September 13, 2002
I knew that India would be different.
When I was a child, my parents kept a Bhagavad Gita in the house and practiced transcendental meditation. This was the 70’s, of course. There was also an illustrated book on yoga in our living room. My sister and I would pour over the pages trying to pull our bodies into the contorted poses that the aged, grey bearded man was holding. One photograph in particular, amazed us. Surely it was not possible to swallow a length of cloth and then, somehow, pull it out through your nose? And yet, there he was, smiling as if nothing was wrong, cloth hanging from one nostril. Our tentative experiments with my mother’s tea towels were not a success. We got a little further with spaghetti.
I felt a similar sense of awe as I sat in the back of a motionless taxi, just outside Delhi’s International Airport. A scooter went past with not one, not two, but an entire family of five perched upon it. They stared at me. Perhaps it was because I was a foreigner. Or perhaps they were staring at the police officer who had pulled us over and been chastising our driver for some time. It was hard to tell.
When the cop had first stopped our taxi, Helene and I had looked knowingly at each other and chattered back and forth in French. But after sitting there for ten or fifteen minutes in the heat, listening to them argue in Hindi we were silent, looking at the traffic, sweating and swatting at flies. The scams at Delhi’s airport are numerous. I had heard so many warnings while planning our trip that I had taken the precaution of booking a hotel and asking them to send a car to pick us up. I figured the extra charge would be money well spent if we could avoid any problems. And until the police pulled us over, all was well. We arrived on time, our driver was waiting, the ATM spat out rupees.
After a suitably long (yet strangely civilized) argument, the police officer poked his head in our window. “Sorry Madam. This illegal taxi. You take other taxi now.”
But I was having none of it. “No, no, no,” I said, following guidebook instructions to the letter. “This is our taxi. We booked it. We will not leave this taxi. This is the only taxi we will take. I insist.”
Of course, we ended up in another taxi. It turned out that we had hit a rare Delhi Traffic Police crackdown on scams and illegal drivers at the airport. Our driver didn’t have the proper paperwork. We ended up getting into town for half the amount we had originally agreed to pay. Our driver and hotel were hit with a nasty fine.
The hotel desk called our room five times in two days (always while we were sleeping…) reminding us that we had agreed to write a letter of complaint on their behalf. To escape the phone we would head outside, but the generators, cows, touts, deadly traffic and open sewers of Main Bazaar in Paharganj weren’t much of a relief. The hotel didn’t like our letter (not nasty enough), and so we ended up signing a strangely worded and threatening two pager penned to the Delhi Traffic Police by our hotel manager. We hopped a train to the mountains north and hoped the cops wouldn’t come after us.
As we passed through the slums of Delhi on the train, I gawked at the poverty. It was as if I was in a television commercial for World Vision, or something similar, mouthing “…and for only a dollar a day, you could feed, clothe and educate this child.” Of course, in the ad the child in question would be staring at the camera, liquid eyed with grief. In reality, everyone seemed to be going about their business, quite literally. It was 6:30am and every man and child seemed to be squatting to take a crap. I’ve no idea where the women were. Every once in a while I’d remind myself not to treat poverty as a tourist attraction, and tear myself away. It was tough.
Ten hours later we were in Simla, summer capital of the British, before they were turfed out. It was cooler than Delhi, but pouring with rain. A couple of days up running up and down maze-like streets pointing at monkeys while vacationing Indians tucked away in restaurants pointed at us, the only two idiots who were soaked from head to toe, was fun. But then we ran out of dry clothes and decided to move on.
It wasn’t until we’d been in Manali for two days that I realized that all those weeds growing on the side of the road were actually marijuana. The middle aged pony-tailed hippies and plethora of tied dyed materials for sale should have clued me in earlier. Despite the fact that there were more foreign tourists in Manali than Delhi or Simla, the owner of the Sunshine Hotel (on Old Manali Road, ph: 01902/52320) told us he’d had twelve recent cancellations. September 11th and India/Pakistan tensions were keeping away tourists.
Our lovely double room (350 Rs) overlooked apple orchards, flower gardens and the mountains. Every morning we were served breakfast on the terrace. Afterwards we’d take long walks into the surrounding areas – hills, hot springs, orchards, and marijuana fields – always followed by a stray dog or two. It was beautiful, but I must point out that the other women in the hot springs were doing their laundry, not soaking. Women and children were filling potholes (by hand) on the roads we were walking on and every other day another dead dog appeared for them to drag away. This bothered me, at first. But it wasn’t long until I saw my first dead human on the side of the road (in Agra) and then my second (outside Khajuraho). Somehow the thought of the poor dogs wasn’t keeping me up at night any longer.
Everyone else moved easily around the dead bodies. And no wonder. With more than sixty percent of the population living below the poverty line, most Indian citizens have other things to worry about. I try and remind myself of this as Helene and I are followed by half a dozen people desperately trying to sell us things we don’t want or need, everywhere we go. With tourism down, sellers are even more aggressive than usual, particularly in areas like Agra and Delhi. What was less obvious to me was why everywhere we went middle class Indians would openly stare at us, follow us, and ask us to be in their family photographs. In Chandigarh, after we’d been asked, and stopped for the hundredth time, Helene turned to our two latest pursuers and cried, “But why? WHY?” Obviously confused as to how we could possibly be upset they answered quickly and genuinely, “Because you are different.”
So that’s why Helene and I have been bouncing babies outside Agra Fort (magnificent, incredible view of the river), sitting with twenty members of an extended family at the Taj Mahal (truly glorious as the sun goes down), standing stiffly beside a young couple in Chandigarh (I can’t believe I had never heard of the rock garden there. It rivals Antoni Gaudi’s Parc Gruell in Barcelona) and smiling beside a group outside a temple in Khajuraho (quite easy to manage when the bas-relief behind you shows a man having his way with a horse). Helene and I can be found in photo albums all over the Indian subcontinent. And while I’m doing my best not to gawk or stare (not always successfully), everyone seems to be going out of their way to stare at me. You’d think I had a tea towel hanging out of my nose.