Nothing about India was planned: not the trip, not the destinations, not the welcome company or the unwelcome illness or the complicated eye surgery or the half-hearted departure. It is early March, and I am supposed to be paddling back to civilization after thirty days without seeing another human. Instead I am flying high over Europe with dead E. Coli in my stomach and fledgling corneas in my eyes and a million new faces recently installed in the annals of my memory. Nothing about India was planned, yet nothing was regretted: not the trip nor the destinations, not the companionship nor the complications. It was a maximum experience of maximum sights and sounds and smells, a gorgeous overdose of civilization I won't ever forget.
I return to DC and am unsettled by the quiet. The winter chill feels wonderful on my sun-kissed skin; the silence of the early evening is stiller than anything I've heard in a month. The sky is blue—not white, but blue—and the sun actually hurts when you look directly at it, and the roads are straight and demarcated and the sidewalks wide and mostly even, and everything feels new and strange and foreign. I see white people and hear American-English and feel overwhelmed by my sheer ability to communicate. I walk through the twilit streets and realize that I know these roads, and for the first time I come to see them as truly beautiful. The air is clean and even the cars seem quiet—the occasional honk here or there, sure, but these blares only punctuate the status quo; they don't create it.
There are no cows and no stray dogs and no unaccompanied children who run up to my side. There are fewer smiles and fewer colors and I come to find sari-red and lungi-white replaced with nothing but suit-grey. The suit replaces the soot and the grim replaces the grime; there are blankets of white snow as expressionless as the white faces. It's good and bad, strange and nice, foreign and familiar, this business of being back. I catch up with friends and they ask about the trip and I struggle with what to say. There's no "best" place or "best" experience or "best" anything; there's just India, and every place and experience within it is inseparable from the next, and yes I loved it and yes I had a good time and yes it was everything I hoped it would be.
And yes, it's nice to be home.
It's Tuesday, and I think I can get LASIK done Wednesday and fly out of Delhi Friday, a week earlier than planned. I check the cost of switching my flight: same route, same time, same day, just one week earlier. The change fee is $300 and the fare adjustment is $600, and this is just for switching one leg of my flight. It'll cost $200 more than the entire round-trip flight I'd already booked put together. I write Royal Dutch Airlines a pleading email. Please, I want to go home. I've been sick. I add some embellishment. I'm stabilized, but need to have follow-up work done in the States. The robot-human from Royal Dutch Airlines responds. "We're sorry for the inconvenience. Unfortunately you will have to pay the fare adjustment. Thank you for flying Royal Dutch. I hope that helps."
It doesn't. Not at all. I table that task for once I get settled in Delhi.
The next morning, I head to the eye doctor. I'd taken my contacts out the night before, but my left eye is still all blurry from irritation. This is why I need the LASIK, because my left eye has decided it doesn't want to wear lenses anymore and stages a tiny mutiny whenever I put one in. I worry that my eye will be too damaged for the surgery. It is. The doctor sits me down and shines a light in my eye and moves it around a few times and exhales deeply. "Your eye is no good," she says.
Poor bedside manner, but I like her nonetheless. She's seems warm and intelligent and genuinely concerned. She's like a grandmother—and she scolds like one too.
"This eye is very bad. What did you do to this eye? Why did you let it get like this?"
I apologize, profusely. I feel ashamed. But I'm here, I explain, I'm trying to change my contact-wearing ways. "Can we still do the procedure?"
"No?" My heart sinks.
She tells me she's going to scrape my cornea, and then she does. She drops a liquid in my left eye and the eye goes numb. An assistant clamps my lids from closing while the doctor takes a q-tip and gently wipes the detritus from my eyeball. The procedure takes under a minute. She rolls away from the eye station and her assistant lifts a piece of gauze and some tape. "Now the eyepatch."
I leave the eye center a few minutes later with a huge bandage over the left side of my face and zero depth perception. "You're to wear this for a day," Doctor Neera had said. "And come in tomorrow for me to remove it."
It lasts about an hour. The numbness wears off and the healing starts, and the healing hurts. I can't touch my eye or rub it or all the other things I'm not supposed to do to it with the patch on my face, which is exactly the point of the patch, and so I remove it and continue to fuck with my eye, clutching it through waves of sharp pain crashing against my cornea.
Wednesday is a day of fixing things. I get my cornea fixed (or begin to), then head to the bazaars to get my phone fixed. It's lovely to be in a country where it still costs less to repair something than to just throw it away and buy a replacement. For under $40, my phone is brought back to life (though it's a sorry half-life with only one motherboard—which the repairman explained to me is like having one kidney—and no vibration or LED notifications and a garbled speaker), and it feels great to have some sense of my geospatial place in the world. I use said geospatial knowledge to navigate to the same park Lisa and I had been to two weeks before, and those same q-tipwallahs are hawking their same ear cleanings. It's nice to be back.
When it gets dark, I find a good hotel in a bustling neighborhood. It's six-hundred rupees, which is a little pricey for a single person, but it has a huge bed and a comfortable headboard and tile floors and a hot shower and a big fan and it's clean and best of all, there's blue accent lighting in the ceiling that turns the windowless room into something of a blacklight party. I move in for the remaining week, and run the blacklight until the bulb burns out.
I head back to the eye doctor the next morning to have the eyepatch "removed." It won't really stick back to my face, so I lie that it fell off while I was sleeping. Neera nods skeptically. She checks the eye. "Much better," she says approvingly. I beam proudly. It's healing, but not yet healed, so she gives me eye drops and ointment and tells me to use them every hour until Monday—no contacts. I thank her and leave, days of unassisted myopia ahead of me.
The world is blurry at a distance, so I head to a nearby park. I walk around looking for a nice spot and I sit on a bench. The women around me begin waving in a panic. I don't really understand what they're saying, but I come to realize that I'm on the women's side of the park, that if I want to sit it must be on the men's side, which inconveniently offers no benches in the shade. I sit on the grass.
I read, I treat my eyes, I head back to the Central Park and read some more. I spend the next day writing and the day after that, hardly even leaving my room, just catching up on weeks and weeks of travel in rushed, rambling prose. My fears of staying in India subside, and I come to like the opportunity to relax in one place. I had intended to fly back to Nepal, to spend the week sitting beside Pokhara's big blue lake and staring up at the Himalaya from where the smog can't reach it, but things happen, I guess. There'll always be time for another trip to Nepal in the future; for now, I'm just fine seeing Delhi through battered eyes.
Of course, those battered eyes can't take me very far. I spend days on the same strip where my hotel sits. On my third day of healing, I step outside to see the world being rained down upon, and it feels so good I almost cry. I've gone a month without feeling the rain on my skin, not a drop of it all February, and now it's March and there's great heavy raindrops landing all around and India is a different place, a quiet place, everyone huddled inside keeping dry. I walk to the Kathmandu Cafe and take a seat by the window and spend the entire day drip-drying next to a big pot of coffee and a little keyboard.
But first I return to Neera's to get those bandages removed. The doctor takes a look and she nods approvingly. She passes me off to an assistant who is to remove the protective contacts, and he sterilizes his hands with a thick alcohol solution. He rinses them briefly, shakes little droplets onto the floor, and nears my chair reeking of antiseptic. "Hold still," he says.
I can smell the alcohol on his hands. I know he's trying to keep things sterile, but as his fingernails dig into my lower eyelid and his fingers pinch roughly at my eyeball and the solution leaves his skin and drips tenderly onto the surface of my fresh, healing cornea, I wince in pain and pull away and mutter angrily. I grab my eye, now naked to the world, and shut it tightly as tears well up inside its lids, as bits of my cornea dissolve for a third time this week. I glare up at him, and he shrugs sheepishly.
His hands dry a little and the right eye goes more smoothly. Before I leave the staff asks if they can record a short testimonial, a video review of the Neera Eye Centre. I'm not exactly feeling up to an interview, but I recognize how important a gora's approval can be to an Indian hospital. They sit me down and point a camera at my face and wink. I begin speaking—an honest, sincere thank you to Neera and her assistants—and all the while a steady torrent of tears streams down the left side of my face. "The procedure went just as expected," I say as my left eye cries for help. "Recovery is going along well," I add, lids fluttering spasmodically.
I had a full itinerary planned for my last day in India—forts and palaces and tombs and more—but I don't even make it halfway to my first stop before sitting down on the side of the road and and letting the runoff of my left eye make salty puddles on the hot concrete. I press the sunglasses deeper into my face and shut my eyes and breathe deeply. A tout comes over to sell me something—an SD card, water, bus tickets, whatever he has in his bag—and I shake my head hastily. He squats down next to me, boasts about the card's 32GB capacity. Tells me I simply need it. "No, no," I whisper, face all contorted in pain. But still he persists. I shoo him away and he wags the plastic packaging just as fervently as before and I stand up and bellow "Challo!" and storm away. I seek refuge on the other side of the Red Fort's ticket counter.
The Fort is calm and pretty and blurry, its British buildings and big smudges under a white sky. I find a shady patch under a tree and rest my head on my pack, eyes closed. I spend most of the day like this, just healing, and around late afternoon I finally gather the strength and sight to continue on. I grab a tuk-tuk to Southern Delhi, get to the entrance of a monument, and the aching eyes fog up once again, like hot breath on a cold mirror. And then the pain returns, like someone punching the mirror and stabbing my retinas with its jagged shards.
This is no way to see a city. I hail another cab. "Where?" the driver says. "Airport," I reply. It's not how I pictured it, not the way I would've liked to go, and probably a good ten hours early too, but it's time.
I go home.
(Back from India. More on that soon. But in the meantime, random musings, cross-posted at Boneyard Studios.)
|Big enough for love is big enough for me.|
Note: This one's a little gross. Don't read over breakfast, or at all if you have a weak stomach.
I'm asleep. Lisa returns from dinner. I can mutter out a "hey" but not much else. She showers, climbs into bed. I doze off again.
I wake maybe an hour later and I'm shaking. Trembling, really, teeth chattering and cold beads of sweat dripping down my forehead. My breathing gets heavy, hastened. Lisa turns over. "Are you okay?"
I ask her to hold me, to keep me warm. I'm not sure what's happening. I think heatstroke, perhaps: it had been a hot day, and I had felt a little fatigued under the hot sun. Just heatstroke, I hope. I try to sleep. I can't.
Time passes. Hours, minutes, days, I can't say. My head swims. It sinks a little and sputters and splashes and begins to drown; everything becomes foggy, convoluted. And then it comes.
I jolt out of bed and stumble in the dark to the bathroom. I stand over the sink and wait for it, feel it rising up from my stomach and climb up my esophagus and burn its way over my throat, then violently eject from my mouth, the bile of my innards. I wretch into the basin, a sinking feeling of helplessness strangling me. Please, no. Not here. Not in India. Everything becomes frosted glass. I hit the floor.
My eyes open and the world outside the lids is just as dark as the world inside. Lisa is nearby, stroking my arm gently. She asks if I'm okay. I say no. She lifts me and walks me back to bed. "Sleep," she says softly.
It happens three or four or five times that night, the untangling myself from the sheets and running to the bathroom, the dropping to my hands and knees and vomiting breakfast all over the floor. I eventually make it to the toilet; that same toilet that has taken my phone has now taken my health. I watch the bits of Manchurian I'd eaten on the rooftop float around in the muddy brown water. I wonder if it was that food on the rooftop that had done me in. I curse ever stopping at this hotel. I curse ever coming to Agra. I didn't even care about seeing the Taj Mahal, and yet here I am, at sunrise. We are supposed to be walking to the Taj right now, oohing and ahing at its glamour. I am not supposed to be turning myself inside-out on the wet floor of a dirty bathroom just a kilometer from its gates.
The cold sweats get colder and the hot sweats get hotter. "You're burning up," Lisa says. She gets a damp towel and presses it to my forehead, and I push it away. Leave me alone, I scream inside, but am too weak to utter the words. She's doing the right thing, she's trying to save me, but all I want is to be left alone in my little fetal ball of bile and sweat.
I'm never asleep and I'm never awake. The room has no exterior windows and so I have no sense of time. I don't know if I've been in bed for two hours or two days. I shoot upright at some point and see Lisa still there and panic that she's missed her flight. Lisa, we need to get to Delhi, I say, or think, or maybe just feel. I cannot be going to Delhi anytime soon.
Lisa shakes me awake. "Jay, it's noon. You need to drink something."
I don't believe her. You're lying, I think. It can't be noon. I push the water bottle from my lips. I don't want it. I'm being petulant, stubborn, uncooperative. Just leave me here.
I think about death. I think that it must be better than this, these three weeks I've spent lying tortured in bed. In my mind, it has been three weeks, maybe more. I won't believe that it's noon, yet I'll believe it's been three weeks.
Eventually I let Lisa convince me that it's 2PM. "Do you want to eat?"
I don't. I can't. Anything I eat will hit my stomach and bounce right back up, and I don't want to be leaning over that toilet ever again, smelling my intestines waft back up at me. The toilet, by now, has clogged; it spills vomit and urine and shit onto the bathroom floor. I can't move, but I do want to get out of that room, away from that smell.
I let Lisa guide me like a blind man up the stairs. I trip and stumble and ask her repeatedly where we're going, though it's just one flight up to the roof. We sit in the shade and a cool breeze kisses my skin and I'm suddenly aware that everyone on the rooftop, all four of them, are looking at me. Why are they looking at me? Do they know? Make them stop.
I just want to be normal again. I just want to drink a glass of water and eat a plain bowl of white rice and sit upright and focus my eyes on something, anything, maybe the clean white Taj in the distance, but I can't do any of that. I eat three grains of rice and push the plate away. I take a sip of water and let it dribble from my lips. I bury my face in my hands. I'd cry if there were any moisture left in my body.
Lisa can tell this isn't helping and guides me back downstairs. We descend the stairs and I descend into an even deeper level of delirium; I remember almost nothing about the next few hours. Falling into bed. Tossing, turning, moaning. Lisa pulling me up. Standing in the bathroom under the showerhead while Lisa sprays me with cold water. Anger. Wanting it to stop. Not understanding why this is happening: the spray, the sickness, any of it. People knocking on the door. Lisa leaving and coming back, leaving and coming back. Something about a doctor. Something about soon. Something about being too hot, far too hot.
Men arrive. I don't want to talk to them. Hiding myself under the covers. Go away. Just let me die in peace. Questions. Staring blankly at an old Indian face with concerned eyes. Asking me things I can't answer. Something about a hospital. Something about now.
I don't want to go to the hospital. It sounds like so much work. I'm so, so weak. Lisa makes me. The doctor makes me. Something about socks. I'm handed socks and I look at them as though I couldn't possibly know what to do with them. Lisa putting on my shoes, changing my shirt. The doctor worried, shaking his head. "He needs to go to hospital, he is very, very bad."
Walking outside. It's twilight. Not knowing what day it is, what year it is. I think of friends back home, see faces, can't remember their names, or if I know them personally, or if they're still alive. If they ever existed. I wonder how long I've been in Agra, if I'll ever leave again. There's a car. Lisa opens a door and waits. Lisa, I don't understand. Pulling me inside.
Racing the streets, feeling that I'm being kidnapped. Paranoia running rampant through my system, holding hands with whatever vile thing is tearing through it. Agra is so pretty. I wouldn't mind dying here.
Arrival, somewhere. A room of fluorescence and antiseptic and dread. More concerned mutterings. More arms leading me. A bed. Finally, a bed. Male nurse, female nurse. "Tattoo," one points. They smile. Fade to black.
I wake up in a dark room. It's late, I think. I don't know where I am or what I'm doing here. Tubes run from my left arm to a clear glass bottle on a stand. There's someone in the bed next to me. It's Lisa.
Quietly, I stand. I wheel the IV stand to the bathroom and close the door and sit on the toilet. Blood pours out of me; I know because I can smell the iron, a sickening, unnatural, metallic smell leaking from my body. I clean up and rise and feel the bile rising too. I lean against the wall. I start to fall.
I wake up in Lisa's arms. She talks gently, lifting me and leading me back to bed. She calls the doctor. He pumps me full of meds and administers a few orally and takes my temperature ("no good") and blood pressure ("no good"). Sleep, he says. I do my best.
The next morning, the fever breaks. I feel like I've been run over by a truck, like I've swallowed bleach, but at least I can recognize the pain as pain and take stock of my predicament. I pull back the covers. The bed is covered in dried blood. This is my predicament.
I spend the day in bed, only getting up to go to the bathroom and shit more blood. I'm told the doctor needs a stool sample and a urine sample, and I'm given two small cups. I imagine it'll be a mess to procure said samples; it isn't. I fill the former with blackened blood and the latter with golden blood. The iron odor makes me gag. The gag makes me vomit.
The sink offers electric water. Somewhere in the walls, an uninsulated electric wire must press up against a copper pipe, for the water from the faucet shocks to the touch, liquid electricity. I'm left cleaning myself, every ten minutes, with hand sanitizer. My hands begin to peel.
Lisa and I play gin. I make it through one round and feel as though I've run a marathon. My eyes fail to focus on the cards, I put them down.
Lisa's flight leaves from Delhi, and I'm determined to leave with her. I feel terrible for ruining the last few days of her trip, and thankful for her company, and worried about her, a single woman, traveling to Delhi alone. I must leave today, I tell the doctor. You're not leaving today, the doctor tells me. I'm too weak to fight.
Lisa stays until the last possible minute. I tell her to go see the Taj, and she shrugs it off. I thank her for everything, for quite possibly saving my life. Were I alone, I'm not sure I would have known to leave that hotel room, to seek help; in fact, I would have actively resisted it. I would have curled into a ball and slept for days and probably not had anything to drink (as it stood, I didn't eat anything that entire first day), and if the dehydration hadn't done me in, the fever may have. That's the way these dangerous infections often work: it isn't the bacterium itself, but the way your body deals with it. Alone, I wouldn't have dealt well.
I look in the mirror. I've lost weight. My waist is notably thinner than just two days earlier; Lisa had noticed this too. I wash up in the electric water and brush my teeth and soak my bloody clothes in hot, soapy water. The doctor comes in. "You really need to eat something," he says, looking at yet another untouched meal with concern.
He tells me that my culture tests have come back; I have a very severe strain of E. Coli. It's very advanced, he says. Very bad. Everywhere. He starts me on heavy antibiotics. A nurse replaces my eighth IV bottle of the stay. Earlier, Lisa had told me that the first three were emptied into my bloodstream within a half-hour, so dehydrated I was upon arrival.
"And I can leave tomorrow?" I ask.
"We'll see," he says. "For now, sleep."
I feel much better the next day. I'm both conscious enough and capable enough to demand and actually get to a computer, and I send a few messages off to let people know that I'm alive. I do some reading and stare at the wall and pick at my breakfast.
The doctor wants to keep me, but I'm restless. We agree on a late afternoon checkout, once he's started me on my orals. In the meantime, I'm given more fluids by a nurse. He calls an orderly in to collect the disgusting, bloody linens Lisa had pulled off my bed the day before.
The orderly picks up the sheet and the blanket and starts to walk out. The nurse stops him in Hindi and gestures toward the blanket. No, no, leave that. Blankets are, I suppose, more difficult to wash.
The orderly and the nurse debate whether the blanket is sufficiently dirty and in need of washing. It most certainly is. I watch the orderly grab the corners of the blanket and open it wide; the nurse inspects its fabric for stains or splotches.
Um, hey, guys, I'm right here and I can personally attest that I have shitbled E. Coli all over that blanket. Please, for the love of God, wash it. There could be no greater reason to wash anything in the history of laundry.
They basically ignore me, only bundling up the blanket and removing it from the room after my third or fourth interjection of no, seriously, it needs to be washed. Most of me thinks they've removed it just to humor me, that it's found its way, unwashed, into the bed of another poor patient a few rooms down who came in with a hangnail and will be leaving with E. Coli. I suddenly feel much less secure about my treatment.
It gets worse. Around two, a pair of nurses come in to get me ready for discharge. My fluids bottle is almost empty, so they plug the IV and disconnect the tube and tell me my IV can come out. One nurse removes the bandages while the other sits on the next bed over and asks if I've been satisfied with their service.
"Oh, definitely," I say, "thanks so much."
"'Cause you know," he says, tone changing, "if you happy with our service, you can give money."
I'm a little baffled. I've grown used to baksheesh in India, tips for everything, but nurses in a pricy hospital? I assume the tens of thousands of rupees I'm paying would cover a fair salary. I'm against the notion on principle alone, and furthermore haven't a clue what an appropriate tip would be. Would a few hundred rupees be seen as offensive? I stall, saying that I don't have any cash on me. The nurse says his shift doesn't end until four. I say I don't feel up to getting out of bed until four. I say I can give the doctor a few extra rupees to send their way when I leave.
He leans forward. "No ... no tell Doctor Jaggi. This just between us."
Flabbergasted, that's what I am. I should just say no, instead I say maybe later, but either way the punishment is the same: the nurses leave the room with the IV still in my arm. The message is clear: when you're ready to pay us, we'll take it out.
I sit with the IV attached to the Little Prince's head for another two hours and then call a different nurse to remove it. He does, no problem, no baksheesh (baksheesh is an umbrella term for informal payments that includes both tips and bribes, because as my IV incident demonstrates, they tend to bleed into each other).
I pay the doctor. Or at least I try to. His credit card machine isn't working, and he refuses to admit that it's his machine and not my card, and all the while the sun is getting lower in the sky. I don't even have the time or patience to argue about the ludicrous five-thousand-rupee "ambulance ride," which was a two-kilometer drive in a sedan. Compared to American medical expenses, it's next to nothing. He processes my payment, sorta, and I'm on my way.
Clearly, the Taj Mahal is cursed. I go to Agra to see a building I don't really even want to see and my phone breaks and I get E. Coli and I spend three days in the hospital. Unable to do much else, I occupy the majority of these three days with one singular question: when I'm well enough, do I go see the Taj Mahal?
On the yes side, if I don't go all that suffering will be for nothing. I'll have contracted only bad memories in Agra, bad memories and bacteria, and besides, I have the time and am just minutes away and it's supposed to be something worth seeing, or so I hear.
On the hell no side, shit's obviously cursed. I'm not superstitious (I think it's bad luck to believe in superstition), but I'm fairly certain that if I defy the ghost of Shah Jahan again and make another attempt at his third wife's tomb, a tiny meteorite will strike me down on my way over, or the dome of the Taj will collapse on my intrusion, Aladdin-style, or the E. Coli will burst from my stomach like the fetus in Alien, grab my broken phone, and beat me over the head with it screaming in E. Coli-ese "don't you learn?"
Moreover, I know however pretty the building is, it can't possibly be pretty enough to be worth the sheer agony that the last three days have brought. Anything I see will be a letdown, not worth it, and perhaps it is better just not knowing than knowing and admitting to myself that I should not have come to Agra. Plus, it's seven-hundred-fifty rupees, one of the single most expensive sights in India. These are the arguments on the don't go side: cost, expectations, stomach-rupturing E. Coli monsters.
I go anyway.
It is pretty. That's more or less all I have to say about it. It's a really, really pretty building, with a beautiful garden and this gorgeous reflecting pool, and the inside of the mausoleum is maybe a bit dreary and could maybe use a little mood lighting, but all in all it's a nice place to walk around. Not worth bleeding out your insides to see, but worth the seven-hundred-fifty rupees, I guess.
I walk the lawns and trace a path along the perimeter and watch a monkey chew on a nut or something. I squat down with my camera to snap a shot of the macaque, and through my viewfinder I watch it hop from its perch to the railing in front of me, bare its jagged, yellowed teeth, and prepare to pounce. I hop back. I yell. "No, monkey! No! I will not be fucked with!" I unleash the anger of Agra on the little primate, scold him for the nerve to be yet another obstacle in my simple request for an enjoyable gander at the Taj Mahal and its grounds. When I'm done, he actually looks a little upset. He skulks away.
I tuk-tuk to the train station to catch an express train to Delhi. No express trains leave for Delhi until nine, so I grab a tuk-tuk to the bus station to take a public bus. The public buses, my tuk-tuk driver notes, take almost five or six hours; wouldn't I rather take a private bus, which arrives in just three? Fine, I say, and we reroute to a travel agency offering "deluxe" buses to Delhi.
I'm promised a three-hundred rupee bus by the driver, but when I get there the bus is four hundred rupees. I ask what makes it deluxe. "It's deluxe," the travel agent says. Oh.
"Right, so A/C?"
"No reclining seats."
This was a problem. Not that I was being sold a four-hundred-rupee ticket to a basic bus, but that the bus didn't have a bathroom. E. Coli was still strong in my system.
"Challo," I said to the tuk-tuk driver waiting eagerly for his comission. "To the bus station."
We get to the bus station and a government bus is preparing to pull away, and I head behind the depot to pee against a wall before boarding. I recognize this bus doesn't have a bathroom either, but I hope for the best.
As I pee, a different tuk-tuk driver tries to sell me on a different travel agency. "You don't want to be on government bus for six hours." He's right; I'd forgotten about the time difference. Okay, I say. Challo. We head to his travel agency of choice and it turns out they don't have any availability for buses tonight. Back to the bus station we go. I wait for the next public bus, resigned to my fate, but not two minutes go by before a cabbie tries to sell me on a deluxe bus. Yes, yes, I say. Let's go.
And back we go, to the first travel agency, where the price of a ticket has suddenly risen to five-hundred rupees. I scoff. What happened to four hundred? "That was last bus," he says with a sly grin. "This bus super-deluxe."
The super-deluxe buses, unsurprisingly, offer the same amenities as both the deluxe buses and the basic buses: a seat. I've been from train station to travel agency to bus station to travel agency to bus station to travel agency in the past hour, and it almost would make sense at this point to just get back to the train station, but I resign to get out of Agra as quickly and easily as possible and begrudgingly hand the agent a ripped five-hundred note. I board the bus, and I leave that cursed city behind me forever.
There's a t-shirt sold in Nepal. On the front it reads Same same and on the back but different. It's a useful way for describing things in Nepal, first and foremost its comparison to India: same same, but different.
We walk south from Kathmandu's Thamel district on a brisk but sunny morning, and the storefronts, the little counter shops, the scooters and the smog and the sidewalkless streets all feel similar. Here are the faded buildings, and here the rickshaws, and here the vegetables sold on a blanket. Here is India. And yet, something is different.
It's a bit quieter, definitely. The cars are fewer and the streets narrower, the people walk more slowly. The faces are different, definitely. More Tibetan than Indian, and though Hinduism is still the dominant religion, an air of Buddhism can be felt throughout Kathmandu. The architecture is the same, but different; the color of sky the same, but different; the very smells of the street the same ... but different.
We're surrounded by the Himalayas, but we can't seem them. Smog chokes the air and leaves but a faint silhouette of the foothills. Monkeys swing about the urban architecture. Kind Nepalis pass by with a bow and a namaste.
We duck into a courtyard and are amazed to find, well, something: a grand platform with a dome resting in its center, and on top of the dome a golden, eyed obelisk of sorts, the sage eyes of Buddha looking calmly over the area's many sculptures and little temples. We learn later that this is a stupa, one of many in Nepal: its dome represents the earth, and the thirteen-stepped pillar above it the different levels of ascension before attaining enlightment. Prayer flags wind from the stupa's apex to all corners of the courtyard, little kerchiefs of red and blue and green and yellow. Pigeons flock, kids play. This is not India.
We continue on to Durbar Square, a UNESCO World Heritage Site overflowing with history. The square is home to perhaps a dozen gorgeous temples; they appear ancient and enormous and otherworldly. We climb the steps of the largest temple and sit on its raised stoop. The Nepalis and foreigners below are silent from this distance; all we can hear are the sounds of a group of boys with guitars covering the songs of Bryan Adams. For whatever reason, the Nepalis love Bryan Adams.
We get momos, steamed (or fried) Nepalese vegetable dumplings, and I become an instant addict. We walk more. We get lost, get our bearings, get a hotel room. It's only a few hundred Nepalese rupees, just a couple bucks, and we get what we pay for. The bathroom smells of urine and the bed is just plywood with a thin cushion on top, and later that night as we peer behind the headboard, we find piles of old water bottles and used napkins and cigarette butts. We switch hotels the next morning.
We leave town and taxi out to Boudhanath, a suburb of Kathmandu and home to the Boudhanath Stupa, the world's largest and Buddhism's most sacred. It's a massive version of the stupa we'd found in that courtyard, with thousands of prayer flags fluttering in the wind and old Buddhist monks in flowing maroon robes circumambulating the stupa's wide base. We follow the monks, making slow clockwise laps beneath Buddah's watching eyes.
Spiritual as the place is, the stupa is actually situated in the middle of a rounded courtyard, and every last facade in this courtyard is a shop pitching something: postcards, singing bowls, prayer flags, bracelets. It ruins the environment a little. We're touted at, we're called to. We're just trying to walk and be mindful, and we're approached by a drug dealer.
"Ay, what's up guys?" he says in the sleaziest voice imaginable. "You want some hashish?"
"Nah, we're good."
"Good stuff, good price. From Poland." I'm not sure whether Poland is supposed to be known for good hashish.
"Nope, still good." We walk away and keep circumambulating and he finds us a little later. "No thank you sir, still no drugs. We're going to go eat."
We duck into the stairwell of a rooftop restaurant and emerge five stories later with a magnificent view of the top of the stupa. We sit down. The drug dealer exits the stairwell, panting, and flops down next to us. Oh, yes, please, won't you join us for lunch? We get up and leave.
We find another place. The drug dealer doesn't follow (though he does find us again later). We eat lunch and take a stroll away from the stupa to a Tibetan monastery. We quietly observe a few hundred monks in a prayer session, then take a walk around the grounds. I return the wave of a little kid monk in a window fervently waving down.
Kathmandu has history like other cities have potholes. There are statues in Nepal that museums would pay millions for; the locals, living amongst the objects for thousands of years, hang their laundry on them. Kids climb all over monuments that a crabby curator would slap with a big "do not touch" sticker, and drivers haphazardly lean their bikes up against some of the world's oldest Buddhist remnants.
The monkeys are even grabbier. We visit a great big stupa on a great big hill west of the city, climbing a skinny staircase hundreds of feet and entering into what is most definitely macaque territory. The monkeys hang lazily off golden statues of Lord Buddha, or pick nits off each other while lounging on a sacred altar. I put my water bottle down and take my camera out to photograph a particularly humorous macaque, and he steals my water bottle and almost gets away. I'd dealt with macaques in China and should have known better; those guys are sneaky little fuckers.
More stupas. more temples, more momos (always more momos). The seventeenth comes around, and it's Shivaratri, the Night of Lord Shiva. It's a Hindu high holiday, and we've kindly and conveniently been put in touch with a friend of a friend, Alexis, who has taken a year-long sabbatical to travel the world and study the religious festivals of different religions, and it just so happens that she, too, is in Kathmandu for Shivaratri.
We meet her and her friend Anil, a Buddhist devotee living at a monastery south of Kathmandu, at Boudhanath stupa, now familiar ground for us. The four of us introduce ourselves and together we walk through the busy streets to Pashupatinath, a sacred collection of Hindu temples at the banks of the Bagmati River, itself a sacred offshoot of the Ganges. Along the way, we're stopped by kids with strings who block off alleyways; all over Kathmandu during the holiday, children stop traffic and pedestrians with their impromptu toll booths: two rupees to pass! At the end of the day, the kids take all the money they've collected, make a big fire, and have a Shivaratri feast.
We're all non-Hindu, so we're not allowed into the temples, which is just as well because the queues for the temples are literally kilometers long. Hindus wait for their gods like Americans wait for their new iPhones, and I marvel at the sheer devotion of the thousands wrapping their way around the walls of Pashupatinath for hours to get just a few minutes of prayer.
Instead of visiting the temples, we head down to the river, where families openly burn the bodies of the recently deceased and hordes of Nepalis and Indians push up against security for a chance to cross the bridge and enter the temples on the other side. They're at capacity (there are tens of thousands here), and at times the crowds begin pushing up against each other in jest or frustration or both, one great big heaving mass of crowd crush slamming people around without regard. It's a little frightening, and we escape to higher ground.
We contemplate joining the scores of devotees crossing the Bagmati anyway, over the makeshift sandbag bridges or by just hiking up our pants and wading across, but Anil, fluent in Nepali, is able to talk the guards into letting us by because we're not actually looking to get into the temple. The guard shrugs his head affirmatively and we scramble underneath his rifled arm as others claw to widen the opening; we're on the other side, and it's just as wild and crazy and busy.
After another few hours of taking in the chaos of Shivaratri, we walk to a quieter part of town and get a simple meal at a humble restaurant. I excuse myself to the bathroom around the corner, a dark cavernous squatter with no lights. I close the door, lock it, and take a step down into the filth, but the step is slippery with urine or water or both or neither and my feet slip out from under me, flying up in the air and guaranteeing a hard impact between my head and the step. But to my rescue comes a spike sticking out of the wall, a six-inch inexplicable rod just jutting out at shoulder level. My elbow connects with it and it's frayed metal edges tear deep into my forearm, but it's enough to hook me from a (probably more harmful) fall. I wince, bite my lip, and pee. I return to the table and smile as Lisa, Alexis, and Anil wonder how I've managed to harpoon my elbow in the bathroom.
Lisa and I split a cab with Alexis and Anil and say our goodbyes at Durbar Square. We're exhausted from the long, hot day, and call it an early night (after, of course, a plate of steaming momos).
We want to stay in Nepal for longer, forever, but Lisa has a plane to catch from Delhi on the twenty-fourth, so by the eighteenth we begin to make our way back. Flights to India are expensive, and trains through the mountains are nonexistent, so we take a dreadfully slow bus. It takes maybe nine hours to get us maybe ninety miles, just a constant winding and accelerating and braking up and down the Himalayas. It's bumpy, too bumpy to even hold a book straight and read, so we pass most of it staring out the windows, which really isn't a bad way to spend a day.
We stop for breakfast and never stop again, so by noon I have to pee. By one, I really have to pee, and by two, I'm nearly dying. I've drank three liters of water, just assuming a stop would be in the works, and when nothing comes by mid-afternoon, I scurry to the empty back of the bus with an empty water bottle.
I tried this once, when camping out in the chemistry lab at the University of Colorado-Boulder, this peeing in a water bottle thing. It didn't go so well. Without getting too graphic, the opening of a water bottle is a pretty narrow opening indeed, so there's all this lining up outside the bottle that has to happen, and if that lining up is off once you start going, then you have quite a mess on your hands.
A bumpy bus didn't help matters, nor did the guilt of exposing myself to the backs of a dozen modest Nepalis. But I was in pain, and out of options, and so water bottle it was.
Or wasn't. For the first time in my life, I had some sort of stage fright: bladder bursting, yet unable to pee on the back of that vehicle. Defeated, in no less pain, I returned to my seat.
"How'd it go?" Lisa asked.
"I don't want to talk about it."
I'm finally able to pee when we arrive in Sunauli, a dusty little border town at the edge of Nepal. We walk on over to immigration and wait, then walk on over to the border and wait, then walk right into India and over to Indian immigration and wait. When our passports have been inspected by very serious men and stamped with silly patterns, we hop a bumpy bus to Gorakhpur three hours south, and from there, an overnight sleeper to Varanasi. It's been a long day of travel, and it's not even over.
Twenty-four hours after we've started, we finally stop. The traincar lurches to a halt in the city of Varanasi and we're lurched awake; we drag our sleepy selves off the train and find a tuk-tuk to take us into town. It's not yet dawn.
We're dropped at the bank of the Ganges, world's holiest river. It feels immediately spiritual. Perhaps that's just the fog casting a thick white curtain over everything, or maybe it's the old bearded men in lungis bathing in the river's cold waters. Old rowboats drift lifelessly with peeling paint, and feral dogs wander about the ghats searching for food.
The ghats are something like a Hindu boardwalk. Constructed of stone centuries ago, the ghats are steps right into the river, allowing one to bathe and emerge easily, daily. The ghats of Varanasi are perhaps the world's most impressive, and they extend miles north from where we stand. We follow them.
There are ghats for laundry and ghats for washing and ghats for celebrating and ghats for cremating. As we walk, we pass burning bodies wrapped in white cloth, and watch small men haul heavy sandalwood to the pyres. The fires burn away the fog and the sun helps from above and within a few hours we've made it a great distance and are now melting under the hot Indian sun. We escape to the shade of the alleyways.
The alleyways feel almost Venetian, far too narrow for a car and some even for a wide scooter. The tight space lets little sun in, so we walk south, or do our best to navigate south through the maze-like streets, in the relative coolness of the buildings' shadows. We pass a million shops and a small Muslim enclave and open windows with looms and loomers hard at work. Ultimately, we make it back to where we started and collapse into an expensive but clean hotel, with a big whirling fan and a comfortable bed and, so rare in India, a working hot shower. We wash up and spend the day hiding from the sun. We order room service and take naps and read, and when the sun finally sets, we venture out to the ghats once more to watch the puja, the nightly fire ceremony. All the boats come to see from the water, and there is indeed fire, and lots of mosquitoes too, and chanting and bells and the general chaos of India, and when we feel we've had enough chaos, we return once more to that comfortable little room.
Varanasi has nothing if not the cutest puppies in the world. They're everywhere with their oversized heads and tiny legs and poor little yips, and we have no shame about stopping and squatting and squealing at the cuter among them. We pass dozens on our way to the train station in the morning, dozens more on our way back with our train tickets, a little brown one with eyes bigger than its head on our way to a long lunch and a trio of black ones napping atop each other en route back to the station. It's a miracle that we leave Varanasi that afternoon without stowing a few of them in our packs.
It's a long ride to Agra, Lisa's penultimate stop on our two-week joint India adventure. The train is crowded, overcrowded, and Lisa's bunk is overrun by traveling Brazilian hippies. We cram together in mine and do our best to sleep through the bumps and the stops and the noises of the night: the snores, the screeching brakes, the Brazilians playing the Red Hot Chili Peppers on guitar at three in the morning. It's mildly successful.
We get to Agra at dawn, and it's a cool, beautiful morning, so we walk from the station into town and are surprised to find Agra to be so green. Parks everywhere. Fertilizer, too, by the smell of it, a terrible chemical odor that permeates the air and follows us all the way into town. We round the banks of the river and catch a glimpse of the Taj Mahal in the distance. (It's pretty!)
I have a hotel from Lonely Planet picked out, something cheap and recommended and fairly central, and just steps from its door we're stopped by a man with a great big smile who just begs us to see one of his rooms. We give in and take the room. Bad choice. Terrible, terrible choice.
Only ten minutes later, we drop our things in the room and turn to leave. I have to pee, so I head toward the bathroom. Just then the lights go out, and after looking up and down the hall, it appears the power's out for the whole building. No big deal, I think, reaching for my phone and turning the flashlight on. I walk into the dark bathroom, place the phone face-down on the tank of the toilet, and do my thing. I flush. My nose is a little clogged up from the smog of India, so I grab a tissue, blow my noise, and flush that too. On the second flush, the tank gives a little shake, and that phone of mine, the one that's been guiding us through the whole trip with its GPS and its guidebook and its general connectedness to the world, plunges forward into the toilet.
My instincts are quick. I catch it just before it submerges fully into the (thankfully clean) water, but not before a good bit of it gets a good bit wet. I shake it off frantically, exit the bathroom, turn it off and wrap it in a scarf and hope for the best.
The lights turn back on.
We go to the rooftop to eat. I'm a little nervous about my phone, but not too badly. I set it aside and we order a few things and eat like we haven't eaten in days. We take off, explore some majestic gardens I'd been reading about on the other side of the river, get a lovely view of the back of the Taj Mahal. We sit under a tree and watch the day drift by. My phone lays out in the sun, presumably drying.
Around mid-afternoon we get some street food outside of the gardens and begin walking back into town, hoping for a tuk-tuk but not really eager for one. It's quiet out here, little villages so far removed from the business just across the river, and it feels like being in the countryside; it feels nice. The sun casts a golden sheen on everything, and Lisa and I both remark on how much lovelier Agra is than we expected.
We spend a little time at the Agra Fort, just strolling around aimlessly through its stairways and rooms. It's sundown by now, so we make our way back to the hotel for me to check the phone. I power it on, and it springs to life. And then it does that again. And again. It just keeps resetting, lighting up and turning off and lighting up again, and nothing I do can seem to stop it, can even seem to power it back down. Shit.
Lisa can tell I'm stressed, so she suggests we take a walk. I agree that's probably a good idea, and we head out into the evening. Here's the thing, though: while walks are normally a great way to alleviate stress, walks in India are a great way to take that little grain of stress you have and roll it into a great big snowball of anxiety and annoyance, the endless honking and pushing doing nothing good for the nerves. It's a quiet walk, a tense one, and Lisa can tell I'm not enjoying it. "Do you want to head back?" she asks.
We try to head back. But the way we thought we'd come isn't the way we'd come, and in fact it's made us even more lost, and before we know it we're kilometers away from where we want to be with no clue how to get back. We surrender. Let's just have a cabbie take us home. We flag one down, offer him the name of the hotel. He doesn't know it, and we don't know what else to tell him. We end up driving around for forty minutes looking for the place whence we'd come. Eventually we find it, but all along the way I'm reminded of just how crucial a working phone is to a good adventure.
It seems counterintuitive, I know. Adventure is all about being untethered, disconnected, and I agree. I'm no great friend of the cell phone as we often use it today, and I think weighing a trip down with the constant crutch of a phone is no way to have a trip at all.
But used wisely, a phone is like a climbing rope. It's there to protect you, to catch you when you fall, but you don't actually want to rely on it. With a trusty phone in the pocket, you can wander at will, pulling yourself deeper into the hidden crevices of a city without a care for where you're going or how to get back, and then, if you find you're really lost, all it takes is a quick look at the map to see where you are and where you need to be. Without one, you have to play it safe. You have to free-climb at a responsible height (or you can just be reckless, I suppose).
So we're back, and I'm stressed, and we haven't really had dinner. Lisa suggests a place right outside, but I'm not feeling particularly hungry and know that I'm not being good company right now. "No, no," I say, "You go ahead and eat. I think I'm just going to get to bed. I'll see you back at the room."
We part ways, and I collapse into bed not feeling well at all. Sure, there's angst about the phone, but this feels like something more than that. Something just doesn't feel right. I can't figure out what it is.
And then, I get sick.
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.
A man sits down.
A car goes by.
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."
"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.