The heat is brutal. The strength of a thousand thousand suns pounds on your shoulders with the strength of an insane and angry gorilla. At the same time, it’s somehow also able to sap all your strength and suck your will to live out with the very same rays of light. But that’s only one of your concerns. A million things are going on around you and your mind plays a precarious game of multi-tasking times a thousand as it tries to process it all with the limited resources biologically allocated to it.
Traffic zips by: all sorts of vehicles- strange vehicles- barrel down the road with ferocious fervor. The streets are chock full of bicycles, motorbikes, rickshaws, auto-rickshaws, cars, SUV’s, police cars, vans, camels and horses with carts (really), people pushing carts, trucks, tractors, buses and just about any other design that wheels can accommodate, and they all want one thing: For you to GET THE HELL OUT OF THE WAY! They bump you, tap you, honk obnoxiously (my God, please stop the honking. PLEASE!) stare at you and squeeze past at every opportunity. Pigs run wild in the street, dining on the human and animal excrement left from the previous day and cows stand defiantly in the middle of the road blocking traffic and not caring.
People flow around like the water in a river. The chaos continues to gush. Indian music plays excitedly in the background giving the scene a surreal and movie- like feel.
Piles of trash lay strewn across the road, down the narrow alleyways and the mobs of people skillfully walk around it. Puddles of death colored liquid dot the landscape filling every conceivable dip in the shoddy and crack laden road. A man rides by with a covered dead body on a cart and the corpse’s outstretched hand smacks your stomach as it passes and a woman trots by with a goat on a leash. Old orange robed and grey nappy haired holy men with paint on their foreheads hold their hands out for alms and a deformed man unable to walk chases after a middle age Western woman on a cart frantically, pushing it with his hands, as he begs for change.
Children walk by with buckets of water carrying it to God knows where and little girls skip by giggling gleefully with ice cream bought for them by their mother (who is wearing a neon green and yellow sari and happens to have a huge box balanced on the top of her head as she walks calmly after them). A man pisses on the wall behind a man selling bushels of plump and glistening grapes which he casually slaps water on to keep them wet. A man defacates in a ditch off the side of the road and uses his left hand (keep this in mind, it’s always the left hand) to splash water on his ass from his bottle of water before pulling up his pants and continuing about his day. Colors are everywhere: from the huge piles of bright paint powder being sold on the street corner to the vibrantly colored fruit and vegetables for sale on mats at the sidewalk to the incredible colors of the clothing people wear as they do what they do. It’s almost unbelievable and you can’t stop snapping photos.
But the people won’t leave you alone. Everywhere you go, someone latches onto you with an offer you can’t (not) refuse.
“Hi! What’s your name where are you from you want hash (good stuff, soooo good) you want silk i have shop good price! you need tour of city i have rickshaw where you go friend?????????”
You can’t walk two minutes without having to bat someone off and they are insanely persistent.
The city spreads out before you and old brown, tattered, dilapidated buildings (despite the chaos before them) tower like old snarled trees staring disinterestedly down at the madness. The pungent smells of curry, fried potatoes, spices, smoke, incense, urine, feces, barbeque, and marijuana fill the enclosed roadway and create a euphoric haze over the roadway blown down the street by the scorching winds thereby allowing it to pervade every possible crevice of every possible area everywhere.
And the heat continues to sear. But as you begin to give in, it stops pounding and starts to melt you. Your mind is melting, brother! Your energy is being sucked from you and you will soon die the death of a thousand cuts if you don’t get to shelter soon. Get out quick! You duck down an alley way and stumble into a restaurant and sit directly in front of the fan. The sweat evaporates off your body and cools you and you sink into your seat as you swig down and ice cold Coca-Cola.
You prepare yourself mentally, for the battle is waiting for you outside the doors you just walked in. Your service is only up when you get back to your hotel room…and it’s a long ways away.
Hmmm…so that’s India for me. It may be a bit different for some other people, but it can’t be by that much. Wait, I take that back. It’s not ALL of India, but it is certainly in Varanasi, the holiest city in India, where people take daily baths in a river with literally 10,000 times the healthy fecal limit and into which they also happen to toss dead bodies and pump raw sewage. But it’s holy, you know. So that cleans it. And here we are wasting all this money on stuff like sewage treatment!
Call me a culturally insensitive bastard, but this place is dirty. And it’s hot. And for the past 5 days I’ve had stomach problems of epic proportions (I’ll spare you the details) which has sapped me of my normal zeal and made me a cynical and grumpy jerk. I was running on barely enough energy to begin with, seeing as I could barely walk from dehydration, and as I’m sure you can imagine, the scene described above isn’t conducive to a healthy recovery. I went to bed each day literally exhausted to the point that I couldn’t even get up to shut off the light before passing out on my bed and despite the fan spinning dangerously unbalanced above me and threatening to come crashing down on me, I woke up each morning drenched in sweat from the heat.
Hey, but at least it’s not humid!
So let’s back up a bit and I’ll fill you in on what I’ve been up to. I really wanted to see India and despite the fact that I’ve had a really hard time here, I would do what I did again in a heartbeat. So I left Kathmandu and arrived in India. This is no small endeavor considering the security procedures the Indians put you through whenever you need to fly somewhere. They X-ray your bags at least twice (sometimes more) and then proceed to hand search all your bags (yes, the ones they just X-rayed) once when you enter the lobby and then again before you board the plane. You also walk through a metal detector and even if it doesn’t go off, a man then passes a small metal detector over every part of your body. This will happen again in front of the plane as they have installed another metal detector there. In addition to this, you also have to identify your checked baggage on the cart before it is put on the plane.
When I arrived in Delhi, I was in shock. But like opposite shock. It was nothing. It was like any other city I’ve been to in my life and was quite clean. The cars proceeded orderly and I didn’t see even one cow in the street. I met two Argentinean girls and we split a cab to a hostel and then went to McDonalds for dinner and that was quite interesting too. Did you know there is no such thing as a Big Mac in India? Nope. No beef. They’ve got an all chicken and veg menu.
I had booked a train ticket at the airport to Agra, home of the Taj Mahal, and was to leave the next day which I did on purpose because I planned to be in Delhi for a few days after I finished making a loop through Rajasthan while I waited for my flight to leave. I would get south quick before it heated up (HAHA!) too much and then work my way north, having a total of about a month in India. I hopped on the train early the next morning to Agra and was there within a few hours and after buying my next train ticket to Varanasi, I split a rickshaw with a Canadian guy to our hostel. Seeing as the day was still young, I headed to the Agra Fort to do some sight seeing. It was pretty interesting and for the first time I hired a guide to show me around and I’m quite glad I did seeing as I learned quite a bit. Then I headed back to the hotel and grabbed some food at a restaurant with Rob, the Canadian guy, before heading to bed. Rob awoke me at 2AM vomiting loudly in the room (we got a double bed room and split the costs) and the next morning there was vomit all over the floor and toilet. I skillfully avoided touching anything and headed out early to the Taj Mahal to see the sunrise over it.
Let me tell you: it was incredible. Not Rob’s vomit, that is (which was actually kind of gross). I mean the Taj Mahal. What an impressive building. I mean, you see pictures of it and when you finally see it, you think, “okay, this is it??” But then you realize you can’t stop staring at it. You just walk around and around it in awe taking a continuous assault of pictures. I eventually sat down on a bench and just stared at it for a full 15 minutes. It was kind of like the time I actually sat through the entire Tomb Raider movie because every time I got up to turn it off, there would be an action scene with (my future wife) Angelina Jolie and I would sit back down and gape. Even after I left, I kept flipping on my camera and flipping through the pictures to get another look. Sometimes you can’t stop starting at beauty. The best thing was that it was free! You see, it’s actually quite expensive to get into the Taj Mahal. You have to pay nearly 20 bucks to walk around it and snap a few pictures but it just so happened that the day I chose to go was UNESCO World Heritage Day which entitled me to free admission! Man oh man.
I then decided that I wanted to mail my boots and some other stuff home to literally take a load off my back by reducing the bulk of my backpack. My god…what an ordeal?
I took a rickshaw to the post office with my stuff in a bag where I thought I could buy a box to mail it in. “Nope,” they told me. “We don’t do that here. Go to the market.”
My rickshaw driver took me to a store where I bought a box. I put my stuff in it and went back to the post office.
“You can’t mail it like this! It needs to be covered with a white cloth and then sewn shut and sealed with wax!”
WHAT THE HELL?? How the hell can a country develop if every time someone wants to send a box somewhere, they have to sew fabric around it and pour wax on it. Okay. Whatever. How much does it cost? I asked.
“We don’t do that here. Go to the market.”
I went to the market and a guy charged me $2 bucks to spent 45 minutes sewing a cloth around the box and then pouring wax on the folds to “seal” it. My friend, I ask you. Where the hell am I?
So anyways, I got that done. I then packed my bag, made sure Rob was going to live (he would, he would just need a day or two to recover from the food poisoning and the people at the hotel would bring him food and water), I hopped on a bus to Fatehpur Sikri, the home of a bunch of ruins of an ancient city and a really cool mosque. When I arrived, I found out that that was free too because of the World Heritage Day deal and I spent quite a while wandering around. I was quite impressed.
That night I sat around and tried to figure out my plan. I would go to Varanasi and then head west to see a few more cities before heading back to Delhi. It was hot, but I really wanted to see this stuff. The next day I took the bus back to Agra, paid a hotel half the normal rate to stay there until my train left in the evening and sat around for a few hours. I bought some water only to find that the bottles had all been refilled with tap water and took them back. The next ones he sold me were also bad and I was starting to get mad. He finally sold me some good ones, unfortunately I had taken a drink from one of them because I wasn’t paying attention to which of the two bottles in front of me was the bad one (more on that later). So I then caught my train at 9:00PM to Varanasi, which I thought would only be 12 hours but ended up being closer to 17…in an unairconditioned barely 6 feet long compartment where I was expected to keep my bag and sleep. I had to sleep in a fetal position since my bag took up a huge portion of it and I tossed and turned uncomfortably the entire night as the chains holding up the bed dug into my back and ass. What a night. Everyone stared, but at least they tried to pretend like they weren’t by looking away when I looked at them. The next day I arrived at Varanasi in scorching heat and a dodgy stomach and tried to get a rickshaw to somewhere near the hotel of my choice so the rickshaw driver wouldn’t go in with me and try to get a commission for bringing me (which I would pay for in the cost of my hotel room). They kept telling me they couldn’t bring me to where I wanted to go and I would have to tell them the exact hotel which until they saw that I was about to punch one of them if they didn’t go. And that’s when the scene I opened up this travelogue with unfolded before me. What a place!
I was already getting sick but didn’t know it so I was lacking energy and tried to see what I could see, and then the rushed trips to the bathroom started. I walked around the Ganges and saw all the people praying and meditating and stuff and the next morning I got up at sunrise and saw everyone bathing in it and man was it disgusting. There are heaps of trash in it and (really) raw sewage pumped directly in it every day and you see everyone just plays around in it. My god…but it’s interesting to say the very least.
It wasn’t long before I had to run back to the hotel as my stomach informed me that it had an appointment with the bathroom and I then decided I had to escape. The heat and the chaos was taxing me and I was really getting worn down. It wasn’t that I was shocked really. I’ve seen bits and pieces of what I saw all over the world and it wasn’t that strange. It was just such an assault all at once and I think it was physically impossible for me to handle it all seeing as my body was fighting to recover from what I found out was an intestinal bacterial infection after a visit to the doctor (I’ve only seen a doctor once on this whole trip for stomach problems so that should tell you how serious it was) and I was very dehydrated because everything I took in came directly out. I found a hotel in my book with air conditioning and cable TV and locked myself in it with 12 bananas for two days and tried to recover. I also booked a flight back to Delhi.
And so here I am, back in Delhi. I booked my ticket to Hong Kong yesterday for the 25th and I’ll be there soon. I’m about 80% recovered and I’m feeling a lot better. At least…you know…not like I want to die or like I’m giving birth to the devil’s son (who happens to be bringing out my soul with his claws) every time I rush to the toilet, and I don’t think I’m going to be doing a lot of sight seeing here in Delhi. It’s so hot here, over 100 degrees and it is so much work just to go outside in my condition. Maybe I’ll feel better tomorrow though. And as much as I want to see India, I know it’s impossible. There is no way I can physically do it without driving myself into the ground and having to take a flight back home to recover. I could head up to the north where it’s much cooler, but I don’t want to see that as much as I want to see other parts of the world. You need to be wise when you travel on a long trip like this because it’s easy to get burned out. I saw the Taj Mahal and the Ganges and that is good enough for right now because I know the other stuff I want to see can be seen in a three week vacation at any other point in my life (as long as it is in February, the cool and dry season in India). I got a dose of India, although it is not anywhere near comprehensive, nor authoritative. But the little that I did see was incredibly interesting. Although development is not as blatant as it was in Beijing, it’s obvious that this place is developing incredibly. People are becoming more educated and more wealthy and the fact that New Delhi was just like any other city instead of chaos speaks volumes. It’s happening. And it will be interesting to see how Varanasi has changed in a few years when I come back. One thing that is unique about India is that it is itself so incredibly unique. It is different from anything you’ve ever seen in your life and it does things its own way. People still dress in the traditional brightly colored saris, eat their unique cuisine, let cows wander the streets because they are sacred, and a million other things unique to India where many other cultures have conformed to western (and by that, I mean American) culture and standards. This place is its own and it always will be. It was interesting to see the source of all the influence this place has exercised over all the other Asian countries too. But this traditional culture will change as India evolves and it will be equally interesting to see how they confront issues when the Old and New clash. When India becomes a global superstar, will they still let cows wander the streets? They hold up traffic and defecate in the streets. Things like that will need to be addressed and handled. At the airport, everyone was trying to run down the street to the taxis and a man told them all to stop because it was much more orderly and that running down the road after the taxis instead of letting them come one by one and letting everyone get in from the line “only leads to chaos,” and I saw everyone taking sides. Some wanted order and some wanted “the Indian way” and it kind of embodied a developing country and its struggle to modernize. Sooner or later people realize that lines are good things. And when that happens, it’s indicative of a place that is on the up and up.
All in all, I enjoyed my week and a half in India and although I am leaving with my tail between my legs and only 1/30th of my visa being used, I will be back.
And when I come back, I’ll be ready.