This Ain’t no Shangri-La (Or Even an Ashram Made to Look Like It)


We’ve been back in India for three weeks, riding down the eastern side of the country from Darjeeling. Our plan was to ride for several days then spend 2-3 days somewhere nice, then repeat, with a goal to hanging out in Puducherry for several days, maybe a week before meandering west toward the hills and forests and ending up in Goa for our last month in the country. But so far the only place we’ve spent more than 2 nights was Puri, and not because it was a lovely beach town. We were simply exhausted and couldn’t go any further. 

Somewhere east of Hyderabad Mark looks at me and makes the sudden and irreversible suggestion that we scrap our original plan and make a beeline for Goa. “I think you’ve had enough,” he says. He can see it in my eyes, surrounded by puffy and dark skin from lack of sleep, feel it in my demeanor, listless and defeated, hear it in my irritated, and irritating, tone of voice. Because this nation is so chock full of people, the concept of personal space is unheard of, as is the notion of “peace and quiet.” Indian people expect to be surrounded by others at all times, and perhaps for this reason, the idea of consideration for the sensibilities of others doesn’t seem to exist. Loud music can be heard echoing up and down the halls of motels day and night, as can loud talking, laughing, even shouting as guests arrive and depart in the middle of the night. The sawing, hammering and groaning sounds of renovation and rearranging furniture know no schedule. And that’s what comes from inside the motel. Shoddily constructed, at least the ones we can afford to stay in, these places provide the thinnest of barriers from the street noises of honking cars, revving motorcycles, dogs barking and fighting, and loud music. I haven’t gotten more than two consecutive hours of sleep since crossing the border with Nepal. Nor have I been able to stomach the food. If it doesn’t burn a hole in my mouth it gives me diarrhea. Despite my repeated and I suppose overly optimistic attempts to “learn to like spicy food,” I am hopeless in this regard.

Today we are in Hosapet, planning a day trip to the small town of Hampi just down the road. Home to many ancient and mostly crumbling temples, it is one of the few attractions that appeals to me, primarily because the cost is reasonable at a few hundred rupees, and it’s known for being relatively uncrowded. Whether we’ll get there or not is anyone’s guess however, because as we were preparing to pull away from the curb in front of our hotel, a shopfront worker pointed to the bike’s rear tire, which happened to be flat. That Mark had missed that while loading the bike surprised us both. He has gone to find someplace to fix it, so depending on how long that takes, I could be alone here for hours, guarding our belongings in a pile on the sidewalk and thinking, even as a tuk-tuk driver is doing his best to persuade me that regardless of whether or not the bike is rideable today, we really want to avail ourselves of his services to, from and around Hampi for the “very, very good price of 1,000 rupees.” My lackluster responses to his entreaties to commit to a time and place to meet him do not deter him, and he sticks by my side, hoping he’ll have better luck convincing my “husband” I suppose. I am, after all, just a woman, so obviously not the decision maker or the keeper of funds.

While I came to India expecting surprises, novelty, and all things exotic, what I am left with after almost three months is a feeling of unshakable dread. Were one to come to India and go only to an ashram or yoga retreat, or to Goa for that matter, which Mark tells me is much like any tropical paradise anywhere, one would naturally have a very different impression of India. From the insular nature of the ashram, which one need never leave during one’s tenure there, one might come away with the idea that the Indian people are generally spiritually awakened, friendly, quiet, and caring toward one another and their fellow creatures. Likewise from the western-catering and tourist-dependent Goa, one might be able to wear rose colored glasses as you step on and off the plane. But an ashram and Goa, as nice as they may be, are not the real India. I’ve seen the real India, I’ve breathed it in, listened to it, tasted and smelled it, and nothing could have prepared me for how much I want to convince myself it’s really not so bad.

There is much of the world (the majority) I haven’t seen, but I’ve been a few places. I’ve witnessed poverty, people making do with next to nothing, and lifestyles vastly different from what I am used to. I’ve learned that to much of the world toilet paper is not only a luxury, it is an unwanted one, as is the toilet itself. A porcelain or even plain old hole in the concrete floor will do just fine thank you. Soap and water in the bathroom? Why would we do that? Dirt floors in restaurants, boards for mattresses in hotels and guesthouses, scraps of cloth passing for bath towels. No hot water. No WiFi, occasionally no electricity. No cutlery if you don’t ask, no napkins, frequently cups and dishes that appear to have been rinsed at best. Cities and towns with no public trash collection, thus abundant litter scattered around, and rubbish-fires in doorways, curbsides and fields. Empty syringes on sidewalks or what passes for sidewalks, rats scuttling between sewers and dumpsters, little songbirds captured and stuffed in cages by the dozen, their freedom sold to passers-by who can’t bear it, only to be recaptured again if they don’t fly away fast enough. Street dogs and occasional cats furtively eking out a wily existence for themselves wherever they can. I’ve observed panhandling, busking, and begging; I’ve been approached with drugs and offers of sex; I’ve witnessed child neglect and what I consider to be child abuse, from my first-world, “enlightened” perspective.

India is all this and more, all this times ten. In terms of land mass, it is about one third the size of the U.S. Squeezed into that space are one billion, 362 million, 292 thousand people and counting. By comparison, the U.S. population is 328 million, 73 thousand and a couple hundred. Population density in the U.S. is 93 people per square mile; in India it is 1192. By 2024, India is expected to be the world’s most populous country, surpassing China, a country three times its physical size.

So take the woes of a “developing” nation, by which I mean: widespread poverty; very poor or nonexistent hygiene in a majority of both the private and public domain; lack of clean water, organized garbage collection and sewage disposal; an absence of pollution and smog regulations; a small, nonexistent or corrupt tax base; and the lack of universal health care. To this mix add an exploding population and a religious government that does not promote birth control in any meaningful, practical way. Add a culture that is religiously and historically predisposed to valuing male life over female. Add the widespread belief in the concept of fate, so that if it’s “your time” that’s all there is to it (time to move on to the next life), no point in wearing seat belts, helmets or the like, no point looking over your shoulder before pulling into traffic, changing lanes or exiting highways. Add a growing segment of the population aware of and desirous of those things from developed countries – designer clothing, shoes, and fashion accessories, electronic gadgets, music and entertainment – now attainable and affordable in some form across class, caste and other categories. Add a belief that cows are holy, so holy that you mustn’t kill them but not so holy that you are obligated to provide for their well being in any way. Add the lack of a universal spoken and written language. 

What you get is this: fields of plastic as far as the eye can see in all but the most remote rural areas; roaming bands and lone emaciated and hollow-eyed cows, dogs, goats, pigs, horses, cats, sheep, camels, chickens and donkeys wading through this plastic and eating what will go down because it has some traces of food on it, or smells of food, and nobody is feeding them actual or enough species-appropriate food; thick acrid smoke from factories, plants and smokestacks blending with that from rubbish fires on streets in every city, town, village and agricultural plot, on every horizon, burning your eyes, filling your lungs, obscuring the views of the mountains; hotel rooms with blood, feces and hacked up mucus smeared across the walls, doors, handles and tables; traffic jams miles long because they are “working” on a bridge somewhere and there is no organized or supervised plan in place to re-route the thousands of common goods carrying trucks that travel these roads every single day; people winding down their windows as they drive down highways and side streets so they can dump their garbage out as they go; a twelve year old boy, wearing designer jeans, t-shirt and Nike shoes, not in school but instead prodding a herd of goats or water buffalo along the edge of a road with a stick, head down and eyes glued to the screen of his cell phone as he goes; a hugely pregnant woman with 3 or 4 ragged children clinging to her skirts holding out her hands at you when you walk by and not speaking, but grunting loud shrill monosyllabic “Uh! Uh!” noises, and following you; scowling stares boring into you everywhere you turn except the places of business where you might spend some money (restaurants, shops, hotels) and even sometimes in those (gas stations); an average life expectancy of less than 68 years; an infant mortality rates 3 times that of China; a nationwide literacy rate approximately 20 percentage points higher for boys than for girls; restaurants with the toilet for customers (and presumably the staff who prepare your food) containing no toilet paper, no soap, maybe cold water if you’re lucky, no towels or hand dryer; a rare smile or greeting from someone for its own sake, more commonly accompanied by the question “where you from?” and “selfie!”, the ubiquitous cell phone held up in the air snapping a photo of you, the traveling circus freak, standing next to them; a plethora of communicable, vector borne and water spread viruses and diseases; volumes of idle young men standing around doing absolutely nothing day in and day out, not because there aren’t jobs they could be doing (picking up garbage, dreaming up inventive ways to recycle or dispose of said garbage, collecting and euthanizing or neutering and vaccinating street dogs, for instance) if the government saw fit to employ them, but because they don’t; violence against women still condoned by plenty of people, if no longer the courts; old and disabled people begging in the streets because there are no safety nets for those who can’t provide for themselves and whose families have abandoned them; communities that still throw a dead man’s widow on his funeral pyre because she is nothing but a burden now.

I think about the things I like about India: the brightly colored buildings and clothing, making the concept of “color-coordinated” seem silly, staid and obsolete; the funny combinations of English words plastered across the trucks and buses covering the highways; the fact that tuk-tuks, motorcycles and bicycles don’t have to pay to use the toll roads; the absence of an obvious and institutionalized sex trade of its women and children to foreigners. Then I think about the other things (above), and I can’t help but despair in terms of the future. Not just for her, but for all of us. It doesn’t matter what the rest of the world does, because if India (and to a lesser degree, countries like her) keeps doing what she’s doing, the extent of her destruction will outdo the little bits of good that might come from the restrictions, regulations and alternative lifestyles that the rest of the world is leaning toward, and which we need en masse. We have had our post industrial revolution era of modernity, convenience and “the good life.” India wants her turn. Can we say to her, “Never mind all that, you need to skip it and go straight to measures of restraint and environmental protections, you need to bypass the consumerism, consumption and credit-based way of living we ourselves will need to reject, now that we’ve gotten wind of the bad news that awaits us all if we don’t?” So few of us do a decent job of role modeling the extreme sorts of adaptations we will all have to make if there is to be any chance of our own species, much less the majority of others, surviving the next few decades, that the thought of gaining worldwide cooperation and agreement feels virtually impossible to me. Especially from a country like India, whose only crime is being as short-sighted and me-driven as the rest of us have been for so very, very long. 

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