India – Purgatory

I arrived in Delhi in the early morning, from an overnight bus ride.   I started the journey very enthusiastically head dancing to my favorite music.  It was the first time I’d listened to it in India.  It brought back that excited feeling of beginning a road trip. The guy in the seat in front of me overheard me singing and suggested we trade iPhones later in the trip.  

After about 45 minutes of non-stop switch backs coming down from the Himalayas, I stopped my head swinging and attempted to find some inner stillness.  After two more hours of snaking through the mountains I asked the guy sitting next to me if I could have his paper bag, the one that held his chips and candy bars, just in case.  I had one close call, but didn’t ultimately need it.  It was comforting to hold it for a while.  

I have a vague memory of the bus stopping along the side of the road, in the dark, with a hazy light from somewhere, with nothing around, no trees or structures.  Everyone was peeing in the vast dusty space.  Women held rolls of toilet paper.  Back on the bus, I quickly fell back into an eyes closed daze again, until we arrived at what looked like a resort.  I was tired, but couldn’t resist getting out and seeing where we landed.  There was a proper parking lot and a large structure, that kind of looked like a shopping mall.  The restaurant inside had a wall with water pouting down it.  The bathroom had a row of toilets with individual stalls and toilet paper and flush buttons and multiple taps with liquid soap.  I felt underdressed.  

 It was midnight.  An Israeli guy invited me to eat with him and the Indian family he was sitting next to on the bus.  I ordered the equivalent of bread, not wanting to take any chances with my belly.  Our food took a while.  As we got back on the bus, it was apparent that everyone was waiting for us.

I dozed off again until we stopped for good.  I shared a taxi with two other travelers to my guesthouse, which also seemed luxurious, at first.  It was several floors high, with marble tile floors, a large air-conditioned reception area, with lots of men working in it.  I went to my room, which was insulated from the outside.  There were no windows, and no space in the walls or ceilings that opened up to another room.  

This was unusual in my experience.  In the month and a half travel, I hadn’t slept in a single guesthouse that was quiet or particularly private.

I rested and made use of WIFI.  When my hunger was strong enough I ventured out into the 104 degrees streets, dressed in my Delhi hat, the one that covered all of my hair, my fake wedding ring, scarf to cover my shoulders, and headed towards the Main Bizarre, envisioning a large grassy park, with vendors and musicians and circus performers.  That was a fantasy created by word association.  Instead, I walked down a long street that looked like most other streets I’d seen in India, except this one was more grey and straight, with less people, almost no westerners.  The shops were the usual concrete garages filled with tapestries and chachkees.  Some had shoes.  I hadn’t seen shoes before.  I was starting to wonder where people got their shoes.  

I heard my name, as “Madam”, “Please Madam”, being called as I walked past the shops, my gaze unfocused and looking ahead, not wanting to give the slightest opening.  I didn’t need anything.  I kept attempting to lighten my pack.  It was impractically full, regardless of my efforts to disburse its contents.  

I had given away my oil pastels and sketch pad to a Tibetan toddler, the daughter of the owners of a restaurant I frequented, with whom I spent an afternoon coloring, as she crumbled her candy bar in her hand and offered it to me continuously.  I hoped that my “gift” felt like a gift and not an added responsibility to her mother, who held an infant in her arms.  One day I watched the toddler pooping in the concrete path outside the restaurant.  I really wasn’t sure if this was normal, until the mother sat her infant on the table next to me to go and collect her pooping daughter.  The infant teethed and drooled on the saltshaker and sifted her hands through the sugar bowl, as I made sure she didn’t fall off of the table.

I gave my Lonely Planet guidebook to the Himalayan teashop.  It had more travelers pass through there than probably anywhere else in Darhmkot.  It weighed about five pounds, and all the useful travelers advice I ever got came from other travelers.  

I gave my beautiful 6 foot soiree to Tushita, the retreat center, to find someone who could use it.  I bought it without really thinking that I had three more months of travel and all I really needed was a light wrap to cover my shoulders.

I had added miranga and spiralina powder to my pack, due to the lack of vegetables in my diet, and apricot oil for my dry skin.  I threw out the bed bug cover.  It didn’t fit any mattress I ever slept on and I saw no evidence of bed bugs.  I bought a hand painted bed sheet, with a blue tree and birds on it.  It felt good to have it cover me.  There was nothing else I needed, other than less weight on my back and knees.

There were very few women on the streets in Delhi.  Most of the ones I saw were beggars.  Vendors looked tired.  Everything had a layer of soot on it, like the way white walls look after a season of heavily using a wood stove.  I yearned to see Indian women in their brightly colored soirees.  I yearned to see anything other than thick, greasy powder and heat that covered everything, from the once brightly colored fabrics, to the taxis and the people.  Things seem to happen in slow motion.  Maybe it was the after effects of the heat wave that killed some 2000 people in India.  It was as if a layer of purgatory settled upon the atmosphere.  A pervasive feeling that this day, this moment, this week, year, was the same as any other moment, hour or day, and will be the same as tomorrow.  It made no difference that I was reading all about impermanence, the main tenant of Buddhism.  This condition seemed endless, almost worse than hell.  There was no violence, no fire, no emotions, just the repetitive, persistent, limp solicitations from vendors devoid of life force.

I searched to find a restaurant.  The closest thing to a café I was seeing were street vendors cooking curd in huge woks over propane stoves.  Finally I spotted a few westerners three floors up in a cafe.  I climbed the narrow stairs and ducked my head when I heard someone above saying, “mind your head Madame.”  People were just leaving the street side table and the waiter suggested I sit there for the view.  I did and ordered the safest thing I found, veggie enchilada and green tea.  

I overlooked the balcony at the view, an endless street, with endless shops all selling the same things, slow moving people and clothes hanging from second stories, dull from soot and sun.  The heads and feet of rickshaw drivers stuck out from the back of their carts as they napped.  Horns continued to beep.

I got on my iPad.  The wifi worked.  The electricity worked.  I opened face book and started scrolling, something I did very little of since I’ve been in India. I craved color and sharp lines, angry stories, sad stories, sappy self-help lists, sexy pictures of men and women, videos of people doing anything, anything at all.  

The heat made it hard to eat or move.  When I finished I slowly got up and made it down the tight stairwell.  I had lost a sense of where I was.  I took out my phone and studied the images I took of the street corners to help me remember where I turned.  I thought that would be a good tool.  Breadcrumbs would have just blended into the streets. 

But everything just looked the same.  I went up and down the same street studying each turn, comparing them to my images.  I didn’t know where to go.  I passed a travel agency, and decided that would be the best place to ask directions, since I could justify not needing a bus ticket, when I had a plane ticket.  A large Indian man sat behind a table in a small air-conditioned room.  I showed him a picture of my hotel from my iPhone.  He smiled and said his friend owned that hotel and told me how to get there.  I felt refreshed from his non-soliciting smile.  I found my way back, showered, changed and rested again.

Then a knock came on the door.  It was Elijah. We had arranged to share a room in Delhi. We both had flights the next day.  He was truly a breath of fresh air coming into my hotel room.  He was vivid with color and his Israeli accent sounded like a song.  While I was feeling like a canary in a coal mine, he appeared as a parakeet from the jungle.  We settled in, snuggled in each other’s arms and shared stories until he was hungry.  The thought of going out on the streets again was very unappealing, but I chose to go with him.  

We stepped out into the now dark city, still oppressively hot.  Elijah said he wanted ice cream.  Ice cream in Delhi seemed as untrustworthy as sushi in the desert.  The electricity was fickle and temperatures stayed at 104 degrees for months.  

Shop lights illuminated a pervasive dusty haze.  Taxis still honked, though there was little traffic.  There were almost no women out.  Small groups of men stood, gathered in front of shops filled with sodas in plastic bottles, crackers, and various packaged snack foods.  We found a shop with ice cream.

We ordered two cones and stood in the middle of the street.  Looking around wondering which direction to begin walking, I felt the metal frame of a Tuk Tuk next to me, with an older thin man holding on to the handle bars.  I said, “let’s take a tour of the city.”  The absurdity of that suggestion somehow matched the environment itself.  Elijah agreed.  Neither one of us had ridden in a Tuk Tuk before.  The streets of Darhmsala were way too steep for bicycles.  Delhi was flat as a pancake.  

We climbed onto the dusty bench with our ice cream cones.  The driver didn’t speak English.  We didn’t speak Hindi.  We just waved forward and the driver began slowly pedaling down the grim street.  A few neon signs were lit, offering some hope of something, but as we passed them, the insides were empty.  Occasionally our driver got off the bike to push it over a hump in the road.  His frame was skeleton like and I began to see him like a ghost.  Headlights created the kind of haze you see in vampire movies.  It was bizarrely and surrealistically romantic as Elijah and I held hands and ate ice cream cones that seemed iridescent on the back of a Tuk Tuk through the dark and emotionless streets of Delhi.

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