This is not a pretty story - it has an unpleasant ending. A number of factors related to being a stranger in a strange land are responsible. Sometimes when you have been on the road a long time and are feeling pretty cocky, you let your guard down. Sometimes you feel your body is impervious to the constant assault on your physical and emotional well-being. Or, conversely, you weary of the perpetual battle to maintain your first world standards for nutrition, hygiene and sanity. The unceasing frustration of interacting with a foreign society can undermine common sense and clear thinking. You fail to recognize the slow deterioration of your health, physical and/or mental. Or the gradual loss of weight as your craving for familiar food, WESTERN food, undermines your appetite for the local cuisine. Even a simple process like keeping hydrated can inadvertently be neglected.
Events could have turned out worse:
- I could now be in jail awaiting trial for the attempted hijacking of an Indian Airlines 737.
- I could be medically-impaired in a remote desert town where, to quote my Lonely Planet guidebook: "The hospital here [in Jaisalmer] is a nightmare - it's dirty, overcrowded, there's often no running water and the staff are overworked. Avoid it if at all possible."
- I could have contracted the bloody plague!
Instead the Spousal Unit and I are convalescing in sunny Colorado in rapture over the exquisite pleasure of beef bologna and Velveeta cheese on white bread with mayonnaise. How could such a turn of events occur? Read on.
Lest you think I fib, let me start by quoting the Lonely Planet Guide for India:
"The Plague - In October 1994, Surat gained international notoriety when pneumonic plague, closely related to the bubonic plague, broke out in the city. The 'plague' caused a mass exodus of frightened inhabitants, some fairly extreme responses within India and positively hysterical coverage in the Western media. The whole outbreak did massive damage to India's tourist trade as foreigners stayed away in droves, even though the risk of infection was small. What the outbreak did highlight was the governments' (both local and central) lack of preparedness for an outbreak such as this - it was a number of days before the city was actually sealed off, by which time hundreds of thousands of people had fled the city. Once emergency measures were finally in place the outbreak was brought under control with relatively little loss of life - 54 deaths were directly attributed to the disease."
If you have been faithfully reading my KlimaGrams, you know that my idea of fun leans toward the unconventional. So you can well guess what happened when I stumbled across this description for Deshnok, a small village near the town of Bikaner in western Rajasthan.
"Following the highly publicised 1994 outbreak of plague in India, state governments have been attempting to reduce rat populations with heavy use of pesticides. Of course, this being India, not all rats are on the death list. The thousands that inhabit the Karni Mata Temple in Deshnok are future incarnations of mystics and sadhus [holy men], so pest control here would be sacrilege."
"A visit to this fascinating temple, dedicated to Karni Mata, an incarnation of Durga, is not for the squeamish. Once you've admired the huge silver gates and marble carvings donated by Maharaja Ganga Singh, you plunge into the sea of swarming rodents, hoping that some will scamper over your feet - most auspicious. Little boys pick them up by their tails and let them perch on your shoulders. Devotees buy prasad [food offerings] to offer to the rats, finishing off anything they may leave. Eating prasad that has been salivated over by these holy rats brings even greater good fortune, but it is not recommended for wimpish Western constitutions. Tetracycline courses are available from chemists in Birkaner."
The Unit and I have a tradition for serendipitous travel destinations - places not in any guidebook or well off the beaten track that prove to be unforgettable. I felt certain that the Temple of Rats would be in this category so I persuaded the Unit to add Birkaner to our planned loop in the state of Rajasthan.
We arrived in Birkaner after an all-day, butt-numbing ride on a local bus. I was forced to go upscale, paying eight bucks for a hotel room, because the three dollar room we had the previous night in Jaipur was so bad. The ancient proprietress there said the hotel had been in her family for over a hundred years. She claimed Mark Twain and Henry Ford had once been guests and that Mussolini's brother-in-law was kept there as a prisoner of war. As we registered I could not help noticing that we were the first guests in two months.
Staying at the Hotel Kaiser-I-Hind was like sleeping in a mausoleum - huge rooms with twenty foot high ceilings but so neglected even the holes in the carpet had holes. Ancient rusty fixtures, upholstery faded into colorlessness, wiring you didn't want within five feet of yourself and doors that didn't close were just a few of the amenities. Although we arrived in the dark and left in the dark, the Unit and I could not help noticing signs of the hotel's past glory - fluted archways, large verandahs, and rattan furniture.
We tried to book the train to Birkaner but our patience failed us. The Unit occupied a spot in the line for Foreign Tourists, Handicapped Persons, Freedom Fighters and Senior Citizens while I patrolled the queue making sure everyone in it had the proper credentials. "Excuse me, sir, are you a freedom fighter?" We gave up because a large group of alleged Bangladeshi folks decided to camp in front of the ticket window. We were starving and wanted to eat at the LMB restaurant where they don't use onions or garlic because "anything from the ground that smells so foul should not be eaten."
Back in Birkaner our attitude problem with India continued to grow. This is inevitably a losing proposition. India encompasses - no, envelopes you - resistance is futile. We raged at the widespread garbage and trash, human and animal waste in the street and air pollution that made it hard to breathe. "Bad" air is when you are unable to see across the street. "Poor" is when you can't see the end of the block. "Marginal" is when you can't tell whether the sky is gray or blue, even on a cloudless day.
All this bad air seems to leave our lungs permanently congested. Our health is slipping away. If we don't find some decent food, we are going to get badly run down. Vegetarian south Indian food sucks: deep-fried dough bits, sugarless and salt-less bits, bits that are nothing but sugar, pastries that are nothing but air. Grease, grease and more grease! Now we know why we lost so much weight the last time we were in India. We go to one restaurant but can't eat the weird vegetables. At a second restaurant the imitation continental dishes are barely edible. Perhaps we have been, as the Unit declares, traveling too long to learn to like anything new.
After eleven hours of sleep the Unit awoke dizzy with a headache, pain behind the eyes, cheeks and ears, aching teeth and a sore rib cage. Since we have been in India either one or both of us has been ill, usually with respiratory problems, the byproduct of crowded buses where the locals hack on you from close range. Romance has become just a memory.
Nevertheless we journeyed out to Deshnok to see if the guidebook description was accurate. It most certainly was. The outer courtyard of the Temple of Rats was relatively vermin-free. The bright sunlight on the cool white marble made it unappealing to the rats who preferred to stay in the shadows and scuttle along the edge of things. The Unit positioned herself in the center of this courtyard while I explored the nooks and crannies with my camera.
The inner courtyard was a different story. The rats were everywhere, scampering along the walls, jumping and playing in the corners, racing across the floor in all directions or just idling about the low altar after stuffing themselves. They came in all sizes with lots of babies that looked like field mice. I paid ten rupees for camera privileges and went in. However, I could not force myself into the inner sanctum, a tiny room where all the food offerings were placed in bowls. The rats were a bit thick there and I didn't want to disturb the worshipers sitting among the rats.
Of course, being a Hindu temple, I had left my shoes at the door. However, no rat actually ran over my toes although they were only inches away. More annoying was the fact that they were quite habituated to people and would not move out of the way. I found it difficult to nudge them aside. Getting past them in a narrow stairwell so I could take pictures from the roof was a major psychological challenge.
The Unit remained shrouded in a shawl in the outer courtyard, staring with revulsion at the entire scene. I wanted to buy a neck pendant as a souvenir but she said: "Jim Klima, you buy and wear that and your sex life with me is over!" I bought a small paperweight instead.
Back in town the exhaustion and aching continued - are we being slowly poisoned by carbon monoxide? Or are we seriously dehydrated and/or starved? At least we found an acceptable meal - one the locals chefs couldn't screw up - tomato soup, hard boiled eggs and toast. We fortified ourselves for an agonizing night bus ride to Jaisalmer, the next stop on our tour of Rajasthan. We were in a rush to get there before the start of the Diwali festival, a big holiday in India when everything shuts down. Little did we realize that a medical evacuation would be necessary shortly after we got there. For us Jaisalmer would not be a "desert fortress straight out of the 'Tales of the Arabian Nights' [where] you could easily be forgiven for imagining that you'd somehow been transported back to medieval Afganistan."
Here are the Unit's own words. We checked into our hotel at 9:30 AM after an all night bus ride to Jaisalmer which is located in the middle of the Rajasthani desert. Jim was exhausted and started running a fever. I scoured the marketplace looking for a thermometer, ours having broken months before in Africa. It read 102. Time to check the guidebook on local medical facilities - under no circumstances, use the hospital at Jaisalmer. No doctor could be found because of the holiday. So, we decided to retreat to a more civilized town. Unfortunately it was the eve of Diwali and there was no air or train service in or out of Jaisalmer. We enlisted the help of our hotel owner to find a taxi driver to make the long drive to no avail. No matter how much we offered, we could not persuade anyone to forgo their Diwali celebration. Our last hope was the government bus to the next town, which we caught just as it was pulling out of the station. We were lucky - the bus was the last one to leave Jaisalmer for the next two days.
Five hours of Jim lying across the back row of seats on a bouncing bus, with his temperature hitting new highs (he topped out at 104) was more than I could take. Each time he was flung up in the air, he would shriek at the driver, threatening to come forward and shower him with germs. We arrived in Jodhpur at 10:30 PM, scouted the town for a decent room and collapsed in it. The next AM Jim discovered that one of his teeth was missing - it had been broken off during the tumultuous bus ride. We decided to head for Delhi ASAP. I cross examined the hotel clerk on flights to Delhi. I was told there would be one at 6 PM that evening. Ever mindful of the propensity of the common Indian worker to make up facts, I tried to call the Indian Airlines office. My guidebook had the wrong number, a recording told me. The recording failed to give the correct number, however. I asked the clerk for the correct number. He couldn't give it to me. Apparently there has never been a phone directory published for this town. And, of course, no one has ever heard of Directory Assistance. It was better to just go to the office and conduct business in person.
At the Indian Airlines office, I was informed that yes, there was a flight leaving for Delhi - in 40 minutes - I'd better high tail it to the airport. We cornered a rickshaw and careened through the streets back to our hotel. I paid off the bill while Jim stuffed our belongings into the bags and then we were off. Just 10 minutes before take-off, we rushed into the airport and ran up to the counter.
"We've got to get on that plane!"
" You can't get on the plane. There are no seats left. It's completely full."
"This is an emergency. We're both extremely ill. We have to get to Delhi."
"You can take the next flight tomorrow night. Or you can take the superfast
express train and be there by morning."
"You don't understand, this is a medical emergency. We need to get on that flight."
"I told you, there are no seats left. Don't you believe me?"
"NO. I know there are seats left, you just don't want to change your manifest!"
"You are calling me a liar?"
"YES, and I'm going out to that plane and prove it."
"You can't do that!"
"WE'RE SICK. WE NEED TO GET TO DELHI. WE ARE GOING ON THE GODDAMN PLANE!"
JimBo here - the scene was pretty tense. On the tarmac the 737 sat with its engines whining but the gangway was still in place. I stood toe to toe with the airport manager. Behind him were three army men with rifles. Three more military types with submachine guns stood around the xray machine. The Unit draped herself over the counter, crying and lamenting: "What's wrong with this [expletive deleted] country?"
I gave the man an uncompromising look, one distilled by nine months of hard travel, dealing with intimidating, corrupt officials across two continents. It was a look that said: you and your little army are not going to stop us. We've been to Zaire. It takes a second magazine taped upside down on the first one in an AK-47 to scare us.
(To be continued)
Copyright (c) 1996 Jet City Jimbo. All rights reserved.