Friday, November 15, 2013

Breaking India

Sunrise over the Ganges
The Residency, Lucknow, India
When I started writing this post it was 3:00 in the afternoon on a Wednesday in Jaipur, India. Before we left for India, we had no intentions of seeing anything in Rajasthan, but a couple of bad choices met with sold out trains and we found ourselves making a loop in the center of the country. It’s no surprise I’m now fighting a chest infection and it’s hard to say if it is another stomach bug or just your average traveler’s diarrhea. Mike braved the post office alone leaving me to one of the few moments where I have been all by myself for a considerable amount of time since this trip began. The hum of the neon light above and the fan drying our laundry hanging from a rope that Mike strung up across our small hotel room and me facing a mirror that had been installed crooked, incorrectly…that was what Wednesday, November 13th looked like in Jaipur, India.

The day before, after saying “No thank you” or ignoring every tout and shop owner and rickshaw driver lining the pink city, offering something for sale, a man came up to Mike and asked if he could ask him one question.

“You are American, right?” he asked.
“Yes,” Mike said.
“How come Americans have such problems with their egos?”

Kandariya-Mahadev and Devi Jagadamba Temples, Khajuraho

High Tea at the Imperial, Delhi
At this point, I could no longer contain myself. Neither one of us could, and we both erupted with anger in our voice to answer such a confrontational question. Since arriving in India, it is as if we stepped into the rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland’s world. The Instagram photos catch the highs, but who wants to document the lows or the constant friction between the two? I have been trying to photograph the lows as a sort of a funny reminder when things go south, but usually in those moments we are just trying to get through it. In truth, the traveling in India has been hard, the trains have been booked, the budget travel fraught with all the creepy crawler nightmare stories one might expect, the touts and commission agents aggressively nonstop, and our white faces more exposed than ever and now photographed with more strangers than we ever imagined. (People think Mike and I are brother and sister and want pictures with white people). But the hardest thing of all has been to rectify my complete disillusionment with the idea I had of India. I think like most westerners, I romanticized the great exotic east and expected something of India. I expected her to give me something even under the auspices of possibly volunteering and being of service and being "giving." I know now that I expected something. Maybe a spiritual experience, perhaps some moving confrontation with a world so completely different from mine that I would figure out exactly what it is I want to do with my life and all the cobwebs of my over-privileged, over-democratic, over-choice filled world would magically be swept away and I would finally have some sort of clarity with what my next step is to be. I thought India would give me breathtaking beauty and unparalleled compassion, genuine connections with people different than me, and motivation to make a change. What change I think I need, I’m not even sure. But some sort of improvement. Like maybe I would come back from India and finally like yoga and become a vegetarian again and drink loose leaf tea and meet daily stresses with closing my eyes, taking ten deep breaths, and opening them back up with a smile and a Namaste!
Taj Mahal, Agra, India
Our bathroom in Lucknow

As of Wednesday, the only thing India had given me was a chest cold, traveler’s diarrhea, and a hardened edge when walking around the streets here and as of today, Friday, Mike has been thrown a curve ball or sixty. But the reality of our experience here has stripped me of any idealized image I had of this country and on Wednesday it brought me to my knees in a shitty hotel room where the only thing I wanted to do was watch the rest of Breaking Bad and conserve my water bottle so I didn’t have to step outside to get another one and tell the three rickshaw drivers parked outside of the hotel (one that followed us here from the train station) that I am not interested, really, no thank you, please, I’m not going anywhere.
Morning Dip, Ghats, Varanasi, Ganges River
I jokingly told Mike the other day that I felt like everything I had ever been told about India was a lie. And then I realized that they weren’t lies. They were true, just as my experience so far has been true. But what I single-mindedly neglected to see was just how many different Indias there are. Just like the many different Americas there are, India is just as layered. There is Black America, and White America, and Immigrant America, and Women America. There is Manhattan America, and Deep South America, and New Mexico Indian Reservation America, and Chicano Los Angelino America, and Hazlet, New Jersey America. I don’t know what the different Indias are, but I know that I’m experiencing White Woman Budget Travel India and I expected Exotic Spiritually Inspiring Loving India. I am sure there is a crossroads between the two somewhere, but so far, between Jaipur and Varanasi I have not found it. We arrived in Kolkata yesterday and both quickly decided it has been our favorite place so far in India, a big surprise since I expected Kolkata to be the Born Into Brothels Documentary India that I remember so vividly. Instead we have been greeted with a more laid back city, delicious Bengali food, an easier more colorful travel experience complete with visits to one of India's holiest temples, a blessing, a visit to the British imposed Queen Victoria Memorial, markets and music...and just as we got ready for dinner tonight, I noticed a couple bug bites on Mike's arm. He said his shoulder had been itching earlier, an assumption that the damn mosquito that was in the room had got him. But when he took his shirt off, we saw that he was covered in bug bites and my greatest New York City fear came to light: we got bed bugs.

A friend of mine wrote me and said that she had friends who described India as "sharply contrasting spiritual highs and wretched lows all bumping up together in the density of humanity." And indeed, this description is exactly the experience we are in the middle of. Just about to lose my mind on a rickshaw driver we turned down who followed us to our hotel, I walked past a group of potted plants with a sign that read "stay well planted," and I was reminded to be just that and let it go, find compassion. Just when I find myself having a pretty cool experience at a temple where we received a blessing by a priest and Mike and I excitedly talked about our future post-trip, an hour later I found myself sternly telling a young beggar girl carrying a baby who was physically not letting me pass her, "NO!" I felt myself sink with shame just hours after being completely uplifted. My "no" came from complete instinct and also a little knowledge. I have read about the kids in this area (Mother Teresa's house) who make such a killing from begging that they turn down offers to go to school.  But still, she was a kid, probably doing what is asked of her by her family. The density of humanity, indeed. The bumping up, the friction, moment to moment. The swimming in my own skin in a body unfamiliar...

...and yet, if I really look at what I thought India would give me, it kind of has, just not in the lotus-flowered delivery I thought it would, but more in the cockroach infested anxiety provoking bed bug nightmare realized push that I probably needed. As of the last three weeks, I am a vegetarian again, mainly because I realized I kept getting sick whenever I ate meat, but now more from what I am seeing. At the markets, the live chickens are silent in their coups, as chicken feet rest on the tops of their cages. Mike pointed this out to me after reading White Tiger, and the living image is everywhere. The smell of blood, the power of fear, keeping control. When we order dinner, I can't bring myself to order the chicken curry. Because of my stomach issues, I have moved away from coffee, and yup, you guessed it, I’m ordering things like ginger tea and planning a trip to Darjeeling to visit a tea plantation. I've seen breathtaking beauty (The Taj Mahal) and felt compassion (at the Kalighat Temple) and while I have made a few genuine connections with the people here, I have also gained friends, traveler friends, with whom I’ve had fun train rides with and toured the Ganges River with, and laughed through a jeep safari with as we searched for tigers, and most of them happen to be women around my age, a refreshing and sometimes encouraging experience. I have deepened my own sense of gratitude for my upbringing and my family, my friends, my traditions, and my country. I have been forced to reckon that, although I have this tough chip on my shoulder that my single-parent home living in a one-bedroom apartment struggled immensely while trying just to stay afloat while growing up, that still, my life is and always has been a privileged one.  As for the cobwebs, a few of them are clearing a way, but not until I confronted possibly letting go of other dreams that like India, I have idealized and romanticized for far too long. There comes a time, when we can no longer outrun the narrative we promised we would actualize when we were teenagers. There comes a time when we are left with nothing but our own reflection to finally see that the mirror has been installed incorrectly.
Gandhi Smriti, New Delhi
After giving our honest answers on why that Indian man must perceive Americans as being egotistical, he asked us if we would have a cup of Chai tea with him. All of us had been caught off guard by the blunt honesty a question probably meant to lead to a sell, had provoked. We happily agreed to tea, eager to continue the honest conversation with someone from India. We followed him down a side street to a worker man’s area where only men sat around drinking Chai under a blue tarp. Seeing us coming, two Indian men cleared off the only bench left in order for us foreigners to sit down. I stood for the first few minutes and finally took a seat realizing it was rude not to at this point. We talked about our respective countries and he said that India is changing, becoming more modern. I asked him if that was a good thing and he said, “No…India is losing her spirit.” He went on to say though, that in India all things are possible, whereas in America they are not. He believed that Americans were incapable of finding satisfaction, perhaps another way of saying America has lost her spirit. And after asking us why we come to India, perhaps suggesting, that is why Americans come to India – to find spirit.

We never ordered chai, and an associate of his asked him to come with him for a moment. He deserted us and after waiting a couple minutes, we deserted him. An hour later, we found ourselves walking in a parade with marigolds being thrown out of a van to pave the streets before a float carrying a god traversed it. Ornately decorated horses and a regal camel and an elephant draped in red velvet led the parade. Men sang in Hindi and a marching band banged on drums.  A sword spinner dazzled a crowd and not far from there, another man tossed out candy to a gaggle of children jumping to try to reach his hands held high above his head. We stood there taking pictures and waving at children excited to say, “Halloo!” We took pictures of them while they took pictures of us.  Mike and I moved along, opting to walk home instead of another rickshaw. It felt good to use our legs and our instincts in a country that so completely can take them out from under you. When we approached our hotel by foot at the twilight hour, none of the rickshaw drivers said a word.

Now, we are in a new room at or hotel in Kolkata, and tomorrow we will make the overnight train trip up to Darjeeling to see what the north of India has in store. For now, we are trying to take care, me nursing my cough and Mike covered in cortizone cream. We are in another hotel room with our laundry strung above us, a fan gently swaying the room, and National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation on the television, staying well planted. 


Anonymous said...

Eat, pray, shit your brains out? Wait that's not how it's supposed to go. I spent today typing a bunch of stupid emails if that makes you feel any better.

Also, what a poorly timed -yet awesomely timed- photo of autumn US pizza bagel splendor.

Now fly into Chandigarh airport, hop on the Himalayan Queen toy train, and go to Shimla where you'll find the the India you've been looking for.

Malone said...

This is an absolutely beautiful post. Your discussion of the many different versions of places is so spot-on, and your description of the ways we humans act and feel and emote as we bridge the gap between expectations and lived realities is resoundingly accurate. Good luck with the bedbugs and I look forward to the next installment!

Sarah said...

Thank you for this post Tony! I know how hard the really honest ones can be to share- but without fail, they're always the best. Your courage is inspiring! Keep telling your travel stories please!

daleboca said...

you are quite a tough cookie. my skin is crawling just reading about the bugs. how many more weeks in india? we miss you. loved this post!

Carmen said...

yes! i agree with all above comments. brave post, brave woman. insightful reflecting on people, perceptions and expectations. stay planted, stay open, stay healthy. lots of love from the city of brotherly love.