A baby cow nearly peed on us while we were seated in a cement cove near a chai stall playing Scrabble (or “exhibitionist Scrabble” as my boyfriend has recently been calling it, since whenever we play a whole flock of Indians- usually men and boys- gather around closely, gaping and observing our every slow and subtle move) the other day. A black tarp- that really resembled more of a trash bag- was laid out like a picnic blanket, which is where we were seated. The mangy brown calf clomped up the ledge and loitered dangerously close to our steaming tea glasses. We shooed him aside. That was when he peed. Right on the tarp thing. It splattered and ran off it all directions, little rivulets cascading across the plastic. A fellow chai stall patron, an elderly Indian man, stood up to shove the calf away and try to derail the stream of cow piss from heading our direction by kicking at the puddle in his flip flops. His actions were much appreciated, but terribly disgusting.
On the sandy shore near the river, a white girl with a European accent had finally given in to the official “ear cleaner” and his persistent pleas to “give you a good clean.” I had secretly been watching out for someone to succumb to the ear cleaner’s sales pitch after recently reading about the practice of Indian ear-cleaning in the book Lunatic Express by Carl Hoffman. The red capped Indian boy with the fluffy cotton swabs behind his ears was kneeling in the sand and meticulously scraping out bits of wax from her ear, showing her the contents of his tools each time he withdrew them from the inside of her head. The tools were carried an official looking wooden box that had “Ear Cleaner” painted its side in bold capital letters. A ratty looking child sat next to them, closely observing the peculiar service, which cost the equivalent of $1.
A baba in an orange lungi and matching headscarf dug with a large knife into the sand on the riverbank for several hours. He sang aloud to himself, humming about Shiva and “Hari Om-ing” as he carved out the sand into shapes and smoothed the area around the relief flat with his hands. As a trio of Israeli men strode by and awkwardly snapped photos with their Ipad, he held up a hand and shook his head, “No photo, please.” Later on, he filled in the carvings with leaves and built a simple shrine around them, complete with a coconut, some bells, and a piece of tattered red fabric that fluttered in the breeze like a flag.
Teenage Indian girls strode by, knee deep in the water and wearing skinny jeans. Their long black hair was shiny and full of glittery barrettes. They casually slung their bedazzled sandals at their sides, straps dangling from their thin fingers.
As the sun fell low in the sky, a squad of young sassy girls with matted hair and whiny voices stalked the beach with their baskets. They sell small flimsy bowls made of dry banana leaves that contain fragrant flowers with a candle in the center, which is really just a quarter size dollop of wax and a cotton ball soaked in jasmine oil. Some have an incense stick in them. You light the candle and send the whole thing floating down the Ganga as an offering, or puja, to the river. The price of these flowers range from ten to fifty rupees (twenty cents to one dollar). The girls have interesting sales tactics, such as throwing a temper tantrum (their ages probably range from six to ten years old) or leaving the bowl of flowers with you and walking away, only to return in twenty minutes to demand rupees.
On the walk back to our guest house, which goes directly through Swarg Ashram, the small street is lined with vendors on one side and permanent cement benches on the other. There is an enclosed air conditioned ATM with a sleepy guard slumped in his chair on its stoop and a pile of puppies sleeping in his shadow. Despite the fact that the street really seems more like a path, motorbikes and occasional vehicles still honk their way through, only mildly disrupting the flow of foot traffic. In the evenings, big gray monkeys with black faces climb down out of the banyan trees and sit quietly on the fence, comfortably holding their long toes with their long fingers.
Wooden carts overflowing with freshly peeled whole cucumbers are abundant. The cucumber vendors are constantly splashing water on their stock from a metal cup and fanning flies away with leafy branches. People munch on the cucumbers whole, as we would with apples, and sometimes they slice them down the center and smear chili salt down the seeded core.
Others sell freshly popped popcorn out of a steaming iron pan. Bicycle boys precariously balance their mangoes, packed loosely in big round baskets that look like bird cages secured above the back tire. Carts of colorful produce practically overflow with creatively carved papayas, pomegranates, and watermelon on display while cones of incense burn between the melons and vegetables, emitting teensy spirals of smoke. Samosas and other fried snacks are stacked high, individually wrapped in newspaper upon purchase, which quickly soaks up the grease leaving you with slick fingers after eating. A burly man with a ponytail slaps doughy potato balls from palm to palm then drops them in a sizzling vat of oil. Another cart is lined with glass bottles, each containing unnaturally bright colored liquid used to make snow cones. Fresh lemon soda is being peddled from the cart across the way, with open bottles of soda water lined up, each topped with a lemon balanced on the lip of the bottle.
Any guidebook will tell you to absolutely not eat or drink street food, especially fresh produce that hasn’t been “peeled or boiled.” This is frustrating, as everything looks so damn delicious (flies and all).
“Come madame, commmme!” beckons the mustached spice vendor, perched beneath an umbrella with bags of cardamom pods, anise stars, red masala powder, and other various fragrant seeds and such spread out on his cart. Behind him there is a device that looks like an ancient time machine. “It is a computer, madame!” he explained. Well this thing ain’t no MacBook, that’s for sure. Gold plated with levers, knobs, gauges, and a few pictures of Indian gods, this thing had three sets of headphones jacked in beneath labels that say “Past,” “Present,” and “Future.”
The ever-present smell of shit and incense isn’t so novel once you’re sick. In fact, it is practically unbearable. It is also everywhere: splattered landmines courtesy of the teeming cow population which require diligence and skill to safely navigate around. Smiling Indian families insisting that you stop and snap photos with them while you’re desperately on your way back to your room from the pharmacy and seeking out a clean bathroom isn’t nearly as amusing either.
Perhaps swimming in the freezing Ganges has “purified my soul,” but it has left me with a limited range of movement lately- as I’ve been hovering close to home base since bathroom trips have been frequent (which is an understatement). The good news: two 10-packs of Cipro and the same amount of Ibuprofen costs less than $4 and can be purchased at any little roadside pharmacy, of which there are plenty (not to be confused with the ayurvedic “pharmacies” that peddle stinky powders and creams that are all natural remedies that are not intended to cure all ailments).
Once these meds kick in, we will be taking a 14-hour bus trip north in the state of Himachal Pradesh to the Dalai Lama’s home of Dharmsala in a few days and onward into the Himalayas. Still seeking higher altitudes and lower temperatures. Hopefully this bus journey will be marginally more tolerable than the last, since it’s twice as long…
Allison Cohn loves gold spray paint and nonsense. She also has a very difficult time sitting still and keeping quiet. She can often be found dancing like a fool when she isn’t hiding out in her mountain lair or gallivanting around the globe.