Jun 18, 2009

Telling Stories Short Nonfiction Contest Winners - part 3

This winning story from John Givot takes us around the world and places us in the midst our worst travel fear, the one Visa ran an ad campaign on for at least a decade: You’re in the middle of a foreign land and your credit card won’t work. You have no money. No place to stay. No way to get home. You haven’t eaten. What do you do? In this story John tells what he did and what he learned.

Broke in India

By John Givot

It was half past midnight and an army guy had just kicked me off the bench I was sitting on in the train station. He asked me what train I was waiting for. No, I told him, I wasn't waiting for a train, I needed to make a phone call.

The problem, which I didn't tell him, was that I had no money. Well actually, I had five rupees, about ten cents US.

There were so many poor people, I mean really poor, both in life and pocket, that I felt I didn't have the right to ask anyone for money. All around me, people were begging for a few rupees for something to eat. How could a rich westerner ask for the money it would take to make a phone call to the other side of the world, let alone get dinner and a hotel room.

I was in Patna, India, the capital of the state of Bihar, one the most over-populated, poor, and illiterate states in the country. And I could feel it. On the trains and the buses, on the streets and at the roadside stands. There was a heaviness.

I didn't realize it for a while. I didn't know why I felt like I did; yeah I was traveling alone and too far too fast, but still, my health was mostly good, I was meditating lots and whether I was alone or with people I knew, I was happy.

It was on the bus ride to Lumbini, Nepal, from Uttar Pradesh (the next state over from Bihar and in a similar state), that it became clear.

In the days before this bus ride, I had been feeling very judgmental and negative toward the local culture. I kept finding myself saying, "Indians this..." and "Indians that..." And then, while I was meditating in Kushinigar, the place where the Buddha died, or attained his final Nibanna, I felt this hardness on my body, a hardness toward other people. And then I felt it begin to crack. I felt myself soften a bit, and the hardness began to be replaced by compassion. Little by little.

So the next day I am on this bus from Gorakpur to Lumbini. I had gotten on the bus after all the seats where full, so I stood in the aisle. Almost immediately though, I was told to come to the front of the bus and was given a seat. Part of me wanted to say, no, I'm not any better than whoever gave up their seat, but it felt like it would have been offensive to say no at that point, and I was grateful to sit down, not minding that it was under the TV, which was about shoulder height.

Next to me was a nice Nepalese couple and their daughter who was about ten. After an hour or so, the man told me to switch with him so I would have more head room. This put me next to the bus door, where I watched the completely full bus take on more people. The isle was packed with people standing, and just when I thought there was no more room, another family of six would get swallowed into the mass. And then another family of five. It was amazing. About this time another couple, very poor, also with a small girl got on the bus. The woman grabbed my leg to support herself as she sat down on the floor, pretty much between my legs, and I could feel a deep agitation in her touch. With this couple and their baby, came that palpable heaviness. I could feel it, I could see it, and I could hear it in their voices.

After about half an hour, they got off the bus, and the mood completely shifted. It got lighter; the heaviness left with them.

But in the Patna train station a couple days before, I wasn't especially conscious of this heaviness, this "misery," the ignorance and deep aversion, the apathy of people surviving life. I just felt pulled down. And broke.

The thing was, I didn't feel poor. Here were really poor people all around me, and I simply had no money.

A few days before, my Visa card was rejected at an ATM as I was leaving Bhod Gaya, the place where the Buddha became enlightened, and a popular tourist spot. I didn't think much about it, I had some cash, and there were ATMs in every town. A couple days later, in the next town I was staying in, my card was rejected again. I got a little worried and went to the bank, where they told me the problem was that this was a small town, in the city it would work no problem. I changed the last of my US currency, a twenty-dollar bill, to rupees at the one fancy hotel in town, and continued on.

After arriving in Patna after a long day of traveling, I went straight to the museum to get in before it closed. It has a large portion of the "Bhudda relics," bits of his bones, which were left after his cremation. I don't understand why, but there is an intensity when meditating near them, and I had been told by a British guy to go there.

To see the relics, it costs five-hundred rupees, only about ten dollars US, but a fortune in India. So I spent my last five-hundred rupee note to meditate in front of the relics for fifteen minutes, then I meditated some more in the museum and a bit more outside.

Then I was rushing to the next train. Fifteen rupees in a jam-packed shared auto-rickshaw got me to Hajipur, the next train station, which was an hour away on the other side of the Ganges (and the world’s longest bridge I was told, at 7 km).

I arrived late for my train and without enough cash to buy the R60/ ticket anyway. Twenty minutes of standing in line for the ATM confirmed my fears -- my Visa card didn't work. I walked a mile down a dirty, dusty crowded, hot and humid night street, trying different ATMs along the way, not willing to pay for a taxi with my last few rupees. The ride back across the river, this time in the dark haze (the pollution makes the air in Los Angeles look like paradise) cost R20, leaving me with five rupees. I could only hope the card would work in the city, but I wasn't feeling it.

Back at the main Patna train station, and five ATM rejections later, I sat down on a bench and tried to sit my evening hour of meditation, while getting hammered by mosquitoes.

This is when the army guy kicked me off the bench. My five rupees weren't near enough for a phone call, which was about R30/ per minute to the US, but they would buy me a couple of samosas the next day, which I would want. (I had gotten sick the day before, and had only eaten fruit that day, after blowing my dinner out both ends the night before.)

I was exhausted, hungry, broke, without a plan, and didn't feel like I had the right to ask anyone for help. I had already been rejected after asking for help from an office in the train station. Part of me wanted to curl up and escape to sleep, but if I was going to get help from the US, it had to be during the Indian night, since the time difference is about twelve hours.

Surprisingly though, I felt OK about it. On the way down the platform, I walked into a different office, one that had five or six Indian Rail workers passing the time in it.

I sat down and explained my dilemma to one guy who spoke English. He wanted to try my card, so I humored him and we went out to the ATM together. Back in the office, he asked me how I was going to solve "my problem."

I shook my head; I didn't know, I really didn't. Another old guy sitting across the room gestured with his hand to his mouth, asking if I had had "kana," dinner. I shook my head.

He pulled out a hundred rupee note, quite a lot of money and handed it to me. I had to hold back tears.

Forget food though, a hundred rupees is enough for a three minute call home. I asked if I could receive a call on one of their cell phones and I about danced off to the phone guy's booth.

While I was waiting for my mom to call back with info about Western Union, the train guy asked me what my work was. Did I have children? Was I married? What was my religion? Sorry, I don't have a job, no wife, no kids, and no religion. The clincher though, was when he asked me whether I bathed every day. Made me feel pretty pathetic in his eyes. And to give him credit for the last question, I was filthy.

Sometimes we need to get humbled and helped and patched up by those who we think are less and who we think make our lives harder. It makes me realize we are all trying to get by, in the best way we know.

No comments:

Twitter Updates

Favorite me

Add to Technorati Favorites