No Meat, No Rats, No Dysentery: Food Road Rules

Cambodian market food

It will be fine it will be fine it WILL be fine

It had been a busy day of Hangzhou-ing, and we were ready to eat. It was murky and rainy out and we quickly moved from restaurant to restaurant, trying to find any that would pique our interests. The famousest and fanciest of Chinese eateries were long full and boasted impressive waiting lines.

We eventually settled on one tidy, pleasantly mediocre-looking joint. Jen, our life coach and Chinese interpreter, set about discussing what to eat with the waitresses, while another staff member led us to a room in the back. We filed into what appeared to be my grandfather’s dining room circa 1947, and began gathering around the table, which was draped in an enormous doily and then sealed in mylar.

Agnes cringed as she pulled out her chair, and pointed to the skittering vermin that she had loosed. It flexed its pincers or tendrils or legs or whatever at us angrily, unhappy at being disturbed. “That’s a fairly large cockroach,” Agnes muttered, attempting to undersell this monstrosity. If the cockroach had sat down to the meal with us he could have fit in an infant’s high chair and requested a kid’s menu.

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Horrifying Personal Calamity: A Necessary Ingredient in All International Travel

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Climb on board! Each seat comes with a free serving of despair.

“But did you actually like India?” everyone seemed to ask.

It was a fair question. Every time I described India, I usually started with my first impression of the country. The long, circuitous route from the airport into central Delhi, the roadway thick with vehicles diverse in wheels and dimensions, the cow burrowing her head into the flaming pile of garbage while rummaging for some nosh. I relished the grim, gritty details, the number of times I stepped in feces of indeterminate origin, exactly how many times I contracted scientifically-innovative new strains of diarrhea, the many and various attempts to grift me of all of my money and earthly possessions.

The crowning glory in every string of India anecdotes was our journey to Jaipur. The sojourn was a 17-hour ride crammed haphazardly into glass capsules in a rattling deathtrap manned by a driver with an itchy brake-foot. At the terminus of our jaunt was a series of hysterical mishaps involving alleys crawling with braying goats and half-naked children, each of them screaming at us. We climbed into four different rickshaws, each which was trying to rip us for our dwindling supply of rupees, and as we climbed into the last we were sure we knew the face of madness.

I, in fact, really liked India.

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Travel Itineraries for the Painfully Lazy and the Intensely Over-prepared

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That-a-way!

We were in Bangkok, and had finished the lunch we cooked in the hostel kitchen. Before us were several electronic rectangles, two notebooks, pencils, pens, a weather-worn copy of Lonely Planet India, and numerous cups of coffee. Two months sounded like a long time, but time seemed to slip from us as we stretched the days across the map, alchemizing hours into kilometres.

Could we somehow manage to squeeze all of our India wish-list into this paltry collection of minutes and seconds? We drew a swirling line arcing outwards from Delhi, swooping through the lower Himalayas, into the desert and out of it, sliding across the continent until we hit an ocean. It was a clean, beautiful path.

We had no real idea of how we were going to accomplish it.

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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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My Birthday at the End of the World

A birthday at the end of the world

25 in 25.

Seas flow and converge into the ocean beyond a distant, rocky point. Kanyakumari consists of pastel houses, slowly decaying hotels, an enormous statue of a poet-saint who stares out across the waters. Pilgrims flock the beach, dipping hands and feet out into the water, and praying to the virgin goddess who rests here. Her home lies on the very southernmost tip of India.

When night falls, enormous vampire bats swoop and screech overhead. Ghostly music shimmies out from the coast and the temple, which stays alight. The power dips on and off, and the town is cast into darkness and into light in an irregular, unpredictable rhythm. Walking the streets becomes a journey through the black, with just starlight and reflections on windshields to guide the way.

All along the south-western coast lies a decaying amusement park. Like the houses the colours are bright and childish, neon blues and pinks and greens, slightly murkier and mossier now from age and neglect. An ancient aquarium lures a handful of bored children, and dozens of carnival rides slowly rust in the sun and the salt spray. A ferris wheel still runs, still lights up sometimes in the night, a great circle of flickering orange and yellow. The tilt-a-whirl died a quiet death eons ago.

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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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