Mini-adventure!: The Great American Road Trip, continued

4.24.2015


Ages before India, a year before Europe, I had a simple wish: to see America—to walk its canyons and ride its byways and glimpse the great glaciers of the north while there were still great glaciers of the north to see. And so I packed my tent and changed my oil and hit the road, just another young man on a quest across America. The Great American Roadtrip.

Some things were different. I drove a scooter, not a car; I rode around America, not across it. America meant North America—a dip into Mexico and a leg across Canada—but otherwise it was the same old trip one million times over, 15,000 miles spread not-so-evenly across two life-changing months, the best two months I've ever had.



This summer, let's make it one million and one. Or one million and one-half, or one million and one-quarter, or whatever—this return to the West will be abridged, but the adventure won't be. Some things will be different: sans scooter, plus car, and plus one very special companion to share it all with. Some things will be the same: there will be Zion, and there will be Arches, and there will be the amber of the Yellowstone and the sparkling blue of Crater Lake and the ashy black of the Bristlecones.

We leave mid-June: a flight to Vegas and then a long, beautiful drive to canyon country. We'll meander through Arizona and Utah before heading north to Wyoming, and then away we go toward Oregon, a great westward arc to Portland before we wind south toward the Sierras: Lassen, Yosemite, Bishop, Death Valley, and everything in between. It's an ambitious trip: twelve national parks, seven national monuments or forests or recreation areas, and a whole host of little towns and cities along the way—all in sixteen short, summery days.

We'll fly back from Vegas and return to DC on the afternoon of July 4th, the very same time and day Rousseau and I rolled back into Washington two years earlier (if it weren't so terribly coincidental, it'd be terribly cliché). More to come—obviously—but for now the flights are booked and the car is booked and the two-person tent is on its way. The mountains are calling (again), and it's time to go.

A very rough (and very inaccurate) route.



Udaipur at sunrise

4.20.2015

Udaipur, India
February 2015










LOST POST(?): Delhi, Amritsar (Days 11, 12, 13)

4.13.2015

Going through old writings on India, I realized I may have never hit the publish button on this one. But it includes a recap of the India-Pakistan border ceremony, and other crucial moments to the India experience, so here it is, sixty days late, for (maybe?) the first time.

Lisa and I don't get settled until nearly 6AM, and she's obviously jetlagged, so we sleep late and rise slowly and tuk-tuk into the city center. We don't plan to stay in Delhi long, but a day of recovery sounds like a smart measure. We search for some grass to sit on.

The center of New Delhi feels very European, which makes sense, as it was constructed by the colonial British in the European style: wide boulevards, grand buildings, big concentric circles of road with Delhi's Central Park in the middle, and in the middle of that, a massive Flag of India flapping proudly.

We get some street food and sit down and are almost immediately hounded by the wallahs, vendors selling their wares on foot. There are chaiwallahs and chipwallahs and rotiwallahs and waterwallahs and, oddly enough, q-tipwallahs, Muslim men with cotton sticks tucked into their caps who will come over, take a nosy peek into your ear, and inform you that, oh my, you simply must have your ears cleaned by yours truly. They'll pull out photographs of said cleaning, nervous-looking white people in that very park, q-tips jabbed in their ears, and if that isn't enough to convince you, they'll withdraw a small notebook from a front pocket and open to the page of your chosen nationality, where other Americans or Italians or whomever offer testimonials of the wondrous powers of the wax conjurers. Curiously, all the scribblers have the exact same handwriting.

We challo our way through an hour or so of the capitalist chaos, these every-other-minute interruptions, and then admit defeat of our silly idea to have a quiet afternoon in the park. Lisa has made the very unrecommended choice of bringing a duffel bag, so we set out in search of a hostel at which to stow it.

On the way we pass the train station, and thinking it'd be better to book our tickets for tomorrow now, we start for the inside. We're stopped along the way by a Sheikh with a badge, something generic like Railway Operator. "Ah, foreign tourist office not here. Let me help you."

He does help us, giving us the little forms we need to fill out by hand to request a ticket, which will later be given to a man behind a computer who will type everything on the form into said computer with one finger. It isn't the most efficient system, but it's the system.

We finish the forms and the Sheikh explains that the foreign tourist office is back at Connaught Place, right from where we'd come. It seems odd, but these foreign tourist office are a thing in India: foreigners and freedom fighters are eligible for a set-aside stock of Indian rail tickets, and they usually have to be claimed at the "Foreigners and Freedom Fighters" desk. The desk is usually in the train station, though.

We actually trust the Sheikh completely, but he's oddly paranoid that we don't trust him. "You don't believe me?" he asks, repeatedly. "No, really, we believe you. Just show us the way."

He puts us in a tuk-tuk and barks the address to the driver and we take off, a little confused, but arrive at a fairly official-looking building a few minutes later. We head inside, give the man our slips, and he punches the information into his computer, one finger at a time. "I'm sorry, we don't have availability."

That's not good. We ask what we should do. "Well, you can check another travel agency. They may have different availability."

Another travel agency?

"Yes, this is travel agency."

"We thought we were sent to the tourist office."

"No, this is travel agency." The man looks just as confused as we are. None of us can seem to figure why the Sheikh sent us here, for to get a commission the man at the agency would actually have to be in on the touting, and he definitely isn't. We thank him, leave the office, and take the tuk-tuk back to the railway station, just a little further up this time. We walk down the road and stop at the "Foreign Booking Office" building, all blue government signage. We enter.

A friendly man greets us, offers us a seat, offers us tea. He asks where we're going. We say Agra. He says very good. He asks some more questions, where we're from and how long we'll be in India and where else we'll be going, and when we say we don't know, he offers some recommendations. Out comes the pad, out comes the pen, out comes the itinerary. Agra. Varanasi. Kama Sutra Palace. And all of a sudden, the walls of the office shift and the "Incredible India" posters on the wall become wildly familiar and I'm back in Mumbai, back in that little room with the elephant safaris and the ninety-thousand rupees and the sorry-cash-only.

"Wait," I interrupt, "just to be clear, are you an official tourist office?"

"We book official tourist tickets for transportation through ..." I cut him off.

"Are you an official tourist office?"

"We are officially recognized by the government of ..."

"So no."

"No."

We grab our things and rush out of the fake tourist office and finally, fifteen minutes later, make it to the real one, which is right where it should have been the whole time: directly in the train station. We sit and wait and as we wait my mind drifts back to a poster of Amritsar's Golden Temple on the wall of the travel-agency-in-disguise. "Hey Lisa, what if we go to Amritsar tomorrow?"

"Works for me," Lisa says. Cool.

We book tickets to Amritsar. We spend the evening walking around the ancient bazaars of Delhi, and early the next morning, we depart for the northwest.

***

It's a long train ride. We watch the sun climb from the horizon to the zenith from the windows of our crowded traincar; we're stuffed in tight, elbows all up in strangers' business. The train ride is unremarkable: it just happens. For eight hours, it just happens.

Eventually we screech our way into Amritsar, the Sheikh holy land. It's here where Sheikh separatists blockaded themselves in the Golden Temple in a bold declaration of independence, here where Indira Gandhi, afraid of appearing weak in the lead-up to the next election, decided to storm the Temple rather than negotiate. Here where the repercussions of that decision rippled back all the way to Delhi, from where we had just come, when her two Sheikh bodyguards shot her to death for attacking their people. And before all this, there was the Golden Temple itself, a masterwork of design and pilgrimage site for the Sheikh community.

We visit, spiritual pilgrims from the West. We walk across the marble-tiled courtyard before its exterior walls; we check our shoes, and dip our feet in a small water trench, and step barefoot through the archway into one of the most glorious buildings I've yet seen.

The temple isn't very big. Most of the large walled square is a sacred pool, clear tranquil water for pilgrims to walk the perimeter of, to bathe in. On the other side of the pool, a narrow walkway extends out toward the center of the compound, a little peninsula on which the temple sits, at the very center of the whole thing. It's capped in intricate goldwork, a great shining dome and precise spires and latticing all about. All around, Sheikh chants waft beautifully through the speakers.

We walk very slowly around the large pool, heads covered and feet bare. We join the queue on the isthmus waiting to pay their respects inside the temple; slowly, we move forward. We're all huddled together tightly, and everyone around us chants along with the haunting hymns. We sit, we stand, we sit again, a thousand bodies unified in prayer. It's a beautiful moment, a surrender of the individual to the collective.

Or not. After some time the line is permitted to move forward, and I feel jabs and shoves from all-too-eager pilgrims fighting their way to the front. The peace of only a moment ago has been replaced by all the bustle of Walmart on Black Friday, and I do my best to resist the shoves and just move respectfully forward.

Another stop, another sit, another wait. And then we're allowed to enter, and it's a nightmare, dozens of bodies cramming at once through the doorway, stepping over others who have chosen to prostrate themselves at the entrance, as Sheikh custom encourages before entering a temple. The scene once inside is even more carnal: photographs snapped on iPhones, a few seated men playing instruments, and countless rupees tossed in their direction as tribute, while men on their knees push about collecting the rupees, like the men who gather the cash for strippers. Nothing about it is peaceful or spiritual or pleasant; inside the temple it's all me and money.

We exit and are immediately brought back into the warm, soothing rhythm of the compound: its chanting, its walking, its quiet waters. We spend a little more time by the pool, just sitting, and then head to bed.

***

We sleep a long time. When we wake, we talk plans. Let's go to Kathmandu. I book tickets while Lisa gets coffee. We're going to Kathmandu.

But not until tomorrow. We wander out of the hostel and into Jallianwalla Bagh, a massive courtyard where, in the days of the colonialism, the Brits mercilessly massacred thousands of peaceful protestors, firing for ten straight minutes into the gathered crowd, actually directing that gunfire toward the few alleyways in which the unarmed masses could escape. It was a terrible thing; so much unnecessary violence in this city's past.

The courtyard has been turned into a peace park of sorts, and is solemn but beautiful. Bullet holes still cry out in the brick walls. Shrubs are shaped into men with guns from the exact places where the British fired, and silent mourners trickle by with grim expressions. We spend a little time in that heavy place, and then head west of Amritsar for a whole different vestige of India's journey toward independence: the Indian-Pakistani border.

***

Wagah, about twenty kilometers outside of the city, splits what was once Punjab into Indian Pubjab and Pakistani Punjab, Hindu Punjab and Muslim Punjab (though not quite), East Pubjab and West Punjab. Every day, the border crossing station at Wagah has a closing ceremony, and we're told it is not to be missed. We're up for a look.

We book a shared taxi for a few hundred rupees and stand around awkwardly for its 2:15PM departure. 2:15 rolls around, and then 2:25, and a sulky man with the biggest frown you've ever seen lumbers over. He looks at us with extreme displeasure and then over to the guy in the prepaid taxi booth. "Do?" he spits. Only two? The guy shrugs.

Our driver, with a face like he's just been made to take out the garbage and the recycling and he really doesn't want to grunts a guttural noise that we interpret to mean follow me, and we follow him a few blocks to a quiet alley with a van. We climb inside. "Ten minutes," he says, and begins walking away.

"What? No, now. Ceremony starts soon."

"Ten minutes." He grunts again.

"No! Challo!" Let's go! He walks away.

Lisa and I wait inside for ten minutes until he returns with a few more riders. They pile in, and he leaves again.

Five minutes later, and he's back. Another three cram into the front; we're now at about ten people in a seven-person van. The girl behind the driver, something of a diva, hits the back of his seat. "Challo!"

We begin to move. We bounce along the pavement for a few blocks in silence, the driver making no effort to drive like an Indian, which is to say, doing any maneuvering to actually get us anywhere. We crawl along as the  mutterings of the woman grow louder. Lisa and I smile.

After some ungodly amount of time, we arrive right back where we started, at that prepaid taxi stand. It's nearly forty-five minutes after we should have left, and just as we're preparing to peel out of the city ... dude gets out.

He opens his door and just walks out, leaving the door and our mouths ajar. The girl yells something that can only be Hindi for "what the fuck?" and we watch the guy lumber on over to the booth and, if his body language is any giveaway, start complaining. We speak no Hindi, but we understand every word: I don't wanna drive to Wagah! I just don't feel like it! I'm not going to do it, and you can't make me. The guy behind the counter is irate. This goes on for a few minutes, and another driver hops in, flashes us a smile, and takes the wheel. He begins to fight our way through traffic, and we feel like we're finally making progress.

Progress is slow, and so two minutes later we're only a hundred feet away. Which is just close enough for the first driver, who has clearly been told that he will be fired if he does not drive us to Wagah, to actually return to the vehicle, open the door, and nearly pry the replacement driver from the seat. Again, the girl behind him smacks the headrest and hurls obscenities.

We all sit in awkward, stupefied, unhappy silence as we exit Amritsar and get on the highway and trot along the outskirts of Punjab. We're finally picking up speed, making up for lost time, when once more, we stop. The driver pulls into a gas station, clicks off the engine, and turns around. Hindi dribbles from his downward-cast lips.

The passengers in the row behind him look outraged, and discussion ensues, and one of the guys pulls out a five-hundred-rupee note and hands it to the driver. Dude needs gas money.

I half expect him to ask us to pump the gas too, but in a surprising turn of events, he gets out and actually does it himself.

And then he walks away.

He turns a corner and disappears from sight and the girl in the row ahead of us shrieks. We all sit there, waiting for the return that may or may not come.

It comes, thankfully. He walks back with a wad of paan that he pops in his mouth, paid for with the gas change from the man in row two. He spits, gets in, turns the key. We get back on the road.
Another six kilometers of silence. He swerves all over the road and drives half the speed of everyone else and picks up his phone and doesn't break eye contact for way too long. And then, he taps something and Bollywood music floods the small van.

Only in India.

***

Eventually we arrive. We're quickly separated from the pack and sent down the foreigners' queue, where we walk about a kilometer along a wide, empty road (Indians on one side, foreigners on the other) decorated by towering billboards suggesting you join India's Border Security Force, "largest border security force in the world." Translation: we trust nobody. I question if it's a superlative worth being proud of.

But the Indians sure are proud of it. We see dozens of them along the road, stopping us at checkpoints every few hundred meters to get the same thorough patdown: ass grab, inner thigh grope, crotch pat. It feels really nice. Lisa, who gets groped by female guards behind a privacy curtain, agrees.
Finally, we make it to the actual border, which is something like giant bleachers and a street on the Indian side, and half a stadium on the Pakistani side, a stadium just cleaved straight down the middle. Interestingly, the Indian bleachers are positively bursting with spectators, and the Pakistani stadium is completely empty.

In Pakistan it's a ghost town; in India it's a block party. It's 4PM on a weekday, and hundreds of students are just dancing in the street as "Jai Ho" rings out over the loudspeakers. It's a Bollywood flashmob, it's a carnival, it's a little slice of territorial ridiculousness.

As foreigners, we're given front row seats at the base of the bleachers. I look back and Indians are standing in their seats, writhing about, dancing and yelling and shouting and chanting. The atmosphere is beyond festive; it's World-Cup-celebratory. A man to my left taps my shoulder. "You are here!" he says with ecstatic eyes.

Why yes, I am here!

The dancing carries on for a few more Bollywood numbers, and then the celebrants are told to take their seats. It's time to get the real party started.

The party, if I haven't been clear about this, is the daily closing of the Indian-Pakistani road border. This little song and dance (no, this massive song and dance) has been happening since almost 1950, and it has been happening daily. To celebrate closing up shop for the day. No, it's not really supposed to make sense.

But oh, it's starting. A roar erupts from the speakers, the kind of baritone roar you might hear before a wrestling match or a rock concert, and a mustached man in a white track suit bursts through the doors of the customs office and into the middle of the street. He bellows in deep Hindi, welcoming the crowds to the 18,438th border closing ceremony, or something like that. He stretches out his arms and soaks in the crowd's cheers.

Then the fascism starts. "Ya ya Hindustan!" he shouts. The crowd repeats the refrain. His fist pumps high in the air, and the tension grows, and again he roars, "HINDUSTAN!" He punches at nothing, the spectators go wild. "Hindustan!" they shout back, the proposed name for a Hindu-only India at the first days of India's independence, a name and concept Gandhi fought against (and was killed, by a Hindu, for). Yet the face of Gandhiji smiles out from right above the gate, where the mustached fascist rallies the crowd. This continues for some time. A drummer on the roof of the visa office matches the bellows with his bass. Next to me, a baby starts crying. I know, I say to myself, looking at its young, innocent face. I don't like fascism either.

When the crowd is good and primed, the real ceremony begins. A dozen members of the Border Security Force march out into the street, stern faces and strong arms gripping steel rifles. The masses go berserk.

The first two guards, the token women, march toward the gates separating the two nations, a little Checkpoint Charlie of sorts. They meet their counterparts, Pakistani border guards, in the space between, and the four salute and file out. Then the men begin.

In pairs of twos, the soldiers rip down the street, knees nearly smacking their puffed-out chests as they high-step their way to the borderline. The Pakistanis do the same, and when the four men come face-to-face, they have what can only possibly be described as, well, a dance-off.

It's a high-stepping dance-off, and the sole aim seems to be who can high-step the highest. From the bleachers, they look like small marionettes, exaggerated prances in elaborate waltzes across the dance floor, a few dazzling moves before the final kill, a great big leaping high-step and a beating of the chest and the adoring love of the Indian crowd.

More high-stepping, more cries of Hindustan, more organic chants from the bleachers. When the last Indians and the last Pakistanis have stepped their last high-steps, the soldiers each grab the rope of each other's flag pole and pull at it with all their might. The poles shudder in the distance, resisting the wish to topple. The pulling stops; the flags will stand for another day. The Indians and Pakistanis turns their backs to one another, they close their gates. The border is secure. Fear not, India.
And with that, the most bizarre ceremony I've ever witnessed draws to a close. Spectators run to the gates to get photographs with their favorite Border Security Force guard. Wallahs hawk souvenirs of Indian flags and instant photographs. Lisa and I look at each other, speechless.

For almost seventy years, India and Pakistan haven't been able to agree on even simple things like where one country begins and one country ends. Right now, ten-thousand men live on a glacier ten-thousand feet high, melting the very thing with their heat and waste and use, just to make sure that the men on one side of the glacier don't cross over to the other side. The countries have atomic bombs, but not the ability to draw lines on a map. And this is how they spend their time: not figuring out how to get along, but developing an intricate choreography of a forty-five-minute international dance that would make Broadway proud.

Or maybe, I reconsider, this is them getting along. Maybe high-stepping contact is better than no contact, friendly competition better than icy isolation. They may not be able to resolve Kashmir, but at least they can dance together.

***

It's evening, it's night, it's morning. We tuk-tuk to the airport and board a little plane and fly to Nepal. An hour later, we're descending into the Kathmandu Valley. Lisa and I cram against the skinny window of the plane. Below us is a cottony field of clouds, and poking clean through those clouds are the snowy peaks of the tallest mountains in the world. We've reached the Himalayas.




Scenes from Kathmandu

3.29.2015

Kathmandu, Nepal
February 2015








After words (Days 34+)

3.24.2015

"I miss cold weather and white people. I see pictures of blizzards on TV and remember the warmth inside when it's cold outside and you open the window just a crack and the air outside slices in like a solid wedge. How it reaches your nostrils and you take a deep breath. How you go outside on a bad night and the cold clears your head and makes everything better." — Suketu Mehta, Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found

Nothing about India was planned: not the trip, not the destinations, not the welcome company or the unwelcome illness or the complicated eye surgery or the half-hearted departure. It is early March, and I am supposed to be paddling back to civilization after thirty days without seeing another human. Instead I am flying high over Europe with dead E. Coli in my stomach and fledgling corneas in my eyes and a million new faces recently installed in the annals of my memory. Nothing about India was planned, yet nothing was regretted: not the trip nor the destinations, not the companionship nor the complications. It was a maximum experience of maximum sights and sounds and smells, a gorgeous overdose of civilization I won't ever forget.

I return to DC and am unsettled by the quiet. The winter chill feels wonderful on my sun-kissed skin; the silence of the early evening is stiller than anything I've heard in a month. The sky is blue—not white, but blue—and the sun actually hurts when you look directly at it, and the roads are straight and demarcated and the sidewalks wide and mostly even, and everything feels new and strange and foreign. I see white people and hear American-English and feel overwhelmed by my sheer ability to communicate. I walk through the twilit streets and realize that I know these roads, and for the first time I come to see them as truly beautiful. The air is clean and even the cars seem quiet—the occasional honk here or there, sure, but these blares only punctuate the status quo; they don't create it.

There are no cows and no stray dogs and no unaccompanied children who run up to my side. There are fewer smiles and fewer colors and I come to find sari-red and lungi-white replaced with nothing but suit-grey. The suit replaces the soot and the grim replaces the grime; there are blankets of white snow as expressionless as the white faces. It's good and bad, strange and nice, foreign and familiar, this business of being back. I catch up with friends and they ask about the trip and I struggle with what to say. There's no "best" place or "best" experience or "best" anything; there's just India, and every place and experience within it is inseparable from the next, and yes I loved it and yes I had a good time and yes it was everything I hoped it would be.

And yes, it's nice to be home.


Delhi (Days 25 - 33)

3.19.2015

So I have a plan. It's a plan I've had for a little while. The plan is this: go to India, get lasers shot into my eyes, see as clearly as Johnny Nash after the rain. A $6,000 eye correction in the States costs just $600 in India, and with equally skilled specialists in both countries, it seems a thrifty decision. And so I'm off to Delhi for a new pair of eyes.

Truth be told, I want to go home. I'm still shaken from a nasty bout of E. Coli, and all I really want is to be in back in DC, with smooth roads and straight buildings and familiar faces. I'm afraid of staying in India, afraid of touching another surface or eating another meal or shaking another hand and having it all happen again. I don't think I bear it again. I love this country, but I'd love to leave it all the same, at least for now.

It's Tuesday, and I think I can get LASIK done Wednesday and fly out of Delhi Friday, a week earlier than planned. I check the cost of switching my flight: same route, same time, same day, just one week earlier. The change fee is $300 and the fare adjustment is $600, and this is just for switching one leg of my flight. It'll cost $200 more than the entire round-trip flight I'd already booked put together. I write Royal Dutch Airlines a pleading email. Please, I want to go home. I've been sick. I add some embellishment. I'm stabilized, but need to have follow-up work done in the States. The robot-human from Royal Dutch Airlines responds. "We're sorry for the inconvenience. Unfortunately you will have to pay the fare adjustment. Thank you for flying Royal Dutch. I hope that helps."

It doesn't. Not at all. I table that task for once I get settled in Delhi.

***

The next morning, I head to the eye doctor. I'd taken my contacts out the night before, but my left eye is still all blurry from irritation. This is why I need the LASIK, because my left eye has decided it doesn't want to wear lenses anymore and stages a tiny mutiny whenever I put one in. I worry that my eye will be too damaged for the surgery. It is. The doctor sits me down and shines a light in my eye and moves it around a few times and exhales deeply. "Your eye is no good," she says.

Poor bedside manner, but I like her nonetheless. She's seems warm and intelligent and genuinely concerned. She's like a grandmother—and she scolds like one too.

"This eye is very bad. What did you do to this eye? Why did you let it get like this?"

I apologize, profusely. I feel ashamed. But I'm here, I explain, I'm trying to change my contact-wearing ways. "Can we still do the procedure?"

"No."

"No?" My heart sinks.

"Not today."

My cornea is fucked, she tells me in slightly more professional terms. It's scratched up like an old CD and needs some time to heal, and maybe, just maybe, it'll be okay for surgery the following week. At least that handles the flight situation, I think. I really don't want to stay in India another week, but I really want eyes that work the way they should.

She tells me she's going to scrape my cornea, and then she does. She drops a liquid in my left eye and the eye goes numb. An assistant clamps my lids from closing while the doctor takes a q-tip and gently wipes the detritus from my eyeball. The procedure takes under a minute. She rolls away from the eye station and her assistant lifts a piece of gauze and some tape. "Now the eyepatch."

I leave the eye center a few minutes later with a huge bandage over the left side of my face and zero depth perception. "You're to wear this for a day," Doctor Neera had said. "And come in tomorrow for me to remove it."

It lasts about an hour. The numbness wears off and the healing starts, and the healing hurts. I can't touch my eye or rub it or all the other things I'm not supposed to do to it with the patch on my face, which is exactly the point of the patch, and so I remove it and continue to fuck with my eye, clutching it through waves of sharp pain crashing against my cornea.

***

Wednesday is a day of fixing things. I get my cornea fixed (or begin to), then head to the bazaars to get my phone fixed. It's lovely to be in a country where it still costs less to repair something than to just throw it away and buy a replacement. For under $40, my phone is brought back to life (though it's a sorry half-life with only one motherboard—which the repairman explained to me is like having one kidney—and no vibration or LED notifications and a garbled speaker), and it feels great to have some sense of my geospatial place in the world. I use said geospatial knowledge to navigate to the same park Lisa and I had been to two weeks before, and those same q-tipwallahs are hawking their same ear cleanings. It's nice to be back.

When it gets dark, I find a good hotel in a bustling neighborhood. It's six-hundred rupees, which is a little pricey for a single person, but it has a huge bed and a comfortable headboard and tile floors and a hot shower and a big fan and it's clean and best of all, there's blue accent lighting in the ceiling that turns the windowless room into something of a blacklight party. I move in for the remaining week, and run the blacklight until the bulb burns out.

***

I head back to the eye doctor the next morning to have the eyepatch "removed." It won't really stick back to my face, so I lie that it fell off while I was sleeping. Neera nods skeptically. She checks the eye. "Much better," she says approvingly. I beam proudly. It's healing, but not yet healed, so she gives me eye drops and ointment and tells me to use them every hour until Monday—no contacts. I thank her and leave, days of unassisted myopia ahead of me.

The world is blurry at a distance, so I head to a nearby park. I walk around looking for a nice spot and I sit on a bench. The women around me begin waving in a panic. I don't really understand what they're saying, but I come to realize that I'm on the women's side of the park, that if I want to sit it must be on the men's side, which inconveniently offers no benches in the shade. I sit on the grass.

I read, I treat my eyes, I head back to the Central Park and read some more. I spend the next day writing and the day after that, hardly even leaving my room, just catching up on weeks and weeks of travel in rushed, rambling prose. My fears of staying in India subside, and I come to like the opportunity to relax in one place. I had intended to fly back to Nepal, to spend the week sitting beside Pokhara's big blue lake and staring up at the Himalaya from where the smog can't reach it, but things happen, I guess. There'll always be time for another trip to Nepal in the future; for now, I'm just fine seeing Delhi through battered eyes.

Of course, those battered eyes can't take me very far. I spend days on the same strip where my hotel sits. On my third day of healing, I step outside to see the world being rained down upon, and it feels so good I almost cry. I've gone a month without feeling the rain on my skin, not a drop of it all February, and now it's March and there's great heavy raindrops landing all around and India is a different place, a quiet place, everyone huddled inside keeping dry. I walk to the Kathmandu Cafe and take a seat by the window and spend the entire day drip-drying next to a big pot of coffee and a little keyboard.

More blue dawns, more grey dusks, and then it's Monday, five boring days of blurriness beneath my belt, and my cornea simply must be healed. I wake with vigor and get dressed and examine my eyes in the bathroom mirror. So long, friends.

***

Laser eye surgery, nowadays, is supposed to work like this: you waltz on in to the eye doctor and read some letters off a board and then sit down and stare at a little red light for twenty seconds and then close your eyes for twenty minutes and then waltz back on out of the doctor's office with 20/20 vision. No pain, no recovery, just lasers and a little touch of magic. Laser eye surgery, for me, does not work like that.

I return to Neera's office for a third time and have a seat in the lobby. Eventually I'm called in and eventually an assistant turns on a projector and has me read what I can and eventually he gets my prescription. He takes a look at my eyes up close, nods approvingly. "Much healing. Very good," he says. Neera comes in and takes a look. She's happy with the progress over the weekend, pleased to see my left cornea looking like a cornea instead of crumpled cling wrap. "Good, good," she whispers into the microscope.

"So, LASIK?" I ask expectantly.

She pulls away and looks me in my poor, disfigured eyes. "No LASIK," she says.

We talk for a bit. My corneas are doing better, but they're still a mess. My right one is scarred and my left one is "loose," and though they're good enough to get a read on, they're just too damaged to safely shoot lasers into. LASIK isn't an option ... but there is another way.

Photorefractive keratectomy, it's called. PRK. It's an old predecessor to LASIK, back before ophthalmologists had the know-how and the technology to cut corneal flaps or perform bladeless surgery. It's safe and effective, Neera assures me, but with a much longer, more painful recovery. Rather than pull down the cornea or correct vision directly through it, PRK involves taking an alcohol solution and just melting the cornea clean off, after which laser eye surgery is performed and the cornea, during the next week or so, is regrown. It isn't fun, I'm told, but it's my only option.

Medicine, man. For a quick minute I had been hit with the sinking realization that my actions had consequences, that four years of totally and inexcusably mistreating my eyes would present some sort of punishment to my future state of being. But then I learn humans can regrow corneas, and that lessons melts into the ether like the protective layer of an eyeball under PRK. I've totally and inexcusably mistreated my eyes for four years, and with the swipe of a magic (alcohol-soaked) wand, all my transgressions will be forgiven. Let's do it.

I'm sent back out to the waiting room and asked to wait for quite a while. Neera files through her other patients and closes up shop and around 2PM I'm ushered outside into her shiny silver sedan. The doctor, her assistant, and her driver all pile in, and we take off through the streets of Delhi to go see the man with the machine.

This is pretty common, actually, even in the States. Laser eye technology is expensive, so rather than buy a machine and watch it sit unused for months at a time, many eye doctors will just rent use of one from a fellow ophthalmologist. Neera's machine-renting colleague works on the other end of the city, and so the four of us drive an hour through the thick of Delhi traffic to the concrete suburbs. We arrive, we get out, we enter and take off our shoes.

It all happens very quickly from there. I'm led into a room where the best-smelling-human-I've-ever-met drops a little numbing liquid into each eye. She waits a minute or two, checks to ensure my eyes are sufficiently numb, and then guides me into the operating room, a simple little corner office with overhead lights and a bulky box of a bed in the middle. I'm told to lie down at the foot of the bed and shimmy up toward the head of it. It feels a bit like an MRI machine. Overhead a red light seems to dance to a silent rhythm. 

Neera appears inches above my face. She's wearing a surgical mask and talks softly through it's thin fabric. "Okay, we're ready to begin the procedure. Just stay calm."

Easier said than done. An assistant places a cold steel clamp on my left eyelid and it's forced wide open; meanwhile Neera dips something into something else and brings it to my eye. She brushes across it a few times, and everything frosts. My cornea is no more. I begin to hyperventilate, quick shallow breaths of panic, recognizing that it's too late to turn back and hoping that I didn't make an awful, awful mistake. Sure, my eyes weren't the best, but at least they worked.

She mops up the remnants of my left cornea and instructs me to stare directly at the red light above me. I watch it percolate. "Oh, and don't mind the smell," she adds, "it's normal."

I'm about to say that I don't smell a thing when it finds its way into my nostrils—the smell of burning eyeball. The machine hums as destructive light fires into my windows to the world, and its cold, hollow grinding is just enough to drown out how heavy I'm breathing. I'm afraid—afraid of what it's doing, afraid of accidentally looking away, afraid that I'll never seen again—and I do my best to rationalize and remember just how safe the procedure is. It is, indeed, very safe.

And quick. Though it feels like hours, it's less than a minute before my left eye is done and the whole thing starts again for the other lens. Raze corneas, fire lasers, at ease. Neera clicks off the machine and slips two clean contact lenses over my irises—"bandages" to protect my exposed eyes for the next few days—and then I'm pulled from the bed and led right back into the waiting room. I open my eyes. I can see!

Perfectly, in fact. I look around and it's a clean, clear world: sharp edges, tiny details, words springing to life on pamphlets across the room. It's the most beautiful place, this dimly-lit, linoleum-floored waiting room, and I breathe a deep sigh of relief that it's all going to work out.

But it's not over yet. I know that it won't last, this perfect vision, that it's just a teaser of what's to come after a week or so of rough recovery. Before Neera even emerges from her scrubs a few minutes later, my eyes are already beginning to fog, and by the time I'm put in a tuk-tuk outside with directions back to my hotel, the world has become a teary blur. I blink profusely behind the dark lenses of my sunglasses and Delhi swims by like I'm underwater.

Time is precious. I stumble out of the cab and rush into the first pharmacy I can find to pick up the prescribed painkillers, eye drops, and ointments. I trot quickly through the alley and climb the stairs of my hotel two at a time and hurry into my room. I take a quick look in the mirror—my eyes look enormous, like an anime character—and I douse them in a cocktail of drops and gels before shutting them tight, popping a painkiller, and collapsing onto the bed.

Minutes later, the pain begins.

***

It lasts for days. Like pieces of glass under my eyelids, little bits of dirt and sand and stone that I'm not allowed to touch. I can't flush my eyes, I can't overuse my drops, I can't do anything but lie in bed and moan and writhe as my corneas do the slow, tedious work of rebirthing themselves. Sometimes my eyes hurt too much to close and sometimes they hurt too much to open, and most times they just hurt no matter what I'm doing with them. I sleep a lot, and take too many painkillers, and order big meals from room service that I accept hastily at the door, lights off and sunglasses on. I listen to podcasts, and when the podcasts run out I fumble helplessly at the screen of my phone, unable to see well enough to download another.

On Wednesday I try going for a walk. I'm restless, and there's so much of Delhi I want to see, but of course I can't actually see any of it. I walk eight miles with my head down and eyes shielded from the light, but still it hurts and still my eyes tear and all along the way I feel the compelling yet unrealized urge to sneeze—like that moment when you walk out of a dark movie theater into the bright sun, but skipping on a record, over and over and over. I stroll through the Lodi Gardens and am vaguely aware of beautiful Mughal tombs in front of me, but I don't dare look up at them.

It's shocking how a small pinprick in the eye can so drastically change one's mood, and I spend the days after the surgery exceedingly annoyed and irritated and embarrassed, strangely ashamed of my tear-filled, swollen eyes and octogenarian sight. It's not until Thursday that the pain really subsides, until I can actually look around and understand what I'm seeing. It's my last day in Delhi and I hope to, unlike the eight days before it, see something of interest.

But first I return to Neera's to get those bandages removed. The doctor takes a look and she nods approvingly. She passes me off to an assistant who is to remove the protective contacts, and he sterilizes his hands with a thick alcohol solution. He rinses them briefly, shakes little droplets onto the floor, and nears my chair reeking of antiseptic. "Hold still," he says.

I can smell the alcohol on his hands. I know he's trying to keep things sterile, but as his fingernails dig into my lower eyelid and his fingers pinch roughly at my eyeball and the solution leaves his skin and drips tenderly onto the surface of my fresh, healing cornea, I wince in pain and pull away and mutter angrily. I grab my eye, now naked to the world, and shut it tightly as tears well up inside its lids, as bits of my cornea dissolve for a third time this week. I glare up at him, and he shrugs sheepishly.

His hands dry a little and the right eye goes more smoothly. Before I leave the staff asks if they can record a short testimonial, a video review of the Neera Eye Centre. I'm not exactly feeling up to an interview, but I recognize how important a gora's approval can be to an Indian hospital. They sit me down and point a camera at my face and wink. I begin speaking—an honest, sincere thank you to Neera and her assistants—and all the while a steady torrent of tears streams down the left side of my face. "The procedure went just as expected," I say as my left eye cries for help. "Recovery is going along well," I add, lids fluttering spasmodically.

***

I had a full itinerary planned for my last day in India—forts and palaces and tombs and more—but I don't even make it halfway to my first stop before sitting down on the side of the road and and letting the runoff of my left eye make salty puddles on the hot concrete. I press the sunglasses deeper into my face and shut my eyes and breathe deeply. A tout comes over to sell me something—an SD card, water, bus tickets, whatever he has in his bag—and I shake my head hastily. He squats down next to me, boasts about the card's 32GB capacity. Tells me I simply need it. "No, no," I whisper, face all contorted in pain. But still he persists. I shoo him away and he wags the plastic packaging just as fervently as before and I stand up and bellow "Challo!" and storm away. I seek refuge on the other side of the Red Fort's ticket counter.

The Fort is calm and pretty and blurry, its British buildings and big smudges under a white sky. I find a shady patch under a tree and rest my head on my pack, eyes closed. I spend most of the day like this, just healing, and around late afternoon I finally gather the strength and sight to continue on. I grab a tuk-tuk to Southern Delhi, get to the entrance of a monument, and the aching eyes fog up once again, like hot breath on a cold mirror. And then the pain returns, like someone punching the mirror and stabbing my retinas with its jagged shards.

This is no way to see a city. I hail another cab. "Where?" the driver says. "Airport," I reply. It's not how I pictured it, not the way I would've liked to go, and probably a good ten hours early too, but it's time.

I go home.

Right-sizing the “tiny” in “tiny house”

3.17.2015


(Back from India. More on that soon. But in the meantime, random musings, cross-posted at Boneyard Studios.)
I have a confession to make: I don't actually live in a tiny house.
Oh, sure, my house is small—very small by relative standards. But is it tiny? Hardly.
We Americans tend to do everything in excess, including the words we use to describe our very lack of excess. Way back in 2008, when the big house movement was bursting (or, depending on your metaphor, collapsing under its own gargantuan weight), the New York Times ran a little article about a then-little thing: it was called the small house movement. Not tiny, just, well, small.
Or not. The piece also featured the word tiny eight times, including one of the first recorded uses of "tiny house" in novelty-new quotations. Its sidebar offered to enlarge images of unlarge homes floating over captions like "the Lilliputian life." Four years later, when Boneyard Studios had its own press debut, the Washington Post ran with the headline "Home, Squeezed Home." "The people aren't really tiny," the article began, "but their homes are."
I'm not here to chastise those who use the word tiny. It's a cute word and a human-interest-story-friendly word and probably not too harmful a word overall, but it is a silly one, a word that I hope—excuse the kinda-sorta pun—we will all soon outgrow. To call something tiny is to call it "extremely small," "unusually small," "diminutive." It suggests that living in something that offers a great big one- or two- or three-hundred square feet of space is "extreme." Over-the-top words like Lilliputian and squeezed make matters even worse.
Here's the thing: I've lived in my house—my small house—for nearly three years, and I've never really felt "squeezed." I've never felt like big oafy Gulliver stumbling around the court of Lilliput, nor have I felt that a queen-sized bed (large enough for royalty, apparently) and ten feet of counter space underneath five-foot windows was an "extreme" lifestyle. Yes, I've made space sacrifices, but I'd be lying if I said my house was diminutive. It's just smaller than most.
I got back from India a week ago, where for over a month I walked by flimsy fortifications of tarp and twig. These were tiny. They housed families of five or ten in half the space my own home afforded, and I imagined the residents of these little hamlets building thin roofs of old magazines and newspapers printed with stories of Americans "giving it all up" to "live tiny." I imagined what they would think.
But this is hardly the point. Sure, tiny is a privileged word for a privileged people (myself among them), but more dangerously, tiny actually accepts the American housing norms and agrees to live within them. It doesn't present itself as a spark to the system, a disruptive force here to stay, but rather a fringe outside the walls of the mainstream: something for the extremists, the misfits, the freaks. It's a word that begs to vault itself over the swollen bell curve and just keep going, to soak itself up in novelty until it's simply too saturated to be taken seriously.
To call a 150-square-foot house tiny is to accept that 3.000 square feet of home is normal, and frankly, it's not normal. It's unnecessarily and unsustainably large. Calling a few hundred square feet small, on the other hand, suggests a whole different degree of deviation from the norm. A slighter deviation. It imagines something a little more compact than what should be. It is the right-sizing to tiny's down-sizing—one a proud reality, the other a subtle apology to the status quo.
Does this mean we're going to re-label Boneyard Studios a "small house community"? Probably not. Does it mean we're going to stop using the word tiny? Doubtful—it has already escaped my lips so many times I'm sure I'll never fully flush it from my system. Does it mean you should do the same? Not at all—you do you, and if it means calling your less-than-large house "tiny," so be it, and congratulations to you for having a less-than-large house to begin with.
But it does mean I'm going to be more conscious about what tiny really signifies, and more appreciative of the great abundance of space and storage my small house offers. It means I'm going to do my small part to remind folks that one-hundred-and-fifty square feet isn't "extremely" anything—it's just, you know, a perfectly right-sized space for my right-sized needs.
My house isn't tiny. And it's definitely not "micro" or "Lilliputian" or some other silly, hyperbolic, PR-packaged superlative. My house is just plain ol' boringly circa-1910 or circa-2015-in-most-other-places-around-the-world "small," and that's something I'm more-than-a-tiny-bit grateful for.
Big enough for love is big enough for me.
Big enough for love is big enough for me.

E. Coli (Days 21, 22, 23, 24)

3.01.2015

Note: This one's a little gross. Don't read over breakfast, or at all if you have a weak stomach.

I'm asleep. Lisa returns from dinner. I can mutter out a "hey" but not much else. She showers, climbs into bed. I doze off again.

I wake maybe an hour later and I'm shaking. Trembling, really, teeth chattering and cold beads of sweat dripping down my forehead. My breathing gets heavy, hastened. Lisa turns over. "Are you okay?"

I ask her to hold me, to keep me warm. I'm not sure what's happening. I think heatstroke, perhaps: it had been a hot day, and I had felt a little fatigued under the hot sun. Just heatstroke, I hope. I try to sleep. I can't.

Time passes. Hours, minutes, days, I can't say. My head swims. It sinks a little and sputters and splashes and begins to drown; everything becomes foggy, convoluted. And then it comes.

I jolt out of bed and stumble in the dark to the bathroom. I stand over the sink and wait for it, feel it rising up from my stomach and climb up my esophagus and burn its way over my throat, then violently eject from my mouth, the bile of my innards. I wretch into the basin, a sinking feeling of helplessness strangling me. Please, no. Not here. Not in India. Everything becomes frosted glass. I hit the floor.

My eyes open and the world outside the lids is just as dark as the world inside. Lisa is nearby, stroking my arm gently. She asks if I'm okay. I say no. She lifts me and walks me back to bed. "Sleep," she says softly.

It happens three or four or five times that night, the untangling myself from the sheets and running to the bathroom, the dropping to my hands and knees and vomiting breakfast all over the floor. I eventually make it to the toilet; that same toilet that has taken my phone has now taken my health. I watch the bits of Manchurian I'd eaten on the rooftop float around in the muddy brown water. I wonder if it was that food on the rooftop that had done me in. I curse ever stopping at this hotel. I curse ever coming to Agra. I didn't even care about seeing the Taj Mahal, and yet here I am, at sunrise. We are supposed to be walking to the Taj right now, oohing and ahing at its glamour. I am not supposed to be turning myself inside-out on the wet floor of a dirty bathroom just a kilometer from its gates.

The cold sweats get colder and the hot sweats get hotter. "You're burning up," Lisa says. She gets a damp towel and presses it to my forehead, and I push it away. Leave me alone, I scream inside, but am too weak to utter the words. She's doing the right thing, she's trying to save me, but all I want is to be left alone in my little fetal ball of bile and sweat.

I'm never asleep and I'm never awake. The room has no exterior windows and so I have no sense of time. I don't know if I've been in bed for two hours or two days. I shoot upright at some point and see Lisa still there and panic that she's missed her flight. Lisa, we need to get to Delhi, I say, or think, or maybe just feel. I cannot be going to Delhi anytime soon.

Lisa shakes me awake. "Jay, it's noon. You need to drink something."

I don't believe her. You're lying, I think. It can't be noon. I push the water bottle from my lips. I don't want it. I'm being petulant, stubborn, uncooperative. Just leave me here.

I think about death. I think that it must be better than this, these three weeks I've spent lying tortured in bed. In my mind, it has been three weeks, maybe more. I won't believe that it's noon, yet I'll believe it's been three weeks.

Eventually I let Lisa convince me that it's 2PM. "Do you want to eat?"

I don't. I can't. Anything I eat will hit my stomach and bounce right back up, and I don't want to be leaning over that toilet ever again, smelling my intestines waft back up at me. The toilet, by now, has clogged; it spills vomit and urine and shit onto the bathroom floor. I can't move, but I do want to get out of that room, away from that smell.

So weak.

I let Lisa guide me like a blind man up the stairs. I trip and stumble and ask her repeatedly where we're going, though it's just one flight up to the roof. We sit in the shade and a cool breeze kisses my skin and I'm suddenly aware that everyone on the rooftop, all four of them, are looking at me. Why are they looking at me? Do they know? Make them stop.

I just want to be normal again. I just want to drink a glass of water and eat a plain bowl of white rice and sit upright and focus my eyes on something, anything, maybe the clean white Taj in the distance, but I can't do any of that. I eat three grains of rice and push the plate away. I take a sip of water and let it dribble from my lips. I bury my face in my hands. I'd cry if there were any moisture left in my body.

Lisa can tell this isn't helping and guides me back downstairs. We descend the stairs and I descend into an even deeper level of delirium; I remember almost nothing about the next few hours. Falling into bed. Tossing, turning, moaning. Lisa pulling me up. Standing in the bathroom under the showerhead while Lisa sprays me with cold water. Anger. Wanting it to stop. Not understanding why this is happening: the spray, the sickness, any of it. People knocking on the door. Lisa leaving and coming back, leaving and coming back. Something about a doctor. Something about soon. Something about being too hot, far too hot.

Men arrive. I don't want to talk to them. Hiding myself under the covers. Go away. Just let me die in peace. Questions. Staring blankly at an old Indian face with concerned eyes. Asking me things I can't answer. Something about a hospital. Something about now.

I don't want to go to the hospital. It sounds like so much work. I'm so, so weak. Lisa makes me. The doctor makes me. Something about socks. I'm handed socks and I look at them as though I couldn't possibly know what to do with them. Lisa putting on my shoes, changing my shirt. The doctor worried, shaking his head. "He needs to go to hospital, he is very, very bad."

Walking outside. It's twilight. Not knowing what day it is, what year it is. I think of friends back home, see faces, can't remember their names, or if I know them personally, or if they're still alive. If they ever existed. I wonder how long I've been in Agra, if I'll ever leave again. There's a car. Lisa opens a door and waits. Lisa, I don't understand. Pulling me inside.

Racing the streets, feeling that I'm being kidnapped. Paranoia running rampant through my system, holding hands with whatever vile thing is tearing through it. Agra is so pretty. I wouldn't mind dying here.

Arrival, somewhere. A room of fluorescence and antiseptic and dread. More concerned mutterings. More arms leading me. A bed. Finally, a bed. Male nurse, female nurse. "Tattoo," one points. They smile. Fade to black.

***

I wake up in a dark room. It's late, I think. I don't know where I am or what I'm doing here. Tubes run from my left arm to a clear glass bottle on a stand. There's someone in the bed next to me. It's Lisa.

Quietly, I stand. I wheel the IV stand to the bathroom and close the door and sit on the toilet. Blood pours out of me; I know because I can smell the iron, a sickening, unnatural, metallic smell leaking from my body. I clean up and rise and feel the bile rising too. I lean against the wall. I start to fall.

I wake up in Lisa's arms. She talks gently, lifting me and leading me back to bed. She calls the doctor. He pumps me full of meds and administers a few orally and takes my temperature ("no good") and blood pressure ("no good"). Sleep, he says. I do my best.

***

The next morning, the fever breaks. I feel like I've been run over by a truck, like I've swallowed bleach, but at least I can recognize the pain as pain and take stock of my predicament. I pull back the covers. The bed is covered in dried blood. This is my predicament.

I spend the day in bed, only getting up to go to the bathroom and shit more blood. I'm told the doctor needs a stool sample and a urine sample, and I'm given two small cups. I imagine it'll be a mess to procure said samples; it isn't. I fill the former with blackened blood and the latter with golden blood. The iron odor makes me gag. The gag makes me vomit.

The sink offers electric water. Somewhere in the walls, an uninsulated electric wire must press up against a copper pipe, for the water from the faucet shocks to the touch, liquid electricity. I'm left cleaning myself, every ten minutes, with hand sanitizer. My hands begin to peel.

Lisa and I play gin. I make it through one round and feel as though I've run a marathon. My eyes fail to focus on the cards, I put them down.

Lisa's flight leaves from Delhi, and I'm determined to leave with her. I feel terrible for ruining the last few days of her trip, and thankful for her company, and worried about her, a single woman, traveling to Delhi alone. I must leave today, I tell the doctor. You're not leaving today, the doctor tells me. I'm too weak to fight.

Lisa stays until the last possible minute. I tell her to go see the Taj, and she shrugs it off. I thank her for everything, for quite possibly saving my life. Were I alone, I'm not sure I would have known to leave that hotel room, to seek help; in fact, I would have actively resisted it. I would have curled into a ball and slept for days and probably not had anything to drink (as it stood, I didn't eat anything that entire first day), and if the dehydration hadn't done me in, the fever may have. That's the way these dangerous infections often work: it isn't the bacterium itself, but the way your body deals with it. Alone, I wouldn't have dealt well.

***

I look in the mirror. I've lost weight. My waist is notably thinner than just two days earlier; Lisa had noticed this too. I wash up in the electric water and brush my teeth and soak my bloody clothes in hot, soapy water. The doctor comes in. "You really need to eat something," he says, looking at yet another untouched meal with concern.

He tells me that my culture tests have come back; I have a very severe strain of E. Coli. It's very advanced, he says. Very bad. Everywhere. He starts me on heavy antibiotics. A nurse replaces my eighth IV bottle of the stay. Earlier, Lisa had told me that the first three were emptied into my bloodstream within a half-hour, so dehydrated I was upon arrival.

"And I can leave tomorrow?" I ask.

"We'll see," he says. "For now, sleep."

***

I feel much better the next day. I'm both conscious enough and capable enough to demand and actually get to a computer, and I send a few messages off to let people know that I'm alive. I do some reading and stare at the wall and pick at my breakfast.

The doctor wants to keep me, but I'm restless. We agree on a late afternoon checkout, once he's started me on my orals. In the meantime, I'm given more fluids by a nurse. He calls an orderly in to collect the disgusting, bloody linens Lisa had pulled off my bed the day before.

The orderly picks up the sheet and the blanket and starts to walk out. The nurse stops him in Hindi and gestures toward the blanket. No, no, leave that. Blankets are, I suppose, more difficult to wash.

The orderly and the nurse debate whether the blanket is sufficiently dirty and in need of washing. It most certainly is. I watch the orderly grab the corners of the blanket and open it wide; the nurse inspects its fabric for stains or splotches.

Um, hey, guys, I'm right here and I can personally attest that I have shitbled E. Coli all over that blanket. Please, for the love of God, wash it. There could be no greater reason to wash anything in the history of laundry.

They basically ignore me, only bundling up the blanket and removing it from the room after my third or fourth interjection of no, seriously, it needs to be washed. Most of me thinks they've removed it just to humor me, that it's found its way, unwashed, into the bed of another poor patient a few rooms down who came in with a hangnail and will be leaving with E. Coli. I suddenly feel much less secure about my treatment.

It gets worse. Around two, a pair of nurses come in to get me ready for discharge. My fluids bottle is almost empty, so they plug the IV and disconnect the tube and tell me my IV can come out. One nurse removes the bandages while the other sits on the next bed over and asks if I've been satisfied with their service.

"Oh, definitely," I say, "thanks so much."

"'Cause you know," he says, tone changing, "if you happy with our service, you can give money."

I'm a little baffled. I've grown used to baksheesh in India, tips for everything, but nurses in a pricy hospital? I assume the tens of thousands of rupees I'm paying would cover a fair salary. I'm against the notion on principle alone, and furthermore haven't a clue what an appropriate tip would be. Would a few hundred rupees be seen as offensive? I stall, saying that I don't have any cash on me. The nurse says his shift doesn't end until four. I say I don't feel up to getting out of bed until four. I say I can give the doctor a few extra rupees to send their way when I leave.

He leans forward. "No ... no tell Doctor Jaggi. This just between us."

Flabbergasted, that's what I am. I should just say no, instead I say maybe later, but either way the punishment is the same: the nurses leave the room with the IV still in my arm. The message is clear: when you're ready to pay us, we'll take it out.

I sit with the IV attached to the Little Prince's head for another two hours and then call a different nurse to remove it. He does, no problem, no baksheesh (baksheesh is an umbrella term for informal payments that includes both tips and bribes, because as my IV incident demonstrates, they tend to bleed into each other).

I pay the doctor. Or at least I try to. His credit card machine isn't working, and he refuses to admit that it's his machine and not my card, and all the while the sun is getting lower in the sky. I don't even have the time or patience to argue about the ludicrous five-thousand-rupee "ambulance ride," which was a two-kilometer drive in a sedan. Compared to American medical expenses, it's next to nothing. He processes my payment, sorta, and I'm on my way.

***

Clearly, the Taj Mahal is cursed. I go to Agra to see a building I don't really even want to see and my phone breaks and I get E. Coli and I spend three days in the hospital. Unable to do much else, I occupy the majority of these three days with one singular question: when I'm well enough, do I go see the Taj Mahal?

On the yes side, if I don't go all that suffering will be for nothing. I'll have contracted only bad memories in Agra, bad memories and bacteria, and besides, I have the time and am just minutes away and it's supposed to be something worth seeing, or so I hear.

On the hell no side, shit's obviously cursed. I'm not superstitious (I think it's bad luck to believe in superstition), but I'm fairly certain that if I defy the ghost of Shah Jahan again and make another attempt at his third wife's tomb, a tiny meteorite will strike me down on my way over, or the dome of the Taj will collapse on my intrusion, Aladdin-style, or the E. Coli will burst from my stomach like the fetus in Alien, grab my broken phone, and beat me over the head with it screaming in E. Coli-ese "don't you learn?"

Moreover, I know however pretty the building is, it can't possibly be pretty enough to be worth the sheer agony that the last three days have brought. Anything I see will be a letdown, not worth it, and perhaps it is better just not knowing than knowing and admitting to myself that I should not have come to Agra. Plus, it's seven-hundred-fifty rupees, one of the single most expensive sights in India.  These are the arguments on the don't go side: cost, expectations, stomach-rupturing E. Coli monsters.

I go anyway.

It is pretty. That's more or less all I have to say about it. It's a really, really pretty building, with a beautiful garden and this gorgeous reflecting pool, and the inside of the mausoleum is maybe a bit dreary and could maybe use a little mood lighting, but all in all it's a nice place to walk around. Not worth bleeding out your insides to see, but worth the seven-hundred-fifty rupees, I guess.

I walk the lawns and trace a path along the perimeter and watch a monkey chew on a nut or something. I squat down with my camera to snap a shot of the macaque, and through my viewfinder I watch it hop from its perch to the railing in front of me, bare its jagged, yellowed teeth, and prepare to pounce. I hop back. I yell. "No, monkey! No! I will not be fucked with!" I unleash the anger of Agra on the little primate, scold him for the nerve to be yet another obstacle in my simple request for an enjoyable gander at the Taj Mahal and its grounds. When I'm done, he actually looks a little upset. He skulks away.

I tuk-tuk to the train station to catch an express train to Delhi. No express trains leave for Delhi until nine, so I grab a tuk-tuk to the bus station to take a public bus. The public buses, my tuk-tuk driver notes, take almost five or six hours; wouldn't I rather take a private bus, which arrives in just three? Fine, I say, and we reroute to a travel agency offering "deluxe" buses to Delhi.

I'm promised a three-hundred rupee bus by the driver, but when I get there the bus is four hundred rupees. I ask what makes it deluxe. "It's deluxe," the travel agent says. Oh.

"Right, so A/C?"

"No A/C."

"Reclining seats?"

"No reclining seats."

"Wifi?"

"No wifi."

"Bathroom?"

"No bathroom."

This was a problem. Not that I was being sold a four-hundred-rupee ticket to a basic bus, but that the bus didn't have a bathroom. E. Coli was still strong in my system.

"Challo," I said to the tuk-tuk driver waiting eagerly for his comission. "To the bus station."

We get to the bus station and a government bus is preparing to pull away, and I head behind the depot to pee against a wall before boarding. I recognize this bus doesn't have a bathroom either, but I hope for the best.

As I pee, a different tuk-tuk driver tries to sell me on a different travel agency. "You don't want to be on government bus for six hours." He's right; I'd forgotten about the time difference. Okay, I say. Challo. We head to his travel agency of choice and it turns out they don't have any availability for buses tonight. Back to the bus station we go. I wait for the next public bus, resigned to my fate, but not two minutes go by before a cabbie tries to sell me on a deluxe bus. Yes, yes, I say. Let's go.

And back we go, to the first travel agency, where the price of a ticket has suddenly risen to five-hundred rupees. I scoff. What happened to four hundred? "That was last bus," he says with a sly grin. "This bus super-deluxe."

The super-deluxe buses, unsurprisingly, offer the same amenities as both the deluxe buses and the basic buses: a seat. I've been from train station to travel agency to bus station to travel agency to bus station to travel agency in the past hour, and it almost would make sense at this point to just get back to the train station, but I resign to get out of Agra as quickly and easily as possible and begrudgingly hand the agent a ripped five-hundred note. I board the bus, and I leave that cursed city behind me forever.

Kathmandu, Varanasi, Agra (Days 14 - 21)

2.28.2015

There's a t-shirt sold in Nepal. On the front it reads Same same and on the back but different. It's a useful way for describing things in Nepal, first and foremost its comparison to India: same same, but different.

We walk south from Kathmandu's Thamel district on a brisk but sunny morning, and the storefronts, the little counter shops, the scooters and the smog and the sidewalkless streets all feel similar. Here are the faded buildings, and here the rickshaws, and here the vegetables sold on a blanket. Here is India. And yet, something is different.

It's a bit quieter, definitely. The cars are fewer and the streets narrower, the people walk more slowly. The faces are different, definitely. More Tibetan than Indian, and though Hinduism is still the dominant religion, an air of Buddhism can be felt throughout Kathmandu. The architecture is the same, but different; the color of sky the same, but different; the very smells of the street the same ... but different.

We're surrounded by the Himalayas, but we can't seem them. Smog chokes the air and leaves but a faint silhouette of the foothills. Monkeys swing about the urban architecture. Kind Nepalis pass by with a bow and a namaste.

We duck into a courtyard and are amazed to find, well, something: a grand platform with a dome resting in its center, and on top of the dome a golden, eyed obelisk of sorts, the sage eyes of Buddha looking calmly over the area's many sculptures and little temples. We learn later that this is a stupa, one of many in Nepal: its dome represents the earth, and the thirteen-stepped pillar above it the different levels of ascension before attaining enlightment. Prayer flags wind from the stupa's apex to all corners of the courtyard, little kerchiefs of red and blue and green and yellow. Pigeons flock, kids play. This is not India.

***

We continue on to Durbar Square, a UNESCO World Heritage Site overflowing with history. The square is home to perhaps a dozen gorgeous temples; they appear ancient and enormous and otherworldly. We climb the steps of the largest temple and sit on its raised stoop. The Nepalis and foreigners below are silent from this distance; all we can hear are the sounds of a group of boys with guitars covering the songs of Bryan Adams. For whatever reason, the Nepalis love Bryan Adams.

We get momos, steamed (or fried) Nepalese vegetable dumplings, and I become an instant addict. We walk more. We get lost, get our bearings, get a hotel room. It's only a few hundred Nepalese rupees, just a couple bucks, and we get what we pay for. The bathroom smells of urine and the bed is just plywood with a thin cushion on top, and later that night as we peer behind the headboard, we find piles of old water bottles and used napkins and cigarette butts. We switch hotels the next morning.

We leave town and taxi out to Boudhanath, a suburb of Kathmandu and home to the Boudhanath Stupa, the world's largest and Buddhism's most sacred. It's a massive version of the stupa we'd found in that courtyard, with thousands of prayer flags fluttering in the wind and old Buddhist monks in flowing maroon robes circumambulating the stupa's wide base. We follow the monks, making slow clockwise laps beneath Buddah's watching eyes.

Spiritual as the place is, the stupa is actually situated in the middle of a rounded courtyard, and every last facade in this courtyard is a shop pitching something: postcards, singing bowls, prayer flags, bracelets. It ruins the environment a little. We're touted at, we're called to. We're just trying to walk and be mindful, and we're approached by a drug dealer.

"Ay, what's up guys?" he says in the sleaziest voice imaginable. "You want some hashish?"

"Nah, we're good."

"Good stuff, good price. From Poland." I'm not sure whether Poland is supposed to be known for good hashish.

"Nope, still good." We walk away and keep circumambulating and he finds us a little later. "No thank you sir, still no drugs. We're going to go eat."

We duck into the stairwell of a rooftop restaurant and emerge five stories later with a magnificent view of the top of the stupa. We sit down. The drug dealer exits the stairwell, panting, and flops down next to us. Oh, yes, please, won't you join us for lunch? We get up and leave.

We find another place. The drug dealer doesn't follow (though he does find us again later). We eat lunch and take a stroll away from the stupa to a Tibetan monastery. We quietly observe a few hundred monks in a prayer session, then take a walk around the  grounds. I return the wave of a little kid monk in a window fervently waving down.

***

Kathmandu has history like other cities have potholes. There are statues in Nepal that museums would pay millions for; the locals, living amongst the objects for thousands of years, hang their laundry on them. Kids climb all over monuments that a crabby curator would slap with a big "do not touch" sticker, and drivers haphazardly lean their bikes up against some of the world's oldest Buddhist remnants.

The monkeys are even grabbier. We visit a great big stupa on a great big hill west of the city, climbing a skinny staircase hundreds of feet and entering into what is most definitely macaque territory. The monkeys hang lazily off golden statues of Lord Buddha, or pick nits off each other while lounging on a sacred altar. I put my water bottle down and take my camera out to photograph a particularly humorous macaque, and he steals my water bottle and almost gets away. I'd dealt with macaques in China and should have known better; those guys are sneaky little fuckers.

More stupas. more temples, more momos (always more momos). The seventeenth comes around, and it's Shivaratri, the Night of Lord Shiva. It's a Hindu high holiday, and we've kindly and conveniently been put in touch with a friend of a friend, Alexis, who has taken a year-long sabbatical to travel the world and study the religious festivals of different religions, and it just so happens that she, too, is in Kathmandu for Shivaratri.

We meet her and her friend Anil, a Buddhist devotee living at a monastery south of Kathmandu, at Boudhanath stupa, now familiar ground for us. The four of us introduce ourselves and together we walk through the busy streets to Pashupatinath, a sacred collection of Hindu temples at the banks of the Bagmati River, itself a sacred offshoot of the Ganges. Along the way, we're stopped by kids with strings who block off alleyways; all over Kathmandu during the holiday, children stop traffic and pedestrians with their impromptu toll booths: two rupees to pass! At the end of the day, the kids take all the money they've collected, make a big fire, and have a Shivaratri feast.

We're all non-Hindu, so we're not allowed into the temples, which is just as well because the queues for the temples are literally kilometers long. Hindus wait for their gods like Americans wait for their new iPhones, and I marvel at the sheer devotion of the thousands wrapping their way around the walls of Pashupatinath for hours to get just a few minutes of prayer.

Instead of visiting the temples, we head down to the river, where families openly burn the bodies of the recently deceased and hordes of Nepalis and Indians push up against security for a chance to cross the bridge and enter the temples on the other side. They're at capacity (there are tens of thousands here), and at times the crowds begin pushing up against each other in jest or frustration or both, one great big heaving mass of crowd crush slamming people around without regard. It's a little frightening, and we escape to higher ground.

We contemplate joining the scores of devotees crossing the Bagmati anyway, over the makeshift sandbag bridges or by just hiking up our pants and wading across, but Anil, fluent in Nepali, is able to talk the guards into letting us by because we're not actually looking to get into the temple. The guard shrugs his head affirmatively and we scramble underneath his rifled arm as others claw to widen the opening; we're on the other side, and it's just as wild and crazy and busy.

After another few hours of taking in the chaos of Shivaratri, we walk to a quieter part of town and get a simple meal at a humble restaurant. I excuse myself to the bathroom around the corner, a dark cavernous squatter with no lights. I close the door, lock it, and take a step down into the filth, but the step is slippery with urine or water or both or neither and my feet slip out from under me, flying up in the air and guaranteeing a hard impact between my head and the step. But to my rescue comes a spike sticking out of the wall, a six-inch inexplicable rod just jutting out at shoulder level. My elbow connects with it and it's frayed metal edges tear deep into my forearm, but it's enough to hook me from a (probably more harmful) fall. I wince, bite my lip, and pee. I return to the table and smile as Lisa, Alexis, and Anil wonder how I've managed to harpoon my elbow in the bathroom.

Lisa and I split a cab with Alexis and Anil and say our goodbyes at Durbar Square. We're exhausted from the long, hot day, and call it an early night (after, of course, a plate of steaming momos).

***

We want to stay in Nepal for longer, forever, but Lisa has a plane to catch from Delhi on the twenty-fourth, so by the eighteenth we begin to make our way back. Flights to India are expensive, and trains through the mountains are nonexistent, so we take a dreadfully slow bus. It takes maybe nine hours to get us maybe ninety miles, just a constant winding and accelerating and braking up and down the Himalayas. It's bumpy, too bumpy to even hold a book straight and read, so we pass most of it staring out the windows, which really isn't a bad way to spend a day.

We stop for breakfast and never stop again, so by noon I have to pee. By one, I really have to pee, and by two, I'm nearly dying. I've drank three liters of water, just assuming a stop would be in the works, and when nothing comes by mid-afternoon, I scurry to the empty back of the bus with an empty water bottle.

I tried this once, when camping out in the chemistry lab at the University of Colorado-Boulder, this peeing in a water bottle thing. It didn't go so well. Without getting too graphic, the opening of a water bottle is a pretty narrow opening indeed, so there's all this lining up outside the bottle that has to happen, and if that lining up is off once you start going, then you have quite a mess on your hands.

A bumpy bus didn't help matters, nor did the guilt of exposing myself to the backs of a dozen modest Nepalis. But I was in pain, and out of options, and so water bottle it was.

Or wasn't. For the first time in my life, I had some sort of stage fright: bladder bursting, yet unable to pee on the back of that vehicle. Defeated, in no less pain, I returned to my seat.

"How'd it go?" Lisa asked.

"I don't want to talk about it."

***

I'm finally able to pee when we arrive in Sunauli, a dusty little border town at the edge of Nepal. We walk on over to immigration and wait, then walk on over to the border and wait, then walk right into India and over to Indian immigration and wait. When our passports have been inspected by very serious men and stamped with silly patterns, we hop a bumpy bus to Gorakhpur three hours south, and from there, an overnight sleeper to Varanasi. It's been a long day of travel, and it's not even over.

Twenty-four hours after we've started, we finally stop. The traincar lurches to a halt in the city of Varanasi and we're lurched awake; we drag our sleepy selves off the train and find a tuk-tuk to take us into town. It's not yet dawn.

We're dropped at the bank of the Ganges, world's holiest river. It feels immediately spiritual. Perhaps that's just the fog casting a thick white curtain over everything, or maybe it's the old bearded men in lungis bathing in the river's cold waters. Old rowboats drift lifelessly with peeling paint, and feral dogs wander about the ghats searching for food.

The ghats are something like a Hindu boardwalk. Constructed of stone centuries ago, the ghats are steps right into the river, allowing one to bathe and emerge easily, daily. The ghats of Varanasi are perhaps the world's most impressive, and they extend miles north from where we stand. We follow them.

There are ghats for laundry and ghats for washing and ghats for celebrating and ghats for cremating. As we walk, we pass burning bodies wrapped in white cloth, and watch small men haul heavy sandalwood to the pyres. The fires burn away the fog and the sun helps from above and within a few hours we've made it a great distance and are now melting under the hot Indian sun. We escape to the shade of the alleyways.

The alleyways feel almost Venetian, far too narrow for a car and some even for a wide scooter. The tight space lets little sun in, so we walk south, or do our best to navigate south through the maze-like streets, in the relative coolness of the buildings' shadows. We pass a million shops and a small Muslim enclave and open windows with looms and loomers hard at work. Ultimately, we make it back to where we started and collapse into an expensive but clean hotel, with a big whirling fan and a comfortable bed and, so rare in India, a working hot shower. We wash up and spend the day hiding from the sun. We order room service and take naps and read, and when the sun finally sets, we venture out to the ghats once more to watch the puja, the nightly fire ceremony. All the boats come to see from the water, and there is indeed fire, and lots of mosquitoes too, and chanting and bells and the general chaos of India, and when we feel we've had enough chaos, we return once more to that comfortable little room.

***

Varanasi has nothing if not the cutest puppies in the world. They're everywhere with their oversized heads and tiny legs and poor little yips, and we have no shame about stopping and squatting and squealing at the cuter among them. We pass dozens on our way to the train station in the morning, dozens more on our way back with our train tickets, a little brown one with eyes bigger than its head on our way to a long lunch and a trio of black ones napping atop each other en route back to the station. It's a miracle that we leave Varanasi that afternoon without stowing a few of them in our packs.

It's a long ride to Agra, Lisa's penultimate stop on our two-week joint India adventure. The train is crowded, overcrowded, and Lisa's bunk is overrun by traveling Brazilian hippies. We cram together in mine and do our best to sleep through the bumps and the stops and the noises of the night: the snores, the screeching brakes, the Brazilians playing the Red Hot Chili Peppers on guitar at three in the morning. It's mildly successful.

We get to Agra at dawn, and it's a cool, beautiful morning, so we walk from the station into town and are surprised to find Agra to be so green. Parks everywhere. Fertilizer, too, by the smell of it, a terrible chemical odor that permeates the air and follows us all the way into town. We round the banks of the river and catch a glimpse of the Taj Mahal in the distance. (It's pretty!)

I have a hotel from Lonely Planet picked out, something cheap and recommended and fairly central, and just steps from its door we're stopped by a man with a great big smile who just begs us to see one of his rooms. We give in and take the room. Bad choice. Terrible, terrible choice.

Only ten minutes later, we drop our things in the room and turn to leave. I have to pee, so I head toward the bathroom. Just then the lights go out, and after looking up and down the hall, it appears the power's out for the whole building. No big deal, I think, reaching for my phone and turning the flashlight on. I walk into the dark bathroom, place the phone face-down on the tank of the toilet, and do my thing. I flush. My nose is a little clogged up from the smog of India, so I grab a tissue, blow my noise, and flush that too. On the second flush, the tank gives a little shake, and that phone of mine, the one that's been guiding us through the whole trip with its GPS and its guidebook and its general connectedness to the world, plunges forward into the toilet.

My instincts are quick. I catch it just before it submerges fully into the (thankfully clean) water, but not before a good bit of it gets a good bit wet. I shake it off frantically, exit the bathroom, turn it off and wrap it in a scarf and hope for the best.

The lights turn back on.

***

We go to the rooftop to eat. I'm a little nervous about my phone, but not too badly. I set it aside and we order a few things and eat like we haven't eaten in days. We take off, explore some majestic gardens I'd been reading about on the other side of the river, get a lovely view of the back of the Taj Mahal. We sit under a tree and watch the day drift by. My phone lays out in the sun, presumably drying.

Around mid-afternoon we get some street food outside of the gardens and begin walking back into town, hoping for a tuk-tuk but not really eager for one. It's quiet out here, little villages so far removed from the business just across the river, and it feels like being in the countryside; it feels nice. The sun casts a golden sheen on everything, and Lisa and I both remark on how much lovelier Agra is than we expected.

We spend a little time at the Agra Fort, just strolling around aimlessly through its stairways and rooms. It's sundown by now, so we make our way back to the hotel for me to check the phone. I power it on, and it springs to life. And then it does that again. And again. It just keeps resetting, lighting up and turning off and lighting up again, and nothing I do can seem to stop it, can even seem to power it back down. Shit.

Lisa can tell I'm stressed, so she suggests we take a walk. I agree that's probably a good idea, and we head out into the evening. Here's the thing, though: while walks are normally a great way to alleviate stress, walks in India are a great way to take that little grain of stress you have and roll it into a great big snowball of anxiety and annoyance, the endless honking and pushing doing nothing good for the nerves. It's a quiet walk, a tense one, and Lisa can tell I'm not enjoying it. "Do you want to head back?" she asks.

"Yeah, okay."

We try to head back. But the way we thought we'd come isn't the way we'd come, and in fact it's made us even more lost, and before we know it we're kilometers away from where we want to be with no clue how to get back. We surrender. Let's just have a cabbie take us home. We flag one down, offer him the name of the hotel. He doesn't know it, and we don't know what else to tell him. We end up driving around for forty minutes looking for the place whence we'd come. Eventually we find it, but all along the way I'm reminded of just how crucial a working phone is to a good adventure.

It seems counterintuitive, I know. Adventure is all about being untethered, disconnected, and I agree. I'm no great friend of the cell phone as we often use it today, and I think weighing a trip down with the constant crutch of a phone is no way to have a trip at all.

But used wisely, a phone is like a climbing rope. It's there to protect you, to catch you when you fall, but you don't actually want to rely on it. With a trusty phone in the pocket, you can wander at will, pulling yourself deeper into the hidden crevices of a city without a care for where you're going or how to get back, and then, if you find you're really lost, all it takes is a quick look at the map to see where you are and where you need to be. Without one, you have to play it safe. You have to free-climb at a responsible height (or you can just be reckless, I suppose).

So we're back, and I'm stressed, and we haven't really had dinner. Lisa suggests a place right outside, but I'm not feeling particularly hungry and know that I'm not being good company right now. "No, no," I say, "You go ahead and eat. I think I'm just going to get to bed. I'll see you back at the room."

We part ways, and I collapse into bed not feeling well at all. Sure, there's angst about the phone, but this feels like something more than that. Something just doesn't feel right. I can't figure out what it is.

And then, I get sick.

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