Diwali

The only familiarity I can claim with the Indian holiday of Diwali is what I learned from that episode of The Office, wherein Michael Scott mistakes it to be the Hindu equivalent of Halloween. 

Now that I have been in India for Diwali I can tell you that it is nothing like Halloween. In fact, I know no western holiday by which to compare it. Diwali has many facets, but I’m told that the most important part is celebrating light overcoming darkness. This victory is not just symbolic, because according to Hindu tradition, Diwali celebrates Krishna’s victory over Narakasura, who was some kind of evil god or demon. 

We have been trying to get to bed early here, but we were unable to ignore the fireworks and parades passing just outside, so we sauntered out to see what all the fuss was about. 

Outside all the households were candles, and with the aid of fireworks and sparklers, the night felt as bright as mid-day. Making its slow way down the street was some kind of beautiful flower arrangement being carried on a stretcher by four men. Leading the whole procession was a troop of at least ten drummers, accompanied by some guys who were playing horns that looked like something out of a fantasy novel. The horns wrapped around the bodies of the players like thin snakes; the bell of the instrument was small and gaped high above the parade.

I asked a guy next to me what the flower arrangement was, but I couldn’t hear his reply over the drums, horns, and fireworks. Whatever it was it moved at a glacial pace. Some poor truck driver got stuck behind it, and judging by his expression when he passed me, his enthusiasm for Diwali was damn near gone. 

It stopped every ten feet or so, and every time it stopped someone would adjust the flowers and pray. It seemed like it would never pass us by, but then there it was, lurching away, leaving me in the kind of stupor I feel after waking from a dream.

Sisyphus

Our host is constructing a pond in his organic garden. I have no experience in pond construction, but when your host asks for help, you oblige him or her. All Billy and I had to do was help the other workers move stones into the ditch. I’ve moved stones before, how much harder could this be?

I have never moved stones under the relentless Indian sun, however. It has been cloudy for the last few days, but of course the clouds part for the day that we have to do physical labor. All the workers watched us as we approached. These were not Workawayers but actual local workers. They all seemed genuinely amused at our presence. I could not share their amusement after laying eyes upon the imposing pile of rocks. Calling them rocks is kind—these were boulders. 

None of the workers spoke English. The only phrase they seemed to know was “little rocks,” which they kept repeating anytime Billy and I attempted to move a stone larger than a fist. Apparently our host had told the workers to only let us move small rocks, which was humiliating at first, carrying stones barely larger than my head while the other workers hoisted boulders the size torsos over their shoulders. After about half an hour, though, the humiliation turned into gratitude. Walking back and forth into and out of a ditch carrying stones under the vicious mid-day sun in ninety degree weather takes its toll quickly, and had we been moving some of those boulders I think we would have passed out. 

This is why people tell you to stay in school, I realized. You see people working crappy jobs and that advice comes to mind, but to actually experience that crappy job, just for a day, is enough to make you appreciate the truth of that sentiment. A high school or college education is no guarantee against moving boulders for a living, but an education makes such an occupation a far less likely outcome in life.

Once I got over the heat, I didn’t mind the work. Repetitive physical work allows my mind to wander, and no one is trying to talk to you while you’re working, so you’re free to be lost in your own thoughts. But if this were my life, day in and day out with no end in sight, things would be different. 

The man who I assume is the foreman points and speaks to the workers in rapid Hindi. He has the largest belly of the assembly, and hasn’t touched a single stone, I assume because he doesn’t want to get dirt and dust on his white pants and shirt. He chatters orders and we move back and forth, picking up rocks and dropping them along the inside edges of the ditch. 

Our host eventually emerges. I have no idea how long it has been. He tells us to take a break, that there will be chai served for everyone in a minute. I hoped I had misheard him, but sure enough within moments I had a paper cup of hot tea in my hand. This was the height of absurdity: drinking a hot beverage after working in ninety degree weather. 

Billy and I retreated to a shaded spot to drink our tea. 

Billy. Now I really feel like I’m in India. 

Elliott. How’s that? 

Billy. I’m covered in dirt and I’m drinking hot tea after doing physical work under the blistering sun. Plus there are cows everywhere. 

Elliott. What we really need is water. 

Billy. Yeah. I won’t feel embarrassed asking for it at this point. Plus I’ll need to shower. 

He looks down at his clothes, which are covered in dust and grime.

Billy. Well, I guess these are my work clothes now. 

Elliott. Isn’t today Diwali? 

Billy. Oh yeah. 

We look out at the barren stretch of dirt where the rocks are piled. Dust mingles with rapid Hindi in the oven-like air. 

Billy. Happy Diwali dude.

The Tuesday Market

Our host took us to a local open-air market that occurs every Tuesday. I thought I might have a sense of what this market would be like, having spent some time in the open air market in Chiang Mai. The market here was much smaller than the one in Chiang Mai, however, and less built up by far. Perhaps twenty to thirty vendors sat on the ground surrounded by their wares, which were typically produce, spices, and dyes. 

Our host is usually hosting at least one foreigner every month, so locals have become used to seeing him with foreigners, but I don’t think they’re fully used to seeing foreigners in general. 

Traveling through Asian countries, we’ve become accustomed to the stares, but here the stare is much more intense, mostly because we are the only foreigners in this village and perhaps the only foreigners for miles. 

The intensity of the stare is also due in part to the feeling of opportunity that comes along with it. Foreigners have money and a sometimes naïve desire to feel like they’re helping, which makes them a great way to earn a few extra rupee. 

This is in no way devious on the part of the locals. Poverty here isn’t just something you see on TV, it directly impacts you and everything you see. Walking into the market, I was acutely aware of the fact that my glasses cost more money than some here see in a year. It’s an uncomfortable situation because never have I seen such actual poverty, but I also see no immediate ways for locals to escape this vicious poverty.

Of course, none of this is really news. You don’t have to visit India to see pictures and videos of what it’s like here in a small village, but it’s one thing to watch and another to actually see first hand. 

My American ingenuity sees this poverty and wonders how to fix it. I know, though, that I can’t fix this. Scores of people have already tried. You have seen them, or at least you have seen their campaigns being run at your local church or YMCA: “Donating just five dollars can feed a family for a week! Donate now and make a difference!” 

A handful will donate, but the rest will remain indifferent. I can’t say what camp I will fall into when I return home after seeing the poverty first hand. I would have more justification for donating than most, but I also would have ample reason for refusing. “I’ve been there,” I would say, “and it’s going to take a lot more than donated dollars to fix the systemic problems.” 

Dollars are a good place to start, people will say. Dollars for what though? Food and water are of course necessary but if the problem really is to be addressed money would have to be spent on education. Good education, for everyone. 

Again, none of this is news. Spending on education is much harder than spending on food and water. I’m not trying to slag off people who donate to these kinds of campaigns, by the way. I’m just pointing out in my own terms the obvious truth, that things are complicated and aren’t resolved by clicking “Donate.” 

The only thing I can say with certainty is this: if you are currently raising a child who is acting like a spoiled little shit bring him or her to the Tuesday market in Ravandur, India. Let your child see how people here get along with so little. Maybe you need to see it too. 

Samson

I never considered the power of my own hair until I was shaving it all away. 

It is so much easier maintaining a shaved head than a full head of hair, and I need to take all the easy shortcuts I can if I’m going to try and make a full year of traveling. I knew I would have to shave my head at some point, and India just felt like the right place and time to do it. 

I had no tarp or anything to catch the clumps of hair, so I spread my raincoat on the floor instead. My red hair has always been one of my most attractive features, but I realized its power was dependent on the body it grew from. Heaped on my bright green raincoat, it looked listless, devoid of any magic or beauty. 

Looking in the mirror I see now orange peach fuzz, the kind described by my mother when I was born: “an orange glow” about my head. 

That was why Samson could not bring the columns down. His hair had no magic at all. No, when he saw his fresh-shaved head in the mirror he saw the powerless child he had once been and now was again. 

Intro to India

I was reluctant to agree to India. I think Billy has always wanted to visit India, but it’s never really been on my list, so he had to talk me into it. I didn’t take much convincing, however, because even though I never planned on going to India, I knew it was a place that I would never regret saying I visited. 

For all this time that we’ve been traveling India has always been in the back of my mind. Not in a fearful way, just in a mindful awareness. Each day would bring us closer to touching down in India, a place that changes western travelers and possibly gives them diarrhea. On the three plane rides over I began mentally preparing to be shocked. Try as I might, though, I couldn’t bring myself to comprehend what I was about to experience because even my conceptualization of India, as bad or as good as I made it, wouldn’t be enough to prepare me. So with an open mind but fearing the worst we landed in Bangalore (now Bengaluru) at two o’clock in the morning, needing to somehow take public transportation from the airport to the remote village of Ravandur, where our Workaway host is located. 

We were both exhausted at that time, but I remember each step feeling cautious, like at any moment we could walk into the wrong place at the wrong time. The security guards walking around with machine guns didn’t alleviate this feeling, but somehow we found the bus station, paid, and were on our way to Mysuru, where would have to get a taxi to Ravandur. I was so tired that much of this process was a blur. The bus ride was long (four hours) and thankfully I slept through most of it, despite the fact that the bus driver honked the horn practically every five seconds.

A word about honking. Honking culture here is much different from honking culture in the US in that here nobody stops laying on the horn. Billy noted that all this honking makes it lose its meaning. A honk in the US is guaranteed to startle, but here it is so frequent that it is just another part of driving communication. 

I did wake up around five in the morning, just outside of Bangalore, where the bus was going through a toll. Outside hanging around the toll booth were crowds of people, squatting, begging, and doing everything in between. I knew that if I looked more in my exhausted state what I saw would overwhelm me, so in moments I was back asleep. 

It was light outside when I woke again, around seven o’clock, so I again took a look out the window. We were far outside of Bangalore at that point, so everything was rural, and the buildings we passed were in various stages of ruin, yet still people congregated outside of them to eat or just sit around. The country side is green and beautiful, but it is at all times at odds with the filth from humans. Trash is strewn all along the sides of the road, and meandering alongside the garbage are herds of cows. Cows, being sacred here, are everywhere. They have no leash it seems, and are free to just roam wherever. 

The longer I looked, though, the more I realized that nothing I was seeing particularly shocked me. Here, like in Thailand, there are tuk tuks and buildings in disrepair, family-run restaurants and food stalls at frequent intervals. It all became normal so quickly that I was slightly alarmed. I voiced this observation to Billy and he concurred. India, like Japan and Thailand before it, was just another place on the map. We have become so used to traveling and suddenly being outside of our comfort zones that, in a way, we were totally prepared for India. 

Getting a taxi in Mysuru was absurdly easy. We just stepped off the bus and were immediately greeted by a taxi driver who set us up for a ride to Ravandur. I’m sure his price was high by Indian standards, but we didn’t care, we just wanted to get settled in our new place. 

Once we did arrive and meet our generous and friendly host, the realization really sunk in. Somehow, we navigated ourselves from a major city to a rural village in India. There were no tears, complaints, or major complications to speak of. When did we become adjusted to this single backpack life on the road lifestyle? And how come it happened so fast? I thought it would take us much longer to become comfortable bouncing from place to place. This is not to say there still isn’t difficulty involved, but it’s a difficulty we have become acclimated to. 

With all this in mind, I feel prepared for whatever India throws at me. Though it may still challenge me, I know that I’ll get through it before I know it. So I feel prepared, yes, even for the diarrhea, because I have traveler’s diarrhea pills. 

Various Dangers of the Wide World

The other day Billy and I got our travel vaccines done. Here are a few choice lines of dialogue I can recall from the appointment.

Dr. So you guys are going to be in India?

Billy. Yes. The plan is five weeks in India.

Dr. And where will you guys be staying there?

Billy. We are definitely going to be in Goa, and then we’re going to be in a rural village called Ravandur for about two weeks.

Dr. Okay so a big concern for me overall is rabies. Not just in India, but in Japan and Thailand as well. They’ve got stray packs of dogs, monkeys, and rats can sometimes carry it too.

Elliott. Uh huh. So are we going to be vaccinated for that today?

Dr. The rabies pre-vaccine is three shots spaced out by three weeks. It is also very expensive (300 dollars a shot!), and we don’t have the vaccine here today.

Billy. So that’s a no.

Dr. I could try and get it rush delivered here, but there isn’t enough time to space each vaccine properly since you guys are leaving so soon.

Billy. I guess we’ll just avoid animals.

Dr. Yes do try and limit contact with stray animals. And should you be bitten, don’t treat it is an urgent medical situation, but more of like an immediate medical situation.

*Billy and Elliott exchange a confused sideways glance*

Dr. If you do get bitten, you’ll have to be air-lifted out of wherever you are, unless you happen to be in the proximity of a major hospital that can treat rabies, which, being in a rural village in India, I don’t think will be the case.

Billy. Uh huh.

Dr. Also, you’ll need malaria pills if you’re going to be in India. There are a few options as far as pills go. You can take X drug once a week, Y drug once a day at the cost of $5 a pill, or Z drug, which is known to cause rashes and lung irritation.

Elliott. How about X drug? That seems like the cheapest option.

Dr. It is. However, X drug is known to exacerbate anxiety and depression, as well as cause vivid dreams and nightmares. Any patients with a history of psychiatric disorders are not recommend to take X drug.

Billy. Uh huh. Okay, Y drug it is then.

Dr. I don’t mean to scare you guys or anything! Just look at it this way, you’re far more likely to be killed in a motor vehicle accident abroad than by rabies or malaria. Motor vehicle accidents continue to be the biggest threat to traveling Americans than anything else.

Elliott. Uh huh.