(* Namaste--a beautiful sentiment expressed in a single word: I salute that in you which is divine.)
Many of the one billion residents of India probably wondered why a tall, white woman with yellow hair was traveling alone in their country, frowning intently a good bit of the time. I wondered too, and I am that woman. In April of 2000, I embarked on a five-month journey to South Asia. I’d traveled around the world two years before, spending two short weeks in Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan. Since India had been one of the countries I had loved most on my first trip, I returned, planning to spend six to eight weeks exploring.
Within 36 hours of landing in New Delhi, I was hit with my first wave of illness. I was sitting in a restaurant writing when I suddenly felt as if a train was careening through my head. There was a dull roar, my vision narrowed, and I knew if I didn’t put my head down I would faint. So I sat with my head on the table, mopping sweat from my face and chest, feeling sweat soak through my pants. Several minutes later, I felt okay. Within the next week, however, the germs that came riding in on that train had taken up residence in my gut. This was no longer the kind of thing that could be dealt with by simply putting my head down for a while.
During the 15-hour bus trip from Delhi to McLeod Ganj, home of the Dalai Lama and headquarters of the Tibetan-government-in-exile, I had spoken with Darrell, a Canadian therapist who had been in India for several months. He recommended a doctor of Tibetan medicine for help with my rumbling gut. Dr. Pasang Gyalmo Khangkar asked about my symptoms, checked my pulse and eyes, and gave me an herbal remedy that looked like rabbit turds. These were to be choked down twice a day, after being ground into powder. Having forgotten to pack my mortar and pestle, I wrapped the designated number of pills in a piece of paper and pounded them to dust with the padlock from my door. Unfortunately, the rabbit pills did not do the trick.
I decided to go to the local hospital to see what they could do for me. I walked down the winding mountain road to a large white building. Signs on the stairwell, written in Hindi and English, asked patients to please refrain from spitting. The woman at the registration desk sent me to another office, and from there I was sent to the inpatient area to get a prescription for a stool test. I got the prescription and went back to the office, where I was asked, “Where’s the stool?” Well, it was still in me, so I went back to the inpatient ward where I performed my test and passed with flying colors. At least that’s my interpretation of the ability to squirt diarrhea into a tiny bottle no taller than a quarter with a mouth no wider than a dime. I went to the waiting room, on the roof of the hospital, while the lab work was completed. Then I was sent back to the inpatient area, where I watched birds flying in and out of the room, adding to their already-well-established nest above the doorway. The diagnosis was dysentery. I got antibiotics, along with oral rehydration salts to try to replace the liquid I’d lost during my stint as the Human Sieve. Happily, within a few days the antibiotics seemed to clear things up.
The Quintessential Salesman
Back in Delhi, I was walking along a crowded street with my therapist friend Darrell. He astutely noted, “These people do not look happy. They look stressed.” About half a second later, we heard a loud crack and looked up to see a man chasing after another man with a chair raised as a weapon. Maybe it was because one was trying to sell the other something he didn’t want. A typical interaction with a merchant or would-be merchant goes something like this:
“Hello Madam. Cold drink? Mineral water? Pepsi? Fanta? Chips? Excuse me. Hello. What country? Dutch? Hello Madam. Excuse me, excuse me. What is your job? Can I help you? Shopping? What are you looking for? What do you want? How much will you pay? Change money? Hello Madam. What is your good name? Rickshaw? Taxi? Excuse me madam.”
I was taught, as a very young child, that ‘no’ means ‘no,’ but it doesn’t. Not in business, not always in relationships, and virtually NEVER in India. The only semi-effective solution I found was to avoid eye contact, make no verbal response, and try to become selectively deaf. Even this could fail though, as some merchants would run alongside me, asking repeatedly what I had against them, and trying to convince me that they weren’t like all the other merchants. “Hello madam, I am here. Would you like to look in my shop? Make your eyes happy. No buy, just look. Looking is free.”
Lions and Tigers and Mormons, Oh My!
It’s worrisome when you keep asking people for information about your next destination, and none of them have ever heard of it, despite the fact that they live relatively close by. I knew I needed to exit the train in Umaria in order to catch a ride to Bandhavgarh National Park. But I didn’t know how to arrange the ride. The young man at the government tourist office was polite, but he couldn’t help me, beyond saying I’d need to speak to a travel agent. I found a travel agent, but he told me he had no contacts in Umaria. I decided I’d figure things out later, and proceeded to the train station.
I stopped at the Information Booth to ask which platform I needed to go to, but the uniformed attendant sat glowering at his desk behind the dirty glass window, refusing to move to the counter to look at my ticket. Instead, he pointed at the guy standing beside me in line, and when he couldn’t help, the attendant pointed to the guy on my other side. He didn’t know either, so I pushed my way up to the Enquiry Window. The answer was “Platform 6” but as I turned away I heard a parenthetical “or 5.” I went to Platform 6 where I asked again, and this time I was told the train would arrive at Platform 4, 5, or 6, and to listen carefully for the announcements. Unfortunately, the announcements sounded like the garbled voices of adults on Charlie Brown cartoons. Somehow, I ended up on the right train.
The next day, I found a jeep that took me to the national park, which I was visiting with the hopes of seeing some of the few remaining tigers in the wild. Here, I developed a new friendship with a fellow traveler. Clark and I had briefly crossed paths a few days earlier on the Varanasi ghats. Due to earlier riots that had resulted in a death, Varanasi was under curfew. Travel was restricted, many shops were closed, and the temperature was unbearable. A distinct disadvantage to solo travel is not having a human buffer to divert one’s attention from the negative. What might be interesting or funny if shared with someone else is frequently just horrible and disgusting if alone. I wondered how the holy Ganges could possibly feel holy to anyone. I couldn’t quite get beyond the bloated dead cows that floated by, along with raw sewage, garbage, and human body parts. I beat a hasty retreat for Bandhavghar.
During dinner one night, a tall, handsome man pulled up a chair beside me and asked how I’d liked Varanasi. It took me a moment to place his face as that of the stranger who’d passed by and muttered an inappropriate but amusing comment while I sat watching a cremation. Sporting an affable demeanor and a bright grin, he asked if I’d like to share a jeep with him the following day for an excursion into the park. I gladly agreed.
As our jeep bounced along the rutted roads, Clark and I got acquainted. He’s a Mormon, married, politically conservative, and the kind of person who has never met a stranger (he’s been known to swim out to small outrigger canoes and climb aboard after introducing himself to the fisherman). I’m religiously undecided, gay, politically liberal, and the kind of person who fails miserably at small talk. We got along famously.
Our driver learned of a tiger sighting, so we sped up the road to join the crowds of others who’d heard the same thing. Elephants were brought in, and the occupants of each jeep clambered aboard, four to each pachyderm. We lumbered into the forest, joining a group of other tourists and an entire IMAX film crew, all lined up beside a regal tigress and her two cubs. Clark and I were on a bad-boy elephant, who kept grabbing thin tree limbs with his trunk, moving around, and disrupting the camera-clicking hordes. At one point, the elephant grabbed a supple limb, pulled it back, then let it go, whacking a woman one elephant over in the face. We got a couple of angry looks from other tourists, but what does one do with an unruly elephant? Clark and I were both going on to Bombay, so we decided to travel together. He had rented a car and driver while in Varanasi, so we proposed that the driver take us to Katni, a tiny place three hours away from the park via some very bad roads, so that we could catch a train. The original agreement had been for the driver to take Clark to Bandhavghar, then return with him to Varanasi. India is not known as the Land of Bureaucracy without reason. Following a long, drawn-out ordeal of negotiations, phone calls to the office in Varanasi, and a few angry exchanges with the driver, Clark agreed to write a note to the owner of the rental business, explaining the change in plans. This innocuous act seemed to finally satisfy all involved parties.
Why Go to the Taj Mahal? Take a Trip to Bhopal!
We purchased tickets to Bhopal, site of the worst industrial disaster of the century. In 1984, tons of lethal gas leaked from a Union Carbide factory, with a death toll of more than 16,000. Bhopal was not a destination high on either of our itineraries, but it seemed like a logical place to stop and break up our 24-hour train trip to Bombay.
We were informed that our 12:00 train would arrive at 12:30. The station was small, hot, and foul-smelling. Hordes of people stared at us. (I would say this was because few tourists travel to Katni, but in my experience, Indians stare intently no matter how lightly- or heavily-traveled an area is. I started to feel like a walking movie, a gripping drama that the audience just couldn’t tear themselves away from.) Clouds of flies descended upon us. A cow wandered along the platform eating garbage. Another cow walked along the tracks. (What do you call a cow walking on the railroad tracks? Hamburger!)
We also tried to find someone who could tell us the number of our train and the number of the platform where we should embark, to no avail. After being told the train was further delayed and would arrive at 2:00, 5:00, or 7:00, we headed off in search of lunch. We entered a restaurant close to the train station, not wanting to get too far away in case our train arrived at one of the earlier times among our many options. We walked hesitantly into the dark back room. One man stood at the bar talking with the bartender. There were no other customers. The ceiling was wet. The floors were wet. Water dripped from chairs and tables. A thin, young man dressed in white mopped at the puddles, the mess apparently caused by a pipe bursting in the ceiling. Almost all of the lights were off. We were ushered to a table by a man who dried the seats with a rag. Clark and I split an order of palak paneer, a spinach dish with a type of Indian cheese in it. Right after we finished eating, smoke started billowing out of the kitchen. Bhopal was looking better and better.
Despite my having quit smoking a couple of weeks earlier, we shared cigarettes and swatted flies until 7:00, when we finally found someone who could tell us our train number. An hour later, the train for Bhopal arrived. We were relieved to finally board, but we were immediately informed we didn’t have seats. We were directed to a double-tier berth with four beds, five other people, and every inch of floor space covered with piles of luggage. These kind-hearted souls sent one person to another berth and then doubled up in their narrow beds, freeing up two beds for us and our backpacks. I didn’t get much sleep, but it was a glorious relief to lie down for a while.
We arrived in Bhopal in the pre-dawn hours, found a room, and slept briefly. We arrived at the bank as soon as it opened, only to find we couldn’t exchange traveler’s checks until 10:30. We were both out of cash (I was down to my last 60 rupees, the equivalent of about $1.50), and we were both starving (having split only one meal the day before). Clark rummaged through his pockets and found some extra rupees, so we pooled our money and went to get breakfast. The first two places we tried were closed. We settled for a dumpy little place where my meal stayed in my body about as long as it took me to rush through the kitchen to the bathroom.
Despite our initial reservations about Bhopal, it actually had quite a few points of interest. Two lakes comprised the center of the city. The largest mosque in the country, Taj-ul-Masajid, was nestled in the town’s center. About 30 miles away were the Buddhist ruins of Sanchi, dating back from the 3rd century BC. But we were so focused on trying to make things work the way we wanted them to, and getting to Bombay, that we missed our opportunity to enjoy the place where we’d ended up.
Following a trip to a bank that didn’t have foreign exchange services, we found the bank we needed, got some cash, then headed on to another train station. We waited in a long line at the reservation desk, where we were told that there were no seats available to Bombay. We held our ground at the counter, asking what else we could do, elbowing those who tried to push their way up to the window. Eventually, we got our names on the wait list, then we were directed to the chief reservation supervisor’s office to ask about the emergency quota. India’s trains are frequently booked up days or weeks in advance. For the traveler, there are tourist quotas that assure their wait for tickets will be minimal. There are also emergency quotas, tickets set aside for an individual’s use during a personal emergency. Using the emergency quota, the supervisor booked us on a mail train, in a compartment with six beds instead of four, leaving the following afternoon.
That night, we rented the hotel pool table, providing entertainment for the staff and neighborhood children, who gathered around and laughed at the spectacle. As usual, I was not sure why watching us was so amusing. Perhaps it was because women do not usually participate in such activities. Exhausted by our past couple of days, I went to the room we were sharing and fell asleep. Clark sat downstairs in the lobby and read. Around midnight, Clark came in and woke me with the fateful words, "I’m in trouble." Then he rushed into the bathroom, where he was violently ill. I ran downstairs and woke the hotel staff to get a taxi. As I was shepherding Clark into the vehicle, the guy from the front desk yelled out “200 rupees!” naming his price for our ride to the hospital.
Approximately two kilometers later (about a 10 rupee ride), we stopped at a tiny, dingy clinic in an alley. There were four rooms with curtains for doors, opening into the main area where the doctor’s desk was. One oscillating fan swept back and forth between the patients’ rooms that were adjoined. Clark’s room had a simple cot in it, along with a tank of oxygen that looked like it had been recovered from the ocean floor. Sitting in the only chair was a container for him to urinate in that looked very much like a teakettle.
The doctor, who spoke fluent English, entered wearing blue jeans and a T-shirt. After examining the patient, diagnosing kidney stones (which Clark had already surmised), and hooking up an IV, he injected Clark’s stomach with drugs to help relax the muscle spasms. The doctor gave him seven pills, the vast majority of which must have been powerful sedatives, because his eyes were closing after he’d swallowed only half of them. I was sitting beside Clark brushing back his sweat-soaked hair, when the doctor called me out to his desk. Clark told me later that he had awakened briefly and thought, “What the hell is my doctor doing to Constance? Is he possibly reading her palm? Well, I’m not surprised; he probably has Rolexes for sale too.”
Never having had my palms read before, I wasn’t sure of the protocol. The doctor told me to just ask questions about things of interest to me. I asked about my health. He informed me it wasn’t very good. I wanted to yell, “That’s because I’m in India!” but I didn’t. Instead, I returned to the room and slept a few hours before the clerk at the front desk called to say “Money, money!” still trying to get his extortionate taxi fee. Back at the clinic, I learned that Clark had been given the green light to travel. While he had a few more tests run, I went to the hotel and crammed all of our stuff in our packs, then schlepped all four bags downstairs simultaneously. The extortionist was not in sight, and I happily stiffed the hotel on the cab fare, a small but much-cherished victory in what felt like a losing war. Clark and I decided a 15-20 hour train trip was not a wise option, so we went to the airport. We were told we could book seats for that afternoon, and after four or five hours of waiting, we did. But our reservations were for the next day. So we checked into a different hotel and settled in for another night in Bhopal.
In the morning, we took a taxi to the airport, tickets in hand for our 12:00 flight. When the announcement of the brief flight delay came over the intercom, Clark pointed out that it might well mean no flight was coming at all. He likened it to a joke: A man sees a boy cutting a dog’s tail. The boy is cutting one tiny bit off at a time. The man says, “Son, why are you docking the dog’s tail like that? Why don’t you just cut if off short and get it over with?” To which the boy replied, “Well I figure I better do it this way. You see how much this is hurting him. If I did it all at once, it might kill him.” We left at 8 p.m. If India and I were wrestling, surely she had me pinned to the mat by now.
Respite and Perspective
Bombay provided some much-needed relaxation and relief, and Clark’s health held up. The city, covering several islands, had a palpable energy. Its 15 million residents jostled down the sidewalks, across the many bridges, and along the tree-lined streets. In addition, there were numerous much-appreciated amenities, such as the air-conditioned room we rented, complete with cable television.
During my first few weeks in India, I struggled frequently with the difficulty of being in the moment. Things happened and it was not until later, minutes or hours or days, that I really could process it, and even then I didn’t seem to feel it fully. For example, while visiting McLeod Ganj, I went to a restaurant to hear a Tibetan woman speak of her experience as a prisoner of the Chinese for 27 years. She was incarcerated at a number of different prisons. One time she was transferred with 100 other women to a labor camp; of the 100, only four survived. I bought her book (The Voice that Remembers), and I saw her around town a couple of times after the talk. How do you get your mind around something like that? Sometimes I felt as if I couldn’t see...and I didn’t know if it was because I was focused on something else (tickets for the next destination, shopping, finding a toilet), or because I didn’t want some of the sights to register (a crippled child crawling down the street, lepers begging for coins, a child with open sores, stray pups scrounging for food, raw sewage, filth, squalor...). Maybe I was afraid if I was constantly in the moment I’d spend my entire time weeping.
More than once, traveling in India reminded me of my past experience as a mental health worker at a psychiatric center: lots of hard, unpleasant work with rewards that can be few and far between. In India, I felt like I was on the run, constantly tired and frustrated. Still, the rewards that presented themselves were priceless: The sounds of chanting monks, rollicking trains, spinning prayer wheels, screaming peacocks, pounding surf. The scents of curries, jasmine, incense, bidis. The taste of fresh palak paneer, gulab jamun, naan. The sight of monkeys on the roadside, intricate Jain temples, crimson-robed monks lined up at computer terminals. The feel of cool Himalayan air, a shower after a long hike, an embrace from a new friend.
India is exhilarating and exhausting. It is a land of intense extremes, both wonderful and terrible. Despite tearfully vowing I would never return, I probably will. I know I will. Namaste, India. Namaste.