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Nearing India's End: Realizing What You've Become

Since I last sat down to write a post just about one month ago, our travels shifted from ‘digging in’ and slowing down to nothing short of hyperspeed. These shifts keep things interesting, no doubt, but they don’t do much in the way of relaxation. But I wouldn’t trade the last month for the world. I’m currently sitting in one of the maddest, most colorful, noisiest, dirtiest, holiest and most haunting places I’ve ever seen: Varanasi. The revered city on the Ganges is in full festival mode, and while I sit in this internet cafe, heavy electronic beats blast from speakers just as young boys blast ratatat rhythms on drums and hundreds cheer along. There’s dancing in the streets, and it’s all for the goddess Saraswati – who can be seen (in idol form, of course) being paraded on neon-glowing floats through every alley of the city. I’m laying low, however, because the next 24 (good God, I hope it’s only 24) hours will be spent on 3 buses and a train making our way to Pokhara, Nepal. Yes, things have gotten hectic.

Monkeys > Traffic

But let’s back up, and I’ll try to bring you up to speed. Tal and I returned from Sri Lanka to meet her younger siblings, Ari and Maya, in the southern state of Kerala. They were visiting during their winter breaks from university, and naturally we wanted to plan a killer trip. The four of us spent a few weeks working our way up the coast, hitting some of the most beautiful spots India has to offer. In the cliffside beaches of Varkala, we got ayurvedic massages (note: the one where a dude hangs from a rope and stretches your body with his feet while you’re covered in coconut oil is not fun, it’s just awkward), lounged under palm trees and I got sick for the very first time in India. In Alleppey, we wandered through a huge, blazing festival amidst thousands and thousands of Indians celebrating with fireworks, street food, performances and even a bedazzled elephant ceremony that involved fire. We saw one 13-year-old kid tattooing another (probably) 13-year-old kid with a portrait of Lord Shiva… while the two of them sat in the middle of the street. In Kochi, we drank beers, played cards and walked to the subtly named ‘Jew Town,’ where Jewish traders used to set up shop; they’ve since been replaced by shopkeepers hawking tourist gifts, but we did stumble upon Kochi’s friendliest elephant.

Jewtown, open for business:

After Ari left us to begin his second semester, Maya, Tal and I continued on (after 26 hours of travel – do you sense a trend?) to the auspicious town of Hampi, an otherworldly landscape of minivan-sized boulders strewn across a lush jungle. In other words, the perfect place to lazily explore, searching for the perfect giant rock on which to sunbathe. There we set the record for our cheapest room yet ($3, but with dirt floors, no running water and – usually – no electricity; the hole in which you pooped was also home to the bucket of water you used to shower), climbed to the mountain temple where my favorite Hindu deity, monkey god Hanuman, was born, and ate a bowl of miso soup that changed the course of our trip entirely. How could soup hold such power? Well, when you’ve been eating Indian food for months on end, and you find a frenetic, friendly, sari-wearing Japanese lady rolling sushi in the middle of an Indian village, and said food is astoundingly good, you start to think that you need to work Japan into your itinerary. And that’s exactly what we’ve done. Instead of Indonesia (as planned), this May we’ll be slurping noodles in Tokyo. Simple as that. Longterm travel affords such a beautiful freedom that soup can really change your life. India has taught me to expect nothing, and be ready for our best laid plans to crumble to dust. People will tell you something as fact; you’ll later learn they were utterly, completely, hilariously wrong (a rickshaw driver once told us a stage we drove by was set up for the national children’s yoga championships – this was not true). So Maya was supposed to fly home from an airport near Hampi, but guess what? We found out – completely by luck, not because the airline alerted her – that her flight had been moved to another airport, at another time. Surprise! INDIA! So we packed up and overnight-bused it to Mumbai, sent Maya flying and awaited the second wave of Kassuttos: Sue and Zach, who we spent the last two weeks with on a whirlwind tour of Mumbai, Rajasthan and Varanasi.

Sunset in Pushkar, Rajasthan:

When you travel over the span of months, the things that once stopped you in your tracks normalize in your mind. In India, I no longer flinch when people spit, burp or fart, because everyone does that all the time. Everyday on the street and at an alarming volume on public buses, you hear a symphony of bodily functions. Walking through India’s intersections, where there are absolutely no traffic laws, let alone lanes, I have complete (and probably foolish) faith that holding my hand up to drivers speeding at me on the wrong side of the road will keep me alive, and I cross. It’s worked so far. I can casually wave off people trying to sell me hashish, offering me a rickshaw or boat ride, or to change money, or asking where I’m from so they can lure me into their shop, etc etc, where once I hated these fake, intrusive, bombardments. I now speak in half-English, stilted sentences (“How much cost?” “What time this?”), and I don’t trust anyone telling me the answer, because they are absolutely wrong.

A view from a rooftop in the Dharavi slum of Mumbai... those are pricey condos in the background:

And let’s talk about cleanliness. India is fucking filthy. Like, worse then you could possibly imagine. The side of every road is a garbage dump, and most are the feeding troughs to hundreds of cows, pigs, dogs, goats and water buffalo. As such, every Indian road is covered in shit – both animal and human. If someone picked you up from your couch right now and dropped you in the middle of a street in India, you would think everyone had explosive, life-ending diarrhea all the time, and the street was their only, miserable option. This is not entirely untrue. Two days ago, we ordered some food on a train. It arrived on a tray. As there are no trashcans on the train (or, for the most part, all of India), I waited for one of the train employees to come by to take my tray, as I didn’t want to slide the trash out the window as my seatmates were doing so cheerfully. When I found a train worker, he took my tray and slid all the trash out of the window, the stacked our trays and went on his way. I should’ve known. INDIA!, after all. The part that upsets me worse is that this type of blatant disregard to our environment (due to lack of education, public sanitation or what have you – there are countless factors at fault) no longer makes me flinch.

Even when Tal, her parents and I visited the Dharavi slum (yes, the one from ‘Slumdog Millionaire’), where over a million people live on top of each other (hundreds of thousands are manual laborers who come from rural areas and live, work, eat, sleep and often die in dank, impossible-to-breathe ‘factories’ melting plastic, separating pieces of scrap metal, scraping paint and the like for a few dollars a day), my jaw did not drop. In the case of the slammed-in-your-face poverty that we experience in India every day, unfailingly, it’s not that I don’t care. It’s that if you care too much you’ll drown in a well of sorrow, unable to travel another day. We buy food for homeless kids, and we’ve volunteered our time here to good causes, but in India, you just have to accept that, to be blunt, many peoples lives are really terrible here.

What kind of person have I become that this is all normal? I used to be so suburban! Backpacking in India, if you are not hiring drivers and staying in fancy hotels, is a tough, gritty and challenging experience. It’s not an easy place, by any means, and the difficulties of, say, navigating from one city to another across 1000 kilometers is always met by unforeseen problems. But there’s something great in watching yourself get better at dealing with those problems. In Delhi, we were like newborn babes, wide-eyed and shivering. Five months later, not too much gets us hyped up. You learn to adapt, and in doing so you grow up, you harden a bit and you smile at your new found resourcefulness. In Israel, we call it ‘not being a friar.’ This far into our trip, I feel at once more patient, calmer, a better listener, a better thinker and problem solver and a crack judge of the quality of roadside fried foods. In other ways, the changes I see in myself aren’t great, arguably; what merit is there in the above mentioned reactions to by-all-means terrible human conditions? Recognizing how you’ve changed through your travels can be a sobering experience. But it’s one I wouldn’t trade for anything. Thing is, for every bit of disgusting revelations I wrote of above, India has offered me a dozen incredible, mind-shifting and perspective-opening experiences. It’s all part of the package.

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