by scott morris
I am at the exact furthest point from home possible—zenith or nadir, depending on perspective—standing at the immigration counter at the Indira Gandhi International Airport, body wracked with some stewing South Asian pestilence stirring up the worst kind of hallucinations, trying to get the fuck out of India.
Earlier that night the proprietress of the hostel had given me some expired medication. She assured me it would fix me right up, quiet the internal motion of unwell, that she had seen all this before, but the only difference it made was that I had started passing out periodically, the first time while walking into the train station. I had to lie on a bench for a while to regain enough strength to get through security, all while a circle of Indian men crowded around, shouting offers of every type of service imaginable at this prone and seemingly dead American man. The modern train was built for western tourists, and I was the only passenger, thankfully alone to save myself the embarrassment of having others watch me vomit into a plastic bag.
But now I am here, at the airport. One last logistical hurdle stands between me and my escape from this cesspool. I am standing in line to get my passport checked. I’m feeling okay after a half hour lying on the ground (never a smart idea in India, but by the third time I’d passed out I didn’t have the energy to care), but as I approach the middle-aged pencil-pusher, I feel the feared rumblings of something deep in my gut, deep in my personhood. With only one woman left in front of me I start scanning for some exit, panicked over my impending need to use words in a stressful situation. The room starts spinning, but two bureaucrats are freed up and the momentum of the line pushes me forward, out of the safety of the queue and into the limbo of no-man’s-land, and I advance with a shudder, wondering what the Indian penal code subscribes for vomiting on a government official and passing out in a public space before you’re able to surrender your documents.
Somehow I cross the abyss and arrive at the desk, trying to work a smile onto my pasty face and spit out some kind of polite greeting, all while death-gripping the edge of the desk.
The attack begins rolling into me, a set of waves that start small and innocent, but soon are crashing over my head and drowning me. There’s a weird glare off the polished plastic of the desk. I’m dizzy, and the room starts to spin. At first, with each rotation, I can work out the man dutifully stamping and scanning, but taking no notice of me, but after a half dozen whirls it’s all a blur and I’m sure my eyes have rolled up into my head by now and I’m going into a Sufi trance. I was sure I was about to be arrested and thrown in a dark, dank Asian lockup for reasons of mental insanity. The spinning continues to increase until I spin completely out of my body. I’m above it, looking down on my corpse from overhead. It’s standing there limply, hair a mess, with a green face. The man is still stamping and glancing up at his screen. He hasn’t looked at my face once. The camera pans out and I’m sliding backwards along the high ceiling, until I’m stuck, watching in the far corner of the cavernous Departures Lobby. I can barely make out my physical body; now just a speck in a complex entanglement of transportation logistics. I see camps of Indian families, the eldest son leaving the country for the first time to study in London. I see two Norwegian couples who met in a hostel in Agra and banded together for a memory of home in the clashing sea of Central India. I see four dozen terrified German tourists, sold this package vacation on the Western Model of India, fleeing from the Indian Model of India.
The lights go black and I’m whipped back into my body. I’m standing several feet from the desk, staring blankly in the wrong direction. I turn back to the uniformed man and he’s somehow still stamping. Still without looking up, he slaps my passport back on the desk and exhales:
I grab my passport and collapse through the turnstile, amazed I survived. A fat man is sitting at a desk, machine gun on top, distractedly reading a Hindi newspaper. I stammer something about needing a rest and collapse onto the floor next to him. He doesn’t understand, but smiles; he’s seen many white kids this desperate to leave Delhi behind.
I too came to India sold on the Western Model of the place. Teeming substrate of life, yoga ashrams, and the best food on earth. Everyone knows that just by setting foot in India you’re healed of all physical, emotional, and metaphysical woes.
I had a month off from my Outdoor Education job in Australia, so I came, with big ambitions. Like everyone else, I was going to do Varanasi and the Golden Triangle: fly into Delhi, train to Agra (near the Taj Mahal), and Jaipur (the ancient capital of Rajasthan). When my friends asked me why I was going, I told them I was going to look for God. At the core of every cliché is a truism.
For a millennial, reading Eat, Pray, Love and watching Slumdog Millionaire in high school, India was the holy grail of travel. I had done the summer in South America and had done Southeast Asia and New Zealand, Nepal—all the beginner to intermediary destinations. I thought I was ready for India, for the big leagues of risk and reward, exoticism and eroticism.
In the movie dens of sensibly-priced duplexes of Mid-Atlantic suburbia, India is often portrayed as the nexus of the spiritual realm, through books and movies, and in a lot of ways that description is fair. It’s an ancient, teeming place, full of strife, and that strife is palpable as soon as you arrive. It’s like any country, just more of it.
The first part of my planned trip to India included a month-long stopover on the South Island of New Zealand, walking up and down big hills. Weather forced me down into the lowlands, so to pass the time I took some work on a family farm in Leeston, south of Christchurch. I fed their pigs and read books and enjoyed their hospitality over the Christmas Holiday. I played cricket with the grandkids and ate my weight in cantaloupe. Christmas in the summer is weird, but it was an easy way to spend a few weeks, and I knew it was good for me to rest and eat, but my feet were beginning to itch; India was on my horizon. With a few days to go I hitched to the southern tip of the Island, Invercargill, and on New Year’s Day I boarded the first of five flights that would take me to my reckoning.
I had spent a month in the fall trekking in Nepal, a trial run of sorts for India. I thought Kathmandu would be a junior version of Delhi. The trip’s trekking and mountaineering in the Big Hills had gone better than expected and so I approached this sojourn with a certain amount of confidence.
On the Nepal trip I had a 24 hour layover in Guangzhou, and Air China had put me up in large hotel suite and fed me delicious meals, so when I arrived for my 28 hour layover in Beijing, I was expecting another red-carpet experience. Instead, the capital authorities were completely without hospitality and I was shunted into the purgatory of a long airport lobby wait. I survived, brimming with real traveler’s pride, and boarded the 20:55 flight to DEL.
The flight touched down on time, around zero dark thirty, and I sped through Immigrations and Customs. There was a wait in the Arrivals Lobby before the train into town would start running, but it was worth it to catch my breath and look around, to finally see that yes, I was inside the object of my distant fascination.
At the exact time prescribed by the rehearsed mental plan, I stepped out of the airport into the full current of Delhi. The sun wasn’t yet up but there were masses of men penned in by a cordon, and jostling and shouting offers of taxis, women, whatever I wanted. Taken aback for a moment, I pushed ahead. I knew to expect and placidly ignore this onslaught, but what checked me was its intensity and veracity.
A dizzying labyrinth of tunnels and moving walkways behind me, I bought a ticket with my pre-exchanged small-denomination rupee notes. The train was modern and empty, and as it quickly sped away from the station I could see only hazy lights that promised and concealed at the same time. The travel plaza in the center of town was equally modern and empty, and I counted six levels of escalators and underground plazas to cross and climb from the bowels of the earth to the bowels of humanity. I paused at the door and it hit me: the smell of cooking food and filth, the sounds of thousands of 2-cycle rickshaws buzzing in every direction. On the main staircase down to the road, a man was squatting and shitting on the stone steps: I had arrived in India.
My plan, built on an image of the touristic ease of Kathmandu, was to work the general area around the central train station to find a cheap traveler’s hostel, where I’d lay low for at least a day to gather myself. But the plan did not meet reality; it was dark (as it is everywhere at 4:38 in the morning, other than the North Pole on the summer solstice), and I found myself in a vast, muddy parking lot, where, opposite to the airport, no one paid me any mind, even when I started to get desperate and began to ask “Hotel?” to passersby. They were either drunk or disinterested, and scoffed once before turning away. I made my way to the platform of the regional rail station and again it was a writhing mass of people, covering every square inch of floor.
After an hour of fretful wandering I caved, flagged a tuktuk, and just said “Hotel.” We were off.
The driver deposited me at a gaudy, kitsch-looking place. I politely paid, exited with my small bag, and continued down the sidewalk past the door. He chased after me, pointing back towards the building, repeating, “You say hotel! This good hotel!” I demurred, smiling passively, and continued on. He scowled and stomped back to his vehicle, no doubt having just lost a commission from his buddy the Hotel Manager.
I followed my nose towards the aroma of sizzling meat, which took me off the throbbing, dusty road and into tight, twisting alleys, varying in width from a cricket match down to shoulder-width. Stalls climbed over each other, eager for access to this crush of people, selling everything from tea pots to moped repair. Welding and hammering was happening at full speed next to a Tandoori Baker, and men in business suits ate from plates of curry next to wandering ascetics begging for bread. This was the India I had come to see.
I selected a decent-looking hotel and went into the over-decorated lobby. I approached the front desk, behind which sat three young men, transfixed by a television blaring some Hindi program.
“Hi, how much for a room?” I ask. One of the men looked up, either stoned or asleep, yellow eyes and slack jaw.
“1800 rupees.” An outrageous sum.
“Okay. Fill out register.”
I handed him a small pile of dirty, crumpled notes and he turned back to his program. It was a prying register—father’s full name, mother’s maiden name, marital status, occupation, but I accepted it as cute anachronism and dutifully entered the information.
“Need copy of passport.”
I slapped it on the desk and he handed me a key, but he made no move to make a copy of my documents. The other two men still hadn’t moved, and I wasn’t sure if they’d even taken a breath since I walked in.
“Can I get that back?” I plumb.
“Copier broken. Manager coming back.”
“Ok, well, I’ll need the passport back.”
“Manager coming back.”
“I’ll hold it until then.”
“Manager coming back.”
At this juncture he considered the discussion over, turning back to the TV and mumbling something in Hindi to his friends, probably about how much of an asshole American I was.
I let him go for the moment and went upstairs, if only to drop my bag and regain some strength to continue the fight.
The door was ajar, the latch not able to reach the frame. There was trash heaped up against my neighbor’s door and a woman and man were screaming at each other from within in a language I couldn’t place.
My room was large, with a dusty bed contained in a four-post frame, and a small antenna television that sat on a rickety table with three legs. The floor was wet and had rat shit in all four corners. The bathroom held horrors.
I stormed downstairs: “That room is unsafe, unsanitary, and unethical. Passport, please.”
“Manager coming back. That best room. For students, special.” He smiled, having delivering the international euphemism for young, white, entitled person who you hate, but had to smile at. “Manager coming back.”
“Manager coming back.”
He didn’t say anything more, so I just stood glaring at him, foot tapping, palms flat on the worn Formica desktop, pulling myself up to my full height.
This lasted for eleven long minutes, him pretending not to notice me as I bore my gaze into the side of his head, until he caved and let out a muted sigh and threw my passport against my puffed-up chest. I went upstairs and wedged a chair against the inside of the door, and fell asleep for 18 hours, until the next morning.
That first full day would prove to be the extent of my visit to India. I found a guidebook, which led me to a real traveler’s hostel. My mood improved as soon as I walked in. Much cheaper, crowds of young people, near the market, couches and jugs of drinking water and big bean bag chairs in a brightly-lit lobby. I checked in and paid for five nights, locked up my stuff, and headed out to see Delhi. I went to the India Gate and Central Secretariat, drank thick coffee, went to a book store, and winked at three Indian girls.
Like those who came before me, traveling has always been a balm for my spirit. Arriving with no guidebook, no maps, no guidebook, no friends, no resources save what’s in your hands, in your head, and in your heart. It’s the easiest and most accessible of the instant cathartic reinventions available to Americans of a certain privilege bracket. To others I looked unprepared, only one spare shirt and no dancing shoes, but this was the only freedom I had found. Just as Shunryu Suzuki tells us about the possibilities inside the mind of an inexperienced Zen disciple, to the stranger in a strange town, all avenues are open, there are secrets behind each door, and opportunity is the soil upon which we walk.
That night, the mung hit. The air in my assigned dorm room had seemed stale as I fell asleep, as if the five German teenagers I was sharing it with were sucking it clear of oxygen. But it was just sickness sinking its teeth into me, getting settled and ready to expand. That night I expelled every ounce of food or drink I had consumed in the previous 48 hours.
The mung is both a living thing inside the body of another and a figment of that person’s imagination. It’s some thing, which lives in the dark corners of faraway lands, that grabs and swallows whole little boys and girls who aren’t good, who brush their teeth with tap water or eat Street Meat their first day in-country. Guinea worms, tapeworms, and E. coli are all mung. Mung is also the undiagnosable water flea juice your cousin’s coworker drank that time she was on a Fulbright in Northern Waziristan and nearly died.
This is something I both knew and didn’t know. My first up-close sighting of Mung was down in Peru a few years before Delhi. In Huaraz (Central Peru, Department of Ancash), there was this burger stand that set up outside the strip club around 1a.m. each morning. The burgers were mediocre (weird even, definitely not beef), but we were all drinking too much and it was called Sex Burger, and the draw to get a Sex Burger in the middle of the night when partying in the Peruvian Andes is often great. We never categorically traced it to the Sex Burger, but my instructor got laid up, really sick. Total-expulsion sick. He took some Cipro (which no body-respecting person should ever do), laid in a comatose state for half a dozen days, and survived.
So I didn’t worry too much. I’m not really a worrier. I’ve always been a bit loose, and my love for sizzling Street Meat wasn’t going to be blocked by some germaphobic pamphlets that may have been written by a High School intern. But this was South Asia, where they were cremating bodies in open pits 24/7 and where the whole toilet paper thing hadn’t caught on yet. I’m not qualified to say if these cultural factors objectively raise risks to public health, I’m just trying to cast aspersions on something to de-emphasize the fact that I had taken my soft American body and landed it in Delhi without ever questioning my invincibility and divine autonomy.
The day after the mung hit I thought it was over. I thought there was nothing left to come out. But it kept going, after I had slowly clawed my way up to the rooftop terrace. I laid on the rough cement surface, happy to die silently in the only place I could get air and stillness.
Five miserable days passed like this. No food, only a bit of water at a time in small, uneasy sips—I was wasting away and thought, quite literally, that I was going to die.
On the sixth day I awoke refreshed, almost feeling better. I could drink water without losing it immediately, and even walked around the hostel common room in shakey little laps. I ventured out to the market and bought chapattis, eating them with an insatiable savagery, one after the other.
The food helped, and I had a new bounce in my step. With this energy I was able to consider continued existence, a continued trip now a possibility. I went down to the train station for my overnight sleeper car ticket; I was going to Varanasi, finally able to go look for God.
Bypassing the ticketing lobby, where Indians bought their tickets, I went upstairs to the climate-controlled and plush “Foreign Visitors” lobby, where I put some information into an iPad, was given a number, and then promptly called up to a desk by a beautiful Indian woman who spoke perfect Queen’s English. The shouting, tension, and out-of-order ticket machines of the lower lobby were absent, swept away by International Tourism Board funding. She explained my options, and I selected the cheapest ticket that got me my own bed. These sleeper cars had long held my fascination and I was bubbling with excitement over my survival of the first few days of India, and my impending movement towards the meat of my trip.
Halfway back from the train station and it hits again, worse than the previous five days rolled into one, all while exposed in a crowd of Indian hawkers. I lost my chapattis onto the sidewalk next to a woman selling mangoes and small stacks of firewood. She started shouting at me and making threatening moves with her broom.
I stumbled away and made it a bit farther, to the underside of a bridge where people camped out: abdominal guarding, writhing, my universe spinning. I don’t have any clear memories after that point, but somehow I made it back to the hostel, and once there I pulled up kayak.com on my phone and booked the first one-way ticket I could get back to Sydney. I needed to get the fuck out of India—God would have to wait.
Scott Morris is an MFA candidate at Goddard College. An outdoor educator, Scott has more fun running, reading, and traveling.