Lord of the Dance The Pilgrim Path


Lord of the Dance

The Pilgrim Path

Flesh Eating Bacteria

Domains of perfection and squalor on the way to the Taj Mahal

Jaipur to Fatepur Sikri, India
8th March, 2004

"Should I eat lassi?"
"Yes, it contains useful bacteria that are good for your stomach. But don't eat lassi if you're feeling sick."
"What about before I'm sick? Should I eat lassi before I feel sick?"

Silence. Holly was puzzled.

"Why is everyone laughing?"

Noone is Safe

Everyone comes to India in a state of terror. The flesh eating bacteria are everywhere! No surface is safe! On my first day in Delhi, I washed my hands after they touched anything whatsoever. Then applied hand sanitizer. Then realized I had brushed against a wall. Then washed my hands again. And applied hand sanitizer again. Then prayed.

I ate nothing. I would order only vegetarian indian food that I saw another westerner eat first, and only in a restaurant that was recommended.

Now I eat everything. Meat, eggs, samosas cooked by the roadside, chai boiled up by a cheerful local wallah, yoghurt, everything. Not the tap water or ice cream, of course, I'm not suicidal. I still wear flip-flops in the shower. But I've learned to be accommodating. I believe you should allow in a certain number of flesh-eating bacteria a day. They'll be so grateful at being given a free rein, they'll help you fight off all the others.

Cutting Me Own Throat

We left pink-washed old city of Jaipur and headed toward Bharatpur. I had spent my time in Jaipur visiting Amber fort, perched high and magnificent in the hills amid an abandoned city. Then I wandered through the merchant streets of Jaipur itself.

Business in India is both highly civilised and cut-throat. The sari merchants can all be found on the same street, being of the same caste, and often, the same family. They each have a little shop, no more than three metres across, raised above ground level, and completely open to the street. The shop floor is covered with a soft mattress. And on the floor will sit the merchant, his sons, wife, daughters, brothers perhaps, working or chatting, and waiting for a customer to show up.

You show up. You slip off your shoes outside, and step up onto the soft floor. They sit you down. Interested in this type of sari? Twenty will appear before you. A different colour? Another bundle of thirty variations is spread before you? Silk? Cotton? Anything you like. Take as long as you like. A cup of chai is pressed into your hand.

Down to Cost

If you show the slightest inclination they catch it immediately. That is a great choice sir! Fantastic material! What colours! And, what luck, it's on sale, today only! 20% off.

This indicates they have multiplied the price five to ten times depending on your level of interest. You haggle. They grumble. OK, the super deluxe low low price is now 10% lower. You haggle, they grumble. You pretend to leave. You pretend to lose interest. You feign death. Eventually the price comes down another 10%.

Now it's cost, they complain! You have me down to cost price! My children will starve tonight. This indicates their profit margin is now a mere 300% or so. You haggle, but they won't budge. Well, maybe another 10% below 'cost'. Now, it seems, they paying you to take it off their hands.

You're tired. You've grown fond of the cheerful little guy. He's given you free chai, after all (price: 3p). You give in.

You have the sari. He has the money. Everyone is happy.

Perfection and Squalor

India is a land of contrast, wealth beside poverty, decay beside opulence. We spent a morning on a bus driven by a horn blasting maniac through the screaming traffic and carbon filled air, fending off beggars and hawkers, navigating potholes and dung heaps, and then found ourselves staying in one last palace, in Bharatpur. Beautiful rooms and a clean swimming pool in a maharaja's hunting lodge. We boarded cycle rickshaws to the wetlands of the national bird park. The worst shocks of the day were the silence and clean air. We could hardly identify them.

On the way we stopped at Fatepur Sikri. The Mughal emperor ordered a brand new city to be built here in the grand imperial style, but there wasn't enough water to supply it. So after a few years the entire city was abandoned, and remains a ghost town. The city remains, wide plazas and stone palaces. And once you exit the gates the local village begins in pure Indian mayhem - pigs rooting in filth, a thousand cars fighting to get down one narrow street, noise and happy shouting.

It's as if there are two speeds in Indian society: perfection and squalor. When called on, they can make the most perfect buildings, intricately patterned silks, beat the world at business; or, they can balls everything up. The first looks good but can be hard, the second is slap happy fun. And they can't choose between the two.

Domains of Control

Athena now refused to travel with the group, or eat with us at standard dhabas. She hired cars and tried to find expensive hotels. That was a pity: she had split the group with her discontent. Having chosen a cheap tour she was not willing to share in it. A pity: she reduced the enjoyment for us too. I considered how much better things might have been if her place had gone to someone who was willing to muck in with the rest of us. Or who had even read the brochure. But she had staked out her domain in complaint and self-pity: now she must squat in it, alone.

Unfortunately she spread her carping around the others. I have commented before on how quickly a few days of hard travel can strip away someone's social facade, reveal the true quality underneath. This time we were to see the lack of it. I have rarely seen such petty-minded, selfish behaviour as I did those last couple of days. Jenny had worked flat out to make the whole tour go smoothly for everyone. She had been always cheerful, responsive, untiring in answering any question or sorting out any problem. Yet at the end almost half the group didn't bother even to thank her for it. I wish them to the devil.

Our final stop: the Taj Mahal and Agra Fort. The Taj is perfect. But you knew that already. The Taj looks just like the pictures. Nonetheless, we all took hundreds of pictures ourselves, all seeking the definitive Taj. But no Taj-bashing from me. The pictures do not show how perfect it is in three dimensions: total symmetry.

Outside the Taj, the dirt and pollution lap up to the very walls. India is divided into domains of responsibility. The caretakers of the greatest building in the country will take good care of it - and stop right at its boundary. A bank may keep its own ground clean - and care nothing for the trash heap two feet outside its wall.

Everything has its domain of control, and takes no responsibility for anything else, anything more than an inch from its comfort zone. It's a reliable fact of life travelling in India. Knowing this, you can stay clear of flesh eating bacteria. They stay inside their little zone, and couldn't be bothered.



Some Pig


Doll Touting


Garlic Seller


Fatepur Sikri


What Else



Hat & Spoon



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