India Travelogue, Ep. 11:

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Okay, I’ve patiently written my way through 10 episodes of this travelogue without addressing a topic of utmost importance and I just can’t wait any longer.

The bathroom sitch must be discussed.

At the risk of using a bad pun, it’s a crapshoot. Emphasis on the crap.

I know. That was an easy shot. But I’m going to stand my ground as a First World Lady of High Standards and just acknowledge the accommodations were dismal.

I realize dismal is relative. But I’m the one telling this story so my assessment is the one that matters. Imagine the worst American truck-stop bathroom you’ve ever patronized and throw that image out of your head as not comparable. That’s right, most of the public bathrooms were horror shows.

But here’s the great thing about relativity — after about three days, your standards change. During the middle of our trip, as one friend and I exited one bathroom that would have previously been considered appalling, she remarked “Well, that wasn’t bad!” Then we laughed about how an unlit toilet the size of phone booth without a flushing toilet, toilet paper, soap, or paper towels suddenly became “not bad.”

The worst part of our trip is that both my friend and I suffered from “sluggish” digestive tracts during our travel. I just want to say the timing of medicine to alleviate that condition is no laughing matter when you travel 5-18 hours every day and you never know what kind of bathroom you’re going to find on the road. The planning surrounding this problem consumed most of our mental and emotional energy and I’m not joking. Ask our companions.

Toward the end of our trip, I went on a hunger strike. I can’t explain it except to say my body was in revolt and I simply stopped eating. (I lost five pounds in 14 days.) Somehow, my bowels knew the exact moment I touched down on U.S. soil because I had to rush off the airplane in Dallas for the ladies room.

And I can say without hyperbole that I was never so happy to see an American public bathroom in my life. I’d been carrying a roll of toilet paper, a bar of soap, Clorox wipes, and hand sanitizing wipes in my purse for two weeks. I dumped all my supplies in the trash at DFW and never looked back.

Epilogue: Here’s the thing you need to know. Indian restrooms usually have one, or sometimes two, of two basic options: either a “Turkish” toilet (a hole in the ground) or an American toilet. All the American toilets I chose (except for the ones in my hotels) lacked supplies like toilet paper, soap and paper towels. Instead, they all offered either a hand held bidet (imagine the sprayer on your kitchen faucet), a spigot near the foot of the toilet (I still don’t get this), or a pail of water with a cup submerged in the water (WHAT?). Apparently water is preferred over toilet paper. And, mind you, it’s all cold water.

It’s a nightmare! First of all, that hose has been sprayed all over and I’m sure it’s scattered some particles with it. It also explains why all the bathrooms are wet. Every surface. Dripping wet. When you and your clothes are dry and you step into a wet bathroom, well, eeeew! Also, you have to handle the hose — the hose that all those hands have handled and pointed at their nether regions. And air drying? Are you KIDDING me??? You try pulling up your pants when your bottom has been hosed off and there’s not a shred of toilet paper or a paper towel in sight! I only encountered one bathroom that was private enough and clean enough that I dared touch the hose and give it a try. I got water EVERYWHERE. And since it was my hotel bathroom, I had to clean up the mess before my roommate used it next. I cannot fathom how this ever caught on. And the bathrooms that have buckets and cups instead of hoses? I’m still having nightmares about that cesspool of germs. The handheld bidet is the worst idea ever. Unless the water stream is automated (no hands) and warmed, why would anyone think this is a good idea?
And I haven’t even told the story about the time I stood watch for my friends (because many bathroom doors don’t lock) and they ditched me. Which means I got walked in on by an Indian stranger. And they ditched-ditched me.  Which means I exited the restroom and my bus was gone. You know that scene in “Almost Famous” where they leave the lead singer at the gas station? Yeah, they had to send the tour guide back for me. I have no idea why I’m smiling in the photo above. It’s a wonder I didn’t shiv somebody.

 

 

 

 

India Travelogue, Ep. 10:

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I’ve told you about the folks I encountered in India who seek money from tourists either as a handout or by providing nominal services. What I haven’t told you about is the hawkers. Actually, I don’t like that term. It sounds pejorative to me (much like “beggars”), but I must admit there’s a level of aggressive selling of cheap souvenirs that can seem off-putting to the uninitiated. And much of the work is done by children.

The boy in this photo approached me outside the Taj Mahal and I must admit I was immediately smitten. I mean, look at that face! And unlike most of the sellers, he seemed devoid of desperation or frenzy. He was soft-spoken and unfailingly polite. He had an air of confidence that was neither brazen nor feigned and he was unlike any of the multitude of peddlers I met on my trip. I looked into his eyes and knew I would undoubtedly buy whatever this exceptional boy was selling.

First, he offered me a keyring featuring a tiny painted Ganesha (elephant god). He had a package of 12 and I told him I wanted them all, but I offered him a fraction of his asking price. My bargaining was a ploy, really, to ensure our walk together lasted a while. After I finally agreed to $5, he next offered me a boxed set of crudely carved and decorated marble souvenirs. Once again, I offered him a fraction of his asking price before finally agreeing to $5 as a way to prolong our conversation.

My friend also found him charming and her negotiation for keyrings gave me the opportunity to snap a photograph. I’m so glad I did because I would have paid $10 just for the pleasure of talking to him. That I also have a photograph to remember him by is the icing on my Taj Mahal cake.

Epilogue: I gave away all the keyrings and the marble boxed set during my office’s Christmas gift exchange. I was surprised how much my co-workers treasured the trinkets and gratified that a brief interaction that meant so much to me brought holiday joy to my colleagues.

 

India Travelogue, Ep. 9:

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There’s something so ethereal, so chimerical, so magically entrancing about the Taj Mahal that it doesn’t seem real. And I think that’s why I love this photo so much. It literally doesn’t look real. It looks like a painted backdrop in a Broadway musical.

I think it’s because the air pollution we encountered in Northern India gave this magnificent relic an other-worldy feel. I found the effect oddly fitting, as if the Gods had lowered a cosmic veil to obscure its stunning beauty from immodest admirers.

I had no idea what to expect. I knew it would be awesome but I failed to anticipate how jaw-dropping its scale, artistry, and symmetrical perfection would be. The only metaphor that comes to mind is Brigadoon. Once you step inside the massive gate and glimpse the Taj for the first time, you are stunned beyond belief. This must surely be a dream, you think, and you pray you won’t wake up.

Yesterday I mentioned that I grew up thinking the word “Indian” applied only to people like my Cherokee relatives. Despite my parochial upbringing, I knew about the Taj Mahal. It was part of a phrase my Okie mother invoked anytime she thought I had gotten too big for my britches. Sometimes she’d call me “Miss Astor” (after Ava Alice Muriel Astor, NY socialite and daughter of John Jacob Astor).  Other times she’d say “You don’t live in the Taj Mahal, you know!” For years, I thought the Taj was a palace rather than a mausoleum. I knew it was far away, from another time, and probably beyond my ability to visit.

When I toured the Taj Mahal, my friends and I sat on the “Diana bench” for a photo and I couldn’t stop thinking about my mother. She would have been gobsmacked by my stories (and frightened out of her socks that I had traipsed off to a place like India). Oh, how I would have loved to tell her all about it and about the Indian stranger who called me “Diana” when I walked by. She would have said “Ain’t that something!” about a million times and I would have felt even more like the little girl from the small town who visited the magical place her mother only dreamed of.

Colleen would have loved the Taj, and I’m quite certain she somehow thinks my britches are perfectly sized for the world traveler she inspired.

 

India Travelogue, Ep. 8:


Of all the experiences in India that moved me, this one is at the top of my list. While visiting a scenic lake in Munnar one morning, I  noticed a group of teenagers singing near a rock formation known as Echo Point. Attracted to their jubilence, I walked closer to observe. The boy in the red hat noticed me and smiled. “Where from?” he asked. “U.S.” I replied. “Ah U.S.,” he repeated. “Oklahoma?”

I nearly fell over. For a girl who was born and raised in Oklahoma, who for a good bit of her youth thought the only “Indians” were the kind that looked like her Cherokee relatives, who never imagined she’d one day travel 10,000 miles to meet an actual Indian . . . well it was a moment like no other.

“Yes! Yes!” I shouted. I’m pretty sure I jumped up and down and I know my face lit up. “I am from Oklahoma!” I don’t know how to say this without sounding like a total kook, but I could not have been happier (and more touched) if Ghandi himself would have appeared from the clouds and said “Welcome, Joan.”

The boy in the red hat knew he had struck a chord with me. He shot me a wide grin, pumped his fist, and began chanting “Oklahoma! Oklahoma!” His friends joined in, as did I. And that’s how a group of Indian teenagers and one American middle-aged lady came to find themselves shouting and jumping and laughing like fools while high-fiving each other and paying tribute to America’s 46th state in a remote spot in southern India.

“How in the world do you know Oklahoma?” I finally asked the boy. “I watch movie,” he said. In a split second I realized I’d just met a soul halfway around the world who knew a little something about my homeland and the people who love it so. And I was so overtaken by the realization of the power of human connection that I still can’t talk about the experience without getting choked up.

Except to say “Oh what a beautiful morning. Oh what a beautiful day.”

India Travelogue, Ep. 7:

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Most experts will tell you never to eat “street food” when traveling. And it’s good advice, I suppose, but it also limits your culinary adventures considerably.  For health reasons, I went to India believing I would only drink bottled water (and, in fact, I’d only brush my teeth with bottled water) and I would not eat any food that wasn’t prepared in a reputable  and hygienic restaurant.

Turns out, I broke rank. When I passed this street vendor in Munnar, I couldn’t resist. After more than a week of eating traditional Indian dishes for breakfast, lunch and dinner, I was stopped in my tracks by the sight and smell of two American favorites — sweet corn and boiled peanuts. I hollered at my friends and insisted they backtrack and consider this opportunity. Most of them looked at me like I’d lost my mind, but my friend Vandana, an Indian native who organized our trip and served as the arbiter of all things “advisable” (or not), inspected the cart and declared this vendor was probably safe.

And, so, I got my corn and peanuts, sprinkled of course with cayenne pepper because it’s India and cayenne is de rigueur.

Standing by the side of a busy road near a congested tourist attraction (Eravikulam Lake), I savored every bite of my corn and peanuts — served in a Dixie cup with a plastic spoon the size of a paper clip.

The verdict? Praise the lord.

Epilogue: Look, I’m no Anthony Bourdain and I’m not suggesting you take unnecessary risks with your GI tract while 10,000 miles from home. But in hindsight, I’m convinced I passed up a lot of tasty and perfectly safe treats by being overly cautious. In fact, I traveled to India with an armory of pills and elixirs for every stomach ailment known to mankind. In the end, all I experienced was a little “sluggishness” of the digestive tract, which happens every time I leave home, no matter the distance.

India Travelogue, Ep. 6:

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Everywhere we went in India, whether urban or rural, we encountered folks trying to earn a few rupees. I’ve already written about the multitude of souls, mostly children, seeking money by begging. In addition, there are legions of folks, young and old, standing by to serve tourists in exchange for what amounts to a dollar or two. (During our time there, the exchange rate was 65 rupees to one US dollar.)

I paid both male and female attendants outside restrooms who did nothing more than hand me a napkin. (Most public restrooms in India don’t have toilet paper, soap or paper towels. I carried supplies in my purse everywhere I went but it’s hard to ignore an earnest attendant.) I paid porters to tote my luggage. I paid staff I never laid eyes on to launder and iron my clothes. The list can be endless and, although when traveling in America I’m pretty much a self-serve gal, I relaxed and gave into those who were waiting (and sometimes begging) to help.

The fellow in this photo shined shoes. I was wearing sneakers so I couldn’t patronize him, but our tour guide stopped long enough to get his black leather loafers spiffed up. He paid the boy 10 rupees (about 15 cents). I tried to imagine how many shoes the boy had to shine to eat a meal (much less pay rent or buy new clothes or other necessities), but my mind got lost in translation from third-world to first-world economics and things simply didn’t compute for me.

In the quiet moments of my trip I spent a good bit of time pondering the relativity of wealth. There’s no more relation to my standard of living from this boy’s, than there is to Donald Trump’s from mine. I decided that in the face of such disparity the most important currency is kindness. And in India, I learned the exchange rate is always favorable.

 

India Travelogue, Ep. 5:

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I’ve never been a fan of tourist attractions. Case in point: my family has never been to Disney World, a sacrilege for many American parents.

So although I found the Amber Fort and Palace in Jaipur beautiful, there was a bit of a carnival atmosphere surrounding it. (There was an abundance of aggressive hawkers selling trinkets, photographs and elephant rides.) It made me wonder why citizens the world over seem to prefer their historical and architectural medicine to go down with a spoonful of sugar.

Our group opted in for the elephant rides, though I and one other friend were reluctant members of our clan. Truth be told, among other neuroses, we’re both afraid of heights. Yes, we realize elephants aren’t that tall but there’s no reasoning with the anxieties of middle-aged American women.

Our ride up the mountain took longer than we’d prefer — although mid-way, our elephant seemed to be as antsy as his unsure riders and he eventually broke line to gallop past the dutiful animals in single-file ahead of him. “Gallop” may be an imprecise verb for what hurried elephants do, but suffice to say he was moving fast enough to scare us and he passed quite a few of the slower animals.

At one point, my friend turned to me and said “I feel sorry for all these elephants. They’re like slaves.”

“Me too,” I said. “You know, elephants are highly intelligent beings that form lifelong relationships.”

My friend sighed and after a moment said sadly, “They’re probably all on Zantac.”

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Epilogue: In case you haven’t connected all the dots and laughed as hard as I did, my friend meant “Xanax,” an anti-anxiety pill, not to be confused with “Zantac,” a heartburn medicine. As a women who packed both in her travel kit, I found my friend’s gaffe a perfect pun to describe the combination of apprehension and indigestion (real and existential) shared among human and other beings trudging up the mountain that day.

 

 

India Travelogue, Ep. 4:

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Before I left for India, I confided my anxieties about the trip to my friend and meditation teacher. She has been to India many times (to serve the poor rather than vacation like me) and she told me the trip would be “the edge of (my meditation) practice.”

I knew she was right but I didn’t know how right until we traveled by train. Two trips on the train (one 12 hours and one 18 hours) will remain my least favorite travel experiences.

I feel silly talking about it but I will say this: I’m so white and so American I had envisioned a very “Sex in the City” kind of adventure. (Remember the episode when Carrie and Samantha took the train to LA?) I thought we’d have cocktails. Instead, if you’ve ever seen the movie “Reds,” and you remember the scene where Diane Keaton meets Warren Beaty at the crowded and chaotic train station in pre-revolution Russia, it was like that, only depressingly un-cinematic.

Rather than recall the specific conditions (which were crowded and dirty beyond anything I’d ever experienced), I’ve reflected on why I was so outside my comfort zone, why I felt so unmoored, why I was convinced I might just perish right then and there.

Truth is, other than length, the second train ride was easier and more enjoyable than the first. Probably because I knew what to expect. We played cards, we laughed, we ate snacks, we had quite a scare when our friend left the train at a stop to buy food and we thought she’d been left behind. (Turned out, the train didn’t leave the station; it merely switched tracks and our friend made it back on just fine.) I even slept a little on the second trip, unlike the first.

Looking back in my photos, there’s nothing that’s shocking so I’m still not sure why I felt the way I did. But maybe it has to do with that old saying “The train has left the station.” For a girl who’s spent a lifetime planning contingencies and exit strategies (and polishing her bubble), once you’re on the train, you’re on it. And you are most definitely not in control.

And maybe the universe knew a train ride was the perfect antidote for my shiny bubble and accelerator for my meditation practice.

 

India Travelogue, Ep. 3:

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I am not a well traveled individual. Although I have seen all but seven of the US states, prior to going to India, I could name the foreign countries I’ve visited on three fingers (Mexico, Brazil and Canada).

Since I had never left the American continent, I was sensitive about being perceived as a stereotypical US resident (ignorant, rude, entitled) by the locals. I tried so hard to be warm and friendly and polite and respectful in every situation.

Well, you can take the girl out of her bubble but . . .

Case in point: one day we were driving through a number of smaller towns. Many of my friends were dozing but I became fascinated with the array of merchants flanking the main roads through these towns. Most were in makeshift stalls, many no bigger than maybe 8’X8′. I saw a couple of what could be termed “variety” stores (to use a nostalgic American term from my youth), but many were single-item affairs (brooms in one, chairs in another, snacks in another). I began calling them out. “Oh look, there’s an auto mechanic’s shop! There’s a broom store! There’s a store selling pots and pans!” I even saw a man ironing in one stall. (An ironing store? I chuckled at my inability to name it quickly.)

When we drove past the one pictured above, I said “Oh look! It’s a second-hand clothing store.” My two Indian friends burst out laughing. Between their guffaws, one said “Oh Joan, it’s first-hand. It’s just dirty.” I was so embarrassed and realized immediately how privileged my world view had become. 

So yeah. I got that going for me.

Epilogue: I think the Indians got it going on. In many ways, these small merchants made me nostalgic for my “Mayberry” upbringing, where my neighbors’ businesses thrived before the big-box, Wal-Mart, soul-sucking economy choked them out.

India Travelogue, Ep. 2:

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One of the most difficult aspects of traveling in India is the emotional toll on tourists of those who seek money. (I’ve always hated the term beggars.) I’m not trying to make a political or moral argument about society, I’m just saying the experience was hard.

Mostly those who sought money were children, but there were also many women and the occasional disabled man. Their numbers were far too many to ignore and their persistence is remarkable. I had carried a large number of $1 bills for this purpose. I most often gave singles but I sometimes gave as many as five as at a time.

One time, I was approached by a group of boys as I waited for my friends to return to our tour bus. After I gave them each a bill, our tour bus driver chided me. I smiled at his admonition. I have no answer except I dare you to look into the face of need and not respond. I told him there are individuals in America who do the same. Mostly, in my area, they are older men who stand by the interstate exits. And I told him I give them money too, far more than I was sharing with these children.

He asked me to follow him a short distance, where he pointed over a low wall and I saw a group of boys, perhaps 10 or 12 years old, sitting cross-legged on the ground and playing cards. “That’s what they do with your money!” he exclaimed. I smiled again. “They look hungry,” I said.

Of all the experiences I had in India, these momentary interactions where we met eyes and I acknowledged our shared humanity and offered what I liked to think of as a traveler’s gratuity will stay with me most poignantly.