Trying to ignore the chaos around me, I took a deep breath, and silently spoke to myself.
Megan, you are fine. You feel great. India is great! Just a bit nauseous is all. You’re totally fine and everything will be just–…shit!
I reeled in pain from the sharp kick in my gut. I doubled over in my rickshaw seat and grabbed Mike’s knee, looking up at him with a cringe.
“Um…so yeah. I’m pretty sure I’m getting food poisoning. Like, really bad food poisoning,” I announced, failing to disguise the panic in my voice. He looked down at me with raised eyebrows.
“Uh oh. Don’t freak out about it though. You’ll be okay,” he said.
He patted my shoulder and went back to watching the road.
We were riding through the dim-lit city streets in Varanasi, on our way to catch our overnight train ride to Delhi. The traffic buzzed all around, frantic, like swarms of angry wasps. Flower garlands that hung from the rickshaw’s rear view mirror swung in time to the Indian music that blasted from the radio. Our driver, his bottom lip fat with paan, (a stimulant mixture of betel nut and tobacco), casually spit a generous stream of red saliva into the road, while simultaneously swerving around a couple of cows that were wandering into the flow of traffic. I grasped the side rail a bit tighter, my hand slippery with sweat, and looked out onto the flurry of activity we were passing.
Varanasi, India. I could hardly believe I was there. The oldest, longest continually inhabited city in the world. It felt just as old and ancient. Settled on the banks of the holy Ganges river, narrow alleys twisted like mazes through crumbling buildings, which seemed as though they housed ancient secrets. Along the shore, stone staircases (ghats) met the gray water and were crowded with Hindu pilgrims ritually bathing, seeking spiritual liberation. Holy men sit on the ghats with legs crossed and eyes closed, chanting sacred prayers.
Some of of the ghats are used as cremation sites, and the ashes are thrown into the Holy river. However, for those deceased who are not cremated for one reason or another, their bodies are simply dropped in, and I’ve heard it’s not entirely uncommon to see a decaying body floating by.
Now I, personally, in my state of culture shock, would not bathe in the river in that area, holy or not. My pathetic hypochondriac tendencies canceled out that possibility. The Ganges is something like the fourth most polluted river in the world. On our sunrise boat tour, I noticed about twenty dudes squatting on their haunches, taking their morning dump right on the shore. The possibility of swimming next to a floating corpse is also a pretty substantial turn-off. That’s just me though.
With shaking hands, I pulled out a scarf from my bag and wrapped it around my nose and mouth to create a barrier from all the dust, smog, and smoke particles which rose from the burning bodies of the funeral ghats. Hell, I wished I could create a barrier between me and India…..if I could only just wrap myself up in my scarf, and make India disappear. Go away India!
India had so far lived up to its reputation of being…well, a difficult place to travel. All my senses were constantly being invaded and overstimulated. Sights, sounds, smells combined to create an atmosphere of constant stress. I felt like I was suffocating. Like India was suffocating me.
The sights, such as street kids squatting barefoot in the mud, sorting through piles of trash. Skinny men sitting cross-legged in a circle, passing around a syringe full of windex-blue liquid, injecting it into the crooks of their bony arms. The old woman with obvious leprosy, hollow eyes, who reached out her knobby hand to me, searching for compassion. Families living out of shacks, next to sewer pits occupied with fat pigs. The chaos of the roads- cars, buses, rickshaws, cows, goats, and throngs of colorfully dressed people, all swarming about through the dust and pollution.
The sounds, such as the constant honking, the greetings of eager shopkeepers, the cries of the beggars laying on the sidewalks, the early morning chants of the holy men, constantly reverberated through my body and soul.
Smells of incense, sewer, urine, and spicy curries mingled in the air, at times overpowering me and causing uncontrollable gag reflexes.
Maybe if I was some savvy, experienced traveler this all wouldn’t have bothered me as much. Maybe I wouldn’t have been frozen with culture shock. But, I didn’t know what I was doing. I mean really, if I was an experienced traveler, I wouldn’t have even chosen to come to India during the hottest months of the year. 110 degree-plus weather is no joke, especially when there’s hardly any air conditioning and daily power outages.
But still, despite all the craziness, at times I was in utter awe. In between the feelings of exasperation, panic, and culture shock, I would stop and look around, and think to myself, holy shit. I’m in India! This is freaking amazing! India seemed like the most culturally-opposite place of the United States. It felt like a place still alive and dancing with ancient culture and tradition. It was like I was traveling back in time. And that’s what drew me into it.
But now, with symptoms of food poisoning coming on, I was back in freak-out mode. Those who know me well are aware of hypochondriac tendencies. Worst possible scenarios swarmed through my head.
What if it was like, deadly food poisoning? It really shouldn’t be hurting this bad. Am I going to die here? Will my travel insurance cover my dead body being shipped back home to Hawaii? If not, are they going to just throw me in the Ganges with the other dead bodies and trash? God….. I don’t want to be thrown in there..
When we finally got to the train station, I trudged behind Mike, miserable and clutching my gut, while ignoring the approaches of porters and touts who wanted our business.We found the spot where we would board our train, and I sat down on the ground next to my bags, making sure I knew where the bathroom was just in case.
My heart pounded in my chest, and beads of sweat slowly trickled down my face. I looked up the night sky, something I usually did when I want to gain some perspective or peace, but I couldn’t see any stars. The pollution was too thick. Down on the furthest track I saw a teenage boy bathing under a hand pump faucet, while fat rats scuttled this way or that.
As I was zoning out, staring at the rats, I was startled to hear an American voice.
“Hey, are you waiting for the train to Delhi?”
I look up to see a thin girl wearing a loose white tank top and shorts. Short dark hair, no makeup. She brushed her bangs out of her face, and smiled subtly.
“Yeah. You’re headed there too?”
“Yup. Hey, you sound American. Me too. Jesus, it freaking hot here isn’t it?”, she said as she wiped the sweat off her forehead, her smile widening in amusement.
“Ugh, yes. I can hardly handle it! How long have you been in India?”
“I’ve just been in India a few weeks. But I’ve been traveling around Asia by myself for over a year though.”
I suddenly felt a burning admiration for her She was doing what I wanted to do. Traveling all over, by herself? In India, by herself? For over a year?
What kind of bad ass chick was this?
“Wow, really? That’s awesome. What’s been your favorite place so far?” I asked.
“Vietnam,” she said, without missing a beat.
“But you know, there’s both really good and really bad aspects to each place. Some really freaking bad, actually. Bad like this fucking heat.”
She laughed, and our conversation was cut short by the approach of our train. As we parted our ways, I watched her bravely squeeze her way onto the lowest class passenger car where there are no reserved seats, no a/c, only metal benches, and which is notorious for insane overcrowding, I thought to myself, “I want that”.
I wanted her confidence, her fearlessness. She probably wouldn’t freak out if she got food poisoning. She’d probably had it a million times. I bet she even bathed in the Ganges.
Even though a complete stranger, I had found my inspiration to continue on, to lose my fear, and to look at the bright side of things. At least for the time being.
As I squatted weakly over the metal-hole-in-the-floor train toilet, I took a deep breath-this time, with a ignited sense of confidence and resolve that nearly matched the power of the turmoil in my intestines. Inspired by the bad-ass girl traveler, I decided that I could, and that I would, make it through not only this, but the rest of my time in India.