Author’s Note: After two weeks in Nepal, I traveled the length of the Indian subcontinent and across the channel to Sri Lanka (about 4000 kilometers or 2500 miles) for just $30 but it took twelve days.
Incredible India – you either love it or you hate it. From the Taj Mahal – truly magnificent in the setting sun and reflecting pool, I returned to Delhi and boarded the Taj Express Railway for the southern coastal city of Madras (Chennai). First class passage took three days and three nights and entitled me to one of the four fold-down bare wooden berths in the compartment. But this was India – with wall-to-wall people. So, each time I returned from the toilet I had to eject one (or more) people from my berth.
Railway stations fronted with dusty ramshackle housing, and chaotic jumbles of electric power lines. At every stop, a sea of hands thrust through the compartment windows with various snack items for sale. Hot sweetened milk coffee served in a glass swished “clean” with the seller’s finger. Then slowly rolling on past people outside squatting on the cement rim of a canal wall streaked with lines of shit dribbling down.
Ocean breezes at Madras were pleasant, and the beaches looked inviting from a distance. But I quickly realized swimming was out of the question – with the kids and just about everyone else taking their morning dump on the beach.
The instant I stepped down from the train, I was hit with the usual frantic press of bicycle rickshaw drivers all insisting you ride with them, and you know none of them can be trusted to give you an honest price, or even a direct ride to where you want to go.
After a few minutes of this madness, I shouldered my rucksack and walked to my guesthouse, which took me past the local bus station (a field strewn with shit), back alleys with pigs rooting in horrible garbage, pitiful dogs hairless with mange, one with prolapsed entrails hanging out its back side, and covered with flies. And yet, colorful and festive processions seemed to fill the streets at almost every turn.
The best beach scenes were at night – when you can’t see all the rubbish, but then you risk skidding through one of the numerous cow pies, scattered everywhere. But the women were lovely, in colorful saris or loose trousers narrow at the ankles and topped with a tunic, a red dot (bindi) on the forehead, and loads of jewelry – golden nose rings, ear rings, arm rings, wrist bangles, anklets, and toe rings. Villagers skinny from hard work. Sharp, flashing eyes.
From Madras I boarded a train to the southern port at Ramamswaram to catch the ferry for Sri Lanka. But it was a horrible time there. From the moment I stepped off the train I was sick. Fever, sweating, weak, and then had to wait four more days to get on the ferry.
With any number of possible causes, and not uncommon among travelers in India, I had developed a bad fever and dysentery and was laid up in a guesthouse while waiting to get on the ferry. Was it that dubious glass of ‘supposedly’ boiled water – discovered only later with mosquito larvae swimming in it – who knows?
Fortunately, another traveler brought me food each day, and together we endured the long lines at the ferry terminal only to be told each time the tickets were sold out – until we realized “grease” money was required. At last we got on the ferry, caught a train to Colombo, and I somehow ended up at a nearby Christian Mission Hospital. I was seriously ill, delirious, and still have no idea how I got there.
Local hospitals typically don’t provide food service, so patients must rely on friends and relatives to bring them food and other essentials. While being treated for dysentery, my skinny orderly brought me a large bowl of pungent vegemite (fermented yeast) soup each day, and regularly dragged me out of bed and onto a scale – I suppose to see if I weighed as much as he did. At that point, I didn’t.
Somehow, the YMCA found out where I was, came to collect me and I recovered at the YMCA.
Still incredibly cheap today, India and Nepal are not easy traveler destinations. And of course, the grim and astonishing poverty is shocking and draining. After a month of hard travel, I was ready to leave. But love it or hate it, I keep returning for more life-changing experiences in these fascinating places.
Stay tuned for more stories, coming soon!
You can read more about Jim’s backstory, here and here.
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