A Month Without Sundays

The Backwaters

This looks like a good place to stop and never leave.

The pact was this: four months was not, actually, that long. Our time in Thailand was but a blip, our sojourn in Laos but a fraction of a blip. Two months in India sounded long on paper. On the ground, however, when the scale on the map lengthens before you, when centimetres become tens of thousands of kilometres, two months seems paltry and insignificant, barely enough time to pick up your backpack, see a Ganesh statue and eat a bowl of curry before you have to move on. We needed to move. We needed to go.

And so we went.

We had been riding hard. When we weren’t waking up in darkness to catch a train sputtering into the dawn, we were breaking free of our mosquito nets and jumping right into a hike. Faith gained the nickname “Walking Distance” as we suddenly took on hours-long slogs with our backpacks in the midday sun when she decided our hostels were close enough and when the prices for local transportation were just too expensive. We had stomach bugs that we were ignoring, mosquito bites so infected and grotesque that we were fielding offers from haunted houses to act as leprous zombies. We had long since abandoned shoes, our feet developing the hardened carapaces of crab pincers, the shape and texture and colour of a bull’s rear hooves. We ate and slept and drank and ran and danced and walked and hiked and moved and moved and moved.

We were frenetic and incapable of pacing ourselves. Every second that we weren’t going somewhere or eating something new felt wasted, a boon handed down from above that we were casting aside and neglecting like soiled Kleenex. This was our opportunity, and we didn’t know if we would ever return, so it was important to harvest as much as we could. We needed to absorb India, we needed to absorb all of Asia, as completely as we could. This was our lemon, and we were all squeeze.

It was exhilarating.

It was exhausting.

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A Strange Evening on the Only Road Out of Gaya

Doorknobs

Now leaving Bodh Gaya, with all its Buddhas and dragons.

People were constantly scurrying around our hotel in Bodh Gaya that week. Most of the rooms were empty, but the staff seemed aflutter, as though something huge was on the horizon. As we arrived that night to check out, to prepare to leave Bodh Gaya, we saw the great white tent outside the building, heard the sound of instruments and voices and clinking glasses.

Wedding guests, gilt and bejewelled and glittering, glided across recently scrubbed and polished floors. Everyone looked elegant and immaculate, and we attempted to occupy the smallest, most insignificant corner of the hotel lobby. Was it possible to ruin their evening by looking particularly underdressed? Men in suits and women in dresses raised eyebrows as they passed, and we decided to pretend we were travelling entertainers hired for the event. Our general shagginess suggested vagrant jugglers.

A dozen cooks rushed around the kitchen, a posse of instrumentalists assembled outdoors. We were fairly certain we heard live animals. Surely, trundling down the road, was an enormous carriage, formerly a pumpkin, drawn by two pearl-white unicorns. We kept quiet, in hopes that we wouldn’t ruin too much of the mood. In time, two adorable fifth graders approached us, eyes twinkling. He was in a coat and tie, both maybe a little too big. She was in a dress the colour of lilacs at sunset.

“Will you be joining us for the wedding?” she asked in perfect, delicate English. Her partner leaned in close, excited.

“No,” we said. “We wish,” we thought.

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Songs from Under the Boughs of the Bodhi Tree

Stone lotus

The stone lotus.

We leave our shoes at the gate. Attendants brush past with long wooden brooms and keep the stones swept for the thousands of feet that press over the surface, that slip around the grounds. Lotuses bloom, and tiny flowers, yellow and orange, bob in minuscule cups brimming with pale sugar-water. The air is sweet and moves as though gently pushed.

It is past dusk, and there is a chill. The path below us is cold to the touch, it shivers through our feet and into us. The temple ahead is well-lit, a grey and purple beacon against a black banner of horizon. High above is a smattering of stars, tiny pin-prick holes in a sieve containing the light of the sky. It is a clear night.

There is chanting everywhere, everywhere. Loud-speakers pump a bass grunt, the voices of men, intoning in some difficult and throaty tongue, thrumming through the air. It hits us in the abdomens, it suddenly synchronizes with the deep noises in our bodies, the natural rhythm of heart and artery. There are other sounds in this distant ring of the grounds, in this peculiar orbit: bells; murmurs; the shuffle of dozens of pairs of feet moving in dainty, respectful gait. A dog’s bark, a baby’s cry.

Closer to the centre the music grows sweet. Monks and the lay gather in unison, in song. To my right, bald men in saffron lead dozens in Thai verses, more delicate and crisp than I have ever heard the language. I realize: it is a language that is meant to be sung, to be put to rhythm and harmony. A tinny radio accompanies them, by static and the scratchy percussion people shifting through the pages of their lyric sheets. Some gather to listen to their voices in the night, they sit along the balustrades and tilt their heads and are content.

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The Pyre and the Labyrinth

Sunrise cruisers

We have almost found our way back to the guesthouse. The alleys near the ghats of Varanasi are narrow and slender and impossible to navigate. The walls seem to reach towards each other as they climb upward, almost intertwining at the peak, revealing only the faintest sliver of dark sky. It is night, and we convinced one reluctant cook to keep his restaurant open for us for an extra ten minutes, but when we exit the alleys are black. We try to retrace our steps, turning at half-remembered marks of graffiti, backtracking to statues, making long, winding journeys.  We stumble upon one thin pathway completely blocked by a stolid, immovable bull, who grazes his two horns against opposite walls, who stares us directly in the eyes.

There is another path, another slick stair, another bull. We climb up and we climb down, and our fingers run over advertisements painted directly onto brick and concrete. At long last, we find a turn that looks familiar, a sign that calls us home like a clarion. We turn to move.

“Stand back,” a man remarks, waving us off the path. “They need room.”

We look, and a procession staggers past us. The men each are old and grey, their shirts are too big for them at this age, yet they are still strong and purposeful. Their arms are wiry and shaped by decades of work, they strain and haul like steam-powered machinery. Across their shoulders is a stretcher of thin wood, and on the stretcher is the body. He is wrapped in an orange veil from head to toe, swaddled like an infant, and these men will carry him to the water and will carry him to the pyre.

The fires burn all day and all night. We can hear a crackle in the distance, the snap of tinder consumed by flame, the hushed murmur of elegy. Much of Varanasi this close to the river smells like woodsmoke. The sky is heavy with grey.

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India Photoglut Pt. 2: The Lotus and the Surf

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And suddenly, we are at the end of our pictoral journey through India, and indeed through all of Asia. There are still plenty of words to be shared, stories to be told, songs to be sung, but for now let us slip our eyeballs over the colours, over the waves, over the alleys and seasons and trees. In our second month in India we made it to the east and to two of the most important religious sites in the world (I rose one day and sat by the Ganges for sunrise, and was sitting under the boughs of the goddamn bodhi tree by nightfall, a religion major’s wet-dream). And then, run ragged by our ravaging desire to basically see all of India in the span of two months, we flew to the south and became so tired that we just bummed around the beautiful beach towns and ate our faces off on sun-dappled shores.

India was so hard, you guys.

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Agra and the Epic Fleecing

Front edifice of Taj Mahal at dawn.

Picturesqueness cribbed from Ty, co-traveller extraordinaire.

The train shook. It was our first journey on the pale blue locomotives through India, and despite dire warnings about the sleeper class, it was not really that bad. Perhaps our expectations were lowered from the multitude of horror stories, from the purported sureness of being robbed and murdered in our sleep. With these things weighing upon us, the surprisingly strong metallic slats seemed like positive luxury, and after wedging ourselves comfortably atop our bags to fend off what we were told was to be a constant barrage of thieves and sleep-gropers, we managed to drug ourselves into glorious unconsciousness.

Our only problem with the train system involved knowing when to disembark. Our train glided through stations and stops and towns regularly, arriving in a hush and departing again in a whisper, with never an announcement of our current location, our eventual destination, or whether we were technically still within Indian borders. Despite the lack of clear delineation of our current place in time and the world, the Indian commuters and travellers seemed to have absolutely no difficulty recognizing local landmarks, even 10 hours deep into the ride, even in the middle of thunderstorms at midnight. Regularly, without us even knowing that the train was likely to stop, people would suddenly evaporate from their seats in puffs of smoke and otherworldly mystery. We rode into town on a train full of ghosts.

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The Bastard Monkey Kings of Bundi

Watcher

He watches, and he waits.

We woke at our haveli as sunlight poured in through our barred windows. I untangled myself from yards of mosquito netting, bathed in a cold shower, and emerged into the courtyard of our guesthouse. We overlooked the central pool in town, and a tiny concrete escarpment jutted from the grassy, verdant property into the water, creating a rocky island on which to eat breakfast. The cook took our order, disappeared into the kitchen; we sat under the shady boughs, basking in the warm mid-morning air, and wondering why this haveli run by several old Indian people had such an enormous German Shepherd milling about in the backyard.

Preparation for breakfast took longer than expected, because the long-suffering cook would have to regularly emerge from the kitchen. He would snatch up a large staff from the stairs and begin snapping it against the walls, against the ground, fighting off a swarm of devious interlopers.

The chef was also the property’s primary monkey security officer.

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Dharamsala in Saffron and Maroon

Thataway

Thataway.

We have flee Delhi by night, driving straight out into the countryside. Traffic swells all around us, as along the highway a great, trembling ocean of light forms. Diwali preparations: electricity and oil burning ten thousand tiny tea lights, each attended by busy people, each surrounded by movement and food and tension. We are barely moving and it seems for a time that we will stay in Delhi forever, or perhaps in this new makeshift nation along the roadside, which is warm and bright and bustling, a city made of diyas and coloured powders, beautiful and glowing against the encroaching nightfall.

The cars eventually clear as people break off for evening revelry amongst the lights. We drift farther from the city, and the lights launch upwards, disappear behind clouds, and suddenly reappear as we gain altitude and move away from people, from cars, from buildings. The country reclaims the sky. Homes drift further apart until they are not present at all. Night is no longer balmy, but grows chill, and quiet. Ours is the only vehicle on the road at this hour, and we begin up a steep incline.

Our bus is half-empty on this midnight run into the mountains, and I stretch across two reclining seats, pulling a complimentary blanket around my shoulders. I can’t sleep–maybe I am uncomfortable with this level of silence, with the growing still outside of my window. I’m a city boy, and I’ve been in nothing but cities for some time. Trees are everywhere, and the road is very sloped now. Several times our bus stops as the shepherds of Himchal Pradesh lead cadres of sheep and goats across the road and into wilier, more secretive passes. The road is narrow, and we must make several cautious attempts at each switchback.

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New Delhi and the Flaming Bovine

Qutub Minar

My one, glorious, sludgeless shot of New Delhi.

We arrived in Delhi at dusk, the plane sinking through what we were sure was a heavy plume of fog. A car from the guesthouse waited for us, a luxury we afforded ourselves when the prospect of chumming the waters of an airport taxi-stand on our first night in India seemed too bleak.

We were shaky, anxious, a little gun-shy. India was a legendary travel beast, a basilisk in the deeps, a white whale out on the horizon. Far-away looks gathered in the eyes of weary travellers when they described India, as though trespassing its borders would require weapons of old, the Golden Fleece maybe, a medusa’s head as the case warranted. People described a vacation in India the way they described serving in the Vietnam war. It was difficult to separate fact from fiction, self-aggrandizement from harsh truth, actual difference in culture and language and life from fatted, imperialist visions of a mystical, spiritual theme park for wealthy, spiritually-inclined adventure tourists. We drove out from the airport, into New Delhi, with our eyes as open as we could make them. I could feel my pupils dilating.

It was cacophony, at first, a blast of sound and sight and smell. Everything was so loud and so bright and so strong that it washed into me in a wave of synaesthesia, of tastes trickling into my ears, of smells passing through my eyes, of sounds running across my tongue. Honks and wheels and shouts. Hindi, Bengali, English. Animal noises: the cow goes moo, the goat goes baa. The smell of spices, the smell of flames, the smell of people. At the side of a busy street I saw a cow, wreathed in flame, its horns buried into an incinerating mound of refuse, ferreting scraps of food from the embers.

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India Photoglut Pt.1: Don’t Milk the Mountain Goat

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Friends, we have arrived, at last, in India. India: land of cows. Land of curry. Land of Kolkata. Other things beginning with a percussive /k/. Fully one-half of our Big Wild Asia Megasojourn occurred within India, and I have lots and lots to say about its ups, its downs, and its soggy, curd-filled middles. But before we get to that, let us now, as we always must, sit through a round of Michael’s photography. Don’t think you can just traipse in here and scoop up only the words. Sometimes you need to endure my other hobbies, so that I can give the old word-grinder (that’s what I call my brain) a rest.

India: let’s look at it.

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