoothing out the bottom of the salt paddies with their bare feet. We learn that their feet have absorbed so much salt that when they die and are cremated their feet don’t burn.
OK. I was prepared to see some rough conditions. What really got to me was when we sat having tea and bread squatted on the tent floor. Ready for the big shock? Here it is: They love this! And they are not faking it. Their faces light up when they talk of finally marching out here, carrying all what they will need for the season. The children are happy (children can’t fake this).
For me this would be life in hell. Nothing green in sight (and I mean nothing) for miles. Living in a small tent in a desert. No electricity. Hard work all day. And they love it.
They love it because here they are free. They set their own pace. They have no overseer. In the village they are Dalits, “untouchables.” They are dehumanized every day. I realize that I take so many freedoms for granted. These untouchables are happy to endure enormous hardship for a small taste of freedom.
Here, in the desert of Gujarat, freedom tastes like salt.
Rev. Morales is on a two-week journey across India to meet with human rights partners.