Scenes from Kathmandu


Kathmandu, Nepal
February 2015

After words (Days 34+)


"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)


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?" My heart sinks.

"Not today."

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

"So, LASIK?" I ask expectantly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Minutes later, the pain begins.


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

I go home.

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So weak.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

"And I can leave tomorrow?" I ask.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

I go anyway.

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

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

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

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

"Right, so A/C?"

"No A/C."

"Reclining seats?"

"No reclining seats."


"No wifi."


"No bathroom."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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