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My First Days in Southern India

“Hello Passenger?”
I had dozed for a moment but was startled by the flight attendant beating on the lavatory door behind me. We were on our descent into Chennai (or Madras, its colonial name) and I guessed he was trying to get someone out of the lavatory. He pounded on the door again. In a voice loud enough for half the airplane to hear, he yelled, “Hello Passenger?” --a brief pause-- “Number one or number two?” This is my welcome to India?

I took a deep breath at the airport to gather myself before I went out of the restricted-access arrivals area. The heat blasted me as I stepped outside and I had to hack my way through the thicket of touts clamoring for me to take their taxi/hotel/tour. At the commuter train station across the way I met a Japanese guy whom I recognized from the flight. His name was So. I asked what So was short for, but that was it. (As he said, "Yeah, like So GOOD!") I jokingly insisted on inspecting his passport, but he showed it in a flash as proof. So had already been traveling in India for several months before making a side trip to Sri Lanka, where he became enamored with surfing. He told me about his guest house and I asked to go there with him, which he did but warned, "It's a little expensive: 185 rupees." About US $4.50. A Japanese concerned about paying $4.50 for his own room with attached shower and toilet. That's a first, I thought.

So was very ill, though he didn't look it. He never complained, and in a matter-of-fact way told of a horrible existence that he stoically tolerated. He must have a lethal worm inside of him ravaging his system. He couldn't keep food down, it was always traumatic to go to the bathroom and once his temperature shot up to 39 degrees Celsius (102 F) "Yeah, 39 degrees!" he smiled weakly. "Very bad." But it was as if he was talking about someone else's suffering.

His plan was to go to the hospital for a quick treatment of some sort and then take a train across India to Varanasi. "39 hours!" he shook his head and laughed, maybe impressed by the craziness of it. Varanasi is where you go to die, not to get better, I tried to tell him. I repeatedly suggested that he stay here and rest awhile, but I could tell he wasn't considering it. I was like his protective mother telling him to stay in bed and eat chicken soup.

The Shoe Wallah

My first task of the day was to fix my sandal that had come undone. I asked the guest house manager if he knew a shoe wallah (A shoe repairman on the street.) He told me to go down the street and then the directions got vague. I had to come back and I noticed that there was a shoe wallah right in front of the guest house. Why would he tell me to see another guy when this one was right here?

I showed him my sandal. He snatched it out of my hands and went right to work. I feebly tried to stop him by asking, “How much?” In rapid-fire succession he said, “75 (rupees, US$ 1.80) for you I fix here and here and make this better all around and one year guarantee OK for you 70 no problem, “ all the while furiously attacking the sandals. I saw a pack of six rats scurry under his shed. I helplessly watched and impulsively said 50 (US$ 1.20) but was fast-talked some more and told they’d be ready in half an hour. I realized 50 was too much for something that took only half an hour, but I’d said my price and would have to keep my word. The show wallah could tell I was a rube. “First day in India?” he piped.

I told the guest house manager everything that had transpired. “50!” he boomed. “It should be 15!” and he shook his head. I unconvincingly tried to make the argument that he would reinforce the other parts of the sandal and about the one-year guarantee. My voice was trailing off from the absurdity of a one-year guarantee, and he gave me a look of contempt. I could tell he was thinking, “How can he possibly get by in India being such a fool? Who knows what else he’s liable to do?”

The shoe wallah brought my sandals, took the 50, and happily skipped away. All the guest house workers knew what happened and they pitied me. One of them came to commiserate. He couldn’t bear to make eye contact with me, only sidling over with his head down to say softly, “Expensive,” before turning away. He was inconsolable.

I thought it would be prudent to register my passport with the United States Consulate in town. Should something happen it might make the search for me a little less like looking for Colonel Kurtz in “Apocalypse Now.” The hotel manager was hesitant to give me information after the shoe wallah debacle, but he said I could take bus 23C from just across the street to get to the consulate. “The 23C. Ah, that sounds easy, “ I thought to myself. “I’ll just hop on the 23C and be there in no time.”

At the bus stop I noticed an ad posted on a palm tree for a device that is placed inside the casket to preserve the corpse—or something like that. I studied the picture and tried to make sense of it, but I heard the people waiting with me stir to life. Bus 23C came. As it rolled toward me I’d say it was leaning at a 30-degree angle. There had to be 4000 people in the bus. Where the two doorways were it was bulging with people tenaciously clinging to anything metal. It seemed feasible that the bus could tip over and crush them all. A few people squeezed off and everyone waiting at the stop rushed to it, the most desperate plunging head first into a gap in the bodies. Only a few made it on, and the rest came back to where I was standing (in my awestruck state I had yet to move) to wait for the next 23C.


At the consulate I did my business. I had to repeat everything I said over and over because the U.S. government refuses to hire local staff with English skills. My taxi driver’s grunts and swivel/bobbing head movements are easier to understand. I asked if they had drinking water. I was eventually pointed around the corner to the consulate library. Outside there was a water tank with one cup that everyone shared. I watched as a group of scholarly young Indians each artfully took the cup, tilted their heads back and poured water down their throats, never touching the cup to their mouths. I waited until the fewest number of people were around and made my move. I filled the cup, rolled my head back and started pouring water on my nose. I quickly overcompensated and poured it on my chin and then a few final drops went in my mouth. The rest of it rolled down my neck and soaked my shirt. Yeah, I’m cool, I’m cool. I put the cup back like nothing had happened. Several more people I didn’t notice were watching. They looked horrified. I could see it in their faces: “He can’t drink water! How will he cope in India?”


I saw So later in the day. The hospital was closed. "Sunday," he explained, smiled and then grimaced. He was still intent on going to Varanasi the next day, an unthinkably unpleasant journey. I wanted to grab him by the shoulders. "So! You've got to get out of India! Let's go to California! You can learn to surf, watch baseball, eat Japanese food, and get healthy!" But I was only hypnotizing myself with the images and had to snap out of it.

Irrepressible So, I've come to believe, is a typical Japanese independent traveler. There aren't very many, but the Japanese I do meet are simply heroic. Every single one is an icon of perseverance and endurance, able to overcome any adversity and thrive. They leave me dumbfounded. Plus, I like the way they carry themselves, their impractical, stylish clothes and how they always have funky gadgets of unrecognizable function. All foreign travelers are targeted by locals selling something because we spend a comparatively large amount of money, but the Japanese put up with more attention and abuse because by reputation they are legendarily naive. They pay way too much for things and are easily conned. These Japanese are smarter and repel all of that while staying calm and serene, their feathers never ruffled.

I decided a couple of days later to see a smaller place, so I traveled three hours south to Pondicherry, the old French colony reputed to retain some French charm. I hopped off the bus near the middle of town. It was unbelievable how dirty and grimy I’d become by just sitting on the bus, and I cursed myself for bringing white shirts to India. The heat was more intense than in Chennai. I saw the same chaotic streets, the same rubbled sidewalks, the same atmosphere. Where was the French influence? I wasn’t expecting to see everyone wearing berets and carrying baguettes, but something!

Volumes have been written trying to describe India, but I can hardly remember anything I see, as one memory is trampled by the next. Just walking around a city block is enough for your senses to last a week. It’s the noise, the heat, the dirt, the humidity, the garbage, the people, the pollution, the poverty, the everything and everyone mixed in and the disconcerting feeling that I’m the only one not in the flow.

I was definitely not in the flow. I was wilting in the elements. I was nauseous and my stomach began to churn. It felt like a magnifying glass was above my head. I soon realized that the town was without electricity. I went to two dark hotels, but chose a third as it had the least offensive odor. Then I realized the town was without water. I lay on my bed and a fatigue enveloped me. I was hot and exhausted and slowly becoming lifeless. I couldn’t cool down. I couldn’t get clean. I was stuck in my hotel.

Eventually I became thirsty and found enough energy to go to the street and buy some bottled water where I met an Israeli. He informed me that it was 40 degrees (104 F). I told him my travel plans—which were getting revised by the hour—and he said I could expect to see hotter temperatures when I go inland. I groaned. He wasn’t sympathetic, regarding me like I was whining about a hangnail. Yes, I come from a hot climate place and yes, I know that just before the monsoon is always the hottest, driest, most uncomfortable time of year. He smugly asked, “Is this your first time to India?” I said no. He looked me over with consternation and then disgust, but kept silent. I could read his mind: “How will he manage in India?”

I walked past a sign for Firm-Kiss Hospital, which instilled no confidence in me should my condition worsen. I heard a generator running next to an internet cybercenter and checked my email. I got a message from So. He had just arrived in Varanasi and went straight to a hospital. He also said that he was leaving for Kathmandu, Nepal, tomorrow, another epic journey of maximum discomfort, this time on a bus. He’s nuts. I love that guy.

I needed to lie down. I staggered back to my guest house and collapsed on the bed in my hotbox of a room. My body was weakening more quickly. A breeze came now and then that I clung to, praying it wouldn’t end, praying the fan above me would come to life. I tried to find the Japanese inside of me, my “So”, to overcome, but I was unable to locate any. I could feel myself mysteriously shutting down. It was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before. My mind raced with thoughts, trying to comprehend what was happening to me. What should I do? What could I do?

I stared at the anti-malarial pill on the table next to my bed. Today was the day I had to take my weekly dose. I know it gives me nightmares, makes me hallucinate, and makes me question whether the pill is better than the disease. I’m supposed to take it with food, but I knew I couldn’t tolerate any. I also knew it would make me worse than I already was, but I had to take it, and I did.

It was getting late in the day. My room was darkening. I was worse with no relief in sight. I heard two foreigners raise hell in the lobby, saying that this guest house was now the only place in the city without electricity. They threatened to leave if we didn’t get power and water soon. I wanted to yell for them to take me, but I knew they couldn’t hear me and I had no energy. I was spent. The heat was paralyzing me.

I felt my body sink deeper and deeper into the dirty, sweat-soaked bed. I said to myself, “How will I survive in India?”

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