Jul/Aug 2004 Travel

The Seedlings of Lunacy: India

by Nicholas Mistretta

The following is excerpted from the travel memoir Vagabond Zoo

Apparently, I still had that terrified, where-the-fuck-am-I look on my face from the previous night. Fresh meat! The animals can smell it for miles. My vulnerable state was quickly spotted by two young boys competing for attention. They played tug-a-war with my wallet, and eventually I picked one over the other for no reason and toured many shops selling the exact same items. I looked too clean, an easy hustle, "a lamb in the lion's den," the Thumpers might say. Every con job and store owner in the Third World was lining up to take his best shot. They know a quick score when they see one. I bought an overpriced Indian shirt that hung to my knees, for reasons I could not begin to understand. I knew even before paying that I would never wear it.

"Everybody wear them," the salesman said. "You do not want to stand out."

"Yes... of course. Now I will definitely fit in."

No amount of planning can prepare you for India, its hassles and endless bothers. THE GODDAM POVERTY! Back home I would have turned to those kids and said, "Get the fuck off me." But in India I felt unusually timid. My voice got higher, my balls even shrunk. And the whole country caught a whiff of that. Smells like green ink. Currency.

Across the street a dark little girl in a tattered red dress shot a water pistol at vehicles rounding her corner. Her face revealed no happiness or even sadness—just dull resignation. She looked empty, like a person who'd given up. I turned away and pointed my nose toward the worst of the pollution and started walking to Old Delhi.

The crowds were a little unnerving, their suspicious glares unsettling. I thought of going back to the hotel but reluctantly changed my mind. I'm a traveler now, I told myself, and this is what travelers do. I crossed a long bridge over some railroad tracks that were home to hundreds of squatters. The sun disappeared, and the air became dark. I could feel the pollution against my skin, I could taste it. And then the poverty. People of all sizes bathing, eating, shitting, dying in the street. Steaming piles of dung covered with flies, filth stained children playing in the muck, the catastrophic number of clamoring rickshaws, people and livestock dancing in the dirt. Hazy gray sunshine, brown water and beige skies. The dejected stares of old tea men hunkered down in tight alley shadows. Everybody waiting their turn to die. Hope is just a four-letter word, don't you know?

A boy of maybe 11 or 12 rescued me from an intersection of confusion where vehicles zoomed past from every which way at top speed. But once on the back of his cycle rickshaw, I felt something horrible, beyond shame, deeper than sorrow, a feeling that cannot be categorized by assigning a word to it in any language. The boy huffed and puffed on an empty stomach, yet somehow he managed to churn his legs. I quickly lost sight of where I was going or who I was. The whole of life became a heap of dread and suffering, and I was the garbage collector. I made my rounds completely detached. These aren't people. People don't live like this. They can't. I withdrew to a place deep inside myself, so far inward that I could barely see.

I could no longer tolerate Delhi, so I bought a ticket on an overnight bus out of town. A wonderful man working for the hotel reluctantly drove me to the bus stop and assisted with the bike that I had brought thousands of miles only to go unused because of a pulled muscle in my back. The self-medication I had imposed had failed miserably. I gave him the secret handshake and muttered something about gratitude after he threw the bike on top of the bus. He seemed to understand but looked disgusted nonetheless. I was their poster boy, the Ugly American.

The bus looked on the verge of collapse, and the air was so thick you could chew on it, but at least there was no one squeezed in next to me. I had the entire uncomfortable bench to myself. And after a three-hour wait in a field of idling buses, choking on exhaust fumes, we pulled out of Delhi and pointed ourselves north toward Shimla, our early morning destination. Within a half hour the bus stopped on the side of the highway. A fat louse of a drunk climbed aboard and stumbled down the aisle, looking for a place to sit. Fuck that, I thought. I tried to look bigger, spreading out on the bench. No room here! Maybe in the back. But he dropped himself down beside me anyway, then spent the next eight hours playing the pass out game, using my shoulder as home base for his sticky skull. Every few minutes he convulsed and woke up slobbering, lifting his head briefly to show off a fresh trail of saliva running down his chin. Then he'd look at me like we had met somewhere before and now he just couldn't place me. Maybe it was that cocktail party at the governor's mansion. Yes, now I remember, the night that schizophrenic midget climbed into the punch bowl and sang a duet. But again he would pass out, his head drifting in a predictable arc down to my shoulder. I wanted to roll his fat ass right off the bus. Create a diversion and shove him out the window. I remember thinking, it can't get much worse.

And soon a busload of people from different backgrounds melded into a single horrified entity flying down the highway. We gasped in unison as the 16-year-old bus driver gunned it and blindly passed everything on the road. Well this is it, I thought. Time to meet God. My eyes were glued to the road. When death stares you in the face, you feel obligated to look back. At one point we passed another bus that had driven off the road, crashing headlong into some trees. Heads swiveled to gaze at the wreckage in the mist. The French woman sitting in front of me sounded loudly with something resembling an orgasm. For fuck sake! Was that in my head? Could the others hear my cries? I couldn't speak for the rest of the screaming passengers, but I didn't mind arriving a little late. Who do I lodge my complaint with, I wondered? I could hear my bike sliding around on the roof, waiting for the right moment to flip off and come shooting past my window. Everyone was speaking in excited tones, possibly praying. Some were stroking beads, rubbing them with all their might. Others had their hands clasped in prayer, some had them over their eyes. I was frozen with fear. I couldn't shut my eyes or turn away, couldn't even blink. My fingers were bending the bench in front of me, but my posture was perfect. Fear is good for the spine, I remember thinking.

In the morning the bus was ambushed upon arrival, screaming men jumping as it rolled to a stop, grabbing through windows with toothless enthusiasm. They saw us coming and ran like wild animals alongside the bus the last quarter mile, their long flowing garments flapping in the breeze like devil wings.

"Well this tops it all," I said to anyone listening as I reached for my bag. Four in the herd adopted me as their meal ticket, all of them grappling for my handlebars as I maneuvered the bike and gear down steps and up the steepest of inclines and back and forth and everywhere, really, for two hours in fact, all over town searching for a room. I was beyond frustration, a tired feeling of despair that ran so deep I could not summon the strength to yell or cry or kick at the air. They sensed this. But I am also stubborn. I pushed on, and one by one they fell off the pace, until just a lone masochist remained. He won, I had to admit it. I was emotionally unwell, physically challenged, astrologically confused. I apologized for my behavior, gave him a big hug, kissed his ear a little, and he helped me find a room at the top of a winding series of alleys and stairs, for which I paid him 40 rupees.


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