I have signed autographs on little Indian girls’ hands, been asked to sing American songs, and recite my favorite Hollywood actors, and Bollywood actors (for those of you who are curious, Sam and I generally went with Leonardo DiCaprio. No one knows who Meryl Streep is). Why didn’t I put some Bollywood classics on my Netflix que before coming to India?
Some highlights from the past three weeks of travel:
While we waited for the night bus from Hospet to Hyderabad, Sam said, “What’s the point of a semi-sleeper bus, anyway? Who wants to semi-sleep? No one does.”
When the bus finally arrived, we boarded, rolled a couple hundred meters, and were hopelessly lodged in traffic. The footrests didn’t work, and the bus vibrated so violently we gradually slipped down the seat.
Arriving in Hyderabad at 6am:
Black coffee? Not possible.
While we took refuge in a cafeteria-style Indian breakfast place:
“It’s not being the only white people in here that’s alienating. It’s being the only women,” Sam said.
Indian men – stuck in the 70’s, all of them, with tight jeans and collared shirts tucked in – stared at us unabashedly.
“Brittany – there are a lot of people staring at us.”
“Yeah, they always do that.”
“No, I mean, like twenty people.”
I looked up to see rows of Indian faces looking into mine without the slightest hint of embarrassment. And they did not look away when I made eye contact, either.
“Oh wow. Yeah, we’ve got a fan club.”
“Well,” Sam said. “You are Britney Spears.”
There is no samosa so delicious as the one you eat at 9am, after getting up at 4am. There’s no chai so perfectly spicy and sweet as the one sipped at dawn.
On the train from Hyderabad to Jabalpur:
Three young, Indian doctors-in-training shared our car. The lady doctor put an American movie on her laptop called “Baby Genuises” with Christopher Lloyd, Kim Cattrall and Kathleen Turner. In the first moments of the movie, a toddler breaks out of a lab designed for breeding smart babies and karate chops security guards. My mind started to ooze out my ears.
Bus to Kanha National Park:
We learned it’s totally possible to over-dose on chai and cling to the bus seat in silent desperation hoping for a bathroom stop. When we finally did stop, the bathrooms were five “stalls” separated by a cement slab with no door. The “toilet” was also a cement slab. As there was no hole to pee in, we both emerged with pee pants. Gotta shrug it off and have a samosa.
Night train from Agra to Udaipur:
Seat number one and two. Right next to the bathroom. The smell of bathroom in India, well, it’s one thing I won’t miss. But train bathroom is another monster altogether. The putrid smell of train bathroom wafted over to us and stung our nostrils. The bathrooms were also located right next to the doors, which we left ajar and icy night air came sweeping in to get us. Two overweight Indians sat in our carriage even though their seats were elsewhere. When asked their seat numbers, they wagged their heads and explained that they were getting off the train at 10:30pm. It was 7pm, so we were unsure what the next three hours would hold.
A fight broke out near the bathroom between the conductor and an Indian without a ticket. A giant mass of Indian men lined up and yelled their opinions on the issue. Oh, India…
From South to North: in south India, they make their chai sweet, and it’s a good indicator of how the people are. In north India, they let you add the sugar yourself. I have had to adapt to the grasping edginess of north Indian people, more tourists, more noise and pollution. And to make it all worse, I lost my underpants today.
You might not think it important, but I only have five pair, and they were my favorite: black mesh underpants from Exofficio. Wind-swept from the clothes line into the great Indian abyss.
There’s an enormous amount of history in north India: in the temples, forts and major cities. All the way from the sweeping desert landscape to the Himalayas, you can feel it in the dusty air. There’s also so much pollution in some places it’s truly difficult to breathe.
To get to Pushkar, Sam and I took the local bus from Ajmer.
Instructions for boarding the local bus:
1. Fight your way into the seething mass of Indians who are already waiting to pounce on the bus when it arrives.
2. As the bus pulls in (you won’t know if it’s your bus or not until the first Indian moves, since the sign’s in Hindi) run toward it as fast as you can.
3. Push all the Indians around you out of the way. Pull their hair if you have to. Don’t worry, they won’t hesitate to pull yours if it means a chance for a seat on the bus. Use your elbows! Have a big backpack? Sway it from side-to-side, scattering Indians and creating a gap – make a break for it!
4. Avoid Indians with huge white sacks full of heavy-looking things on their heads. They will hit you with these sacks.
Something about this situation makes me strangely aggressive. Old ladies look me hard in the eye and shove their elbows into my ribcage. I push their wrinkled butts right back. I shove Sam from behind and give those around me my best, “GO AHEAD, MAKE MY DAY,” expression, raising my eyebrows and widening my eyes like a crazed fighter in a Japanese war movie.
Then everybody’s on the bus, chatting amiably with one another. A gypsy woman with pink bracelets from her wrist to her shoulder clings to a handle and sways as we round corners. Two university students get up and offer Sam their seat. Before she can make a move, a stout Indian woman creates a blockade and ushers her family to the vacant seats.
In India, there are no rules. In India, everyone makes their own rules.
This morning, my shoe broke. I stepped on the metal stair and it sliced the shoe open at the front, leaving the sole flapping. I walked down to the local market to find a shoe-repair man. He saw me first.
“Needing shoes fixed?” He yelled.
“Yes,” I said, advancing toward him.
He was maybe 5’2″, lean, with two large moles above his left eye. His hair was gray, streaked with black, and he took the shoes in hand. His workshop was a piece of carpet thrown over a wide step, in front of an unused door, just off the street. He had a small toolbox.
“First the gluing,” he said, indicating the flap. “Then I sew it around the outside.”
Twenty minutes later, he finished. When I paid him – 75 rupees, or $1.50 – he touched the cash to a metal shoe-holder and prayed his thanks. It was the first money he’d made all day. It was 2pm. On the walk back, I watched an Indian man put out a saucer of milk for three fat puppies and laugh as they fought over it. I watched a cow basking in the sun, head stretched up and eyes closed, as if in thanks for the glorious rays.
I came back to the hostel to find that my underwear had been returned by the neighbors. Likely they flew from my balcony down into their living room. I bought them chocolate in thanks.
I told Sam that in my opinion, the experience of India is like having your heart squeezed. It’s this really painful thing, having your heart squeezed, feeling the pressure and grip on your vital organ. Then, suddenly, it opens up – it bursts. And the opening is glorious. It’s like that, again and again.