I feel sore, full and tired. It’s like heart burn throughout my whole system. I have over eaten at the buffet of India! So much stimulation from the incessant noise, the volume of people and pollution. All my senses, my personal space, my dignity, my tolerance, my values have been challenged day after day. Sometimes these challenges lift me, I feel expanded and content. At other times I feel beaten and bruised and weary at the thought of having to step back in to the ring.
So what is it about India that creates this tension?
Ahh, so many little things! Let’s start with the roads. They are perilous to walk along having very few stretches of useful pavements, and with very few rules of the road being adhered to I am on constant alert keeping myself safe. There are those things that are stationary such as holes, broken paving, cow dung, mud, drains, rubbish, and all those things that are haphazardly on the move. Cars, motorbikes, rickshaws, both motorised and man propelled, people, bicycles, dogs and cows. On top of this is the background sound track to every hour in every village, town and city; the horn. There are a multitude of tones but all are sharp, piercing, shrill and overused by every driver. It often feels as though my ears are being poked by red hot spears of sound.
Another layer of sound comes from music. All genres, though mainly high pitched Hindi pop, blare from cars, rickshaws and houses, even radios strapped to bicycles. Loud, thumping techno music is now de rigeur at the grand celebrations of an Indian wedding as too are fireworks which publicise the marriage late in to the night. Firecrackers are frequently used at weddings too, plus processions, demonstrations, festivals any excuse it seems to me to rattle off the sound of a string of gunshots to shock my system.
Then there is the religious music and sounds, each trying to out do the other. The Imans summoning the faithful to prayer throughout the day through distorted loud speaker systems. Hindu temples vibrating from bells and singing and Buddhists chanting, chanting, chanting! Often all three faiths worship in close proximity creating an interesting though not always harmonious Eastern fusion.
Finally the poor, mangy, semi-wild dogs who nose around piles of smelly, rotting rubbish snarling and bickering. Then in the early hours of the morning they strut the streets, barking and yelping as they defend their territories. My earplugs prove to be an inadequate barrier to these canine sound waves.
Indians are an exuberant and social race and have abundant tolerance for their fellow man. I imagine this stems from a very different understanding and relationship to personal boundaries that we have in the West. They don’t think it’s necessary to speak in hushed tones, or use a flashlight rather than the blinding strip lights, in the middle of the night in a hotel corridor or a train carriage. They aren’t embarrassed by speaking loudly in to their mobile phones or listening to music or a movie without earphones. They are comfortable crowding in to another’s personal space, jostling, pushing, bumping in to you or cutting you off with a swerve of their vehicle. All this without an apology, simply an accepted result of living in such a populated country. Also, both men and women, young and old often stare at me with implacable faces. I realise that to some I am a curiosity and accept and welcome their interest. Part of the fun of traveling is meeting people and discovering both our similarities and differences. What I find hard is the long, hard, expressionless stare which doesn’t soften or invite an interaction despite me smiling, waving or speaking.
Answering the call of nature in public spaces is also a common occurrence. A man standing, feet apart, hands to the front, his face to a wall or a tree is a common sight. As too is squatting, their legs concertinered and bare, brown buttocks exposed. Women manage it with a little more dignity, their sarees giving them some privacy. But nothing can hide the gagging smell of stale urine that rises round many a street corner nor the question of whether I’m dodging dog or human turd.
Hawking up juicy globs of phlegm is also regarded as a normal, necessary bodily function which can be shared with the rest of us. As to are the mouthfuls of red saliva from chewing on tobacco which are artfully expelled in a long, thin, arc – another hazard to be avoided.
And then there’s the haggling and hassling. It feels as though I am being constantly pecked at in the hope of extracting some valuable tit-bit. Young children tug at my sleeve, grubby hands outstretched; beggars sit on the dusty ground holding up bowls and desperate eyes pleading for a rupee, a morsel, a kindness. And shopkeepers who want to sell me something at inflated prices come and peck, peck, peck hoping I will eventually relent. Rickshaw drivers slow their fume belching vehicles to my walking pace and like leering curb crawlers they lean over to offer me a ride. It seems the price for everything from one of these rickshaw rides to a room for the night to a bag of oranges needs to be discussed and bargained for. We play the game, both sides employing their best techniques to ensure a profitable outcome both to wallet and pride.
I understand that most of the Indians I meet and interact with as I journey through their country, have it hard making a living. I imagine assumptions are made about our wealth and we are viewed as fair game to make a more substantial profit than they would from their fellow country men and women. They need our business in a competitive environment and they’ll do what they can to get as many rupees from our pockets to theirs. I’m happy to pay a bit of a foreigners premium, really I am, but it angers and saddens me when there are so many attempts made to fleece and take advantage of me. These games are tiring, repetitive and tedious, for both sides probably, so it’s little wonder we get weary and irritated by it.
This weariness has been a wispy shadow in the background which I have been subtlety aware of but have kept under wraps wanting only to extol and celebrate the joys and excitements of this trip. However, omitting the more difficult aspects would be shying away from the truth and would portray a rather thin and one dimensional picture. All aspects of life are multi layered and complex, so why should travelling be any different, particularly in India? After all this is what I enjoy so much; this textured richness, this juiciness. I would rather eat a dish that has depth of flavour and textures, something to ooh and ahh about, rather than a bland thin soup of nothingness?
However, too much rich food can lead to indigestion and then I crave simplicity. This is where I have found myself with travelling.
I need time to rest and digest. I need to retreat …….