Our visit to the holy city of Varanasi began horribly. It started with a six-hour wait in the Agra train station, where I watched enormous rats race in and out of offices and even up one man’s back as I waited for our long-delayed train. By the time we got off the train, my purse had been stolen, and I was in a rotten mood. Then spending hours and hours in the train station police office, where I was required to write over and over my account of the incident (everything was done by hand, and there could be no cross-outs, so any time they wanted me to change even one tiny word, I had to rewrite the entire thing) did nothing to help. Finding out that after all that we’d have to come back in the evening to pick up the official report because the transcriber had a headache brought me to the brink of losing it. By the time we found out half of the city streets were closed for a festival, and we’d have to schlep our bags a long way through the Indian heat and humidity, I was too far gone to even care.
India was, at this point, pretty much dead to me. I just couldn’t be bothered to care…not about the cow shit I had to trample through to get to our hotel, not about the kids with soulless eyes begging for our change, not about the six flights of stairs I had to climb to get to our room. The overwhelming amount of poverty that constantly affronted me combined with my own experience of being a victim, most likely of someone without a chance in the world, had numbed me. I didn’t have anymore outrage left in me. Or so I thought.
As night fell on the Ganges, and its unholy mix of cremated bodies, garbage, animal carcasses and pollutants, we ventured out from the relative comfort of the hotel where we’d entombed ourselves all day into the chaos of the city. We stumbled up and down alleyways that smelled of human excrement, incense, chai, and sweat until we emerged onto a broad street, packed with people celebrating Durga Puja, an important holy day in this part of the country. Effigies–some expensive looking, others constructed with no more than hay and old clothes–were being transported down to the river in the beds of trucks, behind which rich young men danced to the pulse of Indian music. Crowds lined the streets and pushed their way around, a tidal wave of humanity. Kids ate what appeared to be cotton candy, and a man repeatedly brushed himself up against me (a much too common occurrence) until Jeff realized it and stared him down and chased him off.
If it had been another day, I’d have taken photos. The festival was the kind of thing I usually love. But that day, I didn’t care. Everything about it annoyed me. All I wanted was a rickshaw, a means of transport to get back to the train station to pick up the police report I wasn’t completely convinced would even be available (at least not without a bribe). Finally, after walking around for at least an hour, we found one, a cycle rickshaw with a driver that would agree to a price we’d been told was reasonable.
I hated cycle rickshaws. They seemed so inhumane to me. I felt like an old colonial subjugator, sitting primly on the cushioned seat while a terribly poor man forced his skinny legs up and down in an effort to pedal me through the streets of Varanasi. But, on the other hand, this was the only way these people had to make a living. If I denied him service, I wasn’t helping him. I was instead depriving him of a chance to have something to eat that day. That, and the fact that I always paid much more than the agreed-upon fare, were the only things that soothed my conscience.
On this evening, our driver was chatty, introducing himself to us as Michael. That seemed an odd name for an Indian to me, but he quickly added that he was Christian and Michael was the name he’d taken when he was baptized. It made sense, especially since just a few days prior I’d been reading about a recent trend in which many of India’s poorest were converting to Christianity, attracted by its teaching that you could be saved through faith and good works and in only one life time, a stark difference from the prevailing Hindu beliefs that require cycles of reincarnation, a seemingly endless road for those deemed the lowest of the low. He was friendly and helpful, pointing out sights all while pedaling his heart out, and I felt my mood lift a bit in his presence. There were good people in India, I was reminded.
At the train station, the report was ready and handed over to me without so much as even a hint at a bribe. Things were looking up. We grabbed a bottle of water, since we were covered in sweat from the heat despite having done nothing but sit the entire way there, and then we grabbed a second bottle for Michael. I think it cost all of 10 cents. It was no great act of philanthropy, though he was beyond pleased when we offered it to him upon our return.
The ride back was for the most part uneventful. Michael kept up his chatter and we responded appropriately, glad that this day was drawing to an end and hoping that a better day awaited us the next morning. But as we got within the vicinity of the hotel, the roads again became crowded, and Michael was forced to weave his way through the throngs of people. One of the “floats” was ahead of us, and getting around it was going to be tricky. We had to stop and wait while it passed, but then with a break between the truck and the followers, Michael saw his chance and decided to hurry through.
Not so fast, however. One of the celebrants, an obviously wealthy young man with nice clothes and nothing more important to do than dance behind a truck, approached our rickshaw with a band of followers. In Hindi, he began to yell at Michael. Michael did not yell back. He just hung his head and let the young man rant. Though perhaps India no longer has any official caste system, the caste system lives. Then, still yelling, the man picked up a stick and made a motion as if he were going to hit Michael. All this, because Michael dared to try to cross the street in an effort to make a living. I’d been sitting there watching, quite uncertain of what was going on, but at that point I lost it.
I normally shrink from confrontation. But, on that night, after that day, I’d had enough.
“Stop it,” I yelled, “Now. Stop it now. Just stop.” I don’t even know where my voice came from but I was outraged. “Do not be violent. He is a person. A person. Treat him like a person. ” I just kept yelling.
The men stopped and stood there dazed. It was as if I had hit them. This was not the response they usually got. This was not what they expected. I must have seemed crazy, rabid. I didn’t care. It didn’t matter. They stopped, left us alone, let us continue.
Not wasting a second, or letting the men change their mind, Michael pedaled hard until we were away from them. He then slowed and turned to me. “Thank you. Thank you,” he said. “You’re such a good person.” He repeated this over and over.
I shook my head. “No,” I said. “No.” But he wasn’t listening.
I wasn’t a good person. I was just a person. A person doing what people are supposed to do. Yet there, for people like Michael, I was extraordinary. Perhaps that should have made me feel good, but it didn’t. Instead I felt sick. Simple human kindness should not be extraordinary. Basic human dignity should not only be for the privileged.
Arriving at our destination, we got out of the rickshaw and pressed money into Michael’s hand. He smiled broadly and thanked us again and again. I walked away, shaken to the core, then stopped and turned back. “Good luck,” I yelled to him, wishing desperately that being treated like a person didn’t require luck.
Yes, friends, it’s been two entire months since our plane touched down in Seattle, putting us back on American soil after 363 days abroad. If I haven’t yet seen you, I apologize. Life back here in the U.S. is busy. Go to the grocery, spend more time than I care to in my car, don’t forget to get gas, run to Target to pick up toilet paper and garbage bags, schedule doctor appointments, figure out insurance options, buy a house. I do a lot of stuff these days. But at the same time I don’t really do anything. Run, run, run, but at the end of the day what can I say that I really did?
Also aside from the couple of old friends we have here in our new home of Durham, North Carolina, I’m not particularly close to any of you. It’s a four hour drive to see the closest of you, eight hours for the next set, and Lord, across an entire country for the rest of you. Funny how on our trip, we wouldn’t blink at 17 hour bus rides but here a 4 hour drive seems so impossible. Why don’t we get together more? Oh yeah, it’s all those things we have to do around here, the never ending lists of things to accomplish, the need to have everything perfectly planned not decided on a moment’s notice.
And if I haven’t called, well, I’m sorry. I don’t really have an excuse. I want to call, I swear, I want to catch up, but my adversity to the phone has grown so much stronger over the past year. I’m out of practice. It feels so cold and foreign, so impersonal. And I feel so out of touch. Where do I even start?
I have to say that I’m finding coming home to be much harder than leaving. Life, to be honest, feels bland, as if someone forgot to add the salt. Most days I have this feeling that I’m just waiting for something to happen. I don’t know what it is, but I keep feeling like this can’t be it, that there’s got to be something more.
Obviously, I knew it would be hard, be an adjustment, but knowing something and being prepared for it are completely different things. I thought moving to a new place, starting new jobs, meeting new people would be enough to keep the adventure alive, but it’s not. I desperately miss the old version of the to-do list:
jump into warm tropical waters and spend an hour 18 meters below the surface among turtles, sharks, fish, octopus, and amazing coral reefs
wake up early to try to spot a lion returning from a hunt
watch turquoise blue icebergs calve
eat all the Asian street food I can handle for less than $5
get up close and personal with gorillas
give an elephant a bath
get a lesson on Buddhism from a monk
listen to the Dalai Llama teach
and so on and so forth
I’ve never felt so alive as I did when we were on our trip, so in control of my life, so certain that this was exactly what I was meant to be doing. I’ll let Jeff speak for himself, but I don’t think he feels exactly the same as I do. Somehow I married one of the few people in the world who really like what they do. And unfortunately his job is not one that we can take with us on a trip. Just try to take a bunch of cell lines across a border and see what happens. I dare you. So, for at least a few years, we’re going to be stable, and I’m going to have to again find the joy in the ordinary…as well as figure out how to squeeze as many trips into our regular person schedule and our homeowner’s budget as is humanly possible. It’ll take time. That’s what I have to remind myself. And it’ll be okay, I’m certain. Probably even good. Maybe even great, spectacular. Somehow the two of us together usually manage to have a pretty damn good time.
But if Jeff walked in the door tonight and asked if I was ready to go, ready to head out for Round 2 of seeing all the crazy, wonderful, amazing things this world has to offer, I wouldn’t hesitate. I’d throw all those same ol’ clothes and same ol’ gadgets in my bag and be out the door, no looking back.
But maybe this time, we’d start our journey with a roadtrip around the country, seeing all of you family and friends that I do truly miss and trying to convince you all to join us, if not for the entire trip, for a month, a fortnight, a week.
And of course, we wouldn’t actually start any of this until December 26, because as much as I want to be back on the road, for Christmas there’s nowhere I want to be but home. Life, I’ve found, is tricky like that.
Thanks to all of those who left us questions when we opened up the floor. Here is our attempt at answering. If you’ve thought of something else you want to ask, go ahead and do so. We have received other questions via email, and we plan to answer those in a later installation.
Did you ever have to get medical treatment or even buy medicine?
Only two sicknesses stick out in my mind. On New Year’s Eve 2008, two days before we were to begin our hike to Machu Picchu, I came down with a stomach bug. I first got sick on the flight from Lima to Cuzco, and it didn’t let up the rest of the day. Making it worse, we were in a freezing cold room with a crappy bathroom. It was also pouring rain. And to top it off we had to go to the trekking office to make our final payment. I had to stop about every 20 feet, and at one point, I was so bad off my brother actually offered to carry me. The next day I felt better, but then it returned the next day, our first day on the Inca Trail, when I hurled the second I stood up from the lunch table. Unfortunately, I also passed it on to my brother, who got to learn just how tough he was when he was horribly sick on the hardest (and what turned out to be the coldest and wettest) day of the hike.
The second incident was when Jeff and I both simultaneously came down with what we strongly suspect to have been the swine flu. We were in Siem Reap, Cambodia, which was experiencing a big outbreak of the epidemic at the time. We had all the symptoms—crazy delusion-causing fevers, respiratory issues, horrible aches and pains, and overall yuckiness. I also had the bonus of stomach issues. We were sick for about three days, but there was one night I thought we just might die. I may have actually wished to die because I felt so miserable. Luckily we were able to secure some Tamiflu, which really helped.
Other than that, we were pretty much healthy. Our stomachs also proved to be made of steel as we handled the local food and water with nothing more than a blip of discomfort here and there.
What is the one things that pissed you off the most?
We got annoyed at the fact that most people in the world have no idea what a line is. We got tired of being quoted prices many times higher than they should have been and having to haggle for a fair price. I thought the guy on our Inca Trail hike who didn’t think we needed to tip our guide or the porters was an ass. But I only remember getting really pissed a few times.
Once was when the bus left us, as well as the four other tourists onboard, at the Vietnam-Laos border, forcing us to hunt down and pay for a private mode of transport because it took us too long to get our visas. I actually took the getting left behind in stride; what were we to do? What got us pissed was the company’s refusal to take responsibility or give us any sort of fair compensation.
The second was when my purse was stolen on the train in India. I wished all sorts of evil on him, and if I had had a chance at him, it would not have been pretty.
The third was later on the same day in India, when we saw the reality of the caste system come into play and witnessed the level of inhumanity that so many people live with every day. We haven’t told this story here before, and it would take too long to explain in this post, so check back next week when I’ll tell my Varanasi cycle rickshaw story.
What made you smile the biggest?
I immediately thought of the kids in Africa when I read this question. It’s funny because I wouldn’t say that either of us are huge kid/baby people. Don’t get me wrong, we like them, and might even want our own one day, but we definitely don’t fawn over every one we see. But the kids in Africa were so spirited, so funny, so contagiously in love with life. And they were always so damn thrilled to see us (unless they were absolutely scared to death of us). I still remember turning this corner in Zanzibar and coming across a group of three small kids. As soon as they saw us, they started shrieking “Mzungu! Mzungu! Mzungu!” (what they call white people), jumping up and down, and going absolutely crazy. It was like they’d just won the lottery. Simply amazing. We don’t quite get the same reception around here.
World’s best airline? Worst? Air Emirates has earned its reputation as a top-tier airline. The seats were comfy and came with individual entertainment systems with tons of options, and food and service was good. We also had a good experience on Air France, getting exit row seats and a choice of approximately 1 zillion movies on our own individual systems.
Air India Express was probably the worst. Our flight was delayed for 6 hours, and we could get absolutely no information on why or when it might possibly leave. Also, the passengers on this airline were nuts. I think every single person went the bathroom during the flight (which was less than 2 hours), and they made a line all the way down the aisle of the plane. And more than one person actually got up to attempt to go the bathroom as we were landing. We were literally about to put wheels down when they stood up. I know this isn’t directly about the airline, but the flight crew didn’t seem to have much control or influence.
Where in South America should I go?
What a beautiful continent! I’m ready to go back. Go to Patagonia if you want to see natural beauty the likes of which you can’t imagine. Go to the Galapagos because you get to snorkel with seals and penguins and see things you won’t see anywhere else in the world. Go to Buenos Aires to eat steak, ice cream, and wine, be seduced by the tango, marvel at the beautiful people, photograph the architecture, and try to speak their crazy version of Spanish. Go to Machu Picchu because it’s mystical and magical and simply astounding.
You are supposed to go to the dentist every 6 months. Did you?
No. I don’t even like going to the dentist here (though yes, I do it). There was no way we were braving it in some foreign country.
Best thing you ate? Worst thing you ate? Strangest thing you ate?
Best according to Jeff: Coconut Ice Cream with Dulce De Leche (Argentina), Steak (Argentina), Keow Teow Noodles (Laos), Malai Kofta (India), Naan (Amritsar, India)
Best according to Theresa: Steak (Argentina), Cau Lao Noodles (Hoi An, Vietnam), Fresh Fruit Shakes (Asia), Mangoes (Malaysia), Naan (Amritsar, India), Potato Momos (Dharamshala), Omelette with chips and roti (Mbeya, Tnazania). Strangely enough, what I find myself most craving though is gallo pinto, Nicaraguan style basic beans and rice.
Worst: Neither of us cared for the chincheros (fried pork skin) given to us by our host family in Granada. I also have to say we’re not big fans of cassava, or the million other names third-world countries around the globe have for the starchy white stuff that fills the world’s stomach without providing any real nutrition.
Strangest: We didn’t eat bugs or any of the other creepy-crawly-type things that really freak people out. In Africa, we did try ostrich, springbok, kudu, and some other types of wild game. In Asia, I had fish balls, which I actually liked.
What’s your favorite place in the world and why?
Africa, Africa, Africa. If I were to be given another year to travel, I’d immediately hop a plane to Africa, buy me an old 4WD, and spend the entire year exploring the continent. The landscapes were phenomenal, and the people even more so. I felt like our most “authentic” experiences were in Africa, that we experienced it on a more intimate level than most other places. I also have to say that I never, ever, ever got sick of looking out my window and seeing an elephant or zebra or lion or whatever. It’s just simply the most amazing place I’ve ever been.
So you’re probably wondering just how many “Where Next?” posts we can manage to get up on our blog. Well, friends, this is the last one, and this post requires that you pitch in and help. What we need you to tell us is exactly where we ought to go next.
You see, very shortly after we returned to the States, we did a lot of flying around within the country. In the process, we managed to get bumped from a flight. I know that might sound bad to a lot of you, but Jeff and I often pray to get bumped, especially if we’re not on a tight schedule. We love the vouchers that come with volunteering to give up your seat.
On the specific flight for which we got bumped, we got especially lucky. We were only delayed by two hours, got a free lunch while we waited, and were handed vouchers of $600 each. $600! That’s a lot…especially considering it was only a 30 minute-long flight we got bumped from.
In summary, here’s the deal. We each have $600 in credit toward a flight. The credit expires next October. The credit must be used through Delta, so the flight must be on Delta or with a partner who will allow us to book the trip through Delta.
Now your job: tell us where to go! Come on, we know some of you have just been dying to do that. Don ‘t pretend otherwise.
Here’s the criteria:
We’d prefer not to have to pay anything out of pocket for the flight but could be convinced to pitch in a little bit of dough if necessary.
We have to work within the confines of being working Americans, meaning we can’t take month long trips.
We’re open to domestic or international destinations.
We’d like to keep the budget on the lower end. We just bought a house, people; funds are limited.
So what do you suggest? Give us your best scenario.