It is difficult to write about an experience without the glamour of journalism or the wisdom of hindsight, but often it is the story that dictates its birth and when it wishes to fall into reality. In the case of my experience with the country of India, I must write that I cannot come close to understanding my experience without first writing about it. It is a demon that walks next to me and forces me to speak in tongues when I am asked about my vacation. The stories I unpack will undoubtedly not correspond with others’ experiences in that vast nation, but they are mine.
In planning for my journey to India I spent six months staring at maps and thinking about what could be done in the short three weeks that could be wrangled from the summer vacation period. Most people, who tackle any distance, trek for well over three months and meander at the pace of the local circadian clock. Without such a luxury I had to be aware of three points: it would be monsoon season, if I became sick during the trip I would have to keep moving, and there was no real margin for time lost in failed transport connections. As the final date for booking hotels and transportation drew closer, decisions were made that we would be best to stay in the North, that flights were far more practical than the overnight train system and that most of our daily planning would need to be left for when we arrived in each city. Given those criteria were originally opted to visit Delhi, Agra, Varanasi, Jaipur, Jodhpur, Jaisalmer, Amritsar, Udaipur, Khajuraho and Chandigarh. After talking with our travel agent it became clear that the last three cities would needed to be cut just to make it feasible for transport, and that flights could be arranged for everywhere but Jaisalmer, which is on the border with Pakistan and closed to air traffic by order of the Indian Air Force, of whose existence I did not believe in. Accommodations would need to be booked online to avoid the numerous middlemen involved between Canada and the source hotel, but that was easy enough and allowed for a better choice of hotels. If one thing was required, then it was safe, clean hotels that gave a feel for an India before call-centres became the latest god added to their unending pantheon.
To say that I was apprehensive about this trip would be an understatement. I grew up in a household where an eight hour drive to Bangor, Maine was a highlight of the year, and where my Indo-Canadian friends told stories of how demons lived in the branches of trees and that their mother had been killed by their father when she went back to visit her family. I had read the books by colonial madmen, I had married into an Indian family of equally mad men, and I somehow knew that this would take every ounce of will I had to survive.
Arrival in Delhi at midnight cannot be described in any way useful to a person reading these black letters on a white page, other than to say that it had a smell. I cannot really dissect the smell, but it was heavy with tropical frangipane trees, dust and a thousand years of struggle. India has a smell that will not permit forgetting. At the exit of the gate there were two hundred dark faces, sweltering, searching for family or their next ten rupee note. The heat brought instant sweat to my body despite being dressed in light linen. A pre-paid taxi would be the only way to break through the wall of bodies held just beyond the tend posts guarded by the police. The cabbie wanted to practice his English, and I just wanted to look out the windows at a country I never believed to exist. It was true that cows walked in the middle of the road and it was true that nothing could prepare one for the heat. Forget what people say about it being a dry heat; heat is heat, and in the monsoon nothing is dry.
Our driver took us around the outer limits of Delhi to avoid the cross-town traffic. Our hotel, The Oberoi Maidens, was in Old Delhi and best approached from the North. As we rumbled down what seemed country roads, we felt a million miles from any city, but soon the city walls came within view. I have never seen such an unexpected scene. Even entering the Costa Rican city of San Jose with its brightly painted squalor and se vende signs assuring you that everything was for sale, I had never seen filth in such abundance. At this point I should note that as a child I spent Saturday evenings scouring trash cans at the beach for empties and Sunday mornings at the city dump collecting labels from Heinz bottles that ensured a silver dollar for every ten sent in. I knew garbage, but this seemed so simplistic and pastoral when faced with the filth of an entire civilization flooding the streets. Wild dogs and pigs sifted through sewage, trash filled the alleys, and skeletal humans lay on the street with shirts off to ward off the night heat. Men roamed about like zombies looking for food, money, companionship and to avoid sleeping with his family. It struck me that India was a place that could never be cleaned. No amount of public works or Western sanitation could obliterate this dirt. It would only happen by scorching the earth or covering the entire city in a blanket of asphalt.
Within minutes we fell inside the hotel compound with its security walls and security force. Inside the white-washed walls of a former plantation we found a shiny Sikh man, Srinder, who smiled knowingly at my face and seemed to expect that the first thing I would want after my twenty hours by air and road was my room. I was not disappointed as bags were carried, room appointed and we were left to our own devices. The importance of the bar fridge at this point cannot be underestimated, as truly it supplied the water we would drink and the beer/soft drinks we would need to keep sanity in our system. If only they had provided a little sign that read:
“Water is not safe anywhere, but this is as good as we can do.
Ignore the glycerol
in the Kingfisher, please.
Oh…the 500% more pesticides in the Coke are there
to keep you safe from the bugs. Enjoy”.