Friday, September 14, 2007

We're not done yet! Rewind to My Last Weekend In India

Faithful readers, never fear, I have not forsaken you! Not yet, at least.

It has been a crazy month, with a crazy journey between totally different worlds. I have returned from Neverland, but I still don’t want to grow up. But before I get into the analysis of my reverse culture shock, let’s start at the beginning, with tales of my last weeks in India – Suffice it to say, India said good-bye with a bang.

The over-arching theme of my last week in India was that everything seemed to go wrong time and time again, and yet, things could have gone so much more wrong, that I was extremely grateful to escape unscathed. One thing that I can credit India with, is that it really gives you perspective about how things could be, that makes you really fucking grateful for how things are – even when they aren’t great.

I don't want this to sound as if I don't love India - because in fact, I love it very much. There are many things about India that I will miss immensely, and indeed, I already am. It is vibrant, honest, and a constant adventure, with warm, open, hospitable people. India is real. Every detail of life in India feels real at a different level than life anywhere else. Life is a challenge that forces to you appreciate what you have, and to fight for what you want. India forces you to live, because if you don't try, there are 1 billion other people ready to take your place.

India makes me tired. India infuriates me. India kicks me down and helps me up. India makes me feel alive. India makes me appreciate life.


My second to last week in India was spent in Gurgaon, a suburb of Delhi. This you know, because I already wrote about it. This trip was interesting because Delhi is a totally different city from Hyderabad, with a very different ambience. Many things about Delhi are nicer than Hyderabad, it is truly an international city, full of diplomats and expensive restaurants. We went to a sushi restaurant that flew their sushi in from Japan every day (I still didn’t eat it though, and my stomach thanks me…). Yet, Delhi is also worse than Hyderabad in many ways. It is more crowded, the people are poorer, and it doesn’t have that sense of excitement and hope that the developing city of Hyderabad has, despite its political and social uncertainty. Delhi is hot and the people are generally not there to help you. It is much more of a “big” city, even though it doesn’t have any big buildings.

The first thing to go wrong in my last weeks happened when, due to a misunderstanding, the police arrived at my guest house and told everyone they had to leave (the misunderstanding was resolved within a few days). The house staff packed my stuff, losing two pairs of my shoes and several earrings in the process. Yet, I was very grateful that I wasn’t there when they came - I was having dinner at the sushi restaurant and discussing hinduism and reiki with another expat, Anna, and her Indian Bollywood producer friend who went to Vanderbilt (yes, I’m referring to the school in Tennessee. One of the things I love about traveling is the totally random experiences you can stumble upon, such as this one). I managed to avoid what must have been a very frightening situation, and all I lost in the process were two pairs of shoes – not so bad, not so bad…


For my last weekend I went with some American ex-pats, Scott, Anna, and Molly, to Veranasi, the holiest city in Hinduism where Hindus go to die and to bathe in the holy, and extremely polluted waters of the Ganges ( .

We flew from Delhi to Veranasi in on a short one-hour flight from Delhi. When we arrived we took a taxi to the only western hotel in the area, the Taj Ghat (an Indian chain), where we stealthily snuck 4 people into a room with a maximum capacity of 3. This resulted in us sneaking around to avoid suspicion, including me hiding in the bathtub when the bellboy dropped off the roller bed. The Taj is supposed to be a luxury hotel chain, but that roller bed was THE most disgusting thing any of us had ever seen – covered in stains from many, many different bodily fluids. So Scott ended up sleeping on a concoction of chairs, while Molly, Anna, and I all squeezed into the king sized bed. We all burst out laughing at about midnight when Scott moved an inch and his chair concoction fell over. Generally, it was a great time.

Before our snuggly bedtime we took the most harrowing auto-rickshaw ride of my time in India to get from the Taj Ghat, which is, FYI, no where near any Ghat’s (the stairs down to the Ganges) to the actual ghats to watch the puja, or evening prayers. Our rickshaw drivers dropped us off about a mile from the river, and we walked with tons of tourists and pilgrims past manure, livestock, hawkers and congested traffic to the main ghat. I was very proud of myself for having developed the uber stink-eye to the point that while I was walking down the street a few feet ahead of the other ex-pats, the hawkers saw me, evaluated me, and kept walking, honing in on the rest of the ex-pats. Muahahaha – I have become so unapproachable that they didn’t even bother with me!

When we got to the ghats, priests (possibly Brahmins?) were doing a ceremony with fire on a platform over the river. Tourists were sitting in boats on the water watching and setting floating candles in the water, and we joined the group of pilgrims watching from the ghat. We lasted about 30 minutes before we got bored and decided to head out. I realized that I had reached my limit for travel – it was really cool, but I just didn’t care anymore.

We walked out of the maze of small streets, people everywhere (even more people than normal because Monday was a big festival day), livestock, traffic, manure, hawkers, and crap stands selling crap, and eventually found our way to where the auto-rickshaws were parked. A word to the wise – never, ever agree to go with any driver in India if they are very persistent, because there is a reason they need to be persistent – because they suck! So we split up, and Scott and I and Molly and Anna went in two rickshaws, who were apparently having a contest about who could die first.

The blur that was the drive home was defined by me yelling “Nahi Geldi, Nahiii!” (“Not Fast!”). We were playing chicken with on-coming traffic and were centimeters away from being hit head on by a teetering bus. We were so close to hitting a man walking across the street that Scott and I were scratching our heads in between holding on to the sides of the rickshaw for dear life, trying to figure out how the man survived.

After that we went to dinner at the Taj restaurant and nursed Kingfishers, anticipating our snuggly 4-person room and our 4am wake-up call to get to the Ganges before sunrise for a boat ride.

4 am came quickly and we tumbled out of bed, and dragged ourselves downstairs to a lobby packed full of Italian tourists. Apparently everyone who comes to Veranasi wants to take a boat ride at sunrise. But, everyone wants to do it because it made the trip worth the effort. We got onto a boat (as I prayed and prayed to anyone who would listen that the boat not turn over and that I wouldn’t need to touch the disgusting water on the monsoon-swollen river. We paddled close to shore, to avoide being swept into the main current of the overflowing river, and our hotel-provided tour guide told us about what we were seeing.

Pilgrims everywhere were bathing and drinking the water as naughty monkeys climbed around all the buildings, looking to make trouble. Men sat on pillars that are normally part of the ghats, but because of the flooding, they were covered in water, so it looked like the men were sitting on top of the water. We paddled up the river to the crematoriums where thousands of people are cremated daily, and saw human ash floating on top of the water. We also saw a full dead body, wrapped, and strapped to a boat. Hindus generally cremate their dead, but there are certain people who they won’t cremate, including children, pregnant women, and people who died from snake bites (the idea being that they might not actually be dead). We were lucky that these were the most morbid things we saw, because many other ex-pats have returned from Varanasi with more morbid imagery to describe.

After this, our tour guide took us up into the small streets of the ancient city (one of the most ancient in the world), and we visited an Ashram (Hindu Monastery). The streets were full of manure and livestock and the smell was overwhelming. There were soldiers everywhere with guns because there had been a terrorist attack a few years ago, and because, although we didn’t know it yet, there was a terror high alert because of bombings in Hyderabad on Saturday night.

Varinasi was frustrating to me, because if the water weren’t so polluted, and people took care to not leave the small streets full of garbage and manure, it could have an ambience similar to Venice, with small historical walking streets and a fascinating, ancient culture. But instead, no one cares. The city is collapsing and rotting away, and no one is willing to do anything to prevent it. The river is dying. It is so polluted that it is septic, which means that there is no oxygen in the water so that no aquatic life can live. No fish, no plants, nothing. If this is how people treat the holiest of cities, there isn’t much hope for those places that are less revered. And this is a crying shame, not just for India, but for the world.

Somehow the combination of soldiers with guns, the polluted water, and the overwhelming sewage smells prevented me from appreciating the “holy” atmosphere that other travelers to Varanasi describe, and all any of us wanted to do was escape to our dark, air-conditioned, quiet hotel room.

When we got back to the room we saw the news of the Hyderabad bombings, and we lay in our room for hours watching the news, as I called Rupa and Shyam to make sure everyone was alright, and the other ex-pats napped.

Luckily, no one that I knew was hurt by the bombings, but they have made the subsequent weeks very tense, because no one is sure who the specific target was (they targeted a busy restaurant and an outdoor carnival), or what the bomber’s motivations were other than promoting general civil unrest. We ended up cancelling all of our good-bye activities, and my last week was tense, yet, I was still grateful that I hadn’t been in Hyderabad during the bombings, and that no one I knew was affected.

If one attitude summarized my time in India it was: please just don’t let it happen to me. This is the attitude that one must adopt when in India, because if you were to contemplate the chances of something dangerous happening to you, you would be so scared that you wouldn’t leave your hotel or house (and even then, there is always the chance that with the common shoddy construction and corruption in public and private works, that your house or hotel will fall down upon you as you hide under your bed – I’ll get to the Hyderabad flyover collapse later in my blog).

But, back to adventures in Veranasi. After a morning of napping and enjoying the silence of our hotel room, we headed to the airport to head back to Hyderabad. Anna, Molly, and I were on a SpiceJet flight to Delhi and Scott was on an Air Sahara/JetLite flight. As the Air Sahara plane landed on the tiny runway (which was clearly not designed for large planes to land on), it slammed on its breaks and it’s wheels popped, stranding the plane on the runway.

The following 3 hours demonstrated why it is shocking and lucky that shit doesn’t hit the fan more often than it does in India. For 3 hours the SpiceJet flight circled while the airport staff and everyone they’d ever met tried to figure out how to get a 737 off the runway without any equipment (the airport was so small that the planes would land and park and people would walk down the steps, so there wasn’t any equipment capable of hauling a plane anywhere).

In the meantime, they wouldn’t admit what was wrong with the plane for about an hour, and then wouldn’t admit that the plane wouldn’t be taking off again soon so the tiny, cramped, over-crowded airport was full of angry, confused, growingly disgruntled people who were starving for any information and weren’t getting it. Just in the nick of time, before my in-coming SpiceJet flight was about to be diverted to Lucknow because it was out of fuel from circling for 3 hours, the airport staff was able to haul the plane off the runway with the help of a tractor from a local farmer. I was hovering around the staff when the news came in over the walkie-talkie that the plane was making it off the runway, and I ended up being the messenger of good tidings for the next 15 minutes to hippie German students, Indian families, American MBA interns, and everyone else in the airport as I reported the info and more people came over to hear the details and ask me to repeat the story for their travel groups and/or families (no one officially announced the news for another 20 minutes).

After the plane got off the runway, the SpiceJet flight was finally able to land and we got out of Varanasi (and not a second to late). Even with having planned a 3 hour layover in Delhi, I missed my outgoing flight (also on JetLite/Air Sahara), but I managed to get on the last flight into Hyderabad with seconds to spare, on Air Deccan – the worst Indian airline. Air Deccan was actually not that bad since the plane was about to leave and there wasn’t the opportunity for them to delay it/cancel it like the usually do, and I managed to get JetLite to refund my non-refundable ticket since it was their plane that caused me to miss my connecting flight (I was VERY proud of the negotiating skills that I’d developed while in India, to be able to negotiate them to refund my non-refundable ticket and find me another flight – not something they wanted to do). Yet, with all of this stress and these things going wrong, I was so immensely grateful that things weren’t worse.

First of all, Scott, who was supposed to be on the outgoing flight on the plane that broke, was trapped in the Varanasi airport all night and most of the following day. I could have been on his flight, and I would have been totally screwed. I was grateful that I wasn’t on the SpiceJet flight that had to circle for 3 hours – a 4 hour flight with 3 hours making tight circles that would make the blue angels queasy would have been total torture. I was so grateful that I got on the Air Deccan flight seconds before it left, or else I would have been stuck in Delhi overnight. And I was sooo grateful that all of the flights I was on, including Air Deccan, landed safely. All in all, the stars were aligned in my favor, and I didn’t take it for granted for one mili-second.

Thank you, India, for helping me appreciate the small things.

To be continued…

No comments: