WRR 4.4 1 AUGUST 2007
Bodhi Blues A Year in India
From The Passenger’s Seat
Remember instantaneous transporters from “Star Trek”? The supreme fantasy of being here one moment, and there the next... Ah, that we could be so lucky!
I’m a globe-trotter, jet-setter, an anthropologist doing fieldwork from Lhasa to Bodh Gaya, but truth be told, I loathe travel. Spare me the planes, trains, and automobiles. I dislike roads.
When I am here, I long to be there, but the grief of getting there always costs far more than the ticket. I don’t expect sympathy; I know how lucky I am to have the means and opportunities to have explored so many fascinating places, but the fact remains, I dislike the journey itself with a passion.
Before any big trip I have to pack myself away with all the long skirts, underwear, and anti-diarrheal pills. I have to roll up my notions of comfort, personal space, and feminism, and squeeze them into my huge backpack next to the bottles of shampoo and bags of trail mix. Every time I leave Point A, I catch my breath and it freezes there, hanging motionless in my chest like a heavy rock that doesn’t drop until I finally put down my pack at Point B.
I like to get there, settle in, learn about the place and the people there. I relish the unpacking. I fantasize about unloading my backpack into new and strange cabinets and closets. Empty luggage is the supreme exhale.
There are so many ways to get from place to place. In India, travel is the single most exhausting proposition imaginable sometimes, and yet since we really must see everything, what can we do except get in a rickshaw, book a train ticket, and start packing all over again?
Indian trains are a cultural experience in and of themselves. Chai-wallahs pace the aisles hawking tea and spicy fried snacks. Strangers sharing a berth ask each other impossibly personal questions. Or else they give you fixed hard stares for hours on end.
Train travel provides a lovely way to meander through rural India without having to clutch the seat in terror as your bus driver plays chicken with a commercial truck driver. The trains are nicely paced, yet powerful enough to mow through 150 goats on the rails, if they happen to be in your way (it happened just the other day, no joke). And although train accidents happen frequently, they almost always happen to other people.
In a country where even the “super deluxe luxury” buses don’t have a toilet in the rear, you soon learn to appreciate the pissorific fragrance wafting out of the train facilities. And believe me, you wouldn’t want a western seated toilet in a public place like this; the Indian squatters spare your bum the indignity of direct contact.
I usually take overnight train trips in the third AC class. I jostle my way through the sweaty crowds into my six-person berth in the evening, and lock my baggage to the chains under the seat. I make polite chit chat, especially if I am lucky enough to be sitting with a family, instead of the usual gawking gaggle of businessmen. When the view out the window recedes into darkness, I escape into a novel. I have some masala chai. After nine or ten o’clock the porter brings a hot dinner of vegetable curries, daal, rice, and rotis. And then after the late dinner everyone slowly begins to make up their beds as the staff roll through the carriage with clean-ish linens and blankets. The lights go off, and we sleep to the sound of the train pulsating forward into the night.
At intervals the conductor comes in and flicks on the light and wakes people, so they don’t miss their stop. We all get woken up too, and then as new passengers settle in, we somehow drift back into fitful sleep. I have such strange dreams when I am traveling on trains... crushed flowers, flying machines, disembarking into emptiness, or worse, getting left behind.
The conductor returns again and again as grim as Death himself, and eventually it is my turn to abandon the pretense of sleep and prepare for arrival. I wash my face in the washbasin, take more chai, and unlock my baggage. The train screeches to a stop, and I emerge bleary eyed onto the bustling platform where villagers are stretched out on the ground asleep, and cows rummage through the trash.
They have been waiting, and there’s no escaping them. They come at me all at once, like an advancing platoon of soldiers drowning each other out with their single fiercesome battle cry: “Yes, Madam! Rickshaw?”
Auto-rickshaws look a bit like something you’d see at the circus: a little mini car on three-wheels with no doors. This is especially true when people try to cram innumerable bodies and baggage into the tiny passenger seat. Sometimes, people furiously hold onto the roof, their butts or whole bodies fully hanging out of the vehicle. It would be comical too, if it weren’t so ridiculously dangerous.
The motor of an auto-rickshaw, or tuk-tuk, is located under the passenger seats. I remember being strangely aroused by the intense vibration of the seat during my very first ride nearly ten years ago. “Why don’t we have these in the States?” I breathlessly asked a friend.
All auto-rickshaw rides are not created equal. Some drivers mosey along serenely, poking themselves into the little pockets between trucks and cars and carts. I only ever manage to find these shanti shanti drivers when I am in an enormous hurry.
Most other rickshaw-wallahs are maniacal Evel Knievels who speed treacherously down the wrong side of the road facing incoming traffic rather than stop for lights. These daredevils cheerfully take my life into their own hands, soaring above speed bumps, racing with bigger vehicles, running red lights whenever possible, and always breaking at the last possible second.
Rickshaw-wallahs are often talkative, curious, and always ready with unsolicited advice. In Delhi, one rickshaw-wallah conspicuously puffed on a joint in the middle of a traffic jam, as he pontificated in Hindi about the intricacies of Indian modernity. And yes, they are always, always, always men.
An auto-rickshaw-wallah in Benares is a notoriously hard man to deal with. Benares is rife with overenthusiastic oft-sneering touts who will lie, cheat, and bribe their way into getting a commission from someone, anyone. They will take you to the hotels of business associates rather than the one you asked to go to, (“that hotel burned down, madam, don’t worry I have a better one”) or taking you to the sketchy “back door” of the train station.
One unflappable rickshaw-wallah tried to park his vehicle some ten minutes drive from our hotel, so that he could stash his vehicle, make us carry our heavy baggage, and come inside to claim a commission (never mind that we had already made reservations). Nasty piece of work that one.
I had a cheerful and certifiable flyboy in Varansi who was harassed by traffic cops to give them a bribe; the cops flagged down his auto-rickshaw, hopped in, and draped a sleazy arm around his back, and then in a low voice proceeded to demand a cut of the fare. My driver told the cop to piss off. He’s the first guy I’ve seen do that. Let’s hope he doesn’t get the hard end of the stick later I liked him, despite the fact that when I finally got dropped off, he tried his level best to rip me off.
Another Benares special is the boat ride on the Ganges at dawn. I can’t say I’ve ever done it, but I hear it’s fantastic.
My most recent trip to Benaras was during the current monsoon season. I have never seen the river so high. It had washed out most of the famous ghats, and half the cremations ghats were underwater. The river moved with a stronger current than usual; it rushed forward swallowing all flower and candle offerings in big gulps like a hungry monster. I watched the boatmen work hard to fight the eddies and currents as they ferried tourists and pilgrims up and down the waterlogged edges of the labyrinthine Old City.
I didn’t particularly fancy a boat ride, especially under these treacherous new conditions. The Ganga was gorging quite enough without offering myself to it as well. I had been to the ancient city many times, but always I had waved off the persistent boatmen with irritation. Boat nahi chahiye! For god’s sake, please stop asking me!
This time, however, my traveling partner had her heart set on a boat ride. Sigh... We walked south into the heart of the small lanes that lead at various points to the water’s edge. Usually one can pop in and out of the lanes and onto the long stretch of ghats that meander towards the river, but now the water has risen to become a wall, and for the first time I feel claustrophobic in this ancient maze. We have already dodged the most dodgy and obnoxious boatmen in Benares, the Dahaswamedh Ghat guys. We are looking for a water edge, and pass a small Japanese restaurant. Mental note to return for green tea and teriyaki. We stop to admire an impressively old and gangly “holy tree” and the Shiva Lingam at its base. A priest passing by offers to lead us to the water. A boatman finds us. We want to see the water and a patch of sky to remind ourselves that the maze is not really a cage.
The priest motions for us to follow, but the boatman behind us tries to get us to go another way. He tells us that the priest is a drunk, and that we’re going a dangerous route. We cautiously follow the priest through a few back alleys to the water’s edge. Here too only a few top steps remain above water. He undresses to his loongi and gets in to do oblations. The boatman starts negotiations, and we try to bargain him down but the price is still too high. The priest begins brushing his teeth in the most holy and most polluted waterway in India. As we turn to go the priest gestures towards the departing boatman and shakes his head in dismay. Only I see that he cuts across his neck with his pointer finger, as if to say, “He’ll cut your throat.”
Alarmed, I try to get my friend to reconsider, but the boatman is breathing down our neck. “Kimchee, and maybe even veggie sushi,” I say, trying to tempt her with East Asian delights. The boatman is pissed as we walk away.
The next day we head down to the bad men at Dahaswemedh ghat. They are hustlers, but they are on the busiest stretch in Benares; we may be overcharged, but we can’t just disappear. Two men row, and one man assists as a guide. They show us the ancient high water mark on one building, and I am shocked to realize that indeed the river was once even more swollen than it is now. We take the obligatory oodles of photos, and we ooh and aah at the temples and slightly askew structures that border the water in this most sacred of Hindu cities. The boatmen row hard on our journey upriver, but then they relax and we are carried back downstream by Ganga Devi herself. Do they really believe in the river goddess, these holy boatmen? I wonder, since it is in her presence, as we disembarked from our ride, that one boatman narrowed his eyes, set his jaw, and gruffly demanded twice the agreed on price.
Bike-rickshaws are bicycle-propelled carriages that cost far less than an auto-rickshaw or taxi. In India, as most everywhere, the more physical toil and actual travail involved, the less one gets paid. I marvel sometimes at the wiry, sun-crisped old men that still slowly bike around, looking for fares. The carriage has a bonnet to shade the passengers from the sun, but these rickshaw-wallahs are fully exposed to the elements. Today, as sweat dripped off the little man trying to get us up a hill, I leaned forward and wished desperately that I had rejected last night’s gulab jamun.
Sometimes you can’t afford not to take a bike rickshaw. In case you forget this, bike-rickshaw-wallahs will cheerfully follow you around to remind you. Apparently, in India, walking is pretty much just for chumps. As my friend and I left our hotel in Benares recently to take a nice stroll through the lovely green Cantonment area, we were accosted by a veritable fleet of bike-rickshaws. Although my passable Hindi skills allowed me to express that we really just wanted to walk, no one seems interested in taking that answer seriously. One bike-rickshaw-wallah rode beside us the entire half hour that we walked around. We selfishly kept trying to have a personal conversation, but he would keep interrupting in Hindi to ask us questions. As we hurried back to the peace and quiet of our hotel the rickshaw-wallah assumed that he had made new friends. “You come find me whenever you need a ride; I will be waiting for you!” he shouted in Hindi.
One bike-rickshaw-wallah in Kushinagar was so upset that I had engaged the services of someone other than himself that he overtook the upstart rickshaw, cut us off, and lectured me sternly. He recited all the places he’d taken me on one afternoon five months previously, saying, “Don’t you remember me?” “Uhm, yes, you’re the completely psycho one; now get out of our way please.”
And then there are the poor, poor fellows in Calcutta who don’t even have the luxury of a bike. They pull the carriages along behind them as they run to Point B. They are so unlucky that I can’t bear to bargain them down to a reasonable rate. And then I give them a tip on top of whatever highway robbery I was asked to pay. And I still feel guilty. Often these men appear to be almost starving. Always they seem to be running for their lives.
It would be a difficult journey. We knew that from the outset. The Manali-Leh highway is the second highest stretch of road in the world. Plagued by frequent avalanches, it is only open for a few months each year.
By bus the trip from the apple orchards of Manali to the Tibetesque vistas of Leh would take thirty-six hours, with an overnight stop at an altitude so high that most people spend the night vomiting due to oxygen deprivation. We decided to go in a shared jeep that would do the whole trip in one grueling eighteen-hour stretch.
They picked us up at two am. The jeep was packed to the gills. Fortunately, my friend and I had reserved the front two seats. We squeezed into half the seat, while the driver and his formidable stick shift took up the remaining space. The back seat was stuffed with four passengers across, and then four more people rode in the bitch seats in the back back.
We finally left behind Manali’s wet nature preserves at three am, and began the steep climb up to Rohtang pass. In a local language “Rohtang” means “pile of corpses,” but I didn’t tell my friend that little factoid until later when we were safely back down in the valley below.
It was raining, it was pitch black, and the windows had fogged up around us. The driver inspired confidence; he’d been ferrying people back and forth for eight years, and he was all business.
We knew we were high up in the mountains, but we couldn’t see beyond the headlights and that was comforting somehow. The darkness of night felt like a great impenetrable boundary that hugged us tightly to the road. This place was probably gorgeous in the light of day, but we would have to wait many hours until the dawn lit up this mountain paradise. It was 3:45 am and only the driver was really awake. My head lolled around, but I wasn’t asleep yet.
Suddenly, my eyes snapped open and my jaw hinged in shock. There was a man on the highway. He was lying on his side in the middle of the road, in the middle of the night, in the middle of a rainstorm. Beside me, my friend gasped. We passed the figure without even slowing down. We both turned to look at the unblinking driver, who continued on into the darkness without a word. I craned my head behind us to see what the other eight passengers thought. Not a single whisper, nor a glance of alarm.
“Was that... ?” my friend queried unsteadily, “Even California drivers would have stopped for a dead body in the road... !”
I looked at the driver again. He drove coolly forward. He wouldn’t have either... would he? Was it really a body we saw?
“It couldn’t have been. It must have been debris clothes that dropped out of a truck or something. But, but... I thought I saw a man too...”
The image of a body lingered in my mind. We were both shaken. Our jeep passed cars and trucks racing towards Manali. If it had been a corpse, perhaps the driver had figured that a vehicle going towards the city, instead of away from it, should more logically offer assistance.
How would we have transported a dead body, if we had turned back? I wondered if the Tibetan lady, the Indian man, and the two Italian tourists in the back seat would have consented to having a corpse stretched across their knees on the bumpy ride back towards civilization.
As we continued to speed away, I couldn’t shake the moment that we had passed by at thirty km per hour. Was it a mass of clothes or flesh? A mess of man or mangled objects? Ghost? Mirage? Mistake? Even if it wasn’t a specter, it is now, because even many weeks later, the image continues to haunt the far edges of my consciousness. Especially at night, my conscience urges me to turn back, turn back time, turn back towards the shadow on that lonely road.
If we had been traveling through the Poconos instead of the Himalayas I would have questioned the driver and tried to make him turn around. We would have done the right thing, or at the very least I would have made the crime his instead of mine.
The roots of my ambivalence about travel now lie exposed and raw on the surface. The roads in India do not all lead to the same place. If nothing else, it was the illusion of control that lay dead on the cold, wet pavement that night. Here on these perpetually unfamiliar pathways, more than at any other time in my life, I feel forced to acknowledge I am only ever just along for the ride.