Others take their experience in the subcontinent the way you’d take a beating. “Don’t look them in the eyes,” they say. “They’ll never leave you alone. Make sure to get the really good bug spray. You’ll get sick. Everyone gets sick. They eat cockroaches. Don’t use the tap water to brush your teeth. Bring toilet paper, it’s really expensive there.”
So I’ve been kind of worried. What if I don’t like it? What if I get really sick? Or worse, what if I want to stay?
I decided to go to India because so many people live here. It will soon be the most populous country in the world. And I wanted to see what the hubbub is about, whether it’s as good as some say or as different as the others say, or if it’s just how I expected it to be– smelly and dirty, with great food and kind people, and things that make me shudder and other things that make me feel more human than I’ve ever felt.
When I got off the plane I was surprised to see a sign for drinking water. They aren’t supposed to have that here. But I drank it anyway and it was cold and sweet. I walked outside to the highway, asking for my bus, excited for India in how they’re building a superhighway near the airport. I couldn’t help but feel like I’d walked into a zoo, those enclosed areas supposed to represent the monsoon climate, with mangrove trees and fuzzy-headed crows and pink bouganvilla. I didn’t see my bus, and although it was only eight-thirty, it was getting hot. I took the advice of a woman to take a rickshaw to the rail station, then the train to Churchgate, since it would probably take only an hour; and a cab would take an hour and a half. But my rickshaw driver didn’t know English and the rickshaw driver who translated must have confused him because he drove me for maybe ten minutes to a bus stop for 50 rupees, or 1 dollar.
I waited another quarter of an hour for the bus, got on, and figured I’d blackride. But there was a ticket collector who took my ten rupees and said no when I asked him if this bus would take me to Churchgate. He didn’t speak English but another man nearby did, and he told me to get off at the rail station, three more stops, take the first class car for 80 rupees instead of a taxi for 250, and even though it would be very crowded it would only take forty minutes.
I didn’t get much sleep the past couple of days. There are stories I don’t have enough words for right now, but let’s just say that I slept for four hours on the plane. As I walked onto the train platform, ticket in hand, I figured I was hovering between thirty and forty percent health. I checked the stand selling pakoras, but thought better of it– not the first day. The train was already almost ten minutes late, but it came and I squeezed myself in, smiling at how the Indians hopped off with rapid little steps as it had slowed. I surmised that the difference between first and second class could be the cushions on the seats, but it made no difference since I never got a chance to sit. I held onto the steel bars and leaned out the door, my brow drying in the breeze, watching the shanties and open fires and sewage canals and piles of trash and rising skyscrapers, intermittently dispersed. Near the end of the journey, I decided that it would be acceptable to cut my nails and brush my hair, since there was still time, and I felt especially grimy. People didn’t seem to mind, and I made sure the south wind carried away all the stray clippings.
I couldn’t walk so I hired a cab to take me to my doorstep for 2 bucks and the receptionist was glad to see me. “Mr. Daniel! About time!” He had orange strands in his hair, earrings, and rings on his long feminine fingers. He ordered me toast and a cold sweet mango juice, which I drank in seconds. I told him about meeting my Dad in Delhi; he said all the trains are booked; it’s high season. I bought a flight, which I’m ambivalent about– on one hand, I’ll have plenty of time to take the train later in my trip, and after the past couple of days, it will be nice to relax in a hotel and more thoroughly explore Mumbai instead of go, go, go. On the other, I have to go back to the airport, for just a two hour flight, and I’m sure it will be easier than it was today.
I slept the afternoon away, tuning out the horn honking, until a loud drilling woke me. It was nearly four, past the hottest part of the day, so I decided it was time for a map and a walk. I looked very much the tourist in flip-flops, grey running shorts, and white tank, hairy pale arms bulging, snakeskin sunglasses the dead giveaway. Food first, not even a block before I sat and paid three dollars for the best butter garlic naan and chicken masala I’ve ever had. It was entirely redemptive for any misgivings I might have had until then. And on the streets, there were new smells– hemp, spices, people; trails of perfume and food, flora, and of course, human excrement, which to be so outright and blatant, unabashed, made it new indeed.
India is more colorful too, the ladies in their saris and cholis, pink and green, bejwelled and shining. I was expecting cows, but figured maybe in the North. I was surprised there weren’t one-legged children, either, and even the older crippled women I looked in the eyes when they begged, apologizing, because I don’t feel comfortable ignoring people. Most of the time they’re only looking for recognition that they’re working or that they exist– they don’t expect to get money from every person they see, but when they’re ignored they get resentful and pestering, and feel less human.
I mused on my solitariness, how important it is for a writer to be alone. I thought about how little matters in the world, how time has flowed on here, people living like this, for thousands of years, cell phone or not. I looked out at the Arabian sea, watched the boats float. I smiled when I saw tourists dressed in billowing pants, but later, a man who I bought a beautiful map of India from for four dollars, and gave him another two dollars for walking around with me and chatting, and not pressing me to go with him to his hash dealer, told me that when you learn Hindi words and dress like an Indian, the locals respect you. “You have a big mustache–” “Beard,” I said, “Beard– but you buy Indian clothes and you get respect.” So I imagined myself with a three month beard, wearing a kurta, spouting the Bhagavad Gita, becoming almost enlightened by the time I go to Sri Lanka. I walked past Churchgate, figuring I’d be able to find the way and took the footpath back to my hotel, where they were still drilling. I was tired again after walking into the dark.
In my room a bubbly little Dutch girl told me about how she had arrived yesterday and felt like she wouldn’t be able to stay until Monday in this craziness. But after her great tour today to the Elephant caves, in the islands just off the coast, she was excited. I knew exactly where she was coming from.