India - Dirt, Diarrhea, and Death

Posted on 13/5/08

A note from the author:
I wrote this blog post in my early twenties. My brother was studying to be a doctor at the time and he’d been doing humanitarian work near New Delhi. I flew to India to meet him and backpack together around the country. At the time, I’d never traveled abroad before. I’d never experienced much of anything before, save for a small, narrow minded existence living in Northern Idaho. This blog post is what happens when a 20-something boy (and I need to emphasize the word boy) visits an impoverished country and has no idea what he’s seeing. This blog post is what happens when a childish tourist sees how the other half lives. This blog post is petulant. This blog post is awful.

Since the time of this writing, over a decade has passed and I’ve traveled more. I’ve been to Cambodia, Central America, South America, Bhutan, Nepal, Japan, Indonesia, Thailand, South Korea, including the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. I've even been back to India. I’ve seen poverty. I’ve seen the third world. And I’ve learned that most of what I wrote about is not specific to India, nor does it speak to the country as a whole. It’s just a grab bag of bad experiences I had which I used to write shitty, hateful comedy.

What this blog post fails to mention is that I’ve come to love India. I love its intensity, both the people and the culture. I love the rich, beautiful spectrum of humanity that surges through it. And most importantly, I love the fact that India changed me. Visiting India was one of the most transformative experiences of my life. It’s unfortunate that a bratty blog post was how I chose to talk about it.

I’m sorry for publishing this. It's something I'll always be ashamed of.


P.S. I know that apologies are inexpensive, but philanthropy is not. For the past few months I’ve been making donations to GiveIndia and Save The Children India. I know that this doesn’t absolve me for writing this post, nor does it make it any less hurtful, but at the very least it’ll do some good in the world. I've set up a fixed, monthly fund that helps sponsor the college educations for 30 Indian girls, as well as another monthly fund that pays for the care of 30 senior citizens. I’ve set up the fund so it automatically makes a donation every month.

I intend to donate to this fund for the rest of my life.

Again, I’m sorry.

India is a nightmare. I'm a fairly open-minded guy and I know making generalizations about an entire country based on a tiny bit of experience is probably an unfair judgement, but fuck it - I'm gonna run with it: India is a nightmare. The week I spent in Delhi and Varanassi gave me enough empirical evidence to confidently label it as a sun-scorched, scabbed asshole of a country which, unless forcibly sent, I will never visit again.

11 seconds. 11 miserable, 110 degree fahrenheit (43C), seconds. That's the approximate amount of time I had between rickshaw drivers asking me if I needed a ride. In case you're unaware, a rickshaw is a two-wheeled cart which carries two persons and is pulled by a third person. Rickshaws are very common in highly populated areas of third world countries. In Varanasi, one of the cities my brother and I spent the day backpacking around, the Rickshaw drivers saw us as an ideal target to sell their services to. Imagine walking down the street with a 60lb pack on in 110F heat and being asked if you needed a lift from a total stranger, every 11 seconds, for 8 hours. At one point I had two rickshaw drivers on either side of me trying to get me to ride with them, I was so busy trying to get around them that I almost stepped in a large pile of feces that was mixed with blood. In addition to the rickshaw drivers, merchants, beggars, and scam-artists would constantly approach us to try and sell us tours or trinkets. That day my brother and I spent in Varanasi, we were approached by probably more than 40 strangers; all of them speaking broken english asking where we were from, how we were doing, and other typical conversation starters. Of those 40+ people, every single one of them was purely feeding us bullshit in order to try and sell us something. After the first hour or two we wouldn't even respond, I'd just stare straight ahead. I remember sitting on some steps while Bryce went inside to use an ATM. An indian man came and sat down next to me and politely asked how my day was. I stared straight ahead and and blatantly ignored him. If this asshole was going to insult my intelligence by pretending to make conversation with me and then trying to sell me a snow-globe of the taj mahal, I wasn't even going to bother making eye contact. He'll earn eye contact when he figures out how to make a decent living instead of scamming tourists. Even sitting down in Varnassi was a chore; usually a small crowd would form - some people would just stare at us because we were white, others would try and sell us more useless shit. At one point during the day we started to desperately look for a restaurant, not so much to escape the heat or because we were hungry, but simply so that we could get away from the locals. We also tried to stick near the river because there were less people to bother us there. This is also where I saw a teenager pelting rocks at an injured dog, resulting in the animal yelping and crying as it tried to run away. Local entertainment, I guess.

Varanasi is a city where people go to die. Being a holy city, it is where the sick or dying voyage to in order to bathe in the Ganges river, a river ripe with feces, garbage, and ash from the bodies we watched them burn upshore. Varanasi is what a garbage dump would look like if you set it on fire and built temples around it and then populated it with homeless lepers and malaria victims.

Trying to enjoy the temples and historical sites in Varnassi is impossible. Most of the temples are surrounded with beggars and "guides" who will show you around for a fee. We had one beggar who didn't speak any english but refused to leave us alone, demanding that he show us where the temples were by frantically pointing and yelling in Hindi. My brother, who is notoriously even-tempered, became so frustrated and angry at this man he dumped his water bottle on him to get him to leave us alone.

Early in the day we rented a rowboat to go up the Ganges river and see the various ghats and funeral pyres. This was after arguing with our black-toothed cab driver who demanded he drive us around all day and be our tour guide. Trying to get a boat resulted in the usual bullshit where they jacked up the price 10x because we were tourists. After we got on the boat, an adorable little girl got on and began lighting candles and handing them to me so I could put them in the river. "How novel," I thought, "this must be some kind of Ganges tradition." After she'd lit 8 candles, she stuck out her hand and demanded money. My brother and I, unaware that this costed money, gave her some spare change. She insisted that we didn't give her enough and after we told her we weren't giving her anymore, this 7 year old girl's expression turned to a murderous scowl and she shuffled off our boat. It was interesting to see a child get so enraged and hateful over money. Later on we ended up going to a temple. I approached an altar where a man was putting necklaces on people and red dots on their forehead. He gestured for me to come over and I obliged, at which point he dotted me and gave me a necklace. "How novel," I thought, "this must be some kind of fancy temple tradition." He then demanded money. My brother gave him more than enough and he angrily demanded more. Getting outside the temple they demanded more money for watching our shoes while we were inside. Leaving this temple all I could think about was wanting to wipe that red dot from my forehead and then strangling them with the cheap neckacle they'd put around my neck. It became pretty clear that if you're white and in India you're seen as a wallet with legs.

Sitting in the train station in Varanasi was quite an experience. We decided it would be better to wait for our train 4 hours early rather than endure walking around the city anymore. While waiting in the busy station a cow walked by, and a few minutes later another cow walked by - this time on the train tracks. No one really seemed bothered by the fact that a farm animal was wandering around. Nor were they bothered when a starved, possibly rabid dog that was foaming at the mouth wandered around the station, occasionally attracting the affection of small children who wanted to pet it. There was also a "spit corner," which was an area near the entrance that everyone would hawk loogies into. One woman even brought her daughter over to the spit corner, a cross-eyed girl wearing a neck brace, who used it as a toilet instead of spitting into it. Being in the station for several hours, the spit corner was actually quite amusing to watch. There was a large mound of cockroaches that would slowly grow and bustle out of hole in the spit corner until someone else came by and spat into it, at which point they would all scatter back down inside it. It was sort of like a fun game - see how many roaches appear between indian spitters! Being white and sitting down my brother and I attracted a lot of attention, often times people would just stand over us and stare down - taking in the amazing site of a white person (I guess?). When I got a bloody nose from the dry, dirty air it didn't make me any less obvious. A little girl approached me and begged for money. I gave her some cookies I had in my bag. Soon after a small crowd of kids formed around me, all begging for food or money. I ignored them and stared straight ahead, even after they started snapping their fingers in my face and waving trash at me. Later a beggar with no legs hobbled over to us, moaning and pointing at his mouth. Outside the station I saw two little girls: maybe 3 and 5 years old, sitting in a large pile of garbage sucking on all the empty soda bottles.

Before going to Varanasi, we stayed in Delhi for a few days. If Varanasi is the dirty butthole of India, then Delhi is the bigger, dirtier butthole of India. In terms of garbage, sickness, suffering - Delhi is the undisputed champ, save for Mumbai. One morning Bryce left our hotel room to find a dead man lying in in the street. His legs were covered in scabs and his eyes had rolled back in his head, and a small cloud of flies had begun to swarm around his body. The locals squatted near him in a semi-circle, apparently indifferent to the body blistering in the sun. Everyone picks their noses in India, and I think their national pastime is hawking loogies. You seriously can't walk 50 feet without hearing someone revving up their sinuses in order to launch a tikki-masala-flavored snotball at the nearest pile of flaming garbage. The traffic is insane: there are no real rules so it's kind of survival of the fittest. You'll have cyclists mixed with goats mixed with buses mixed with three legged dogs. One time while stopped in traffic a little girl ran across the other lane in between roaring traffic to my rickshaw. The whites of her eyes were yellow and she was trying to sell me pens for a few rupees a piece.

Diarrhea. Oh yes, endless gallons of diarrhea. If liquid feces was flammable there would be no energy crisis thanks to India. The first time I got sick my brother and I were at an internet cafe and I suddenly realized there was a hydroplane race brewing in my lower intestine. The internet cafe had no bathroom, so I left my brother to go search for one. After going into various restaurants and hotels with no luck, a man approached me trying to sell me something. He asked what I was looking for and I said I needed to use the toilet. He laughed and asked: "big or little?," gesturing at my crotch for little and my butt for big. "Big," I said, resulting in an eruption of even more laughter from this little Indian man. Soon I was being led from one hotel to the other, all of which resulted in him speaking Hindi to the owner asking if I could use the toilet. After a few failed attempts and a loss of dignity on my part, he eventually led me down a dark alley full of half-naked indian kids who were bathing in a broken water spout. I ended up being led into a bathroom that looked like a small meat locker with a giant latch on the outside. "Spectacular," I thought, "he's going to lock me in here and then fill it with cobras, perhaps demanding 100 rupees per cobra to be removed." After taking the most awkward, nervous dump of my life, I quickly wiped and ended up chafing my butt really bad. I left the scary toilet-meat-locker to find the indian man waiting for me. I gave him 100 rupees for helping me out, and he led me out of the alley, but stopped short at a small room. "Come inside the room," he said, "I want to have a nice chat with you." At which point another man came up behind me and tried to block the door so I would be forced to step inside. "Hell no," I said, and ran with the speed and determination only a man riddled with chafed butt-cheeks and terror is capable of.

Opium is fairly common in India, and while shopping for camera batteries in an underground bazaar I mistakenly took a breath while walking through a clowd of grey smoke at the front of a shop. I remember instantly feeling dizzy and uneasy, I felt uncomfortably high and thought maybe being underground in that dirty bazaar was affecting me. We left the bazaar and went to a coffee shop. I went to the bathroom and my nose began to pour blood and despite the air conditioning I was sweating through my clothes. Sitting there with toilet paper pressed up against my nose, I could also feel my bowels preparing to ride another greasy gastrointestinal wave of my-soon-to-be-favorite-D-word. It was here that I truly began to understand an Indian vacation: It's not a vacation at all, it's an assault on the body, mind, and bowels.

Vomiting on the Himalayas was uncomfortable. We'd left India and flown to Nepal, which was a first world paradise in comparison. My brother and I had signed up for an overnight trek in the valleys below the Himalayan range. About 2 hours into it I started to feel incredibly queasy. I had pretty bad diarrhea that morning (I had diarrhea almost every morning) but I'd managed to bottle it up using Pepto bismol and Immodium. Unfortunately the nausea couldn't be contained, and I managed to hike up steep mountain trails for nearly 2 hours while vomiting until we reached a village that had a lodge for trekkers. Upon entering the lodge I immediately laid down on a covered porch while a lightning storm raged through the valley around me. Shivering and acting like a giant pansy, the nepalese family who ran the lodge gave me food and some blankets. I became a Matt-Inman-Burrito and spent the night there. The next morning I was well enough that we continued our trek up the mountain.

matt burrito
Matt-Inman Burrito, complete with red barf-bucket

After Nepal we had one more night to spend in India before our flight back to the states. I booked the most expensive hotel in town and decided to hide near the pool all day. I took a short trip out of the hotel with Bryce to do some shopping, and I saw a man whose foot had rotted off (most of it, anyway). Most of his toes were missing and he sat there in the dirt nonchalantly picking at his own flesh, which was covered in a large swarm of flies. It was surprising to see him sitting there without even a hint of pain in his expression. My brother suggested that the foot may have been so rotten that he couldn't feel it anymore.

Getting home was rough: over 30 hours of travel time and a myriad of buses, taxis, and airplanes. Being back in Seattle now, thousands of miles from rickshaws, the runs, and all the other sensory torment India had to offer, I feel righteous saying this: F**K you, India. May your rivers run black with the watery stool of a thousand culture-shocked tourists. May your cows get hit by trains. May your cockroaches choke under the waves of phlegm flooding your spit corners. And may I never, ever see you again.

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