The Priorities of Travel

Not every spot is magical for everyone. Sometimes you get somewhere, look around, and think, 'Hey, this place is a squalid rat hole. I'd really rather be in the Netherlands.' And that's OK.
—Seth Stevenson for Slate magazine


The Jan Shatabdi Express to Aurangabad
coasted out of Bombay, through hills and mangrove swamps, then sugar plantations. As the sunlight deepened to gold and then red the train passed up into the wet nooks of the Deccan, a green country of sparse fields, scattered trees, snug cottages of clay and thatch, and solitary plateaus, conical or in strange shapes, of a rich brown color, as if the earth had been overturned. We stopped in stations, sometimes for twenty minutes, and bartered through the window for bananas or sesame treats while the Sacred Cows wandered around the platforms.

Tom and I had seats, and many Indians stood in the aisles or around the open doors, looking out on the landscape of their country. They talked to us with interest about their jobs and families, about Indian conservation efforts and the falling water table, and they bobbled their heads at us, a sort of side-to-side movement that translates as a subdued affirmation, between a nod and a shrug of the shoulders. Tom was looking for ashrams to study yoga for a week or two. It was one of the reasons he came to India, and he told me about meditation: “You don’t think about the past or the future, your problems, or money. Focus on breathing, on here and now.”

Arriving late, we had enough to worry us in the here and now. It was pitch black outside the few crowded circles of lantern light, where Indians huddled eating idli and drinking chai, and the stream of headlights like ray beams in the dust, leading a thousand tuk-tuks and a hundred half-ton trucks through that transit hub. We followed the road north, asking for directions from the Indians we passed, who had either never heard of the Youth Hostel or bobbled their heads and pointed us onward, but we got concerned that we had missed it.

A Marathi stopped his scooter next to us and told us to get on. “I don’t think it’s going to work,” we said, we being two men a head taller than most Indians with bags to match. The Marathi rider insisted, so we got into a very uncomfortable position and started driving. We noticed that we were almost back at the train station and told the Marathi, “Here! Here!” and thanked him—alas for good intentions!—and hailed a tuk-tuk.

The tuk-tuk, or auto-rickshaw, is a uniquely Asian contraption, something like a lawnmower engine with a metal bucket on top. Both sides of the bucket are open, and the front has a blurry little windshield. Stretched canvas covers the top. Inside, there is a bench that can fit two and usually fits three, and the driver sits just in front of that on a little chair and steers the tuk-tuk with a set of handlebars like those of a moped. The meter is attached to a pole next to the helm, but it is unplugged and broken.

Tom and I rode in one of these up near an intersection, just past where the Marathi mopedist picked us up, and went through a gate to the derelict Youth Hostel. The famous manager, Miss Freeda, was gone, it was so late, and the Indian nightwatchman told us, “Lock doors, ten o’clock. Passport photocopy. Photocopy! No English!” I spoke really quickly to confuse him, then we dropped our bags in our rooms and ran off down the street to get some take-away from a restaurant where a fat boy shook our hands and asked us to be his Facebook friends.

We ate the food upstairs in the long, hollow male dorm room, full of beds on rickety metal frames with mosquito nets hung from the top. I had a tin full of chicken fried rice but no utensils. The Indians eat with their right hands, even rice, which they mix with their curry dishes and throw around their plate, forming a ball that they throw in their mouth. The food was too hot for that, and I was hungry, so I used a lemon peel to scoop it out.

Aurangabad had that pungent odor of engine exhaust, rotten fruit, and stale urine common to much of India. (Everyone who writes of the jungle country mentions its filth, and now I’ve got it out of the way.)

Indians differ in their concept of lewdness, so that spitting phlegm or defecating are common in the street, and belching and ruder flatulence in the restaurant, where the waiter comes to your table, drinks from your water pitcher, and leaves without a word. They are not rude, just unimpeded by decorum. There are too many people, and it is too hot, to worry about offending someone by looking over a stranger’s shoulder to read something in his hand. Mark this not as a complaint, O Reader. This is just how India is, and it’s no wonder that the wild, raw character of the country has liberated so many pilgrims of their ambitions, their class, and their discomforts.

The streets seemed even more crowded, dirty, dusty, and noisy in the morning, full of small honking vehicles. As in most Indian places, tuk-tuks were as common and as crazily insistent in its scavenger movements as the fly. The buckets on wheels careen into spaces not nearly big enough for them, and slip through the fingers of bigger cars with an instinctive alacrity, a feel for the chaos of Indian streets. “Hey!” the driver shouts to the passing tourist, as he coasts alongside or screeches to a halt in the middle of the road the tourist is crossing, “Where you go? Station?”

We walked up to the bus station and bought bananas and water on the way for our trip to the cave-temples of Ellora, which was the reason we came to Aurangabad. On the way the bus passed Daulatabad, the City of Fortune that the Emperor Aurangzeb built for his capital. He marched his court there 4,000 miles from Delhi, only to find he did not like it as much as he thought and march back, and his indecision brought down the empire. The citadel capped a huge hill, and the only path up went through a pitch black cave that screeched with bats. Black walls and temples, crumbling and overgrown by the enduring forest, surrounded the base of the hill, and the new road passed through one massive gate to get through the complex.

Ellora offered similar sights. From the parking lot full of monkeys, as much a novelty as camels were when I first came to Arabia, we entered the park that traced a mountainside from north to south. To the west, the sheer path looked over green basins of dirty water and across the palm plantations of the long, flat Deccan. The Jain, Hindu, and Buddhist shrines were carved from or into the rock face on the eastern side of the pat: temples and courts and congregations of gods, carved from single stones, entire freestanding shrines and life-sized statues of elephants; walls, bannisters, and columns, intricately carved with a profusion of pagan symbolism, gods dancing and murdering and meditating. We became familiar with Jain Lord Mahavira, meditating in his lotus position, and with Buddha preaching with his fingers forming an Om, and with Shiva the Destroyer, sharp-toothed and murderous, clutching swords and bodies in his four hands and standing on a mountain of skulls.

The greatest monument was the temple twice the size of the Parthenon built by Ashoka the Great—out of a single stone! A massive complex, multi-storied, with more shrines on the roof, and more in the colonnade built out of the rock face. The entire mountain was shaved away around it.

Tom and I were very impressed, but the groups of Marathi students found the two White People with cameras so much more fascinating. The boys in pink polo shirts, the girls in dresses of brown and blue, they mobbed us at the entrance to the temple and held out their hands in a crowd as if we were celebrities or holy men, until a teacher came up behind them and slapped a few skulls and told us, “Sorry, sorry.” Inside, they cheered when they saw us and waved to us from across the compound. They clumped together in the shadow of the stupa just outside Shiva’s main shrine for photos to be taken and sat next to us and took a few themselves.

This preoccupation was not limited to the young. Adults who were strangers asked us, “One photo please?” and snapped a shot with us overlooking the temple courtyard. Some even wanted photos on our cameras, just to pose, I guess. They asked us our names and shook our hands. For the rest of our time there, we would hear Indians shout out, “Jon!” and, “Thomas!” from all over the park, and look up to see them waving as if it were a miracle to run into friends like us.

We wondered at it with a skinny, scanty-haired Swede who was working in Oslo and who, like most Scandinavians, had enough money to do whatever he wanted but handled his money in such a careless, generous way that they never seem pretentious in the slightest. He had hired a driver for the day, for $10, and drove us back into Aurangabad.

Miss Freeda, the smiling Indian matron who ran the Youth Hostel, on our return cleared up any confusion that the watchman had left with us the night before. In that metallic manager’s office we met an Israeli girl named Gabriella, short and freckled with curly black hair, and I asked her to join us for dinner. Tom and I were attracted to the place that the Bible said had pizza and ice cream, but Gabriella told us, “I went to a local place for breakfast. It was really good. I prefer simple Indian food.”

The Wandering Jewess spoke English fine, but it was obvious by her simple sentences that Hebrew was her first language and from the way she carried herself that she had been traveling a long time. She was one of those travelers who starts off conversations with the rude convenience of, “Do you speak English?” that I always found so obscene that I scrunched up my face when I heard it. We walked up with her to a pharmacy near the bus station, and then back to the diner, set in a four-story building owned by an Emirati landlord, which was eight years old and looked, with its crumbling walls and faded paint, like it had been built in the 1960s and poorly maintained since then.

The Hyderabad Darshan was in a sort of massive gutter that ran along under the building, below the street level, beneath a liquor store and an internet cafĂ© and just next to the chai shop where the owner got his tea. A few tables inside, a few outside the nook of the restaurant, the walls decorated with pagan icons, and across the gutter’s narrow but busy thoroughfare, the kitchen, dhal soup boiling on a gas stove, a haggard chef chopping peppers, a woman rolling chapatis in the back room. The three of us took an empty table and ordered masala dhosas that were the best we’d had, and chai from next door.

Happily fed on the good, simple fare she had promised, Gabriella told us she was living like a hippie by taking public buses and by staying and eating at the cheapest places. “Well,” I said, “I’ve been living like a hippie for a year, then.” She was going to Madhya Pradesh, the barren country of central India where few travelers went—and to her, that was its appeal. “It’s not the first time I’ve traveled alone,” she said, “but it’s the first time I’ve tried to be alone.”

She got all the usual hassle that Western women receive from Indian men—the stare downs, the prodding feet on the bus, the requests for kisses or money or an email address, and the indiscreet photographers, the pick-up lines, so flawed and so self-assured, that come whether a man is around or not. “They’re like mosquitoes,” she said, “They’ll still come, whether you spray deet or not.”

We walked back to the Hostel. In the male dorm there was a new lodger, one of those glad highlanders of Scotland, witty and good-natured and light-hearted, too few and far between on the road, Mike of Glasgow. He was a rocker in Scotland’s rock-and-roll capital who had taken three weeks off university to travel South India, and now he had a cotton shirt and Ali Baba pants and a beard he had not seen until that afternoon. “Where I was staying in Hampi,” he said, “there weren’t any mirrors. I got here and, whoa, I have a beard.” He told us about the “loveliest” people in Hampi and Gokarne, and mentioned some salty expats he had met.

“British?” I said. Mike confirmed it, and Tom asked, “How did you know that.” I said, “Ah, British expats are the worst. They just go to the darkest corners of the world and drink themselves into a stupor, and then berate everyone around and make awkward sexual comments and complain about the most inane, racist things.”

Mike laughed and said, “It’s true, but if you lived in Britain, you’d understand why.”

Back home Mike played in a band and knew some people who had made it big in America. Tom told him, “One of the things I want to do here in India is learn to play guitar. I need to find one. I figure I’ll go back knowing a few chords, maybe play a few songs.”

“Hang on,” said Mike, and he rushed back to the far end of the dorm room to his piled things and came back with a guitar. “I bought this used back in Glasgow for forty quid. She’s not great, but she plays alright. Good for learning,” he said, and he handed the guitar over to Tom, who had that incredulous, delighted look of the recipients of unexpected charity. The Scotsman flew back to Glasgow in three days, and, “I’d just been plannin’ on giving it to a cabbie.”

He drew some of the chords on a piece of paper and showed Tom some basics. “This is great,” said Tom, “Everything on this trip is just working out.” It usually does, Reader!

Ellora is the first of Maharashtra’s must-see attractions, and Ajunta is the second. I went with a large group composed of Tom, Mike of Glasgow, the Jewess Gabriella, the two London girls Emma and Frankie, and myself, to the bus station and bought some water and a weird, sweet fruit called the chikku that I initially mistook for a small potato.

Getting to Ajunta that day, a four-day holiday weekend in India for Republic Day, was a crowded, complicated effort and difficult to describe. On the packed public bus, with benches instead of seats and crowds in the aisle, I sat next to Emma. She was some sort of sustainable architect, studying how to built refugee shelters out of recyclable cardboard boxes and plastics—resources that, to my knowledge, the world’s abandoned already employ.

Our bus ended at some place called the T-Junction, where we paid seven rupees to walk from the bus stop through a covered market of tourist shops so we could line up for the “pollution free” buses that ran the last four kilometers to the caves. This was complicated by huge lines of Indian vacationers and Thai pilgrims, by the shouting matches begun by those who tried to skip these lines, by the howling of the touts with their handfuls of geodes and alabaster elephants, by trees full of glaring monkeys, by the heat of the day, and by a more general feeling of thirst and exhaustion. Travel wears you out, especially in India, where every day is a dirty, pushy, unpleasant, disillusioning kind of adventure. It’s no wonder so many backpackers stop and stay in nice, quiet places like Goa, Gokarne, or Hampi, or seek the tranquility of an ashram.

Finally, we got into the aisle of one of the environmentally friendly buses that are the only vehicles allowed near Ajunta’s sensitive caves. The only thing green about these buses was the paint, unless the black smog pouring out the exhaust was, as we supposed, magic anti-pollution dust.

The cave temples of Ajunta lie carved from a horseshoe-shaped cliff. A river runs past the bottom, a thirsty gray one that waits for the monsoon to fill its huge course, and separates the cliff from a high grassy ridge with a wooden stupa on the top. Buddhist monks carved their caves directly into the cliff face, which is marked by the trail that connects the porches and colonnades of the temple porticos. Inside, the rock-hewn rooms were either long, arched halls with the dimensions of a cathedral and a spherical stupa at the end, or wide monastery chambers with a Buddha seated in a recess at the back, and they differed from the ones at Ellora in the preservation of the wall paintings.

The painted murals depicted scenes from Buddha’s life that made no sense to me, other than as a menagerie of decadent princes and mystical animals. Siddhartha, the story goes, was the son of a Brahmin who wanted more (or less) out of life than wealth and pleasure, and so he traveled and lived as a poor man. His parents did not approve. They plied him with gifts of gold and betrothals, including a beautiful black princess who was particularly enamored by the future Buddha, but Siddhartha turned them down and pursued enlightenment. He canceled the marriage to the black princess, whose grieved expression appeared in many of the paintings.

There were many Thai tourists at Ajunta, and some prayed and prostrated themselves before the statues. Monks in orange robes guided them in prayer. Out on the stone path between the meditative chambers of the monasteries, a rush of coolies bore fat Thai tourists on palanquins, shouting for people to get out of their way. We left the temples close to sunset back to the parking lot to join the huge line of tourists waiting to get on a green bus. A man started running up and down the line screaming, “Single file! Caro!” which means, “Do it!” Tom took up the mantra, and some Indian men behind us started cracking up and saying it, too.

Vendors from the market chased us all the way out to the road, hands full of jewelry and rocks. The hills were pink with the remnants of the sunset, and the waxing moon was out and turned up like a bowl, facing a different direction in India than it does back home. Here Gabriella left us, heading north, while we tried to find a way back to Aurungabad. I haggled for a long time with a jeep driver while we waited for the bus and finally got the price down to $2 a person, but after we had sat in the car for a few minutes, the driver told us to get out, having conferred with some other jeepsters. We were advised to go to the bus station a mile away and started walking.

A man in a tuk-tuk drove alongside us, shouting prices that reduced as steadily as our march. He would not be turned away, and sometimes he veered his little rickshaw right in front of us and stopped it so we had to walk around, with him screaming and honking there in the road. Finally he got to 20 rupees, and Tom said, “Alright guys, we don’t know where this place is. I’m willing to pay the fifty cents or whatever for a taxi.” It is a peculiarity of travel that things seem expensive in a relative way. A beer for $1.50 would seem a bargain back home, but in India, where you sometimes pay that much for accommodation, where you can buy a new shirt for $2, where you can travel 5000 miles for $10, $1.50 seems like an extortionist price for a drink.

The five of us disentangled ourselves from the tuk-tuk into a crowded place on the road and shoved our way onto the next bus to come. I was standing in the aisle, not held up so much from my legs as from the press of people around me, and all the bench seats held two or three people.

Back in Aurungabad, starving in the dark, we got a tuk-tuk to a place called Swad Restaurant. All the tables were set for thali, with a segmented metal plate and small dishes on it. “Tuk-tuk is all you can eat?” I asked the boss, “More will come? It’s not finish?” and finally he said, “Unlimited.” The thali is a wonderful thing, and only sometimes unlimited. Each dish contains a different curry sauce, and set on the plate are chapatis, rice, salad, and chutney. A servant comes around and, as each of these items are consumed, refills the stock.

I struggled with my desire to see Daulatabad the next morning. Over the ramparts of Aurangzeb’s City of Fortune my tourist mandate to See the Sights warred with my traveler's desire to see something real, something not on any map—“true places never are”—and outside the norm.

Miss Freeda proved to be a zealous authoritarian. “You will leave today?” she asked primly at around eleven, “You know check-out is at ten. And what time will you be leaving soon?”

The train to Mumbai left that night after 11, and we put our packed bags downstairs in the common room. Some workers (Miss Freeda called them Outsiders in the same way a terrified American would say Arabs or Joseph Conrad says Others) were clearing away the tables and rolling out mats, and on the porch a young karate club practiced their techniques. Tom told her we wanted to stay for the demonstration. So we sat on the cement wall around the porch, Tom testing his new guitar, me reading War & Peace, and the kids in white robes perfected moves or did aerobics. The air sounded like chattering children, shuffling feet, newly discovered guitar chords, a constant cacophany of car horns, and the drills and hammering of India’s progress.

The karate kids scooted up slowly, and we started sharing hand tricks—fart noises, whistles, and finger snaps—and then the disciples started doing things we could not, jumping around with spinning legs and holding their heels up level with their foreheads and sliding our their feet into splits on the concrete. They staged an impressive demonstration where an adorable brown girl with a clip in her short hair and a red dot between her eyes, confronted by four attackers, also in fifth grade, dropped her purse and dealt with them in short, violent order. The little girl retrieved her purse and left her assailants lying on the ground, one of them in real pain, and she smiled and skipped away.

Then Tom got out his Nikon, and all the Marathi warriors wanted a photo. An older girl kept them in line with slaps and smacks, and we took photos and shook hands and exchanged names for a long while. We left after the practice, always better than the pompous show, and went back to the Hyderabad Darshan that Gabriella had showed us. We ordered a spicy bulgur dish called sakudana khuchdi and uttappa, a sort of greasy pancake with onions and parsley, and ate with chai from next door. The owner fried our uttappa and then sat down and talked to us. Jitendra had slicked back hair, a gold watch, a tight red shirt, and a weary but self-sure look about him. He fasted on Thursday now that he followed Ganesha.

Tom said we wanted to go to the market, and Jitendra took us there in a tuk-tuk at Indian prices, rather than what they charged tourists. He stopped first at his other restaurant that his brother ran for him, then off into the busy, dirty streets, full of tuk-tuks and pushcarts and madness. Jitendra’s haggling tips: Offer a quarter of the asking price at the start, walk away, offer something a little more, then hold out your offer and say, “Take it, take it!” “If he want to sell, and you give him twenty rupees,” said Jitendra, “he will sell.”

Tom and I got our bags from the Hostel and brought the London girls with us to the Darshan for dinner. I combed my beard with the flip-out comb I’d bought, and Tom sowed an India flag onto his bag with the skill of a true nurse. We kept on sitting there for a while, Tom playing his guitar and me fiddling with notebooks, and when it was closing he called us inside. The three of us sat around a table in the back. One of his cooks brought in hot peanuts wrapped in newspaper, a small bottle of Magic Moments vodka, and three cigarettes, one with cloves in it, for the master, and then the three employees sat eating and laughing around another table.

“They work all day,” Jitendr remarked, “and now this is their time. See them joking each other?” He told us that the three slept on the floor of the Darshan and pointed out their bedrolls behind a chair. They had no expenses or wives and sent their pay home to their parents. “I have ten families,” said Jitendr proudly, and he told us that his wife and children, his mother across town, his father in Hyderabad, his brother and nephews at the other restaurant and their families, and his employees and theirs all depended on his patronage.

He seemed happy to take care of us, as well, that godfather of Aurangabad. He told us about Hyderabad, and if we went there, his friend would help us. When we had to leave, he gave us bottles of water and rode with us in the tuk-tuk to the train station. On the way Jitendr pointed out the quiet neighborhood close to the station, the one we walked through on our first night in town, which was “very dangerous. Robbers here at night. They call their friends and get together in big group. It is safe to walk, but not with any wallet or things.”

The night felt warm and lively, not dangerous at all. “It’s a magic moment,” cried Jitendr, “Everything is a magic moment now!” He found our platform and hugged us goodbye, lingering like a father might, looking for things to concern him. “Go home to your wife,” I said (he was hoping to get lucky), and then he left.

“This was a perfect day,” said Tom as we walked down the platform, “Just hanging out, meeting people. I don’t know, I like this better than just sight-seeing.”

The train was running late, so we sat down under a stairway on the platform. A great crowd of two dozen Marathi gathered around us when Tom got out his guitar to practice the chords Mike had written down for him. We tried to explain that he was learning, but no one understood. They pointed, chattering, and must have thought he was warming up. “Can you play this by Michael Jackson?” asked an Indian. Tom cried, “No! I can play E!” Eventually the crowd figured it out and went to look at a Korean who had brought out his camera.

Back in Bombay, I exited the Victoria Terminus feeling at home. The day was still cool, and I felt fresh from the night train. Some costumed dancers performed in the parking lot, for the benefit of a visiting dignitary. Tom and I didn’t know it at the time, but these were the only Republic Day festivities we would see on that auspicious day. The military parades and screaming hordes would go on for hours in Delhi, but in Bombay they ended before 10 in the morning. We walked past the performance into the crowd of taxi drivers who shouted prices and negotiated our way to Colaba. The driver said he had not enough change for us, but after I started asking street stalls for change, he pulled the right amount out of his shirt pocket.

The day was another slow, pleasant one. We checked back into the notorious Red Shield, met some people, and conscripted them into a trip to the park. There was Sebastian the Swede, Adam of London, Tamara of the Black Forest, and Lola, a Moroccan Jew from Montreal, who led us to a botanical garden she had found. We laid out Salvation Army sheets on the grass, and Adam and Tamara took turns on Tom’s guitar. Adam played a few Radiohead songs but forgot some of the words. “I haven’t played in a few weeks. It’s amazing how easily it falls out of your head,” he said.

Tamara played a song about a breakup in harsh German by her Freiburg band, the Play Money Millionaires. “Playing guitar and singing isn’t easy,” said Adam. “I know it’s cliched to say, but you really have to feel the song. You have to know the words an let them come out, to concentrate on the rhythm and the chords, and the words and the tone. It’s too much.”

The two musicians gave Tom some instruction on his instrument and spent plenty of time demonstrating its uses, for Tom and the whole of Bombay. By ones and twos, a big crowd of Indians gathered around to watch, until we were entirely surrounded. They stared and took photos or lay on their backs and listened. Some children came up and introduced themselves. We ate a Bombayan mix of rice cracker and spices called bhelpuri and chatted.

Just outside the Red Shield, a man backed up his car and almost ran us over, then he leaned out the window and said, “Hey, you want to be in a Bollywood movie?” Bollywood directors commonly picked up foreigners to appear as extras in shows, movies, and commercials, because the White people about Colaba will will wear less modest clothing and will—and please, Reader, savor the irony of this—they will work on a movie set for longer hours and less money than the locals! The novelty of the job is enough for travelers. Indian actors are up in arms over it. Their jobs are being stolen by cheap foreign labor!

Most projects pay 500 rupees for a twelve hour shift, but this driver called Tamara over and told her that he needed someone like her, a foreign girl with a pierced lip, for two days, and he would pay her 10,000 rupees—that’s $200! “Yah, it’s so unfair,” she said. She was ready to leave Mumbai, and would, eventually, decide to turn the money down.

Later that evening, the same group as before walked up the promenade known as the Queen’s Necklace for all its lights, and watched cricket on the way to Chowpatty Beach. We got ice cream and Indian khufi, bought at least a dozen ice cream bars for begging children, and sat among the twilit crowd on the sand looking down on the toxic water of the bay.

Tom was annoyed by the chai sellers who all stopped and lingered at our group shouting, “Chai! Chai! Chai!” One of them mistook a confused look from one of us for an order and squatted down still shouting his mantra and waving his little kettle in our faces. Tom offered the man his water bottle and kept repeating, “Water? Water? Water?” The Indian jerked his head around, the way a bird does when confused, and endured silently this treatment longer than most people would, then finally he stood up and walked away. Behind him, a little Hindu couple cuddling on a blanket were gasping with laughter.

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