We piled into taxis on the way to the station. Delhi roads confuse me, always like a blur, at times I think we’ve gone in circles. Even in the early evening, the streets are consumed by people. Food vendors, nappers in parks or brick walls, women in saris. I think Delhi births more humans each hour, opening its womb of populous. I wonder if these people have no place to be, no job to punch a clock at, no home to loiter in.
The station is no different. No sooner had we touched station ground do several men run up to our luggage and grab it. Some think this is a courtesy feature of the bus system, but I know better. I try to stop the men, but they’ve already grabbed the bags and have walked into the station. Luxury buses are parked like herded cattle, large beasts in waiting. At our bus, the baggage carriers are demanding rupees, so much for all. I’m yelling ‘Nahi, Nahi’ there was no negotiation for this service. No money. They’re getting louder, and speaking more Hindi than I’ve learned in several days. Others are confused, not realizing it cost money, not having rupees to pay. Finally, Jennie hands one man the money, and they walk away glaring at us.
The bus isn’t boarding. So we cook in the heat, using shirts for sweat rags. I’m wearing a cotton shirt three sizes too big and black yoga pants, fabric that doesn’t bode well in summer. Several women come back from the restroom, describing the squatters, and a woman who just started at them while they peed. It gave them an eerie feeling, and I can’t blame them.
On the bus, seats are quickly being taken up in pairs. Half the bus is filled with Indians and other travelers, the back half is our volunteer group. In the very back is a seated row, a bus pew, not as comfy as the individual seats. It is the leftovers, and it is where I along with Stephano, Aziza, and Felix will sit for the eleven hour ride.
Stephano is from Canada, as well as Aziza. Studying genetics, I’m already assured he is my intellectual superior and I admire someone with the patience to study, experiment, and manipulate the genome. Felix is only eight (I believe) and has joined his parents Jane and Denis for an adventure all the way from their native Australia. No accent have I come across that I adore more than an Australian one. Felix never ceased to have energy, and at the more intense moments, offered a refreshing reminder of the need to keep a childlike carefreeness in the situations that would come.
No restrooms were on the bus; so, I was sure to only sip on water when needed. Beside the driver was a 32 inch television mounted to the bus, almost on the brink of tipping over from the weight. It played the same Bollywood film the entire time, and through my sporadic moments of watching, I always seemed to tune in when the actors were on a golf course, singing in Hindi, and dancing in unison. I wasn’t sure what made a golf course a prime setting for this particular dance scene, but it made me laugh to see Indian men in golf attire and women in saris (who came out of nowhere) breaking into song and dance.
We passed time with CD players, small talk, I think even making up a story to tell Felix. At some point, I mentioned that Stephano resembled Captain Shang from Mulan and everyone seemed in agreement, except Stephano. Eventually, the bus made its first stop at an outdoor food vending location that seemed placed in the middle of nowhere. In India, it is common to eat a very late meal, usually after 8pm. So, it was a dinner break. Jeetu and Lalit ordered and sat with their food. Most of us walked around, stretched, searched for restrooms. I don’t remember this stop much. I just know it was crowded with other travelers and buses, almost like a family reunion at night. A volunteer needed toilet paper, and I unrolled several sheets from the small travel size roll I carried with me.
It seemed hazy, an odd light cast on everyone. The air was smoky from the cooking, and I couldn’t process much because all I heard was foreign tongue. It was like my mind couldn’t digest it. And I looked around, turning in a circle, to see only darkness surrounding this place on all sides. An orphaned business in northern India.
Several hours later, the bus pulled into a fuel station. It was late, and most on the bus stayed in slumber. Had I been smart, I would have brought ambien like some of the others, who slept like bricks. We waited in front of a small white brick wall to use the restroom. Women would enter at each side, and eventually, after what seemed irrationally long, would come back around. One of the volunteers finished and informed us that there were no restrooms on the other side. Just two dug holes and the awkward meeting with a fellow squatter less than an arm reach away. With half a dozen in waiting ahead, three of us decided to walk to the other side, slightly up a hill, out of sight, in order to take care of business.
Note: Some details to be revealed have typically been omitted in my retelling of this event, but I have decided not to self edit for the sake of readers. So if you squirm easily, don’t read beyond this point.
The night before I had left for India, two things happened to unsettle my upcoming trip. First, a dear friend went to the emergency room, making it a late night for my upcoming early morning. Second, my delayed period decided to start. In fact, I wrote a nasty note to my vagina on my previous blog detailing my loathing of its cruel joke. I digress, anyways, so along with everything else I’m adjusting to in India, I’m having to find a way to deal with menstruation in a land that isn’t what I consider tampon friendly.
The three of us spread out, offering several leaps of space to one another. And just as we pop a squat, a large luxury bus pulls into the fuel station, inside lights ablaze, and dozens of Indian men standing, staring out the large paned windows. I notice the light shining on us and the numerous pairs of eyes gawking just as I throw my tampon over my shoulder into the dirt.
I was horrified. And I hear the weak shrieking of the other two. But then, I realized, it is too late, and there will be no other stops until Dharamsala. So, I just closed my eyes and pleaded with my bladder to go. I struggle using the restroom in public stalls if there is a stranger in the one next to me; so, imagine the difficulty knowing that I was being observed. Think of water. Think of waterfalls. Relax. Please, relax. And each second seemed elongated. I almost sighed when my body finally complied. And I hurriedly pulled up my panties and yoga pants and ran back to the bus. No looking around, no talking, maybe I was breathing.
I remember Bella talking about an aspect of Indian culture not always seen in others. There is this knowledge and acceptance that most people experience similar things, problems, body functions, and so on. If that’s the case, then they’ve never seen a reason to hide it, to deal with it in private. And that was a primary struggle I had in India: no privacy.
A private person might as well be considered the worst kind of sick. The inability to reveal the self. This is why peeing beside a stranger is nothing in India because it’s a natural process, everyone does it, why make wasteful accommodations just to make people feel comfortable for a thirty second act? So, that was a lesson that took time to learn, to accept, to embrace. Shedding the private self. But for a foreigner, it is just that act that can potentially save you, comfort you, make you feel a part of a community not your own.
India is imbued with a culture that to many seem turned on its head, upside down, but India is this, it is also the mirrored opposite. And somehow it stays relatively balanced. My definition of India is quite succinct. India means paradox.
My Delhi days would be nothing compared to Dharamsala. It is in those mountains that I lived at the heart of this definition. Paradox. I mulled over it often. It tore me apart. It rebuilt me, sutured together something new. Whether I will successfully articulate it in this place, I don’t know. But being caught in mid-squat would be the least worry to come.