Saturday, January 12, 2008

India: Day Nine (From Rajasthan to and through Uttar Pradesh)

The reason I allowed myself to fall asleep the night of day eight is because I knew there was a lengthy drive ahead of us, and I thought I might use my laptop’s mediocre battery life to write my blog entry for the day prior on my knees in the car’s backseat. Of course, that’s not the way things worked out; I had to wake up at 5:15 in order to pack and be out the door by 6:00, and so was half asleep for the first third of the long car ride. We stopped around eight at a crappy roadside hotel to eat breakfast in the empty, enormous dining hall, where the ceiling fans were pushing cold air down onto me, shaking in the gray dawn, and I had to ask five or six times to have them shut off before it was done. I ordered an omelet and two samosas, feeling famished, but only could fight through the eggs and one of the two fried pyramids of dough, stuffed with curried potatoes and peas, so had the second packed up for a later snack. The hotel restaurant had an adjacent gift shop, with case after case filled with silver jewelry, but I remembered my promise to my mom not to let her make any more purchases, and refused to let her do any shopping. I actually had to physically drag her, by the sleeve, out of the shop, into which she had sneakily wandered on our way out to the parking lot. We piled back into the car, drove again, and after a some time came to an incredibly congested city. We had been driving about five hours. My mom asked Jasvir what town we were in, and he said Agra. We imagined that was the halfway point, and started thinking we’d reach Varanasi by 4:00, praising Jasvir to the heavens for being such an excellent driver.

We drove on, then stopped for lunch at A-1, the Indian equivalent of 7Eleven-cum-Denny’s, with a small variety of pre-prepared curries (the food was only luke-warm) served by waiters to tables in an open-air breezeway. Finally, Jasvir sat at the table with us. My mom asked the waiter what we should order, and he suggested the combination, which included a number of small portions of not-that-great stuff—a curried mixed vegetable dish (the best of the worst) a watery dahl (vaguely reminiscent of refried beans), paneer (that cheese) in a tomato “gravy” as they call it here, a raita (a cold yogurt and veggie dish that we can’t eat safely, according to Lonely Planet, since it hasn’t been boiled), plain rice, and a (totally revolting) rice dessert, along with a poppadom and two greasy rotis. It was pretty dreadful, particularly considering that everything was served on tin dishes. Mom and I both ordered hot tea, but the tea was brewed from loose leaves in a big vat, and it was too strong for her (it was to tea as espresso is to coffee—absolutely brilliant as far as I’m concerned), and she asked to be brought boiling water. It came in a tin cup (too hot to pick up), but no matter how much she watered down the tea, it remained murky and black, and she drank not one drop. The wait staff, as usual eager to please, brought a questionnaire at the end of the meal, along with a fresh cup of tea for mom. Since it was equally black as the first, I drank it down myself; we paid (it was absurdly cheap—a few dollars for all three of us) and we hit the road. Before leaving, my mom asked Jasvir “How much more time?” He smiled his usual ineffable grin and said, “nine hours, ma’am.” We were shocked, and horrified. My right leg was already killing me, and I was by now wide awake and had no idea how I was supposed to entertain myself for nine hours in the backseat of a car, since looking out the window at ten million cows and shanty villages had ceased to be interesting long ago.

Back in the car, I decided to finally do some reading, and pulled The Satanic Verses out of my suitcase. Mom read the Lonely Planet and alternated that with catnaps. I had read about 70 pages before feeling like a catnap myself, and closed my eyes, stuffing the book between the car seat and door. I woke up when the motion of the car had stopped; we had parked at some kind of toll/tax collection booth (we had also had to pay when exiting the state of Rajasthan and entering Uttar Pradesh). As is standard in India for any spot where tourists might stop, a flock of children salesmen assaulted our windows with necklaces and other throw-away mementos that we did not want. Then, an older man with a monkey on a string came up to the window, and the animal leapt up onto the vehicle and pressed his face into the glass. Mom and I sat staring, mesmerized, but then the man said (we could hear his voice clearly through the closed car door) “he can dance.” He told the monkey to dance and the poor dirty creature began to jump up and down. I don’t know why, but I started to shake a bit. Then, accompanied by the old man’s yelps, the monkey began to jump in the air and do back flips. I turned my face away, because my breath was coming fast, and I was trembling all over. My mom reached her hand to touch my arm and asked if I was okay. I burst into tears and cried the hardest I have yet since we’d begun this trip. “It’s okay, it’s okay,” she told me. “I hate people. I hate people so much,” I told her, and she tried to comfort me, saying that “monkeys like to jump,” and so it was okay. But I told her no, it wasn’t okay, that they did not like to jump while hung on a string by their necks, and I continued crying hard and shaking with rage, hating all of humanity passionately, wanting to do violence to the old man (who had since disappeared, seeing that money was the last thing we were going to give him), and simultaneously feeling the urge to forgive him, since most likely it was only his poverty that drove him to do such a thing. I cried and cried and asked my mom to leave me alone, and wondered aloud, “Jasvir must think I’m nuts,” since he was getting back in the car and could probably see me sobbing once again in his backseat. My mom began to talk to him (I think she’s taken it upon herself to teach him English during this little jaunt, since she has him sit with us at meals, and talks to him and draws him pictures to help him understand) and told him there was a monkey. He smiled his beneficent “yeah, yeah” smile, and then my mom said, pointing at me, “She does not like. She cry.” And then I looked at her, saltwater still in my eyes, and said, “that’s really not necessary.” We started driving again and I went back to my book, and then back to sleep, I think.

I might have actually slept a bit before waking up from the constant honking of horns and bouncing around of the vehicle. Our guide in Jaipur had said that, to drive in India, one needs four things: good eyes, a good horn, good brakes, and good luck, and he had been completely right. Jasvir, for all of his linguistic shortcomings (what am I saying? He speaks and reads both Hindi and Punjabi, and I only know one language fluently), is an excellent driver. He proved his mettle after the streets became dark; I had picked my book up again, read another thirty pages, and put it down; stopped for the bathroom once or twice, and had my mom nap in my lap. We had dinner at another A-1 (the food this time was better—it was actually hot, and, having experienced the menu already, I ordered the curried mixed vegetables, with some rice and deep-fried paneer snacks, and it was all completely edible; by now, my mom had stopped ordering tea, and instead asked for boiling water with lemon), and continued to driving. At dinner, the air pitch black around us, my mom asked Jasvir how much longer. Smiling indulgently, he said, “Ma’am, five more hours,” upon which statement we both writhed with yielding distress and got in the car. We both tried to sleep, somehow exhausted even though we hadn’t done a thing but sit all day, but between the horn honking (which is incessant in India—every truck, painted in bright colors in a way Americans can only dream of, says “Horn Please” on the back in big colorful block letters (as well as “Use Dipper At Night,” which I had thought was some inexplicable advertisement, until we were actually on the road with truckers at night, and Jasvir flashed his high-beams incessantly instead of honking as much as he would during the day), which means honk your horn long and often whenever you drive past a truck, which, basically, is all the time; Jasvir, being a big-city driver, honks all the time anyway, truck or bicycle or rickshaw or auto-rickshaw or cow or motor-scooter or bus or whatever it is that he’s driving alongside), and the bumps in the road (to pass long, unmoving lines of truckers, Jasvir often does a bit of “off-roading” in our compact, rental-grade Tata Indigo (think Dodge Neon)), snatched bits of sleep were few and far between. Mom entertained me by telling stories, both real and made up, and I entertained her by listening and providing suggestions.

We drove and drove and drove. We stopped for the bathroom, and Jasvir asked our permission to “eat a tea,” which we granted. It was now half-past ten, when, based on Jasvir’s “five hours” prediction, we should have been rolling into town at any moment. And yet, somehow, thanks to traffic (what in God’s name are all of these trucks even carrying? Why do they need to drive at night?), we didn’t even reach the outskirts of Varanasi until after midnight, and our hotel until 1:00 AM. We had been on the road 19 hours. That beats the hell out of the time that I drove ten hours in Iceland and had a nervous breakdown by nearly twice, but Jasvir was still smiling, his warm eyes glimmering in the dim light of the hotel’s entrance. We had originally planned to take a boat ride on the Ganges during sunrise, as the Lonely Planet recommends, but we were bloody exhausted, so told Jasvir to pick us up at 8:00, rather than 6:30 as our guidebook suggested. At a certain point, you’re so tired that you say, “screw the ghats,” and you go to sleep. We had been expecting the poshest of the posh from our hotel, the Taj Ganges, which had extensive elegant grounds in the dark, and had been recommended as the five-star choice by both the Lonely Planet and a number of people, but the hotel turned out to be quite tired, and even a bit moldering and stinky, like New York’s Waldorf-Astoria on a smaller scale. And yet, we were too tired to argue, and accepted our second-floor, pool-view room, and crawled under the covers. I hadn’t used my laptop or camera all day.

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