An Indian summer

By Cam Cotton-O’Brien

In April, I applied for an internship with a local newspaper, but despite offering to work for free, I didn’t get the job. Satisfied with being well on my way to becoming the failed journalist I have always dreamed of, I decided it was time to take steps towards the fulfilment of my other ambition of international vagabond.

I’d spent the previous two summers in Europe, and planned to be in southeast Asia the following year, so I decided to explore some other destination. For a completely arbitrary reason incomprehensible to my conscious mind, I chose India. A couple of weeks, a trip to Travel Cuts, and a little more than $2,000 later, I’d arranged a five-week excursion to the sub-continent. I was signed up for a tour the first week there and left my plans open for the remainder of my adventure. The guidebook I purchased remained unread as I boarded my plane, but during the tour I learned far more than its high-gloss pages could ever convey.

On the ninth morning of my trip, I wake up at 4 a.m. Scuttling around the room as quietly as possible, I brush my teeth with the mineral water carefully set aside the night before and collect the few of my things that remain scattered about the room. Despite my valiant efforts at stealth, my roommate, an Australian who I met on the tour, is awake. We shake hands and exchange an awkward farewell, aware that we will never see each other again. Ah, travelling.

Down in the hotel lobby I nervously await the cab paid for the night before. Although I have a handwritten receipt, I am concerned the receipt will suddenly lose its validity when I’m dropped off, figuring that the hotel might conveniently forget to tell the driver I paid. Looking down, I take comfort because I am wearing running shoes and only carry a small bag with me. But, I’m now concerned that there is no car to run from. After a few minutes of twittering nervously, during which time one car pulls up, the driver gets in an argument with the man behind the desk, arms flail, the driver walks out, a silver four-door pulls up and I’m told it’s for me. I watch carefully to see if the hotel staff pays the young driver. I can’t tell for sure and I remain paranoid that I’m about to be screwed.

The streets are not so crowded at this time in the morning. During the day, they are so chaotic it’s impossible to fathom how the fatality rate hasn’t hit 50 per cent. Lanes aren’t used in any discernible fashion and the right of way goes to whatever is bigger. At one point in my trip I come across a newspaper story relating how one particular bus company had already hit more than 70 pedestrians this year-I will feel invincible crossing streets in Canada in several weeks, but this does nothing for my confidence during my stay.

There is a progression of men in orange along the side of the road. They walk, sometimes alone, sometimes in small groups, carrying what appears to be a stick with water jugs fastened to each end. I am too tired to ask the driver what they are doing. Certain factors conspire to exhaust me while travelling. Coming to India from Calgary involves a massive time change (11.5 hours), and there is so much to do that it seems a waste to sleep, though that didn’t stop me from nodding off during dinner on my second night in the country. In a few days, once I accustomed myself to the deep end of the exhaustion spectrum, I find out that the men in orange are participating in a religious ceremony that sees them walking from their homes across India, all the way to the edge of the Ganges, in the holy city of Varanasi, where they collect some water from that sacred river. I, too, am heading there, though by plane and taxi-I’m not tough enough to go by foot.

Indian Airlines gets me from Delhi to the airport in Varanasi, where I take a pre-paid taxi to the outer-edge of the city centre. The cabbie then passes the baton to a rickshaw driver who takes me as far as he can. Along with being the holiest city in the Hindu faith, Varanasi is one of the oldest cities in the world-the streets near the Ganges can only be navigated by foot or motorcycle. I walk. Where my rickshaw leaves me the street is lined with shops, many of which are selling saris and other silk merchandise. Few steps go by where I don’t have a local in tow heckling me about going to some particular hotel (which will then add up to 80 per cent to my bill as commission for his services), or some shop where they continually advise me I can find great silk for my mother-unfortunately for them, mom has specifically requested a lacquered box. One character in the crowd directs me towards the hotel I am trying to locate.

The street he points me up is no more than seven or eight feet wide, but still manages to make room for a shop on either side. Many cater to tourists. Some sell little trinkets or music, and others toilet paper and mineral water, tourist staples. There are more internet cafes than in Calgary. After much wandering and more than a few stops to ask for directions I finally locate my hotel. I step past a cow to get into the lobby, where the man at the front tells me that I can have a room with a fan on the top floor for 100 rupees a night. I am shocked, that is an eighth the cost I was paying in Delhi, where I was sharing a room. As I sign in at the desk the man reads through my guidebook, seeing what it says about his hotel.

It is still early in the morning so I decide to do a little sightseeing. I wander down a street and find myself at the banks of the Ganges. This is a holy place for Hindus, and many bathe in the river’s waters. From what I understand, it is not the fact that dead bodies are burned and then floated down the river on funeral pyres that makes the water so dirty, it’s the heavy metals being dumped by factories upstream. The people are obviously enjoying themselves as they splash around in the water; watching them, I get the feeling that I’m at a wading pool in downtown Calgary.

In the afternoon I set about writing an e-mail back home. I lose half an hour of labour as the power cuts out. The computer reboots and my e-mail changes from a treatise on my methods for tout-dodging, to a lone paragraph on the inability of the power grid to keep up with demand. My second experience with power failure comes at night. Varanasi is hot, the thermometer hovering somewhere around 40 degrees during the day, and doesn’t cool much at night. My ally in fighting this heat is the fan, but I awake in the middle of the night alone on the battlefield with sweat pouring down my sides. The power is out and I am left in the stifling heat with no recourse to cool down other than the shower. I can’t find the shower in the dark so instead, I wind up lying in bed until the power kicks back in. The next day I drink eight litres of water, but hardly have to pee at all. This is unheard of for me-my bladder seems not to have grown since my first sip of coffee sometime in the early years of elementary school. The heat also causes a bump to appear on the back of my right hand. It is a blocked sweat gland, but I assume it to be a wart. I recall a home remedy and put a piece of duct tape on top of the bump and tie it on with a bandana. I look ridiculous, but console myself with the thought that it gives other people the impression that I am as tough as hell. How wrong these imaginary people are. The shitty luck is not all mine, though. As I wind my way through the narrow streets towards the Ganges with two friends, something from above splatters on the sleeve of the buddy closest behind me. Closer inspection reveals that a monkey has defecated on him mid-jump. This is one reason why tourists carry toilet paper in their day bags.

A couple of days pass before I see something that unsettles me more deeply than anything has before. As I am walking down the narrow streets near the hotel I round a corner and am confronted by a man with leprosy who sits at the side of the street begging. He is obviously in the advanced stages of the disease, his face and hands a demonstration of the pitiless physical destitution that can beset a human being. Little more than a week before in Agra, while riding back from a meal in an auto-rickshaw, I had seen a large, fenced-in compound with something about leprosy on the sign. I immediately took this to be a leper colony and, much to the misfortune of those who I was travelling with, spent the rest of the evening jabbering about it. I couldn’t believe that the disease, though treatable with antibiotics, had not yet been eradicated. There was no way I could accept that people were actually abandoned to such a fate. When I see the man with leprosy begging I begin to realize that, although poverty in the west is abhorrent and certainly shouldn’t exist, it comes nowhere close to reaching the cavernous depths that it can elsewhere in the world. I spend the next few days meditating heavily on the subject, variously engaged in discussion with other travellers, and rehashing an argument I had with two people from my tour group. It has been nearly two months and I still have not been able to reconcile that sight with any sort of concept of human decency. I doubt I ever will.

Eventually we are driven out of Varanasi by the heat. A train takes us to Dehra Dun, where a bus picks up the final leg of the journey to Dharamsala, the home of the Dalai Lama. I spend an enjoyable week here before confirming my opinion that transportation in India is one of the most perilous experiences known to man as I head north to spend another week in my hotel room in Leh fighting a bacterial infection that tries to break my toilet. At the end of this week I say goodbye to my two accomplices and fly down to Mumbai for the final week of my trip.

I am still sick when I arrive, so don’t have the energy to prevent the taxi driver from scamming me as he drives the longest route possible from the airport to my hotel. Of course the only time that a pre-paid taxi is unavailable is when I am sick and can’t deal with a cabbie looking for a scam. I wonder what I did wrong. Karma is an Indian idea right? When I get a room I immediately set up my mosquito net. It is monsoon season and Mumbai is supposed to be teeming with mosquitoes which are teeming with malaria. I wind up seeing less than a single mosquito. I spend one of the most enjoyable weeks of my life in Mumbai, not once speaking to anyone except for business transactions. The city offers so much to do that I cannot possibly fit it all in.

Mumbai presents travellers with the most shocking juxtaposition of rich and poor in India. It alone accounts for 40 per cent of India’s Gross National Product, while housing the largest slums in Asia. Evidence is not hard to find; I pass by a Rolls-Royce dealership only to come upon the ubiquitous woman with a naked baby begging for scraps on the next block.

Perhaps the starkest demonstration of India’s dual identity as emerging industrial power and home to some of the world’s most desperate poverty is embodied by a collection of four buildings I see in downtown Mumbai. These buildings touch each other and are all tall and narrow.

The one on the right and two on the left are basically enlarged outhouses, the kind that would make you consider shitting in the bushes. The building in the middle is ultra-modern and looks like it should be found in Tokyo-too modern for Calgary even. Where else could this duality exist?

I drive to the airport, sad to go home. India has been an eye-opener for me. I came on an impulse when I didn’t get the job I wanted for the summer, but know now that this trip provided far more for me than any job could have. It was not all pleasant; in fact, some of it was downright miserable. Despite this, I cannot think of a way I could have spent my time better. It may not be for a few years, but I will be going back some day. There is still so much more to see.

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