Travel Stories

Getting shorter

40. Delhi

            Delhi is shocking, which is no longer shocking.  India is shocking.  And Delhi is immense, geographically as well as in terms of human population numbers, so it is as hard to speak about “Delhi” as it is “New York” when it is not clear if you mean Queens or Brooklyn, Flushing or Flatbush, the Bronx or the Battery, east 67th or west 67th street.  And the bottom line, at least for me, is that there are still too many beggars, homeless people, filth in the streets, monkeys on the rooftops, and cattle in the roadways, notwithstanding the hard to measure bureaucratic efforts of the Municipal Corporation of Delhi and the Municipal Veterinary Department to comply with a ten year old court order to make the city cattle free, which is hard to do when there are over 2,000 illegal dairies still running in the city.

I spend most of my time here writing, reading, waiting for Sam, exploring just a little, resting, recovering from Varanasi, and hopefully garnering the energy I will need to help make this last phase of this journey a good one.  I do so mostly by treating myself to a stay at the high end YMCA Hostel on Jai Singh Street, and doing yoga at the National Yoga Institute – a very trippy, clean, beautiful, flowery, real institute, that is so hard to reach on foot that I do finally pay for a rickshaw to literally get me across the street.

41. Yoga in Delhi

I sign up at the National Yoga Institute to take classes with Master Bal Mukund Singh, a man who’s got to be near or in his eighties and reminds me of Mr. Maguchi in the Karate Kid.  Master Singh is such a good teacher, so funny, engaging, good-natured, mockingly reprimanding in a loud stern voice as if correcting and chiding errant children.  His classes are taught ninety five percent in Hindi.  And Master Singh loves having the tall American in shorts and a sleeveless Celtics t-shirt as his foil.  And I love serving him.  “So, what is your good name sir,” he asks me loudly.  “Brewsh, haaa, a wery good name.  Brewsh!”  “So why not straighten arms, Brewsh.”  “Left leg not right leg, Brewsh.”  “Are you seventy year young or seventy year old, Brewsh?”  “Ah, wery beeootifool, Brewsh, wery beeootifool, too wery bad not come India younger man study yoga.”  And here I am in the master’s class, the only Anglo among fifty mostly overweigh women in saris, and four other men, laughing and smiling and learning a lot.  And the entire class is laughing, and, in fact, after chanting at the end of the class, after we’ve held a final pose while the Master takes attendance (!) and everyone present answers “Here, sir,” after the last om shanti om, the whole class stands up, we raise our arms high into the air and we laugh loudly on purpose using a deep yogic abdominal “haaaa!”  (Haa is also “yes” in Hindi.)  “Haa, haa, ha, ha, ha!” we exhale using releasing breaths, a bit like kapalabatti breathing but through the throat rather than the nostrils.  “Haa, haa, ha, ha, ha!”  Laughing yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.  And then class is over but for the sweet rolling chorus of mostly women calling out, “Thank you, sir. Thank you, sir.  Thank you.”

42. Sam in Brief

Sam and I explore Delhi, the slums, the markets, the Red Fort, India Gate, the parliament.  He bounces his basketball wherever we go, a 6’5” Pied Piper with crowds of young engaged boys flocking to him, trying to get the ball away from him, many unabashedly asking if he will gift them his ball.  One even washes the ball.  Strangers yell out to him, “Good height.”  And he’s such a good sport, Sam.  My favorite moment in Delhi occurs when Sam asks the bicycle rickshawalla pedaling us to the Red Fort to let Sam pedal the rickshaw while the driver gets into the seat with me, which the driver reluctantly and embarrassedly does, and then endures the spirited cheers, jeers, hoots, laughter, and honking that Sam evokes as we ride with Sam serving as rickshaw driver thru the streets of Delhi.  To also say that Sam is overwhelmed by the filth and poverty that is in your face in India is only to state the obvious and inevitable.  And although India is not his favorite venue, he’s good spiritedly into it, even enmeshed by day three, along with one billion Indian fanatics, in avidly rooting for India in the world cricket championship semi final game against arch socio-political rival Pakistan - that India wins, to face Sri Lanka in the finals.

43. The Amber Fort

       Sam and I stop on the very long, flat, hot, and dusty road from Delhi to Jaipur to explore the truly impressive and extensive Amber Fort, where we make what turns out to be a wrong turn and are chased by a swarm of very aggressive very large bees.  So we impulsively take refuge in a very dark smoky dungeon where more than a dozen Indian men, women and children have also sought refuge and are cooking smoky chunks of a recently slaughtered goat hanging over a very smoky fire (no thanks, we don’t eat meat).  We then try to out run the bees, which Sam has read somewhere can be done, and which Sam succeeds in doing, while I get stung in the head (speed being a relative phenomenon) - and Sam pulls out the stinger - only to discover that the only way back to the fort entrance is exactly the way we came, chased by bees once again into the smoky dungeon, all old friends by now, handshakes and hugs all around, no thanks, we don’t eat meat … and then try again to escape the bees into the heat and dust to the fort entrance.

44. Jaipur to Agra

The architecture in the former Moghul city of Jaipur is really great, but the peak positive moments in Jaipur for both Sam and I are an eight year old Indian magician outside the Water Palace who can do his routine in Japanese, Spanish, German, and English … and is good … and a tiny rickshaw driver named Shaq who we meet at the City Palace and who takes us to the National Stadium at the edge of Jaipur, beyond the city’s eight gates, where the sound of Sam’s bouncing basketball and the miracle of cell phone technology draws some real players, one of whom is as tall as Sam is, all of whom can put the ball in the hoop, and all of whom know very little about defense or moving without the ball, but play hard and enjoy the game while Sam conducts a good natured offensive clinic.    

The Jaipur to Agra road is also flat, hot, and dusty, with lines of camels pulling huge wagon loads of grain and feed, interspersed with a palace, temple, or mausoleum or two, and an absolutely unfathomable line of religious pilgrims/worshipers at least thirty kilometers long (no really, 30 kms long), all walking toward some temple, carrying luggage on their heads, baskets of food, bedding, and babies on their hips, who fill the east to west half of the main highway so completely that no vehicular travel is possible in that direction, which results in turning the entire west to east half of the main highway into a one lane mess going each way.  And why are these 1000s of people doing this? And what are they thinking?  And where will they eat? (Just sitting down in the middle of the road, apparently.)  And where will they piss? (Oh just in that field there.)  And where have they all come from in their saris and knitted caps, and cowboy hats, with banners and flags and drums?  And where will they all sleep, because it clearly takes more than one day of walking to get to the temple?   And what does it mean to them?  And how do they think about it?  And, of course, I will never know the answers to these questions, but I’m told the walk happens on or about this day once every year and is also notable for how many enterprising Indian vendors have placed themselves along the line of march with water and food for sale, and how every scrap of paper, plastic, tin, cardboard and other human waste is just left seemingly mindlessly on the roadway, a practice that leaves some India roads looking as if they have three week old mounds of dirty snow lining both sides of the roadway, that on closer examination is all just garbage, which will not melt away.

45. The Taj

We set the alarm to wake up early to see the sun rise on the Taj Mahal, but smog obscures the sun.  And even more disappointingly, no basketballs are allowed on the Taj grounds, so all the crowd action around Sam takes place outside the entrance and at the lockers where we leave the ball.  The Taj itself is very impressive, although compared to Bagan, Anghor Wat, and Ellora and Ajanta it leaves me a bit nonplussed.  Besides, I’ve really had it with India crowds and am longing to get away to Rishikesh and Dharamsalah, away from things flat, hot, dusty, garbage strewn and endlessly long.

46. Rishikesh  

Ah, that’s better.  Cleaner, quieter, less polluted, less in your face, the yoga capital of the world, a swiftly flowing river, mountains, trees, a tourist scene, sort of like Telegraph Avenue on the Ganges.  And there are couples, lots of couples, and it finally dawns on me that I am nearing the end of this journey.

47. Yoga in Rishikesh

I do yoga in the yoga capital of the world, in many different venues, with many different teachers, but the most memorable class I take in Rishikesh is the one I go to with Sam which starts an hour before sunset on the literal banks of the surprisingly rapidly flowing Ganges, a bit in awe that I am here doing yoga outside in nature with Sam, being called Bhu Bhu by the teacher, watched by dozens of interested Indian people and a pack of curious mischievous monkeys, two of whom get into such a serious fight one day, not mock aggression and grimaces, but paw in clenched jaw tearing of fur and flesh, that the smaller weaker monkey literally jumps into the river, floating quite well in the very rapid current where he ultimately grasps onto a post in the river and rests while the bigger dominant monkey sits on the shore growling until he is chased away by the yoga instructor wielding a metal pipe.  And the magical formations of birds in flight, the flags blowing in the wind, the pedestrian suspension bridge, the calling of crows, a ferocious population of common houseflies, the chalky dust on our hands and feet and yoga mats, washing our hands and feet and faces in the cold cold Ganga, praying to receive the energy of the setting sun, while up river 1000s of people are chanting, and drumming, and incense is burning, and we say “Namaste” to everyone we meet, and we mean it.

48. A Brief Reflection on India

I find it hard to define what makes India attractive and appealing - almost spellbinding in its raw intensity - given how repulsive it is, people sleeping in the street, peeing in the street, brushing their teeth in public, fields with crops of young boys with their pants pulled down shitting, dirty, dusty, grimy herds of people, cows, dogs, goats, cats, monkeys and an occasional elephant or camel, cars, rickshaws, vans, trucks, buses all having failed the lowest standard vehicle emissions test, all stuffed with people, overflowing with people, people riding on the roofs, overweight women with no teeth, delirious beggars, gorgeous and beautifully dressed women, beggars with children, arguments in the open, even fistfights, endless bargaining, manipulation, honesty, kindness, engagement, indifference, pastel colors, good humor, all the best and worst of humanity.  I know it doesn’t sound very attractive.  And I don’t know what it is that makes it attractive.  I’m tempted to say it’s its spirituality, but I think that too facile and trite. More accurately, perhaps it is the energy and the “energetic” emanations of the place itself.  “Mother” India, not “the motherland” or the “fatherland,” but Mother India, a truly beloved, imperfect, grand and glorious, messy, all providing, all consuming, demanding mother, whose children are deeply deeply tied to her as only children can be tied.  India is intense, and that’s also appealing to me.  It is in your face.  It manifests little of the social space and social boundaries we Americans rely upon and there is only a very thin buffer zone between you and the other.  India is experiential and demanding and as such cannot be known from a distance, but must literally be emotionally and physically entered (and smelled, and felt), because it can only be truly known and seen from inside.  And its innards are just not that pretty or neat either, although somehow the people basically seem to be coping fairly well, but then what can someone who didn’t even know Indian cows eat banana peels and bananas know after one month.  Cows eating banana peels.  Sheesh.  I even saw them eat newspaper.  Hey, it’s India, which even won the cricket world cup.