India

27: Holy Shiva

It’s not the heat, it’s the humanity.

Namaste, Ernie and Hadley!

It’s been far too long since I dropped you cats a note, and I send this with hopes that real Spring is finally in the air, allowing you both to shed those winter coats anywhere you damn well please – after all, it’s Jason and Rachelle’s problem now, woohoooo!

Speaking of Spring, it most certainly isn’t in the air in India. Apathy, sadness, destitution, illness, inequality, despair, pollution, trash – ungodly heat, sure. But Spring? Most definitely not. 

I began writing this from Delhi airport at the end of a long day. Long because I’d taken a digger earlier that morning on the marble stairs of my hostel lobby. And before you even make that face, Hadley, no, I wasn’t drunk, though I wish I had been. At least that way I’d have an excuse beyond just being an old guy whose flip-flopped-feet shot out from under him for seemingly no reason, resulting in an epic fail on his way to have poached eggs. 

If there’s any good news, it’s that there were no witnesses to my grave indignity – but maybe more important, my injuries didn’t require a journey into the belly of the beast – that of a Delhi ER – though that wasn’t entirely clear right away. Nothing was entirely clear, if I’m being honest, as I was sitting there on the floor, more than a bit dazed, my list of injuries absolutely including a mild concussion. In fact, one of the first things I did when I returned to my room – after overcoming my overwhelming desire to vomit and pass out – was google “is it safe to fly with a concussion?” Short of reading “your brain will most definitely explode,” little else was going to stop me from getting to the airport, getting onto my plane, and getting the hell out of this godforsaken country. Not a concussion. Not the open gash on my hand that our famous author friend, Jeff Hull (Pale Morning Done, Broken Field, and the soon-to-be-released, Pulitzer-winning Pud, Shit Happens) insisted would absolutely result in some sort of horrible infection. And not what I was sure were broken ribs, a pain so intense it was difficult to breathe, sit, stand, lie down, get up, cough, sneeze, sob like a wee little baby, never mind carry two full packs for the 24 hours of travel that lay ahead. 

But don’t let my whining color your view of India. Let’s let a local do that instead.

While I was in the airport, trying to down my first and only cocktail of the day before boarding my plane (nearly ten hours after arriving, mind you, the only pain meds I’d had since taking human flight), I overheard a born-and-raised Delhian, now living in the US, talking to another traveler about his homeland… 

“All of us,” he said. “Me. My sister who lives in Australia. My brother in the UK. Whenever we get together here, we all just shake our heads and agree, ‘this place just ain’t right.'”

Truer words have never been spoken, guys. This place. India. It just ain’t.

What is and ain’t right about India is complex – a long, complicated, and at-times overlapping list. I’m sure my take on it will upset some of the Hindustan dreamers out there, those kama sutra lovers, you downwith doggers (props to Ernie for that phrasing) – hell, even I fell victim to the quirky romanticism of Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited – so let me add my one and only disclaimer here, the caveat that will allow some of our yogis-next-door (I’m talking you, Boo, Margot, and Joanie) to keep their India joneses alive:

I only visited four places in this truly enormous country – Agra, Jaipur, Sawai Madhopur, and Delhi.

I didn’t make it to Rishikesh, not only the home of yoga, but also of the Beatles introduction to Transcendental Meditation (now I know why both were invented here – it was the only means of escape for those of lesser means). I didn’t make it to Mumbai, even though I could have attended a two-day Indian wedding with my friend Agustina had I stayed for just one week more. I didn’t visit the chilled-out southern beaches of Goa. And I didn’t even take a ride on Anderson’s iconic train, which still runs an eight-hour route in the Himalayas. 

And you know what? 

I won’t. 

And I never will. 

And I don’t care. 

Before I go all scorched earth, I should note it wasn’t all bad. I ate several amazing, home cooked Indian meals. I went to the Taj Mahal during the day – my reason for being here in the first place – and saw the sun set along its riverbanks in the evening. I went on two tiger safaris in Ranthambore National Park, and reveled in the legendary madness of Indian transportation, on trains, in Tuk Tuks, and even as a solo bicyclist. And despite how the rest of this might read, I met several, truly wonderful people.

So what exactly ain’t right?

To begin, India is a country that assaults every human sense, the promise of which, I must admit, was intoxicating at first.

But…

This noise is truly incessant, and far too often, entirely unnecessary. I once read that even Vishnu himself had scribbled in one of his early journals, “If one beeps at everything…does one really beep at anything at all?” It didn’t really catch on at the time, and was met with confusion and even derision by his early fans and critics – but it might be a text some Hindus want to revisit today. 

One might expect this kind of noise in metropolitan Delhi and Agra, sure, but even tractor drivers in the little village of Sawai Madhopur chugged past my room at The Village Heart Hotel each morning at 5AM with club music cranking from its speakers. By my last day there I had to fight the urge to run outside and hand him every last rupee I had to at least buy himself some serviceable subwoofers. 

Even in this remote Rajasthanian town you could be the only person walking along an empty stretch of roadway (an Indian unicorn in itself) and a moto driver coming at you on the other side of the road, visible for a half mile, will still beep several times as he passes, reminding you of the fact that peace and quiet belong to no man. 

Smells, Ernie? India has odors that would make your litter box – if unemptied for the entire length of my year abroad – smell like a bed of roses. 

Pollution in Delhi is so thick you can chew it.

There is so much dust and dirt in the air that when doing laundry at Zostel Hostel in Delhi, they had to wash my clothes twice (The good news? It still only cost three bucks).  

Trash is, well, everywhere. Piles of it. Disintegrating garbage bags of it. Bottles and cans and wrappers and packaging just dropped to the ground wherever and whenever its purpose is no longer served – out of train windows and Tuk Tuks by adults, by young kids walking down the street holding dad’s hand, it even makes up the riverbanks of the Taj itself.

The riverbank behind the majestic Taj Mahal is made up largely of trash, where a local boy was collecting discarded flip-flops while his goats grazed nearby. The relatively new aqueduct, seen on the left, funnels untreated sewage directly into the Yamuna River, hardly the only one that does so.
From Delhi to Agra to Jaipur to Sawai Madhopur, the length of the railway serves not only as a garbage dump, but quite often as a bathroom for the “untouchables.” A Delhian told me its not uncommon for guests at resorts in less ideal locales to open their curtains to poorer neighbors partaking in their morning constitutionals. To me, that says much more about government controlled infrastructure than it does caste or education.
Join me for a couple train rides: Train 1; Train 2; Train 3
Wild pigs scavenge amongst the garbage strewn about the streets of Sawai Madhopur.

The heat? My god, the heat. I used to enjoy quoting the movie, Biloxi Blues, referring to any oppressive heat as “Africa hot.” Well, I rode a bike for eight hours my very first day in India, visiting the Taj Mahal and Red Fort in Agra, and the temps that day topped out at 111 degrees.

One.

Hundred.

Eleven.

Degrees.

And I was riding a bike.

I’d just spent three and a half months in Africa, and India made the worst of that continent feel like the Bahamas, which I’m pretty sure I hallucinated I was biking through by mid-afternoon.

Bike ride along with me here.

And last but not least, of course, are the Indians themselves. Oh, the humanity. That insanely suffocating crush, so many people that there are literal foot-traffic-jams in some areas of Delhi – never mind actual traffic jams – where there is no such thing as personal space. It makes total sense on one hand – there are nearly one-and-a-half billion people in this country, so even the concept of personal space is something of which dreams are made. But then, less understandably, so it seems is the concept of common courtesy, where far too many of the people here seem to be aware of nothing beyond their immediate selves. Squeeze between me and the counter while I’m literally still completing a purchase isn’t about personal space – it’s simply about you being a dick. Lines? Lines be damned, unapologetically wedging yourself in front of me to put your bags onto the x-ray conveyor at the railway station, even as I’m extending my arms to lay down my own – when there’s no rush, no train about to leave you behind? Purposely gassing that Tuk Tuk to close the gap between bumpers so I quite literally cannot fit a leg between while trying to cross that clogged roadway in the heat and dust? Push me aside to cut in front while we’re all ambling like cattle through the crowded streets of Old Town, when getting in front of me gets you nowhere but one person closer to…what, exactly? Zero acknowledgement when I say “Please, you first, or when I help you with your bag, hold a door (a literal foreign concept my friend Abhay said took some time getting used to when he worked in the States), or move aside to let you pass because you appear to be in a rush?

Streets of India 1. Streets of India 2. Streets of India 3. Streets of India 4. Streets of India 5.

Yeah, I know, I’m sounding like an old man shaking an angry fist at those pesky neighborhood kids, and you’re both probably begging me to get to pictures of dogs suffering heatstroke, but these are just a couple instances in what was an honestly ceaseless, never-ending onslaught of sensory assault. Short of locking myself in my room, it never, ever ended – walk out that door, and I was immediately in the midst of the fray. At first, it was fun – become the water, I’d been telling myself. Go with the flow. But after a few days, I began telling myself, Y’know what, Pete? Fuck the flow.

India is a country where the caste system is built upon the very idea of human inequality. Where fellow human beings, simply by birthright, are matter-of-factly deemed “latrine cleaners,” their miserable fate predetermined by some shittily arbitrary luck-of-the-draw.

A seemingly uneventful pic, the driver of the Kia pulled up onto the curb across from Delhi Railway Station, laying relentlessly on his horn, forcing the man in yellow to quickly move his scooter to give the driver his space. No resistance. No thank you. No acknowledgment. For better or worse, that would have led to an altercation at home. Here, however, caste rules, baby.

India is a country where women are subservient and discriminated against simply for being female, where having daughters instead of sons is often considered misfortune. 

India is a country where marrying below your caste still brings actionable shame upon your family. 

India is a country where many elderly parents, too burdensome and expensive to care for, are dropped off by their children to live – and die – on the streets of its major cities. 

Where homeless teen boys, filthy beyond comprehension, sleep atop one another on the sidewalks in the scorching sun. 

Where someone at every single corner begs for rupees for food or drink, the very old and the far too young, pleading with filthy fingers to their mouths, mimicking their hunger. A place where this is so overwhelming, so incessant, that you eventually have no choice but to avert your eyes, say no with a hand held up, and walk on. Like everyone else here does, no one stopping to help their own countrymen and women, no one extending that hand downward to help the elderly man who is lying half in the gutter, mouth agape in the life-draining heat and humidity, staring into nothingness as if begging for sweet release. 

And yet, this is a place where cows are considered sacred. But are they, really?

I saw people feeding cows more often than I saw anyone feed a fellow human being, that’s true (actually, I saw no one feeding another human being). Many families feed bread to stray cows each morning. But there’s an important thing to note here – they’re strays, and these strays roam everywhere. The highways, side streets, sidewalks, yards, fields, train tracks, because once they can no longer produce milk, they’re set free to fend for themselves. I saw them in the middle of busy roadways struggling to eat discarded naan from the blacktop as cars and Tuk Tuks and motos sped around and past. I saw them atop trash piles, scavenging with mangy stray dogs, birds, and ducks. I saw injured cows and sickly cows, some with ropes still tied around their heads and necks. Not eating them might be considered a sacred act, but abandoning them to fend for themselves once they’re no longer useful to you is something less than sacred – and less than humane. 

On one hand, I saw kind men like Gajanand Sharma, the father of my host at The Village Heart Hotel in Sawai Madhopur, breaking daily bread with a neighborhood stray. This cow visited each morning, and would then move down to the neighbor’s home and wait patiently for the door to open to receive his next helping.
On the other hand…
…just one random, non-denominational American guy’s meaningless opinion here, but personally I think supposedly-sacred animals should live better than this.
A stray, rope still tied around its head, licks a tabletop clean on the streets of Agra.

Elephants here are still used to ferry tourists up and down scorching tarmac roads and cobblestoned walkways to see old fort ruins, despite the documented fact it wears the pads on their feet flat, causing excruciating pain. The argument by locals was that their livelihood depends on the money from said tourists – and it worked. Even in the elephant sanctuaries, such as the popular “Elefantastic,” tourists can still clamber up to ride and paint – yes, paint – these magnificent animals. Apparently, the only way the mistreatment will end is for the tourists to end it themselves. 

I could go on and on – as if I haven’t already – from how they dispose of their dead to the vastly underestimated number of covid victims to the flaunting of common sense public health regulations, but you can read about that on your own, and besides, Ernie is probably already on his back, legs splayed, lost in cat unconsciousness.

Signs like this shouldn’t be necessary in a developed nation. But they’re in parks, at airports, bus stations, train stations, in front of restaurants. I know they’re needed because people still refuse to heed the message, even within the walls of one of their most holy sites, Jama Masjid Mosque, as I bore witness myself.
I thought it was rather quaint when I came across this stray cooling himself in a pool along the roadside in Sawai Madhopur one day…
…until I passed a few hours late and discovered local boys bathing in the same pool.

And maybe the saddest part of this entry? I actually intended to make this a funny one, guys, I really did, as the last time Elle-B said one of my updates made her laugh out loud might have been when I almost beat up Francois, the Parisian midget. Now all I get from her are automatic messages saying “Your blog was read.”

But truth is, India made being funny very hard. In fairness to its fans and dreamers, my exposure was very limited, sure, seen from just one lens, one that certainly might have narrowed the more disillusioned I allowed myself to become. Maybe it simply wasn’t my cup of tea. But in fairness to me, I’ve been to other places that didn’t quite tickle my fancy, but my reaction was nowhere near as visceral. I’m well aware that in a country this large, there can be worlds of difference a few hundred kilometers down the road, and every country has its challenges – hell, the U.S. has Detroit and the entire state of Florida! But the overriding culture, caste system, openly accepted inequity (and yes, I’m well aware of the inequities in America), the systemically-demanded corruption, and what I cannot stop thinking of as a widespread, cultural lack of empathy, goes well beyond regional boundaries. Maybe I’d understand better if I’d stayed a while longer, within or without the madness. But the fact is, I didn’t want to. Going white-water-rafting in Rishikesh wasn’t going to magically erase what happens to females in this country, or to those with the misfortune of being born into a lower caste. And getting hippy high on the beaches of Goa would provide nothing more than a momentary escape from the realities that await those “burdensome” elderly, and these oh-so-sacred cows. 

Despite it all, however, I’m happy I went to India, I really am, and I’ll never forget it or regret it. I saw the Taj Mahal. I came within 15 feet of a massive, free-roaming, LSU Bengal TigerI had a wonderful homestay with Moses and his amazing family in Agra, where I ate delicious, traditional, home-cooked Indian meals, and enjoyed more of the same with Gulshan and his family in Sawai Madhupor. Sawai is a relatively destitute village town, with plenty of trash and even open sewage, but it is less crowded, simpler, more my speed, where smiling and giggling and adorable kids would follow me as I meandered through its streets, and where men and women, young and old alike, would come outside, stare for a moment, then break into shy grins and waves of hello. 

I got to see India firsthand, something I never imagined I would experience in my lifetime. But I don’t need to go farther North or South or East or West to dissect its layers and understand its nuance – humanity cannot be defined by nuance, after all. When a traveler needs to go to a different part of a country to witness moments of empathy and equality and lawfulness, the problem doesn’t lie in coordinates on a map, and the solution requires more than a train ticket to a more agreeable locale. So I’ll remain unapologetic about my take on my visit to India, maybe only until I come face to face with my friend Ashu, or maybe Abhay, sure, and maybe then I’ll offer a humbled apology for insulting their homeland. But the truth is, I’ve had plenty of time to think about this one, and my apologies will ring hollow, as they should. And besides, if any apologies are due, I really don’t think they should be coming from me.

Sure it’s a checklist item, but come on, it’s the frickin’ Taj Mahal!
Iconic Tourist Photo: Check.
The Taj at sunset, from an abandoned tower to which only guests of Zigzag Hostel have access. Moses and his brother John run Agra By Bike, and John was my guide this evening.
To access the Taj viewpoint, John took me through private government property, the security of which is managed by a local couple. It’s well-known that while private, a few rupees will get you through the gate (it’s just how things work here in India). And not only did John manage to get me, the goats, the wife, and the Taj in this shot – he also got a peacock in mid-flight. (slow clap)
Afterward, while waiting for my Tuk Tuk, I enjoyed a mango lassi at John’s shop and then a blessing from the priest at the temple next door.
My sleeper car from Agra to Jaipur.
Hey there little fella.
Baboons at the Railway Station in Agra.
The country was silly with peacocks.
Peacock takes flight in Ranthambore National Park.
By now I’ve seen dozens of forts, and if I’m being honest, I find ’em pretty goddamn boring. It was probably built by the French. The French probably surrendered and ran away at some point. Other guys took it over. They ate in this room, slept over here. Weapons were stored here. They did their exercises in this yard, blah blah. But whoever wrote this bit of snark won back a piece of my heart.
I came home from Ranthambore National Park to discover my hotel neighbor trying to coax a Boa Constrictor out of the brush. Not exactly the protective gear I would have chosen, but then what the hell do I know. He stayed at it for some time – and even his son and a grandmother got involved – but that snake never showed itself. Probably just slithered into my room.
Rockin’ out on the Ektara at Red Fort, in Agra. Listen here.
I was so programmed to say “no” to everyone and anyone who tried to pitch their wares that it took me a minute to realize this guy had offered to let me check my weight – I had to double back and ask him to repeat himself. To any of his family and friends who didn’t support the crazy insane dreams of this business savant, you owe him an immediate apology.
I tipped the scales at 79.8. One part toned muscle, the other part beer.
The exact breakdown of those parts is of little importance.
Meet Moses, the wonderful host of Zigzag Hostel in Agra. His mother and sisters prepared all of my amazing meals. His brother John took me on a bike and hike tour of the Taj Mahal at Sunset. And Moses provided me with transportation and guidance for Agra and beyond, and checked in on me long after I’d moved on. Truly wonderful people.
A little early morning railway station entertainment (click here) all for the price of a Coca-Cola.
You don’t have to ask kids in Africa or India to pose for a picture, they come to you, and just want to see the pic on your phone when it’s done.
Tiny humans can sometimes, for a brief moment in time, be pretty alright.
After two safaris and a LOT of watching sleeping cats from two hundred yards away, I’d resigned myself to leaving India without seeing one of your more glorious species – the mascot of our beloved LSU – up close. We’d exited the main entrance of Ranthambore National Park and were driving the service road to town when we came upon a stopped jeep and an excited, pointing young man. To our right, drinking from the river, was this guy, who easily could have crossed to the other side of the river and disappeared into the mountains. Instead, he decided to give us all a special treat, and a truly amazing finish to my quest. Video here.

Goodbye for now, guys. Be good, sleep well.

Next up: Vietnam.

1 Comment

  1. lionjambalayaelektra41789 says:

    This was quite the story telling, and I’m sure you could have told even more! Stay safe

    Like

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