Nov. 26: Photographer Erika Schultz and I left Seattle this afternoon, bound for three weeks of work, plus a week of vacation in India. For both of us, it was the first trip to this complex country.
Advice about traveling there sometimes gives the impression that a Westerner’s chances of survival are about 50/50.
We’ve had shots for the flu, polio, typhoid, hepatitis A and B, and Japanese encephalitis.
Still, our bags are packed with mosquito nets, surgical face masks, water purifiers, sleeping-bag liners and medication for malaria, sleep, diarrhea and nausea.
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We also came prepared to keep a diary of impressions, what we saw and felt and came to think about all that we experienced. Ultimately, it was so much more than the sum of these parts:
Nov 28: Arrived in Mumbai at 1:30 a.m. Wednesday (noon Tuesday in Seattle). There’s none of the noise or stench we were told to expect. Our first impression is of crumbling colonialism, buildings and parks with a sort of tropical shabby chicness that is both beautiful and decrepit. At the Ascot Hotel in the well-to-do Colaba area, we’re greeted by Theophilus Menezes, a childhood friend of a photographer Erika knows. Menezes, the night receptionist, orders us eggs and toast from the kitchen. Finally, we sleep.
After a few hours’ rest, we head out into the city to buy some traditional Indian outfits that will help us blend in better and be respectful of cultural norms, particularly in rural areas.
We meander by the grand Taj Mahal Palace hotel, which was the target of a murderous terrorist attack in 2008. Across the street is the Gateway of India arch, where a woman pushes her jasmine-flower bracelets on us, insisting “no money.” She leads us to a street vendor who, in a bit of badly acted theater, pretends to charge her an enormous sum for powdered milk. They become very pushy when we don’t want to pay, and we finally get away.
We check out Fab India, which friends recommended, but it’s out of our price range, so instead we grab lunch next door at Moshe’s Restaurant — also a little out of our price range, but safe and delicious. Still in pursuit of affordable clothes, we are adopted by a man who says he’s both a college lecturer and unemployed. He takes us on a long walk to another expensive shop, then back to a string of shops and sidewalk vendors right by our hotel. We buy several outfits of salwar kameez, essentially long shirts over harem-style pants, and churidar, which are like leggings.
After all the reading we did about India’s electrical outlets and voltage, we’re still startled when sparks fly in our hotel room. Erika buys a new power strip.
Nov. 30: The past two days were a whirlwind of reporting and photographing at Starbucks’ first two stores in Mumbai and at chai wallahs (artisan tea sellers). A highlight was meeting R.K. Krishna Kumar, a bigwig at the Tata Group, the huge Indian conglomerate that has partnered with Starbucks. We chatted for almost an hour about coffee, water (an increasingly limited resource) and spirituality.
Dec. 1: We fly to India’s far northeastern finger, sandwiched between Tibet and Bangladesh.
In Siliguri, West Bengal, we meet the local team for Landesa, a Seattle-based nonprofit whose program to help adolescent girls we’ve come to see. Our gracious hosts want to make sure we knew what we were getting into by agreeing to spend a couple nights in their boondocks field office to minimize travel time to the villages.
Surabhi Sircar, who runs the girls’ program, tells us the toilets are Indian-style and asks if we know what that means. Inserting my foot into my mouth, I say, “Yes, those are the holes in the ground. We like them.”
Dec. 2: We ride about five hours to Cooch Behar and still are not at the boondocks field office.
Cooch Behar is hosting a big fair called Ras Mela, to honor the Hindu god Krishna and his love, Radha, about whom we hear varying accounts — which is turning into a theme here. People are extremely helpful, but sometimes loose with details.
Whatever the specifics, the event definitely involves thousands of people congregating to eat, shop, get on carnival rides and spin a horizontal wheel while thinking of love. We’re enchanted.
Dec. 7: The week has been a blur of mind-blowing food, bone-rattling roads and heartwarming people — some of the poorest in the world, and some of the kindest:
• Traditional breakfasts are delicious, typically dal with vegetables and little fried breads called roti. Several mornings we added rasgulla, a dessert of spongy, mild cheese balls smothered in syrup. Lunch and dinner are similar.
• Bulbuli Barman, a mother of three, threshed rice over a wooden stump for hours one day, then came home and kept smiling as she did her chores while we took photos and asked questions.
• The children counted to 10 in English, then tried (unsuccessfully) to teach us numbers in Bengali. Everyone loved pronouncing Erika’s name, which handily rhymes with “America.”
Dec. 8: On the way back to Siliguri, Erika jumps out of our SUV to take pictures of tea-plantation workers walking with bundled firewood on their heads. As she’s running back and forth, our guide, Landesa’s Supriya Chattopadhyay, says our driver is worried about Erika: “There are leopards.”
You would not believe how fast Erika got back in that SUV.
We also stop to tour Jaldapara Wildlife Sanctuary, which is full of elephants and rhinoceros. Not that we see many. At one point, Supriya becomes incredulous:
“You can’t even show us a snake?” he jokes about our driver. “ … Maybe someone could dress up in an elephant costume and run across the road?”
Dec. 9: Our flight to Bangalore is canceled because of fog, which leads to a lost day of long lines and feverish bouts of yelling.
In the first line, two men excoriate an airline worker with a stream of vitriol punctuated by the words “Airbus” and “Boeing,” which makes us feel closer to home.
Erika gets them to pause so she can ask, “Is this the right line for new tickets?” It isn’t. As the yelling resumes, Erika goes for luggage while I stand in the right line.
Hours later, as I near the front of the right line, an older man yells at a younger man for cutting, even though it was the older man who cut.
Shortly after, Erika warns that a woman is angling to cut in front of me and a few others. We form a wall against the cutter, who starts screaming at us about our obnoxious cutting.
Tension diminishes when yellers occasionally smile, making the whole thing a real-world theater of the absurd.
We finally decide to book seats on a train to Kolkata the next day. We get a hotel for the night and are thrilled to see a Rajastani wedding procession, complete with marching band and fireworks, in front of the hotel.
The 10-hour trip to Kolkata is followed by a hair-raising ride to the airport that includes our cab hitting a rickshaw and the cab in front of us nicking a man on a bicycle.
We fly to Bangalore, arriving just late enough for our interviewees to cancel; I stand outside the airport looking like a depiction of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream.”
The long rides gave us time to gin up a “By the Numbers” a la Harper’s Magazine. We have experienced:
2 electrical blackouts
6 baths-in-a-bucket and cold showers
5 mosquito bites
A sample of 500 million men with non-ironic mustaches
8 puja (religious) offerings by Hindu women ululating
At least 12 servings of naan, 24 chapati and 24 roti
A 22-foot statue of the goddess Kali feeding a man to a beast
28,000-foot Mount Kanchenjunga, the third-highest in the world (from the airplane)
Hundreds of statues of the elephant-headed god Ganesh
Hundreds, possibly thousands, of cows
More than a dozen monkeys
One impromptu dance session
30 malaria pills
42 applications of DEET
Dec. 11: Coffee-plantation owner Jacob Mammen and his general manager, A. Sukumar, pick us up in Bangalore.
They drive us several hours to the town of Chikmagalur, where British coffee barons built a clubhouse that Indian coffee magnates now frequent. It’s decorated for Christmas, right down to the twinkling lights hanging from tiger skins on the wall.
From there, we head to the highest point in the Bababudan Giris, the legendary hills where a 17th-century Muslim monk is said to have planted seven coffee beans he smuggled out of Africa.
After lunch, Jacob drives us to his plantation, where we’re staying. The British built the grand houses where he and other plantation owners stay when they visit. There are no hotels nearby, and we’ve been told it would be rude to offer money, so we bring gifts instead.
Dec. 14: We are in south India to cover the coffee harvest, which is unique in the world. The fields are more like forests, and there are tigers and elephants and snakes. One plantation worker shows us his photo of a king cobra lounging across the coffee bushes, giving us pause.
One evening we attend a Hindu ceremony, known as a puja, at one of the plantation’s many temples.
At the plantation home of grower Rohan Kuriyan afterward, the doorbell rings and we’re treated to Christmas carols sung by local church people, one wearing a pretty freaky Santa Claus mask.
Dec. 15: The work part of my trip is over. I board a train headed to a beach town in Kerala. Erika goes east, photographing people we missed in Bangalore before she flies to Varanasi for some time off.
Dec. 16: A woman was gang raped in New Delhi today, and the horrific news puts us a bit on edge.
Dec. 21: Erika returns a day early to Mumbai. Her vacation to Varanasi was not what she expected. Touring one of India’s oldest cities was incredible, especially exploring ancient temples, walking among Hindu pilgrims and witnessing last rituals at funeral pyres. But the relentless pressure to meet Goldie Hawn’s astrologer, buy overpriced scarves and tour the Ganges by boat took its toll. Her savior was finding a versatile guide, Nandan with Groovy Tours, who showed her rural villages in Uttar Pradesh as well as truck stops where traditional Indian trucks are painted all over with flowers, gods and intricate designs.
Even so, a week was too long.
After Erika spotted her laundry hanging at the washing steps beside the holy but smelly Ganges, her hotel’s front desk assured her the clothes had been machine washed but were sent there to dry. Hmmm.
Workers at her hotel also badgered her about tours, traveling as a single woman and talking to male travelers.
Back in Mumbai, where we see women wearing miniskirts in public, a cabdriver tells Erika he understands that American women have sex with friends. “We’re friends, aren’t we?” he asks.
Dec. 22: I, too, return to Mumbai. Kerala was not what I expected, either. Although the massages, food and scenery at Asokam Beach Resort were excellent, other things were not:
My first morning there, four wild dogs chased me into the surf. As I turned to swim, three men motioned me to come their way. The dogs followed, closing in. Then one of the men started throwing rocks at them, and I escaped to the beach road. When I tried to thank the men, they turned away.
I attracted whistles and hoots for walking on the beach without leggings under the salwar that fell a few inches below my knees. Apparently, men in this part of Kerala are unused to seeing female ankles.
Dec. 23: Theophilus Menezes, our friend from the Ascot Hotel, takes us to a Mumbai slum to better understand the complexities of poverty. We’re struck by how harried poor people in the city are, compared to their village peers. They work multiple jobs to afford rent on tiny one-room apartments.
Later that day, without Menezes, we visit Mumbai’s famous red-light district, where we heard girls are sent from West Bengal because it’s far from home. A crowd of men surrounds us and soon becomes hundreds strong. (Our minds flash to the woman raped in Delhi, who died of her injuries. She’d merely gone to a movie with a friend, but one prominent politician had said women should not “roam” the streets at night.)
As I turned to face the men and ask them to make way, I saw our cabdriver standing next to me, looking out for us. He led us out of the crowd.
At first, it all seemed like a bad flashback to the 1950s, then it started to seem more like the Middle Ages. There are modern men in India who are kind and respectful to women, but too many who are not still “roam” its streets.
Dec. 24: After a 31-hour journey, including a flight delay in Chicago, we reach home.
The United States has its issues, for sure. But what the world says about the roads being straight, the air being clean and the people being rich felt truer than ever.
And we drank water right out of the tap.
Melissa Allison is a former Seattle Times business reporter. Erika Schultz is a Times staff photographer.