My Flirtation with India

Mumbai Street Scene

For years, I have been fascinated with India in a way I have not been with any other Asian locale. Is it possible that I would ever go there on a vacation? There are a number of factors pro and con:

PRO

  • I have a good friend—Mohan—in Chennai (formerly known as Madras).
  • I love reading about India. One of my favorite authors is the Tamil R. K. Narayan who wrotre a series of novels about a mythical town called Malgudi. Also, I have just finished Paul Theroux’s The Elephanta Suite, which I enjoyed.
  • English would probably take me further in India than in any other Asian destination.
  • Indian curries, especially vegetarian curries, are one of my favorite cuisines.

CON

  • What frightens me about India is the same thing I hate in Los Angeles: Unrelenting heat. I would have to time my visit carefully so I’m not stuck there just before the monsoons arrive.
  • I would probably not enjoy spending much time in India’s large, crowded cities, such as Mumbai, Kolkata, or Chennai.
  • One of my friends from Dartmouth College, also, like me, from Cleveland, died in India a few years after graduation of some gastric disturbance. Because of the state of my health, I would be afraid of contracting food poisoning.

There you have it: A few random observations of what goes through my mind when I consider going to India.

Going South for the Winter

Novelist and World Traveler Paul Theroux

Paul Theroux has had an immense influence on my life. When I first read The Old Patagonian Express: By Train Through the Americas in 1981, I knew that I wanted to travel as he did. But I couldn’t: I was stuck in a demanding job, and many of the places I wanted to visit, such as Guatemala, Peru, and Argentina, were undergoing hard times; and travel there was not recommended by our State Department.

But the years have passed, and travel to Latin America is not so problematic any more. (Though, now, parts of Mexico are dangerous—including many cities, such as Veracruz, which I have visited.)

After writing books about traveling by rail through Asia and China, about traveling around the coasts of Britain and the Mediterranean, and about island-hopping in the South Pacific, Theroux spent four winters traveling through the Deep South, concentrating on poor small towns in Georgia, the Carolinas, Alabama, Mississippi, and Arkansas. His book, Deep South: Four Seasons on Back Roads, opened my eyes to why Trump won in 2016. Theroux’s South was a place where people were more civil to strangers than in other parts of the country. Yet there is a great deal of poverty, and many of its people feel they have been shunted aside by history, large corporations, and general neglect.

Theroux, the world traveler, spent those four winters dealing with people who, for the most part, never traveled abroad. He spent more time with Black Americans than with Whites. Both racists are as far apart as ever, yet there are glimmers of hope. And the hope is not from Washington and New York, where all the money is concentrated, but from local people who bring about incremental improvements rather than global change.

He is older and wiser after his forty-odd years of travel. “The greatest advantage to being an older traveler is being invisible, unregarded, ignored. This allows one to eavesdrop and to see much more of a place or a people. There is a detachment, too, in being older: You’re not looking for a new life, not easily tempted. So you see a place clearly. Perfect for writing.”

The travels that went into the making of this book took place before the electoral debacle of 2016, but one could see the widespread willingness to try something new, to talk to somehow who promised to “Make America Great Again.” Not that this administration will anything to help them. A trade war with China would hurt voters in Trump country far more than voters in the Northeast and West.

 

The World’s Highest Capital City

La Paz, Bolivia, at Night

If you want to land in a capital city so high up that you will get an immediate nosebleed and tumble headfirst down the steps of the airplane, you would pick La Paz, Bolivia. The average altitude of El Alto, where the airport is located, is 13,615 feet (or 4,150 meters). The city itself is about 2,000 feet lower, about the same altitude of Lhasa, Tibet.

In The Old Patagonian Express, Paul Theroux talks about his accident-proneness at high altitude. Taking some aspirin in his hotel room, he drops the water tumbler into the sink. Trying to pick up the pieces, he cut himself badly and decided to seek medical attention:

But I had not gone two blocks when the new towel I had wrapped around my hand was soaked with blood. It did not hurt, but it looked dreadful. I hid it under my arm so as not to alarm pedestrians. Then the blood dripped on the sidewalk and I thought: God damn. It was deeply embarrassing to be walking through this large gray city with a blood-soaked towel on my hand. I began to wish I had tried the rubber band. I left spatters of blood on the crosswalk, and more spatters on the plaza. I asked directions to the pharmacy and saw, when I looked back, that there was a pool of blood where I had paused, and a horrified Bolivian watching me. I tried not to run: running makes your heart beat faster and you bleed more.

Of course, if Theroux had been trying to cope with the altitude by taking aspirin, his blood was not likely to clot soon. He should have chewed coca leaves with an alkaloid, or drank some mate de coca tea. But then, this was the 1970s, and this was not generally known to gringo travelers.

Bolivia has had a violent political history, with presidents changing office approximately once a year—or even more often. In 1948, some angry rebels yanked President Gualberto Villaroel from the balcony of his palace and proceeded to lynch him from a lamppost in the plaza. Fortunately, the present government is a little more stable

 

Ghost Train to Anywhere

Paul Theroux on One of His Mythical Train Rides

Paul Theroux on One of His Mythical Train Rides

For almost forty years, I have been traveling around the world with Paul Theroux—starting with his train ride books The Great Railway Bazaar (1975) and The Old Patagonian Express (1979) to whatever I could get my hands on. Even when I said to myself, “This guy is altogether too snarky,” I followed his adventures with an interest bordering on zeal.

Only now do I realize he is one of the great influences on my life. It was not until November 1975 that I began my own travels (other than back and forth between Los Angeles and Cleveland). My visit to Yucatán opened my eyes and was followed by trips to Britain, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and a lot more of Mexico. It was as if the floodgates were open, and my eyes were focussed on the world at large, and not just at whatever place I was living at the time.

I have glorious memories of my trips, even the first one to Argentina, when I broke my right shoulder in a blizzard in Tierra del Fuego. I was hooked, and have been ever since.

Yeah, I Second the Motion!

Yeah, I Second the Motion!

A few days ago, I finished reading Theroux’s Ghost Train to the Eastern Star (2008) in which I found the following quotes which resonated with me:

Often on a trip, I seem to be alive in a hallucinatory vision of difference, the highly colored unreality of foreignness, where I am vividly aware (as in most dreams) that I don’t belong; yet I am floating, an idle anonymous visitor among busy people, an utter stranger. When you’re strange, as the song goes, no one remembers your name.

Also, it doesn’t matter any more who’s topping the charts. Taylor Swift doesn’t mean anything to me; and if Kim Kardashian’s ass were offered to me on a silver platter, I would not too politely refuse. I have climbed the Mayan pyramids at Uxmal and Chichén Itzá. I have taken a fall at Magallanes and Rivadavia in Ushuaiah and injured myself. I have visited two Communist Eastern European countries before 1989. I have seen things most people have not seen, and it has changed me forever.

It seemed to me that this was the whole point of traveling—to arrive alone, like a specter, in a strange country at nightfall, not in the brightly lit capital but by the back door, i9n the wooded countryside, hundreds of miles from the metropolis where typically people didn’t see many strangers and were hospitable and did not instantly think of me as money on two legs.

Being a traveler is being something of a loner. I am certainly that. But I wouldn’t have it any other way. I will travel as long as I can.