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Oct 29 – Dec 9, 2012. For those of you who have been following our stories about our time travelling around India you will know that we loved it and had an amazing time there. Most, but not all, of what follows is the other side of the story.

A rant about the garbage. Let’s get that out of the way first. I’ve travelled to many countries, including many third world countries. Nowhere else is like India. Most countries have public garbage bins. Heck even poverty stricken Cambodia and Laos have public garbage bins. In India it really is: just put it anywhere, drop it wherever you happen to be, throw it out the window. There’s absolutely no concept of putting it in a garbage bin, or taking it home to put it in the garbage bin. No concept even of garbage bins really. Consequently the streets are always covered in garbage, and there are whole areas that become kind of dumping grounds until the garbage truck comes along to collect it all, or burn it. It’s not that the garbage is left there, well not forever anyway, and there are street cleaners,fighting a losing battle, but it seems the garbage always wins because there’s no thought, none, of trying to be tidy about it. Maybe there’s so much garbage everywhere that it doesn’t even register anymore. Maybe it’s considered beneath everyone, except Untouchables, to have anything to do with it. Just throw it down; the Untouchables will clean it up, it’s not my job. I remember a scene from the movie Ghandi where he suggests to his wife that she help with cleaning the toilets. She’s horrified, saying it’s the job of the Untouchables. He, of course, points out that all are equal, and all must contribute, or words to that affect. But maybe that attitude still runs deep in the Indian psyche – this idea that everyone is better than the Untouchables and they are the ones who have to deal with the garbage. I’m just surmising here, but seriously there has to be some reason that a whole nation of otherwise relatively clean and aesthetically and artistically aware people are willing to live surrounded by garbage and dirt.

Garbage collection

One thing I learned. There are thousands, probably millions, of people in India, usually young people, frequently children, whose job it is to get you to buy something. It doesn’t matter where you are they are there and have something in their hands to sell – trinkets, postcards, stickers, whatever – or they have a relative nearby who has a shop and it’s their job to get you to the shop, or they have a vehicle and want you to hire them to take you somewhere in their boat or tuk tuk or bicycle rickshaw, or they have a baby and want infant formula for the baby, and on it goes. They don’t hear “no thanks”. They don’t hear “no” at all. The methodology is to simply wear you down. They will follow you to hell and back if it may mean a sale, and it doesn’t matter how often you say no, it doesn’t compute. I’m normally quite patient, and was not really bothered by them or their persistence, but after several weeks in India it began to get old. I got worn down but not in the way they wanted. I got to the point that I would actually raise my voice and look at them and shout “NO”. That worked, but it didn’t feel good for anyone. It made me feel sad. At around this time something suddenly arose in me. Where do thoughts come from? I have no idea but this one felt like it came from a truth I know but had forgotten in our travelling frenzy around India. I had the thought that I had to recognize the person who was speaking to me. How simple. How obvious. From then on as soon as someone tried to sell me something and started following us, I would turn to them, look them directly in the eyes and see the person there. I’d touch their arm. And then simply tell them I didn’t want what they were selling. It worked every time. They were seen. And I was heard. I wish I’d realized earlier, but what can I say, sometimes I’m a slow learner.

I should also add Don made the decision to take the lady with the baby to a store and bought her a big box of infant formula. What a sweet and happy moment that was for all of us, even if it was probably a scam as we later found out. The formula would be returned to the shop owner, and the mother would get a, probably small, percentage of what we had paid for it.

India is such an incomprehensible combination of the most profound devotion and spirituality you will ever encounter, and the most cruel, evil and dire poverty and suffering. How does that all get stuffed into one package? How does that work? Such an exquisite and unavoidable “in-your-face” illustration of duality. It’s so easy to love India, and so easy to hate it. Some weeks later, having dinner with two other itinerant couples, all of whom had spent time in India, we discovered that all the women would go back in a heartbeat, and all the men said “never again”, and this is talking about a country which is surely on record as one of the worst in its treatment of women.

There are many many stories out there about being ripped off in India. And there’s no denying many Indians will do whatever they can to get as much money out of you as possible. And yes, we were ripped of – particularly by the owner of the Kirin Vilas hotel in Jodhpur. But I am delighted to be able to say I have an “honest Indian” story. We got a train from Jaipur to Jodhpur. It was an all day journey. We sat on the lower bunks, and pushed all of our luggage onto the top bunks. We got off at Jodhpur and were organizing our luggage on the platform, conferring with a porter, when a man came off the train and approached us. He had my camera! It had gotten pushed to the back of the top bunk and I’d forgotten it. I am eternally grateful to that kind and honest Indian Angel. I would have been devastated to lose my camera. Deep gratitude.

Speaking of porters – we assumed the porter we were conferring with would have some kind of cart for all our cases, as had been the case at the station in Jaipur. But no. It was just him! Once we’d fixed on a price we were astonished, and I then felt both guilty and embarrassed, to see him lift one case onto his head, then another, then hook the pull-handle of a third over one shoulder and grab the fourth case in the other hand and set off down the station. A little later he put the pull-handle of the fourth case over the other shoulder. How could he carry so much weight? And how to deal with such a situation? I’m perfectly capable of pulling my case along myself but I think he would have been offended if I’d suggested it.

Really there’s very little to say about driving in India, except avoid it if you can, and especially avoid driving after dark which is just plain suicidal since many vehicles, and other things on the road such as people, cows, ox/donkey/camel/horse-drawn carts, tractors, and bicycles, have no lights. Street lighting is spotty at best and non-existent when there’s a power outage, which is not infrequent. And don’t have any concept that traffic goes in only one direction on each side of the street, even on divided highways. Traffic goes in whatever direction it can get away with. Always expect the unexpected. India has, not surprisingly, the highest road death rate in the world. Sigh.

From Don: Every hotel restaurant we have eaten at in India, serves the same jam; a sort of sweet-tasting dark blood-red goop with no detectable fruit flavor. We became convinced that in the deep backcountry of India there is a factory that makes this stuff and then sends it out to every hotel in the land in huge tanker trucks that roam the highways overnight. Imagine what it would be like if two of these trucks collided; an awful carnage with blood-red goop everywhere. It gives a whole new meaning to the phrase traffic jam.

Another kind of traffic jam

There’s a great soulfulness in this country. A great devotion. A heartfelt and universal belief in the eternal nature of being. It’s probably the reason they can live with the poverty and the garbage and the suffering. And smile the brightest of smiles despite it all. I feel lucky to have experienced even a small part of their rich rich culture. There is good wherever you look for it, and we found plenty of it in India.

Leaving India

Fifteen minute walk from Varanasi Ghats to taxi, one-hour taxi ride to airport, hanging out at airport for flight to Delhi. Plane left late, arrived Delhi about 6pm ish. To hotel, then straight to 7 star Radisson Blu for their rather spectacular looking buffet. There were some nice things to eat. It cost, but the ambiance alone was worth it. Suddenly we weren’t in India anymore. Back to hotel, hanging out ‘til 11.30 pm, said good-bye to Julie who was going home the next morning, then off to airport. Well over an hour to check bags, and get through immigration and security. Hanging out some more. Nearly 3am flew to Bangkok. Slept a little on the plane. Arrived 8am, train to downtown train station, check into cheap hotel near station. Shower and change. It’s noon by now. Get a pastry and coffee at the train station. Back to hotel room, hanging out, Don snoozing. Back to train station by 3.30pm, pick up tickets and sit and wait.

Sai arrived. Sai is a very lovely Thai law student who just walked right up to us and asked if she could practice her English with us, so the time waiting for our train went very quickly as she learned some English from us and we learned some Thai from her. We learned the essential words in any language – hello, good-bye, please, thank you, I’m sorry, and how much?

Boarded train 4.30pm, overnight train, arrive 5am. I slept a little, Don slept well. We both agreed our six-dollar dinner on the train was better than what we’d paid sixty for the evening before. Breakfast at café near train station, bus at 8am, nearly two hours on bus, ferry at 10am, hour and a half on ferry, half hour taxi ride, then finally, finally we arrived at the Samui Beach Resort. Hooray! Two weeks on the beach, doing not much. Net time in transit forty-four and a half hours, and really worth it to get here. We needed to stop, rest, recharge our batteries, and recover from India.

The dining car on the train, which doesn’t even begin to convey the reality of it. It was all a bit run-down and shabby. All the windows were open and there was loud music blaring. The noise of the train coupled with the noise of the music was deafening. We had to shout. The service was quick and efficient. The servers danced to the music. The beer flowed freely and everyone but us was smoking. The food was plentiful and good. It felt like a party.

Finally we are in Thailand.

We found a lovely room, for a very reasonable price, at the quiet end of a quiet beach, and collapsed.

Next post: two weeks at the beach, and a lot of monks!

© All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted.
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2015.