A Rocky Start in India
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(From an e-mail I sent on Wednesday, June 29):

Dear Friends,

I’m sure I invited all of you (even those of you who expressed a strong disinclination to come to this part of the world) to visit me in India, but after two weeks here I must rescind that invitation and urge you very strongly to avoid this godforsaken place at all costs.

I know I am going to sound very American in everything I say about India, but unfortunately I have concluded that this is the worst place in the world to be in, for any length of time, in terms of everything. It’s absolutely filthy. It’s hot. It’s polluted (I haven’t seen a blue sky here since I came, even when the sun has been out. The sky is generally some gray cloudy color). It SUCKS to be female here. The traffic is terrible. It’s so noisy. You can never be alone for a moment of peace. Insects keep trying to crawl into my computer. And did I mention it’s absolutely filthy?

Train to RanikhetI reached this conclusion after what was supposed to be a five-day peaceful retreat to Ranikhet, in the Kumaon area, in the foothills of the Himalayas. Perhaps my current views are a little jaundiced by the fact that I went with my 22-year-old cousin from Long Island, who spent our time there either feeling ill or pestering me to ask people to let her take their picture. I did already know that “nature” in India is not all together quite natural (the hills are alive with the sound of truck horns, for one thing) but she did not, and commented on it ad nauseam, which made it hard to put a positive spin on things, even though I think I try to sport rose-coloured glasses from time to time. But basically, I had to agree with her.

Farming terraces on the way to RanikhetImagine driving up a winding mountain road, the foothills of the world’s highest mountain range ahead of you. As you ascend, you glance down at the green forest and the river valley (well, there used to be a river, but thereA styrofoam-strewn Kumaon hillside haven’t been very good rains this year, so it’s a bit dried up) and what’s that twinkling amid the pines and firs? Potato chip packets and plastic bags and Styrofoam cups and plates and all sorts of other rubbish. You pass lots of little towns that might be scenic except, in spite of the lack of rain, they’re liberally splattered with mud and festooned with more garbage and stink to high heaven. As you round the curves, the vehicles all honk their horns, which they’re supposed to do for safety, but once they round the curve, they don’t stop honking. And most of the vehicles – there are a lot of trucks and jeeps up there -- are also belching the blackest, most noxious smelling fumes imaginable. So much for the fresh mountain air.

Perhaps our trip would have been better if we hadn’t had to keep going to the Ranikhet bus station, but somehow we couldn’t seem to avoid it. There, aggressive lads driving jeeps would respond to our question, “Where are you going?” with a very suggestively muttered “Where do you want to go?” and try and herd us into their transport. One time, when we went to the bus station without a male escort from the guesthouse, it was so stressful we had to flee the bus station all together.

Then, in a moment of serendipity, we fell upon a very pleasant and relaxing place, the Ranikhet Club, a holdover
from British days. It’s the sort of place where you sip gin-and-tonics, wearing your tennis whites. So we decided to spend a lot of time there, far from the madding crowd. The very first time we went there, these two guys latched on to us. The older of them (mid-60’s, roly-poly) took a fancy to my cousin and invited her to his house, which she cleverly pretended not to hear. (The friend, who ran some sort of camping business, tried to convince us how delightful it would be to spend the night in a tent on his lawn.) I got nervous and called up the guesthouse to ask someone to walk us home. But the old guy followed us home. Then he turned up at 6.30 a.m. and found out where our room was and came up and knocked on the pretext of inviting us out to play tennis, an invitation we had already turned down the night before. I shut the door in his face. Then he turned up again at 9.30 on Sunday night, mumbling at the door and pretending to be one of the staff.

The person sort of in charge of the guesthouse had already told us that we should take someone with us everywhere went. Just to keep alive the memory of being an independent member of society, I would take walks on my own, but what with being stared at, and feeling very fearful on the emptier roads, it was not all that enjoyable.

I know it’s ludicrous to come to a country of a billion people and then complain that you can never be alone, but I won’t let that stop me. I am really seeing the effects of overpopulation first-hand in all sorts of big and small ways. I can’t help but think of conversations I’ve had with Indians in New York City about how nice it is to have so much help in India, but when you are carrying one small bag, and 20 thug-faced porters bar your way off the train, it doesn’t feel very helpful.

So when it was time to go back to New Delhi, my cousin and I were quite relieved. We had to leave at 6 a.m. for the two-hour drive to the train station. Naturally I woke up feeling nauseous but my cousin was feeling better, and quite ravenous by the time we got to the station. So she started eating the packed lunch the guesthouse staff had packed for us. Unfortunately, rabid dogs started chasing her for it, so I gave the rest of our food to a homeless kid and hustled my cousin on to the train, where everyone was loudly fighting over seats, even though they were numbered.

My cousin slept the whole way through, in spite of many spoilt, precious kids talking loudly the whole way – 7 hours. It was very chilly in 2nd Class AC Chair Car, and I was feeling very ill, so I kept going out and sitting in the train door. I got a fair idea of the countryside we were passing through, and the fields were actually quite pretty and clean, perhaps because the farmers are too poor to be able to afford disposable goods. But the people in my car didn’t think twice about chucking their stuff out the door. I did try and tell them not to, but as I was feeling quite poorly, and it was also becoming clear to me that I was soon to bestrew some debris of my own over the landscape I thought I should pipe down, especially since I don’t know how to say “biodegradable” in hindi.

I have to say the train staff were pretty nice though, and kept giving me cups of tea, and cardboard to sit on. We had a nice discussion about garbage.

Eventually I threw up just outside Delhi, in a town called Ghaziabad (if ever a town deserved to be thrown up on, that was the one). Ghaziabad had more rubbish than people or buildings, which is saying a lot in India. What buildings were there looked like they had suffered through some sort of blitzkrieg – all crumbling and soot-stained. (Which reminds me that my cousin thought that Old Delhi Railway Station looked like Auschwitz, at least as she’s seen it in films.) I think I would try to convince my family and friends to commit mass suicide if we had to live there. But then I read in the Times of India real estate section that Ghaziabad is a hot investment.
I have spent the last three days lying in bed, eating dry toast and recovering from my holiday.

So, I have to say it: W. and all, America (even New Jersey) is still a very nice place to live and all of you, citizens and non-citizens alike, should stay there. Same goes for Europe.

p.s. Did think of one positive thing. This is a very good place for weight-loss. All you have to do is eat one samosa at a road-side stand and you will lose as much weight as with a few weeks of exercise and careful eating. Two or three more samosas and I may actually have that flat stomach I always dreamed of.

n.b. This will only be interesting to those of you who know my parents. In a curious case of synchronicity, my parents also had a difficult travel experience in France, visiting Corsica and other places. First my mother tripped on a step and fell on her stomach. Then my dad caught his hand in a door and it bled for a day. After that, as he was lighting a cigarette, the entire matchbox flared up in his hand creating a two-foot wide fireball. The next day their car broke down. Then they decided to end the trip early.