When Tal and I arrived in Sri Lanka a few months back, after a mere 40 minute flight that felt more like a take off and immediate landing, we were greeted at customs by a large sign, illuminated in black and white “Possession of Narcotics is Punishable by Death.” With a few months of the do-as-you-please India under our belts, crossing into this nation felt like a jolt – and, naturally, not only because of the strict Say No to Drugs policy. The culture, the landscape, the language – it was similar, but pointedly different than the country’s behemoth neighbor, and we saw it right away. When we prepared to cross into Nepal, India’s second major traveler detour, a few weeks back, I somehow expected the same sort of abrupt arrival.
We would enter Nepal over land, not air, but in my mind we would walk across this line and enter the nation of crisp, cool air, flowers, mountains, gentle sherpas and abundant yaks. About eighteen hours before reaching the border, we left the holy city of Varanasi, where we’d tearfully parted from Tal’s parents after a few weeks traveling through India with them. It was the type of trip that you imagine laughing about while lazing around a kitchen table in 20 years, relaying the stories to kids and cousins who’ve heard them so many times before. “And our 16 hour train ride turned out to be 25!” I imagine we’ll say, to sighs and ‘Yeah, we know’ smiles.
From Varanasi, we headed north towards Nepal.The train there was an especially unpleasant overnight ride. Northern India totally lives up to all those grimy and dare-I-say rapey notions people have of the country: too many men in too little space, all looking like they just emerged from a double shift in a coal mine. I awoke twice to find men sitting on the ‘bed’ I’d reserved on the train; I was quite literally and unknowingly spooning them. They didn’t even offer to buy me breakfast. In between the beds (sleeper class trains most closely resemble a submarine, all stacked up bunks and rusty metal), the train was littered with sleeping, mustachioed dudes, most without a blanket or anything separating them from the sticky metal floor.
Around dawn, we arrived in the industrial (read: all grey, all day) city of Gorakhpur. Even the name sounds like some churning, chugging machine. While I waited at the train station for Tal to brush her teeth, a rat the size and shape of a tuna sub crawled out of a crack and bit my toe. “Ow,” I yelled, looking down at him, disgusted and in disbelief that I was just bitten by a rat in one of India’s dirtiest cities. “You little fucker.” He did not respond, but I imagine he was thinking “Got you, asshole! Go back to your air conditioned apartment and your sanitary public transportation.” Alas, the bite hadn’t broken skin, so we deemed my toe not at risk for any horrifying diseases and continued on our way.
Typical street scene...
From Gorakhpur we shared a ride to the border with four Nepalis and a driver in one small sedan, and by mid-morning we were staring at Nepal. The car dropped us off short of the border, the driver pointing in the direction of the necessary immigration and customs offices. A bicycle rickshaw man immediately, smoothly stepped in: “50 rupees only, my friend, I taking bags and you two all the way across border and to bus station. Cheap price for you.” That sounded like a deal. We were, after all, crossing into a new country, a brand new territory. An appropriate ride for such a journey. We hopped on his rusted metal carriage and he pedaled us about 35 feet, at which point we descended from the bike and waited in line to be stamped out of India.
Then we continued down this dusty street through 50 feet or so of what could be considered No Man’s Land between the nations, then past a sign that said “Nepal” and we were in Nepal. We stopped at the customs office, acquired our visas in a matter of minutes and we were back on the bike to the bus station. The bus station which was about 15 seconds down the road. After all the work to reach this border, crossing it was anticlimactic, like making it to the finals on “The Price is Right” and your final showcase is a box of used textbooks. There was no fence, no blinking lights. It felt the opposite of official. Kids biked alongside us freely, jostling between the countries.
Angry at myself for allowing a driver to talk me into a 200-foot ride, I begrudgingly handed him 100 rupees, my hand out awaiting change. “No, my friend. One, two person. 100 rupees,” he said, to which I laughed and said, “No, give me change.” This exchange went on for a moment before Tal, by all means the more assertive of our duo, grabbed the money from the drivers hand and said, “50 rupee or no rupee.” Nothing quiets an Indian man quite like a white girl with confidence. She once told a guesthouse owner who had given away our room that he was to find us another immediately, and his eyes widened, his hands covered his mouth, said, “I’m scared. I must… go finish cleaning.” He walked away and we heard him scrubbing a toilet. A strong woman who is not his wife is kryptonite to your average Indian man. Anyway, the driver took his money and slinked off.
We were here in Nepal, and it looked… well, it looked exactly like India. The notion of crossing a border into someplace new – it was, at least in this case, a myth. We boarded a minibus (20 seats; what felt like 500 passengers) towards Pokhara, where we’d meet our old college buddy Chris, who had flown in from China. For the first few hours of the ride, I looked out the window and just saw more India. The feeling was much the same when we found out, a few days later, that we’d been foolishly believing that Nepal – you know, on the border of Tibet – was a Buddhist country. Surprise! It’s about as Hindu as Israel is Jewish. Where we have an Arab minority, Nepal has a Buddhist one.
These realizations struck me silly. Why would it make any sense that a nation on the border of the world’s Hindu giant would suddenly change into a Buddhist wonderland? Borders, I began to see, are simple human constructions, and we’ve created ritual and ceremony to recognize when we’ve crossed one. A passport stamp, of course, the most physical example.
A hidden shrine, Kathmandu
The people we’ve met while traveling this year extend this idea even further. The borders we draw on ourselves are, so often, even more arbitrary. I am a Jew. I am an agnostic. I am a straight male. I am a democrat. I am a feminist. I am an American. And if am these things, then I am a whole list of other things by association. But when you travel, especially in mind-expanding and weirdo-magnates like Nepal and India, you meet people who firmly disavow these social borders, the proverbial black and white.
Well over a year ago, I stopped eating meat. For the first six months or so, I was hesitant – afraid, really – to call myself that word, that polarizing word: vegetarian. I grew up a devout and happy carnivore. Birthday dinner? Steakhouse! Graduation dinner? Steakhouse! You cannot travel the world and say that your favorite restaurant is “Lonestar” or “Outback,” but that was me for the first 18 or 20 years of my life. I’m not bashing the way I was; rather, meat was what I loved to eat. And now it’s not. I read some books, I lived for years with this girl who is a vegetarian and an incredible cook, and I just kinda stopped.
To be frank, eating animals just started to give me the heebie-jeebies. And especially here in India, where cows and water buffalo and goats roam the streets like they have their own P.O. boxes, it’s hard to equate my life with eating a burger. I believed I was crossing a border – that once I had the stamp, I couldn’t scrub my passport clean. My friends didn’t know what to make of me. My family still doesn’t. But here’s the thing: that shit isn’t real.
Water Buffalo Bathtime in the Ganges
Maybe the best example that I’ve dealt with is the blurring of these borders: I am diabetic. I am a world traveler. For months and agonizing months, health insurance companies told me that these were borders I could not cross, like trying to walk right out of Israel and into Syria. But I had to plow forward with a big ‘Fuck That’ in my head and piece together a plan so that I could afford to keep myself healthy and safe as we traveled (note: when your health insurance won’t allow you to buy enough insulin to travel, diabetes supplies in Nepal are way cheaper than just about anywhere).
If travel teaches you anything it’s that life is one big grey mess. We may need passports to cross international borders, by we don’t usually need them elsewhere. We are free to be weird and undefined and make our own rules. I mean, shit, as I type this, I’m sitting on a train watching a man dance down the aisle playing a flute with his nose and singing Hare Krishna songs.
If you can’t tell, Nepal to me felt like a beautiful space to clear my head. After months and months in India, where you crawl through the muck to seek those moments of wonderful clarity, Nepal was quite the opposite. The country is gorgeous and wide-open. It’s easy to spread out, look at some of the world’s most beautiful scenery and quiet your mind right on down. A few hours up the mountains from Pokhara, we spent a few days without water or electricity volunteering on a coffee farm, helping a Hindu family in bending the trees to pick the bright red beans, washing and pulping the pits and laying them out to dry. Good god, I never thought of how much work goes into one cup of coffee. In Kathmandu we ducked into miniature doorways to find hidden temples and ancient courtyards adorned with Buddhas and Shivas. It was easy, relaxed, slow.
But alas – I am who I am, and after a few weeks I began to crave the incessant noise, intensity and color that is India. Tal and I had even discussed staying in Nepal right up until we flew to Thailand for a 10 day silent meditation retreat, but the very morning after we’d signed up, we awoke in our Kathmandu hotel room (bundled up fully in our coats to fight the Nepali cold) and looked at each other: we couldn’t just leave without seeing India again.
I’ve written in this blog a lot about my love/hate relationship with India. It’s dirty, it stinks, the people push you all the time and you will, almost every day, step in cow shit or people shit or a whole melange of different types of shit that mix together because that’s what happens in India. But still. This place has crawled under my skin. It’s seeped into my blood. It’s in me now. Nepal was India-Lite. Diet India. Sugar Free India. Whatever you want to call it, and I’ll most certainly return someday - with much more money, and much more time to go on a serious trek up a huge mountain. But India, just across the man made border, was calling to me. India is a turbulent sea, but the thrill of navigating my little boat through the waves is too much to deny.
So after our time with Chris was up, we collected our new visas and made the exact opposite trip we’d made a few weeks earlier, right back to Varanasi. And it’s in this most holy city – my pick for maddest, most blindingly colorful place in India, where we stayed for over a week.The city is an everyday spectacle, and it’s mesmerizing.
Walking down a busy thoroughfare one day, we saw a crowd gathered around a car. On top of the car was a monkey which was about as big as me. That is to say, a very small man or one huge fucking ape. He sat there, swiping at the Indians who taunted him, then put his hands on his knees in contemplation. But he couldn’t have been thinking too long, because at that moment the car began moving through the crowd, honking incessantly, as is the fashion here. And suddenly, there was a huge monkey surfing on a car through a busy city street. He didn’t even flinch.
Elsewhere, especially down towards the Ganges, you’ll find the sadhus, or the holy men who’ve renounced the material life. The most hardcore of these characters sit all day in meditation, naked and covered in ash that they collect each morning from the public cremations just down the river. Others wear sneakers and just ask for money. My favorite sadhu sat by the water with his own holy fire burning all day, and a band of haggard Shiva worshipped surrounding him playing sitar and drums. I’d pass him each morning, our eyes would meet and we’d both grin.
And, of course, this guy:
Everyone in Varanasi’s got a game, and they all want you to play. And if you keep your wits about you and don’t get suckered, the city is exhilarating. It’s not so hard to figure out who the jokers are. Walking into any shop, there will often be a guy with no teeth and tattered clothing standing outside waiting for you, sometimes even commenting on your purchases. “Do you work here?” we’ll ask. “Yes, yes,” he’ll mumble. “No you don’t,” we’ll smile. “No, but blue skirt look nice. You want buy hashish? Very cheap price.” See, it’s easy!
On our final morning in the city, I woke up at dawn to see the already-bustling morning ceremonies at the Ganges. Mourners, who had just watched a love one engulfed in flames atop a precisely weighed-out pile of wood (the process takes about 3 hours until only the hips and chest bone are left, which are then tossed into the river), sat at the water with their families. People were praying with ritual foods, beads, colorful powder on their foreheads. Boatmen were coaxing passersby into a ride (“Hello, boat?”). Old men were bathing. The hundreds of homeless people who’d slept the night on the river banks were just waking up, sleepyeyed. I perched myself on some steps and just watched – a moment of peace, like I was encased in a bubble. Then a 12-year-old boy approached me with a wicker basket and opened it to reveal a gigantic cobra snake, snapping and writhing. The perfect way to say goodbye to Varanasi, and really to India. Sadly, that time is upon us.
We saw that goat being born, covered in placenta.
After a day in Bodhgaya, the Indian town where Buddha achieved enlightenment, and a quick look around Kolkata, we begin the next leg of our trip as we fly to Thailand for two months in South East Asia. I’ve no doubt Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia will be a fun, fantastic time, but I’ve also no doubt it won’t be the same as India. We’ll do much more beer drinking and beach laying than, say, contemplating our faith on the edge of the world’s holiest/ dirtiest river.
So, farewell India. I’ll drink one last chai to you. You grossed me out. You stressed me out. You tested my patience time and time again. But you also taught me that borders only exist if I say they do.