Travelers Memories
The Sonali Pilgrims
The Bus Journey, India

Author: Jodi Berman
After almost 10 years living the Yuppie life in New York City,
Jodi Berman chucked it all and fulfilled a dream.
She spent 14 months traveling the world.
She visited 26 countries over 4 continents.
She now resides in New Jersey
(after all that, this is where she chooses to live!)
and writes about her journeys.

When people ask me to give them advice about budget travel, I always give them "Jodi's Cardinal Rules of Budget Travel." I don't tell them what to pack, where to go, or which guesthouse is the best. There are enough books for that. I provide personal advice. First, I remind them that once you step foot from your home, you are the foreigner and your ways are not necessarily the right or only way. I tell them to keep an open mind about everything - the people you meet the places you'll visit, the foods you sample, the new cultures and lifestyles to which you will be exposed. Then, I tell them to try to avoid making judgements from first impressions, since first impressions are many times wrong. And finally, I tell them to bring along a lot of patience, understanding, and humor! The more you open your mind, are receptive to new and different things, and maintain a positive attitude, the more rewarding and fun your journey becomes.

I devised these rules after my first 48 hours in India. This is how I came about it:

I'd been on the hippie trail for 10 months when I decided to venture into India. India fascinated me - the religion, culture, geography, people, and sights. I heard every conceivable traveler's tale and warning about the country. Don't drink the water, eat only vegetarian, and never do drugs. Crime is rampant, so never lose sight of your valuables. Bargain for everything and use "baksheesh" to get anything done, especially when dealing with "people in authority". Beware of travel delays and poor road conditions. And most importantly, for safety reasons, women should never travel alone.

But to top it all off, remember that from a Westerner's viewpoint, nothing seems to make sense. The logical isn't and the illogical is. Anything easy is made difficult. Whatever the situation - accept it, deal with it, or laugh at it, but never try to change it.

All the travel warnings frightened me. I told myself that I was an experienced traveler and knew the ropes (heck, after 10 months, nothing had happened yet). But the fear of getting drugged, molested, or mugged scared me. In addition, I am not a very patient person and dealing with inefficiency easily is not a strong character trait of mine. But I was forewarned and determine to disprove India's reputation. So, off I went.

I was told never to travel alone in India, but there I was, all by my lonesome when I boarded my bus in Pokhara, Nepal at 6 am on a cold, rainy, miserable morning. Everyone on the bus scared me. They all looked sinister and devious, especially two miserable looking people wrapped in blankets. I felt panicked and nervous. I was terrified.

I surveyed the passengers in desperate pursuit to find a travel mate. Not one seemed to be a good candidate. By the time we picked up some Australian guys it was 7 a.m. and the temperature just above freezing. They were wearing Bermudas and flip-flop sandals. They were abuzz with excitement, talking to each other loud enough to let every one know that they were on their way to Goa: "Two Aussie coal miners looking for sun, sex, and drugs." I immediately thought what jerks these guys were and then got angry - even fewer options for travel mates now, I thought. For hours the Aussies refused to quiet down and I soon learned that they were going to Varanasi which was my destination. I dreaded the thought of being with them for another 20 hours.

For eight hours we drove through Nepal, first through the winding mountains and then through the flat Terrai. When the road wasn't swerving, the mini-van was. Left and right and left and right to avoid potholes, people, or pestilence (in this case, cows!). The "blanket people" barely moved, except to sneer and argue with each other. And the guy behind me kept kicking my chair. My dislike for every one kept growing. And all the while the radio blared screeching the sounds of local Hindi music. If you can imagine the sound of a cat being whirled around by its tale, then you know what this music sounds like! Aggravated, cramped, cold, miserable, and tired, I tried to assure myself that this would be the worst.

We made it to the border town, Sonali. It consisted of one long wide street, half in Nepal, half in India. Sonali had its purpose: get there, cross the border, and get out. The town was everything every one had described the worst of India to be: dingy, dirty, noisy, hectic, nerve-racking, and completely lacking of any charm. I should have expected this but I was unprepared. Nepal's towns are similar but different. Or, as it is said in Asia: "Same, samecbut different." In Nepal, I never felt tense or insecure. Here, my instincts told me to watch out and be on guard. A sense of hostility grew inside me. My calm "shanti" attitude began to wane.

I was to stay overnight and catch the morning bus to Varanasi. The hotel was seedy and the managers worse. Their specialty was never having change when I paid for anything. I sensed they were not trustworthy. Each minute in the hour I was there, I became uneasy and wanted to leave. Travelers who arrived earlier in the day told me about an overnight bus to Varanasi. They were taking it and I jumped at the opportunity to join them. Instinct and my travel warnings of never to travel alone told me to forfeit my room and travel the night with them.

We walked (or should I say pushed our way) across the border. Then back and forth and back again. Finding the Indian immigration office was quite a feat. We asked a few locals where the office was. They responded with blank stares, which I soon learned was a common response in India. Somehow we found it. It was squashed between a silk shop and a vegetable stand. There wasn't a sign. But at least it was open.

Once in the office we presented our documents. The immigration officers were quick to do nothing. We begged and pleaded that our visas were valid. But nothing. Not until the Aussie guys showed up, gave them some baksheesh, and all of our documents were processed. My opinion of the Aussies began to change; my preconceived views of India weren't.

We were led to our bus and then proceeded to do what I was warned we would do a lot of while in India: waiting. Waiting seems to be a national past time. Actually, it wouldn't have been so long if we paid the "luggage fee." This was a so-called surcharge for handling our backpacks that the bus attendant never touched. After 10 minutes of arguing, the fee became a charge for "luggage storage" since we put the bags on the bus with us. The Aussies refused to give up the fight and none of us paid a single Rupee. My opinion of the Aussies continued to improve; my opinion of Indians was getting worse.

And then we waited some more. Just waited and waited. Finally, 90 minutes past our scheduled departure time, we were off. As we began our journey all the travelers introduced themselves. Louise and Matt were Kiwis traveling together as platonic friends thought they bickered like an old married couple. While trekking, they met Justine and Alison; two British girls who I immediately sensed were snobs and didn't care for me. Brian, another Kiwi, knew no one, was traveling alone, and seemed to just disappear in the crowd. Simon and Klare, two more Brits, were the miserable mystery pair hidden under the blankets on my bus from Nepal. And, last but not least, Jason and Dan - the loud Aussies. Quickly the group lit up some spliffs, downed some beers, sang songs, and got quite rowdy. I was not so quick to join in. I was still incredibly nervous about traveling in India, frightened about the prospect of being alone, afraid of getting caught with drugs, and still somewhat repulsed with the Aussie guys. After Jason peed out the window I began to think my first impression was right.

We drove on and the group got louder. I knew I could never beat this bunch. I let down my guard and even let myself smoke a little. I began to relax and enjoy the ride. I began to chat it up with Klare and Simon. They were fun, easy going, and warmhearted. I knew then that my first impression of them was wrong and not only did I like them but I knew I could trust them too.

When we stopped for dinner at a roadside shack, I swore to myself that I'd prefer to starve than eat. Fear of everything. I'd been warned. But it looked good. And it was cooked. I decided to throw caution to the wind and throw myself into the Indian culture. If I didn't, I had no chance. So, for about US$1.00 I had my first thali dinner and chai tea. Not only was it cheap, but it was also good. Things were getting better, and I began to think that India wasn't that bad.

After dinner we drove on and I fell asleep. I woke up some time later and learned that we'd been stopped on the side of the road for 2 hours. No one knew why. We sat there for another two hours just waiting. We were quickly becoming pros at the waiting game and learned fast that if you traveled in India, you did indeed had to expect the unexpectable, unexplainable and seemingly ridiculous. I was ready for this one and accepted the situation without stress or tension.

The bus finally started up and we drove through the night. The "highway" was nothing more than a two-lane country road, at times unpaved. The bus driver seemed to get his kicks by playing chicken with oncoming cars, lorries, and other buses at 100 KPH. In between chicken fights, the bus driver maneuvered potholes, people, open sewage drains, and of course, cows. When we weren't being tossed from side to side, we were getting bounced around like yo-yos. And this was considered and excellent road!

We arrived in Varanasi at 6 am the next morning. 24 hours - what a journey. Something as so mundane as a bus ride became an accomplishment. It was as if we were pilgrims arriving in Mecca. By the time we got off the bus, I felt like I knew the other travelers all my life, even Jason and Dan. More importantly, I knew I misjudged each of them and realized it was my own fears reflected in them that I was reacting to. My fears of being alone were quickly resolved and I knew that if I went my own way, I'd quickly meet others. More importantly, I learned that travelers have a sense of comradery, loyalty, and love. We were all strangers but yet when thrown into a situation; we created a unique bond and friendship. The group wanted to stay together, and for the next few days, we did.


Varanasi

We found a guest house, slept, ate, and freshened up. I felt much better and my confidence high. Louise, Matt, Brian and I decided to venture out to the city. I was appalled at what I saw. But at the same time, I found it intriguing, mystical, and beautiful.

Varanasi is the holiest of Indian cities since is sits on the Ganges River. Hindu pilgrims and locals alike come to the several temples and ghats that align the river to pray, bathe, and to perform ritual funeral ceremonies. To view this scene, we hired a rowboat to take us up and down the river. Along the banks of the river and on the steps of the ghats, beggars pleaded for handouts and peddlers sold their goods while the wealthy seemingly turned a blind eye. Sadhus performed religious Tinka ceremonies beside women who washed their belongings and dumped their garbage into the river. Nearby, special bathing areas separated by sex were full with people scrubbing themselves. And just meters away, mourners burned the bodies of their dead and tossed the ashes into the river. The bizarre sight of watching people bathe in a river while garbage and human ashes floated by is indescribable and almost impossible to understand.

After the boat trip, we wandered around the old city. It reminded me of Jerusalem with its narrow white stone covered pedestrian streets lined with small merchant shops. The streets meandered and roamed in no particular fashion. There were few directional signs and getting lost became the norm. Walking around I felt as if I was in a maze. I got nervous again.

To add to my anxiety was the hectic pace. The bombardment of people pushing to get by and the noise from every one yelling at one another is unnerving. And then there was the dirt. Garbage lined the streets, sewage flowed openly in the gutters and the ever-present cows roamed freely through the alleyways. The cows ate the garbage, relieved themselves at will, and sat down where ever they wanted - even if that was the middle of the road!

While pushing my way through a small alley, my leg brushed something. I looked down to see what it was. It was a man squatting. At first I didn't know what he was doing. Then on second thoughtc Ugh! People of all ages and both sexes seemingly relieved themselves wherever was convenient. Standing up or squatting down, it didn't matter. I found myself almost too busy dodging people in private moments than to watch where I was walking. I was shocked by their lack of inhibition and repulsed by the smells. My tension was getting increasingly worse.

Outside the old city, the wide commercial streets were filthy, muddy and congested. The city was dirtier than anywhere else I have ever been (even Cairo!). Buildings were decrepit, covered in soot, and falling apart. The streets were semi-paved but covered in garbage, mud and cow dung. The sidewalks and streets were jammed with pedestrians and automobiles pushing their way to get to wherever they were going. Push carts and street vendors took over any open space to sell their wares and the merchants screamed above the traffic just to be heard. Peasants squatted in the muddy road to sell their fruits and vegetables while autos drove by spewing thick exhaust. Women filled buckets of water from taps that seemed to run from the sewage lines and the men freely used the "public conveniences" which lacked doors and were crammed between two fruit vendors.

Together, these sights had an immediate impact on me: it rose my tension level to a degree it had never been before. I was repulsed at what I saw. I never felt so anxious in my life. After two days in India, I wanted to get out. I could not take the crowds, noise, smells, and dirt. Like many other travelers, I felt like hopping the next plane to anywhere. I could not keep from asking myself: "Why visit this country that repulsed me so?" "Why stay in a place that I don't like?" But I was not going to give up on India that easily. I heard so many positive things about the country too and I wanted to see and experience them - the Taj Mahal, the villages in Rajhastan, the beaches, the ashrams. I'd come so far; I was not going to give up.

And then it clicked: I realized that visiting India is more than just seeing the sights, learning the basics about Hinduism, and coping with the environment around me. To truly understand and enjoy India is to experience daily life. And, a part of the India experience is to not like it! I constantly reminded myself that I was in India and that there was only "the Indian way". I tried as best as I could to accept and tolerate it. At times that meant being tough with merchants, using "baksheesh" with the authorities, and never letting anyone rip me off. But once I learned the ropes, coping was much easier.

I then realized that I had to move beyond my first impressions, look beyond the obvious, and seek out the hidden truths to enjoy the country. Instead of being repulsed by what I saw, I became fascinated by it and sought out reasons why the country is the way it is. I began to ask questions and learn about the Hindi religion and how it affects all aspects of the peoples' lives. I learned about the caste system and how it controls poverty and wealth, employment options, and social rank. I learned how and why this democracy can be so modern is some ways and completely backwards in others. Once these questions were solved, I began to understand the country and how it works.

So, for two month, I played by their rules, accepted their customs, laughed at the ridiculous, and (most of the time) maintained my calm and patience. And though it took a while, I eventually learned to understand, love, and respect India and her people, culture, and religion.

Most importantly, India taught me to look deeper behind the facade. Whether that facade be the face of an Australian coal miner or the walls of a dirty city, there is always something of value underneath.


Writer's Note:

India is not an easy place to travel. Nor is it for the light-hearted or first time traveler. Many of the warnings and stories we heard about did occur to my friends and me. We did have property stolen. We did get sick from some of the food. We did get very frustrated when seemingly simple things became impossible to do. Travel plans were never easy to arrange, the hours spent waiting was, to say the least, monotonous and nerve-racking, and the hours spent on the road were long and arduous. Bargaining and bickering with merchants became routine and using baksheesh is a part of daily life. Drug use, mostly hashish and marijuana, is common among western travelers but should not be taken for granted.

What you will see in India will shock you - the dirt, the poverty, the crowds, the noise. But don't be deterred. There is so much more to India than what you will first see.

Copyright
Jodi Berman, 1999.


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