In the fall of 2007, when the race to replace George W. Bush was heating up, I put my house on the market and traveled to India to get lasic surgery and explore. My plan was to vote for Dennis Kucinich in the upcoming Democratic primary, and to move to Costa Rica on my return. Plans change. My father used to respond to my plans with this statement: “I will monitor all events.” My house sale fell through, I moved in with my then girlfriend, proposed to her, and voted for Obama.
This is a selection of my writings from that trip to India, copied and pasted from the bowels of this blog, where I migrated my Livejournal. I was just beginning to feel my identity as a writer.
The recommendation of Shantaram still stands.
the train trundles through the night, past the myriad trash-fires which warm the untouchables just enough to keep them alive for another day of hardening the hearts of the rich and middle class.
i am not, however, permitted to close the curtain on my windowless upper berth and remain oblivious. every so often, smoke, wind, and the direction we travel conspire to remind me by sending us directly into one of the acrid plumes rising from the fires. it is sucked in by the probably filterless air conditioner and pumped into my lungs, leaving me as laryngitic as if i had smoked a pack of cigarettes in my sleep.
i share my berth with a canadian couple. he was born in calcutta, but has lived in the west for 31 years. she was born in british guyana (of jim jones fame), but her grandparents were from india. she tells me that 70% of guyanans are indian, and not just because an ignorant italian misnamed them.
there is an “indian style” bathroom and a “western style” bathroom on the train. need i explain?
on the train from delhi to kalka, i saw:
cow patties formed into discs by hand and lined up or stacked in piles, rows or patterns to dry by the thousands: fuel.
a solitary woman wrapped in a colorless sari sitting against a wall in the trainyard: sad but dignified.
(it seems only the poor and devoutly religious wear traditional clothing these days, in delhi at least. everyone else is trying to be as western as possible. they’re somewhere in the 80’s.)
people everywhere, living by the tracks, on the platform. a small girl brushing her teeth with a stick in a filthy mudpuddle.
animals: cows, goats, donkeys
then we left the delhi trainyards.
for miles and miles it was like travelling through a landfill, but an inhabited one, women and children everywhere scavenging through the garbage; families huddled around trash fires.
seemingly endless slums.
later: in the middle of a more agricultural area, tall (30′ or so) conical chimneys atop brickmaking kilns dotting the fields. raw and fired bricks stacked everywhere.
a goat in a t-shirt.
a man tightening the bolts on the rails. not with a wrench, with his bare hands.
a bright orange, lifesize plastic? palm tree in an otherwise nondescript rural town.
i sat in a cafe having a more traditional breakfast, and watched the adults file past, in both directions, from wherever they sleep to wherever they work. each group different according to station or employment? but cohesive groups, nonetheless, based on dress, age, what they might be carrying (on their heads if they are women). i didn’t even try to distinguish the hotel workers from the restauranteers from the shopkeepers, or the roadside stand operators, but i got the impression that they walked together, regardless of which they were. it was like small battalions of brightly uniformed soldiers going up and down the street.
then the children. hundreds and hundreds of them, descending on the town for the festivals (not christmas) happening right now. there are festivals all the time, but the holiday they get is christmas. thank you britain. anyway, they filed through by twos, usually holding hands, with adult minders at the front. middle, and rear of each column, like schoolbuses without the bus.
these groups are individualized by dress as well, some with uniforms, some in traditional clothing, some mixed. girls and boys always segregated. one group came to a halt in front of my cafe, because a man was giving a hairbrushing demonstration on a wig sitting on one of those head and shoulder shaped wigstands. the girls were fascinated and crowded around him while the male minders tried without success to get them back in line. the boys watched, bemused but not without interest from their place in line.
unlike hampi, where every building is either a restaurant, a shop, or a hotel geared to tourism, badami is a real town, with real people living real lives. the historical landmarks have yet to turn it into a tourist mecca.
i spent yesterday hanging out with a 26 year old german whom i initially pegged as an aussie because he learned english there. we strolled around the narrow back alleys of badami, pretending to be spanish to confound the omnipresent hordes of children who know how to say only “hello!” and “you from?”
they hadn’t a clue how to respond to “buenas tardes” and “como se llama?”. after saying “hello” and “america” and “david” (to the third question) about a billion times, it was refreshing to be able to sidestep. i remarked to steve that we must be like trained monkeys to them, always responding on cue to their prompts.
we spent a while talking, as i have with so many travellers, about the lack of concern indians seem to have for their own country. it may be that they are no worse than americans, but they have four times as many people in half the space, so it is out of control. still, there is a complete carelessness about everything beyond their personal appearance that baffles me.
we decided to go to the “silver service” restaurant at the posh hotel just outside of town for dinner. this hotel charges 10 times what i am paying in town. i didn’t see the rooms, but they are probably freshly painted with bleached and starched sheets, soap and shampoo. there is a manicured grass courtyard and a swimming pool. in short, this is where rich indians and the occasional well-to-do foreigners come to avoid actually interacting with the real india. they stay there, swim in the pool, and are shuttled around the sights for about $150 a day.
we go into the restaurant, which is empty, but would seat about 120, and order our meals, which cost only about 25% more than the identical dish in town. so, it’s all about the ambiance, right? maybe. the waiters are wearing shoes, there are white table cloths, and odd pillow case things slipped over the backs of the chairs. there are real glasses and silverware (cheap). as soon as you look closely, however, you begin to see that it is a barely executed surface luxury. the waiter’s shirt is filthy, the people who painted the room obviously didn’t even carry a rag to clean up their mistakes, there are mismatched touchups all over the walls, wood has been replaced in the trim with mismatched stain, and the floors are streaky. then, in the middle of dinner, the lights go out, just like everywhere else. so we are wondering how anyone could consider this luxurious. for the americans and the europeans, it probably isn’t, it’s just a way to see the sights and be insulated from the reality around them. it’s easier to spend $5 on a meal when you don’t have to think about how it’s a weeks pay for the people around you. for the indians, though, it’s different. i think maybe they are so used to walking around with blinders on, so to speak, not seeing the filth and squalor and the people who live in it, that they really don’t see the flimsy facade of the “resort”, they actually, perceive it as luxury. they overlook all those little things just as they do the little people.
the cave temples were overwhelmingly breathtaking. going to some more temples today.
THINGS THAT TASTE GOOD, BUT AREN’T, AND OTHER OBSERVATIONS
US brands are everywhere in india, as they are wherever i have travelled. coca cola owns most of the private water reserves in the world, and it is hard to find bottled water that doesn’t come from them or pepsi. lays potato chips are ubiquitous also, although i must say they have a greater variety of flavors here; masala, mint, hot and sweet, and several others, along with the same old boring sour cream for unadventurous westerners (why are they here anyway?). this whole cow thing is ridiculous. there is enough beef and leather wandering the streets to feed every starving person for a year, and give them all jobs making shoes, which they could then wear. not to mention the reduction in greenhouse gases. dead cows don’t fart. someone said to me today that we have to treat india like another planet, and behave like the crew of the enterprise, obeying the prime directive of non-interference. interesting. not that i want to interfere anyway. i just like to whine, complain, and judge what i don’t understand. what a typical american.
seriously, i am in the middle of reading a wonderful collection of indian short stories. it makes me feel much better about this place and its people, in some strange way. i also remember being 19, driving through the woods drinking beer, and laughing as i threw the bottles out the window. four times as many people, half the space…
there are a lot of peacocks in jaipur, and they are all afraid. the fastest still have most of their tails.
tata, india’s car company, is coming out with a model which will cost only one lach (100,000 rupees, or about $2500). traffic will be absolutely impossible as people replace their scooters and motorbikes.
i’m not shopping.
i apologized to my driver, who would have received a commission from anything i bought. i said “i know i’m strange”. he said i was like a coconut, strange on the outside, but soft and sweet on the inside.
yesterday i took my driver for a mocha. he had never even been inside the coffee shop, much less had a mocha, which costs 20 times the cup of chai he drinks. today, i took my driver to lunch at his favorite restaurant. awesome food!
when i arrived, i didn’t like the place at all, even though it was fascinating at times. i have since dropped most of my judgements, found things and places to love in india, and gained a small understanding of, and considerable respect for the people, although there are still things which make no sense and frustrate my western sensibilities.
if you can handle a 1000 page book, read Shantaram. now.
About 2 years after you wrote this, I had dinner with an Indian family who had moved to San Jose, CA. They were still very much living the lifestyle they had in India but having adapted it to America which I found interesting. The meal we shared was from India and all the herbs in the meal were harvested right out the back door. I found their stories fascinating. Its definitely a country I’d like to visit.