I always have a bathroom story on every trip that I take. And they always seem to get worse. To tell this bathroom story though I have to talk about dinner first. We walked with Rebecca and Raghu to a thali spot just around the corner from our hotel. We had some time to kill before our flight out of India and a last meal with the few of us that still remained seemed like the thing to do. Thali is a great thing. It’s an exciting way to experience Indian food and it’s different every time—most likely because every region of India has its own variation of thali.
The thali experience begins with an empty stainless steel tray and several—maybe five—smaller bowls on it that are slowly filled one by one by different waiters according to where you are in India or which regional variation of the dish you order. The thali restaurant we chose specialized in several variations so Alison ordered the Rajasthani thali and I had the Punjabi thali. My dish came with paneer butter masala—as far as I could tell, dal makhani, raita, a potato dish that reminded me of dum aloo, another bean dish, one other sweet gravy dish, papadum, chapatis, several sauces—mint, garlic pepper, and some other shit and a few other sweet pastries. It’s a lot of [expletive] food to begin with but this place is “unlimited” so the waiters will come by whenever your bowls get low to refill them. It’s an all you can eat buffet where you never have to leave your seat. And because it’s unlimited, I continued eating after I was full. Oh, I forget to mention the buttermilk. Don’t drink the buttermilk. Actually, maybe it was the buttermilk that [expletive] me up. Something didn’t sit well because when we got back to Rebecca’s room I quickly made my way to the bathroom. It wasn’t Delhi Belly exactly; it was more of a maharaja retreat. And that would have been fine if the toilet flushed when I was through, but it didn’t. Of course it didn’t. So, I’ve just ruined poor Rebecca’s bathroom—I suppose her whole room—which she was kind enough to let us lounge in until we left for the airport and we’re leaving in 20 minutes or so. I came up with a solution: there was a drinking glass by the sink and the sink did work so, I began pouring glasses of water from the sink into the toilet tank—enough for it to flush. This went on for ten minutes or so. It went on long enough where I knew Alison and Rebecca had to be thinking, “damn, Mike is really blowing that [expletive] up in there.” It went on long enough where there was no saving face and so when I finally made my exit I came clean and admitted to my record of breaking toilets—this one included. It was probably the garlic pepper that did it—the [expletive] was hot. I should have known from the pigment. Anyway, it was a great last meal and Raghu was kind enough to treat us—a nice gesture by our leader.
I had read that you should always lock your hotel room door because the staff will often enter unannounced and without reason. Seemed like a strange thing but fortunately we didn’t have too many problems with this on our trip. This morning, however, there was a knock on the door at 11:45am just as we were packing to check out. There was a security guard at the door and two other men—or, it might have been three—who wanted to check out the air conditioning unit outside of our window. At least, that is is what I gathered from the security guards' broken English and hand gestures. Anyway, three men walking into your room, tearing back the shades, and opening the window, is a bit intrusive and bothersome—especially when we have only 15 minutes before we have to check out. Anyway, they did their thing and left and I closed the door behind them. But, I didn’t lock it. And without fail, two minutes later, a staff member burst in asking if we’d like fresh towels or more toilet paper. It’s a strange way of doing things. Lock your doors when in India.
The overnight train was a newer version of every other sleeper train we’ve taken. The curtains between the tiers of beds hadn’t yet been stained, the air conditioning vents hadn’t yet been bent and broken, the windows were missing the hazy film that seems to build over time and the bathrooms were—well, they’re we still just a hole in the ground.
Everyone in the group was feeling a bit territorial this time around. There’s the push to share a compartment with others in the group and the drive to avoid sharing a compartment with Sheldon, the ailed one. It might sound we’ve been a bit harsh on the girl but c’mon—she hasn’t touched Indian food in two weeks, she passes on almost every activity we do, she complains daily, and she threatens and guilts her boyfriend, Ian, each time he tries to break away from her to hang out with the group.
Anyway, it was an easy train ride. We slipped into our cocoons—a sleeping bag as thin as a sheet that protects you from the train sheets that are suspect—and slept for a few hours until Raghu came to wake us around 5am. About a half-hour after that we checked back into the same hotel in Delhi where we started three weeks ago. This would be our last full day with the group and our second-to-last day in India before heading to Europe.
We had our last group dinner at a place called Spicy by Nature—the same place where we first had dinner as a group. Alison and I had the Tandoori chicken—which we felt was some of the best we had our entire time in India--the dal makhani, some garlic naan, also done well, and some steamed rice. After dinner we walked a block or two to a bar for some final drinks and farewells. Things quickly got out of hand—especially after Tim, the elder, ordered a round of vodka shots for everyone. Even Sheldon, the ailed one was, was having a good time. The party spilled over to the hotel--15 of us piled into room 205—Rebecca’s room—complete with warm beers and bottles of vodka. Dozens of incriminating photos were taken and Adam, the bartender, disappeared with Maria, the Columbian. It didn’t take long before the management sent up their henchmen to quiet it us down. Several phone calls followed but by the end Alison was answering the phone in French, which confused the staff to the point where they finally gave up. It was a proper ending to a successful trip. For many of us, however, it is only the end of one leg of a larger trip.
Every trip is the same. It’s exactly like a game of chicken. Which driver will surrender the straightaway? It comes frightening close sometimes. I’m surprised there aren’t more buses and trucks folded up along the roadway—victims of head –on collisions—from which neither driver refused to be the one to veer out of the way—in time at least. A few weeks back on a similar tour bus and on a similar journey, Alison and I sat halfway off our seats into the isle so we could have a clear view of the road through the bus windshield. We cracked a bag of Lays potato chips and passed it back and forth like it was popcorn while we watched the road to see what would unfold next. It was like watching a movie except in this film our lives were at stake. Accidents are clearly a problem: I read a newspaper article the other day about a pilot program in Delhi to help victims of traffic accidents with non-cash payment to assist with medical bills and rehabilitation. While commendable, the money might be better spent addressing the underlying problems and funding efforts to enforce traffic laws—there are traffic lights, marked lanes, and crosswalks, but no one observes them.
Sleeping on buses can be a nightmare. You’re guaranteed to wake up at some point and think you are falling—and you likely are. The roads are so poor in India that it’s easy to get ejected from your seat if the bus driver doesn’t slow for a speed bump, anticipate a stop, or avoid a pothole.
And every trip has its unforeseen circumstances: a blown fan belt; a busted radiator; a failed air conditioner. This time, the driver has lost the key to the boot, or the trunk, as we know it in America. This wouldn’t be such a big deal if all of our bags weren’t locked in it. And so it continues to prove that in India “anything can happen at anytime.”
I should talk about the poverty. It’s all around. I guess I’m used to it—from before India, really. It’s bad in Thailand and Cambodia and other places I’ve been but it is worse in India. It’s especially bad in big cities like Delhi. If we’re stuck in traffic, beggars will come right up to the tuk-tuk to ask for money. Mothers carry their children arm in hand and thrust them toward you as they plead for change. When we were in Sarnath, there was a mother and child outside of the temple we were visiting. The boy was maybe two years old—just old enough to walk. He had a tin cup in his hand—for begging—and his mother was pushing him toward us to ask for money. He was clearly not old enough to comprehend what she was asking, but it was obvious that as soon as he was old enough, he too would be begging alongside his mother.
Alison and I stopped for ice cream at a McDonalds—it’s only 10 rupees for a vanilla, soft-serve cone. When we came out there was a man by the door with non-functioning legs, crawling on his hands. We walked past him and stopped at the street corner but he crawled over in front of us and begged for change. It’s difficult to deal with sometimes. Just a few blocks later a man came up to me and threw back his shawl exposing the nubs he had for arms. I just maneuvered around him—it’s all I could do. Behind him are a thousand more in just as much need. Riding in 3rd class trains we saw a lot of begging too. People reach up to the carriage windows when the train stops into the stations. Others come aboard and go from carriage to carriage begging. Raghu would usually wave them onward. There was a marked difference in the socio-economic status between the passengers in the 2nd and 3rd class trains. The same was true with customers who ate in local and Western restaurants: in Pizza Hut and McDonalds, Indian patrons are clearly middle and upper class. The man seated next to me in the Pizza Hut in Agra was dressed in gray slacks and a newly pressed dress shirt. He was wearing a gold wristwatch and bracelet and he had several expensive rings on his fingers. There is a different work ethic in these sorts of places too. The employees in Pizza Hut work as a team and are proud to be working where they do. At McDonalds, the employees hold their head up high and take pride in their work—they care about the service they provide. This is much different than in the United States where, unless it is a teenager working their first job, it’s generally the uneducated and unmotivated who work in fast food and they’re less than thrilled about it—maybe this is less true since the recent recession and the scarcity of jobs, but you understand.
It’s common to see people with missing limbs. One of the girls in our group spent some time working in a hospital in southern India. Many of the patients suffered from leprosy and did not receive medical attention until their condition had progressed to the later stages of the disease. Many other people suffer from some form of skin discoloration. I’m not sure what causes it but it is very common.
It was a good 32nd birthday. Alison’s first words to me were “Happy Birthday” when our alarm went off at 4:45am. We woke up early to catch the sunrise down on the Ganges. The boat took us along the river and after an hour or so we stopped along the ghats for some chai tea. It was a pleasant awakening. In the afternoon we went to Sarnath to where Buddha preached his first sermon. A 1200 ft. stupa—at least 1500 years old—marks the site. At dusk we went up to the hotel rooftop to have some drinks before a simple dinner at the hotel. After dinner Raghu surprised me with a birthday cake. He lit a match in place of a candle and held it for me while I made a wish and blew it out. When we celebrated Louise’s birthday a few weeks back Raghu made sure she got a face full of cake—I had my guard up so the same thing didn’t happen to me—and then it did. Before I knew it I had a cake in my hair and even up my nose. We went back up on the roof after dinner and drank until about 1:30am. It was a good 32nd birthday.