June 29, 2003

Calcutta, India
Touching the Untouchables

This is my longest post ever. I'm getting worse at this. I need an editor.

We met a French Canadian girl on the way out from Varanasi. She was, by all indications, completely insane. After staying in Varanasi for a month, she'd missed her train out by showing up at the station ten hours late. She had decided the train was going to be fifteen hours late, but surprisingly, that didn't happen. Two days later, there she was, waiting for the next train to come by.

She'd immersed herself completely in the wonders of the Ganges, going every day to walk along its banks. She told us about the other side of the river, which we hadn't thought to go to cause it didn't look there was much going on over there.

With the crowded city of Veranasi on one side, the far shore of the river is a vacant expanse – vacant, that is, except for the numerous decomposing corpses along the shore. I'm going to try to paraphrase her chilling monologue as best I can:

"I met this guy from Greece. He was here for two months and he went swimming in the river every day. He only had one bad time when a body floated into him while he was swimming, and also a cow as well, but other than that he said it was fine. I went swimming with him two times.

We went walking together on the other side of the river. In one direction we saw ten bodies, and in the other direction we saw ten more. He laid down with one of them so I could take his picture.

Some of the bodies were fresh, but some of them had been there a long time and they smelled a little bit. Some of the bodies had no heads. A lot of them had no toes or fingers, cause the dogs would come and bite them off. I guess those parts are the easiest to take and maybe the most tender.

We saw a lot of heads. They looked just like rocks, except with eyeballs and noses.

My friend had some problems. He got some kind of infection just before he left. He said it was because the river was angry at him for going away. I'm having some trouble now as well. The skin is coming off my hand. I guess the river is angry at me for leaving too."

Fruit loop!

By and large, the travelers I've met in India have been significantly farther out on the fringe than the ones in other countries. I think you have to be in order to fully appreciate the wonders of India, and likewise, to put up with its hassles.

Here's what the train station in Varanasi looks like.


Trust me when I say it's a lot worse at 3 in the morning when everyone's sprawled out asleep on the floor and you have to carry your luggage through. Most of these folks weren't waiting around for trains. They live there. The place has a roof, it's got a water supply, and no one is going to throw them out.

I surreptitiously snapped this photo of a prisoner transfer in progress.


There's not much to say about it. I just thought it was interesting.

We caught the train to Calcutta, where we only had a few hours before heading south to Balasore. I was sorry not to spend more time in Calcutta. It's an interesting place, and altogether more pleasant than Delhi.

At 16 million people, Calcutta is one of the most populated cities in the world. It's also one of the poorest. But there's a dignity in its poverty. They've held onto something, while Delhi let go completely.

We crossed the Howrah bridge; the busiest bridge in the world. The vast majority of people who cross it are on foot. They number in the millions daily.


Bad photo, I know. I was in a rush.

I have a thing for big bridges. They move me. This one has a span of 450 meters and no pylons to support it. It's also asymmetrical and has what appears to be a shockingly inefficient design for distributing pressure equally.

Ah well, it's not like there are many people using it or anything.

I wonder if it'd even make the world news if it collapsed.

Calcutta is the last place in the world that still uses old-fashioned foot-powered rickshaws.


With the exception of the occasional tourist novelty in places like China, everywhere else has upgraded to bicycle rickshaws, motor-powered auto-rickshaws, or proper taxicabs. But the cost of a bicycle is too great for most drivers in Calcutta, so they go it on foot – barefoot no less. It struck me that I am far better equipped to get myself from one place to another than these guys. At least I've got shoes.

I didn't get a chance to see the banyan tree in the botanical gardens. It's one of the largest of its kind in the world, spreading over 400 square meters. They had one in Brisbane and it was my favoritist tree ever.

I dug this abandoned old building.


Calcutta is the only major Indian city that wasn't already around before the British showed up. As a result, its imperialist ghosts loom large.

As of a couple years ago, Calcutta is now officially called Kolkata. For the purposes of this entry, I'm sticking with Calcutta. I like it better.

This picture just kicks a llama's ass.


It's like the cover to a lost U2 EP from the '80s. Something about that kid walking by and the look on his face. I like it a lot.

The excursion to Balasore was the result of some enormously generous string-pulling on the part of my friend from Los Angeles, Chacko. His uncle, Mr. Gowrinath, is the Head of Conservation at the Similipal Nature Reserve, and he arranged for us to get a private tour of the park. This was a very big deal, as the park is home to 95 wild Bengal tigers, a bunch of elephants, leopards, wild boars, wolves, and who-knows-what-else. What's more, the park closed for the year on June 15th, so a special exception was made in order to get us in.

I was peeing my pants with excitement. And Chacko, in spite of some of the details in the paragraphs that follow, I am eternally grateful.

Our train ride from Calcutta to Balasore coincided with a mass pilgrimage of Krishna devotees to some festival that was going on in the region. Thomas and I shared a row of seats on our four-hour journey with a gaggle of caterwauling nutjobs. They spent the whole ride clapping their hands and hollering out songs about how great Krishna is.

I am, by nature, neither a friendly nor tolerant person. I tried my hardest not to get along with these people, but they weren't having any of it. I am apparently a wonderful and wise soul who is very open to new ideas and capable of accepting the spiritual enlightenment of Krishna Consciousness. I'm also supposed to rush out and get a copy of Bhagabat Gita by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Srila Prabhupada at my earliest possible convenience.

Once again, that's Bhagabat Gita by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Srila Prabhupada.

In the row across from us, a Hindu, a Christian, and a Krishna devotee were locked in a heated discussion to see who could out-condescend who. It was fun to watch.

When we arrived in Balasore, things got even weirder. At a couple points on this trip, I've suddenly and unexpectedly wandered into circumstances of Lynchian peculiarity. There's no predicting when it's going to happen. It just does. Some places are like that. It happened in Invercargill, New Zealand. It happened a few times in Micronesia. It happened again in Balasore.

We were met at the train station by a friend of Mr. Gowrinath named Gopal. We later found out that Gopal is or was (unclear) a member of parliament, representing the state of Orissa. He's one of those guys who you can just tell is well-connected.

It was approaching midnight as he took us through the town to the hotel. We passed by several spontaneous happenings along the way. They looked like mobile street raves. They all had large bands playing, with each musician mounted atop a specially fitted bicycle rickshaw. Power lines for all the instruments and amplifiers were dragging behind the procession like a giant tale. There were numerous women holding up bright neon lights around the perimeter, while all the men congregated in the center and danced…badly.

Gopal explained that they were wedding processions. The caravans were on their way to the houses of the brides, where the ceremonies would occur.

They do weddings awfully late at night in Orissa.

We got to the hotel, which I think was owned by Gopal. It was massively empty, with all furniture and decoration taken down in the midst of a large renovation that was going on. That aside, the place was really nice, and was populated with at least half a dozen helpers who had nothing else to do but serve our needs, which they seemed very interested in doing. They took us up to our room, which was the cleanest, nicest room of all the hotels we've stayed at in India. We had soap, we had hot water, we had toilet paper, we had sheets – it was bliss.

I'm pretty sure we were the only people at the hotel.

Concerned that we were hungry, they turned on the kitchen and whipped us up some dinner at 1 in the morning. There were about five separate visits over the next half hour, making sure we had all the drinks we needed, that the food was sufficient, that we didn't need any more, that the empty dishes were removed from our view expressly. Thomas and I looked at each other quite stunned as it dawned on us that we were totally hooked up.

Thanks, Chacko.

The next day, we went downstairs and were introduced to Vishal, Gopal's nephew. He was to be our handler for the duration of the visit.


I feel bad calling him an idiot. He was very very very nice to us and was, without a doubt, wholly committed to making us as happy as we could possibly be. Nevertheless, Vishal and I did not hit it off. We simply failed to understand each other.

His first task was to work out what we wanted to eat on this trip, as we were going to spend the night inside the park, away from the things of man.

"What do you want to eat? You like bread?"
"Yeah. I like bread."
"What kind of bread? Naan?"
"Naan is great."
"You like rice?"
"Yeah. Rice is fine."
"Fried rice, okay. What about noodles? You like noodles?"
"Sure. I like noodles."
"Okay, fruit. What kind of fruit do you like?"
"I don't eat much fruit, actually."
"You don't like fruit? Mangos? Bananas? Pineapple?"
"Not so much, no."
"You don't like fruit. What about biscuits? You like biscuits?"
"Biscuits are fine."
"Salty or sweet?"
"Excuse me?"
"Salty or sweet?"
"Which one? Salty or sweet?"
"Look, any kind of food is fine. We'll eat anything."
"Okay. No problem. You drink tea?"
"Tea is fine."
"We'll make tea. You like eggs?"
"How about you just surprise us. Whatever it is, we'll eat it. It's okay.
"Okay, okay. No problem…You like pickles?"

This went on for a very long time. Neither Thomas nor I were remotely interested in food. In fact, we would've happily foregone eating for the day altogether if it would've helped our chances of seeing a tiger or an elephant in the wild.

Our efforts to communicate that to Vishal bore no fruit.

So we loaded into a nice 4WD and headed off for the jungle. We stopped at a town so Vishal could pick up some food.

"You like nuts?"
"What drinks you like? Pepsi? Sprite? Mirinda (local orange soda)?
"You like samosas? Pakoras?"


This scene interested me because of our proximity to neighboring Bangladesh. In the 1980s, UNICEF helped drill wells like this one in Bangladeshi villages to stop the population from drinking sewage-tainted water from the Ganges. What UNICEF didn't realize was that arsenic in the soil was seeping into the pipes and poisoning the water. It was called the largest mass poisoning of a population in history, many times worse than the problems caused by Ganges water. Somewhere around 80 million people have been affected.

Despite the irony, I'm at a loss for a punch line.

This is one badass cow.


Before entering the park, we had to stop at the main office while a number of very official people stood around doing nothing. It was a strange bureaucratic exercise that took several hours to complete, and it gave Vishal a golden opportunity to work out precisely which foods we did and didn't like.

"Chicken or mutton?"
"Which one?"

After another hour of that, I was getting a little antsy. Some kids walked by, staring in utter fascination, as they often do. I made stupid faces back at them, as I often do. They laughed and ran off.

A few minutes later, the kids came back with an entourage. Word had spread about the strange man who made faces and they wanted to see more of it. I obliged, sticking my thumbs in my ears while wiggling my hands, poking my tongue out, puffing my cheeks, whatever else I could think of.

They kept their distance, but received my gestures with great interest. They responded by aping my performance. It was sort of like that scene at the end of Close Encounters, except with fart sounds instead of synthesized tones. Pretty soon they were improvising, jumping up and down, clapping like seals, hiking their shorts up to chest level and stomping back and forth. I was in stitches. The kids were apopleptic.


It was increasingly clear that many people in the vicinity disapproved of what was going on. At first I thought it was because I was exhibiting behavior unbecoming of a white guy, but I soon realized there was more to it. When I started towards the kids with my camera, Vishal stopped me.

"No no no. You musn't go near them."
"Why not?"
"They're very different. They won't understand you."

Oh, like you've got me all figured out.

I'm not 100% certain about it, but I have an interpretation of the situation that I'm going to present here. Anyone who might have some insight, please fill me in.

For thousands of years, India has had a rigid and complex caste system. A caste is a social class. Whatever you're born into is what you're stuck with until you're reincarnated. Your caste determines the kind of job you can have, the amount of money you can make, and generally how far you can go in life.

The five main castes are the priest class, the warrior class, the merchant class, the peasant class, and the lowest of the low, who used to go by the name of the Untouchables. There's no easily identifiable ethnic distinction between the classes. People just somehow know.

There's been a lot of upheaval about it in the last century. Ghandhi devoted several of his fasts to ending the mistreatment of Untouchables. I'm told things are much better in the south now, but parts of northern India still adhere to the old ways.

Vishal is in the highest caste and he was serving me. He was trying to explain that the kids I was playing with were the wretched bottom-feeders, and it was absolutely unacceptable for me to go anywhere near them.

Fine. Whatever. I didn't want to cause problems, so I stayed by the car. The kids kept making faces though, and try as I might to ignore them, I couldn't.

Vishal went inside, I guess to notify someone of what was going on. The kids seized the opportunity and ran over to me. This put me in an awkward position, but to be honest it really wasn't that difficult to decide how to handle it.

Vishal could bite my ass.

I took another picture of the kids and did my standard routine where I show it to them on my little camera screen and watch their heads explode.


They were so happy, they were literally bouncing all over the place. One of them, I guess being somewhat familiar with Western customs, reached out to shake my hand. We shook. That's when all hell broke loose.

Vishal and his cronies had been watching from behind the gate. They burst out, shooing the kids away, herding Tom inside, and yelling at me to get in the car. Two men got in the front and we quickly drove off. They took me to some random place a few hundred meters away and got out of the vehicle, leaving me by myself to, I suppose, cool off. When they drove me back, the kids were cleared out and everything was quiet.

Nothing was said to me. There were no punitive words. We just went on after that like nothing had happened.

I really wasn't trying to crusade or anything, and I feel silly making it out like it was some great social injustice that I was defying. I was just making stupid faces at kids to pass the time and it turned into a thing.

Nevertheless, I do believe that what we do in these situations, once we're in them, matters a great deal. I don't feel at all bad about treating those kids with common goddam human decency, even if it did cause a scene.

And besides, I've got Civis Romanus on my side. I can thumb my nose at things like that with impunity, and I'm perfectly willing to do so. I am not a believer in the Prime Directive. What I do worry about is that I might have offended people to the point where it reflected badly on Chacko. I really hope that didn't happen, and if it did, Chacko, I'm very sorry.

The other thing I worry about is what happened to those kids.

Things were eventually sorted out at the park office and we got underway. Once inside the park, Vishal decided we were hungry, so he handed us some sandwiches wrapped in foil, plastic, and cardboard containers. When we finished the sandwiches, he instructed us to throw the boxes out the window.

We were inside a nature reserve, mind you.

I told him I wouldn't. He insisted that it was no problem and to just toss it. I told him absolutely not. I would much sooner have thrown him out the window.

Tom, ever the diplomat, jumped in and explained about littering fines in America, non-biodegradable substances, and all that. Vishal didn't get a word of it.

I'd already deeply offended Vishal by shaking hands with those kids. Now he had deeply offended me.

We didn't get along.

Littering is a funny thing. I think there was a time in America, not too long ago, when we would have treated food packaging in the same way. But something happened in the late '70s and early '80s. First it was that crying Native American guy, and then it was Woodsy the Owl telling us to "Give a hoot!" Virtually overnight, our attitudes about garbage changed completely. How horrifying is it now when someone drops a plastic bag on the street? Our eyes bug out. It's criminal behavior. We learned to give a hoot.

But some places never learned to give a hoot. They still don't give a hoot. They're hootless. India is one of those extremely hootless places.

We finally got to the campsite around 4pm. It was a cabin with four rooms, two of them bedrooms, and a separate building for the servants to sleep in. There was no electricity and all the water came from a well.

We asked what was on the agenda.

"Soon, we eat a snack. Then we have dinner. After that we can drink and talk about things into the night."
"Okay, um…will there be any looking for wildlife going on during any of that?"
"There's nothing around here right now. Maybe when it gets dark."
"When it gets dark. Okay. Well, if it's dark, how are we going to see anything?"
"The forest ranger is here. If a tiger comes near, he will hear it."

That claim seemed a little weak to me. Tigers have spent millions of years learning how not to make noise. They do that better than just about anything. As far as I could tell, the only thing the forest ranger does is eat, sleep, and fill out paperwork.

There were tons of enormous termite castles all over the place. They were pretty neat.


I caught some cute baby pigs running by.


And there was this pile of mango seeds that had been shitted out by an elephant and was now sprouting into a new tree.


The circle of life.

Vishal asked us several times if we'd like to drink. Neither of us felt a particular need to do so in a situation like this, but what the hell. I was hoping that by saying "yes" enough times, he'd eventually lose interest. Also, I figured drinking would make Vishal's incessant badgering more tolerable. We agreed to some whiskey and a beer for Thomas. We had no idea that we were sending one of our servants eleven kilometers through tiger-infested jungle on a bicycle to acquire it.

We were fairly mortified when we found out what we'd done. But Vishal assured us it was no problem. Everyone was there to serve our needs and insure that we were comfortable.

There wasn't much that could've made me less comfortable.

We weren't allowed to leave the immediate vicinity of the cabin. There was, however, one elevated lookout point that seemed to have a greater likelihood than anywhere else of allowing us to see some lions and tigers and bears. We brought chairs up there and sat ourselves down as the sun set. Vishal joined us to perform as our de facto guide. It was immediately obvious that he knew absolutely nothing.

"Are the elephants here nocturnal?"
"Are they what?"
"What's that?"
"Do they sleep during the day?"
"The elephants."
"The elephants what?"
"Do they sleep during the day?"
"…I don't know."

At one point he gestured to a tree and told us that it's wood was the most expensive in the world. I asked him what the wood was called. "Teak," he said. I was drinking water at the time and I did one of those Jerry Lewis guffaws where you spit the water out.

Once the sun was down, we were staring into absolute blackness. There wasn't a chance in hell we were going to spot anything.

Vishal, sensing that we had now bonded and could discuss more intimate things, began asking the burning questions.

"You have wife?"
"You sleep with women?"
"I do okay."
"How many?"
"You force them?"
"No, that's not really necessary."
"How much money you make?"

He was not growing in my esteem.

As we were getting ready to sleep, or in my case, hide my head under a pillow to escape Vishal, a bicycle emerged from the darkness. After almost three hours, our whiskey had arrived and we were now obligated to drink it. Thomas and I made do using the flat, warm, generic orange cola that was available as mixer. Vishal was fascinated, but I think also intimidated by this white-man's ritual we were undertaking. He excused himself to go to bed. I had to really think on whether or not I was willing to part with him for the evening, but I eventually relented.

In the gas lit night, deep in the jungles of Bengal, Tom and I drank whiskey and talked. That was the best part.

I surveyed the room we were in, with its two open doorways, and asked Thomas what he thought was stopping the tigers from walking into this cabin and chewing on our heads tonight.

"Statistical probability," he said.
"Good enough, I suppose."

When we were ready to sleep, we went into the bedroom to the bed I already knew we were going to have to share. Using my GameBoy Advance as flashlight, I shined it on the mattress and saw something that sent a shiver through my whole body.

No, it wasn't a snake or a spider or some other hideous menace. It was Vishal, fast asleep. This was his bed too. The three of us were supposed to share a double.

I wasn't having any of it. I grabbed a pillow and went back into the den to sleep on the wooden sofa. Tom thought I was being an idiot. He cornered me and told me that attitudes were different here and I was being homophobic.

"Tom, if I'm crammed in a bed between you and that guy, I promise, the gift of sleep will not come. This is not a gay thing. This is a people snoring and rolling onto me thing."

Tom still thought it was ridiculous, and he was pissed at me for stealing one of the pillows (Vishal had the other one). I put it over the armrest, positioned a second chair for my legs, and bent myself into the space that was available. It worked pretty well. I managed to sleep out there until the insect repellent candle burned out. The stinging woke me up just before dawn and I had no other choice but to crawl under the mosquito net and squeeze myself between Vishal and Tom for the remaining hour or two. I did a lot of staring at the ceiling, not so much sleeping.

The next morning, Tom and I decided to throw all of our imperialist muscle into ordering Vishal to get us the hell out of the campsite and back to the hotel. He had all our meals planned through to the afternoon, so he was disappointed, but we made it clear that we wanted to leave immediately. We tried to negotiate a visit to one of the nearby watchtowers in the hopes of maybe spotting something before we left, but the forest ranger told us it was closed.

We passed a number of small villages on the way back to the hotel.

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And that was pretty much it. Vishal took us to the train station and waited at the platform with us for twenty excruciating minutes. Tom complemented Vishal on his sunglasses. In a flash, Vishal ripped them off his face and handed them to Tom.

Tom: "No, it's okay. I don't want them."
Vishal: "Yes, you must have them. They are yours now."
Tom: "No. Please. It's okay."
Vishal: "Matthew, who do the glasses look better on: him or me?"
Me: "I want no part in this."

It was clear that I was not going to be in contact with Vishal ever again. He was, by that point, not at all oblivious to my loathing. Tom didn't get off so easy.

Tom promised Vishal that he'll do what he can to help him get a visa so he can come to America. He also agreed to purchase and send a digital camera like the ones we have, which Vishal will pay him for in "installments."

As the train was pulling in and I was restraining myself from pushing Vishal onto the tracks, he asked us repeatedly when we'd be coming to Balasore again. Tom promised him very soon. But me, I don't know. It's an awfully big planet.

Here's Tom on the train back to Calcutta.


I'm now an expert on train travel in India. That's one part of the trip that I enjoyed a great deal. I've got some weird thing with trains. It's similar to my thing with bridges. Give me an upper berth and a reading light, maybe a pillow, and I can go for days. Sleeper trains are great.

Going to the bathroom on trains in India isn't so much fun. I'd have to put those experiences near the top of my list of least pleasant bathroom visits. In fact, I think the India trip fills out most of the top ten spots.

You can't really control when you need to go to the bathroom in India. It just happens. Wherever you are at the time, you've got to make it work.

While waiting at the airport to get on our flight to Myanmar, the crazy French Canadian girl appeared out of nowhere and sat next to us. She explained her latest dilemma.

"I feel not very good today. I've got a little bit of the Delhi belly. Drinking the Ganges water made me feel healthy, but the water in Calcutta I think is very bad.

I bought one of those round-the-world tickets and I thought it lasted for a year, but I just discovered that it ran out after six months. I'm flying to Bangkok now. I have no money. I will have to get a job there teaching English until I earn enough money for a plane flight home."

See ya later, lady. Have a nice time in Bangkok.

June 26, 2003

Varanasi, India
A Lesson in Karma

Yesterday was one of those days that deserves its own entry.

After spending the afternoon catching up on email and writing that last post on a dingy old computer powered by a car battery, I walked back to the hotel to meet up with Tom for a late lunch. We commiserated on the intense heat outside and our shared revulsion at the town of Veranasi in general. Nevertheless, here we were on the banks of the Ganges River. We had just over a day to kill and this would certainly be our only chance in life to experience what is undeniably a fascinating place, so we decided to check out of our hotel near the train station and make the journey into the heart of the Old City.

The auto-rickshaw driver took us as far as he was allowed to go. The roads become extremely dense near the center, and no powered vehicle larger than a motorbike is permitted inside. We walked the rest of the way to the hotel we'd picked out in advance. While many friendly strangers were eager to tell us about the wonders of other nearby hotels, we kept our heads down and found the place without any serious hassles.

It's amazing how exhausting it can be in India to do something as simple as hopping in a cab and checking into a different hotel. By the time we'd dropped our bags and flopped down on our beds, Tom and I had each lost about a liter of sweat and a gallon of patience and were ready to call it a day.

We recharged with an episode of West Wing, then decided to forge onward toward the belly of the beast – the river itself.

The Ganges River is one of the holiest sites in the Hindu religion. Bathing in its water is said to wash away all sins, which is why something like 400 gazillion people come here to do it every day. Unfortunately, bathing in the Ganges is counterproductive for all non-spiritual sanitary purposes, as there are thirty sewers emptying directly into it. For water to be suitable for bathing, it must contain fewer than 5000 fecal coliform bacteria per liter. A liter of Ganges water has 15,000,000. The water is literally septic; no dissolved oxygen exists.

To make matters worse, the river is an integral part of burial practices, and an enormous number of people come here to dispose of their dead. The bodies are carried down to the river, doused with its water, then cremated along its banks. I'm a little fuzzy on the details of this next part, but if I understand correctly, there are also five categories of dead people who are simply cast into the river without cremation. These categories are: pregnant mothers, children, holy men, people killed by snake bites, and my personal favorite – victims of small pox. Let's assume that last one doesn't happen very often these days. Regardless, it's apparently not uncommon to see rotting corpses floating
downstream amidst the chunks of raw sewage.

Did I mention people bathe here?

Another interesting aspect to Veranasi is that dying here offers guaranteed Moksha; release from the cycle of birth and death, or in Buddhist terms, Nirvana. For this reason, old people flock to the city en masse to wait out their remaining days until they finally kick the bucket. This seemed like a bizarre practice to Tom and I until we realized that we have something very similar in America. We call it Florida.

So we walked down to the river and stopped at the first of many Ghats. I'm unclear on what exactly a Ghat is, but it seems to basically be a big open space where people congregate, with stairs leading down into the river for bathing. The place was the usual rigmarole of obnoxious touts and unspeakably tragic cripples begging for cash. Despite that, it was also powerfully beautiful.

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There's no denying it. Somewhere beneath all the knuckleheaded religious nonsense, there's something deeply affecting about what goes on here. The search for absolution, the act of cleansing away sins, the process of death and all its hidden rituals. It's heavy stuff.

And then there's also plenty of monkeys running around. You know, for kids.

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The cows are out in force too, and so is their shit. It's all over the place. People even collect it and dry it in the sun for use as kindling in funeral pyres, cause it's a lot cheaper than wood.

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Okay, this next part is a story, and while it may be kind of longish, I encourage you to read the whole thing without skimming. It pays off.

We walked down the river a ways until we reached the main Burning Ghat. This is where the bulk of the cremations are done. No pictures are allowed in the area, but it's all happening right out in plain view. Several fires are burning, each for a different category of corpse: young, old, male, female, and so on. The bodies are wrapped in cloth, so it's not quite a backyard barbeque, but they are doing what it looks like they're doing and it's most definitely for real.

Tom and I were both a little stunned and docile, so we sort of followed whoever was there to point us in any direction. We were led into a building and taken up a staircase to where a balcony overlooked the proceedings. A man was there, and he began telling us about what was going on. This is where I picked up the details about the five categories that don't get cremated and a few other interesting tidbits, but it was all kind of sketchy and I was too stunned to really absorb it.

The man explained that the building we were in was where the widows live while they're waiting to die. Their husbands are gone, so they have no use in society, and their children either don't care about them or are too poor to be able to. We looked around and saw a couple of sad old ladies sitting on the floor nearby. They had that unmistakable look on their faces that I recognized from my one day of working as a temp – they were most definitely waiting to die.

The man went on for a while about karma. He explained that a lot of people here would pester us for money, and it is very bad for their karma to do such a thing in a place like this. He was there simply to teach people about what went on here, which would help his karma and improve his standing in his next life. "Cars, houses, clothes, jewelry, these things you can't take with you," he explained. "Karma is the only thing that remains."

Then, of course, he hit us up for money. He signaled to one of the old ladies, who dutifully ran over with her hands cupped, waiting for the cash to roll in.

The whole thing was a racket. There's no doubt about that. And it was a particularly infuriating racket for being so goddam brazen and manipulative. But what are you gonna do, NOT hand a couple bucks to the old lady so she can afford wood for her funeral pyre?

I'm not made of stone, people.

They even had a set price. 110 rupees, or about $2.50 USD, buys her a kilogram of wood. 110 rupees could also get her a 2 bedroom condo with a yard and covered garage in a respectable Delhi suburb.

Okay, it couldn't buy that, but 110 rupees is a lot of money in India. It's a lot to give out to a charity case and it's sure as hell not what it costs to buy a kilogram of wood.

Anyway, Tom gave her 50 and I kept pulling out change until she'd gotten her full 110, which amounted to every last rupee I had on me. When she was satisfied, she walked away and left us with Captain Karma, who then proceeded to ask for his payment. Our other expenditure was irrelevant to him, though he'd undoubtedly be getting a cut of it, he wanted separate compensation for his tireless efforts in reciting the same boring speech he gives to every stunned foreigner that gets brought his way.

Aside from being broke, I felt a little violated and angry toward the guy. It's a dirty thing to do to people and a rotten business to be in. Tom and I started walking out of there, and he became belligerent as he followed behind us.

He started lecturing me about karma again, and that it was very bad for me to walk away without giving him something.

"What about your karma?" I asked him.

I didn't get an answer. As I was saying that, I stepped into an enormous pile of cow shit and went sliding face-first into it.

First off, let me explain that this was more than just the shit of one cow. It was a large collection of shit from many cows that had been pushed aside and gathered in what I consider to be a poorly chosen location.

I must admit that while I was walking away from the guy, his warnings about bad karma were worrying me. But I never in a million billion years would've dreamed the check could be cashed so quickly.

As I lay there buried in shit, Captain Karma looked down at me with a big smile on his face. Here's what he said:


Falling into the shit was one of those split second moments that last for about ten minutes. I had more than enough time in those ten minutes to ponder the seemingly impossible irony of what was about to happen. Before I hit the shit, I'd already resolved that there were two ways I could handle the situation: I could either freak out completely, or I could just laugh.

I laughed.

I called Tom, who was well ahead of me. He turned and saw what had happened, and I find it interesting that his instinctive, primal reaction at that moment was to pull out his camera and start
taking pictures. I got up and told him that if he was going to do that, he could at least have the decency to use my camera.


By this time the shit-covered white guy was attracting lots of interest. There was laughter coming from all sorts of little nooks and crannies nearby. And yeah, okay, it was pretty funny. Even without the backstory, big dumb white guy falls in a pile of cow shit. This is not esoteric humor.

I looked down at my major points of impact and realized I was bleeding in several places and the open wounds were caked in festering cow shit. This was a fairly serious situation that had to be dealt with immediately. That's when the next wave of irony hit me. I needed to clean myself up fast and there was only one way I could do it; I had to wash myself in the stinking, wretched, disease-infested, holy River Ganges.

Lest a moment of this event go unphotographed.


I got the majority of the shit off me there, then emerged with the concerted intention of making a bee line for the shower in our hotel room.

I was distracted by a cluster of local kids who decided they wanted me to take their picture. These things take priority.


I got back to the hotel, only to realize that our room had no soap. It also had no towels, toilet paper, or bed sheets, but that was of less urgent concern. After going to great lengths to acquire the strange and unfamiliar substance we foreigners make such a big deal about, I washed like I've never washed before.

I appear to be okay. No serious harm done, except for that my kneecap has swollen to a freakish size and I can't really bend it very well.


Nothing's out of place or hurting, though, and I'm pretty sure I'll be able to walk okay once the swelling goes down.

Assuming I didn't wind up getting hepatitis, cholera, leprosy, or some other awful disease, I'm actually really pleased with the day's events. Most people who come here do the "ooh" and "aah" thing, take some pictures, maybe go on a boat ride, decide it smells, then leave. Not everyone gets to incur the wrath of Hindu Gods, then symbolically cleanse themselves, all in the discreet span of a minute or so.

I feel like I really got the full Ganges experience, you know?

Okay, that's it for today. I hope you enjoyed my suffering. Come back soon.

June 25, 2003

Varanasi, India
Postcard From Varanasi

Okay, it's been a couple weeks since I've updated. I have four different posts in various states of readiness, but none of them are quite what I'd call done. Writing time has been scarce lately. We're moving around a lot -- I've been on a train for the last two days -- and between eating, sleeping, checking in and out of hotels, and seeing what there is to see, I don't have much chance to do anything else. There is plenty to write about, though, and I will get to it eventually.

I'm feeling particularly guilty because 42 people checked the site on Monday and there was nothing new. Sorry folks.

Here's a short update:

My cousin Tom and I have just arrived in Varanasi, location of the famed Ganges river. The city is crowded, dirty, and smelly, like pretty much everywhere else we've been in India. That's not a blanket dismissal. I like this place a lot more than Thailand. It's just a fact of life.

Our train got in at 3am last night, which was very stressful, having read the long and detailed warnings about the dangers of this town for people with white skin. The guidebook said the most treacherous area was the train station, and the worst time to be there was the middle of the night. It said that several travelers a year disappear in this place, and I was determined not to be one of them. We waded over a sea of sleeping bodies, then plowed through a wall of aggressive touts trying to get us into their rickshaws. Once outside the train station, we walked briskly to the first hotel we could find that wasn't gated shut. As we were the only game in town, the mob of touts followed us right up to the hotel entrance, constantly harassing us to let them take us to their hotels. It was a tense and unpleasant situation and there was a lot of shouting on my part.

Anyway, Tom and I are safe and well. We're having a good time here in India, though I'm looking forward to hopping over to Myanmar for what I'm hoping will be a drastically improved smell.

June 23, 2003

Dharmasala, India
Of Monks and Yetis

So I'm in Dharamsala. In particular, the region called McLeod Ganj, which is the headquarters of the Tibetan Government-in-Exile and home to His Holiness, the Richard Gere.

His Holiness settled here in 1959 as a refugee under the protection of the Indian government. He was on the run from the Chinese. After a decade of harassment, destruction, and torture, the Tibetan leadership decided they had no other choice but to get the hell out of there. A few hundred pilgrims, the Richard Gere included, made the journey on foot through the Himalayas to Dharamsala. They've been steadily bringing refugees over ever since; 10,000 in Dharamsala and another 110,000 spread throughout the rest of India, though there are still millions more held prisoner in their own homeland under the brutally oppressive Chinese government.

Since escaping Tibet, the Richard Gere has showcased his poor acting ability in a string of mediocre films. He can also sing, dance, and take pictures, all very badly.

You know, the term "human rights abuse" is overused. We use it as a catchall for everything from denial of free speech to public dismemberment. We really shouldn't do that. To me, there's an enormous distinction. I, for one, find it a whole lot easier to be apathetic about safe workplace conditions than genital electrocution. If the various organizations working to free Tibet would wise up and call it what it is, they'd have had my attention a long time ago.

Anyway, from all indications, the Tibetans are living happy, prosperous lives here, free from the fear of having their genitals electrocuted. The area is frequented by an enormous number of Indian tourists in addition to a healthy supply of dirty, guitar-playing, Israeli treehuggers, and they all seem thrilled to be in close proximity to the devastatingly cool people of Tibet.

There's something immediately striking about these folks and I don't think I've encountered anything like it before. They have incredible dignity, a placid, unassuming nature, and welcoming smiles for everyone who comes to visit their settlement. Perhaps it's enhanced by the contrast with Delhi and its many horrors, but I'm just floored by how wonderful these people are. If anyone needs proof of the emotional benefits of meditation, come check this place out.

Here's a monk shooting hoops.


McLeod Ganj is perched on a mesa two kilometers above sea level, far from the sweltering heat and pollution below.


The air is fresh and clean and you don't have to pick wads of black tar out of your nose three times a day, which is nice. The mountains are vast, green, and everywhere. The only view that isn't beautiful is looking straight down at the ground. While I appreciate that they want to get back to their home and all, there are refugees who've gotten lots worse deals than this.


Food and accommodation are only a few dollars a day. There are book stores, net cafes, bars, makeshift movie theaters (darkened room, TV, DVD player), everything you'd need to stay here for a long time; which is exactly what a whole lot of people do. Some of them are pretty annoying. For example, that know-it-all, robe-wearing, faux-buddhist chucklehead with the exciting facial hair who you couldn't stand listening to in high school -- he's here and he's packing all new ammo. But it's easy enough to get past that.

Celebrities show up from time to time and leave their signed territorial pissings on the walls. You've got your Harrison Fords and your Pierce Brosnans and your Goldie Hawns. In addition to that, there are also monkeys. Much like celebrities, they run across the rooftops naked, howling at ordinary people and occasionally peeing on them.

The monkeys are mostly your garden variety, but Tom and I had one experience that pretty much explained away the Yeti myth as far as I'm concerned. We were walking down the path between the central village and the monastery when Tom spotted something in the trees down below. While he's indifferent to the monkey population, he has an amazing aptitude for spotting them that I do not share. The thing came closer and stood upright to look at us. It had thick white fur that made it look twice its real size, and a highly expressive, pitch-black face. It stood more than waist-high, and could probably have kicked my ass.

I shuffled for my camera, which somehow startled it into charging straight at us. When it was about ten feet away and approaching at full speed, it leaped in the air straight at Tom -- who, incidentally, didn't even flinch. But instead of wrestling Tom to the ground and biting his nose off, it grabbed a hanging branch and rocketed up into the canopy of trees. It jumped over us onto another branch that looked more than ready to snap under the strain, then plummeted back down to ground level on the other side of us. As it was disappearing into the foliage again, it stopped to look back and I caught a mediocre picture of it, which somewhat conveys its Yeti-like appearance.

Mind you, this happened fifty meters outside of town.

We visited the temple complex in the monastery of his holiness, the Richard Gere. If there's a center of Mahayana Buddhism in the world today, it's right there. And yet the striking thing about the place is how amazingly accessible it is. You can go right in there and you don't need to worry about whether you're sitting in the right position. They don't care if you're wearing a backpack, shorts, and sunglasses. You don't have to follow their rituals and practices. There's no pomp and pageantry. You're free to experience it in your own way and they just hope you get something worthwhile out of being there.


Religious centers aren't generally like that.

The Richard Gere isn't in town at the moment. He spends much of his time doing speaking engagements to raise international awareness on the struggle of the Tibetan people...and also that the whole gerbil story is totally an urban legend.

It becomes a little transparent at times that the friendliness of the Tibetan people toward westerners has at least a little bit to do with how desperately they need us. It's an unfortunate reality that the US is one of the only governments able to stand up to the Chinese and call them on their bullshit. Our willingness to do so relies heavily on how much we know and care about the situation. So while their spirituality and generally pleasant demeanors are certainly factors, I get the feeling they're on their best behavior around us so we'll go home and rave about them...which is what I'm doing.

Tom and I spent a day hiking through the mountains and surrounding villages.


These are some of the locals who inhabited the area long before the Tibetans showed up.


I don't even want to think about how much work went into leveling the ground for this soccer field. Nothing is flat up here. You couldn't even put a drink down without a shovel.


At least it's getting some use.

The bus ride from Delhi to Dharamsala was fifteen hours overnight at breakneck speed through the foothills of the Himalayas. The seats in front of us were broken so they were permanently reclined on our knees. The fans didn't work. There was no hope of sleep. It was easily one of the top five most agonizing experiences of my life.

And to make matters worse, I had to sit behind Jason Vorhees from the Friday the 13th movies.


He didn't seem to be up for hacking anyone to pieces. I guess he was on vacation.

Before leaving Delhi to come up here, Tom and I went on the obligatory day trip to Agra to see the Taj Mahal and take the same damn picture everyone else takes.


Here it is up close.


I'd say it was pretty, but really, nothing is pretty in 117 degree heat. Everything is either shade or not shade. The Taj Mahal is shade. I can definitely say that for it.

The entrance fee for the Mahal (as I like to call it when I need to save time) is a modest $0.50.,,That is, of course, unless you have pale skin. Whitey has to fork over $17.00 for the privilege. The steep price is, of course, designed to reduce the quantity of visitors, who are apparently causing structural damage to the monument by standing near it in such large numbers.

Nevermind the throngs of locals, something has to be done about those two sweaty white guys with the thick wallets before this place is destroyed.

But not to worry, that price includes a complimentary English-speaking guide at no extra cost -- unless you count the money he hits you up for at the end.

This was a pretty good example of the divergent attitudes Tom and I have about sightseeing. Good-natured, college-educated Tom was happy to have someone around who could answer questions, indulge curiosities, and point out nuances that would go unnoticed by the casual observer. Me, I just wanted a couple pictures and a ride back to the train station. I am a simple man.

Even that was unattainable, though. In a further effort to reduce environmental damage to the Taj (as I like to call it when I'm in a really big hurry), they've prohibited vehicles from getting within 4 kilometers.

Nevermind that black cloud of sulfur floating down from Delhi, let's create a magical make-believe barrier so whitey can get some more sun.

On the train back to Delhi, we met a really nice Sikh family from the south and spent the whole four hour ride exchanging facial contortions.

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We talked to a really smart young woman who was racing back home to be with her new husband. He's an engineer, she's working toward a masters degree in English literature. Their marriage was arranged, but she gave no indication of being anything less than thrilled with the guy.

Arranged marriages are something I've heard a lot about, but this was the first time I'd ever spoken to a woman about it who was actually in one. Just putting a face to it changed my views a little. I mean, she's an educated person and she seemed really happy about it. And our system of doing things certainly has its flaws. A lot of stuff about gender relations in India really irks me, but arranged marriage is one thing I'm kind of reluctant to pass judgment on.

...wait a minute, no. That's insane. Forget I said anything.

We spent a couple days back in Delhi before heading up to Dharamsala. In that time we met up with an old friend of Tom's mother. He's a mathematics professor at the University of Delhi, specializing in game theory. It was never spelled out for me completely, but I got the feeling he was a pretty big deal in the field. He and his wife took us to dinner with some friends of their son named Kapil and Suchi.


We hit it off with Kapil and Suchi and ended up spending the next couple nights hanging out with them in our hotel room. Over the course of several conversations, they managed to dispel every notion -- both preconceived and acquired -- that I had about Delhizens in general.

The main thing was their sophistication when it came to western movies, music, and television. I have a hard enough time understanding how Wes Anderson films became available to them. I can't imagine how they manage to relate to and appreciate stuff like Bottle Rocket and The Royal Tenenbaums. India is in a completely different world from that; a really insular world that bombards its people with more than enough media of their own. So hearing them quote Simpsons episodes and debate the merits of old Radiohead versus new Radiohead really took me by surprise. They politely tolerated our repeated dumbfoundedness.

Kapil does web design and Suchi, in her spare time, works with children in the poorest slums of Delhi. She gave me a thorough rundown of the caste system and described as best she could what life is like for the lowest of the lowest of the low.

Good people.

June 16, 2003

Delhi, India
A Heartfelt Message of Cultural Understanding and Oneness

I’m coming up on two weeks of sitting around doing nothing. The first week in Bangkok was well-documented. After that, on the 11th, I was supposed to meet up with my cousin Tom in Delhi. That didn’t work out as planned.

I’m gonna make a long story short here for a number of reasons. After arriving in India and finding out I wasn’t going to be there for a while, Tom decided to head up to Kashmir by himself. I won’t go into the circumstances, I’ll just say that the prudence of the excursion was debatable. Anyone who wants to know more can go check the travel warnings from the U.S. State Department.

I read up on the background behind the India-Pakistan conflict over Kashmir. It goes back to the final days of the Raj when the British separated the Muslims from the non-Muslims, drew some arbitrary borders, then took off. Each state in the region was allowed to choose for itself which way to go. For most states it was an easy decision, but the indecisive maharaja of Kashmir had a more difficult time. The problem was that he himself was Hindu, but the majority of his population was Muslim. By the time he finally made the decision to stay in India rather than join Pakistan, the armies were already marching and these things, once they get started, are very difficult to stop.

Anyway, I’m in Delhi now waiting for Tom to get back. I checked in at the same hotel he was staying at a few days prior. We’re in sporadic email contact. He should be returning later today.

“Tout” isn’t a word I was familiar with before coming here. It means “con artist.” The book says they’re everywhere, but to be honest, I haven’t encountered a single one. Instead I keep meeting these guys who wait outside my hotel and approach me as I leave. I know they’re not touts, cause the first thing they do is warn me to watch out for touts. They explain that they like foreigners and want to practice their english and don’t want any money. They follow me for several blocks, showing me their credentials as honest, gainfully employed citizens and directing me to the nearest tourist office where I can pick up a free map and brochures. Anyway, these guys must have scared all the touts away, cause I can’t find them anywhere.

Delhi is such a friendly city.

It’s also very poor. The overcrowding and squalor is worse than I’ve ever seen. And this is a city whose population is growing by 50 people an hour, so it’s not getting any better. Nothing is getting better.

Pollution is a serious problem. Breathing street air in Delhi is equivalent to smoking a pack of cigarettes a day (Attention Smokers: Move to Delhi. Think of the savings!). Everything is tinted an orangey-brown dirt color; the streets, the buildings, the cars, the sky – on some days you can look directly into the sun without even squinting.

But the sanitation problem is what gets me the most. People dump their garbage out in the middle of the street. It’s everywhere. It’s in everything. It’s on everything. Absolutely nothing is clean. I’m not a germ freak, and I think that we in the west often go overboard in our fear of bacteria. There is an acceptable level of filth, but this isn’t it.


Too late.


Then there are the cows. This one is hard to believe, so I got lots of photographic evidence.

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Cows are sacred in the Hindu religion, which means they get to go wherever they want and do whatever they please. They wander into the shops, they graze on the garbage, they shit all over the street, and no one would ever dream of doing anything about it. A lot of the cows are clearly diseased, shaking uncontrollably with huge, tumorous growths along their bodies, but God has literally forbidden anyone from taking action.

India Gate. Big draw here in Delhi. People are always flocking to see “The Gate,” as they call it. Actually they’re not. And I don’t know why they call it a gate. It looks like an arch to me. But what do I know?


Looking for a tourist office? Here’s a few.


One thing I noticed after a few days of walking: there are many regions of the city where there are absolutely no women present. The places are crowded, guys are everywhere, but there isn’t a woman to be seen in any direction.

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It’s striking when you realize it. There’s obviously some major social stratification going on. I get the impression that women are viewed as an unfortunate side effect of the reproductive process.

This is the kind of pleasant, inviting alleyway I often found myself walking down. Friendly, welcoming faces everywhere.


I went through the guide book and crossed off all the mosques and temples. It’s always the same deal and it’s too hot for that. Most of the museums didn’t interest me. One of my few excursions was to a place called Jantar Mantar. Mostly I just liked the name, but the other interesting thing is that it’s a park filled with giant, three hundred year old astronomical measuring devices.

This one is called Samrat-Yantra.


It’s an equinoctial dial consisting of a triangular gnomon with the hypotenuse parallel to the Earth’s axis. Duh!

It was used to measure the time of day, correct to half a second.

Here are some pictures that would’ve gotten me an A in my high school photography class.

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Here’s one that wouldn’t have.


And here’s a random kid who was standing around and wanted his picture taken.


So that was about it for me and going outside. Delhi wore me down. I declared defeat. I’ve spent the last few days holed up in my hotel room waiting for Tom.

Power is intermittent. It’s a city-wide problem. My room has electricity for maybe half of each day. They have a gas generator that they turn on from time to time, but it gives out after not too long. The heat gets pretty unbearable in the afternoon. Delhi is in the middle of a massive heatwave, so it can get up to 120. The air conditioner would be a lot more useful if I had windows that close.

They put on a street festival the other night and held a concert right outside my bathroom window -- the one that doesn't close. It started at 8pm and went on until dawn. It sounded like cats being murdered. They supplied power to the event by diverting it from the entire neighborhood. This left me and, I would imagine, thousands of other people, lying awake in pools of sweat – which was okay, cause we had eleven hours of ear-splitting tone deaf chanting to keep us company.

I’ve started my malaria medication. It’s that heavy-duty stuff called Larium. I only need to take one pill a week, but they kind of suggest that you leave the next day open for side effects. Here is the list of warnings from the packaging:

"Larium may cause dizziness, fainting, headaches, irregular heartbeat, numbness of the hands and feet, aches, muscle weakness, upset stomach including nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, loss of appetite, fever, chills, skin rash, drowsiness, a constant buzzing noise, hearing loss, depression, confusion, seizures, and possibly dementia."

…this is the part where I usually confess to making some of that up, but I didn’t. It’s all right there on the little sheet.

It actually says this:

“If you are taking Larium for the treatment of malaria, you may not be able to distinguish between the side effects of the drug and the disease itself.”

It seems to me that Larium doesn’t treat malaria so much as it conceals it.

The day after I took the first dose didn't go so well. It coincided with the fact that I hadn’t really eaten in a long time. I swore off meat while I’m in India to avoid dysentery, and I’m having trouble finding clean meals with enough nutrition to keep me going. And because of the smell, I'm having trouble finding the appetite to finish them. When I realized how run down I was, I found the nearest food stall and sat down. While waiting for my food, I fell back and passed out.

No one noticed. I don’t know how long I was lying there, but I think it was only a few seconds. When I woke up, I was cold, sweaty, and too weak to stand. I grabbed the waiter guy and told him I needed whatever food he could give me immediately. He didn’t speak English, but he understood the international language of I’m-about-to-throw-up-on-you and grabbed me some papadums. I forced myself to eat a lot and eventually got my act together.

On my way back, I was grabbed by a guy who identified me as American. He told me he was going to Massachusetts and he wanted me to come back to his place and show him where it is on a map. Situations like this are fairly constant here, but I kind of snapped on that one in particular. He desperately wanted me to come with him, and even though it was obviously some ridiculous scam, I felt terrible for flatly denying such an ostensibly simple request.

“No, I’m not going to offer you the uncommon courtesy of going to your house and showing you where Massachusetts is on a map. While it would not inconvenience me greatly, it would be silly to treat you with any degree of trust or decency. Sorry, that’s just how it is.”

I don’t like the way it makes me feel to be like that. It’s callous and mean.

Another issue I’m handling with confused emotions is the many horribly disfigured people begging for money on the street. I know it makes no rational sense, but I feel angry at them. I want to yell at the lepers with stumps for arms and feet. It’s not because they’re pestering me or anything – it’s because it didn’t have to happen. It’s because they didn’t know any better than to live in conditions where diseases fester, so they have to carry on in these unfathomably miserable circumstances. I don’t understand why I have that reaction. It’s just how I feel.

I read in the newspaper about an eight-year-old child who was brought to the hospital because he was shitting live insects. Thought that was worth mentioning.