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Published: December 29th 2010
On the way to the Internet Cafe I nearly stepped on a young boy pooping on the sidewalk. Immediately many things go through my mind, such as "Wow that is the most disgusting thing I have ever seen," "wow, that is the saddest thing I have ever seen," "this is the result of negligent parenting," "somebody needs to clean that shit up because I know there is a 90% chance I am stepping in it later," "am I the only one who finds this odd," "I wonder why he chose that spot," "I wonder if he does this often" and so on and so forth. Unfortunately all of these thoughts take me further from the reality of a little boy with his head in his hands pooping on the sidewalk, not to mention uneven sidewalks, ubiquitous feral dogs and insane drivers hurling their vehicles down the road. India is proving a struggle largely because I am chronically "lost in the sauce" as they would say in the marines. Or as my former platoon sergeant wryly noted, "you can stupid-proof something, but you will never kopp proof it." It is a constant moment to moment struggle to stay engaged with reality and
to keep my head in the game. The problem is that there are about twenty boy pooping on the sidewalk type moments each day, all of them leaving my mind spinning. India has forced me to remove all expectation for normal behavior, not try and think in a manner that delineates cause and effect or meaning or puts things into categories. These things simply are, and trying to understand them or fit them into a neat conceptual framework takes you further from the reality of the situation as opposed to just being present, observing what you are seeing with as little prejudice as possible, and aligning your actions with that reality to the best of your ability. This is proving quite the challenge.
Vijayawada was very enjoyable. It is a city of about a million people but lacks the crowds and chaos of Mumbai or Hyderabad. I found a relatively nice centrally located place to stay, and have been feeling very healthy. I stayed In Vijayawada for five days and spent most of each day simply wandering in different directions. I spent one day trying to figure out how to get up to the top of one of the
hills that dot the landscape, which I wanted for a photo-op. I finally found some stairs leading in an upward direction and was somewhat intrigued that there were a stream of people walking up and down. I meandered up and found myself at the base of a Hindu temple. I was not really sure what to make of this. I have read that many Hindu temples are off limits to non-Hindu's, and that others are off limits to members of certain castes. I had no idea how they would respond to me, a non-Hindu and someone who was born outside of the whole caste system order. I decided that I would do what I wanted and in the event somebody became upset, I would plead ignorance; one of my basic go-to life strategies. I left my shoes at the gate and wandered up a set of stairs, and found myself standing in a corridor where a single file line had formed. Each person would place a small donation in front of a shirtless skinny priest, the priest would then touch their forehead with what looked to me like a silver colored bowl, and then they would step forward with their
hands together for a second before a seated deity. I decided to just go for it, gave the guy a 10 rupee note, he touched the silver bowl to my head and it was no problem. The rest of the temple was unlike any other religious space I had ever seen. It was open air with separate sections to separate deities, was more of a compound than what we would think of as a temple. As where every church or mosque I have ever been in was immaculately clean and had a quiet solemn other-worldliness to it, this reminded me more of a carnival. There were stalls set up where selling a wide variety of things, an area where they were selling food in sealed plastic bags, and along all the common areas were people sitting and talking and carrying on. As I walked around another priest came over to me and led me toward a room that was blocked by a blanket over the doorway. He asked me to put two rupees in a pot, and then we walked in. The sides of the room were all mirrors, and in the center was a swing type contraption that had
three deities perched on it. He told me to swing it gently and repeat after him. After repeating maybe ten words he took something that I am going to call red chalk though I know it has some other name, and put a red dot on my head between my eyebrows. Before coming to India I had thought only women did this, but at least in this part of India it is universal. I ended up walking down some stairs in the hope that i could exit the complex close to where I had left my shoes. Unfortunately I exited close to the base of the hill along a city street. I was sort of at a loss of what to do, since i wasn't sure that I could exit the way that I had entered, and my nightmare is having to go barefoot. I motioned to some children trying to explain that I had no shoes and that they were at the top of the hill, one of the boys made a hand signal for me to go straight and then take a right. I decided to risk it, and after maybe 150m found a series of steps that
led back up to the entrance. The whole time all I could think about was that I was one wrong step away from a life changing infection, but fortunately it went by without issue.
I left Vijayawada at 11:30pm on Christmas eve on the night train to Visag. I decided that finding a church or in any way celebrating Christmas would be horribly depressing, and since it is 80 degrees, sunny, and nobody here celebrates the holiday, it was easy to convince myself not to be too sad about this. I got on a crowded sleeper car and found my little cubby hole. I don't know if I slept or not, though in hindsight the trip didn't seem to take that long so I may have slept some. My only memory of the train ride was staring at the cot above me, listening to the cacophony of snoring all around me and think "Well Chris, barring some monstrously poor future life choices, this should be the strangest Christmas of your life."
My time in Visag began very badly. I hired a driver and we went on a tour of practically every hotel in the city. I finally found
one that wasn't booked, and ironically it was the nicest place I have stayed so far, though they only had an opening for one night. Everywhere is going to be full through the new year, mostly due to domestic tourism for the holiday season. I found the local Andhra Pradesh Tourism and booking center in hope that they would help me find a place to stay. Wow, what an unhelpful group of people. My blood is boiling just thinking about it. I have found the vast majority of Indians and Egyptians to be wonderful people, the lone exception being government bureaucrats who sell train and bus tickets. Years of customer service have destroyed any chance at happiness that these people ever had. They did finally find me a hotel for one night, the only problem being that it was over 100km away in a remote region called the Araku Valley.
The bus to Araku Valley was an experience. It was packed!!! When we stopped at the midway point to use the restroom I counted 136 people crammed into a bus that had 48 seats. I posted a photo of the inside of the bus that hopefully gives an idea
of how crowded it was. The 130km distance took six hours to cover, much of it creaking at a snail's pace along a very narrow road back through the mountains. It was stunningly beautiful and I was so happy to be out of a city that I nearly kissed the ground when I got out. What a peaceful serene place, with mist floating through the mountains and the sounds of birds and monkeys and the freshness of cold crisp clean air. Everywhere were tribal people selling bananas and oranges and walking barefoot down dirt paths with large containers on their heads. Many of the women had awesome facial jewelry, often with three large round nose rings. At the hotel I had the opportunity to speak with many of the other guests, all of whom were Indians from other parts of the country on vacation for New Years. I am routinely surprised by how many of them have either traveled extensively through the United States or have family currently living there, and most of the guests spoke perfect English. One man had actually spent some time in Frederick, which I found to be pretty funny. They are always very interested in
where I have been in India, what I think of their country, and offer tips and advice of where to see and where to skip.
It was strange viewing the contrast between the middle class Indians whose material standard of living is comparable to most people in the United States and the tribal people who are probably living a life very similar to those that their ancestors lived a hundred generations ago. It was interesting seeing such a huge contrast in a single country, a difference which can often be seen on the same street. Most interesting to me was that to the west of here is nothing for several hundred miles except small inaccessible villages, many of which don't have any sort of electricity or transportation or modernity, and it seems nobody really knows what goes on out there. The tribes that live in the jungles of Orissa and Chattisgarh are among the most remote on earth. Access to travelers is restricted and there is no infrastructure. The state of Orissa has close to 40 million people, but their largest city of Bhubaneswar has only 650,000. The rest live in villages, including one group called "The Naked People"
who live along one of the mountain ranges.
My return to Visag was full of stress, largely stemming from the fact that I had nowhere to stay and no idea how I was going to make it through the next few days. The stress was magnified by news that Liana's plane out of Washington was cancelled and the school trip that I was hoping to meet here on the 30th was being delayed, so i didn't even really know how many nights I was going to be homeless for. I sat down at a cafe and brainstormed potential solutions to this problem, and came up with a pretty poor list: 1-buy an overnight ticket and sleep on the train or bus 2. sleep in the train station with all the other Indians who were waiting on their morning train. Neither of these were particularly great. Fortunately I decided to ask an Indian what he would do in my situation and he said that he would go stay at the dormitory on the top floor to the bus station. I have heard it said that material possessions beyond basic food and shelter only affect your happiness to the degree that
they align or diverge from your expectations. Normally I would say this is dumb and perhaps even un-American. However, I will admit that after spending the better part of two days mentally preparing myself for the ordeal of sleeping on a train station floor, the ecstasy and sense of well being I felt as I crawled into my sleeping bag on top of a thin uncomfortable mattress in a stuffy hot room surrounded by 70-80 snoring Indian men was bordering on a religious experience.
If you ever decide to come to India: DO NOT EAT THE ICE CREAM... please learn from my mistake
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