“India is about six times the size of France but it has almost twenty times the population. Twenty times! Believe me, if there were a billion Frenchmen living in such a crowded space there would be rivers of blood. Rivers of blood! And, as everyone knows, the French are the most civilized people on Earth. Indeed, in the whole world. No, no, without love, India would be impossible.” – Shantaram
These words aren’t mine, but are taken from Shantaram, a book I’ve been reading that delves into the heart and soul of India. The words couldn’t be any truer. India is different. It’s not like any other place, anywhere. Last night at dinner we had a conversation with an Italian gentleman who was on his 13th visit to India. When I asked him his favorite part of India he just put his hands over his heart and said, India isn’t out there, it’s in here.
Thanksgiving morning, 7:00am. My mind is wide awake and my belly is rumbling. I roll over and ask Katy, Did last night really happen? We were walking down an aisle when I saw the words Physics, Chemistry, Maths written on a large banner. I hopped over the sludge-filled gutter and onto the dirt driveway, ducking under powerlines and careful to not get hit in the head by rebar as I went to investigate. I’d been a Physics teacher, and so was curious to compare the education systems of rural India and the Mississippi Delta. A friendly man, who spoke good English, introduced himself. I asked if I could watch the class for just a minute. One thing led to another and after a walk up a somewhat precarious set of stairs and around a corner past a large curtain I found myself at the front of a small cement room that contained 40 or 50 sets of gleaming dark brown eyes. The room was silent. A voice from the back shouted out, “teach us something.” In an instant, habit kicked in as I picked up the black dry erase marker and began a short lesson on the Conservation of Momentum. Then one on Projectile Motion. The students saw quietly and gave perfect attention – I can only imagine that my students in the Delta would behave somewhat differently if a random fellow walked in off the streets and started writing on the board. As the students filed out of the small overpacked room and home for the evening, they approached their teachers, touched their chest and then below the knee of their teacher, made a slight bow and were on their way. I was later informed that in India, a teacher is “just below God, because without teachers we would not know anything.” So I asked, “Is anybody else right below God?” “Yes, guests to our country are also right below God,” was the immediate answer. An invitation to return in the morning at 8am for breakfast was offered and accepted.
At 8:00am we arrived back at the school to dozens of students, all eager to take our (Katy’s) photo, exchange Facebook accounts and ask us how we “felt” about their country. (In any encounter with Indians we are never asked “how are you doing?” but always “how are you feeling?” to which I’ve learned the correct answer is “oh, very nice” – this is always followed by the huge smile all Indians seem to possess). After a complete breakfast of curries, rotis, chai (tea), sweet fried pastries and curd we said our goodbyes and headed home. It wasn’t 5 minutes until we bumped into a student (who helped us to our hotel the previous night) and was invited to visit his school. Again we accepted. Again chai was offered and accepted (the Turks always seem to have chai on hand but the Indians just punch a couple digits on their phone and within minutes a chai-wallah appears on bicycle with a plastic bag filled of chai along with half a dozen or so earthenware one-time-use cups – it’s a pretty nice system). More photos, more Facebook friends for Katy and we were on our way.
Later that night as we walked down a busy lane, a pack of children followed in suit. A couple brave kids would walk in front of us, as if to exclaim to the town, “look at what I’ve found!”. A cart sitting upon 4 bicycle tires, with no less than a hundred or so eggs catches our attention. A man is cooking up tortillas with fried eggs and so we stop. The moment we stop a crowd congregates.
By the time our tortillas are ready we are completely surrounded by the crowd. The food is delicious and we ask how much we owe. The man waggles his head (this is best described as a sideways nod of the head, something that I’ve been practicing , and while a nod of the head in the USA means yes or hello, the sideways waggle of the head seems to have a multitude of meanings). Unsure of what he means, I ask again, but he shakes his head and says, no, no. The love of India at work.
That evening as we walked home and stopped for a final roti and chai, a middle aged Muslim gentleman requested to pay our bill. We said thank you, he waggled his head, and then asked where we were staying and if we’d like to stay with him in his home that night.
Two days later a man refuses payment for lunch and then, when he sees me lying on the ground resting, he offers me his bed. (Katy insisted that we pay him, and so our 4 dishes, many roti, two salads and chai cost us $6).
India, more than anywhere else we’ve been, is filled with love. But it’s also filled with a bunch of other stuff – chaos, traffic, garbage, cows, the destitute, a seemingly endless supply of “what in the world?” scenarios.
In Barhalganj we find a decent hotel room. And by decent, I mean if you only stay in the place for 8 hours you might escape without contracting any sort of illness. A WiFi symbol of the hotel’s name shows up on my iPhone and so I ask the guy at reception for the password. “No code.” But it says here on my phone you have WiFi. “No WiFi, no passcode.” Well what is this then? I say, as I point at my phone? “No passcode.” Okay whatever, I think to myself as I walk back up to our room.
In Ghazipur we think we’ve learned our lesson about the WiFi problem so we ask for the Wifi code before agreeing on the room. He happily gives us the code, and after getting our bags and room situated I get out my iPhone only to realize their is no WiFi signal. We ask at the reception. No Wifi. Sometimes you get WiFi and no password and sometimes no WiFi but a password.
Cycling through India is interesting. For the most part it goes at a decent pace. But then every 5 kilometers or so you reach a small town where the highway turns to cobblestones. And not somewhat smooth still able to cycle cobblestones but bike braking hole in the roads cobblestones that yearn to wreak havoc on our loaded tandem. So we get off and walk. Then another 5 kilometers or so, and then back off. After a couple days you just think to yourself, can’t someone pave this damn road? Honestly people. And then there are the speedbumps. Huge ones. Because for some reason the idea of going over 20mph on the main highway is a little too excessive? I’d like to see what would happen if I put some speed bumps on I-215.
As we enter Ghazipur the paved road turns to cobblestones and then to dust. A hard packed surface might have been present underneath, but I felt as though we were just walking through dust. Eventually the road narrows and motorbikes, rickshaws, cars, cows, and cyclists pack tighter and tighter together until we all reach a dead halt. The road is being “fixed” – a couple men are digging up the highway with shovels and picks made with bamboo handles while dozens of other idle men look on at what I can only imagine is an incredibly slow repair progress. The sole piece of heavy machinery attempting to repair the highway is jammed in with the traffic, completely prevented from moving (and working) due to the myriad of ox-carts and cycle rickshaws edging their way an inch here and an inch there through traffic. What adds to the problem is thick mud that makes half of the road impassable. Suddenly a logical thought comes to my mind, “What if someone had the bright idea of hiring a flagger to stand in the road and direct one lane of traffic at a time through this mess? Or maybe since they are repairing this road the they could put up some detour signs. It seems to work pretty well in every other country in the world maybe they could try it here.” I try to not let my blood boil.
A motorbike pulls behind us slowly and as they pull out their phones and take pictures we kindly wave. We’re getting pretty familiar with this process. But then they ask to take a photo with us. We would prefer to not stop, again, and take pictures with people, again, but how can you respond in agitation and impatience when others have been more than wonderful to us. We wait patiently as they take 15 or 20 photos, with glasses, without glasses, with hat, without hat, shaking hands, not shaking hands. It’s also nice when they stand right in front of me and take a photo with Katy. “Hey, I’m the husband here.”
Sometimes, in India, you have to surrender to win. Also words from Shantaram. And I can think of no better advice for how to deal with the past seven days. Sometimes, in India, you have to surrender to win.