Friday, December 08, 2006

Can't Buy Me Love

I left Dharamshala on a 12 hour overnight bus to Delhi. I splurged on a sleeping berth, hoping to arrive relatively fresh. Unfortunately, the hairpin curves winding down and out of the mountains, coupled with constant joggling on the cratered roads, had me up all night, willing myself not to vomit. I made it all the way to my hotel in Paharganj, where I finally let go, and I spent the rest of the day in bed. It could have been mild food poisoning (although I didn't eat anything unusual) because I didn't feel quite well for a few days. I seem to have a miserable time during each of my visits to the multi-species feces experiment that is the capital city, and this was no exception. So, wanting to make the fastest exit possible, I booked a plane ticket to Bombay.

night street, Delhi

I didn't expect to like Bombay (also known as Mumbai) either, but I was pleasantly suprised. Located on the southwestern coast of India, it is an island city, and as far as I'm concerned, water always helps. Plentifull banyan trees complement British colonial buildings, and I even found a well kept park right in the center of everything. Feeling ragged and soiled, and suffering from very dry hair, I decided to try my luck with a haircut, which is always a big gamble in Asia.

Behind India Gate, a basalt arch standing at the southern Mubai waterfront, is the best hotel in town. The Taj, besides having an oppulent lobby, has 600 rooms and a shopping gallery housing diamond dealers, a Fendi store, and several other luxury brands. I figured this might be a good place to find a salon, and it was. I stepped off the hot, crowded, beggar riddled streets into the cool lobby and was suddenly treated with respect, even gentleness. The approach and manner of the concierge, when I enquired about the salon, was in shocking contrast to the behaviour of desk minders at the cheap hotels where I habitually stay. So I spent four times the amount I was spending for a nights accomodation on a some pampering. While I was having my haircut, I noticed another beautician doing something mysterious with a string to a woman's face. I asked my hairdresser about it, and it turns out this process is called "threading," a hair removal technique. My own eyebrows out of control, I decided to try it. It's a wonderful technique, much less painfull, and more precise, than waxing.

pigeons, Mumbai

Fully Fendified, I left the salon feeling bouncy and beautiful, refreshed by the civilized air of the place as much as the haircut. But when I stepped out of the air-con shopping arcade and crossed the street, intending to watch the boats for a while, I was abruptly confronted with the reality of India- a constant stream of beggars, unwanted advances from men with nothing better to do, and relentless hawking.

My train for Aurangabad, an 8 hour journey, departed at 6am the next morning, and I'd booked a seat in the lowest class of car. On my previous journey I had travelled middle class, which meant padded seats large enough so that the person in the next seat doesn't touch you, a meal, and air conditioning. It turns out that the poor people have the better deal. In the second class car the windows open, so you get a breeze. The seats are hard and packed close, but in all it feels less like being transported in a sealed can. Men walk up and down the aisles selling various foods, fruits, and chai. The only problem with the poor car is all the poor people- on the floor, in the aisles, standing next to the open door, nursing crying babies, and just looking generally downtrodden as the train rattles along. Aside from the crowding, staring, and very hard seats, it was a good journey, and across from me sat two very nice men, one a botanist and one a body-builder, who protected me along the way. When beggars came to me, they shooed them away. When people tried to take my seat, they shooed them a way too.

At the begining of the journey, a gang of transvestite beggars boarded the train. Yes, I said transvestite beggars- young Indian men dressed in saris, wearing lipstick, carrying purses, and harassing people (who seemed alarmed and embarrased by them) for money. I saw one of these menacing ladies approach a young Indian woman and poke her on the head with a 10 rupee note. I doubt I will ever know what to make of this.

The train often stopped for 10, 20, or even 30 minutes at a station without any kind of announcement: the train stops and goes when it pleases. A few hours in, I risked getting off for a cigarette. No sooner had I lit up than someone from the train (I think he worked on the train, but nobody had any kind of uniform) said, "Madame, no smoke." I said, "Well, where can I smoke? I've been smelling smoke on the train all the time." This was true, I had been. The attendant, or whatever he was, pointed me to the toilet. The toilet is the smoking section on an Indian train. One more thing; the toilets empty directly onto the tracks.

If there's anything at all India has forced me to appreciate, it's money. I've always been one to hold it in low esteem, but in terms of comfort, cleanliness, and aesthetics, there's nothing like it.

I've been lonely more often than not since I came to India. Reading (as always) has been both a great solace and a great escape. I was finishing up H.H. Dalia Lama's autobiography on the train, and my eyes filled with water when an old friend of mine walked unexpectedly into the story. His Holines relates:

"I was fortunate enough to receive a visit from Father Thomas Merton, the American Trappist monk. He came to Dharamshala in November 1968, just a few weeks before his tragic death in Thailand. We met on three consecutive days, for two hours at a time. Merton was a well-built man of medium height, with even less hair than me, though that was not because his head was shaved as mine is. He had big boots and wore a thick leather belt round the middle of his heavy white cassock. But more striking than his outward appearance, which was memorable in itself, was the inner life that he manifested. I could see he was a truly humble and deeply spiritual man. This was the first time that I had been struck by such a feeling of spirituality in anyone who professed Christianity. Since then, I have come across others with similar qualities, but it was Merton who introduced me to the real meaning of the word 'Christian'."

I read Merton's autobiography about 10 years ago. The Seven Storey Mountain was one of the things that got me started thinking about joining a convent. I hadn't thought about Merton for a long time, but I was glad to meet him again, and I still remember who I lent that book to. Matt, I hope you're finished with it; it's been 5 years now! I'm not a big autobiography reader. Between Merton and the Dalia Lama, the only one I read was As I Am, by Patricia Neel, the wife of Roald Dahl, and I don't really recomend it. Still, it's wonderful to see the lives of people I've never met weaving into my own.

I raised some doubts about the conversion of Westerners to Buddhism in an earlier post, and the Dalai Lama eventually addressed them too. He says of his own ministry:

"I have felt no reservations, no hesitation in speaking about Buddhism to a Chinese audience. This I put down to the fact that traditionally many Chinese are Buddhists. By contrast, whenever lecturing on the subject to Westerners whose culture and background are essentially Judaeo-Christian, I always feel a slight reluctance. This is because I believe that, in general, it is much better for individuals to remain within their own traditions rather than change to one whose culture is basically foreign to them and not part of their daily experience. After all, I have always felt that the aims of all religions are essentially the same: namely to make us better, less selfish and ultimately happier human beings. That is the key, the point to the religious life. It is therefore better, in my opinion, for people to retain their traditional values, including their religion."

Tonight, I say a fond goodbye to His Holines the Dalai Lama. His book will shortly be abandoned in this internet cafe, as I'm finished and there's no use carrying extra weight. It has felt incongruous reading of a man from the chill northern mountains here in the hot, tropical south; it's as if my journey were following me. But I hope to meet him again somewhere, unexpectedly, someday. I say goodbye to Aurangabad, too. This town has been my jumping off point for the Ellora and Ajanta caves. I spent 4 nights here, but more about that later. Now, it's off to the train.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

NOTICE: whole tube of chapstick just used.
although exciting, my news can't compare to the enjoyment i get from reading your blog.

10:12 AM GMT-5  
Blogger Desiree said...

COINCIDENCE: i will finish my tube of toothpaste tonight!

You didn't need to sign that comment. I mean, who else would it be?

10:43 AM GMT-5  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It must be the commonality between you two to finish mouth-related items at the same time - still trying to cleanse yourselves from each other's loogies??

9:39 PM GMT-5  
Blogger Thea said...

The purpose of Christianity is to have our sins forgiven through no work of our own. That's it. Any other change, happiness, "religious" effect is frosting on the cake. That is why it stands alone.

8:20 AM GMT-5  

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