Privilege Blog

Wheels, Feet, Temperatures. India, 1982.

An ongoing and occasional series on a 3-month trip I took to India in 1982. I was 25, and traveled by train across the country alone, writing an article on the then-unknown Indian film industry and combating the anxieties of youth and solo travel. Often includes references to what I wore. You can find the previous posts here. I have created a Google map of the trip, here.

I spent the last day in Kerala writing thank you notes and getting an Ayurvedic massage. Looking back, I am relieved to see that I thanked everyone who helped. Because gratitude adds meaning, thank you notes are a good way of structuring otherwise random events. Besides, I would have hated to seem ungrateful.

The massage, on the other hand, confused me. I was used to the Western version, lie down, drift off.  While I did lie down, under a white tent, on a table, over white sand, the massage itself was complex and demanding. It made me dizzy. I remember feeling a little daunted, hoisting my bags again in the heat, off  to the train station. Where monks at the ticket counter seemed to sense my disequilibrium.

I wrote,

“Back to Madras. I am very tired. I still feel the fingers of the Vedic massage running over my back, and I feel my energy redistributing itself.”

That turned out to be an understatement.

I arrived in Madras. The plan was to head for Calcutta, with a brief stop at the ruins of Konarak on the way. Konarak is a 13th-century temple described in Wikipedia as follows:

“Famous as much for its imposing dimensions and faultless proportions as for the harmonious integration of architectural grandeur with plastic allegiance.”

I have no idea what that means. Konark, as it’s called now, is a big temple made of porous stone. That will do for our purposes here.

Mr. Barrister, still quite the gentleman, met me at the Madras station. He put me on the overnight to Calcutta, entrusting me into the care of a woman with two children. She fed me. Now do you know what came next? I didn’t. I wrote.

“Being on a train going to Calcutta is much like being on a train going anywhere else in India. Out the window I see red dirt, as opposed to the grey dirt or yellow dirt I’ve seen in other places, but it’s still basically Indian dirt….For some reason I feel strongly sick to my stomach.. I also feel my glands swelling in my neck. I think that Vedic massage stirred up all my lingering infections. Yuck…I’d like to take a nap but I feel somewhat compelled to watch the scenery go by. To hell with it. I’m going to bed.”

And a few hours later,

“Proceeded to go to bed, sleep, wake up, sit by the window, and then get severely sick to my stomach. Nothing like puking into a dirty toilet on a moving train. I think it was those molasses-tasting things from the lady I’m sharing the compartment with, the lady into whose care Mr. Barrister committed so seriously at the beginning of the voyage.”

The massage might have redistributed my energy but some simple single-celled organisms did me in. I was so thirsty. All the warnings I’d heard about third-word water were loud in my mind but I was too sick to care. I drank from a fountain at a train station during a brief stop.

In the morning we arrived in Bhubaneswar, and somehow I got myself to Konarak. I walked the grounds. It must have been over 100 degrees in the shade.  I didn’t really want to be surrounded by stone lions and all the wheels of the Sun God’s chariot.

The sun was the strongest I’d ever felt. This is a lion, I think.

The train for Calcutta wouldn’t leave until later that evening. I found a restaurant with tablecloths and air conditioning. I remember I took some aspirin, or Tylenol.

I was by then very feverish. My thermometer, for I did have one, registered over 104 degrees, and I couldn’t make it go down. This scared me. The walls of the restaurant were covered in dark red silk, or else I hallucinated. The tablecloths were white, which is probably true. I remember standing in the elegant restaurant bathroom, running cold water from the faucet over my wrists, looking in the mirror, aware, “I am on the edge.”  Jolted from complacency I hadn’t even known I felt. I waited for the train.

When I arrived in Calcutta I wanted only to get to my hotel.

But there were no cabs outside the station. No tik-tiks, those little motorized 3-seaters. Not even a bicycle rickshaw. Only a wheeled conveyance, as Jane Austen would say, and a man who would run me into town.

Pedi-rickshaw, Calcutta, 1982

I could tell I wasn’t dying. I knew that even sick I led a safer and more robust life than 95% of India’s population. So I remember thinking, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” as I watched the man run in the heat. I don’t remember if he had any shoes but the strike of his feet on the pavement vibrated through my sit bones.

I also remember that when we arrived at the hotel, the running man tried to overcharge me terribly, and despite organisms and liberal guilt I argued. Why not just let him cheat me? Where was my compassion then? Humans have more than one cell. The hotel pointed me to a doctor, who prescribed antibiotics and the equivalent of Pedialyte. I spent a day and a half eating room service rice in my hotel room and drinking Kingfisher beer.

Of course I recovered. Looking back all these years later, I am perhaps sorry I didn’t pay that running man twice what he asked, but I still don’t believe in taking advantage of the helpless.

I’m certainly glad I didn’t end up in a hospital in Bhubaneswar.

It’s one of the tasks of my particular midlife, to recognize sorrows and dangers, veined though they are by the safeguards of privilege.

34 Responses

  1. Well, you surely master your English!
    These short India ( real ) stories are really interesting! I hope you have lots of more, or else I will have to read them over again.

  2. Agreeing with Mette, Lisa–an interesting story, filtered through the gaze of another time and place. There’s nothing quite so upsetting as being ill and alone in a strange land.

  3. Beautifully written felt like I was with you looking out onto the red earth on the train so evocative with memories….maybe a book? Ida

  4. thanks for sharing such a poignant adventure. how we react when we’re pushed to our limits often opens up very powerful insights and revelations that stay with us beyond the moment itself. on a more practical note, a similar experience i had while backpacking through central asia is the reason why i never travel without prescription-strength Cipro. nothing like being prepared for adventures and misadventures alike!

  5. How curious that a massage should have this effect. As I read, I was simply amazed that you managed to keep going. I know the feeling of having missed an opportunity to be compassionate, but I suspect that in your shoes on that day, I might have forgotten a tip…and I might very well have argued as well.

  6. Oh honey, what a gift to read these stories from your past. Oh to be sick like that and to feel like you are dying.. ugh.. and no one around to take care of you.. That water fountain did you in.. but you are one strong lady- even then.
    The pictures and the stories are so great. Keep them coming! xo

  7. I really enjoy these Indian travel tales.

    I’m always amazed to see Westerners in 3rd world countries haggling like it matters….

    Meanwhile, where is the Barrister now? Do you know?

    Love the blog and seeing what you’re up to as always


  8. I live in India, and I’m loving reading about your stories. This was a particularly poignant one, as others have pointed out, and I’m glad you recovered quickly.

  9. Why do I feel like I’m reading Out of Africa, the Indian version?

    “I once had a farm in Africa!”

    That movie got some awards from what I remember… well done.

  10. Great writing but I must ask – where, in fact, was your compassion for that poor man who literally ran you to the hotel? I would have paid him what he asked and considered the over-charge a tip or donation and be grateful that I was not in his “shoes.”

    1. From my experience in Ivory Coast, paying double is not something that is appreciated by locals, and they respect you more when you don’t give in to treachery. What occidentals may see as compassion, may be considered stupidity or, even worse, a condescending attitude that may even offend others. I have never been to India,it may be different there, but I believe one has to be careful with these things.
      If I may recommend an article, it’s this one:

  11. Certain stories I read stay with me for a very long time, sometimes filed away to be recollected years later, and I can tell this will be one of those stories.

  12. I had food poisoning while travelling alone in France in my late 30s and found that a hideous experience. But I was already in my comfy hotel room when it hit, and it was quite obvious that I would recover post-evacuation. Your experience must have made you feel intensely vulnerable. Whether your response to the driver’s charge was the “correct” one or not (as judged by your older, wiser, perhaps more compassionate self, along with some of your readers), I’m impressed that you had the strength to muster any indignation at his demand. I wonder if that indignation was a manifestation of a very atavistic selfishness necessary to save yourself. Sometimes body dictates to, or dominates, mind, and can be pretty primitive.

  13. Your beautiful and evocative last paragraph is going to have me thinking for a long time. I love the idea that even though one is privileged, one is not necessarily immune from the “dangers and sorrows” that threaten every human being, no matter where or who. Wharton touches on these themes in a lot of her writing and I’ve always found it heartbreaking.

    Having travelled extensively in the third world myself, I discovered that haggling is a cultural norm and absolutely expected in most entrepreneurial markets. In fact, we discovered quite quickly in Indonesia that declining to haggle was considered quite rude, the expectation being that the vendor would definitely be selling us a good or service, and the negotiation over price was part of getting us to “yes”. Win-win for all. I believe in respecting the cultural norms and the market dynamics rather than indulging my liberal guilt, and I believe you were right to haggle with the running man. How you found the energy to do it with a 104 degree fever is beyond me; but these are the privileges of youth.

  14. Lisa your writing and account of the circumstance you experienced drew me write in and I wanted to read more.

    A memoir ahead perhaps?


    Art by Karena

  15. It is scary to be ill in a foreign land, that’s when all the “foreigness”(can I call it that way?) falls on top of our head and we want OUT.
    At least that’s how I fell when I had malaria for the first time while living Ivory Coast(yep, had it twice, type IV)
    I remember the local doctor looking at my terrified eyes and telling me “Mais c’est juste le Palud” (“But It’sonly malaria”). From their perspective, he was probably right, worse things happened all the time and malaria is a common occurrence, but for me it was a different story.

  16. Stunning piece, I felt immediately transported to this place, soaking in the magic and the dust and dirt. I always intended to travel through India on the way back home to New Zealand, but never went back and now I really feel I must got there. Can’t wait for your next piece.

  17. loved the posting. reminded me of various occassions throughout our three year posting to india.

  18. Poor you! I cannot even imagine being sick in Bhubaneswar, glad you were at least in Cal.

    Massage after meals makes me sick. After 30 years you probably dont recall:)

    Love your India posts.

  19. I’ve just begun Siddartha Mukherjee’s magnificent “biography of cancer” and had to return to offer you this quotation he offers from Susan Sontag: Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.
    Seems relevant, no?
    And it seems possible to me that at some level, “obliged . . . to identify” as a citizen of illness, you needed to affirm other citizenships . . . .hence insisting on a more “American,” perhaps, system of billing. . . just speculating. . . please forgive any presumptuousness.

  20. Mette – Thank you. I will keep telling until the end of the trip.

    Charlotte – Thank you very much. And I think I was caught off guard, to be suddenly so vulnerable.

    Ida – Thank you so much. I plan to write it all out on the blog, and then make it into an electronic book in case anyone wants to see it all in one place, or give it away.

    Hostess – When you’re that thirsty….:)

    Joy – Thank you! Go! You’re young!

    Miss Sophie – Yes, to anyone doing this kind of trip, I’d say absolutely take some Cipro. But we didn’t know to do that, back then. Or at least I didn’t:).

  21. Terri – I am thankful I had the chance to understand how I would behave in that situation. One continues to process. And I’m pretty sure it was the food from the train lady that made me sick. But one never knows for sure.

    Alan B. – Thank you so much. The adventures of middle age are quite different:).

    Landlocked Mermaid – It’s at those moments when I’ve understood just how fortunate we are in the developed world. Thank you.

    FF – I do not know where he is. I even tried Googling him, but no luck. And right back at you, with some extra for Baby FF.

    Unman – Oh thank you so much. If you can love them, living there now, I feel like I’m on the right track. Thank you.

    Brohammas – Yes. Well. One always risks that, right? Thank you.

  22. Angie – In a way everyone in the developed world should spent some time in other societies.

    Jane – I know. I’ve thought about this since I posted. First, I just so wanted not to be swallowed up. It was the one thing I could control. Second, I’d been in India for 6 weeks, by that point, and had been told by cab drivers and everyone, “Don’t respond to beggars.” If I had been operating on compassion, primarily, the country was in such deep need I wouldn’t have been able to get up in the morning. But if I could do it over again, I’d give him the money.

    Dawn – Thank you so much. I feel as though the trip is finally, now, what it was supposed to be when I took it. If that makes sense.

    Mater – In response to this comment, and your second one, yes. I was in some way persisting as my self in the only way I could. I’d been so overwhelmed by the country, and by traveling alone for so long, that I need to stand firm, even though this was the wrong time to do it. Thank you very much for your thoughtfulness, as ever.

    KBG – The true privilege, youth. Thank you for your comment. It strikes home.

  23. Karena – Oh thank you. I’ll keep writing and we will see where it takes us.

    Melissa – Yes. And it was so intense, I think now, because I was feverish in the heat, surrounded by tainted water. Probably it was actually dangerous.

    Marcela – Yes, foreignness. I am sure in India, what I had was just “stomach troubles.’ I can’t even conceive of living in Africa.

    Jody – Thank you so much. If you have the time, I hope you go. It’s a country with history and impact and a lot of beauty.

    ann – Thank you. The commonality of my experiences, as I now understand it, is completing the journey for me.

    AN – Thank you. I knew, even though I was a kid, that I ought to get myself to Calcutta. And the doctor was great. You are right, I don’t remember if I’d eaten right before the massage, but it’s quite possible.

    Susan – The fear it elicited is startling. And I think I feel very strongly about cheating too.

  24. I got so ticked at the gringo tax when I was in South America. I knew what things should cost and I knew what I was being charged and they were not the same. At first, I, too, thought, “Well, I have so much and they have so little,” but even so, I had a very limited budget. Plus there is the natural human dislike of being cheated. After it had happened a few times, I started arguing back, telling cab drivers (the biggest offenders) that just because I was a foreigner did not mean I was stupid.

    PS There is also the argument that one should not overpay out of liberal guilt or for whatever reason as it distorts the market for the locals, who truly cannot afford more. Although most vendors are savvy enough to tell the difference between us white (formerly) blonde foreign chicks and the locals.

    PPS I did let my guilt get the best of me with my cleaning lady in Chile. I paid her four times the going rate because I could not bear the idea of paying someone only $2.50 to clean my house. Also, I gave her paid vacations when I was on vacation, something that even my most liberal Peace Corps friends did not do.

  25. I love this – “Because gratitude adds meaning, thank you notes are a good way of structuring otherwise random events.” Beautifully put, as always.

    And there’s nothing quite like getting sick abroad, is there? By the by, I would have argued with the driver trying to take advantage too.

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