People like to compare places. Would you say that India is like Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia, Mexico, the U.S.? How does one compare India to anything? India is India. Ask me a question that lets me pour some of India into your soul. Ask me about the contrasts of color, people, nature, plastic and poverty, but don’t ask me to compare.
Ask me about the woman on her way to Sri Lanka who would “never go to India; where men grab at the women and rob them blind. Where danger lurks behind every corner.” How do people get through life thinking that way? I forget that some people think I am a brave and gallant traveler who hopped on a plane to Mexico three years ago to find “home” but has yet to return to the comforts of New England. I am not brave, spirited yes, but I associate bravery with gallantry, valor, and nerve, not with the hapless delving into other worlds that I do.
A different approach
Delving was not my approach to this trip to India. The man with whom I went to the Everest Base Camp (not to be confused with summiting Mt. Everest) encouraged me several times to join the Happy Hiker India trip. At first, I was reluctant, I am not a group person, as Ganesan would be the first to point out. It turns me inside out to be in a group. After three or four pushes from Ganesan, I relented and joined the 27-member tour of Southern India. Since it was with the Happy Hikers, I trusted it would be something that it didn’t turn out to be, but that doesn’t mean that it was not a splendid experience. Despite the fact that the cluster of women on the trip whose priority was shopping drove the trip, I managed, as usual, to hop off the bus and explore the nooks and crannies of India, while others pursued their interests.
Mudumalai National Park
We bounced about in a government jeep early one morning. The forest shared the blue hue so familiar to me from new England hikes in the winter minus the cold. The shopping women in the back were so loud that the driver had to remind them that we were scaring the animals away.
As we inched through the forest sanctuary, part of me yearned to be walking in this emptiness, but I appreciated that I could be there at all. Although I get down on India’s lack of infrastructure when it comes to hiding the trash as well as we Americans do, India’s efforts to preserve the wildlife there touched me. My thoughts were rewarded when we saw an elephant taking its morning drink in a shallow pond at the base of a ravine. Seeing an elephant in the wild is an honor, and on this trip, I was granted that honor several times. This elephant was undisturbed, peaceful, and graceful. The scene was so still, and I could imagine this animal’s solitary life as he swayed out of the pond and into the manicured landscape, which reminded me of the woods I used to tromp through growing up in New York.
Elephants in India
All of the elephants that I have seen up until now have been captive. Hindus revere Ganesh, the elephant god who removes obstacles and carries the attributes of strength, honor, stability and tenacity. Most of the captive elephants that I have seen lumber through India’s crazy streets carrying barefoot men or stay chained by one leg to a post at the bottom of a temple’s 700 steps eating bananas or wads of rice shoved into their mouths by their owners.
On my trip to Northern India last year, Dolores and I rode two elephants who had been rescued from the circus. The story went something like this. Years ago, royalty owned a herd of elephants. A caste cared for the elephants from generation to generation. But when the dynasty dissolved, the elephants were sold into labor and circus acts where their keepers brutally abused them until someone called a halt to elephants in the circus. When the elephants were released, there was no question that they return to the next generation of royal elephant keepers.
A Cultural Safari
After the morning safari, three of us we took off from our place on the edge of the reserve to walk into the town of Masinagudi. We passed by washerwomen and fishermen at the riverbank and never-ending piles of plastic that continue to swallow India.
Hope your road is a long one.
May there be many summer mornings when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you enter harbors you’re seeing for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind—
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to learn and go on learning from their scholars.
Masinagudi’s small main street had its version of “pearls, corals, ebony and sensual perfumes” with its goat’s heads at the butcher shop gazing beyond the long line of chicken butchers on the other side of the street. Women in bright saris women waited in line while the butcher pulled one live chicken after the other from its cage and de-limbed it on a runny red slab of wood. Men carried away livers and legs, but the women stuffed the live chickens in their bags for later execution.
We wandered up a hill off of the main drag of the town to find India in its vibrant pink, purple, turquoise, and striking white houses, amidst white-toothed children as curious about us as we were of them. We bought a bunch of bananas and discovered that cows, dogs, monkeys, and birds eat them skin and all.
Seeing women in their brilliant saris, the men in their lungi and the openness of the poverty that surrounds them baffles me. Living this way, and smells that curl my nostril hairs is understandable on a certain level. This is their normal. It is the contrast that astounds me: the brilliance of the people, their clothing, and their smiles. I am the anomaly for them, wandering through their village with my Samsung while the men, women, and children stare at my long, white, uncovered limbs and titter behind polite hands.
India doesn’t hide its poverty and its pollution the way that Americans do. I know we have the same amount of plastic, maybe less poverty, but it’s still there hiding behind the dumpsters, or in those secret landfills where They take our non-recyclables and nuclear waste. We Americans just take better care to filter it, which has its merits. Our infrastructure provides our country with a means to deposit its waste, finish its roads, and clean its public toilets, but that is not to say that it doesn’t exist.
The rawness and honesty in India give me a realistic sense of the state of the world. India opens my eyes wide open to humanity, which is glorious and colorful, wretched and raw. India is loud and chaotic, soft and spiritual, ancient and wise.
The Tea Nest
We non-shoppers left the Tea Nest in Conoor reluctantly after a peaceful night on a tea plantation. We had spent the short evening before meandering through the tea plantation as the sun set. We twisted our way through the paths that the tea pickers make as they pluck one ripe tea leaf after the next and deposit them into their white burlap bags. We came upon a group of pickers – all women – weighing their day’s labor. Then they broke camp and left where they would start again in the morning.
We continued upward until we reached the top of the endless rows of tea, and bought tea and eucalyptus oil at a tea stand on the roadside. Meanwhile, I had to spend this time finding discrete places to take care of my India belly. Indian food is rich and eating it night after night takes its toll. I learned that sticking to veggie fried rice has its merits.
Despite my stomach, wandering back through the tea plantation we came upon several bisons on our path. We were not quite sure how they would feel about us, so we dodged them by taking a narrow path to the road where we met up with another bison. These animals are giants with threatening horns, but they seem more concerned with the grass on the roadside than they did with us. Two schoolboys returning home seemed relaxed enough about the bison, so we let it lumber past without consequence.
All the places I will go
As I strongly consider leaving Asia this June, I can’t believe how unaware I was of how other people live, how ignorant and shallow my perspective of the world was before I came here. Raised in an isolated and privileged world of country clubs and private schools, the closest I got to India was through Burnett, Kipling, and later, E.M. Forester. I, like these British authors, was captivated by India. Now their influence is buried behind the mask of what India truly is. Shrouded in the myths of religion and the past, poverty, food and color, India is a sensory experience that hopefully will stay with me if I return to New England.
Since I left Mexico, my adventures have taken on a different flavor and mood. I am not charging forth as much. Instead, I am absorbing the world in a way that I never have before. India has left me full of wonder for a second time.
I think of all of the places that I have not been – the Middle East, Russia, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South America, Africa, and the bits and pieces that I have missed on my travels—knowing that I have only scratched the surface of the world.