India: Love/Hate / 04.01.13

Kallie told me that she has a love/hate relationship with India.  She remembers on her previous trip feeling the intensity of amazing overflow of sound and color, smells and tastes, and loving it.  She also remembers feeling sick, tired, hot, and overstimulated, and hating it.

We are hating it right now.  It’s not that hating is even the right word, but when you crank up the volume to 97, whatever’s playing is either giving you the chills or making you stop your ears. India is like cranking up the volume to 97.  It’s like stepping out of a forest into rush hour. It’s like opening your oven and finding that the sewer has backed up into it and now is flooding your kitchen…

On our way back from lunch we watched a street dog take a dip in the raw sewage that is coursing down either side of the road in cement trenches.  Then he happily jumped back out onto the road, made a stinking dripping loop, and trotted wet footprints off in the other direction.  “That is why we don’t pet the dogs here,” Kallie noted.

When I walk out to the main street I can feel my senses going a bit numb from all the honking, buzzing, beeping traffic sweeping past me–bikes ringing bells, motorcycles buzzing horns, buses, trucks, cars, all honking at others, at pedestrians, at carts full of banana leaves or metal trash being pushed by a barefoot porter.  I felt bad for Steve when we arrived in the city at about 7:30 a.m., and already the barrage of noise and stink was wearing.  He sat next to an open sewer just off from the dusty blaring traffic as we scoped out potential hotels and guesthouses.  He wasn’t feeling his best, and needed a quiet place to rest awhile.

Of course, busy roads and dirty streets aren’t good reasons to hate a place, necessarily.  Our reasons are more personal.  First of all, India won’t let us sleep.  Repeatedly, whether from Hindu temples or Christian churches, the music starts playing publicly between 4 and 5 a.m., and goes on for an hour or more.  If it’s not music, then it’s fellow lodgers at the motel–talking, shouting, ringing bells…  Add that to the heat and the mosquitos, and you have a significant challenge facing you each night.  This is what drives us to occasionally spring for an AC room and hole up for awhile.

Besides not letting us sleep, India also has our GI tracts on the run.  Or under seige.  Some of us go too often, others not enough.  Five days ago began a rash of illness in our group, starting with me getting some type of food poisoning.  Next, Steve went down–and then Kallie.  Lindsey was also fighting for a bit.  The only one who could still stomach the thought of an Indian meal was Peter, who seemed (until recently) undaunted by the constant flavors and seasoning of the “meals” plate.  When we found a supermarket, we stocked up on Corn Flakes, milk, bread, peanut butter, and honey, and ate like Americans in our AC room, drinking 7UP and filtered water.

Don’t get me wrong–we love Indian food.  I would happily pay $12 for an Indian lunch back in the States that right now I wouldn’t pay the $1.50 for here in India.  I hate it because I want some variety.  I want some fresh bread, clean fruit, crunchy vegetables!  I want some pizza.  I want a BBQ sandwich.  I want some spaghetti.  I want some of that Christmas ham I know my aunt Nancy will have had with the rest of my family on the 25th.  But our options in the small towns where we’ve been for the last two weeks have been limited mostly to what they call “meals”: a pile of rice on a banana leaf to which you add several flavors of masala slop.  Some variety is available, but only in the bigger cities and for a higher price.

Finally, India won’t give us any space.  When we bike we are often crowded by traffic or people on motorbikes doing drive-by “hello!”s.  When we stop, we attract attention, and it’s usually unwanted.  People want to know where we’re from and how we like India.  “India’s very beautiful,” we say, knowing it’s true and hating it all the same.  Or people want to practice their English by asking the big three questions they must have been taught to mimic in dialogue: “How are you?” “What-is-your-name?” and “What is your native place?”  Also a commonly added question is, “How many rupees [did your cycle cost]?”  Those who engage us are just a few compared to those who gather to stare, comment to one another, and put their hands on our bikes.

I know, I know — I can hear someone saying, “Well if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen!”  It’s nothing we didn’t expect; and we find a place for gratitude that these Indians at least have some English in their vocabulary to help us by in our travels, vaguely realizing that it’s the vestiges of imperialism that allow us to get even this far.  But still, regardless, we want some space.

That might explain why I felt so defeated the other morning when I left our hotel room to try to get a pitcher full of tea.  I didn’t want to pay 30 rupees for two cups from the hotel’s loose room service, when I knew 30 rupees could mostly fill a pitcher just down the street.  So when I went downstairs with our metal water container, hoping to sneak out without any comment, I sighed heavily when three of the hotel staff that happened to be standing there asked me where I was going with the pitcher.  “I’m going to get some chai,” I told them, somewhat impatiently. “It’s too expensive here,” I added unnecessarily.  “Wait,” they said, and one ran off.  I rolled my eyes and went to return my water pitcher to the room.  When I got back downstairs, they offered me a tea thermos, and told me where the nearest chai shop was.  Their kindness was both humbling and infuriorating, as I wanted to be lack-sleep mad and half-sick angry with someone, and I wanted my general feelings of mistrust to be vindicated.  But even more than that I just wanted some space.  I just wanted to do something that nobody noticed, or commented on, or offered to help me with.  I wanted to be self-sufficient in this one idea, on this particular morning, to fill up a pitcher of tea we could sip on as we ate our Corn Flakes and drank our MinuteMaid orange juice locked in our room.

Thankfully it’s not over; India, that is.  We still have some weeks here, and we still have a chance to learn how to travel.  We have a chance to find new foods we like, to feel better physically, and to make sure we get at least one good nights sleep out of three.  We still have a chance to enjoy the rich spreading greens of the rice fields, and the splashes of bright blue, mustard yellow, and deep red saris that the working women flash like occasional poppies and tulips in an ocean of grass.  We have a chance to appreciate all the attention, and engage the people who are interested in knowing us.

This isn’t to say that I’ve changed my mind about hating India; as they say in the song, she done me wrong.  But at least I’m aware of a love/hate balance, and the possibility that we can take some steps to redirect some of our emotional weight toward love by sleeping, eating, and learning how to get some space.

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  1. Netzy said on January 6, 2013 at 2:12 am

    Your feelings were like mine the first time I traveled to China . You all are doing so well – and this experience is one in a lifetime . Keep blogging please-I so enjoy your creative thoughts!

    • ajspidahl said on January 13, 2013 at 8:03 am

      Thanks Netzy, for keeping our morale boosted! We’re coming down to the final stretch of this adventure, but if your example is indicative of our futures, we will be having many more adventures to come… :)

  2. Jim said on January 9, 2013 at 7:30 pm

    Oh man, that sure reminds me of you and me going out to shops and buying them out of crackers as Peter continued to devour chapatis with which he had just wiped the dahl off his beard. I hope the TP gods have at least not abandoned you.

    • ajspidahl said on January 13, 2013 at 7:54 am

      Ha! I remember too well the dripping beard chapati… In fact, it’s my go-to story if I want to gross people out. Peter valiantly ate the “meals” up until the last, but finally he could no longer stomach Indian food, and for a few days ate nothing but cornflakes and fruit. Anyways, thinking of you often — thanks for keeping the memories alive!

      p.s. I think we are developing a TP disorder–one of the last hotels we stayed at had two extra rolls sitting on the window sill, and they promptly found their way into my bag…

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