On a jouncy five in the afternoon bus to Kota, I shut my eyes, burning from desert dust, while wind heated my face like a hairdryer. I chose the back because my bag had to have a seat, is far too big to put up in the baggage racks. I grunted noticeably when the bus rolled over a large bump. Next to me a man answered his cell phone and spoke into it so loudly that a man in front of him with earphones turned around to see what the commotion was. We locked eyes, and he smiled from seeing me smiling at how this loud man seemed to have no idea, or if he did, simply didn’t care, about how loud he was being. And this pleased me, the fact that despite the stares (which make me wonder if I can now better relate to being black or a minority in an all-white area) and obvious differences between us, we’re still able to laugh at this goober who can’t hear himself speak.
We drove past brick quarries and circular straw homes with cupolas, which for their apparent sturdiness, didn’t immediately register with me as signs of poverty, and wide rivers with ghats and people bathing, and lucky me, even a pair of distant brown titties, all very alive and insistent that this is how people live when they’re not just like you, i.e. white and wealthy. Which was very reassuring, to know how people satisfy their basic and not-so-basic needs when they don’t have much money, and to see how the varicolored trucks run around India, and the men straddling mopeds, and the wild boar in the distance, and an occasional monkey hopping a roof, knowing that the wildlife is just another part of a life that’s not just like yours.
Oh, but they were right about Kota, they don’t get many tourists there at all. No sir. No tourists. Everyone stared me down, almost uncomfortably, but I averted my eyes straight ahead, and it’s not like they’re malicious stares– they’re the stares of a small child not realizing they’re actually staring, the way I used to when I was a boy, just months ago.
You may snicker, but you know I don’t use irony, too postmodern, and that if I say something I goddam mean it. The change began when I was taken advantage of in Sicily, that glorious memory of my first fight and the rage and hatred I felt when I sought revenge and realized some people are evil, all of it still enough to make my blood rise if I let it, although I don’t because I try to control my emotions. Which I began practicing in the mountains reading the Bhagavad Gita, and learning about the purpose of life in seeing yourself in everyone and everything else, which coincidentally marked the second stage of my blossoming into true self-knowledge and adulthood. Somehow, both of these experiences, one more protracted than the other, seemed to have made me less inclined toward selfishness, cheapness and inconsistency in decision-making, three large aspects of my nature during my time in Brooklyn that held me back from reaching a fuller maturity. Along with learning not to stare and talking about herpes or circumcision during parties.
I stood in a pakora restaurant while everyone stared, and felt like I maybe shouldn’t give off such an aggressive, get the fuck out of my way vibe, nor should it be as ovine as the typical backpacker’s downward gaze of wonder and impassiveness. Chewing with my mouth open. That was what I resolved on. And throwing my trash in the crowded around can, instead of meekly walking to the farther trash can on my way out, not wanting to make my presence felt. When I asked a mango seller where this travel agency was and he clearly had no idea and I stupidly, albeit somewhat purposefully asked him with my finger if it was down there, and he said yes, I was about to follow him, which I should have learned in Rome is a silly thing to do, that when someone doesn’t speak your language, DO NOT take directions from them unless they clearly nod and seem to know what you’re talking about, until an overhearer on a moped, who was waiting for me to finish with the mango-seller asked me in clear English where I needed to go. He then proceeded to take me back to the circle I’d passed and kindly wish me a good journey.
Then a worker led me into an empty waiting hall and asked me about my fare, which I repeated like he was asking me for a blowjob. I paid 400, I said. Only 400? he said. Yeah, getting slightly New York here, only 400. Which he’d laughed at and turned away from to tell his friends, who offered me chai and made me relaxed, now that I’d passed the test.
Then an older man came over and asked me about how much my bag cost, and looked at it enviously, the way men ogle women when they’re clearly taken. To prove that he wasn’t going to touch it I told the other guy to watch it for me while I went next door. In my cockiness, I assumed that water would cost as much as it did in Bundi. When the man saw the five in my hand, he took it, and made it seem like it did cost 15 and not the ten he’d originally said.
Telling them I’m from New York when they ask, you from?, which is always the first question after they’ve determined whether they can help or sell you, always elicits the same approving head nod, which also carries slight envy that I’m here traveling with my shiny laptop and $300 bag while they have to work here, simultaneously registering in their minds the fact that I did come here specifically, where they work, which means that it can’t be all that undesirable a place to live, and plus our countries are good friends and mutually respectful of each other, so we should too.
I decided to eat a real dinner, because there’s nothing worse than being hungry on a ten hour bus ride. I walked into a hotel restaurant and three men surrounded me as I tried to decide what to order. I took the recommendation of the one who spoke the best English, which was a fruit and cocktail fruit curry, pineapple, papaya mixed in brown gravy. It sounded disgusting, but when I said I like spicy veg, he said we can make it spicy and so I assumed it would be good. It came out soon in a special flame-heated metal bowl. With butter chapati. Tomatoes lined the circumference of the bowl. And tin foil covered the top. I tried to remove it but it was melting. Into the curry. This was bad. I asked him how to remove it. He said you don’t need to. But it’s metal. I laughed at the absurdity: I can eat this? He nodded. I spooned it onto my chapati with a chuckle. When in Rome.
It was surprisingly delicious. I couldn’t taste the foil at all. Unless it was that crunch… Jesus, wasn’t I going to get cancer from eating tin foil? I tried taking a large, unmelted piece from a tomato. It adhered to my finger and wouldn’t rub off easily. He interrupted me. “It’s okay. It is not foil.” He fetched a box of aluminum foil. “Not this.”
“What is it?”
“Like jewelry. Gold, silver. Very common in Rajasthan.”
“But it can’t be good for you?”
“Why do you put it on?”
“Decoration.” This made all too much sense. That I was eating silver foil. For decoration. As they commonly did in Rajasthan. “You don’t like?”
“No it’s very good.” I was offending him by not eating his silver foil.
“You want lassi? We make with sweet hand-in curd.”
“Sweet hanging curd.” That sounded delicate, like silver foil. And somewhat delicious. He went to the refrigerator and pulled out a little clay cup. Well, it was in a clay cup… Pink syrup decorated the top and I sipped the thick curd which was like yogurt or ice cream, very cold and soothing to my stomach, and yes, dulling to the spices of my fruit cocktail curry.
A chef brought out another buttery delicious chapati. I was getting full. To finish everything I’d have to glut myself. Which I’m fine with doing. I couldn’t believe they put silver foil on their food though. That even in this relatively benign, uninteresting town, unfound in any Lonely Planet, such a profoundly interesting thing could happen signified the extreme possibilities of exploration that lay ahead of me. Just when you think you’ve seen it all, eh, Danny?
I ate everything and rose to pay my bill. “What country?”
He said, “It is every Indian’s dream to go to New York.”
“You should come.” He looked at me kindly, like he was putting up with an asshole. I paid, said see ya in New York, and walked back out into the smoggy Rajasthan circle. Men hawked. Mopeds honked. Radios crooned. I rubbed my tummy and when a store proprietor and his friend looked at me and smiled and said, “You eat?” I said, “Shanti shanti,” which I think means, “peace peace.” I walked away from their laughing about how a white kid knew Hindi.
Ah yes, back outside in Rajasthan, with horns and turbans and mustaches and very Indian men. I wondered how many times my friends and family thought, “I wonder where Daniel is now?” Cut to me walking a street like this.
I bought a water for ten rupees and felt pretty grown up.
That’s the way young grasshopper!