India Suffocates and Serenades all in one Breath
Red and pink saris float around the sidelines, blurring as the auto rickshaw zips through the steaming streets of Delhi. The pot bellied driver brakes to avoid a large, stray cow crossing the pathway, sacred in India and allowed to eat and traipse where it desires. Greasy tissue paper napkins and rotting fruit peels are swept with tree branch brooms into the street along with yesterday’s garbage. I smell the sweet scent of cinnamon mixed with curry, curling through the dry air, but noticing the block of urinals in the upcoming alleyway, I hold my next breath, knowing it may not be as delightful as the previous aroma. This constant shift of sweet and putrid seems to be a common theme here in the crowded cities of India, where one moment can be raw and the next remarkable.
Portly women wear belly shirts, exposing their fleshy rolls along their sides and back, but do not dare to step out without the proper sleeves, scarves and skirts to cover their shoulders, necks and ankles. To a Westerner, it is humorous to study this phenomena of tempting ankles being kept undercover. Females of all ages have nose piercings, dots on their forehead (called bindis), bangle bracelets and large, ornate pieces of cloth wrapped as saris, worn traditionally and yet individually, no one’s fabric matching. A red dot on the forehead is often a symbol of marriage, but when asked, I was told many women wear them these days just for the fashion statement.
A few men wrap wet rags around their heads, then stand next to their bicycles, which are rigged to high- standing wooden carts. A bicycle rickshaw driver desperately earns his pay in 100 degree plus weather, pedaling wide-eyed tourists to their next shopping destination in his creaky trailer. Knowing I have to try this type of transportation once, I hop aboard the wooden cart and it begins to groan under me, shaming me to feel as though I am a slave driver; I end up jumping off early and paying the man more than originally quoted. Why they do not use animals for this horse and carriage ride is beyond me. I really don’t think it’s the cardiovascular workout that draws these men to this type of labor!
Higher paid Indian males sell textiles, jewelry, or fresh squeezed lime juice from their small, road-side carts. The men I encounter my first few days shock me with what I presume to be a lack of Western manners. Staring, laughing and grabbing me are actions they deem acceptable, as if I am a rare species at the zoo. Then again, I guess I am of an uncommon variety, seeing as even the touristy sections of town are filled mostly by other visiting Indians. Still, I can’t help but feel a bit uncomfortable under the stares, undeterred even by my eye contact, and the sweat, freely rolling under my mandatory scarf.
As I continue minding my own business, I find it is frustrating to get a straight answer in this overly-populated area of India. A rickshaw driver says a private taxi is the only form of transport that will take tourists to the majestic Red Fort of Delhi. This is a blatant excuse to bump me along to his friend’s illegal taxi shop, which humorously is called “Government Taxi” in order to make it seem more trustworthy. Opting for the subway, where once again, an inconspicuous man grabs me through the pushing crowd, I arrive at the Red Fort and spot many rickshaws gladly dropping off Indian sightseers. Another lie is uncovered, with many more to follow. Everything from where to book a train ticket to closing times of sites is deceived in order to make an extra rupee. I start to feel as if I can trust no one and become an irritable traveler. To rub curry in the cut, Jason contracts typhoid fever despite the immunization shots we had received, is hospitalized for two days and is charged five times the local price for the treatment, because we look as though we can afford it. I find myself hoping the money goes to better the hospital’s shabby building with 1960s equipment rather than into the doctor’s wife’s silk collection.
I realize that my irritability is stemming from the feeling that I am constantly being watched and plotted against. I hold off writing about my experience, hoping to meet one man who will disprove my Indian male stereotype, not wishing to portray India’s worst as the norm. I trudge through Delhi, Agra and Jaipur’s urban streets, but still am not ready to report.
After the crowds, stares, sickness and cows you can imagine what a relief it is to be driven through a palm tree-lined lane, leading to the Goan beach house I would call home for ten days. I left the old country behind by way of a two-hour plane flight and now inhale fresh sea air for my first time since stepping onto Indian soil. My driver, the first man I meet, is Edward. A soft spoken, father-like figure, he has grown up in Goa and owns a motorbike business near the beach. Here in Majorda, a village in Goa, men smile, introduce themselves and tell me to come find them at work or home if I have any problems. They have collectively shown me there are kind, male souls in India, as I knew must exist somewhere, and I can now write.
The lady owner of the cottage makes sure I feel cozy and then leaves me smiling and sighing deeply as I close the door. I realize that sometimes the countryside brings out more fine qualities in a place than even the most renown postcard sites ever could.
I am so thankful to finally discover peace in my piece of India.