Screeching bottle rockets and hot ribbons from Roman candles ignited the orange night sky. He fell into me and swiped for my wallet. It was a poor attempt, frankly, a drunken attempt, and I expected it. His friends fixed their eyes on mine, worried, watching eagerly for my reaction. I was fine and he was light; I picked him up and set him down like a spilled drink. They yelled at him in Hindi—I imagined they said something like, “Dude, you’re an idiot.” However, it could have been anything. It was the early hours of the new year, at the foot of the Gateway to India, Mumbai.
I had already been in India for a fortnight, entering the country via Chennai, in the Southeast. Nearly every Western traveler that’s been to India has a story to tell about their first day, and it often sounds like a watered-down act stolen from the script of Indiana Jones: Temple of Doom. My memory of Chennai is sadly no different.
I traveled to India via Bangkok with a Kiwi. If you’ve ever traveled with a Kiwi you know that many make travel decisions as if they’re unaware that danger exists in the world. Their optimism of survival and thirst to enter spaces commonly observed to be dangerous often appears to the American traveler as an eagerness to satisfy some absurd dare. “A boundless naivety,” an Irish traveler once said to me in reference to this phenomenon (bear in mind, I never once saw him off our hostel’s sectional couch). On the flip side, the American’s self-proclaimed gift of “common sense” can easily appear as ignorant, fearful, and an utter waste of a “sweet as” overseas experience. In short, my travel partner, Joe gladly drank holy water from the hands of a Hindu priest and got sick; and I barely slept on the nights we bunked in shared hostel quarters and was usually grouchy except for when I was drunk. We balanced each other out.
Joe was nearly deported on our arrival into India. New Zealand is one of the few countries that hasn’t manufactured a terrorist, so India said Joe could sign for a travel visa upon arrival. However, the head of customs in Chennai—a short, bald man with pop bottle-lensed glasses—swore by his gold tooth that he had never heard of such a thing. We were called into his small green and blue office, and he hoisted a massive purple ledger out of his desk drawer. Taped on the wall behind him was a document titled Countries Allowed for Visa upon Arrival Thank You. Norway was crossed out with a thick black marker because of the domestic attack in Oslo the July before. New Zealand was not crossed out. I pointed out the list to Joe. He asked the customs agent to look behind him, but he refused. I couldn’t get over the blatancy of the bribe that laid in wait. Norway. Crossed out. Brilliant.
The bribe worked, but the transaction that we hoped was now closed remained a theme for the duration of the trip. We were in the country but eager to get immediately out of Chennai. In hindsight, I think it was our knee-jerk reaction to reject the cultural shift we were adjusting to. The experience in the airport and the game of bumper cars we played on the way to the train station only hardened our opinion that we needed to flee to Bangalore, as if Chennai were an island we could easily row away from. It was 1 am.
There were several hundred people sleeping on the stone floor of the Victorian-era station, so I cannot say what it looked like. However, the outer walls were constructed of red and white brick and the pillars that reached to the iron girded ceiling were thin and flaking. One painted brick per occupant, but no ticket window to be found. We ran from train to train until we found the one to Bangalore. We hopped on with no tickets. The ticket master said that we could stay on the train if we were willing to pay a penalty. We were already aware of the penalty. I spent the night looking out the train window thinking of all the tigers laying in the thicket that weren’t there. The transaction.
As the years have gone by, I’ve wondered what India was like. In my emotional memory banks tigers laid waiting in the thickets, but in actuality there were only failed attempts of connection lost amongst the weeds of meaning. The journal I kept of our journey still conjures many feelings inside me, but few memories outside the text. I’m the unreliable narrator of my own past. At times, it reads like a Victorian-era boy’s adventure novel and at others like a gothic phantasmagoria riddled with episodes of anxiety, estrangement and monsters. It also contains the popular features of an exotic Indian adventure: colorful spice markets, a straight-razor shave, performing as an extra in a Bollywood film, cow’s making cud of garbage, getting lost in a slum, chased by dogs, vehicular decapitation, and yes, bribery and endless haggling for tuk-tuk rides. All very strange. Very other. But more importantly, all elements that when reduced down to their core are based on my failure to find any greater meaning from my transactional relationships. Giving, buying, haggling and bribery did the opposite of breach the cultural divide, but harden the preconceptions that defined its walls. In the absence of such connections, I began to create an image of India and its people that I had heard and read about before—applying the clichés, constructing a universe less foreign made the cultural transition more palatable. The real penalty.
However, this is not a story about a Westerner making good on his original cultural and perceptual miscues; this is a story about real and imagined barriers and how the lines between the real and imagined get blurred when trying to make sense of things, on both ends.
Lenny, the cook and barman of the small café connected to our accommodation in Cavelossim Beach, Goa, spent Christmas getting hammered after work and slept on the faux-marble floor of the café. Joe and I were the first downstairs for breakfast and found Lenny on the floor.
“I got drunk for Christmas,” was the first thing out of his mouth.
“So did we,” Joe said. “But no worries, mate, get yourself sorted; we’ll be on the patio.”
We let Lenny pull his hair into place and reset his swollen eyes while, in the meantime, we talked about our plans after Goa. Lenny came with coffee and an apology, where we told him it wasn’t necessary.
“All I do is work,” he said.
That night, after Joe and I investigated our share of old Portuguese churches from the worn cobbled footpaths of Panaji, and met the brown waters of the Arabian Sea in the afternoon, we went back to Lenny’s. He was still there, same swollen eyes, but in a new shirt. He joined us for a cigarette after our dinner of pomfret.
“How did you like the fish?” he asked.
“It was amazing. Very delicate and rich.”
“Delicate is the right word,” he said.
He put his face into his hands and sighed.
“I’m so tired,” he said. “I’m sorry about this morning. I haven’t been to mass in six years, and I went last night and then couldn’t stop drinking.”
“I know the feeling,” I said.
I learned that most from the area are Catholic. I learned that there are still Portuguese held up in their private plantations. I learned that Lenny had a daughter two hours north of us who he didn’t get to see on Christmas. I learned that my good time, at least partially, was at Lenny’s expense.
We make choices based on the limitations of our circumstances, and Lenny’s hangover was not my fault, but I couldn’t help but feel involved. I paid next to nothing for an amazing meal. Lenny got a fraction of it and spent the holiday with us instead of his daughter. The idea of her seemed to keep him going and that at least was something no one could take from him. Even if, everything else was fair game.
In Jodhpur, the goats wore pajamas and many young Western tourists wore some article of Indian textile to blend in. We went to the market to buy supplies. We were no longer in the South, and the nights were cold. I found a scarf I liked and prepared myself for the purchase war. I had one hundred Rupee in one pocket and two hundred in the other. It was all part of the game. I asked about the scarf and the merchant tried to tie it around my neck. I said, “No, how much?” and he gave me an inflated price. From there we flashed looks, strange smiles, counter offers and re-counter offers. It can be fun or ugly, depending. I enjoyed it; I felt like I was connecting with the culture. But haggling is a dialogue of financial inequality, so it was really just fun for me.
I wouldn’t accept his price and tried to talk him down another 50 Rupee. A young man, running the booth next to us was with a group of other young Indians and he began to laugh at me.
“You realize, you’re refusing to pay half an American dollar,” he said.
I became defensive.
“If I let everyone take me for extra, it adds up.”
“But you get to leave,” he said.
My embarrassment quickly turned to shame and I paid the agreed amount. That was the most alone I felt in India and the last time on the trip I enjoyed haggling.
We slept in a two-story hotel at the foot of the Mehrangarh Fort. The owner was the best chess player I’ve ever lost to. She pitied me for my poor performance. She told me so and that was okay. We were on the patio. It was dusk. A loud group of young women from London sat close by. They wore shalwar kameez, and dupatta over their head, and it annoyed us.
“I hope they’re having a good time,” Joe said.
“Just subtly soaking up some culture,” I said.
“Just trying to integrate here,” he said.
We stopped ourselves and laughed—seriously, what Westerner really has the moral high ground over another Westerner when it comes to negotiating the obscure footholds up India’s cultural wall? The sun had set and the temperature dropped. I tied my Indian scarf tighter around my neck, and the girls put on their down-feathered parkas and fleece/Gortex jackets. Our hostess stared at them and then looked back at us.
“Too cold to be Indian now,” she smiled. “Time to go inside.”
I asked Joe what he thought about it.
“Just because you put on another woman’s dupatta, doesn’t mean you’ve seen what she’s seen.,” he said, being cheeky.
“And, another man’s scarf,” I said, running my hand over my own Indian artifact. We smoked cigarettes until late and listened to the dogs wage war across the blue city.
Jodhpur was the turning point. As we traveled north, news came that a winter storm had crossed over the Himalayas, and Delhi would freeze. I didn’t understand what that meant.
In Delhi, a social storm developed in tandem with the freezing temperatures and meant that everyone was cold and upset. Bus rides tripled their travel time. Indian time expanded from “Give or take a couple hours” to “Don’t plan ahead because who knows?” An icy fog consumed the Taj Mahal so we wrapped ourselves in thin wool blankets and disappeared into the smoky marble. On the frozen highway up to Delhi, we saw a man get run over and killed in front of our bus. Two days before, a girl was beaten and gang-raped on a Delhi bus and died. Riots burned there and cases of death by exposure loomed on the homepage of the BBC India news website. Delhi was frozen but on fire and we were headed straight for it. Or, this is at least the scenario I prefer to remember.
My past transactions had taught me that these were Indian issues and not mine, but I could walk as deep into them as I pleased and leave anytime. Delhi was going to provide me with a good story. That was then. Now, if I try and recall the more basic details of our stay a new set of events surface, all disappointingly mundane. In truth, the people of Delhi had a lot going on during that span, but from our vantage point, life there appeared quite ordinary. Merchants were selling and we were buying. Drivers were driving and we were riding. Restaurants were cooking and we were eating.
I’ve come to the embarrassing realization that I was disappointed that I wasn’t even given the opportunity to be rebuffed in my attempt to infiltrate the city’s woes. Rereading my journal, I believe that’s why I focused so much on the death we witnessed in my Delhi entries; to prop up the frail-bodied narrative of our Fear and Loathing-esque stay in Delhi, which was utter fantasy. Life was ordinary. We walked the streets—like visible ghosts—not participating, not shying away, just not knowing the city well enough to seek out it’s darkest recesses—the tigers in the thicket. There were many transactions and exchanges of currency, but no stories to steal to make up for the bribe in Chennai.
We arrived into Amritsar and to the Sri Harmandir Sahib, or the Golden Temple, the holiest Gurdwara of Sikhism. It was zero degrees when we entered and a guard with a two-foot beard and a six-foot spear walked us quietly into a dark room with eight cots and gave us a sign of respect before leaving. I was apprehensive to leave my backpack on my bed but I had to just let it go; I was honestly too tired to care about my stuff anymore. We were asked to remove our shoes and socks when we entered the inner sanctum of the temple. The pool was still. Thin leaflets of ice floated by the unrobed men bathing in the frigid holy water.
“You know, in the last 500 years,” Joe said, “this place has been destroyed and rebuilt countless times. Enemies knocked down the temple, filled the pool with trash and bodies. But it’s always rebuilt.”
There wasn’t much to say to that and neither one of us felt like talking much more so we kept walking around the fiery golden ember in the middle of the pool and listened to the music coming from the temple play on and on over the compound’s loud speakers. The marble footpath surrounding the pool was slick and cold as ice, but I let my feet go numb to match the resolve of the men in the pool. I respected them immensely.
When it was time to eat we entered a mess hall full of worshipers both eating together on the floor and waiting patiently with their plates in front of them. It’s a meal that never ends. Joe and I waited with them and we ate together in silence. At the end of our meal we walked outside and to the rear of the kitchens and saw men stirring massive cauldrons full of lentils and others turning out roti from hot earthen ovens. We washed dishes in silence next to other men washing dishes in silence. But, it wasn’t for more than one meal before we realized that the silence was mutually self-imposed and a smile or nod easily broke the divide. I didn’t find peace in Amritsar, but it came as a welcomed reprieve and readjustment at a juncture in the trip when I was losing faith in myself. When it was time to leave, I left my scarf on my cot.
In Mumbai, my body collided with a young Indian man trying to swipe my wallet. He had every right to. If I could turn India into a booby-trapped wildland of lawlessness, inequality and exotica, he surely had the right to view me as a big dollar sign and the repository of some ill-conceived plan to literally grab the wealth away from me and make it his own. It was another transaction, but instead of exchanging money, we declared our cultural misconceptions to each other. The sad part was we couldn’t surpass the language barrier to iron it out and correct our false assumptions. We just stood there and smiled at each other like it wasn’t all our fault because we were just playing our bit parts in a much larger game. It was a new year, but the same tired story persisted—the story we tell ourselves to know where we are and who we are not.