Mother India has been good to me.
In the form of her daughters and granddaughters -- the women who have opened their doors and kitchens and farms to me without question -- she has taught me patience, kindness and how to make rounder rotis over a fire.
In the tekra, the largest slum in Ahmedabad, I was welcomed into a woman's home at 7 a.m. on a humid August morning. She was already cleaning the shower area behind a stone wall, clad in a thin sari and rubber sandals. Her two grown sons and grandchildren were still asleep in the small room, equipped with a television and fan, that constituted their home.
I had made a conscious decision the night before to not only observe her life, but to take part, to help, and to learn.
After a few hours of playing with the children, a 7-year-old boy and 2-year-old girl, and teaching them hindi letters, it was time for my host mother to go to work. Like most of the women in her economic class and condition, she was a trash collector, or rag picker.
The work of a rag picker in India might be the hardest labor of all. Coupled with inadequate pay and no stability, it remains an anomaly how this livelihood supports entire cities. We took enormous canvas bags and started down a busy Ahmedabad road, stopping once in a while because she thought I would get tired.
When we came to a hotel we were led past the stagnant water drains to the kitchen, where the cooks and helpers stood leering at me and trying to figure out why this obviously healthy, confused looking girl was following around a 50-something woman who wore her years of work on her face and frail body.
My host mother proudly announced that I was sleeping in her home, and eating with her family, to which the men laughed and stared harder. When I finally convinced her that I wouldn't just be watching, we started with the dirty work.
We hoisted crates of the hotels waste to a side alleyway, the juices dripping in between my toes and making me gag. I hesitated before putting on some latex gloves, since my host mother had none.
Outside we had attracted a crowd as we sorted through the trash to separate organic matter and plastic. The plastic is the most valuable, and my host mother would later sell it to a less-than-reliable middleman for money.
As we worked, sometimes casting aside used condoms and tampons, I could hear the men start to talk about my presence. But now, instead of laughing, they were wondering: why would a girl from America be here? Why doesn't she think this is beneath her?
The questions, regardless of the answers or action, were satisfying enough. I knew my host mother did not need me, and I knew my time was limited.
I helped my host mother hoist a huge bag of trash on her head, a task she would not let me do at any cost. We walked back toward the slum, weaving through oncoming traffic, auto rickshaws stopping because they thought I needed a ride.
Back at home, her out-of-work son cooked potato sabzi and I helped roll out some rotis. I spent the rest of the day playing with the granddaughter, and trying to ween the grandson away from the Bollywood songs on television.
At night I slept on a rope cot, wedged between children and my host mother, listening to the drunken snores of the son outside. I wondered of her strength -- her body still working and intact. I wondered of her heartbreak -- apparent in her words and eyes. And once again, I adjusted my view of reality, and my place in it.