When our auto-rickshaw passed a team of horses pulling a large wooden coach down the highway at a full gallop I knew this trip was going to be different. We were already flying along the unlit motorway, passing obscenely large trucks jockeying for position, their bumpers nearly clipping. We swung left to avoid the oncoming flatbed truck defiantly forcing its way up the center of our lane. As I looked back I could see its only working tail light bobbing up and down in the dark, the machine parting the sea of traffic like a vintage steel Moses. The hands on the meter of the airport rickshaw were spinning like airplane propellers now and the humming noise made my driver smile. $6. $7. $8. The further we went the faster they seemed to spin, and the brighter he seemed to smile.
An hour earlier I had stepped off the plane that took me from Beijing to Delhi. It was packed with Indians, many from Canada. It wasn’t hard to glance up and see a Fraser Health name tag, or a t-shirt for a small British Columbian hockey team. From the start of the flight I watched the floor of my isle gradually fill up with used tissues, plastic wrappers, and cups. Reaching my overhead luggage and following the mass of people to the exit of the plane I could hear a crunching sound with each step. Now, as my rickshaw crept into the heart of the city, my driver was lost. He slowly patrolled the streets looking for signs that would hint at our exact location. A moment later he slowed and slid the vehicle towards the side of the road. Was this it? My driver batted a fly away from his face, then tucked his mud-stained jacket between the seat behind him, leaned over, and called out to nobody.
Sitting at the side of the road was a car, a couple of old motorcycles, a pile of garbage lying alongside the gutter, and an old plastic patio chair you might have seen at a construction site somewhere. It was faded, stains of dirt, and whatever else, browning the once bright white plastic. Seconds later a grim blanket on top of the chair began to move, and in the darkness I could just barely make out two wet orbs adjusting to the light. Beneath those orbs a raspy voice replied in Hindi, and our auto-rickshaw was moving again. This time, as I peered along the dimly lit city street I noticed more and more chairs with more and more blankets sitting atop them, then the faint glow of embers from dying fires and feet just barely poking out from behind large wooden boxes.
Eventually we found our destination. It was three in the morning now, and all I wanted to do was sleep. The half-awake guy-at-the-desk led me down a long dark hallway towards the basement and into a small cement room. “So this is what it’s come to?” I thought. I threw my oversized grey Vaude bag down, rested my brother’s old school backpack next to it, curled up overtop blankets older than the last Trudeau government, and drifted to sleep.
How do you describe India to someone who has never been? This question always seemed to come up whenever I talked to a new traveler drifting somewhere between cities. The response would always be a coy smile, and a “yeah, no kidding.” How could you answer the question, “what is India like?” Talking about a place and experiencing it are two completely different things, and India… India complicates things. Some places are easy to compare to others. Seattle is a larger version of Vancouver, but without coastal mountains hugging the city. Austria is a quieter and less bombastic version of Germany; but India….
What is India like?
I stepped out of the Hotel Hari Piorko and was immediately yelled at. From across the street rickshaw drivers, smelling money, started in towards me and quickly swarmed me with offers. “Old city?! Let’s go!” “Hello, friend!” It took a few days, but I eventually became good, very good, at the very unCanadian habit of totally ignoring people who were trying to talk to me. I say unCanadian because it is a classic Canadian trait to treat people with civility and politeness, not out of respect for them, but due to the cultural conditioning that has been drilled into us from childhood.
In India, predators have become very good at exploiting this.They prey on politeness and your inability to rudely shut them down. They start with a friendly “Hello,” move to a “What country?” and then transition to offers of assistance. They want to take you to one of their tourist offices and sell you extortionate holiday packages, or set you up with your own personal rickshaw driver at 10 times the going rate. They want to give you a special price on one of their marble statues, claiming that everyone else passes off sandstone as marble. They want to sell you genuine camel leather that was actually donated by some accommodating goat. They shove unwanted services in your face, open doors for you, and expect you to just hand them money. Priests along the bank of the holy Ganges river bless you, or perform fake holy rituals, then prod you for money afterwards. Everywhere you walk, someone is trying to get money from you some way or another and it all becomes…. overwhelming, to say the least.
I made my way up the street and away from the hotel. The drivers tailed me for 4 or 5 minutes before giving up, frustrated that I wouldn’t acknowledge their existence. When the swarm died away I started to look for a driver. Prices were always a lot cheaper away from the hotels and I knew how much I could actually travel to the center of the city for. I set the best tourist price I could probably get, 50 rupees, then started approaching drivers. Surprisingly, the first driver I approached agreed to my price without any haggle. He was a young guy with a Jet Li style cut, and seemed a little too accommodating for an Indian rickshaw driver. I stepped in and with a gurgle of the exhaust the vehicle coughed and belched its way forward.
Somewhere along a tree-lined street he started to talk to me. “Where you from, friend?” We made small talk but he seemed preoccupied. He was taking his time driving, cruising the rickshaw lazily along in a very unIndian way. A couple minutes later he pulled to the side of the road to look at his cellphone. Moments later, with a groan the rickshaw started up again and he turned to me. “I don’t understand this girl,” he complained.
“Who actually understands women?” I thought it was a clever response.
He laughed diplomatically. “She send me text. Can’t see me. I don’t know some problem.” He paused, looking down at his phone. “I love her and she is like me but can’t be see me. Why? I don’t know.” Then, as if he just thought of it, he turned to me, offering me the phone. “Can you look, understand this?” I took the phone. I scanned the message, written in good English, telling a story about not being able to see him anymore because her friend was in an accident and was really hurt and they needed to try to afford the hospital bill somehow. It was apparently a major problem, so she couldn’t see him again.
We were nearing the center of New Delhi now, Rajiv Chowk metro station. The day before I had tried to find a great little restaurant mentioned in Lonely Planet which, apparently, sold some of the best kebabs the author had ever had. Walking the sidewalks along the large circular motorway, alongside old British buildings supported by dirty white columns stretching up 20 or 30 feet, I would feel a presence just next to me. Looking, I would see that somewhere along the way some slick young man had stepped out from behind one of those columns and quickened to match my pace. A moment or two down the road he’d begin to talk to me. I would politely answer him in a way that satisfied my Canadian cultural conditioning and subtly bat away his more pointed questions and politely refuse his offers. When he left, another would tail me. Squadrons of young men would drift in like MiG fighters flanking an enemy aircraft. They would follow me from store to store as I asked shopkeepers and security guards for directions. Eventually there would be two or three of them at a single moment, eyes darting between my face and the bag I was carrying, saliva forming on their lips. I’d double back instead of taking the short cut through the alley to the restaurant. I would pretend not to hear them and suddenly make a u-turn, then quicken my steps. I would brush off subtle allusions to my rude antisocial behaviour. I would head back to the hotel and leave kabobs for another day.
“Do you know what it says?” The driver was prodding me again. We were stopped at a red light now. “What it means?” I envisioned myself standing at an ATM where thousands of dollars were being extracted from my bank account.
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know???” He was surprised, not expecting the answer I gave him. He paused for a moment, “You don’t read it?” It would be late at night, somewhere remote. He would be standing behind me with a few friends, smiling. The cash would keep spitting out of the machine. My thoughts drifted to emails filled with pleas from distant princesses who could unlock their inheritance if you just wired them a little bit of money.
“I read it, but I don’t understand what she means, sorry.”
“It’s okay, friend………” The rickshaw sputtered through Rajiv Chowk and then popped and coughed to a stop near the corner. I could hear the driver flip the key just enough to engage the starter motor and then purposefully turn the key back just before the engine caught. I could tell he wanted me out. “You better take another rickshaw, friend. Mine is broken.”
I started up the road away from Rajiv Chowk, walking as far as I could away from that place before catching another rickshaw. My former driver, I was sure, was on his way to look for another tourist to pass his phone to.
What is India like?
Indian food is some of the best food I have ever eaten. There is something about those sauces soaking through tender meat, and that spicy kick in the back of your mouth next to your cheeks. Brilliant. Stunning. In fact, Indian food is one of the big reasons I went to India.
Delhi has amazing roadside food-stands slapping together some of the best food I’ve ever had. I was in heaven for the first few days I was there. Batter fried goat-cheese and potato sandwiches, deep-fried mashed potato hash-browns with sweet sauce, chai masala brewed right in front of you, frothing over the sides of the pot. Amazing.
I didn’t look at their hands until the third day. It was probably somewhere in one of the old bazaars. I had tried to buy another one of those heavenly little sandwiches the evening before when I noticed movement next to it. I looked closer and saw two long antennae and a lengthy little body with two bulging eyes looking up at me, its thin legs pawing the glass between us like a little amber puppy longing for an owner. I passed on the sandwich and opted for a well sealed Kitkat. The next day, standing in the heat of the sun in the middle of that bazaar I looked down, only briefly, but it was long enough to catch a quick glimpse of his hands. They were black with dirt. From that point on I started noticing more and more people with hands that looked like they hadn’t seen water in weeks. Then I started noticing the cooking utensils. The pots that had once held such organic treasure were caked with black grime. Spoons had brown stains on them and I had no idea just how long the meat had been left out with the flies. Small curly black hairs began to appear in my rice, or between slices of bread.
Vancouver isn’t the cleanest city and Korea has clean moments from time to time, but India…. India is a whole new level of filth. Forget ballparks, India is not even in the same universe as the west. The first thing you notice as you step off the airplane is that the garbage just kind of continues from the airplane to the parking-lot, along the street gutters, and eventually even the waterways. It’s everywhere. Paper, candy wrappers, plastic bags of every colour, styrofoam cups… green water seeping out of one crack and into another …it just doesn’t end. Walking along the road, you have to step over shit every few meters – whether cow, dog, or human – and it’s easy to slip-up when you are bending sideways to avoid getting hit by 3 motorcycles, a herd of water buffalo, and a jeep.
The life of every city is its fresh water but from country to country the term “fresh” takes on a slightly different meaning. The gold standard is, of course, Canada, with its glacier-fed watersheds and crystal clear tap water. I picture the Nordic countries, Finland, Sweden, etc, being similar. The USA probably belongs in the next tier, still really good. But India is far down at the bottom of the pack. Taking an early morning boat-ride through Delhi we were introduced to one of India’s most important rivers, the Yamuna. When we stepped into the boat the black water reflected a perfect mirror image. Chemicals, ashes from bodies, feces, and tons of other unholy matter made it clear I’d be try my hardest to stay the boat. In Varanasi, not only do ashes from funeral pyres, raw sewage, and chemicals from industrial runoff march into the sacred Ganges, but it’s common to see body parts from partly cremated people as well, or even entire bloated bodies that have resurfaced after being sunk for burrial. I wouldn’t experience the grandeur of this holy river until much later, but my experience with the Yamuna meant that tap water would be foremost in mind when I left Delhi for Amritsar. I wouldn’t touch another drop of chai for the rest of the trip.
What is India like?
backup camera, Fuji f200 EXR
camera bag, Domke J-5XA
long sleeve T
pair of fleece gloves
thermal trekking socks, Korean
low cut socks
short sleeve T
paper and pen
I slid the zipper back over the bag and placed it between my feet. I had brought everything I thought I would conceivably need. The soft orange of the desert sagebrush seemed to glow under the light blue early morning sky. In the distance a small figure was plotting its way East, bobbing up and down methodically. It began to grow rapidly. I could see a white line peaking out of deep blue cloth and then I began to hear the pat-pat-pat-pat of the animal’s monster-sized feet against the gravel. I marveled for a second, watching its ankles compress with every step like airbags being squeezed under the pressure of pistons. It was tall. Its legs kept stretching upward toward that soft blue sky before abruptly ending just below thick blue blankets held together with well-tied rope. With a yawn the beast agreed to kneel, then flop down on all fours and rest on its stomach. The man in the dark blue blanket and ivory head-scarf jumped off, beaming. Maybe there was magic in India yet.
We spent the night on the sand. Underneath those thick blankets the sky was a canopy of speckled light. I hadn’t seen that many stars since I was a boy camping with my family on some god-forsaken piece of land deep in the interior of British Columbia.
I remember that night with unusual clarity. I had woken up, briefly, and rustled around in my tent. I heard the fire outside pop and crackle, then a loud whisper. “Evan!” I paused for a second.
“Come out here.” I slid the zipper up and moved the door of the tent out of the way. Just beyond the fire I could see my father, shadows and orange light dancing along his face. “Come out here. Look at this!” I stepped out onto the gravel, pulled a chair up next to him, and sat down. He was looking up. I joined him. Towering above us were evergreens, their colour faded black in the night. Beyond them, however, reaching across the lake and far over the mountains, were billions of tiny stars.
Stretching out on the desert sand, under the weight of those thick Indian blankets, I was 8 years old again.
The people of the desert are proud, friendly, and independent, but that’s changing. In the morning we stopped at a tiny village. For hundreds of years, before the arrival of western tourists, hospitality was a way of life. When a traveler came across the desert on the back of a camel to trade spices or silks people opened their home to him, cooked for him, and made certain he and his camels were well rested. They knew if the situation were reversed they’d be treated in kind. In the desert, farmers built mud huts so they could grow crops during the monsoon season, and these huts were open to the community when the rain stopped. Honesty was prized, a person’s possessions secure, and transactions made honorably. With the flood of tourists, though, came an increase in crime. People started doing anything for profit, selling the cheapest goods for whatever they could get away with.
At the beginning of our trip we had been shuttled by jeep in the dim morning hours from the heart of Jaisalmer to a sleepy little desert village sitting quietly next to the Thar. As we came to a stop we heard a small voice yell something in Hindi, then “Rupies! Rupies!” A tiny boy with a snotty nose and a big smile came running to meet us. He was babbling something in Hindi. He was asking for money, trying to look into our bag, and following us around the village in the early morning, performing tricks to impress us. When his sister came out and found that we didn’t actually have anything to give away she gave us a look that would have iced over the deepest regions of hell.
What is India like?
Klaus was a man who liked barking at dogs. We had met earlier that morning sitting on the second story hotel balcony in Varanasi, eating soggy scrambled eggs and cold toast. We had talked about photography, and spirituality. We had talked about beer. Later that morning we packed a rickshaw full of Danes and the driver schlepped us 15 kilometers out of the city to see a bunch of ancient temples that turned out to be little more than small piles of rocks. ‘Pretty disappointing’ was the verdict. Now, as our rickshaw swung round a corner, Klaus pulled the curtain to one side, leaned his head out purposefully, and let loose in a thick Danish accent. The dogs didn’t quite know what to make of it, but we thought it was funny.
The draw of Varanasi is the Ganges. It’s been called the Mother of India, it’s the holiest river in the country, and the heartbeat of Hinduism. It slips through the city silently while worshipers, priests, and hippies flock to its banks like moths to a big wet filthy flame.
I had never in my life seen more hippies in one place. Strolling along the patchwork of river ghats, they were everywhere. Groups of them washing in that black water, four or five of them listening to a sermon given by some fat half naked man in blue paint. Herds of blond-haired seekers adorned in piercings and long flowing flowered shirts, beaded necklaces dripping from their necks, punching away on their iPads after being corralled into vegan coffee shops.
Like most other things in India religion is a business. Roped into eating at one of those vegan cafes by the apparently clean food, I sat next to a warm, curtained window and listened to people talk.
“That’s what he said.” A thin blond woman was sitting two tables over, sipping a chai latte from a large round ceramic cup and talking discretely to her female friend. She was relaxed in the way that you become after a long vacation of eating by the pool and waking up at noon. She was healthy too. Her soft yellow skin just hinted of freckles and a touch too much sun.
“It’s been about two months now. I’m usually going Thursdays and Fridays but it depends when he has time to meet. I mean, it was great for so long. I’ve been reading and learning a lot. My meditation has gotten a lot better too – I’m starting to learn different mantras.” She was leaning forward now, looking intensely at her friend. Outside the window a cow was lingering at the corner of the narrow street. A ways up the street an Indian boy was walking towards the cafe with a short thin stick. He lifted the stick to waist height then ran its tip along the buildings to his right. After a few paces he passed the stick to his left hand and brushed it along the buildings on that side of the street. When he came up to the intersection he gave the cow a quick whack with the stick, and the cow began to lumber along again. The boy grinned.
“I just don’t want to upset anyone. I don’t want to make waves.” The woman looked pensive. “I’ve been making a lot of progress, too. A few of my friends have said so. Well, okay, the other day I asked him about it. He told me that he would think about it for a while. Then just this week I went back for a reading. Everything went well, and we were talking about it after and we got through most of it. He was answering questions that I had and then at the end he asked if there was anything else. I had to think for a second and then he asked again. I told him no, but he asked if I was sure. He wanted me to bring it up. But I didn’t know what he was getting at. I just said no, not really – then he’s like, ‘about the child?’. It was so strange – I mean why would he want me to bring it up, maybe so he wouldn’t look bad? But then he says, he says, ‘there is one way,’” the woman lowered her voice, speaking in a semi hushed tone, “‘you could conceive with tantric sex. And it’s fine, too, since it’s a holy coupling the husband doesn’t mind.’ Yeah, that’s what he said! And then he’s like, you know, many women have conceived that way, it’s perfectly fine.’ And I was just looking at him acceptingly – just hearing him openly but inside I was like, is this guy serious?’ Ya know? Then he says, ‘I would be willing to help you with that.’ I WOULD BE WILLING TO HELP YOU WITH THAT!”
The cafe went quiet for a moment. Her friend’s brown hair bounced briefly then swung around. In a stream of light I could see her tanned brown skin. Indian. Interesting. Out of the corner of my eye I sensed movement. A young Indian boy with an uncertain smile slid a plate of large banana and chocolate pancakes in front of me. He smiled again timidly. The brown help serving his white masters. I felt awkward. It was a normal feeling I had at restaurants serving food it would take the waiter an entire day to pay for.
I went back to the hotel to rest for a while. It was too hot to see the city at midday. In the late afternoon I rose again, and made my way out to the Ghats. In the tiring light older men were bathing, thick white suds pouring onto the river-water around them. Beyond them, in the distance, I could see bright orange light flickering like the tips of tiny candles. I made my way towards them and eventually found myself at the burning ghats.
The river doesn’t flow straight through Varanasi but bows alongside it, forming a long crescent-shaped cityscape. People drag over-sized old wooden row-boats onto those black muddy banks then hammer massive wooden spikes into the earth to anchor them. Three old paint-chipped boats had been slid onto the sand in front of me. With the city straddling the river in the background this was a great photo opportunity. I knelled down, pulled my Nikon D5100 from my bag, and started to line up the shot.
Inside one of the boats I saw something move and then a head spring upward. “Hey!” The shout was loud and definite. The man was standing upward now, pointing a finger at his head. “Are you STUPID??” He took a couple steps towards the bow of the boat, and then jumped down onto the sand and started towards me. He pounded the sand with his feet to within a few yards of me. “Hey! Stop! Are you an idiot?! All the guide books tell you not to take photos of the fires! How do you think the relatives feel when you take pictures of the bodies?! I should throw your camera into the fires so the relatives can watch it burn!” His back leg was positioned just behind his body, coiled up like a spring being drawn down by a finger, about to be released.
“I wasn’t taking pictures of the fires, I was taking pictures of the boats.” I spoke with a calm, comforting voice.
“I know you people. I see many people with cameras come here and try to sneak pictures.” He had made his way up to me at this point, and was now standing a meter away, arms at his side, legs comfortably spread. “I know what you’re doing!”
“Well, can I take a photo if I show you the photo right after and don’t take a picture of the pyres?”
“No photo of the fires. You have to show me the picture.” I knelt and snapped, then stood up to show him the image. He seemed satisfied. “Many people are disrespectful. How can you take pictures of the bodies? The relatives don’t feel good. They see people taking pictures of their family burning.” He was justifying himself to me now. I stood there, listening, still amped up after just avoiding what would have been a heated physical altercation. I asked about the fires. “Our family has been given this fire by Shiva, and it’s been burning for 25 centuries. We alone can keep the fire, and the families must come to us to have their families burned.” His oration went on for what felt like hours. In the dusk I could see the families squatting down on that black earth, fixed on the motion of those transient orange and yellow peaks. Under them wood had been stacked in a crisscross pattern, and the corpse slid on top. In the midst of that inferno I could make out a blackened shape stretching out along the edge of the pyre, and a large blackened sphere on the far side of the stack. There was a fist sized gap in the middle of the sphere where smoke was escaping as if released from an old British foundry.
He was finishing up now. “So you can’t take pictures. Very disrespectful. If you want to take pictures you must talk to one of us and give a donation.” Death for a dollar. His eyes were looking at me, scanning me with anticipation. I was ready to leave. To hell with India.
What is India like?
I slid my Vaude backpack in front of me, slipped my shoes off, and rested my feet on top. I put the Kite Runner down on the seat beside me. The book had been a constant, riveting, source of companionship through my three week journey, and now I was on the last few pages. I laid my head back and looked up at the long steel rafters high above. The airport was a welcome change from the chaos and grit of the city outside.
An hour later I watched as people turned their airplane lights off one by one. I thought back to that sleepy valley in France I found myself in years ago, watching the sun sink through that 17th century chateau window, then eventually slip bellow the distant green hills. I remembered the sounds of frogs drifting in through that open wood frame, and seeing the lights in the valley bellow twinkling in the new darkness. I remembered watching them being extinguished one by one before every window was black, and the only light was the dim silver glow blanketing the valley by those same billion stars I had gazed up at with my father years before.
I thought about Klaus, and his photography. I thought about the money he was paying to take photos of those same funeral pyres it had been such an offense for me to photograph only a day earlier.
Our plane skipped from Delhi to Shanghai and I could feel civilization start to creep back into my world. Soon our plane would be in Seoul. I thought about Starbucks mornings and the long drive between Incheon and Seongnam. I closed my eyes and thought about home.