A house that runs on rainbows and sunshine

5.20.2015

Three years ago, I dreamed of building a house—something small, something simple, something sustainable. And with the help of a great many friends and mentors and supporters and the long, endlessly rewarding patience of time, that dream became a house and that house became a home. And this week, that home became an ecosystem. This week, the Matchbox unplugged.

The Matchbox was never so much a dream as it was a question: Can one find happiness in a simple life of simple limits? Can one live a life truly in harmony with her planet? Can one survive—and not just survive, but willfully thrive—with nothing but the sun and the rain and the earth below? It may be a long, trying journey to get there, but I think the answer is yes.

For years now, the Matchbox has been "nearly" off-grid, self-sufficient in water and waste but still dependent on a constant source of city-supplied electricity. Until now. Over the past few weeks I've been working under the absolutely wonderful tutelage of Brad, friend of Boneyard Studios, to wire and install a state-of-the-art solar kit, and this past Sunday it went live. The custom kit features a 1,200-watt, four-panel array, four hefty batteries totaling 290 amp-hours, and an absolute beauty of a control center with an AC/DC inverter, charger, and communications hub. After running the house for three days under the thick tree canopy of the Matchbox's (temporary) backyard, the batteries are still about two-thirds full, suggesting the array won't have any trouble keeping up when moved into more direct sunlight.

Coupled with the existing rain catchment system, greywater management, composting toilet, and fledgling garden, the Matchbox is—finally and proudly—a carbon-zero home, DC's first and only fully off-grid small house. With rainbows come drinking water and with sunshine comes electricity and with greywater and compost comes fresh vegetables from the garden; and with all the above comes happiness and a whole lot of harmony with the world around us.

Four 70-amp 6V batteries and a lovely FlexWare system. (Left to right:) Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. (Top:) Ms. March.




Are tiny houses legal? Yes.

5.14.2015

Perhaps the biggest barrier to smaller living is the misconception that tiny houses are illegal. They’re not. Here’s why. But first, a disclaimer on what I am and what I am not. I am an individual who lives (yes, full-time), in a tiny house in the District of Columbia. I am someone who has spent more time than I’d ever hoped trudging through DC zoning and planning and coding regulations. I am someone employed by the US Department of Housing & Urban Development who spends a lot of hours each day talking to—and learning from—housing lawyers and the very people who set federal housing policy. I have a penchant for taking risks, an insatiable urge to disrupt stale systems, and a graduate degree in government and public policy. Here’s what I am not. I am not a lawyer, urban planner, or zoning expert. I amnot someone who knows all that much about these regulations outside of DC (though I’ve picked up a little). I am not someone who can speak to tiny houses affixed to foundations, and I am not someone to be trusted exclusively and unquestioningly before you spend tens of thousands of dollars building or buying a small house and dropping it onto a piece of land. That’s important. But I am somebody who has spoken to thousands of people about living in tiny houses, and hundreds of people earnestly looking to take that leap, and too often I see someone who reconsiders their dream at the mention of legal grey area. Too often I see journalists cover the movement or Boneyard Studios or my little house and mistakenly mention that it’s “illegal” for someone to live in a small house. In my less informed days, I’m sure I’ve perpetuated this myth myself. But it’s not, and it’s a mistruth that’s damaging to what we strive for. It’s a myth that needs to be corrected. So let’s correct it.
[ 1 ] WHAT WHEELS DO
The “tiny houses are illegal” story always starts the same way, and the first part is totally true. The District of Columbia and most other American (and international) cities follow international residential building and plumbing codes, designed in theory to make homes “safe.” They definitely do—mandated maximum spans for rafters, minimum widths for studs, and other key standards to keep homes from caving in—but often the codes overreach, focusing more on comfort than caution. For instance, a code-compliant sink must be plumbed to receive both cold and hot water, even though hot water is an electricity-intensive convenience that (unless it’s at a skin-scalding 140 degrees) can’t actually kill germs. Rooms have a required number of “convenience outlets,” designed to keep residents from overloading power strips (though a surge protector or working circuit breaker would do just fine), without much consideration of those who just don’t have that many things to plug in. Off-grid systems are unacceptable according to plumbing code: a house mustbe hooked up to city water, even if rain catchment is sufficient, and a house must have a toilet capable of flushing waste into the Potomac River, even if the owner has found a way to safely manage waste onsite. In some sustainability-minded foundation-built houses, I’ve seen bathrooms with two toilets: a plumbed one to meet code, and a composting one to actually use. Tiny houses don’t have this luxury of space. There’s more: minimum bedroom ceiling heights (incompatible with tiny house lofts), a minimum square footage for the bedroom and kitchen and living room. Small spaces inherently can’t meet code, and because code is enforceable by the city, a foundation-built house can be condemned and bulldozed (and its owner fined and imprisoned) for repeatedly failing to meet the law of the land, or perhaps the law of the landed. And so, we put them on wheels. And just like that, international and national and local building and plumbing codes don’t apply. The house becomes a vehicle, and though the houses are largely built to code (and often, because these houses will travel on highways at sixty miles per hour, are built above code), some of the insurmountable elements are rejected.
JAY_2343
The utility trailer the Matchbox was built on.
[ 2 ] WHAT WHEELS DO NOT DO
And here’s where the story gets a little muddled. Tiny house on wheels are considered travel trailers, and fall under the jurisdiction of the Department of Motor Vehicles. The DMV has no idea what to do with these, but agrees it’s probably a good idea to get them tagged and registered (in DC they would also have to be taken to the DMV for inspection every other year, but by using power-of-attorney allowances, a utility trailer anywhere in the country can be registered in Maine and exempted from inspection). And once that’s taken care of, the tiny house is completely, 100%, absolutely legal. In nearly every jurisdiction in the United States, the owner of a house-looking thing on a utility trailer is entitled to the same parking rights as any other non-house-looking thing on a utility trailer or vehicle. They can be parked on private property (with permission to park there, obviously) and parked on the street (as long as they’re attached to a lead vehicle and meet local parking rules) and driven on the road (as long as they’re no wider than 8’6″ and no taller than 13’6″ and no longer than about 40′ and driven by someone with a commercial driver’s license if the trailer has more than a 10,000-pound gross vehicle weight rating). But, at the end of the day, a vehicle is not a house. Unless the tiny house is RVIA-certified or large enough to meet manufactured housing code, it’s more or less considered a car. Cars are not entitled to some things: namely a certificate of occupancy and the ability to declare a car as a primary residence. A tiny house parked on private land can have an address—indeed, our old Boneyard Studios lot was granted one—but the address is actually for the land itself, not the house. The house is not a house and the home is not a home, and you can’t put the address on your license, and your house isn’t eligible for all the great tax breaks and legal recognition the rest of the landed gentry enjoys. And this, finally, is where the myth of “illegal” tiny houses comes from. It’s not that you can’t live there, even full-time; you just can’t legally declare that your “full-time” “primary” “residence.” And in that sense, living in a tiny house is a little like living with a same-sex partner in the era between the repeal of anti-sodomy laws (at least among the more civilized states that have repealed them) and the recognition of same-sex marriage as a legal bond subject to the same legal benefits (things like health insurance and the right to sit by the bedside of a dying spouse) as everyone else. Think 2006. No one is legally preventing you from living where you want to live (though nasty comments, gross misunderstanding, and bureaucrats not comprehending their own laws might persist), but no one is giving you the benefits your living situation really deserves, either. Your negative rights are protected, but your positive rights haven’t (yet) been granted.
JAY_3603
Lee's Pera House, toured by the Deputy Mayor in 2014.
[ 3 ] IF YOU BUILD IT, THEY WON’T COME
So, what do cities have to say? Not much. Tiny houses have sprouted up across the United States, and as long as they’re on wheels there haven’t really been run-ins with city officials. I know of a case or two where an individual has been asked to move their house because it “doesn’t comply” with city laws, but the owners of those homes didn’t seem to push the issue; likely, the city was exercising authority it didn’t really have. There’s an important distinction to make between cities that criminalize homelessness and those that don’t. A city that criminalizes homelessness is one that can legally fine an individual for loitering or sleeping in public—when a person has no place to go, they’re essentially being prosecuted for existing at all. In some municipalities, sleeping in a vehicle on a public street is illegal, but on private property, it’s just camping. Here in the District, we’ve had an interesting relationship with city officials. They’ve been overwhelmingly awesome: the Deputy Mayor and her staff came for a tour of Boneyard Studios to explore tiny houses as a potential solution to chronic homelessness, and our friends in the Office of Planning and the Department of Housing & Community Development have offered us advice, support, and even land for a new community (the last of which we didn’t accept for other reasons). Meanwhile, the Department of Consumer & Regulatory Affairs has occasionally overstepped its authority, imposing conditions on our old lot that weren’t supported by law. And the Zoning Commission, charged with coordinating a fair and transparent rewrite of DC’s archaic zoning, managed to slip in an unsolicited provision banning “camping” in tiny-house-like structures in alleyways. The good news is that the ban is vague and both practically and (I’m told) legally unenforceable, and at the moment neither of the Boneyard Studios houses are in alleyways. I’m also not camping in my house; I’m living there full-time. Just not Full-Time. If you build it, they won’t come. I’ve been in the Matchbox for three years, and I’ve never received so much as a warning letter. No fiscally-responsible city is going to send an officer to stake out your tiny house and record your comings and goings for fourteen days, or 185 days, or whatever threshold your municipality sets for “camping” or “primary residence.” No marshal is going to knock on your door and tell you to leave your tiny house on wheels any more than one would knock on your car window and tell you to leave the car you’ve parked in your driveway. Assuming you’re not doing anything else wrong, like improperly disposing of waste or otherwise endangering those around you, you’re safe. Cities and towns typically aren’t to blame: journalists are. Take a recent piece about tiny houses in DC:
There’s nothing in the city’s current zoning regulations related to “tiny houses,” Edward Giefer, spokesman for the D.C. Office of Planning, wrote in an email. But structures that would qualify as “accessory dwelling units” — like living in a house-on-wheels behind a friend’s rowhouse — are not permitted in the city.
— Whitney Pipkin, Elevation DC
Accessory dwelling units—which I haven’t gotten into because this is already wordy and complex enough—are usually about four hundred square feet, built on a foundation, and accompany a larger house that exists on the property. Tiny houses on wheels are not accessory dwelling units, because tiny houses on wheels are not (usually) four hundred square feet, are not built on foundations, and (sometimes) don’t accompany a larger house that exists on the property. Our friend Ed tells Whitney that the city doesn’t have a stance on tiny houses, but notes that structures that would qualify as accessory dwelling units are not permitted, and Whitney just squishes the two together. This happens a lot—it’s not just Whitney—and it’s an honest but damaging mistake.
[ 4 ] TL;DR
And that’s all there is to it. With a few caveats, tiny houses on wheels are perfectly legal. They’re built on wheels to escape unnecessary code requirements, and thereby escape even the peskiest zoning official. By existing in the vehicle realm, though, they forfeit some of the great advantages of being a homeowner: tax benefits, homeowner’s insurance, full recognition by the city. They may not call you a Homeowner, but hey, you are a “homeowner.” The city won’t give you a problem, and if it does, just remind its enforcers that if they don’t consider your house a home, that means you’re probably considered homeless and should probably go cash in on some of the pricey homelessness subsidies you haven’t been using. Or question their legal grounds, seek some pro bono help, and fight for your rights. But more than likely, you’ll never need to. Because tiny houses are legal. So cities, thanks for your continued support. Members of the media, please fact-check. And people, let’s get building.
Tony working on the Matchbox, 2012.
Tony working on the Matchbox, 2012.

Money matters: lessons learned from our old lot

5.06.2015

I haven't been posting tiny house stuff here lately, 'cause it's been messy and unpleasant. But this was conceived of as a tiny house blog long ago, and adventures in simplicity often become misadventures, so here it is. For context, start here.

What went wrong at Boneyard Studios? A lot.
What went most wrong at Boneyard Studios? Who "owned" the lot.

Boneyard Studios was founded as an egalitarian community of three: three houses, three people, three decision-makers. We were equals, or at least that was the plan.

But from the very start, we weren't equal. I met Brian and Lee a few months after they found that little alley lot on Evarts, just a few weeks after Brian had purchased that lot all by himself, much to Lee's surprise (initially they were going to buy the lot together, but Brian put in an offer one night and shocked Lee with that revelation the next day). At the time, none of that really mattered to me—land for my tiny house!—and at the time, Brian told us none of it really mattered to us. It's just easier this way, we were told. Setting up a land trust was messy work, and we were friends and we trusted each other and that was enough to keep us together.

The land was cheap, just $30,000. Lee and I were happy to split the costs evenly, wanted to split the costs evenly. So while Brian put up the initial cash, we collectively paid for everything—the principal on the mortgage, the interest on the mortgage, our utilities and our shipping container rental and the rest of our communally-agreed-upon lot improvements—as three equals paying for things we equally agreed upon and would equally use.

The early days at Boneyard Studios.


Then things got weird. Brian wanted a pizza oven, and Lee and I liked the idea. We had friends who had made one with some welding tools and concrete and love, and we talked about hosting a community work day where our friends and supporters could help build an oven for everyone to use. It would cost a few hundred dollars and the three of us would split the cost. But that idea was nixed: Brian worried it would look "too DIY," too messy. He instead found a fancy model imported from Milan, at a cost of $4,500. Lee and I didn't want a pizza oven that was so outrageously expensive we and our friends would be afraid to use it., so we told Brian that if he really wanted that—like, really needed it—we wouldn't say no, as long as it was understood that it was a donation to the community, for the community. He agreed.

And so it went. There was the $1,000 patio built by day laborers Brian picked up from Home Depot, when Lee and I were happy to build a patio ourselves (or manage without a patio altogether). There was the $1,200 hot tub that Brian pushed our fourth house out to make room for, which we—regrettably—didn't do enough to stop. And then there was the $25,000 Studio Shed, which Brian swapped out from our old shipping container. We liked the container and didn't really want the shed, but Brian was working out a secret deal with the Studio Shed company—a kickback program to get himself commission from referrals made during the free open houses Lee and I organized—and so the Studio Shed was something he used his "trump card" (as the deedholder) to build. Again we made our position clear: we don't want this, and would rather not have it, but if you want to donate it and make it open to the community—not just us, but the broader community—then we won't resist. Brian agreed: the Studio Shed was a donation to Boneyard Studios.

A few months later, the locks were changed. It was his shed and his hot tub and his pizza oven and his patio. We had paid for none of them, just as Brian hadn't paid for my siding and Lee hadn't paid for my rocking chairs. Like the siding and the chairs, they are, and always have been, personal possessions.

***

Of course, we were foolish. We realize this now. We should have pushed communal ownership from the very start, and walked away if it wasn't offered. We should have gotten everything in writing, and known that Brian wasn't improving the lot altruistically: he was doing it to sell more plans for his houses, structures now featured at manufactured housing trade shows. We shouldn't have been as idealistic, as eager to start a community with someone who so clearly lacked a sense of what a community is.

What community is all about.


We never wanted this to be a messy split, and so we've tried to say as little as possible. We spent about six months saying nothing, and then said just a little, but this hasn't served us—or the tiny house movement—very well. Misinformation continues to spread, and Brian continues to manipulate a narrative in which we are freeloaders living off his wealth. We can stomach being called starry-eyed idealists, which we may be, but not freeloaders. So, sadly, we must make it clear:

  • Brian states he spend over $80,000 improving the lot, yet this includes the cost of his house and his personal pizza oven and hot tub and Studio Shed. The gardens, the fencing, the excavation—these are all things we wanted to and repeatedly offered to pay for.
  • More often than not, we were told our contributions weren't necessary. Payments for a garden or other amenities would have clouded the legal ownership of the lot, which Brian realized we were already paying two-thirds of the mortgage on for our first two years there (us being two-thirds of the community, after all).
  • Toward the end, when Brian talked of all these improvements, I offered him $100,000 for the land—more than three times what he had paid for it, and tens of thousands more than his improvements had cost. I made the offer multiple times, but he wasn't selling.
  • We never "squatted" or skipped out on rent; in fact, Brian wasn't and isn't legally allowed to charge rent on the space. He had a history of doing unsettling things to personal property—moving Lee's work table into a thunderstorm, entering her house unsolicited, and later illegally dumping her spare wood in a friend's yard in Brookland—so to grant us just a little bit of recourse, we informed Brian that we were putting our share of contributions in escrow until we left.
  • We paid two-thirds of the mortgage on a property we don't have any access to, nor rights to the amenities (like the garden or fence) that we put sweat equity into building. Technically and legally, Brian has yet to divest us from the land and still owes us money.

And there it is: an ugly heaping of messiness and truth, forced out by Brian's spread of misinformation and shoddy reporting by journalists looking for a bunch of clicks. It's probably for the best, though—we did promise to share our lessons learned, and though this is one we hoped to skip, it comes with lessons in leaps and bounds.

  • LESSON ONE: Get it in writing. 

    It pains me to say, because I'm a trusting person and I find contracts to just bleed distrust. But things happen and sometimes people change and sometimes people show their true selves, and in the society we live in, handshakes and emails and text messages just don't cut it. Before you hammer a single nail into a fence post of your own tiny house community, make sure you and your peers have a game plan for if it doesn't work out—who keeps the land, who keeps the stuff on the land, and a schedule for making that all happen.

  • LESSON TWO: Keep communal space truly communal.

    Community "donations" by one community member aren't a good idea. Like the roommate with the fancy food processor or the girlfriend with the killer record collection, when things sour it's easy to see how donations become un-donations, how su casa becomes mi casa. But more importantly, they make one individual feel like they're putting more into something than others. In our case, Brian thought we appreciated more luxury: hot tubs, patios, the wide open spaces of a Studio Shed. We didn't. We're tiny house people, after all (and a community, at that), and the things we wanted most couldn't be bought. Lee and I spent hours and hours each month planning tours, maintaining a Facebook page, supporting other tiny house builders, documenting our project with photo and video and word, but those things aren't always seen as equal when paired against an imported pizza oven from Milan. So if you're going to put anything on your land, make sure everyone wants it, and has worked for it, and has paid for it. It's the only way to ensure everyone views it as theirs, equally.

  • LESSON THREE: Share not just vision, but values too.

    What went wrong with Boneyard Studios? We shared a vision—tiny houses, garden, idyllic space by the cemetery—but not the values to make that work. Where we saw a tiny house hub for small space enthusiasts on the East Coast, Brian saw a showcase similar to that of a car showroom. Where we saw a garden open to the community, Brian saw a garden for himself, in which the neighborhood could take his leftovers and fellow Boneyardians would pay him $60 per plot. And where we saw a space open to anyone who wanted to use it, Brian saw a mini-plantation; a passive income generated by the sales of plans he didn't create for a house he didn't build, an income spent on the burgeoning servant economy of Uber and Instacart and Washio. We wanted to live simple even if it was hard; Brian wanted to live simple only if it was easy. And it's never easy.

The platitudes are endless. Money changes everything. Money can't buy happiness. Cash rules everything around me (CREAM). They're platitudes because they've been said a lot, and they've been said a lot because they're true. If only we'd listened to them more.

When three of four houses disappear, is it a really a question of who's to blame?


Is there a lesson four? There will be. We messed up on the first iteration, but we haven't given up. With the right structure, and the right communal ownership, we believe tiny house communities can work. They do work. It hasn't been easy finding a new spot in DC, but we're committed to making it happen, and can't wait to share some positive lessons as soon as we do.

Questions about any of this? We're hosting a virtual Q&A via Google Hangouts on May 19th and hope you can join us.

Thoughts of Kathmandu

4.30.2015



Two months ago, I sat on the steps of an old temple in Durbar Square. I watched the tuk-tuks rumble back and forth over the ancient stone, the little kids take great leaps off the brick steps. In the distance: towers, markets, storefronts of weathered wood and crumbling concrete. Two months later, that old temple is no more. Last week the ground rumbled back and forth under the ancient stone and took the temple with it: the temple, the towers, the little storefronts and the lives of so, so many. Thousands, they say; maybe tens of thousands.

I see photographs of the wreckage and it's all recognizable: I know that place; I know that street. I see photographs of the wreckage and it's all unrecognizable: That's not the way it's supposed to look. There's sadness in the lost buildings—history wiped clean, ancient treasures razed in an instant—but it's the people I mourn for most, the warm, wonderful masses of Kathmandu. I see photographs of the wreckage and there's closure: Garud has fallen, Basantapur is damaged, Dharahara is no more. But not so for the people: I know nothing of the fates of our lovely innkeepers just meters from the square, nothing of the sweet old couple who sold me tea leaves, nor the little children who showed us our first stupa, the taxi drivers who shuttled us to Boudhanath, the man whom I bought momos from each evening. I don't know if they're okay, and I never will.

The tragedy in Kathmandu isn't about me—millions were affected, and those I never knew suffered just as much as though I did. My grief does little for any of them, but it's there nonetheless: aching, searing. I don't believe in prayers, but I hope so strongly they're all okay. I don't believe in prayers, but I hope with all my might that those prayer flags will fly again, beautiful banners of red and blue and yellow and green and white billowing proudly over every last street and stupa in Nepal.

Thoughts, love, and well wishes to all those affected in Bhārata.

(Click here to support local earthquake relief efforts.)

———

Kathmandu, Nepal
February 2015









____

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

4.24.2015


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

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



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

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

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

A very rough (and very inaccurate) route.



Udaipur at sunrise

4.20.2015

Udaipur, India
February 2015










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

4.13.2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another travel agency?

"Yes, this is travel agency."

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

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

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

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

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

"Are you an official tourist office?"

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

"So no."

"No."

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

"Works for me," Lisa says. Cool.

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

"Ten minutes." He grunts again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then he walks away.

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

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

Only in India.

***

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

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

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

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

Why yes, I am here!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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




Scenes from Kathmandu

3.29.2015

Kathmandu, Nepal
February 2015








After words (Days 34+)

3.24.2015

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

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

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

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

And yes, it's nice to be home.


Delhi (Days 25 - 33)

3.19.2015

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

"No."

"No?" My heart sinks.

"Not today."

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

"So, LASIK?" I ask expectantly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Minutes later, the pain begins.

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

I go home.

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