Ranakpur, Jodhpur, Jaipur (Days 6, 7, 8, 9, 10)

2.27.2015

I'm eight thousand miles from home. I'm on a bus bumping through Rajasthan with nothing but time and adventure ahead. In the past few days, I've seen mountains and Mumbai and men walking through the desert with thick pashminas over their faces like the last cowboys. I can't remember the day of the week, so I take out my phone to remind myself of the meaningless signifier. It takes a minute to register: it hasn't even been a week.

It hasn't even been a week, and I still have four more. I smile. I smile at the freedom, at the thrill, at how fucking alive it feels to be at it again, getting lost and getting found and letting my desk collect dust back home. I smile at the unshackling of days from their silly calendar, the taking a day for what it is: eleven or twelve hours of sunlight to make what you will with it, not a "Tuesday" or a "Friday" or a "Sunday." No, every day is a sun day if you're deliberate about it.

I intend to be. On this day of sun and blue skies and possibility as open as the Thar Desert before me, I decide to stop in Ranakpur, a little outcropping with little more to its name than a magnificent Jain temple, the most sacred of all Jain temples.

I visit. Two hours outside of Udaipur, I lug myself off the bus onto a dusty road, walk a few hundred meters through a big stone gate, and leave my shoes at the entrance. I climb the steps of the marvelous old edifice and am wowed as as I step through the archway; it's painstakingly carved in incredible detail, thousands of intricate pillars supporting a central altar and four airy wings. To one side, a tree grows right up into the light-filled temple.

I rent an audioguide only to learn more about Jainism, of which I know little. It sounds simply wonderful. I learn that Jainism is one of the oldest religions in the world, a philosophy of nonviolence and spiritual interdependence and equality between all forms of life. Nonviolence, ahimsa, is the foundation of all Jain thought, and it is pervades everything a Jain says or does. Ahimsa doesn't just mean intentional harm, but violence inflicted unintentionally as well; for this reason, Jains are almost always strict vegans, also foregoing root vegetables like garlic, onions, and potatoes because they may hurt small insects in their plucking.

I hear of a Jain woman who carries a feather with her while she walks. Before she takes a step up the stairs, she dusts that level for bugs, ensuring her foot won't cause harm to another life. Speech, too, is viewed as a form of violence, and thus hateful or angered speech is viewed just as harmful as physical destruction.

Anēkāntavāda, not argument, is the Jain answer to disagreement. Anēkāntavāda is the recognition that we're all incomplete in our understanding of the world, that none of us know what we don't know. It is, in short, a recognition that it's silly to fight about something that we're each wrong about, and a call to recognize and celebrate that we hold different pieces of an unfinished puzzle. Avoid dogmas, embrace your opponent's viewpoints.

And then, aparigraha. Non-possessiveness, literally "non-grasping." The Jains, like the other great aesthetics, believe in taking no more than is necessary, and not attaching to material things, and never hoarding possessions. Wealth should be shared and donated, they say, and never stolen. Asteya is the belief that exploiting the weak is theft, and theft is harm, and harm is violence.

Ahimsa, anēkāntavāda, aparigraha. These, and a few other vows, make up the Jain tradition, and only when one has conquered violence and ego and possessiveness will one truly be liberated. Or so the Jains say.

I walk the temple, mind reeling, soaking it all in and agreeing with (nearly) all of it. It's a philosophy far closer to my own complex spirituality than any I've heard before, and certainly leagues more elegant and peace-loving than those violent dogmas so warped by the men of the West. I sit in quiet meditation.

A monk comes over, and introduces himself, and comments on my mindfulness amidst a small scattering of tourists with flashing cameras and hurried itineraries. I glow, a very un-Jain-like response. We talk for a little, and he offers to show me around. His name is Sanjay, and his family has, for generations, cared for this beautiful temple. As we make idle laps around the stone perimeter, we discuss Jainism, and its history and its current state and its teachings and life as a Jain, and a little later we part ways, me feeling much richer for the experience.

I exit the temple and slip back into my shoes. It's getting late, and there's still a long way to go before bedtime in Jodhpur. I return to the bus stop on the side of the one and only road and take a seat on the bench with my pack on the ground next to me.

Time passes.
A man sits down.
Time passes.
A car goes by.
Time passes.

A dog trots over curiously and sniffs my pack. The man to my right shouts angrily and swats at the dog. I smile; he's fine, the dismissive flick of my hand suggests.

The dog lifts a leg and pisses all over my bag. He trots away.

***

Eventually, the bus arrives. My side-of-the-road mixture of water and hand sanitizer and soap has done little to get the hot smell of urine out of the bag's canvas, so I stow the pack high and away in the overhead compartments. I take a seat in the back corner and rest.

Hours later, I spot a college-aged kid sneaking glances back at me. I've become used to this little dance. First it's the glances, one and two and three, and then it's the switching of the seat a few rows closer to be sure that, yes, it really is a White Person on the bus, and then it's the seat next to you and the reading over your shoulder, one and two and three, and finally, when you would have been just as happy to answer the question ten minutes earlier, it's the hello, which country?

I smile. I chat the kid up a bit. He's of a high caste, and makes sure to let me know: my uncle this and my father that and when I tell him that, yes, I do have friends from India, he asks me which caste they're from. The untouchables! I say. His eyes widen. It feels just like being in DC.

Pompous though he may be, he's a good kid and feels it his duty to entertain me through the rest of the journey. He actually says this. He's never seen a foreigner take the local buses before.

It feels as though all of India has unified around this singular purpose, to ensure that I, American, have a pleasant, hospitable, welcome time in their country. I'm welcomed profusely and offered food by families on trains and always given good, honest, above-and-beyond help (from non-touts, but even some touts too).

And so, he entertains. It's late when we finally get into Jodhpur and part ways: he to his palace or whatever, and me to my measly hostel. I check into the hostel and am shown into a three-bed dorm close to the entrance. The door doesn't really close, but I'm too tired to mind. I'm asleep within minutes. Take your malaria pill, my mind reminds me as the opening credits of my dreams begin to roll. The pills are in the pouch of my pack, inches from my hand, but I can't even muster the strength to slip one onto my tongue.

I'm woken a few hours later by a noisy entrance. Two of the hostel staff enter and flop down on the other beds, chit-chatting at daytime volume and paying no mind to the guest tossing and turning to find silence under the covers. Eventually the noise between them stops and the noise among them starts: loud, snarling snores from the one, the songs of Bollywood ringing through the laptop of the other. I groan audibly and the theme music drops by a few clicks.

I doze in and out of sleep all night. The snoring never stops, nor do the movies; my bunkmate watches them until 4AM with only brief pauses to take phone calls (or which there are many). I wake early and leave without paying. I later write them to cancel my second night there.

In search of a room, I head into the center of town and find a wonderful little guesthouse. For less than the price of a dorm bed, I'm given my own room and bathroom and access to a marvelous rooftop terrace. I can see all of Jodhpur from up there: the palace in the distance, the temple on the hill, the many-hundred-year-old fortress carved straight into the bedrock towering in front of me like a great sand castle in the sky. Thatched bamboo provides shade from the cloudless sky, and I order some vegetables and chiapatti downstairs before settling in on the patio for some journaling.

I don't get very far. A friendly group of locals sit down at a bench on the other side. They say hello, and wait, and ask for a picture, and wait, then shower me with questions after that little Indian dance I've come to expect and appreciate is completed, this slow, thoughtful series of steps that must happen before conversation commences. They're fun and kind; one of them returns a little later with a greasy, delicious bag of street food and they positively insist I join them for a snack. "Eat, eat more!" they say if my chewing slows for every a moment.

The sun climbs higher and they descend from the roof to get back to work. I get back to my writing, at least for a moment, before the big eyes of a small boy peek around the salmon-colored stone of the stairway. I feel his gaze, look up, and smile. "Namaste!" I call out.

"Namaste!" he returns, head inching forward into the sunlight. He steps onto the terrace in a Power Rangers t-shirt and rushes over. His name is Nadim, I learn, and he takes a curious seat next to me.

We look at each other like aliens meeting at a wrong turn in an asteroid belt. I search my brain for a nonexistent stockpile of Hindi to offer him, but all I have is about three words. I think for a minute, then plunge my hand into my bag for my deck of cards. His eyes brighten when I pull them out.

I shuffle them a few times, his eyes following the frenzy wildly, and deal him half the deck. I put my top card face-up on the table, seven, and instruct him to do the same. Nine. I do a little dance with the cards to demonstrate that nine is larger than seven, and hand him both cards. We repeat. Two and five; his, eight and six, mine; king and ten, mine. Each time, I wait for him to decide the winner, and though the first few hands he's straight puzzled, within ten or so deals he gets the hang of it, smiling each time he correctly figures out which is greater.

The game progresses and I ask him to teach me Hindi. Three becomes theen and ten becomes dez and king becomes raja, and there's this whole confusion when he realizes I've been counting aces, just one, ek, as the highest card, which he doesn't understand and which I can't explain.

His brother Ifwan joins us and I let the two of them play. They run downstairs, and a few minutes later return with their two sisters, and the five of us hang around all afternoon, playing cards and staring blankly at each other. The kids run around the roof taking photographs of pigeons with my camera and telling little jokes amongst themselves, and it's all I want to do for the rest of my life, sit there on that rooftop with those kids in that beautiful, beautiful city.

But they have dinner to eat and familial whatnots to attend to, so after they scurry back downstairs I take a walk to the fort on the hill. It's like Disneyland, grand and majestic and full of families and ticket queues, and I'm stopped for a minute by a group of guys wanting a photo with me, and then another group just files right on in when they're done, and soon I'm Mickey Mouse, a foreign white photographic prop.

I walk around the fort and amble slowly back to the guesthouse for dinner and a book on the roof. I only have one day to spend in Jodhpur, but it's been a good day.

***

The next morning I take a long train to Jaipur, Rajasthan's capital and largest city. It's my last stop before Delhi, and my final taste of the state of Rajasthan while in India. I do my best to savor it.

My walk into the city takes me through Jaipur's Central Park, a beautiful expanse of green and quiet and picnickers amongst the otherwise dirty, noisy, bustling corridors all around it. I'm feeling well-worn after the lengthy train ride, so I check into a hostel in a nice, monkey-occupied neighborhood and grab a quick bite and go to sleep early.

And then I'm up, with sights to see. I take a stroll through the pretty but rather boring City Palace (I'm not much for palaces), then cross the street to Jantar Mantar, an eighteenth-century observatory. I'm much more impressed.

The observatory is like a tranquil, trippy sculpture garden, like a sandbox full of toys for a giant toddler that hobbled away a few centuries back. All across the walled garden are odd triangles and strange circles and deep hemispheres in the ground, and then you realize: these aren't just sculptures, they're astronomical instruments. There are star maps and weird zodiac tributes and sundials everywhere; there's a six-story sundial just towering over the whole thing, casting its shadow along the lawn. I sit on the grass in the shade of that shadow and literally feel time pass me by, watch my foot and knee and thigh creep into the sunlight, the past. I sit for one full body, suddenly a unit of time, and then I wander more through this ancient space park. It's the coolest thing I've seen in India.

I check out another palace and yawn and catch a bus to the outskirts of town. I've heard there's a pretty cool fort out there.

There is a pretty cool fort out there. The Ajmer Fort may be India's best: it's perched up on a hill (as forts tend to be) with a great winding staircase to be climbed, and at the top there are monkeys and magnificent views and a mysterious air to the whole place, cool breezes in the hot desert. I spend a bit of time there perched on a window sill, reading at the edge of the world. It's quiet, and I like it.

When it starts getting dark, I sigh a big sigh and heave myself off the sill and make my way down to the roadway. I see two white people frantically communicating with a bus driver and they end up not getting on, so I follow their lead and wait next to them for the next bus as the previous one pulls away. We give each other a quick greeting, and the greeting leads to talking, and the talking leads to a conversation, and I realize it's the first time I've spoken to white people since arriving in India.

After three months of hostels in Europe, I'd grown tired of the same old traveler conversation: where from, where been, where going, and I suppose when embarking on this adventure I'd been a bit withdrawn about the whole thing, staying in guesthouses most of the time and, when in a hostel, not really offering more than a pleasant hello. But here I am, at a bus stop with two friendly Americans, originally from the DC area, no less, and it feels great to speak fluent English and, you know, relate.

Erich and Liza had been traveling for a year, to Burma and China and across the United States and all over, really, and we keep talking as we board the Jaipur-bound bus and all the way back into the city and onward still as we stroll around the central bazaars. The couple ask if I'm hungry, say they know a good place. They are taking off on an overnight sleeper and have time to kill until it leaves, so we head to a ritzy (yet totally affordable) rooftop restaurant so fancy it could be anywhere in New York. The food is great and cheap and plentiful, and the three of us split a beer like real Americans, and around ten I bid them safe travels and head back to my hostel.

***

The next day is sweltering hot. I intend to go do something before departing Jaipur that afternoon, but the sun is just merciful, and I waste away the morning on the deck. A guy my age comes out with a book and we offer each other a little nod and at some point he runs inside and leaves his book on the table. I notice its side is stamped with DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA PUBLIC LIBRARY in thick black ink. The guy returns. "You're from DC?" I say, amused. Yup. "Whereabouts?" Shaw.

Of all the gin joints in all the world. I marvel at the small-worldedness of this great big planet, how two people can live just a mile from each other yet meet on the other side of the world, some eight thousand miles away. We spend the next few hours talking about things local and things distant, and then Scott's off to see the city, while I stick to the shade of the patio.

Eventually things cool and I wander back to the train station. One ticket to Delhi, please.

Back in Mumbai, at that travel-agency-disguised-as-a-tourist-office, the Man Behind the Desk had tried to sell me transportation all the way to Delhi for eighteen thousand rupees. I told him that seemed high and he scoffed; there's no other way it could be done, he said.

And yet, with my ticket to Delhi in hand, I had done it all for just under two thousand (about $35), and loved every minute of it: the shared meals with families on Abu-bound sleepers, the casual conversations with kids on Jodhpur-bound buses, the give-and-take of haggling with warm yet feisty tuk-tuk drivers. I had sailed through Rajasthan, and now I was off to the next chapter of my India adventure.

***

A month earlier, when I booked my flight, I told a friend I had done so. That's awesome, she had said. I wish I could go to India. "Well, Lisa, you should come," I'd replied. Yeah? Yeah.

And so she did. She couldn't manage the five weeks I'd be traveling for, but she could squeeze in two. And as my train lumbered slowly toward the capital of India, her plane flew high overhead, our paths to meet at the Indira Gandhi  International Airport in T-minus seven hours.

***

If India is full of scams and Delhi is its capital, then Delhi is by the transitive property the capital of scams. This I've heard, and this I find to be true almost as soon as stepping off the train.

First it's the tuk-tuk driver who agrees on a ride to the airport for two-hundred rupees, no fine print. I climb aboard and leave his competitors behind and we go a few kilometers and he says, "oh, so, night charge, okay? Two-fifty."

"No two-fifty," I say. "We agreed on two hundred."

He looks at me pleadingly in the rearview mirror. "I'm a poor man." I roll my eyes. Acha-cha. Fine.

A few minutes go by. "Oh, so, I no take you to airport."

"Sorry, what?"

"Tuk-tuks no go all the way to airport. I drop you five kilometers away."

"But we agreed on the airport."

He eyes me again in the rearview. Acha-cha.

He drops me south of a toll plaza and I walk to the north side to catch another tuk-tuk. I negotiate with a guy for delivery to Terminal 3 for a hundred rupees. I hop in. We drive, following signs for the airport, and a few minutes later he pulls to a stop at the shuttle station. "Here."

I look around. "No, not here. Terminal 3."

"No, I can't go Terminal 3. Shuttle take you there."

"But we said Terminal 3." Blank stare.

Okay, I say. Fifty rupees. Half-price for half-way seems fair. He doesn't think so. His face contorts into an angry grimace. "No, one hundred rupees!" he yells.

I hand him the note. Take it. His yelling and gesturing continue. Again, I push it toward him, and again, he refuses to take it. Okay, I say. Bye.

I walk toward the shuttle and he flies out the cab and rushes to stop me. "One hundred rupees!" he shouts. An official comes over and attempts to mediate. He listens to the cabbie's grievances and then directs me to pay the driver one hundred rupees.

"No," I say.

"Yes," he says.

"He didn't take me to Terminal 3."

"Tuk-tuks can't go to Terminal 3."

"Okay," I say, "I believe you. But we had agreed on Terminal 3. The shuttle wasn't mentioned. I didn't realize I'd have to wait ..." I look at the neon sign, "thirty minutes."

This goes on for some time, and it's beginning to become a scene, and I don't really care as much as either of them do, so I pull out another fifty rupees and stuff them in the cabbie's hand. "Challo," I say.

Oh, let's talk about challo.

Challo is a fantastic Hindi word. It translates literally as "let's go," but is really more of a very polite way of saying "fuck off." So if a tout is really hounding you, and you say no and they keep at it, you can hit them with a challo, and they immediately peel away, often with a little grin. It's a colloquial word, so it shows you've maybe been around India a little and thus aren't really susceptible to the typical tourist traps, and Indians just love to hear a foreigner use it. I teach it to Liza the previous night and she tries it out on a tuk-tuk driver who's driving alongside us, unwilling to accept that we actually want to walk. She turns to him: challo.

His face lights up. "What?"

She repeats herself, a little more confidently. "Challo!"

A great big smile forms. "You speak Hindi?"

"No, no, just that one word."

He pulls away, leaving roars of laughter in his wake. We double over ourselves.

Challo can also be used literally, say if your driver isn't being assertive enough in traffic. Challo; let's get a move on. Or if you're walking along and someone is stopped right in your path, plucking away at their phone. Challo; get out of the way. It's a great word.

***

Eventually the shuttle gets a move on and eventually I arrive at Terminal 3 and find that I can't actually enter Terminal 3 unless I want to pay a one-hundred-rupee "pick-up" fee (which is no problem) and not have a bag with me (which is a problem). I opt to wait outside with thousands of others, and do my best to stay awake until Lisa's plane arrives at 2AM.

I crane over heads to look for Lisa, but she's lost in the sea of passengers spilling out of Indira's doors. Ultimately she finds me, the two White People of Delhi paired up, and we extricate ourselves from the mob and make for a taxi and drive away from it all, off to see India together.



Abu, Udaipur (Days 4, 5, 6)

The man behind the desk is right: the train isn't comfortable. Beds are stacked three high in cabins of eight, and the cabins aren't so much cabins as alcoves along the corridor. There are no walls, no curtains. But this is India. Privacy is not to be expected.

The train leaves at 9PM and I am asleep five minutes later, laid on the middle bed with my legs curled up from the aisle. I'm woken about an hour later by the Procession, which occurs at every stop all night: first the men yelling "chai!" and offering tea, then the snacksellers, then the poor souls, usually old or disabled, asking for money. The passengers give generously. Last comes the Beautiful Women, who are young and able-bodied but pretty, and they walk through the train asking for money because they're pretty. I'm woken by one stroking my leg and smiling.

I try to sleep between the Processions, but my bunkmate snores, as do about fifty others in the traincar. It's midnight, it's 1AM, it's 4AM and I'm awake but I've managed to get a little rest. It's morning, and the beds become seats once more, and I do my best to change and wash up without falling into the restroom's squat toilet.

The plan is to go to Jaipur, but that's not really the plan; the plan is to figure out the plan when I get there. I don't have to be in Delhi until the ninth, and so I have time, and though the man behind the desk was wrong about a lot, he was right about some things too. Udaipur, "the Venice of Italy," does sound lovely, much lovelier than sitting about on the train until Jaipur at sundown.

Udaipur is right between Mumbai and Jaipur but not on the route of the Mumbai-Jaipur express, so I need a transfer. Around 10AM the train arrives at Abu Road, a small town at the foot of Mount Abu. I see the mountain through the smudged window of my traincar and my heart swells; it has been ages since I've seen proper mountains. They're calling, and I must go.

I stumble off the train and work my way through the dense main road of the village. It's tiny, yet every bit as loud as Bombay: those same rushing motorbikes, those noisy tuk-tuks, the constant cacophony of all those horns. I follow the traffic and the village becomes a small town, the town a big town; after much wandering, I arrive at the bus station. One ticket to the top of the mountain, please.

It's the prettiest transfer I've ever taken. For twenty-nine rupees, I'm driven twenty kilometers up the steep switchbacks of Mount Abu. Families of fuzzy-backed monkeys ogle at the rusty automobile with wide, black eyes; birds squawk back at the beeps of the horn that rush up the slope. Below us, Abu Road becomes but a speck in the Rajasthani countryside.

The mountain is Rajasthan's only hill station. Hill stations, invented by the British during their long occupation of India, were the white person's remedy to Indian summers: if you can't escape, elevate. The higher altitudes provided refuge from the heat, islands of green in a dusty brown desert. They were vacation homes, the first resort towns, and after independence they remained as such, middle-class getaways for middle-class families.

It's a very Westernized place, the peak's plateau. Stalls sell french fries and t-shirts and five-minute photographs. Chinese tour buses clamor by with drawn curtains. Paddleboats dot the lake and hotels advertise aryuvedic massages by the half-hour. Further uphill lies a lush wildlife sanctuary spanning most of the plateau, but I'm warned single travelers should avoid it; attacks by monkeys, tigers, and muggers have all been reported recently.

I grab a quick lunch and return to the bus station for the next Udaipur-bound bus. It's a long, queasy ride along bumpy, winding roads, but a fascinating drive through the Indian countryside. We pass remote villages in distant desert; we escape modernity and throttle backwards in time at a rate of thirty kilometers per hour. Paved roads become dirt roads and houses become thatched cabanas and Western dress becomes Eastern dress; the people become fewer and their distances become greater.

We stop every once in a while to pick up a passenger. The bus fills. I scoot to make room for a heavyset middle-aged man. We squeeze together in the tight two-seater and his clenched hand rests on my thigh for lack of available space. My arm sits between my thighs. We bump along like this for some time, and with each bump I feel as though his hand is relaxing, loosening, that fist opening ever so subtly onto my leg.

Ten kilometers later, I'm sure of it: his hand is now tenderly resting on my upper thigh, and it begins creeping toward my crotch. My own arm stiffens, stopping the advance, yet he presses on, willing it to move. It doesn't. Instead, it shoves back against his wandering, unwanted hand, and he seems to get the idea. He retracts his hand to his lap, looks at me and smiles. I don't return the gesture. He gets off at the next stop, though perhaps not in the way he would have liked.

This incident is, of course, not typical of all men in India, but it heightens my sensitivity of the sheer abundance of males around. I've only been in India for four days and I simply miss women: I miss talking to them, and seeing them smile, and having their gentle presence out in the world to balance the unrelenting ego and aggression and, often, creepiness, of men. But this is India, and women occupy a different, more private, realm here. I'm on a bus, and it's filled with a crowd of spitting, swearing, sweating men, and I must learn to deal with it.

***

I get to Udaipur at sunset and walk through its tangled streets to the sparkling river. It's no Venice, but it's not a wild comparison, either: squint hard enough to blot out the garbage and cow dung and plug your ears forcefully enough to silence the cars and the scooters and maybe, just maybe, you can mistake the Lake City for Venezia.

It has its own charm, though, this place. I turn into a tight alley and find a cow ambling toward me with no intent to stop on my account; I jump onto a narrow porch and let the creature pass. I walk by a courtyard of kids and they rush after me, which country?, which country?, and they squeal when I greet them with a namaste and squat down to chat. There's a certain glamour in the centuries-old fade of the cream paints, or the overgrown vines on the well-worn facades of the narrow little homes. It's a maze, those neighborhoods, full of dead ends and curious corners, and I find I've discovered a fair bit of the city before even reaching my hostel by the lake.

I do eventually get there and check in and drop my things before rushing off for a proper bite. At the foot of the main strip I'm greeted by a young guy with a mop of jet-black hair. "I'm Romeo," he says proudly.

"Hey Romeo."

Romeo is a tout. A tout, found in every last city and town and street corner in India, is a man (always a man) who works on commission; his job is to get you, the tourist with money, to certain places, where you are to spend that money. Typically those places are hotels or restaurants, often shops or travel agencies, sometimes galleries or group tours. When the tout successfully delivers you to "his friend's business," the tout gets paid.

Touts are very good at what they do. They don't just walk up to you and say "come with me," (although the lazier ones might); they engage in an intricate foreplay to stop and seduce: Excuse me sir, I just wanted to say you have very nice beard. And nice shades. Which country you from? Oh, America?! Obama! Good, good. And how long you in town? Ah, not very long. Where to next? Ah, yes, nice place. Oh, me? Yes, I live here, from here. I'm student at school here; painting. This will go on, and on, as you're followed for blocks and minutes, until finally the tout will say Hey, we very close to my brother's shop; very fine pashmina. You come in and take a look? or something, and if you don't want pashmina, no problem, because the tout has a brother who sells shoes and a brother who sells saris and a brother who sells little handmade sculptures for very good price.

Sometimes the touts are gentle and friendly and genuine. Other times they'll lie to your face. You'll step off the train and the tuk-tuk tout will ask you where you're headed and you'll say Hotel Notburneddown and the tuk-tuk tout will tell you oh no, that hotel has burned down, is closed; but I can take you to a better hotel for very cheap. Or you'll be walking to the train station to catch a particular train and a sly guy will sidle up next to you and ask where you're headed and inform you, with deep regret, that the train you're looking for has been canceled, but no worries; just follow him and he'll take you to the tourist office (which is always a travel agency in disguise) to get a ticket for the next working train.

The guidebooks tell you to ignore touts; to pretend they don't exist. This is cruel white-person advice. The touts are people, just trying to get by in a nation of 1.3 billion all trying to get by, and while some may be a little scammy around the edges, they're humans, and deserve at the very least a polite no thank you as you shuffle by. Traveling alone, I don't really mind their accompaniment as long as they know I'm not going to buy anything, and I certainly am not going to shoo away the friendly ones.

Romeo is one of the friendly ones. He leans against his motorcycle and asks me where I'm headed and I tell him I'm hungry and on the hunt for food. He says his brother owns a good place. I don't mind a tout's recommendation; I know enough to judge the place when I get there. I tell him to lead the way. He does so by straddling the front of his bike and telling me to hop on. I do, and we race through the city for about three blocks. We get off, head to the roof, and I order a big meal. Romeo asks me if I'm looking for a handmade suit. Not exactly, I say. Because my brother makes very good suits, he continues anyway, you come look after dinner.

I tell him I'm tired, but he doesn't relent. He has to go run an errand, but he tells me to wait for him, that he'll be back in fifteen minutes. I finish in ten and rush back to the hostel for bed.

***

I wake up and shower and use the toilet. I I find that there's blood involved. I ignore it, and it doesn't happen again.

I head to the hostel's gorgeous rooftop. It overlooks the mountains and the lake and the enormous hotel in the middle of the water, literally gobbling up every last inch of island there once was, so that it just looks like a big boxy barge. I do some writing until the sun burns my face, then head into the bustle to see some sights.

But before the sights, Romeo. He catches me before I even get my bearings, and I don't quite mind saying "Hey Romeo" with a pleasant bit of familiarity. He wants to know if I want scarves or suits. I really, really don't, but I kinda-sorta promised him last night that I would at least take a look. I spend a little time haggling in Brother One's shop for a scarf that I really like but don't care paying tourist prices for. We come to a stalemate. I spend more time in Brother Two's shop. Brother Two is Johnny, a wiry older guy who I tell right away that I don't want to buy any suits from, but he sells me anyway. He heaves big rolls of fabric off the shelves and drapes them over me: yes, this or no, this. I don't wear suits, and I already have one, so I continue to demur. But I tell him I wouldn't mind a few fun sport coats for more casual use. We decide on a couple cheap designs, I pay a good price, and Johnny tells me to meet him at his shop tomorrow at 10:30AM to try on the garments. I hurry out, sights still to see.

I walk around the tranquil City Palace and sit quietly watching worshippers at the lovely Hindu temple. I wander across the river to the other side of Udaipur, well off the tourist beat and deep into the working class area. Kids once again circle me and clap at my silly English words and ask me to take photos of them. I tell them I have to go after a while, and they go back to kicking pebbles around.

Afternoon becomes evening and I stroll across the bridge in search of supper. An awning along the river reads The Little Prince, and the boy with golden hair on the sign matches the boy with golden hair tattooed on my arm. It's obvious where I'll be eating dinner. I sit down at a table on the edge of the river and the owner passes me a menu. He catches sight of the petit prince tattoo and beams a great big smile. "Little Prince!" he says. I smile back. "You've read the book?"

He shrugs. "No."

I eat anyway, and dinner is superb. I read by the water until the earth pulls us up away from the sun and Udaipur's alleyways become but dark tunnels in the night, then I rise to pay. The bill is two hundred and ten rupees, and I give the owner five hundred and ten, but he doesn't seem to have change. No one in India ever does. I flinch at the sudden chore of needing to find a (working) ATM after dark, but the restauranteur wags his head. "I take ten now; you bring two hundred in morning. Good?"

Absolutely. I'm taken aback by this kind show of trust. Sure the price is petty, but I can't imagine the same happening where I'm from, where two hundred rupees would mean even less. Here, in Mumbai, everywhere I've been in India, I'm floored by just how generous the people are. They're kind and they're trusting and they're changing me, and I can feel it deep inside and all over, and I'm hoping it's not something that gets lost in my return like checked luggage or those fleeting scents of a place once been.

I've had three great adventures in three great years. The first was the building of a house of my own, and it taught me wonderful things about self-sufficiency and self-motivation. The second was a little road trip I took with my scooter to see North America, and it taught me about myself and about nature and about the inextricable link between the two. The third was Europe, and it taught me about space: the way of cities and design and urban systems. In these short years, I learned of the self, the natural environment, and the built environment. But I had yet to learn about people.

India is that adventure. India is a nation of people, billions of them, in tightly packed cities and towns. It's a nation of good people, some of the best I've come to know on my travels, and I hoped to learn from them, to have a better understanding of the souls that fill those natural environments, those built environments, to understand the self multiplied. Funny that the adventure of people would come now, when my original plan for the month was to live on an island without a single one of them. All or nothing, I suppose.

***

It's time to leave Udaipur. I wake early and take a walk at sunrise while the city rests. I catch the dawn devouts at the temple and sit in quiet meditation as they shuffle in and out. A chicken squacks, a horn beeps, and in an instant, day has begun.

Before I leave, I have a few errands to run. I'm exhilarated by the notion; it's like I live here! First it's to the ATM to withdraw some cash, then off to the Little Prince to settle my debts. Next I head back to the hostel to grab my laundry drying on the roof. Then I stroll over to Brother One's scarf shop for a promised continuation of negotiations; we figure out a price, shake hands, and the scarf is mine.

New prize wrapped around my neck, I head to Johnny's to try on those jackets. Johnny is late. I glance at the time nervously; my bus leaves in just over an hour, and the next one won't depart until mid-afternoon. I wait.

10:30 becomes 10:45 and I drift next door. "Hey," I say to the familiar face, "do you know where Johnny is?" He calls Johnny. They fire back and forth in Hindi and the young shopowner tells me he'll be around by 11:30. I say 11:30 isn't going to cut it, that I need to go, like, now. That Johnny may just have to keep the coats. All this gets translated through the phone. More talking, then the call ends. "Come with me."

I hop on the back of a motorbike and we race from the city center to Udaipur's outer limits, where Johnny lives. The scenery changes: gone are the charming tight alleys, present are the dry, open thoroughfares of Indian suburbia. Concrete apartment buildings rise colorlessly from the dirt. We slow, turn, arrive.

I'm ushered inside and meet Johnny in his bedroom. He has the jackets laid out, and I try each on, and neither is a perfect fit but I'm not really paying for perfect fits, so I scrawl my shipping address on a piece of paper and pass it to Johnny. He smiles. "Come, I take you to bus station."

We head outside and stop on the way next to two women. "This is my mother," Johnny says proudly, "and this, my sister." I greet his family humbly and realize just how intimate of a transaction this has become, how warm doing business in India is. I buy a few coats in India and I meet the merchant's mother, see his bedroom, ride on the back of his motorcycle. Sometimes I buy things in DC and can't even get a smile.

I thank Johnny for the ride and catch the bus just in time. The old engine roars to life and lurches us north. Then off we go, deeper into Rajasthan. Land of the Kings.

Mumbai (Days 1, 2, 3)

2.04.2015

"Here are tigers and wise men and famines. A hurried stop, a quick halt to take a bath and get a night's sleep on solid land, before the train departs early the next morning for the real India, the India of the villages. Nobody back then came to Bombay to live there forever; it was just a way station, between paradise and hell. You came to Bombay to pass through it." — Suketu Mehta, Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found

Mumbai is all things in all place at all times. It is a city unlike any I've ever seen.

It's like a building, maybe, a skyscraper that disappears high into the smog, and in this skyscraper each level is one century (fifth, twelfth, twentieth), or maybe one place (Paris, New York, Barcelona), or maybe one little slice of life (the cooking, the selling, the bathing), and under the weight of some thirty million people the building has collapsed, these levels—these stories—crumbling atop each other and coming to a rest in a chaotic, beautiful, spellbinding disarray.

The streets are everything. They range from a meter wide—some skinnier than that—to great big boulevards, and between the well-weathered walls that encase them, life occurs: birth, death, and everything in between. The sidewalks are for domesticity: it's where people wake from a hard night on the concrete, where they peek out from beneath the covers or pull aside the corner of their tarp and see dawn's first light. It's where they fold up their blankets and fill their buckets and bathe; it's where they cook breakfast and lunch and dinner in tiny fire stoves all over Bombay. Play happens here: babies learn to walk and children toss marbles or just the rounded pebbles they can find; the parents stand and gossip while the parents' parents sit on the stoop, crushing spices or shaving bamboo or packaging dried goods.

The sidewalk spills into the curb. Sometimes concrete gives way to asphalt; often, the line is written in the dust. The curb is for business. It's where the informal economy of Mumbai sustains its millions: the little carts selling thali or paneek or dosa, the stool and the barber foaming up a patron's face for a close shave. Leatherworkers stamp on the street and metalworkers weld on the blacktop, and the teenagers roll out their blankets of packaged socks and duplicated DVDs, and rupees change hands a million times over in the span of one block.

Beyond the sidewalk, beyond the curb, cars park. Autorickshaws and their napping drivers wait for a needy fare, and oversized Volkswagens sit idle and odd, an anachronism in this Old World. Scooters and motorcycles and Tata trucks cram in so tightly one cannot cross from the sidewalk to the street without fearing she'll bump against a bike and set a whole series of dominoes in motion. And further still lies the real street, the arteries and capillaries of Bombay where all its millions move, a raging river of human and machine and fear and chaos.

The street has no lanes, no wide shoulder or enforced speed limit. People, unable to step through the families on the sidewalk and the businesses in the curb, trot confidently along the parked cars, filling the little space still left in these bulging, congested arteries of India's throbbing heart. This leaves no room for the cars, those silly inflexible clots of modernity, and so the drivers blare their horns incessantly, a monotonous orchestra that plays all day long in a terrible, endless symphony heard through every last lane in the city.

The horn of India, I come to learn, doesn't so much mean hey, you're in my way, as it does in the West, but rather hey, I'm in your way, a sort of cordial warning that I, driver, am very close to running you, other driver or motorcycle rider or cyclist or pedestrian over, and thus you, if you would prefer not to be run over, should move out of the way, because I, driver, do have brakes but can't really be expected to use them. It's the way of life here; people seem used to it. Many vehicles have the same request splashed across their backside, HORN OK PLEASE, which is a sort of cordial warning that I, driver, do have a mirror but can't really be expected to use it, so I kindly ask that you, other driver, let me know if you're going to be coming on by.

Peace aside, it's actually quite effective. On the highway, a passing car won't bother with blinkers; it'll just lay on the horn all the way through the maneuver, leaving the driver-being-passed with a precise, auditory signal as to just where the danger lies, without the driver-being-passed ever having to take his eyes from the road ahead, which is good, because there's a lot of craziness happening up there too.

The people of Mumbai are excellent drivers, perhaps the world's best. Sure, they're pushy and loud and always in a rush to get somewhere, and so they aren't maybe the most polite drivers, but skilled they most certainly are. On my third day in Bombay, after hours of walking and a sore blister on my heel and the raging heat of the city wearing me down, I give into the relentless appeals of an autorickshaw cabbie trailing me and hop a ride to Bandra, just a few kilometers uptown. If I think the streets are terrifying on foot (which I really, really do), they are the stuff of nightmares from the backseat: unaccompanied four-year-olds running across eight-lane highways on their way to school, five-member families whizzing through gaps in the congestion on the back of a 150cc scooter, the occasional cow or goat just ambling into the road and drawing it all to a halt. I'm something of a backseat driver in the calm traffic of America, so here in Bombay it takes all my strength to not call out an "ah!" or a "stop!" or a "watch out!" every fourth second, to not tear through the fabric of the front headrest in riddled anxiety.

But here's the thing: the driver doesn't need any help. They just don't; they just know how to navigate it all, to know what's behind them and what's in their blind spot and what's dropping from the second-story window onto the street fifteen feet ahead, and they do it all without hardly looking. They wedge by cars and leave mere centimeters of room to spare, they never hit the running schoolboy, they never, well, crash into anything.

I read in Shantaram about a Mumbai cabbie who rear-ends another driver and causes some injury to the car, the driver, and his wife. Minutes later, a crowd swells to over a hundred, anger growing, and the crowd (now a mob) pulls the cabbie from his vehicle, attacks him with fists and fingernails, and carries his bloody, lifeless body to the police station to report the accident. The narrator is aghast; his tour guide is unshaken: This is Bombay. So it goes.
It's a novel, and it was written decades ago, so I can't be sure if it was true once or true ever or true still, but it would explain the skill of Mumbai's drivers. To them, being on the road is a matter of life and death, and rather than just slow down a tad, they've done quite the opposite: built themselves into driving machines, hyper-aware speed demons capable of stopping on a dime and reading the bounce trajectory of an orange fifty feet ahead before the little girl who dropped it even turns into the road to run after it.

In my three days in Mumbai, I witness perhaps fifty near-accidents, those moments when your heart stops and your face winces and you prepare for the sound of fiberglass and steel on human skin and bone. Hell, I am probably close to impact a half-dozen times myself. But it never happens: the tires skid and the horn blares more loudly than ever and the bystanders maybe mutter disapprovingly, but nothing ever touches anything else.

Because cars and bikes and cows and people never actually hit each other, traffic in Bombay is its own sort of game. They are traffic lights, sure, but they aren't ever followed; it's all about who can get through first. A thick procession of cars at an intersection will heave forward east and west while their north-south counterparts honk and yell and inch ever forward, pressing up against the flow until a cautious east-west driver slows, and then they pounce: they pull up and widen the wedge, and those to their sides cram in too, and within a few agonizingly loud moments the east-and-west traffic has nowhere to go; they must now yield to the victors racing north and south. Match won; commence next round.

Drivers and pedestrians play this game too. People wait to cross; they see an opening; they begin to cross. Just then a driver whips around a corner and hurtles toward the sea of walkers. He punches his steering wheel with his palm but the pedestrians don't acknowledge the horn; they keep at it. He comes closer, doesn't brake, makes it seem like he's really about to run someone over. He's bluffing, of course: just seconds before impact, his horn is accompanied by the cry of tired brakes begging to be put out of their misery.

Scooters and motorcycles are everywhere; they outnumber the cars ten to one, and the bicycles two to one. They're driven by men in Western clothes or men in traditional Sheikh garb or women in full hijab or niqab or kids of twelve, and they carry huge sacks of rice, or wives, or entire families, the eldest boy sitting up on his father's lap, learning to drive, and the two or three other kids wedged between he and his spouse, while she, sitting sideways, cradles the youngest baby. The scooters seem more dangerous than the cars because a single misstep on your part could send the family hurtling helter-skelter to sure death; putting the wrong foot forward can wipe out a bloodline.

Being a pedestrian in Bombay is, to put it mildly, totally terrifying and painfully tiring and also fucking exhilarating. It's a job that never stops, because you literally cannot stop. On my second day of walking, my shoe comes untied, and I walk another two miles with the laces dangling because I can't find anywhere to kneel down. You cannot pause at an intersection; you must just choose a direction and hope it's the right one, lest you be run over by the city's stampede. Indeed, everyone in Mumbai moves, and the only ones not moving are those who have stuck themselves like a lucky barnacle to a larger object; they melt into it and become it and are safe from the endlessly rushing river.

You couldn't walk with headphones in your ears; you'd be killed.
You couldn't walk and sent a text; you'd be killed.
You couldn't pause to take a photograph; you'd be killed.

I take no photographs while in Bombay, not because it would be impossible to do so in the road but because it just doesn't feel right. This is a city that I'm not part of, and no one asked me to come here, and there's life happening here, real life and also difficult life, slums and poverty and a million faces per frame, and I don't feel I have the right to take all their faces and stamp them onto the image sensor of my shiny new camera (the realization of just how far eight-hundred dollars could go for a Mumbai family makes me queasy) and take them home with me. White-skinned people have done that to brown-skinned people for centuries, and I didn't want to make it worse.

They would have been beautiful, though, these photographs I don't take. A still of a beautiful woman with almond eyes and cinnamon skin gliding through the alley barefoot, a bountiful basket of fresh oranges balanced on her head; she's framed by the ashy concrete of the misplaced art-deco towers and lit by the smoky sun behind her, disappearing into the haze. A black-and-white of the rusted bicycle chained to the doorway, looking like it hasn't seen a rider since Mumbai was called Bombay. A thumbnail of twelve angry men crowded around a misfiring scooter, or a stealthy glance into a slanted slum, or a colorful print-out of the train pulling into Andheri with a thousand heads erupting from her open windows and doors, some great Hindu goddess of the railway.

Ah, the trains. I leave my hostel by the airport the first night and take a stroll to the station; its walkway stretches a kilometer over the Bombay "suburb," which is about as calm and removed as Fifth Avenue from Times Square. I approach the counter and ask for one ticket to the central terminal downtown. The kind man behind the glass raises ten fingers, clenches them into two fists, and presents them again. I pass him the hundred-rupee note.

"Ten ten," he says.

"Ah, sorry," I reply, and fumble in my pocket to give him another ten rupees, for a total of 110. He takes the ten-rupee note and pushes back the hundred; the price isn't 110, it's ten. I feel foolish, privileged, not thinking twice about tossing over ten times the price of a train ticket without even questioning it. The 110 rupees is about $1.80, which seems a fair price in my world for a forty-five-minute train ride into the city. The ride costs about fifteen cents.

I walk another kilometer to the platform and wait with the hordes of men for the train to arrive. There are no women; there is a platform, and thousands of bodies stand on it, but there are no women. The train shrieks its way into the station and before it stops those onboard begin piling out, jumping and running with the momentum and clearing the way as quickly as possible. I can't understand the urgency, but then I see it and hear it and feel it. The men waiting rush toward the moving train. They grab at it with their hands, pull against its handles, work collectively to draw it to a stop with them as near the doors as possible.

There aren't actually doors, just openings where doors might be. Inside the doors are the passengers unlucky or unprepared enough to not yet have gotten off the train. They are paid no mind as the writhing mass of men heave forward, throwing themselves onto the train, pushing and elbowing their comrades out of the way. I let myself be carried by the wave. I'm literally lifted off my feet by its force, and then I'm onboard to, pressed toward the back where I find a nice seat in the corner.

There is plenty of space and plenty of seats, but this is the cause of all the violence: space and seats. Within a few stops the car is completely full, and every last inch of bench is covered. The people of Mumbai demand to sit: they board the train, and find two people already pressed against each other, and they tap their knee or place a hand on their shoulder and the seated understand this gesture—make room—and they melt ever closer, impossibly making room.

We near the city and some people need to get off, but others are standing in their way with no place to move. As the train slows, the cries of a hundred men echo through the metal traincar, a baffling whoop! whoop! whoop! that signals intent to exit. Impossibly still, the others make room for their escape.

Mumbai is a city where everyone is in everyone else's way. There's never enough space, when in reality there are great hidden hordes of it: again, two-thirds of its people are stuffed onto five percent of its land. I see the surplus as I walk: the wide courtyards guarded by security to keep the untouchables away, the roomy estates of the Colaba where rooms rent for over $3,000 per month. And then, the four-hundred-thousand-plus houses and apartments and bits of acreage that stand unoccupied, going to ruin, four walls and a roof and a locked door while people sleep under tin scrap outside.

I learn about Bombay's housing crisis in a book I read. Seventy years ago, at the end of the war, the city adopted a Rent Act to freeze rents for five years. Men return from the war and get lofts and move their families in, and as those first five years draw to a close, the tenants of the city (who obviously outnumber the landlords) vote to keep it around a little longer. A little longer becomes a lot longer, and a lot longer becomes forever, and now those same families are living in those same apartments (the rent control passes from parent to child like property) for mere rupees. Landlords, bitter and unwilling to pay more on labor and unkeep than they're making in rent, have simply stopped repairing anything, and so these homes are almost universally unsafe: cracked ceilings, lead paint, broken pipes. When a family finally has had enough and leaves, the landlord raises the rent for new tenants dramatically to make up the difference: in a twelve-flat building, eleven units might be rent-controlled, so the twelfth unit effectively finances the whole operation. And, because there's no end in sight to the Rent Act, many landlords have simply withdrawn their vacant properties from the market, deciding no tenant is better than one who will never leave. Hence the $3,000 rents; hence the 400,000 vacant units. Mumbai is a city for the rich inhabited by the poor.

As such, it's terribly affordable for those with means, or even a little savings overseas. I feel guilty about what I'm paying for things: one of the best meals of my life is had for one hundred rupees ($1.60), and I'm stuffed afterwards. I buy a train ticket north, to Jaipur, a distance about equivalent to a States-side trip from Charleston, SC to Boston, MA. It's a twenty-hour overnight sleeper that costs $7. I take out five thousand rupees at the airport the night I land; by the time I leave Mumbai three days later, I've spent about twenty or thirty dollars and haven't wanted for anything.

***

"A city has its secrets: where you go to shop for an ice bucket, for an office chair, for a sari. Newcomers have to pay more because they don't know these places. We haggle over miniscule amounts that have no value for us: 10 rupees is only 40 cents. If we lost 40 cents in New York we would never notice it; here it becomes a matter of principle. This is because along with getting ripped off for 10 rupees comes an assumption: You are not from here, you are not Indian, so you deserve to be ripped off, to pay more than a native." — Suketu Mehta, Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found

I don't see any white people during my first day in Bombay. On the second day I catch a glimpse of them, white skin and white hair in a white tour bus, black phones and black cameras snapping quick shots of brown skin from air-conditioned seats. The bus stops and they begin getting off, fanning themselves and remarking on the heat they seem to only just have discovered, and I make a quick right to avoid them. I cross a street and reach the median and am waiting for the nerve to cross to the other side when an Indian man approaching the median stops next to me and asks, "Excuse me, do you know which way to Colaba?"

I find it a funny question, because I'm clearly not from around here, but point south and say that I think it's that way. He thanks me. "You have great beard!" he says. I thank him, scratching it self-consciously. "Where are you from?"

I tell him America, and he's pleased by this and talks about Obama coming to Delhi, and we make our way across the median and keep talking for a few more blocks. He asks where I'm headed and I say I'm hungry and looking for food and he says he knows a good place. I'm familiar with touts, people who get commissions for bringing travelers to certain hotels or restaurants, but I can be discerning and know the fair price of an Indian meal and don't mind a good recommendation.

His name is Kasim. We eat at a quick, totally reasonable and totally delicious shop, and he tells me about India and the places to see while I'm here and asks a little about me. We talk about religion and tolerance and the pursuit of happiness and when I'm done, I offer to pay for his chai tea as a thanks for the conversation. He resists, his pleasure, and we leave. On the way out, he offers to walk me to the tourist center, where they give out free maps and free tips to tourists. I don't really feel I need either, but don't want to be rude, so I oblige and follow him down the sunny streets to a little building with an Indian flag waving proudly outfront. We enter.

Introductions are made all around and a man at the tourist office assumes his position behind the desk. "Nice beard!" he says. He offers me a seat and asks how long I'm in India. "Five weeks," I say.

"Ah, not much time!"

I agree. I tell him I got in a few days ago, and have to pick up someone in Delhi on the tenth, whom I'll be traveling with for a few weeks before finishing up the month again on my own. He pulls out a paper and a pen and begins writing furiously. "Okay, okay, so here is good trip. You start here, Mumbai, busy city. Next you take train to Udaipur, most romantic city in India. You love Udaipur, very pretty, right on lake. You go alone, you going to want to go with somebody. Very romantic city. Next, you take bus to Pushkar,"

It went on like this: Pushkar, Jodhpur, Jaipur. The itinerary I'd so avoided was being built before my eyes. Elephant safari. Camel safari. Personal driver. Business lodging, breakfast included. Very nice. Good time. You going to want to come back and see again.

"You get to Delhi on the tenth, and then you to go to Agra. Taj Majal. Most beautiful place in world. Agra very pretty. Then Varanasi!"

"Ah," Kasim sighed from the next chair over, "Varanasi is very special city!"

"Okay, three days Varanasi, then ..." he eyed his map, "Kama Sutra palace?"

I stop him somewhere around here and say that I like to travel with the winds, that I don't know if I really need a whole itinerary, especially after the tenth. It seems a lot to decide at once.

"Oh, no worry, no worry," he says, "very flexible. You no like Udaipur, you leave soon. You like Udaipur and want to stay, you just call me and we change. Very flexible."

I say I'm not really comfortable having a personal driver, which is true. I say I'm not really comfortable enslaving an elephant or camel for my entertainment, which is true. I say I prefer hostels and homestays to business hotels, which is true. He swats these all away. He tells me I don't want to deal with buses and trains and taxis, that Indian trains are always overbooked and I couldn't even get to these places if I wanted.

I mention I already have a ticket to Jaipur, that it was no problem getting it. I show him the ticket. "Ah, very bad class!" he says. He shows it to Kasim. Kasim gasps.

The ticket I had gotten, all they had anyway, was fourth class (India's caste system lives eternally in capitalism; the trains have five classes). The man behind the desk quickly pulls out his phone and shows me a photograph of a dreadfully crowded train, bodies piled up on top of each other in the search for a place to sit. A man in a turban looks grimly at the camera.

"This is the class you travel. Very bad. Not very safe. You like massages?"

I understand his joke and don't really bother to respond. I smile a little. "Because if you travel this class," he volunteers anyway, "you be getting many massages."

I narrow my eyes, and he senses my doubt.

"Listen, I just here to help! I no make commission or anything from helping you, so no want to pressure. I just try to help. Try to keep you safe. I book everything for you, with confirmation and driver and everything, and you no have to worry. You travel in style."

I don't really want to travel in style. I want to travel the way the average Indian travels. What is the point of coming to a country to see pieces of stone stacked atop each other in pretty formations, but to never see its streets or smell its cities or meet its people? If fourth class is good enough for the people of India, for expecting mothers and little babies and old men, then it's certainly good enough for me. Where's adventure to be found if not at ticket counters, or lost scrambles around a city, or in the pangs of fear that you've just boarded the wrong bus?

I humor them anyway. I tell him I do trust him, that I know he's just trying to help. I ask him how much all this would be. "Ah, let's see!" He calls roughly into the back. A boy brings tea. A drink amongst men, as though I've just bought a car or a nice suit. I sip it warily and the man behind the desk punches away imagined numbers into his calculator.

"You like the number in rupees or dollars?"

"Whichever. Dollars, I guess." He writes the number in rupees on the crowded paper wedged right next to ELEPHANT SAFARI and slides it across the desk to me. It says 89,900.

"Oh, that's over my budget," I say quickly. It works out to be about $1,300, which isn't terrible for about two weeks of lodging, breakfast, chauffeuring, safaris, and transport across a subcontinent, but is about five times what I might spend in the same amount of time figuring it out on my own. "Way too much."

"Ah, but such good price!" he exclaims. "You no have to worry about anything!"

I'm not really worried about anything; I never was. I ask him how much without the elephant safari. 79,000. I ask him how much with nothing but the transportation, sans driver. I am certainly not booking a vacation package, but I figure it can't hurt to get some bookings out of the way while I'm here. He does a little more magic math: 25,000.

The best way to tell if someone's leaning on you is to pull back a bit and see if they topple over. I say that still seems like a lot. He drops to 21,000, then 18,000. The desperation makes it feel like he's up to a bit more than just helping out. I say I'm pretty sure I can manage it all for under 10,000 rupees, but I do appreciate his help.

Kasim jumps in. "But think how easy this is! Everything booked, right now! No rushing, no waiting, no walking."

I love rushing and waiting and walking. Seriously. But they're insistent. I can't really tell if Kasim is a scout. He seems genuine, like he maybe just really cares about me having a good time in his beautiful country, but one can never be sure. I do the math in my head: about $280 to have all those tickets booked right now, worry-free. "How much you pay for this in America?" the man behind the desk asks. "Much more, yeah?"

Well, yeah, but I don't want to be sold something at American prices when those aren't the going prices. He shows me his guestbook, old itineraries of old patrons. "This trip, two weeks, 112,000 rupees. This one, ten days, 98,000 rupees." This does little to convince me; Americans will pay anything for anything. But I know the money doesn't mean a lot to me, and will to them, so I relent. "Sure," I say.

The man behind the desk jumps from his seat and grabs a few sheets of paper and begins scrawling out a receipt. I drop my credit card on the table.

"Ah, no take card. Cash only."

"Cash only?" I repeat skeptically.

"Yes, otherwise big bank charge. Ten percent. You can pay card, but ten percent extra. You have cash, no?"

I show him the few hundred rupees stowed in my wallet; the rest are in my room, I lie, knowing full well there are another several thousand in my bag. He tells me there is an ATM just down the block, that one of his guys can walk me there. I tell him my bank card is in the room too, another lie. He says it's not a problem, that I can leave a deposit and one of his guys can walk me back to my room. Like a ransom payment. I tell him no, it's fine, I'll be back in a bit. I rush out. "Okay, I wait here!" he calls after me.

Kasim is smoking a cigarette outside. He asks me where I'm going and I say back to my room to grab some cash and he offers to walk with me. I say that I can manage on my own as I hurry away. "Okay, I wait here!" he yells too, cigarette waving in the air as I disappear into the chaos of the city.

***

I spend a morning on a thin slice of sand that is all Bombay has for a beach. It is pleasant and surprisingly empty. Midday, when the sun stands tall and rains pure heat down on the city, when the laborers take long naps underneath the shade of any available overhang or rickshaw and the stray dogs stretch long and lazy under the orange-and-white-painted trees, I take that terrifying taxi to Bandra. I have spent three days in the maximum city, most of it walking, and I am ready to escape.

I plan to pass my remaining hours in Bollywood seeing a Bollywood film, but the theater in Bandra doesn't have any films starting until 4PM. So I walk to a nearby mall, and its sliding glass doors open automatically in my presence, and I step through the portal and emerge in the West.

It isn't just a mall with designer stores, but a mall of designer stores: Zara and Ralph Lauren and the United Colors of Benneton, Coach and Kenneth Cole and Tommy Hilfiger. I see five- and six-figure prices in rupees in the storefronts; these are DC prices, New York prices. I feel a strange tingle on my back: air conditioning. The walls are straight and unpeeling, and the floors unblemished tile, and nothing has been faded by the sun. There is no dust. There are shiny surfaces. At 9AM I walked through parts of Bombay that contain (for reference, DC has about 10,000 and Manhattan 66,000) literally one million people per square mile. In the words of Suketu, "this is the highest number of individuals massed together at any spot in the world." And then there is this, an empty Zara selling socks for three hundred times the asking price in Crawford Market, just a few kilometers away.

***

Mumbai is everything. It is little slum children playing in their own sewers and it is fifty greasy men working on their engines in the middle of the street. It's pick-up cricket matches at all hours in the quieter neighborhoods and street stalls selling sustenance in the busier ones. It's the cow wondering why she's here and the human never stopping to ask. It's Berlin after the apocalypse, it's New York on cocaine, it's every last village of Rajasthan scooped up and dumped in one great, splendid heap at the Gateway to India. It's a family of thirty million all held together by the sheer gravity of thirty million huddled so closely, by this idea called Bombay.

I love it and I hate in the same second and I love it and hate it for the same reasons. I want to stop walking and just let the city's current carry me through its sweat and smog and beauty forever, and I want to run from it and never look back. I've known it for just three days when three lives wouldn't be enough time; I've known it for just three days and should have left three days ago. I write words for a place not made of words, but sights and smells of cars and cattle and faces and feces and the sounds of thirty million beating hearts.

There is a man, and he is cooking onions on the train platform. I take a step onto the traincar, turn around for one last lingering glance at a city I never hope to see again yet never hope to forget, and our eyes meet. "Welcome to India," he says.

A host of passengers hurry by between us. When the crowd clears, he's gone.

So am I.

Departure & arrival (Day 0)

1.31.2015


There's that agonizing gap between dreaming up an adventure and actually being in it, a waiting period that arises just a few days before departure and consumes the mind for the duration. The excitement wanes and the anxiety grows and it's too late to turn back, and you're left with nothing but a scooter or a train ticket or a tiny backpack, and the crushing inevitability of the discomfort you're in for.

I could have been comfortable. I could have stayed in my cozy little house in Washington, or I could have spent the month basking in the sun and tranquility of my cozy little island in the Keys, or hell, I could have gone back to Ireland and watched the snow turn those great green hills into open expanses of pure, peaceful white.

Instead, I was sending myself to India.

The day-long plane ride from the States gave me a lot to think about: how I didn't really want the heat of Mumbai, or the crowds of Mumbai, or the endless honk-honk-honk of Mumbai. I did some reading on the plane, and I learned that more people live on the island of Bombay than on the entire continent of Australia, and that Mumbai is fifteen times more densely populated than Berlin, Europe's most densely populated city, and that these twenty-to-thirty million people aren't even evenly distributed, that two-thirds of Mumbai's citizens live on just five percent of its land.

I'm an introvert, so crowds drain me. I'm a cyclist, so cars anger me. Trapped in a tight seat and sealed in a steel winged tube and hurtling toward India at five hundred miles per hour, I was beginning to regret my decision. I regretted it Thursday night as the plane took off, and Friday morning as the Boeing chased the sun across the globe to Amsterdam, and all day long as our packed plane drew ever closer to busy Bombay. And then we landed, and the dread evaporated instantly, and the resting adventurer within me awoke. I was in India!

***

And fifty-two minutes later, I was on the back of a shiny yellow Honda motorcycle racing through the back alleys of Mumbai's outer slums. I gripped tightly onto the shoulders of the man in front of me, a savior of sorts, Bombay's balmy breeze feeling just wonderful on my bare head. As we bounced over potholes and careened around traffic and turned tightly into a narrow avenue, I really wished I had a helmet, but I suppose I hadn't expected to be needing one. Neither of us had.

Every time I travel, I maybe hope or maybe fear or perhaps just think that I've grown up, that I've become a responsible adult who makes responsible decisions and has reasonable, relaxing vacations. I imagine that I've outgrown my inner adventurer and the anecdotes I recount will be nothing more than courteous commentary on this monument or that museum. Every time I travel, I think that, and then something else happens.

Here's the thing: I had just arrived in a new city, a new country, a new part of the world, and that adventurer inside me had been hibernating since Europe. He needed to stretch his legs, and what better way to stretch one's legs than to walk? It had been nearly five months since I last enjoyed a warm night, the kind in which you can stroll with sleeves rolled up and top button undone and arms just pendulating with the stride, not jammed into gloves or pockets to protect freezing fingers. It was new city, and it was warm, and the hostel I had booked was just two miles away, and the fact that it was midnight or that I was on the outskirts of an unknown airport seemed unimportant, and so I pointed my sneakers north and off I went.

***

The autorickshaw drivers didn't walk me to walk. From the airport doors to the end of its access road they followed me, some on foot and others pulling alongside, all big smiles and hearty hellos. They asked where I was going and if I wanted a ride and I waved and shook my head and said no thank you, that I was just a little further, and they said to hop in and they would take me for free, "no charge, no charge!"

It wasn't about the charge, of course: the rickshaw ride would have cost pennies. It was about the speed. Life, Rebecca Solnit once said, is best experienced at three miles per hour, the speed of walking, and if that's true, then the lives of others should be experienced just as deliberately.

And it really is something, those lives. Mumbai is infamous for its slums, densely packed urban villages scattered all about the city. I knew of them, and I'd read of them, and even seen photos and footage of them, but it didn't take long on my walk from the airport to see them for myself, growing up like flowers from the cracks in the concrete. In just a few short miles I passed dozens of colonies, as they were called: some big and some small, some stacked and some single-story, some dwellings looking sturdy and stationed and some like the next rainstorm would do them in.

It was late, and so the doors were all closed and their residents asleep inside, the flaps of the tarps in the tent cities and all drawn tightly to keep out the mosquitoes. The dogs were still up, solemn strays roaming forlorn in the rubbish. They looked gentle. I gave them the sidewalk and trudged along the side of the road, occasionally pulling out my phone to see how much closer my blue dot had gotten to the red dot of the hostel. I passed a few people now and then, offered a smile, nodded to the group of men or gang of kids hanging out under the smoggy sky. I neared my turnoff, but couldn't seem to actually find it; I turned around and retraced my steps.

A few kids eyed me on my return with curious glances. I said hello, and to explain myself and why I was walking through their neighborhood so late, I asked if they knew where I could find the Anjali Homestay. The shrugged, the words not ringing any bells. I thanked them and moved on. A little further down the road, I repeated the name and the address to a man sitting on a stool, and he tossed it back and forth in his head for a moment, then pointed back the way I'd come. So again I turned around, and again I passed the kids, and again I made my way up the street.

About a minute later, one of the kids shouted toward me. I turned and waited for him to near. "Hostel, it's this way," he said, pointing the way I was headed. "Okay, thanks," I replied, "is it much further?"

"No."

"Okay, so maybe like a few minutes?"

"Yes," he said blankly, a slight grin reaching his lips.

Not really confident in his directions, but not in a position to question them either, I turned and continued up the road. He followed; so did his friends.

I glanced back once or twice, not trying to seem alarmed, but I was growing a little alarmed. I trust in the goodness of humanity, and I wanted to trust the kids, but it wasn't adding up: how they suddenly figured out where the homestay was, why he would catch up to me to tell me I was going the right way, why he and his six peers were trailing me through the dark.

They kept their distance, but matched their pace with mine. I couldn't turn around and come back the way I'd come without passing right by them, nor did it seem a wise idea to make a turn into an even darker, less-traveled alley. Though the streets were empty, a slow stream of rickshaws was heading toward me, and so I kept myself in the light of the headlamps and marched toward them, determined to appear casual to the boys behind.

The rickshaws neared, and I sidestepped, and they flew by with their little horns aflurry. The street ahead was now pitch black, and the kids behind seemed to be closing in. I felt a rare moment of trepidation.

And then, like a knight in shining Honda, the dull din of an old two-stroke engine. A motorcycle zipped around the pack, slowed, pulled to a stop ten feet ahead. Its rider removed his helmet and glanced back. "Excuse me!" I rushed over, seizing the opportunity he had offered. "I'm looking for the Anjali Homestay. Do you know where it is?" I thrust my phone and the poor set of directions on its screen in his direction. He looked at it, puzzled, but spied a phone number at the bottom of the confirmation email. "I can call them if you'd like."

"Ah, yes, please," I said, "that would be great."

The kids behind had edged up to us by this point; they stood awkwardly around the motorcycle as the driver punched the phone number into his device. He looked at the kids sternly and they moved on, grunting. The phone rang and someone answered and the two Indians spent a few minutes chatting back and forth in hurried Hindi. "Okay," he said when the call had ended, "it's just about a kilometer away."

"Just up here?" I pointed the way we were facing.

"Yes. Come, I will give you a ride."

I felt grateful, but didn't want to inconvenience him after all the help he'd been, so I said I didn't mind walking. Yet he insisted, and he showed me where to put my feet and how to sit and then, with a turn of the key, the Honda sprung to life.

***

As someone who drives a bike, I'm always amazed by how easily people will get on the back of one. "Oh, let me give you a ride home," I'll say to a good friend or near stranger, and, either way, they'll just climb right on like it's not an object capable of rocketing forth at lethal speeds that they don't have any control over. Sure, I have experience and a clean driving record, but they usually don't know that.

I always found it strange, maybe even careless, but now I suppose I was one of those passengers, clutching to a pair of strange shoulders and entrusting the safety of my skull to someone I had met four minutes earlier. Ricky was his name, I learned as we drove—Ricky, though his Indian name was Prabhat. He had spent his whole life in Bombay, from back when it was still called Bombay, and he liked it alright, and as we turned into a narrow alley and emerged onto a great big highway, Ricky asked me if I was Muslim.

Shit. I had worried about this, cursed this moderate ethnic ambiguity of mine. It always flared up when I traveled: Puerto Ricans thinking me Puerto Rican, Spaniards peppering me with Spanish, Italians rightly guessing and roundly criticizing me for not speaking my mother tongue. Usually it was no big deal, but on occasion—being mistaken for Croatian in Bosnia, for instance—it was something I'd rather avoid. And now I had come to India, and I had come with a shaved head and a black beard, and though I didn't look ethnically Muslim, I sure didn't look ethnically Hindu, either. Mistaking me as a convert to the former wasn't too wild a guess.

Hours earlier I'd been reading about the Bombay riots of the early nineties, when Hindus would douse their Muslim neighbors in petroleum and set them on fire. Whether one was Hindu or Muslim was a serious question with serious consequences in these parts, and though I was presently trusting Ricky with my life, I didn't really want to give him a reason to question his generosity. "Uh, neither," I said. "In the States, many people are nonreligious." I didn't use the word atheist, because everybody hates atheists, but nonreligious felt both light and correct, and he accepted it with a shrug. Onto another street we turned, and there was my hostel.

I'd only been in India an hour, and already I had found adventure—and good people, too. I couldn't wait to see what the next thirty-five days would bring.

Reflections from a tiny house move

1.28.2015

Three years ago, I built a small house. Three days ago, that small house moved.

Last Sunday, the Matchbox set sail on its debut voyage. It didn't move far—just a few miles up the street, into a cozy, quiet yard in Brookland. And it won't be there long—just a few months, until we find a new permanent site for Boneyard Studios, our little tiny house community-in-exile. But as I prepared for the move, I found myself burdened by all sorts of doubts and fears, questioning whether this small mobile house was even really mobile. The roads, they had bumps(!) and potholes(!) and little hills and big hills and tight turns and crazy drivers and low-hanging power cables; and then there was the house, stuffed with jars and frames and gear and appliances—it all just seemed like so much work, so much that could bump or bend or break.

Stress kept me from packing, and not packing left me stressed, and after a few weeks of this silly cycle and the inevitability of a Sunday morning move looming, I finally got to it Saturday evening. And to my surprise, it was so easy, perhaps just an hour of putting jars and candles in a big garbage bag on the floor. I jacked my floating table up with a few books resting on adjustable stools, and I taped up the cabinets and took a look around and, well, that was it. There was a little more work on the outside: detaching the rainwater tank, moving rocking chairs and planters inside, clipping together the rain chains and, of course, lifting the whole thing with four bottle jacks. But two hours of packing isn't bad for a move, and early the next morning, my friend Robin of Build Tiny arrived in her shiny red Ford to haul the house to a happier home.

A few cranks of the hitch handle and we were on our way, crawling cautiously through the alleyways of Stronghold. A journalist from the BBC and a crew from Offload Labs came out to document the move, so we had something of a parade marching down the block, directing Robin and moving windswept rubbish bins out of the way. And then we hit Michigan Avenue, and the crews hopped in the car and I hopped on my bicycle and we all turned east for a straight shot to Brookland.

Lifting power cables out of the way (Photo courtesy Offload Labs, offloadlabs.com)


It's funny, watching people react to a tiny house on the road. Some stop and stare and point and photograph; others look over with an uninterested glance and go back to what they were doing. Cars pull in dangerously close to take a peek, or honk endlessly in the hopes their noise will speed the house along (which it won't). Not that it was a slow tow, I should say. Robin's a pretty expert tiny house mover—she hauled Lee's just a few months earlier—and within twenty minutes, we were pulling into the Brookland alley. All told, the move could have taken a half-hour.

The Matchbox driving by the National Basilica
It didn't. Though the first three miles were easy hauling, the last twenty-five feet were a tad trickier. The fence I had hoped the house could squeeze through was a tad too tight, and so we had to take the house around the long way, removing another fence, manually trimming a number of branches in the way, and putting those bottle jacks to use in raising a bench that was more than a little difficult to move out of the Matchbox's path. It was muddy, too, and so the heavy house sunk a good foot into the mud, limiting just how much we could fine-tune the Matchbox's position in the yard.

Robin and her amazing crew, accompanied by Colm from the BBC
Robin and her crew, nonetheless, were nothing short of fantastic, and after another two or three hours prepping the site, my house was finally settled in its new temporary home. Unpacking took, perhaps, another hour, and the interior turned out remarkably undisturbed: picture frames still hanging, a deck of playing cards on the shelf still right where I'd left it, a tiny bottle of eye drops on the counter still, unbelievably, standing proud. Despite a bumpy ride and a near-thirty-degree tilt getting the home around a tight alley corner, not a bit of plaster was cracked, nor a single throw pillow disturbed. Move: complete.

***

Almost. There's still a bit of an electricity glitch to figure out, and that rainwater tank to reinstall, and then the requisite leveling and stabilizing underneath the house. The porch will need a set of stairs for the flat yard, and the deep grooves left by the tires will have to be filled in—stuff like that.

But most of the adjustments will be internal. I had a dizzying moment after unpacking when I stood up and felt positively shaken by the windows just not looking right—that is, the house looked the same as it always had, but the scene outside the windows was different: the surroundings of a different place, a different vista. Three days later, I'm just starting to get used to it.

There's the obvious compass-resetting, too, where I head home from a friend's and point my bicycle to North Capitol, forgetting that, well, I don't live there anymore. And, most happily, there are the emotional adjustments, the good fortune and warm realization that my new landlords are kind, gentle, generous people. There's a slow dissipation of the deeply pervasive fear I've harbored these past six months that I'd come home and find my house ticketed, or chained up, or towed away by Brian, my next-door-neighbor-turned-tiny-house-tyrant. There's the feeling that I've escaped something dangerous, and abusive, and harmful to mind, body, spirit, and community.

There's that, and then there's hope, and possibility: my home can move, and tiny house communities can work, and though Boneyard Studios may be physically separated at the moment, there are a whole lot of people that I feel so fortunate to create something wonderful with in 2015, and I can't wait to get that started very, very soon.

But first: I need to go to India.

Following the Matchbox on its way to Brookland (Photo courtesy Offload Labs, offloadlabs.com)

Game of thrones:A head-to-head comparison of tiny house toilets

1.24.2015


Cross-posted from boneyardstudios.org, and published here with the acknowledgement that this blog once used to be about tiny houses.

Let’s talk about toilets.

It’s a taboo subject, I know. We’re not supposed to talk about it at dinner, or on first dates, or even with close friends or lifelong partners or twin siblings. But everyone does it, as they say, and every house needs one, or just about, so let’s just set the queasiness aside for a moment and jump right into it (the topic, not the toilet)—a personal journey through, and head-to-head comparison of, types of toilets for tiny houses.

Incinerator

One thing you can do with waste is burn it. Incinerating toilets offer a neat, nearly-instant solution: do your business, push a button, and boil your bowel movements away, leaving nothing more than a sterile pile of ash in its chambers. And having used two of these Back to the Future-looking steel appliances in the early days of Boneyard Studios, I can confirm that, yeah, they get the job done. Basically, you open the lid, drop a paper liner atop a pair of closed metal jaws, and fill that liner with liquid or solid waste. When you’re done, you push a foot pedal, and those jaws open wide, and the paper package plummets to the bottom of the incinerator, which heats to 1,200 degrees for ninety minutes and incinerates whatever it can.

Cool, but shortcomings abound. For one, those jaws can sometimes get stuck, and loosening the hinges requires carefully reaching your hand into a container of, well, now-burning crap. Also, heating a small pan to 1,200 degrees for an hour and a half takes a lot of electricity—about 1.5kW per “flush,” to be exact. And that pan is small, meaning it must be heated after every use, liquid or solid, and then left alone for the better part of an hour. Incinerators work well for an individual, but during a Boneyard Studios party, it wasn’t uncommon for that pan to be filled more quickly than it could empty, leaving the floor of the bathroom covered with spilled, steaming piss. Gross.

They’re noisy, too: a grinding hum that fills small spaces quickly. And the exhaust, of course, must be vented out. I’ll admit, the smell of burning human waste isn’t as bad as you might think, but there definitely is a smell, and it’s one that’ll fill your house and then waft into the open windows of neighbors without their welcome—not the best for respecting boundaries in an urban neighborhood.

Finally, Incinolets create an intensely hot fire in your home everyday. They seem safe, and are pretty well put together in sealed-up steel, but there is an unavoidable fire risk, and in small spaces, fire is a big no-no.

So when you have to go-go, incinerators are probably not the best bet. Despite all their shortcomings, incinerators cost about $2,000 new (a shortcoming in itself), and thus aren’t really recommended for the small house dweller on a budget (or anyone, for that matter).

  • Effectiveness (how well it gets rid of waste): 5/5
  • Odorlessness (how good it smells): 3/5
  • Quietness (how quiet it is): 2/5
  • Cleanliness (how much it stays, or feels, clean): 4/5
  • Affordability (how reasonably priced it is): 1/5
  • Ease (how easy it is to use, maintain, and provide to guests): 4/5
  • Total: 19/30

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Honeybucket

After a few unpleasant months trying out the Incinolets of Brian and Lee (Lee has since upgraded to a Separett, discussed later), I punted my decision-making down the road by picking up a five-gallon bucket from the hardware store, building what many affectionately refer to as the “honeybucket.” It works like this: there’s a bucket. You open the lid and do your thing. When you’re done doing your thing, you cover everything with sawdust and close the lid.

My sister and brother, who live out on an intentional community in Missouri, use these everywhere. They call them Fillmores, ’cause President Fillmore was the last president to have a non-plumbed toilet in the White House, and I was always impressed by how odorless they were in their outhouses. The innards of honeybuckets are typically composted as well—a great benefit over using electricity to burn away rich future soil. They’re cheap to build (about $6 for a bucket, and $7 for a top-of-the-line airtight lid), obviously totally noiseless, and they don’t take up much space. The dimensions and contours of a five-gallon bucket (with aforementioned airtight lid) provide a pretty decent seat. All in all, not a bad functioning toilet for $13.

But not great, either. For one, you need to find something to do with the bucket when it’s full. That’s easy if you live on a farm, but a little more tricky if you’re tethered to a city. They require sawdust (or a substitute) to absorb moisture and neutralize odors. When building a house, sawdust is plentiful; afterwards, rummaging through Home Depot’s dustpails becomes a necessity. And undoubtedly, that sawdust will get everywhere, leaving the bathroom with an inescapably “unclean” feeling. The toilet itself never really feels clean: it is, after all, a bucket full of soggy waste, and we humans have evolved to feel a natural squeamishness around such piles. In the warmer months, a few gnats might hang around the lid, or start a whole colony in your bathroom if the lid isn’t airtight. I didn’t find it too difficult to use the honeybucket on my own, but I always felt a little self-conscious having friends over: a tutorial is needed, and they’re looking at your last bowel movement, and you’re later looking at theirs, and it’s just, well, not ideal. Ultimately, in the words of one Matchbox YouTube commenter: “I love this innovative space but can’t help but think of when he brings home a partner and tells them they have to shit in a bucket.”

  • Effectiveness (how well it gets rid of waste): 3/5
  • Odorlessness (how good it smells): 3/5
  • Quietness (how quiet it is): 5/5
  • Cleanliness (how much it stays, or feels, clean): 1/5
  • Affordability (how reasonably priced it is): 5/5
  • Ease (how easy it is to use, maintain, and provide to guests): 3/5
  • Total: 20/30

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Honeybucket 2.0

After months of using a standard honeybucket, I opted for a few upgrades. Like many do, I had a little chest built around the bucket, and screwed a seat to that chest, so it looked a bit more like a latrine than a bright orange pail. I started lining the bucket with a black garbage bag, making it much easier to empty the bucket when it was full. And most importantly, I turned a wide-mouthed funnel into a urine diverter, separating liquids and solids.


If there were a documentary of Boneyard Studios, this would undoubtedly be the scene of comic relief after a tense build setback or dramatic plot twist: me and Tony, my builder, crammed in the darkness of the Matchbox bathroom, holding a funnel centered over a bucket, and then slowly moving it closer to the front, and then back again, eyeing each other, asking “does that look right?”, trying to figure out, crudely, approximately where women pee from when seated on a toilet. Thankfully, we placed the funnel correctly, and the next day the Matchbox was sporting a totally functional and totally unisex honeybucket 2.0. By separating solids and diverting liquids into the ground, smells were improved, the toilet had to be emptied far less frequently (most waste, of course, is liquid), and sawdust wasn’t needed after every pee. Plus, it just looked better.

Nonetheless, swapping out an airtight seal for a standard lid welcomed gnats in the summer months, and the urine diverter had to be plumbed through the floor, adding time and cost to an otherwise $13 toilet. The chest took work and wood, and it almost became more difficult to instruct people on how to use the thing. It went from “just dump sawdust on top of everything” to “if you’re a guy, aim into the funnel; if you’re a girl, act natural; but either way, make sure no sawdust gets in the funnel,” and undoubtedly, sawdust got in the funnel. Sawdust got in the funnel, and clogged the pipes, and after spending three hours after a Boneyard Studios party snaking through clogs of urine-drenched sawdust, I decided the upgraded honeybucket wasn’t much of an upgrade at all.

Effectiveness (how well it gets rid of waste): 4/5
Odorlessness (how good it smells): 3/5
Quietness (how quiet it is): 5/5
Cleanliness (how much it stays, or feels, clean): 1/5
Affordability (how reasonably priced it is): 4/5
Ease (how easy it is to use, maintain, and provide to guests): 2/5
Total: 19/30

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Composter

With the honeybucket part of my life over, I considered what was next. A composting toilet seemed a worthy solution—it’s still just a plastic container, more or less, but it looks like a toilet, and diverts urine in a much more streamlined way, and with a little fan and a little turning rod, it actually begins composting waste while it’s in use.

The key word, here, is begin. Their price (around $1,000) would be justifiable if they really got the job done, but they don’t: they just start it. What that means is that they just don’t have enough room to really keep waste for a full composting cycle (about two years left alone, or at least three months if assisted), so even with the substantial room they do take up (typically the entire footprint of a tiny bathroom), they must be emptied every month or so. Sometimes there’s a shovel involved, and still that problem of disposal. And unfortunately, one-month-composted crap is just about as gross as zero-month-composted crap; at the end of the day, you’re shoveling shit.

I should note, though, that I never actually owned a composting toilet—just used a few and read more reviews than I’d ever imagined I would—so consider these (already subjective) ratings with a grain of sawdust:


  • Effectiveness (how well it gets rid of waste): 2/5
  • Odorlessness (how good it smells): 4/5
  • Quietness (how quiet it is): 4/5
  • Cleanliness (how much it stays, or feels, clean): 4/5
  • Affordability (how reasonably priced it is): 2/5
  • Ease (how easy it is to use, maintain, and provide to guests): 1/5
  • Total: 19/30
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Composting toilet, meet honeybucket

I was in the throes of despair about what to do with my waste when Lee arrived on the lot one day with a big white box. It contained a Separett 9200 (I wasn’t asked or paid to plug the Separett; I just think it’s the most magical thing in the whole world), a toilet that’s something of a hybrid between a composter and a honeybucket. On the outside, it looks like a composting toilet: uninspired white plastic, a proper urine diverter toward the front and a hole for solids toward the back. There was a fan, and it required venting outside, and a tiny bit of electricity to make the fan go. Yet on the inside, it was nothing more than a honeybucket: a wide, shallow tub lined with a composting bag. But where the Separett really shone was in the barrier between the two, a simple blue spring-loaded plastic plate that sealed off the bucket when not in use and opened when weight (like, a butt) was put on the seat. That simple little barrier ensured the contents of the bucket were hidden from sight or smell, opening just for the moments of use and snapping shut before the Separett’s user even returned to her feet. Odors and pests are nonexistent thanks to the fan, sawdust isn’t even needed, and wrapping up one’s business almost feels too easy, as though one’s forgetting to flush, or put back a lid, or heap some neutralizer over their waste.


Is it perfect? Of course not. It requires a tiny bit of electricity, and it makes a tiny noise (though not enough to be heard outside the bathroom through a 3/8″ plywood door), and it takes up more room than a honeybucket, and that fan does have to run 24/7 or the odors emerge. Its use is fairly self-explanatory, but those who stand up before discarding their toilet paper will get a bit confused with what to do with it. And meanwhile, those who pee standing up will have to aim well or the surrounding area will get a little splatter. The plastic, though well-made, does feel a bit cheap, and the toilet, so well-made, definitely isn’t. At about $1,400, the Separett is a pricey investment, but after three-plus months of use, I’m certain it’ll be the last toilet the Matchbox ever needs.

  • Effectiveness (how well it gets rid of waste): 4/5
  • Odorlessness (how good it smells): 5/5
  • Quietness (how quiet it is): 4/5
  • Cleanliness (how much it stays, or feels, clean): 4/5
  • Affordability (how reasonably priced it is): 3/5
  • Ease (how easy it is to use, maintain, and provide to guests): 4/5
  • Total: 24/30

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Rethinking the default: the flush toilet

I suppose this game of thrones wouldn’t really be complete without the reigning king of the toilet world: the iconic porcelain commode first popularized by Thomas Crapper. An unavoidable staple of industrialized nations (and now, sadly, industrializing ones as well), the standard flush toilet would undoubtedly score the highest in effectiveness, odorlessness, and ease, and do pretty well in the realms of quietness and affordability and cleanliness as well. Which leaves one to ask: why not just do what we’ve been doing, and outfit a small house with a regular flusher?

The simple answer is that flush toilets create blackwater (while urine can be safely diverted into the ground and diluted with nine parts greywater, solid waste cannot), and blackwater must be plumbed, and installing septic systems on unplumbed property is expensive, and when small houses are built on wheels, limiting where those wheels can travel to just specific places with existing pipes is totally unfortunate.


The not-so-simple answer, meanwhile, is that flush toilets are destroying our waters. Over a quarter of all water consumed in the home is used to flush waste down pipes. Older toilets typically average about 3.5 gallons of freshwater per flush; some use 5 or as many as 7 gallons. So when a guy needs to take a leak—the average leak being about 0.15 gallons—at a regular toilet, he’s flushing 23 parts freshwater and one part urine down the drain (why urine needs any help traveling down a drain is another question altogether). Low-flush toilets are better (they use about 1.6 gallons per flush), but still soil about 2,900 gallons of freshwater per person per year. And we’re just talking freshwater.

Remember, all that water has to go somewhere. We can treat it, and we sometimes do, and it’ takes massive resources to do so, and sometimes the chemicals we use to treat wastewater are harmless and sometimes we find out they’re actually pretty harmful after it’s way too late. But either way, we’re just flushing too much. When it rains in DC, and the stormdrains fill with rainwater, and a citydweller flushes the toilet, the overtaxed wastewater treatment plant simply can’t manage the volume, and it gets diverted to Rock Creek. And so, the urine and the bacteria-ridden excrement of an entire city flows into our once-pristine waterways, and the city tells us it is no longer safe to swim in the Creek, or even the greater Potomac River.

Shit flows downstream, as they say, and while we may be fine with ours piling up in our waterways, it isn’t really fair for us to make that decision for others down the river. I once had the privilege of speaking to a young man of Taos, a stunning pueblo village that had existed in what eventually came to be called New Mexico for over 1,300 years. It was the oldest continually-inhabited town in North America, and for over a millennium, its First Nations inhabitants had used the tiny creek running through it for everything: water to drink, to cook, to bathe and swim and play. And ten years ago, they stopped. Americans upstream had started dumping pollutants into it: the chemicals of waste treatment plants, the raw sewage of towns who couldn’t afford to treat their waste. Everything we flush goes somewhere, and affects something, and so in the quest for a safe, sustainable toilet, it’s probably best we don’t flush at all. Water’s a terrible thing to waste—especially when we’re wasting it for our waste.

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