Eastward, Nepal bound

Posted in Prose on December 13, 2018 by 1writegirl

I conserve my energy during our week in Jaipur, reading, resting and walking the streets in the vicinity of our hotel. One day we walk to a rose colored palace with tiny little openings in wooden screens that cover its multitudinous windows, the now defunct home of princes and the many different women associated with them. The wooden screens were meant to give them a view out without letting others see them. In the process, the ventilation provided relief from the heat, and earned it the nickname “Palace of Breeze.”

Another day we ride the bike to the other side of the city to buy a cheap watch for me, then walk across the street to the Rajmandir Cinema, one of the most elegant, spacious and extravagantly decorated movie theaters I’ve ever seen. Here we purchase tickets for ~$2 each, then go inside and buy a piece of chocolate cake and 2 coffees (amounting to about $1 apiece) to share. These we consume in upholstered chairs at a small table in a quiet alcove, before proceeding into the grand theater to watch a Bollywood film entitled Bhaiaji Superhit, a ridiculous comedy/romance/musical/action adventure blend that I can’t imagine enjoying any more nor less had we been able to understand a word of it (it was entirely in Hindi, no subtitles). 

Like everywhere we’ve been so far in India, Jaipur is home to chaos, trash, and people and animals living with so very little. While there is periodic evidence of prosperity in the form of expensive cars and homes, the majority of the people still seem to live in poverty, and not just poverty – abject poverty. Begging is common, and we stand out like a sore thumb walking down the street in our western garb – me with my blond hair, even braided or tucked up into a hat – so that they see us coming from afar and the little children run up behind us, grab our hands, clothing, anything, say money money money money please money. It is assumed that we are rich if we can afford to come here from a faraway place, and indeed by their standards we are, never mind how tightly corseted I am into a daily budget of $10-15 dollars for food, housing and incidentals combined. 

The clothing, trinket and souvenir shops likewise have a staff member standing outside who navigates toward us as we approach, beckoning us with hands, words, and physical proximity to come inside, “buy nice things” and when we shake our heads and move on, to “just look, please.”  We see the same people whatever time of day we pass by or frequent the shops, restaurants, and hotels. They are noticeably industrious, working all hours, rarely if ever taking a formal break. 

As elsewhere we see many people in the streets who seem to be idly standing or sitting around, sometimes engaged in conversation with others, but more often doing nothing in particular, or so it seems. They remind me of the hoards of women we see in the small towns and alongside the highways, sitting in the hot sun with their wares, a basket of fruit, hay for the cows or goats, whatever, just sitting on their heels waiting. Waiting for what? Someone or something to come along and reward their patience. I am struck by their supreme patience.

We see a few other westerners, but since arriving in India a month ago, we’ve observed only one other westerner riding a motorcycle and one riding a bicycle. Sometimes Indian people approach us asking for a selfie. Mark is very good about agreeing to it while at the same time telling them I don’t like to have my picture taken. After an extended but fruitless attempt to persuade me, they typically give up and pose with Mark, who is far more photogenic than I am in any case. I’m puzzled by how exotic we are to them, given how many Westerners visit India annually and for how many years they’ve been doing so. How can we still be such a novelty? I tell Mark that I feel like I’m a freak in a traveling circus, given the way so many people stare at us, and while, at times, it is merely curiosity that motivates these long hard examinations, there is more to it at others. We receive glares as often as not, glowers and frowns and scowls that feel hostile, though it may simply be a matter of cultural difference in expressing interest that accounts for this, I confess I honestly don’t know. Perhaps the intensity of the interest is such that it manifests in expressions of concentration and deep, boring looks. Either way it can be intimidating.

On the way to Agra, a dead cow lies on its side in a ravine next to the road. A dog has ripped open its stomach and is wasting no time in gorging itself. I see men peeing everywhere, which is nothing new, and it no longer surprises me that the only concession to modesty they make is to face away from the direction where the most people are gathered. They will pee alone, in pairs, in groups and in rows; in alleys, main streets, fields, walls, dirt, sidewalk; in low light, darkness, and broad daylight; crowded streets or empty ones; in rags, jeans, uniform, traditional wear or three piece suit and tie. 

Along the road are vertical stands of long tall grasses and what look like palm fronds, stacked up and bundled with twine. In the fields they become grass huts/shelters with pointy grass roofs. Roadside are round disks of cow dung baked in the sun, hard and dried, piled high row after row. For sale, for heating.

We are in the state of Uttar Pradesh now, and whereas horses were not a common sight in Rajasthan, here I see them tied to trees, foraging with the cattle, and especially pulling carts. Camels are few and far between here.

In Agra we visit the Taj Mahal from a distance, and explore a park nearby that offers a welcome respite from the crowds, heat and pavement. 

Between Agra and Lucknow we drive the Expressway. It is the cleanest, most scenic stretch of highway we have encountered so far in India. With the pastoral fields on either side, populated sparsely with farmers planting and picking, trees, hills and low mountains in the distance, it could be almost any place on earth. It is also practically empty compared to the other roads we’ve ridden. We fly along upwards of 80kph, downright speeding by Indian standards, though still within the posted speed limit of 100kph, and impressive given our situation of 2-up, with luggage, on a little 150cc engine. I’m proud of our little Hero Impulse. Vast expanses of yellow flowers, rapeseed Mark thinks, are being cultivated, as well as tall grasses with thick stalks at the base which I suspect are sugar cane. Along the Expressway, we see these signs:

“Leave sooner, drive slower, live longer.”

“Better late than never.”

“Life does not have a reset button. Drive safe..”

We spend a couple of nights in Lucknow, another big, crowded, cluttered and littered city with no special or unusual features to distinguish it from anywhere else. We are anxious to leave, especially as we are now on our way to Nepal for a month. I am ready for a change. India is, I will admit, wearing me down. 

On our way to the border, these are my observations: 

  • Lots of goats here, more than any other livestock. Some tied up, and some wearing tee shirts or sweaters. One is wearing a burlap sack. The cute factor, while unintentional perhaps, is high.
  • Fewer road, shopfront, or other signs in English.
  • It feels even poorer here than in the other states.
  • Houses made of brick, sticks and in some cases just straw. Brings to mind The Three Little Pigs story. 
  • A man pulling a ten foot wooden ladder behind his motorcycle. A tricycle cart, the man pedaling working hard, carrying a huge metal cabinet at least twice the size of his cart.
  • A little girl is skipping across a field toward a collection of small primitive structures, obviously lacking in electricity and plumbing; most likely her home is one of them. She is waving her arms from side to side, high above her head, singing or laughing into the sunshine. For this moment anyway, she is happy, and I am reminded of some advice my grief counselor gave me before I left for India. She told me that I would see suffering unlike any I had ever witnessed, and I might want to concentrate not so much on the suffering itself, which I can do little if anything to alleviate, but on the ways in which the sufferers navigate the obstacles in their paths. This little girl is evidence not that poverty has a bright side, nor that it can necessarily be overcome, but that like any misery, trauma or painful circumstance which holds us tight and shapes our lives, it does not own us entirely, and in its relativity, through its normalcy and extremism, there are moments when the sun breaks through. Happiness is not a commodity, nor does it owe its existence to a wallet or a flag. 


Udaipur, Jaisalmer and Jaipur

Posted in Prose on December 1, 2018 by 1writegirl

We spend the next two weeks in the increasingly large cities of Udaipur, Jaisalmer and Jaipur. Udaipur, at least the old town (and the heart of the city), is walkable, though one’s definition of that word may undergo a dramatic transformation in India, where sidewalks in general are more likely to be occupied by wandering cows, shopfront owners displaying and hawking their wares, and sleeping dogs and people, than pedestrians, meaning you will walk primarily in and among the street traffic. There is a large ancient palace here which we admire at night, all lit up, from the rooftop of our guesthouse (in folding chairs while drinking a cold beer), and a large lake with a smaller, partially underwater palace at its center, though the nicest views of this, along a well maintained pathway, are confined to private property we are forbidden from entering. Nandini Guest House, named for our lovely hostess’s young daughter, is adequately clean and comfortable, costs less than $10/night, and offers laundry service at the rate of ~ 25 cents per item (washed, dried, ironed and folded). We find a great restaurant just down the road that has a “warm salad” of roasted vegetables in olive oil, which I scarf up. We’ve been warned against eating raw vegetables (usually a staple component of my diet) in India because of the problematic (tap) water they are rinsed in, and cooked vegetables are few and far between in the average Indian dish I’ve encountered, which is heavy on gravy and hot spices like chilies. The next morning we eat breakfast at a small, inexpensive cafe that serves eggs; another welcome treat. I order a cheese omelette. It’s tasty but alas, back at the hotel an hour later I experience my first case of food poisoning in India. Fortunately it lasts only a few hours.

On the way out of Udaipur, we drive by the Institute of Sexual Medicine. We pass buses, jeeps and vans with the entire roof packed with people, as well as a motorcycle 3-up, the guy in the middle carrying a sack of cement on his head. On the highway to Jaisalmer road signs read: “Use seatbelt, turn off mobile”; and “Speed thrills but kills, speed later, safety first”. Could we claim it was now “later” if we were stopped for speeding? We pause for breakfast at a roadside restaurant and a scooter drives by with 7-up, including a man with an infant in each arm (I kid you not), and a toddler squeezed in between two adults in the front.

Chunks of broken rocks and rubble litter the roadside. Houses made of stone begin to appear, rectangular shaped with a doorway and one window on each side, every house the same. They look half finished and unoccupied for the most part, though it may be the case that they are as finished as they will ever be: doorways without doors, window frames without panes, nobody home and nothing to come home to. Also cropping up are small wooden structures, often painted blue, with thatched roofs. (On the road to Jaipur they are more often painted white, or not at all.)

Approaching Jaisalmer is a military station (the Pakistan border is a mere 55 nautical miles away) where, carved into the stonework on both sides are the words “Cut hard, Cut deep.”

We pick a guest house in Jaisalmer based on location and appearance which turns out to have a room available for 500 rupees a night (about $6.) It’s up an unusually steep staircase, the downside. From the rooftop we can see the town fort which we walk to the next day, and again the next. It’s quite a maze of narrow cobblestone alleyways lined on both sides by tiny shops and restaurants. There I purchase my first and only souvenir of India, an old postcard that a local artist has used as a small canvas, a delicate painting of a peacock below the date stamp of 1941. 

We locate a small second hand bookstore within which is a coffee shop where we have toast with peanut butter and a great cup of coffee, and chat with a Canadian couple on their way to ride a camel. Upon hearing that we’re traveling through India on a motorcycle, the man pontificates on how much easier that would be than riding “back home” (where presumably all those pesky road rules and regulations just get in the way.) Mark and I both stare at him in dumbfounded silence for a moment, then look at each other. I roll my eyes, which he rightly interprets to mean, “Would you like to set him straight or shall I?” If I haven’t said it yet, let me say it now: Mark continues to amaze me with his adept handling of the bike under the far from ideal conditions we encounter daily. He navigates safely and quickly through ridiculously heavy traffic that consists of every type of vehicle save watercraft; walking, running, reclining and skipping people; and half the animals from the Bronx Zoo. If I don’t die in a traffic accident while in India, it will be thanks to Mark. If I do, it will be through no fault of his. 

About halfway to Jaipur is a city called Naguar, as far as we’re prepared to ride in one day. On the outskirts we find a roadside “hotel with rooms” that, while three times the price of our recent accommodation, beckons us with air conditioning and a clean room. We take it, though in hindsight we wish we hadn’t. The only restaurant in the area is attached to the hotel, and I order a dish under the “Chinese” section of the menu called “mix vegetables” that is so disgusting and bears so little resemblance to food it reminds me of the borax slime called “gak” we used to make with the children when I taught Head Start. The only vegetable it contains are a few kernels of corn. Mark orders something Indian that he’s never tried before, wanting to be adventurous, and is almost, but not quite as disappointed. Of the two, his seems the more edible, so we share it. I spend the entire night, from about an hour after we return to our room until 6 the next morning, going back and forth between the toilet, my bed, and a bucket. When Mark goes down to ask for toilet paper, as there was none in our room, he’s told it’s “not possible.” There is no internet, loud music blares from a building behind the hotel, there is only one towel for both of us, and trucks rumble past into the wee hours. As tired and weak as I am the next morning, I can’t wait to get out of there.

Driving into Jaipur, known as the “pink city” because of the hue to the stones in many of its monuments and structures, we see a motorcycle on which the passenger is balancing a 10 foot high pane of glass on his lap. Further on, another passenger has a full size steel door braced sideways between himself and the driver, and before we arrive at our motel, a motorcycle 2-up with a goat between them speeds past us in a roundabout. 

We stay at a charming and unusual hotel called Rawla Mrignayani Palace. Sharing ground with both a school and small apartments, it’s old and run-down, not close to any good cheap restaurants, and sorely lacking in the kinds of luxurious little touches that guests tend to appreciate, such as light bulbs in the fixtures, working outlets, and toilets that do more than trickle quietly when flushed (thankfully there is toilet paper.) Despite these shortcomings, the staff welcomes us ceremoniously at check-in with a shower of rose petals as we climb the stairs to our room, waving incense, smudging bindis onto our foreheads, and placing garlands of marigolds around our necks. Our room (and the others we glimpse) is more like a suite, with privacy curtains separating the huge bed from the sitting area, a refrigerator, a large wooden armoire and a long, deep bathtub. There are terraces on every level (five) with chairs (albeit made of metal and lacking in cushions), bird baths and flowering foliage, and a cat with two kittens in the staff quarters who periodically come out to entertain us. A lounge off the lobby contains comfortable wicker settees to recline on, and books and board games adorn an antique table. A game of Scrabble catches my eye and I think wistfully of Neighbor Jim. Mark doesn’t like board games, and now that I think about it, nor do more than a handful of people I am acquainted with these days. 

Outside a single dog greets us with a tentative tail wag, coming close enough to receive a hint of a caress from my outstretched hand before skittering shyly away. He curls up and sleeps in the doorway of the hotel at night; a family of pigs sleeps in the dirt, both day and night, just beyond the entrance to the property. We spend almost a week here, not because we love the city so much as because I need to rest, we have neither a schedule nor an agenda, and Mark is flexible as well as understanding. My nerves are on overload, I feel compelled to retreat, and with its gentle, understated and old fashioned grace, this place – shabby though it may be – is a refuge.

Mumbai to Udaipur, Days Two and Three

Posted in Prose on November 22, 2018 by 1writegirl

We get off to a good start in the morning but after a couple of hours we have gotten hopelessly lost around the city of Vadodara. Our mistake is getting off National Highway 48, thinking we will save time by avoiding Ahmedabad. (In general the highway is in excellent condition, in contrast to city streets with their crumbling and broken asphalt and concrete, frequent speed bumps, and lack of signage toward state and national roads.) By the time we have found the 48 again, it’s clear we aren’t going to make our reservation in Udaipur this evening. We pull over and call the guest house to let them know.

As we drive further north in Gujarat, the land becomes more agricultural. In spite of this, the roads are still packed with vehicles as well as people and animals. The cows are either very dumb or supremely confident of their sacred status, wandering as they do with, into and across lanes of traffic. Some even lie down on the road itself while others choose the sandy median strip with its flowering bougainvillea (wild plumes of magenta, white, yellow, coral, lavender and pale gold shooting out in all directions) on which to repose. In the hours and miles we spend on the road, we witness not a single injury to a bovine.

In spite of road signs informing drivers “Don’t Drive in Wrong Direction,” many vehicles come barreling down the inside lane (we even witness one hugging the right (fast) lane) as if they can’t be bothered to drive the half mile or so to the next u-turn opportunity to go in the right direction.

The people tend to walk along the edges of the highway, but here too I marvel at the risks they take, some crossing over the median strip or walking parallel to it into the oncoming cars and trucks. I see lots of women, wearing sarees and bare feet, carrying atop their heads: pots, baskets, sticks, huge bags (flour? lentils? rice?). We whiz past a bobbing haystack, then a small tree, beneath each one a tiny woman, her back straight as a board. I have not yet seen an Indian with poor posture. 

In the fields little fires burn and smoulder, and I wonder if this is a small scale form of slash and burn farming. Further on we pass banana plantations, then field after field of green and brown stalks dotted with white, cotton I think. Tractors begin appearing on the roads and the cattle have changed to the breeds with the large neck hump and big horns I’ve always associated with India (Brahman?). Goats and sheep begin to make an appearance also, in herds for the most part, and we see donkeys, several all white ones, including one that has faint pink stripes painted onto it. We also see what appears to be a wild pig, peacocks and peahens, camels (Dromedary, with one hump rather than Bactrian, with two), and one lone monkey sitting on a fence along the highway. 

In Himmitnagar we pass beautiful murals painted on the walls along both sides of the road, the pictures telling stories or conveying messages: “No tobacco world day” and “Save Tree”. A bus passes us with “Namaste and Well Come Aboard” written across the side. Every now and then a woman driving a scooter (rare) or motorcycle (rarer) will roar past us, her body leaning forward on the bike, hands tight on the grips. I have come to think of them, especially the ones dressed all in black with their robes flowing behind them and their head scarves covering all but their eyes, as ninjas. Entering a small town we pass a funeral procession carrying the coffin on their shoulders, singing, in the middle of the road. They are brightly but smartly dressed.

We stop every hour or so, usually just to stretch our legs and drink water. Every second or third stop is at one of the roadside “hotels” to have a cup of tea and something small to eat, and use the toilet. The servers (they are always men) hand us the menus then stand by the table waiting for us to decide what we want. I place my order, consistently and fervently pleading with the waiters to leave out the spice. “I promise you,” they tell me. “No spice? No problem!” But whatever I am served sets my mouth on fire. They hover over us, watching us eat, but they don’t bring the bill until we ask for it. Back at the bike, people coming and going crowd around us, sometimes greeting us or asking a question but more often just staring. They get in close, cross their arms, and lean in, looking intently at the motorcycle controls, at our gear, at our faces and bodies. There is no such thing as personal space here, and curiosity is a virtue.

In the state of Rajesthan we start seeing camels more frequently, pulling carts now rather than wandering freely, and black buffalo walking on the roads or working in the fields, their friends the little white cattle egrets riding on their backs or following close behind. We notice cows decorated with flowers, greenery and tassels, ribbons and tinsel tied to their horns and between their ears, tiara-like. They must be fairly docile to allow that, powerful creatures that they are.

The landscape too begins to change. A tall, skinny cactus-like plant grows in thick clumps, and the palm trees, so abundant before, are scarce now. The air is drier, the dirt is sandier, and there are fewer vehicles on the highway. This is what I feel the most, the space that has opened up with the dramatic decline in population. Suddenly I can see high hills in the distance with nothing between them and the road but miles of land covered with trees, rocks and nothingness. For several seconds at a time there is no vehicle on our tail, no truck to pass, no staring pedestrian to avoid hitting. It’s the first time since I arrived in India that I’ve gotten a sense of how vast this country truly is.

Mumbai to Udaipur, Day One

Posted in Prose on November 18, 2018 by 1writegirl

Mark is antsy to leave Mumbai, as am I. It’s ridiculously hot and sticky here, and the nights are all but sleepless for me between the heat, the noise, and the mosquitoes buzzing around my head till sunrise. I have killed so many, in flight and perched in waiting, that the walls of our room are streaked with blood. Outside our windows, closed, comes the incessant yelping, barking and shrieking of the street dogs, testimony of their hard lives and struggle to survive. It is not a happy lot here for a dog that I can see, most of whom are emaciated, mangy and wounded.

We leave Mumbai with a view to arrive in Udaipur in two days. We are riding a 150cc Hero Impulse that Mark purchased with the help of his friend Divy, a young fashion designer to whom he was introduced several years ago by Tiffany. Divy not only located the bike for sale and negotiated the necessary repairs with a local mechanic, but also made arrangements for the bike to be registered and insured in his name since foreigners aren’t allowed them in theirs. Divy is polite and friendly, with a powerful wanderlust much like Mark’s and mine. We met up with him the day after he returned from a three week trip to Japan. 

In Mumbai, the streets were buzzing constantly with cars, trucks, taxis, tuk-tuks, motorcycles, scooters, people pushing carts, bicycles, pedestrians, cows, and dogs. The cars, from what I gathered, are driven by India’s emerging middle class. The masses however (and never has that word felt more appropriate to me than it does here, in this city of ~ 20 million people) can’t afford cars, hence the abundance of aforementioned modes of transport. 

As we drive north on Highway 48 and leave the city behind, the only thing that changes are the presence of more trucks, and the improved quality of the tarmac. These are a few observations that I, from the entitled vantage point of the pillion, have the freedom to make:

  • Motorcycles and scooters, many 2, 3, 4, even 5 up, some carrying cargo in front of or behind the driver or between the driver and a passenger, lane-split constantly around cars and trucks that are too big to do so. For the most part, these bikes have engines less than 150 cc in size.
  • Though wearing a helmet is now compulsory in India, more than half of the drivers I see aren’t wearing one; the vast majority of pillions, even young children, aren’t wearing one. Infants in arms or laps are a common sight.
  • Many of the women wearing sarees (which is most of them), sit side saddle. A lot of them also wear sandals or flip-flops, as do the drivers.
  • At speeds of up to 50 kilometers per hour from time to time, Mark and I are moving faster than most of the other motorcycles and scooters on the highway. I wonder if this is because the rest are so heavily weighed down, the little engines can’t go any faster, or if the slower speed is compensation for the lack of helmets and any protective gear whatsoever.
  • Cows wander along the perimeters and as we approach cities and towns, they cross the highways and lay down on them.
  • Dogs do the same. We pass more than one fatality.
  • Small fires are burning on either side of the road, and by the acrid smell of burnt rubber and plastic, it must be trash.
  • Every body of water that is covered by a bridge has a sign announcing “Bridge over …” (River whatever)
  • The median strips grow wider and greener, with brightly colored pink bushes popping up. Azaleas?
  • Many of the trucks are brightly colored as well, with designs, symbols, and logos. Many sport decorations such as streamers, tinsel or pom-poms from the bumpers, and artificial flowers tied to the antennas. The fronts are painted with Goods Carriage, All India Permit and the like, while the backs have messages designed for the overtaking traffic: Horn Okay, Please Sound Horn, Blow Horn, or simply, Horn Please; Wait for Side; Please Use Dipper at Night; and India is Great.
  • A truck with Hare Krishna on its side drives by, evoking a childhood memory of young robed men with shaved heads in the 1970’s, chanting and spreading the word.
  • Everyone is beeping their horn almost constantly. It’s nerve wracking. Every now and then a truck will make a sound that reminds me more of a cell phone ring tone than a vehicle horn.
  • From out of nowhere I smell cloves. Later, fennel.
  • Alongside the highway at irregular intervals – some miles apart, others side by side for a mile or more – are restaurants that go by the name hotel. They have names like Hotel Relief, and Hotel Decent. If you want to find a place to sleep, you have to look for one that has the word Rooms. We stop at one to have a cup of tea. When I get back to the bike after using the toilet, a man with 2 little girls is talking to Mark. He introduces them to me as his daughters, and explains to us that this is the first time in their lives they have encountered foreigners. They are lovely little girls, maybe 5 and 7, in matching pink polka dotted dresses and short haircuts. They shake my hand and say their names. They are utterly charming.

We call it a day in the state of Gujarat, staying at Hotel Novus in Bharuch. There is no hot water in the shower, and the water from the tap is so salty we can’t drink it. When I ask for the complimentary bottle of mineral water that we were told came with the room, they charge us for it. The beds however are comfortable, and for the first time since I arrived in India, I get through the night without a single mosquito bite. Five stars.


Welcome to India

Posted in Prose on November 9, 2018 by 1writegirl

November 7, 2018 Mumbai, India

Mark and I set out to find the train station this morning, in anticipation of buying tickets to take us to Lucknow once he buys a new bike and gets the paperwork sorted out. His goal is to go up to Nepal straight off – though we’d originally thought to head south to Goa, then gradually work our way north – because his passport, yet again, wasn’t properly stamped (he seems susceptible to this, and gets quite flustered as a result). He has an appointment to look at a bike this evening, a little Honda, and wants to leave as soon as possible, both because he’s grown somewhat weary of Mumbai already, and because he’s antsy to resolve the passport issue.

We walk down to the Chakala metro station and buy a round trip ticket to the last stop, which we think will take us within walking distance of the train station, for 55 rupees. The metro is relatively clean and although the seats are all taken, it has air conditioning, which is lovely given the fact that it’s about 95 degrees again today, and humid. When we alight, we walk toward the exit, but suddenly Mark sees the train tracks. “I didn’t realize this was on the train route,” he says. “We can just catch a train from here.” He goes to the ticket counter and comes back with two return tickets to the main rail station. “It’s called something I can’t remember,” he tells me, “but they just say Ltt.” We can’t find any indication of which platform our train leaves from either on the ticket or on the overhead LED signs, but Mark stops someone and asks and we are pointed to a platform just downstairs. We walk down and wait with a crowd of people for the next train which is due to arrive, according to the sign, in 25 minutes. 

Gradually more and more people wander down and onto the platform. By the time we hear the train in the distance, there are hundreds of us mingling together, anxious to climb aboard. “You might want to ride in the Ladies Compartment,” Mark suggests suddenly, pointing to our right. “It will probably be less crowded, and if you’re in with the men, you might get groped.” Great. I’m debating my options when the train pulls up, all of the doors wide open. I think quickly of our trains (subways, buses, etc) in the US, and how one would never leave nor arrive at the station with the doors less than securely closed. In a wave, the crowd, mob-like, surges forward. People are jumping off while others jump on, everyone in a hurry to transact their move before the train pulls away again. I look at Mark, then at the Ladies Compartment, then back at Mark. “I’ll get off at the next stop and see you there,” I yell over the hubbub, then separate myself from the fringe struggling to climb into the “mixed sex” car and make my way quickly to the now almost deserted cue of women. I grab hold of the metal rail and swing myself up into a throng of bodies, glancing over my shoulder in time to see Mark do the same. We both barely made it aboard in the 20 or so seconds the train was stopped. 

If there are seats anywhere or people sitting, I can’t tell, because we are packed in so tightly I can’t even turn completely in any direction. I’m practically hanging out the door of the car as it is, the ground whizzing by below me. I grip the pole tightly and think that at least there is a breeze, with the door open right in front of me, moving so fast, and it will be so easy to get off as I’m halfway there already. Next to me a young girl is plucking at my back, and I’m grateful that all I put in my backpack was my hat and a bottle of water, on the off chance that she is a pick-pocket. I take turns reaching down with my hands (I don’t dare let go of the pole for even a moment) to smoothe my front pants’ pockets, reassuring myself that my phone and passport are still snugly tucked inside. Momentarily I hear an announcement being made overhead but the voice is so faint I can’t make out any discernible words. The car slows and I prepare myself to jump off, when we lurch to a halt and there is nothing but swathes of track below me. With a sinking feeling in my stomach I realize it’s the door on the other side of the car that is facing the station platform, and there is no chance in hell I’ll be able to get over there before the train pulls away. Frantically I look outside my door at the track, estimating how many feet above the ground we are, how much time it would take me to get across the several lines of crisscrossing metal, and wondering if I’d be able to hoist myself up to the platform before the next train arrived. 

I close my eyes for a second while imaginary news headlines parade across my mind: “American tourist, presumed to be mentally deranged, hurls herself off train in Mumbai.” Best to get off at the next platform and work my way back, I think. I start pressing into the wall of bodies, surprisingly hard, in front of me. “Excuse me,” I say over and over. “I have to get off at the next stop.” I get a few smiles, but more dirty looks and resistance. My natural good manners give way to practicality and I start pushing. When the train stops I’ve made it about halfway across the compartment. I grab hold of a woman in a sari who has begun to move in that direction and piggyback my way to the edge of the car, where we all hurdle ourselves out the door en masse. I look in the direction of the next car, the one Mark had crammed himself into, hoping he might have been in the same predicament I was and likewise gotten off at this stop. I wait a minute or so but there’s no sign of him. I give up and make my way up and out of the station, down halls and across bridges, choosing the east exit in hopes that I’ll be able to find the other train station, our original destination, or at least some landmark close by. I wind my way through narrow alleyways where tiny storefronts are packed together, the space between them filled with all manner of refuse and detritus. People are milling about, dogs are lolling lazily on either side of the road, and motorbikes are skittering in both directions. A terrible stench fills the still, fetid air, and though I increase my pace in an effort to quickly be out of here, I feel like I’m moving in circles. Many people are openly staring at me, as if they’ve never seen a Westerner before, while others barely glance my way.

Finally I step out onto a main street and check my phone again for the little blue dot which identifies my location. Without an Indian SIM card in my phone yet, I can only see which direction I’m heading. I walk and walk until I come to the only landmark visible on my screen, a hospital. An older man walking my way stops to ask me if I need help, and I tell him I’m trying to get to the train station. He speaks very little English and just shrugs, but when another man passes, he pulls him in to confer with us. This man too can’t understand what I want, and I’m about to just give up, thank them and walk on, when a young, third man appears out of nowhere. He is handsome, well dressed, and smiling. “Can I assist?” he asks. “Yes!” I reply, perhaps a little too quickly, as he raises an eyebrow. I tell him I am trying to get to the train station, but quickly amend that to metro station, realizing the chances of Mark still being at the train station are slim; by now he has likely gotten the information we needed and returned to the hostel. Luckily for me, this man not only understands where I’m trying to go, but hails the closest tuk-tuk and gives the driver specific instructions to get me there. I thank him and shake his hand, then turn to the other two gentlemen and do the same, before climbing into the tuk-tuk.

I haven’t even sat down before the driver pulls out into traffic. There are no doors, so I brace myself against the thin metal frame in front of me. It soon becomes apparent that I have placed my life in the hands of a suicidal maniac. He darts right, left, down the narrowest of spaces between cars, bikes, trucks and other tuk-tuks, to say nothing of pedestrians and cows, some walking, some lying in the middle of the road chewing their cud, unbothered. He speeds up at any opportunity to squeeze into an empty space and thereby decrease our journey time by a couple of seconds, and more than once I’m convinced we are going to collide with any manner of entity next to us. It feels like a small miracle, again and again, as I contemplate how easy it would be to reach out my hand and touch cold metal, soft flesh, or cowhide, that I don’t see or hear collapse, broken glass, blood or caved in frames.  Eventually, after I’ve abandoned my fate to this stranger, he comes to an abrupt halt. He says nothing, just turns around in his seat to face me. “How much?” I whisper. “One hundred fifty rupees,” he says, holding out his hand. I pay him, then take his hand in mine. “Thank you,” I say. Sweat is dripping down my face, my neck, my stomach. My shirt is sticking to my back, my pants to my legs. He nods, then shakes his head in a small circle, but says nothing. 

I catch the first metro in the direction from whence we began what feels like hours ago. It is clean, cool and luxurious compared to the earlier train. I happily stand up for the duration, watching the doors open and close with a gentle snap. Walking back to the hostel, I think about how glad I will be when Mark gets that bike.

Ireland – Simple Pleasures

Posted in Prose on October 29, 2018 by 1writegirl

Barna to Dingle

The bus ride to Dingle is actually three bus rides, but thankfully my back holds up without complaint and I don’t have to wait long for either transfer. About a half hour outside of Limerick the bus turns a corner and we glide past a cemetery. I’m sitting next to the window looking out when I see a young boy gazing at a gravestone. He’s facing us directly so I see him full on, sitting on a ledge and bent forward slightly, unmoving, staring straight ahead at the gravestone in front of him. I blink and we are past him. Whose grave was it? His mother’s? An uncle’s? A friend’s? I wonder. He is too young, maybe 16 or 17, to feel this: what I feel. All day long I think about him.

I find Dingle, a village on the western peninsula of the same name, to be quite charming. It is easily walkable with an abundance of colorful and quirky shops and pubs, and in a matter of a few moments you can be up on a hill looking down at the town, or out on a coastal path looking back at the harbor. I stay in a hostel over a pub, only the third time in my travels of the past four years that I’ve found reasonably priced accommodation at an eating or drinking establishment. This one proves somewhat disappointing. I’m used to iffy WiFi at hostels so I’m not surprised at that, but I also have to contend with spotty or broken hot water, lighting and electricity, so showering and charging my iPad are problematic. Most frustrating however is the irregular access to the kitchen. When you are buying groceries and cooking your own meals to save money, this is a big deal.

Dingle is home to a dolphin of indeterminate age, but likely – given his 30 year presence in the harbor – to be approaching 40 years of age. I have read about him – Fungie – and wondered if he is perhaps not one but a series of dolphins. Research has been undertaken on the matter, however, and it seems to be the case that Fungie is one very unique, individual dolphin who has chosen to stay in the harbor year round, and for reasons we may never be able to explain, seems to take pleasure (otherwise, why would he do it? He isn’t being fed) interacting with the fishing and tourist boats that pass in and out of the harbor. His appearance is so regular in fact that there are dedicated “Fungie sighting” tours offered by more than one operator on a year round basis, and they see him often enough that this has become a profitable endeavor year after year. I find this remarkable, and I want to see him, but I can’t afford to spend 16 euros to go out on one of the boats to do it. So I opt instead, after reading accounts of other visitors and residents seeing him from the shore, to walk a coastal path out to an old lighthouse. The trail twists and turns but hugs the beach most of the way, and there is a large rock outcropping by the lighthouse where I can sit and watch boats coming and going at the juncture of the bay and ocean. I eat a peanut butter sandwich and stare hard at the water, concentrating on the movement around the boats, looking for a fin and listening for cries of ooh and aah from the boats. If they see Fungie or any other dolphin, I see no evidence of it from my remote perch on shore. After awhile I get up and begin walking back. I keep watching the water rather than my feet where the trail allows, and several times I stop and wait. I listen to the boatmen calling out what sounds like “come on boy”, though distance and accent could be deceiving my ears. I strain to see flippers, fins, anything. I have concluded it’s no use and I console myself with the knowledge that it’s been a lovely walk regardless when finally, as two boats get close enough to create a large wake between them, it happens: shooting out of the swell into the air then diving back again, is Fungie, and immediately after I hear a loud “Attaboy!” from the boat. He is far away, and it is a fleeting sight, yet in that moment I feel a surge of joy. It lingers, pulsing and flashing, for the rest of the day.

Ireland, a beginning

Posted in Prose on October 26, 2018 by 1writegirl

October 16

I lose my phone on my flight between Reykjavík and Dublin, and fear the worst. If someone unscrupulous gets hold of it and manages to get through my security system (easy I’m sure for some people), they could not only run up my phone bill(s) with 2 SIMs, but get into my finances and potentially wreak havoc. I scramble to cancel accounts and change passwords, and as the day wears on and I go from plane to bus to foot my back begins to ache. Before long I have shooting pain gripping my lower right side, reminiscent of the start of the muscle spasms that put an end to my walking the Camino 4 years ago. Immediately I go to the land of despair. I can’t endure that again, is all I can think.

By the time Jim and his niece Brid meet me at the bus station I’m a mess. I haven’t slept in more than a day and I’m about ready to just lie down on the floor and roll around on any hard pointy surface I can find to wedge up under the offending muscles. They take me back to Brid’s house in Barna where I drop my stuff on the floor of the room they have allotted to me, then ask for a hard ball or ball-like object. Brid gives me a cat toy. It’s not as hard as I would like, and is covered in little spines. It’s bright yellow and lights up and vibrates when you squeeze it. What the hell, I think, and lie down on top of it. Twenty minutes later I feel improved enough to get up and do some stretching, then Jim and I walk down to a nearby pub and have dinner. I drink half a pint of stout with my seafood chowder and brown bread. When we get back to the house, passing 2 donkeys on the way, I go straight to my room and check my email. Wow Air found my phone. For about $32, they will send it to Pippa’s house in England. So that’s the plan. Relieved I take 1000 mg of ibuprofen and fall asleep.

Oct 17 Barna, Galway Ireland 

I don’t wake up until almost ten. I feel like I could just stay in bed all day, drifting in and out of sleep, but as that may be construed as antisocial, I get up. I have a cup of coffee and eat some yogurt and begin what turns into the long process of making arrangements for the airline to return my phone to me. In the afternoon Jim and I go for a walk into Barna, then stop on the way back at a small bakery and pick up an apple tart, which proves to actually be a berry tart, for afternoon tea. 

I have never been in a house like this before. From the outside it looks ordinary, a pretty cottage much like any other around here, but when you walk inside you quickly realize it is essentially one long twisted hallway with closed doors on either side here and there. Inside the rooms I’ve so far glimpsed, all small, are a kitchen, 2 bedrooms (one I’m using), a sitting room, a music room where Brid gives piano, flute and guitar lessons, and 3 bathrooms – one just a toilet, one a toilet, sink and tub, and one just a shower. I’m dying to knock down a few walls. 

They keep a key in the outside door, in the outside keyhole, during the day, presumably so they can come and go and won’t get locked out. All of the inside doors have locks with skeleton keys in them and at night, one of them goes from room to room and locks the doors from the outside. I discover this when I get up to go to the bathroom at night and when the door won’t open, assume someone is inside. I wait in the dark, the silence from within finally convincing me to feel around. When I do so my fingers stumble into the key.

Brid and her husband Sean live here alone, their 3 daughters grown, married and moved away. They now have 3 cats, two of which she inherited from her mother. The mother, according to Brid, had amassed 25 cats in the years prior to the illness which led to her death. When she got sick to the point where she could no longer care for them, when she herself required care, Brid began trying to find new homes for them. The majority were so feral, she said, they had to be euthanized, while a few went to a local shelter. Brid took the last two herself. The third, Snowy, belonged to a neighbor who relinquished ownership when the cat was injured and needed expensive surgery which resulted in the loss of his right hind leg. Brid and Sean applied for ownership to the vet who had been entrusted with his care and got it. Snowy is the only one of the three cats who is sociable and he is as loving and trusting as the other two are remote and skittish. 

In the evening we all sit in the small sitting room where Brid serves us pizza. Sean has recently suffered from a blood clot in his lung and consequent heart problems. He appears much younger than his 81 years and still works in the garden daily. He smiles often and seems a gentle man, and barely speaks at all. Brid, 20-something years his junior, talks enough for them both, and punctuates every other sentence with a trill of a laugh, the kind that you think is over long before it actually is. I try a few times to converse with her but each time I start speaking I discover she is still laughing, which turns into another sentence or two, and the cycle repeats. I give up and just listen, smile and nod. Like Sean. 

Oct 18 Barna

Jim and I catch the early bus to Galway so that I can visit the tourist information office to get ideas about where to go from here. After that we eat breakfast and meet Brid for our day trip south of Galway to see: William Yeats’ home; the grounds of what used to be a lavish home belonging to a friend of his (now a park); and what’s left of a 13th century monastery. When Brid pulls up to collect us a young woman gets out of the car to greet us. She introduces herself as Julia and says she volunteers with Brid at a nearby bird sanctuary. I like her a lot. She’s friendly but not overly chatty, and as we converse she reveals herself to be a serious and quite mature young woman. I don’t ask her outright her age, but I gather from the things she says that she’s about 20 or 21. I wish we had more time to spend together, I wish I could invite her to visit me in California, but our outing is over before I know it and we’re dropping her off back in Galway. I know I’ll never see her again.

This evening we all eat spring rolls and salad in the sitting room and watch Judge Judy. Then Sean goes to bed and Brid confesses how hard it’s been with Sean sick, and how worried she has been. She talks of being in the ER and no chairs to sit in, it was so packed, that she climbed into the gurney with Sean. It is the first conversation in which she doesn’t laugh once. Then Jim goes to bed too, but Brid wants to stay up for the presidential debate and I decide to watch it with her, curious to see if it differs much in format and style from the U.S. debates. It doesn’t. It’s basically a running argument and mud slinging contest with very little if any real content and no constructive dialogue or platform revelations whatsoever. I find it so depressing that I go off to bed before it’s half over. In the morning I ask Brid if it got better. No.

Oct 19, 2018

Today it’s raining so we drive north into County Mayo and take a short walk at Clough Patrick, have lunch, then drive some more, through lush green countryside. I’m struck by the crooked stone walls that meander up and sideways to form loose approximations of squares and rectangles delineating property lines, extending high up steep hillsides and ending in some cases only at the base of mountains. I think about the time and sweat it would have taken to build them. The fields that are brown are that color because of the peat growing there, a long used source of heating for Irish homes, while the green pastures are pockmarked with flocks of sheep colored red and blue and purple to tell them apart by their owners. I can’t help but think about little Orphan Annie and feel sad. I had hoped to return to Spain this fall to collect her and take her to Enza’s in France, though how I would have transported her I don’t know. Rented a car I suppose. 

On our way back we stop at a roadside marker commemorating the long walk of starving Irish during the Potato Famine, as they made their way to Delphi Lodge in the town of Louisborough where they’d been told they’d be fed, only to be turned away. Many died along the route, either coming or going. 

Further on we come to an abbey by a lake that used to be a school. It costs €13 to go in so we just admire it from the outside. It looks like a small castle and is rather beautiful really with its turrets and spires and high windows. Then we get lost driving back, so Brid’s short cut turns into a long cut. We don’t get back to Barna till after 7. I try to buy Sean and Brid dinner but they won’t have it, saying they aren’t hungry. So Jim and I walk down to the pub where we ate the other night, and Jim insists on buying me dinner. Yet again.

Oct 20

This morning I pack my bag to leave for Dingle. Before I leave Brid hands me a brown bag, lunch she says, and on his way out to catch the bus to Galway, Sean hugs me goodbye. They have been so kind. At the bus station she drops me and Jim off then goes on to the bird sanctuary where they are releasing a swan today. Jim stays with me to see me off. It’s hard to say goodbye to him, knowing I won’t be back in California till March. I feel like I do when I say goodbye to Dad these days, keenly conscious I may never see him again.