It was in Ahmedabad, after many months of travel through the giant country called India, that I gave up being a backpacker and became a tourist. I was worn out and wounded: my digestive system would never fully recover, I’d lost 20 lbs. & I was limping. My train had hit a cow, my motor rickshaw had hit a car, my bus had hit an ox, and finally, a pedal rickshaw had hit me.
I’d seen sites of grandeur- Agra’s Taj Mahal, Jaipur’s Palace of Winds; I’d seen sites of squalor- the Calcutta slums, piles of refuse lining roads like snow-banks, thin women making gravel by breaking rocks with picks under a murderous sun.
The physical extremes of India had caused emotional extremes in me: despair in unending heat, joy in monsoon rains, awe at the bowl of stars over me on a desert bed, terror navigating the long jungle path between the restaurant and the beach in the South.
There comes a time, when you are exploring a new place for a lengthy period, that withdrawal becomes absolutely necessary. In India, the only way for me to withdraw was to pay for “luxuries”. For an insane amount ($60/night- what I usually spent in a week), I moved into a hotel that was perfectly cool, into a room that was perfectly sealed (no monkeys coming in through the window here). There was a swimming pool on the roof! There was a bathtub in my room! (It was all about the water after the Thar Desert; if I wasn’t in the tub, I was in the pool.)
The food was edible. More than edible- it was delicious. The hotel knew tourists and the chili was greatly reduced. I’d been living on rice and bananas for some time. (I remember looking forward to “scrambled eggs” on the train. It was included with my berth. Served in little tin tiffins with no accompaniments, the eggs had been scrambled with chopped green chilies and my first bite, my only bite, burned my mouth and brought tears to my eyes.)
I stayed at the luxury hotel, with some guilt, for a couple of weeks. Outside beggars clawed me for money, rickshaws carried ceramic Ganeshas to the sea to be thrown in, noise and vehicles assaulted me, women with wide bare feet pulled carts down hot asphalt…and just when my hackles rose for them, I saw men with the same feet carrying huge bundles on their heads.
Look, India is worth the visit, it’s worth a long visit…the most amazing things I ever saw were in India- cows at bus stops, waterfalls in jungles, rafts in crocodile-infested waters, parrots in trees, camels in deserts, elephants in traffic jams.(read my poem)
I’m just saying: Do it when you’re healthy.
One day I was in some temple complex somewhere, sitting in a shadow, when I saw a white woman. I hadn’t seen a fellow traveller in days. Solo backpackers are always quick to share, friendships are cemented after one conversation- that’s true wherever I travelled, but in India it’s even stronger. We have a concern for each other there.
I got up and walked toward her. We came close to each other, appraising each other’s level of grime. “Are you okay?” I asked seriously.
“I’m coping.” She didn’t smile. She had purple bags under her eyes and a red tika on her forehead that had dripped over the bridge of her nose. “And you?”
“Ditto.” My smile was rueful.
She looked into my eyes and we connected in a very solid way. “It takes its toll,” she said.
It was unbearably hot standing there in the sun. She stepped into a nearby temple door without saying good-bye. I didn’t mind. It was too hot to talk. I headed back to the shade, my dizziness tempered by her gaze.