Warning: Graphic Sickness

The day of heroic effort and eventual comfort. So, we woke up at about 8am and left the hotel almost three hours after we were supposed to be out. The proprietor pointed that out to us smugly, so satisfied by our lateness that I wanted to shake him. Far be it from me to deny him the pleasure of detesting us for whatever it is he detests us for. We had almost five hours until our driver was to pick us up for the train, so we went back to Govinda’s – the restaurant with the great waiter. I put down my computer bag. I unsnapped the straps of my backpack, and with the expansion of my belly came a horrible feeling. I put down my pack and said to James, “I have to go to the bathroom – RIGHT NOW!” He thought I had the runs. I started to throw up in the hotel lobby, about halfway to the bathroom. Swallowing chunks, I dashed past the impassive front desk clerk and around the corner to the “toilet.” They don’t call them bathrooms in India, which makes sense I guess, since you’re not meant to bathe there. And they’re mostly not the toilets I grew up with either. They’re inset in the floor rather than on a pedestal like a chair, so you put your feet on the corrugated bits and squat. I hear they’re nicer than the ones in France. Just inside the room, without even locking the door behind me, I let go. I got most of it in the toilet, but moaned at the rest before losing focus again for another wave. Time after time, my stomach cramped, shooting its contents back out of my system, while my mind wandered. I stood, crouching, thinking, should I kneel?[…]

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Allahabad Sucks

Wow. Allahabad sucks. This is the first town in India that I have honestly just not liked. Strange. We arrived in town at 5am. A bit disoriented (duh), we chose a rickshaw driver by chance. He said 5 rupees – before he had even heard our destination. I knew from the map that it was close, but… He piled us and our gear into the little cycle-rickshaw and wow – do we ever not fit. Two skinny people would fit. I don’t know if James and I would fit even 100 pounds lighter, though. Very narrow seats! So we were each half on the seat and half on the decorative wooden side, which pressed painfully into my butt. The driver (rider?) then took us a completely unnecessarily circuitous route, which I didn’t begin to suspect until after I had paid him 20 rupees (feeling bad about the distance). He carried our luggage into the Hotel Tepso, then moped around hoping for more money. Having put some thought to the distance we’d gone, I was put out by him and shooed him away roughly. The clerk was a drag, the room was whatever, and the phone call we got a couple of hours later (while making up for missed sleep) was a rude complaint that we hadn’t put our passport information in their guestbook. La-di-da, like it’s my job to do your job. So we got some chai in the overdone and overpriced Jade Restaurant and then tried to shake out the wrinkles of the day. We started walking. We walked quite some ways down a main road. Businesses lined the street, but mostly behind closed doors. This felt more like strip malls than the shopping we’d experienced in India up to that point. Still not enamored of our new temporary[…]

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Krishna’s Birthday in Fatehpur Sikri

After our long, long walks of yesterday, we arranged a taxi to take us the 30km to Fatehpur Sikri. The short version of the story goes like this: Emperor Akbar says, when will I have a son? Priest/saint/wise man says, on such and such date. Emperor Akbar says, oh yeah? Well, if so, then… So when the son is born as the priest had foretold, Akbar is way stoked. He says, okay, I’m moving my capitol to your town. Get ready. He builds a huge complex of temples, palaces, and a big ol’ fort. (He liked forts. He built the one in Agra as well.) One palace is called the Palace of the Christian Wife. (I bet you can imagine why.) That’s where the mother of his new son lives. They go along for a short while like this, then someone says, Emperor. He answers, yes? That someone says, well, we’re out of water. This place can’t support us. So the Emperor and the whole court move back to Agra, and the buildings at Fatehpur Sikri fall apart. They’ve been restored somewhat now. The very beautiful marble building in the courtyard beyond the Victory Gate is now the tomb of the saint guy. It was pretty cool, and the gate is enormous! James and I walked up the road until we reached a fancy building. We went in and looked around. It was all free. We had managed to accidentally miss the palaces that they charge admission for. Oops! But that’s okay. The real highlight of the day started while leaving the gate. We sat down to put our shoes on and suddenly there were people around us, Indian people, taking pictures of each other with us. Like with a rock star or something. It was funny, but James and[…]

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The Emperor Imprisoned

The smell of spicy-sweet incense, the heat that soaks beyond bone marrow into DNA, the smooth-sharp crack of HindiGujaratiMarathiMalayalamWhoKnowsWhat over the constant background of horns. These combine to hold me in each moment. I never have a TV feeling, never a moment that could have been on a screen. Every pore and nerve ending is whispering, screaming, sighing, or laughing. And they are all saying the same thing: India. We toured around the Taj Mahal, walking all of the way around below it before climbing the wooden stairway built over the marble stairway. Once atop the broad base of the Taj, the artistry of the designers and builders shifted something in me, just like my first view from outside the gate, the glowing Taj Mahal framed perfectly in a dark entryway. The Taj Mahal is a piece of art, surrounded by more art. The Taj Mahal is a crypt, but it lives. Never before have I truly loved a piece of death-art, but this place is homage, not just resting place. It is love, not loss. We spent an hour and a half or so there and then walked to the Agra Fort. One piece of information that had stuck with me was this: Shah Jahan, the ruler who caused the Taj Mahal to be built, was imprisoned by his son in this fort. He was given rooms from which he could see the Taj, but was never allowed to visit. Where I loved the Taj as art, I loved the Fort as function. It is a real, defensible fort, with real battlements and small openings from which you can hope to decimate an attacking group before having to face the remainder. But in addition to the actual fortress (still host to a garrison of soldiers and closed in that[…]

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Uncivilized India

So far, pretty much everything I’ve had to say about India has been easy to categorize as praise.  It’s not perfect, though.  In one way in particular… Uncivilized India is gross, overwhelming, too strong to ignore.  Uncivilized India is a country of littering.  And littering is a weak, polite word for an action that, en masse, leads to a river so choked with plastic bottles that the dead cow only shows a bit of bloated belly, otherwise hidden, coated, covered by Pepsi, Mirinda, 7-Up, Aquafina, etc, etc, etc.  The strange foil packets of tobacco flakes, breath mints, who knows what – they pile up in cracks and fill the potholes in the road. People are constantly sweeping the sidewalks and street edges, but they cannot keep up with the flood of trash dropped, tossed, unconsidered by a billion people.  Who are the sweepers?  Are they of one caste?  Are they disappearing with the caste system?  Will the beauty of India drown in its trash as the habit of centuries, the reliance on “someone else” to clean for you, becomes a habit based on an old, out of date understanding of the way of things? It’s happening.  But a country that opens trash bags to find what’s usable should be able to move toward recycling.  Right?

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Sikhs Do More Than Feed People

Arriving in Delhi after 18 hours on the Rajdhani Express, James and I donned our packs and stumbled off the train. We both looked left, looked right, and followed the rest of the riders left on the assumption that we’d find an exit. Correct! At the very edge of the non-railway world, we paused before stepping out. We had seven hours until our train to Chandigarh, and though we were weighed down by our bags, we wanted to see something of Delhi. I had read through the highlights in the Lonely Planet and was most interested in Humayun’s Tomb, Connaught Place, and the Qutb Minar. So we forged our way into the crowd. As soon as my foot touched the top stair outside, the touts got started. I was not surprised, but fought to remain clear enough not to feel overwhelmed. You’d think that being a head taller than them would give me all the confidence in the world, but being unsure of my bearings gives me a vulnerability that is visible. Masking it is a matter of finding a direction as quickly as possible. I haven’t yet been intimidated, just half-drowned, as though covering for a teacher in a raucous kindergarten class. My usually effective headshake and repeated nonononononono didn’t discourage them, but it did keep them from stopping me. Finally, we got to the line of taxis and saw a person who seemed reasonable. After a brief negotiation for three hours of touring, we told him he was ridiculous and that we wouldn’t pay his fee. He just nodded seriously. Another man, who had remained beside me and who smelled of licorice, said not to pay him. “Go to tourist office,” he said, pointing out the place with a sign reading, of course, Tourist Office. We nodded and[…]

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Stained-Glass Butterflies and Men with Guns

Violence. Authority. I imagine that the police in India are aiming for the latter, but I can’t help but see the former. Here’s one of the little comparisons that I’ve been so happily avoiding for the most part. I came here to experience India and to seek out pockets, moments of civilization. Comparing the US and India is not what I’m after. Finding the best in each place I go is the point. But this one thing brought back to me my foreign-ness here and the fact that I do not, cannot know exactly what to expect. Walking out of the airport, I had my first experience with Indian guns. The police at the exit were carrying shouldered rifles. Real, deadly rifles, with which they could shoot and kill someone, even if fleeing. I was taken aback, but also exhausted, and it seemed to me a bit foggy. I didn’t even have the energy to imagine a cause for these rifles – reports of suspected terrorists arriving, protests outside, a violent passenger who was being removed from the airport. I just passed them by with a “whoa.” Awaiting the train today, James and I spent hours in the Mumbai Central train station. For the most part, I was happy and contented. I had a veritable pageant being performed around me. There were very poor women sitting in a group with one man (prostitutes and a pimp? Another thing I can’t recognize here). They were eating bread and butter, but somehow the man had cadged extra butter. They made little balls of the butter, popped them in their mouths, and appeared to luxuriate in the richness as it warmed on their tongues. The bread was dispatched much more quickly. The women rarely looked at me, but if I smiled, they smiled[…]

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