When the buses started running again I booked an overnight sleeper to Hampi, a small temple town renowned for both its ruins and its bizarre rock formations.
What I didn’t realize when I booked, is that my berth on the bus was to be shared with another person - because there’s nothing like sharing a bed with a stranger as you cruise at death defying speeds through windy roads and over potholes.
“Oops, oh hello, sorry! Was that your elbow?”
Luckily my bedmate was a nice German schoolteacher and not some perverted old man. In fact, since the ice was already broken, we decided to share a room in Hampi for a couple days until I started volunteering with the Hampi Children’s Trust.
The Trust is set up for children from low income families who would otherwise be sent out to beg. It provides the kids with funding for uniforms and schooling, three meals a day, daily homework help, extracurricular classes in yoga, meditation, dancing, and an outing every Saturday. The kids are wonderful, incredibly bright and a lot of fun. Unfortunately, money is tight and the school can’t afford to take on the kids who are waitlisted. If you’re looking for a good place to donate where your money will make a real and immediate impact, consider giving some money. (I give you best price). That’s my pitch.
The kids and the permanent workers were fascinated with my nose ring and I had the inside of my nose examined by both children and adults frequently and without warning. They were horrified that such small stud was held in place by such a big hook. If you aren’t familiar with North American nose rings and don’t know what I’m talking about, I will let you grab my nose and look inside when I come back to Canada. Now that I’m used to being manhandled I won’t even flinch. Much.
Anyway, so my Hampi days were spent hiking and climbing rocks, looking at temples, volunteering, and lounging at Riverside restaurants with stoned volunteers and travelers. Because of Hampi’s religious significance, meat and alcohol are banned (although some restaurants sell it discreetly); however, much more abundant and plentiful is the bhang lassis (a lassi laced with marijuana). I don’t use marijuana though, so after awhile, I started to think that if I wanted to hang out with a bunch of stoned backpackers, I should’ve stayed home and picked up some more shifts at work. By the time my volunteer stint was up I was ready to move on and I took a train to Bangalore.
My couch surfing host picked me up at the train station and we hung out. He told me disappointedly when we met that I walked and gestured like an Indian. Then, although he assured me I was pretty he regaled me with Ayurvedic beauty tips.
“Your hair is dry.”
“That’s because I bleach it.”
“You should eat more vegetables.”
“I’m a vegetarian that’s all I eat.”
“Well then you should put this powder in your hair and then this hair oil.”
“Can I see your teeth?”
“Your teeth are yellow. You should take some lemon juice and some salt and rub them every morning and evening.”
“I’ll think about it.”
“If you wash your face with the flour they use to make doughnuts the skin on your face will be better.”
“You look tense. You should use this herbal oil on it and then have a hot water shower.”
“Maybe I’m tense because all this rapidfire advice is stressing me out.”
“What is rapidfire?”
I stayed in Bangalore for Diwali, the festival of light. Three full days of fireworks and firecrackers. It felt like the world was ending, especially since the people lighting them off tended to be children.
“Isn’t that dangerous?” I asked my host.
“No, I got burned a lot as a kid doing it, but you don’t really get hurt. It’s just burns.”
“If you say so.”
“It’s good for kids. In fact, people who make their money on the black market spend thousands of rupees every year on fireworks and crackers for street kids in order to improve their bad karma from all the black money.”
So take note! Improve your Karma! Blow up a street kid today!
I met a friend of my host, a Protestant Christian who immediately fell in love with me and told people he was going to marry me. That was awkward.
I told him I was going to Mysore and he suggested that he accompany me. I said no because I’m mean like that. Later, my couch surfing host told me it was a good thing I didn’t try to be nice and say “Oh I’ll think about it,” because he would’ve skipped work at J.P. Morgan and driven me there in his car, no buts about it and nothing I could do to protest.
“Creepy,” I said.
“What is creepy?”
That cued me to the fact that it was definitely time to leave, so I took a bus to Mysore. Here I have an ongoing feud with the rickshaw drivers about the fare. I think they’re starting to plot my death, although after a gruesome battle the other day where I didn’t have exact change and refused to get out of the rickshaw until he gave me the correct change back, the driver told me he liked me. So maybe I’ll live little longer yet.
I’ve been hanging out with an Indian Ashtanga yoga instructor Amit, and his Norwegian student/roommate. We’ve been sightseeing and hanging out in cafes with real coffee and occasionally wireless internet.
Amit is learning to drive a motorbike, so we’ve been renting one to see sights that are a short way out of town. We see them, but because he’s still learning he drives very slowly, and it takes us a long time to get to them. Yesterday, a fifteen km drive on the open highway took us around an hour.
“It’s OK,” I told him, “We’ll get there when we get there and not a moment sooner.”
“I don’t know what that means.”
“Don’t worry about it.”
He doesn’t. Yogis don’t think about these things.
15) You look like Indian Barbie
14) Be careful because Indian men don’t understand Western women
13) Have you ever had an affair?
12) Can I take a photo/snap with you?
11) Are you traveling alone? That is so dangerous. Be very cautious.
10) Eat something! You hardly eat anything!
9) Best Price for you.
8) Come see my shop madam
7) Where are you from?
6) What is your good name?
5) Are you in India for studies/school/research?
4) Are you single?
3) Do you have a boyfriend?
2) Are you married? Why not?
1) You should get married. Don’t leave it too long.
Jennifer’s Travel Tip #1: Do not have all the hairs on your legs removed one by one on the beach - or a salon, or anywhere for that matter.
Jennifer’s Travel Tip #2: It’s in poor taste to tell impoverished people that life isn’t fair while you’re on a beach holiday. It isn’t fair, and it’s not like you’re going to do anything to fix that, but keep it to yourself and order another pina colada.
I left Mumbai for Goa, but Sachin accidentally wrote down PM instead of AM next to my stop – so imagine my surprise when I woke up the next morning in the busy business and transit hub of largely Catholic Mangalore. I panicked but then I saw an auto-rickshaw emblazoned with “Jesus Christ is Lord - Even this Will Pass” so I took it as a sign, hopped aboard and spent a night in a crumbling business hotel across the street with a rooftop restaurant and walking distance to “Burqua Couture” and three internet cafes – none of which had the internet.
The next day I took a train to Goa, a ride where someone wandered away with my guidebook promising to bring it back and then I ignored the signs posted at every station “DO NOT ACCEPT FOOD OR DRINK FROM STRANGERS THEY WILL DRUG YOU AND STEAL YOUR BELONGINGS” and committed the cardinal traveler’s sin of accepting food from a young girl studying for her bank teller exam. It was delicious, and made by her Granny just that morning. A business man saw me eating her food and worried I was hungry, offered to share his lunch. I declined, because you have to have limits, right? I find this to be a common theme on trains. I get offered food almost every time I travel, and it’s hard to say no because usually I think it’s genuine, and not every little old lady munching away on paneer out of her tiffin is trying to kill you.
Anyway, so I arrived in Vagator, Goa where it had been sunny for weeks. I was ready to lie on a beach and pay strange girls with dirty fingernails to massage my back – except the day I arrived it started raining. When the rain stopped for a few hours I wandered around the beach and climbed up the bluffs to Chapora Fort. The first day I was there I was accosted on the beach by the first of many strange dirty fingernail girls. One girl would just not give up and followed me all over the beach for an hour. When I sat, she sat, when I stood, she stood. She put bracelets on my arms when I wasn’t paying attention and draped things over my shoulders. She drove me nuts.
“Massage? Manicure? You look like Indian Barbie. You are so pretty. I am following you because I like you. Stick on tattoo? Earrings? I can do your eyebrows.”
At one point I sat down on the sand and she noticed the stubble on my ankle and began exhorting the benefits of threading. She could thread my whole leg if I wanted. I told her absolutely not, but she didn’t listen and began pulling out the hair on my ankle one by one. I got her to stop after four hairs by cursing loudly and taking the Lord’s name in vain.
“It’s not fair!” she told me, “I need money.”
“Life isn’t fair,” I told her and then I realized I had just told an impoverished girl on the beach that life isn’t fair. ‘That was cold Jennifer,’ I told myself, ‘Really, really cold. You are a bitch,’ and I was.
“I don’t like you,” she said, “I’m mad at you.”
“I know,” I said, “I think I’m OK with that.’
But I wasn’t. The next day she tried to sell me an anklet for 100 Rs. and I bought it for 40 Rs. - on the condition she never try to sell me anything ever again.
I was confused about Vagator because I had been told it was a backpacker town and for two days I saw a lot of Indian tourists who wanted to have their picture taken with me (I took an average of four photos a day with strangers), but no white people. Finally on the third day I wandered into a bar full of white people. They weren’t going out because of the rain, but instead were drinking all day. Very sneaky white people! I am onto you and your alcoholic white people ways!
The rains continued and when I tried to book a ticket out of Goa I discovered that none of the trains or buses were running because of flooding which took 227 lives, damaged 655,484 houses and caused innumerable damage to agriculture and infrastructure. Then the bank froze my account (not that there were any ATMs to speak of), the internet and the phones all went down for several days, and I developed a cold/fever. The woman at my guesthouse started sending lemon honey tea to my room and offered to lend me books instead of selling them to me. I was excited about the books because I wanted a good juicy novel. I selected one and she looked at me disapprovingly and insisted I read the works of Osho. Yes, that Osho. Her favourite mystic. He would help me.
Osho said I should be like a white cloud, constantly in flux and not striving. Just being. I was exactly where I should be and I couldn’t be anywhere else.
“Point taken Osho,” I said, “Despite your Rolls Royce collection, your sexual indiscretions, and your links to terrorism, you have some good points. I will try to be content about being trapped alone in a torrential downpour with a fever, and no contact with the outside world – but I’m still booking a ticket out of here the first chance I get.”
I left Victoria the afternoon of September 22nd and arrived in Mumbai the evening of September 24th? Does that make sense to you? No? Because it doesn’t make sense to me either. What I do know is that between the time I woke up in Toronto and the time I arrived at the airport in Mumbai I’d managed to go over 24 hours without sleeping. Some people are gifted with the ability to sleep on long flights, but I am not one of them. My joints get sore, I get cold, the air conditioning burns my nasal passages, and I get over stimulated by all the snacks, drinks, bad in-flight movies that I’d never see otherwise, and of course – the prospect of going somewhere. Anywhere.
I decided the best way to be inducted into India was by someone who knew India, so I found a good host on couchsurfing.org, someone my age who worked as an assistant director on commercials and had recently completed his own six month backpacking trip through the United States. He promised to pick me up at the airport.
I cleared customs and ignored the people shouting “Taxi Madam?!” and the five money changing booths waving and yelling frantically at me as I exited the airport. My glasses fogged up instantly with the transition from air conditioning to the hot sticky night. I took them off and could see the outline of a mob of people behind a barrier shouting and jostling and waving placards with various names on them. ‘What did you think?’ I asked myself, ‘Did you think it would be easy to find someone you’ve never met in a country of one billion and a city of over 16 million?’ But then there was Sachin in front of me out of nowhere.
“Hi Jenny! I was going to leave you here to panic for twenty minutes, but then I thought that would be mean. Come on let’s go.”
And with that I climbed onto a motorbike with a complete stranger in a strange city and we took off into the city swerving and honking at everyone. The air smelled like incense and sewage. Entire families were sleeping on the sidewalk in places. It was dark and the streets were lit up with all kinds of coloured lights for the nine day festival of the goddess. Tents were set up along the side of the road and women in brightly coloured saris were dancing under them. I don’t think anyone could ask for a better introduction to India.
Mumbai is intriguing. It’s a city of contrasts. There are so many rich people and so many poor people - and neither seems to know what to do about the other. Some places look like Miami, with clean sidewalks and trees, and then other places have entire villages of people living on the sidewalk. There can be chauffeured BMWs on one side of the street and on the other side there can be cows eating garbage and naked children pissing. Women pass each other wearing tank tops and shorts, salwar kameezes, saris, or even niqabs. The craziest thing though is that this city houses the biggest slum in Asia - really a city unto itself that contains actual districts and entire industries all housed inside miles of plastic scraps and corrugated metal.
When we arrived at Sachin’s apartment in the Worli district his neighbours were celebrating the festival in the open parking garage below his building with loud Bollywood music.
“Sorry, you’re not going to sleep very well,” he apologized, “Also, my mother doesn’t speak any English,” he told me before we went inside, “She is very simple, she can’t even write her own name. My aunt is staying here too right now.”
The apartment was small, only one room. His mother and aunt were napping on the floor. They got up to smile at me. The wall along the door had two plastic lawn chairs and a small built in cupboard with a TV on it. Above this were two shrines. One with photos of Sachin’s recently deceased father and another for the household gods. The wall connecting with this had a couch and a small side table. Across from this was a built in wall to wall storage unit and sliding door to divide the apartment if necessary. There was a small kitchen and then the washroom which was divided in two by a space for a small sink. One side was the shower/clothes washing room where we bathed using buckets of water since water to the building only ran once a day. The other side housed the toilet which was a very luxurious western/Indian hybrid where if you raised the seat there were grips for your feet!
“But no toilet paper in this bathroom,” said Sachin mischievously when he showed it to me. He seemed to think it was really funny.
“I’ll be fine. Do you have a garbage or a recycling for this?” I asked holding up my empty water bottle.
“Recycling?” he scoffed, “You’re in a third world country now Miss. First World. It all goes in the same place.”
“They’re not called Third World any more, they’re ‘developing countries’.”
Over the next couple days I got used to sleeping in the same room as three other people. They let me have the couch and they slept on mats on the floor. Every morning I was woken up early by a combination of the heat, the smell of incense, and the sensation that somewhere a short smiling woman in a sari was hovering. I couldn’t fight it so I got up and had the fresh coffee seasoned with cardamom and biscuits that were waiting for me. When Sachin got up his mother served us delicious home cooked food, frying the roti and putting it hot onto our plates while we ate. Then Sachin would take me sightseeing. At night he’d take me to meet his friends at swanky nightclubs where the drinks and the cover cost almost as much as back home.
One night his friend drove us to the nightclub in his car and afterward we got some food served to us at a kind of a late roadside drive in. I mentioned that it was strange how good tempered and well fed all the stray dogs seemed to be.
His friend said,“That’s because people feed them. People walk around with biscuits and chicken wings and give them to them. Hindus see god in everything except people. I don’t understand why they feed dogs over human beings.”
His neighbours continued to party in the parking garage, but Sachin and his mother couldn’t participate because his father recently passed away. We watch from the apartment window instead.
The revelers repeatedly played one of the only Bollywood songs I know over and over again. A brilliant song from the 80s “I am a Disco Dancer.”
The day before I left we wandered around Colaba and I asked him if he had a lot of extended family.
“Not really,” he said.
That night another aunt and cousin showed up to stay. That made for six of us sleeping in that small space. Me on the couch, the four women next to me on the floor, and Sachin in the kitchen. In the morning I woke up to his relatives and some neighbour women talking and laughing next to my bed. When I sat up they waved at me and said, “Sleep, sleep” but there was no way I could sleep through six women chattering away in Hindi, not to mention the heat, and “I am a Disco Dancer.”
When they left they tried to wake Sachin to say goodbye. They laughed because no amount of shaking or yelling could even make him bat an eye.
I arrived at the Pearson Airport in Toronto at one AM. The entire airport was deserted and the subway and most buses were no longer running. The bus driver waved my money away, handed me a transfer, and told me not to mention it. “Well this is a good omen,” I thought.
Dorian had told me I could spend the night at his place. We used to work together in Victoria and I sort of adore him. He’s very sweet and what my mother would call, “a character”. My favourite story about him is that one time he took a business trip to Seattle with Kevin and after a night out they found themselves in a Denny’s. Surrounded by all kinds of freaks, sex workers, and drug addicts, most drunk people would be content to eat whatever fried food was put in front of them - not Dorian, he asked the waiter what on the menu had an equal amount of carbs, protein, and vegetables. The waiter made a couple suggestions and Dorian said, “No…cheese gives me gas,” At this point Kevin lost it, threw down his menu and shouted, “Dorian! Order the fucking spaghetti!” So he did.
I arrived outside Dorian’s apartment at around 3:30AM. He lives above store fronts in the Parkdale area. I know other people in Toronto, but Dorian is the only person I know who wouldn’t bat an eye at someone he hadn’t seen in years showing up at his house in the middle of the night. “There will be a key left in the second plastic thing. If you can’t find it ring the bell until someone comes down and lets you in.” he told me, but when I arrived there was no key in the second plastic thing, or the first one, or the third one. I rang the bell. Fifteen rings later and an African man appeared at the top of the stairs. I waved and smiled. He looked like he wanted to kill me. I explained that Dorian said I could crash there for the night.
“Dorian didn’t tell me anything about this, but yeah, sure, OK.” he said.
“I forgot! I forgot!” came a sleepy voice from a room down the hall.
“Where should I sleep?” I asked the African guy whose name I learned was Don.
“You can have the alcove down the hall but it’s full of Dorian’s junk.”
I walked down the hall, flicked on the light and this is what I saw:
I managed to snap a couple pictures before I heard Don’s voice, “Sorry to bother you but the door to my room doesn’t close. Can you turn off the light?”
“Of course,” I said out loud. To myself I said, “You can do this. Don’t be so prissy. You can sleep on a hardwood floor amongst storage in a hallway with no blanket or pillow.”
In the dark I tried to figure out the best place to lie down. The most promising area seemed to be where Dorian’s assorted women’s socks (he wears women’s socks - nothing wrong with that) and electrical cords met. I tried to kick most of them out of the way with my feet and then lay down and placed my scarf under my head.
The socks were wet. And they smelt.
“You can’t get diseases from wet socks Jennifer” I told myself, “bed bugs” my mind answered back, “You’re not even on a bed,” “Scabies! Crabs! Fungus! Lice!” I started flailing wildly in the dark trying to get the socks away from me. The electrical cords under my ass proved harder to dislodge.
“At least you have a roof over your head. A lot of people don’t have that.” “Shut up! I’m cold!”
I got up to try to close the window only to discover that the window was missing. It was just a big hole in the wall. I considered trying to pull the drapes hanging from one nail down from the wall and wrapping myself in them but decided that would be even more disgusting.
Sometime after this I drifted off to sleep.
At seven AM the light was switched on and I opened my eyes to a cloud of marijuana haze and the sight of Dorian draped in a white sheet.
“I am so sorry. I totally forgot. How did you even get in?”
“Don let me in.”
“I am the worst host ever. This is even worse than when what’s her name came to visit”
“Seriously I can’t remember her name. There’s a piece of foam behind this bookshelf.”
He began rearranging things.
“I should put on a robe.” he said.
He disappeared and returned wearing a very short white robe with no belt. I’d forgotten how tall and thin he was.
He pulled out a blanket for me and a sheet.
“I have a clean sheet. That’s pretty good for me these days. You must be so mad at me.”
Oddly enough, I wasn’t mad at all. I was confused, tired, and oddly amused. I was also strangely appreciative that he let me stay with him, and relieved to find out the situation wasn’t intentional.
“I would be mad. What did you think when you saw this?”
“I thought, oh Dorian’s a crackhead now - not that there’s anything wrong with that.” I added, in case he was (you never know).
“I think a lot of people think that.”
After a couple hours of sleeping on the floor he woke me up and told me he was going to work so I could move to his room. It was similarly decorated but there was a real mattress on the floor. I admired the leopard print fabric hanging over the light bulb on the ceiling.
A few minutes later he came back and turned the light on, “Sorry, but I can’t find my keys,” he looked around a bit and I got up to help him.
“There are keys here,” I said.
“I don’t know who those belong to.”
He turned the light off and then left again only to come back a minute later.
“Can you lock the front door behind me when I leave? I can’t find my keys anywhere. I checked all my pants pockets - except these!” he held up an impossibly short pair of cutoff jean shorts, “Here they are!”
“Oh good,” I said.
“Do you need any sleeping pills?”
“Because if you do there are some right here…oh this is empty. Well if you need some there will be some in a drawer somewhere. Just dig around.”
“OK sure. Thanks,” I said as though digging through drawers in search of someone else’s prescription medication was something I did all the time.
“Oh…and that’s not yogurt so don’t eat it,” he said pointing to a yogurt container next to a bong.
“OK thanks for the heads up,”
At around one pm he showed up and rolled a joint.
“Let’s go for lunch. My treat for making you go through all this.”
He took an Indian cigarette from a small plastic container, “Have you smoked one of these before?”
“They’re the cheapest cigarettes you can get. Made by peasant children for peasant adults.”
We went to a Portuguese buffet and brought our own dishes so we could take it to the park. On the way we stopped at a Vietnamese corner store so he could buy black market cigarettes.
In the park he lit a joint and regaled me with stories about India.
I was in for a trip he said.
You don’t say.