I can’t believe that I’ve only been in India for two weeks. And what a two weeks it has been! The words of an old man I talked with on my last day in Myanmar kept running through my head as I said goodbye to James and my Whidbey Island friends in Yangon and boarded a plane for Bangkok, alone. “The only thing in life you can depend on is change,” he said. It is the letting go of preconceptions and attachments, and the awareness of the impermanence of life that Buddhism teaches. I keep this in mind as I round every corner and am faced with surprises, disappointments, and joy.
This was the perfect time to take a break from the intensity of my time in Myanmar and meditate on the meaning of the past month. But that was not to be. It all started swimmingly. I arrived at Bangkok’s fabulous new airport and hopped into a new cab, complete with seat belts and air-conditioning, and roared down pristine highways lined with shrubbery. What a contrast from the ailing infrastructure of Myanmar. Then the traffic started. Streetlights lasted from two to five minutes as we inched our way through Friday night traffic to the student area in the old part of town. Chaos reigned, and two hours later I was still sitting in the cab, trying to find a room in a hotel or guest house. It was panic time! My son, Christopher, would have said it served me right. He always hated that I seldom made advance reservations. Lee’s suggested guest house was booked and I was stuck tramping up and down Khao San Road, the hippie heaven, which I hadn’t liked ten years before, and liked even less now.
At 9 P.M. the place was still going full throttle. I finally found a windowless room for $2.00 and went back to get my pack and ask the driver to pull up a few yards, when he slammed my door and sped off. “Stop!” I shouted. “I have a room. Let me out.”
He continued to drive saying, “No room. Holiday.” Was I being kidnapped? “Stop,” I shouted, to no avail.
Fifteen minutes later we pulled into a parking garage and the driver announced, “Hotel, Madam.” It looked like a cell block. I staggered out, grabbed my pack, which gets heavier by the hour, and was led to a fourth-floor room, blessedly air-conditioned. The streets were emptying out, with only a couple of restaurants open. I was heartened, however, by the orange juice stands where tiny oranges are squeezed on the spot, bottled, and sold for pennies. This sustained me, along with the almonds I always carry in my bag.
Bangkok was not peaceful, and I had no time to visit Chiang Mai or Songkla, my two favorites. It was noisy, polluted, and crowded. The highlight of my time there was a visit to a female dentist Lee had recommended, who gave me an hour-long cleaning, the likes of which I’d never before experienced. At the end she took a model of a set of teeth and explained the correct way to brush. She also told me to jettison my battery-operated tooth brush. All of this cost $15.00.
After this Bangkok was a whirl of street vendors and aggressive hawkers. It would have been worthwhile if I could have had a cheap face lift, but the confusion of getting around jangled my nerves, so the next day I fled to Delhi. That’s like going from the frying pan into the fire.
Lines were unbelievably long at the Bangkok airport, but when I finally got through, I spent three hours exploring the amazing new structure. I met a crazy Italian, Carlo, and two American students from Virginia, Morgan and Dwight, and we agreed to share a cab to Paharganj, the Main Bazar near the Delhi train station. I couldn’t get reservations to the Tibetan hotel where I’d been before, and was nervous about finding a room after my Bangkok experience.
Arriving late, we waited in line to get a fixed price taxi ticket for 250 rupees, half the normal price, even with a 25% charge for after 11 PM. I highly recommend this to anyone coming into Delhi’s confusing, broken-down airport. Next it became a scramble to get a cab. They were parked haphazardly around the exit and once you engaged a driver he had to extricate his cab from the jumble. Horns were honking, people were shouting, and I began to feel very sick to my stomach. Must have been some fish in the sauce they served on the plane. How could I ever make it to a hotel?
If I hadn’t felt so bad, the whole scene would have been very funny. Our driver was aggressive, even getting into a cab that was blocking his way and pushing it with one foot on the pavement. Naturally, a wrangle ensued. Delhi definitely needs a new airport and revamped transportation system.
The ride to Paharganj was as crazy as the one my first day, a month earlier. These drivers inch their way into lanes that aren’t there, and tangle with trucks and buses, fearlessly, tailgating, swerving, and honking. I was in misery, trying to decide in which direction to throw up, when we passed the Hari Krishna, a hotel The Rough Guide had recommended.
“Stop!” I shouted. And we got out.
The roof leaked, there was no top sheet, the toilet had to be flushed by pouring buckets of water down it, and there was no sink, towel, soap, or toilet paper in my room. I know, you get what you pay for! All the next day I was so sick that the desk clerk suggested a doctor. He moved me to a room off the lobby and was so solicitous that I didn’t even complain about the mouse scampering about the room. “No, it’s free, and it will give you company, Madam,” he said when I asked if I had to pay extra.
It rained the next morning and, in my weakened condition, I decided that I needed to get far away from Delhi. I didn’t have time to go to Bangladesh or southern India, so would head north. I’d been devouring my guide book, but failed to heed the warning in bold print about “touts” in India. A practiced, slick breed of hucksters I had certainly encountered before in my travels. I hailed a cab and asked to go to the main r.r. station, an easy few blocks away. I realized that we were not going to the station when he pulled into the office of OIT near the East Market. I still did not smell a rat.
“I want to go to the mountains and do some trekking,” I announced. Before I knew it, a sleazy operator named Manu had talked me into a week in Kashmir for several hundred dollars, staying in a “luxury” guest house on Dal lake in Srinagar, with the option to trek if I so desired. He said I’d better book immediately, since it was such a popular area and there might not be any plane tickets left. And he assured me that it wasn’t dangerous anymore. Manu was also proficient in the happiness line (now refined to “Madam, I can make you really satisfied.”}, saying “old is gold,” and he just happened to be free all afternoon. I was laughing by the time I left his office, and exhilarated by the thought of finally being able to get to Kashmir, a place I’d dreamed of for twenty years.
When I told those gathered at the Hari Krishna about my planned trip, they showed me a newspaper clipping telling of the ice blanketing Srinagar, and the inability to get food or people in or out of the city. There were also graphic reports of ice and snow on the TV. Predictions were for more of the same all week. Hell, I could stay in Jersey for that! I also finally read my guide books, both of which warned about the still-present danger to foreigners in that troubled area. I was livid, called Manu, immediately, and cancelled. And wonder of wonders, I was given a complete refund. Nobody believed I could do it. I think he was worried that I had too many connections in the field of women traveling alone. I didn’t even need to threaten. He knew he was wrong, but he still tried to get me to book another trip with him. Some people are totally incorrigible.
That afternoon I bought a second class ticket for 250 rupees (about $5.00) upstairs in the r.r. station where there’s an office for foreigners, and boarded a train for Haridwar at 4:30 P.M. Little did I know what an auspicious time it was to be at the “Mother Ganga,” as the Ganges is called. The next day, February 16, was Shiva’s birthday.
My next episode will bring you up-to-date, as I travel back to Delhi and on to Dharamsala, where daughter Cary and I are living in The Kongpo House, a wonderful guest house up a treacherous dirt lane, overlooking the mountains and valleys of McLeodganj, the upper section of the city. This is in the Northern Himachal, at the beginning of the Indian Himalaya. Cypress trees dot this Tibetan section of the city, and the temple where the Dalai Lama resides is at the foot of our hill. It couldn’t be better! We’re now preparing for two weeks of teachings given by the Dalai Lama.