Last Updated on June 3, 2023 by Ellen
My eight-year-old smartphone flashed on the side of our dinner table near the ancient City Palace in Udaipur, India. It was a message from an indigenous tribal woman I know from our stay in the Philippines during the pandemic. She’s hoping I might donate money so tribal elders can attend a cultural and learning program on a few night trip away from their native island. I cannot, I explain back in a text, because we recently made a big donation to another tribal member’s funeral costs, and because we are traveling, and because we don’t have money to give away to everyone. My mouth sours.
The phone flashes again. I swallow and pick it up. This message is from an early retired budget traveler, like me. Unlike me, she’s newly on her journey with her partner. Spouse Theo and I have been at this travel adventure for seven years. This new traveler is looking for my friend who knows more about Mexico than any other American I know. I encourage her to reach out to him via message, because I don’t know where he is at this moment as I’m eating dinner with Theo on a lakefront restaurant that we somehow have all to ourselves in the shadows beneath the well-lit City Palace.
In the morning, I decide to do nothing and (again) decide to go phoneless once my old iPhone 6 dies. It hardly holds a charge now. India would be a good place to try this. Of all the countries we’ve visited so far, it’s here, in India, where people look at their smartphone screens as a supplement to reality. People seem to spend less time looking at their phones here. Or maybe that’s what I want to see, instead of watching people everywhere stare into some void. The world I can see, sometimes overstimulates, so I’ll need breaks. Theo has a phone now for apps and maps, for the first time in seven years.
We’ve been traveling around India for one month so far. Maharashtra was the first state. Mega-Mumbai, as I call it, is where we started, and where anything goes. Cows in the street fed restaurant scraps; filthy barefoot children begging for money at cars stopped in traffic; billionaires with their own high-rises. Next was Alibag for beaches and forts. Then Pune, for Gandhi’s ashes and India’s ‘Silicon Valley’, where four Indian workers split the salary of one American. Pune is also where we met one of those workers, and his was the most gracious and giving Indian families we’ve met yet.
From Pune, we took a bus back to Mumbai, and then an sleeper train to Rajasthan. Our last long train travel was from Hua Hin, Thailand, to Pendang Basar, Malaysia, some months ago. I had a broken wrist at the time, thanks to a careless car driver. It was not yet in a hard cast because it was too swollen. On the sleeper train, I thought about another time I traveled by overnight bus with busted ribs.That got me thinking about all of the injuries and illnesses I’ve dealt with during these seven travel years. From broken bones to breast cancer, and so many other mini-calamities in between.
Our first city in Rjasthan is Udaipur. It’s a land of castles, kings and queens. Old town is a maze of narrow streets and alleys, often on hills. Some motorbike riders constantly honk to alert you of their presence. Others don’t. They all play chicken. Since I remember my broken wrist (car hit me) and broken ribs (Theo’s motorbike crash) – neither my fault – I almost always submit. When I get frazzled, it helps if Theo walks first, then I can just follow him single file because that’s all there’s room for, anyway. Once, he patiently talked me back from the edge of a panic attack. It was a close call.
Some years ago, I left all of my bras in Sarajevo. It’s a jolting thought, but it is true. I left them in a plastic bag in an Airbnb rental in part of a high-rise complex with machine gun pocks in the concrete facades. I left my bras in Sarajevo, got on a bus, went to Zagreb, Croatia, where I had a double mastectomy. I shared these facts recently with a woman in the virtual world of social media. She needed a boost; breast cancer is a harsh reality. I did not have breast reconstruction. In India, it is common for women to wear scarves over their chests and my reality would be easy to hide here, if I wore scarves.
I remember seeing some women my age and older look incomprehensibly sad and ‘somewhere else’ other than in Sarajevo, the city of roses, the city of graves, of war damage, and of an especially moving genocide museum. Those people somehow gave me courage to live through my own, comparatively minor, shell-shock event. I would submit myself to a talented doctor and professor to dispose of my disease. I wasn’t a human target as I crossed the street to get food for my children. I had a choice. Those women didn’t. I can leave Sarajevo – travel to somewhere else. Those women can’t.
In the afternoon on Twitter, I see picture evidence Ukrainians were tortured by Russian troops. One was a box of gold crowns pulled from the mouths of the people in the occupied town. It’s not the 1940s or the 1990s, but it is the 2020s so I guess we are overdue for more Caucasian genocide. I have learned genocides happen constantly in ubiquitous ways all over Earth. Boatfuls of brown people are lost in the Mediterranean Sea. Women and children are still sold into slavery. And that group of human beings burned alive somewhere in Africa? Forget fake news – there is no news about that.
There was a beheading in Udaipur earlier this year. We watched news reports with trepidation as we planned to visit this place. The government cut off the internet to calm the crowds. It was over religion, of course. A Hindu politician elsewhere in India made remarks Muslims didn’t like. In Udaipur, a tailor seemed to support the politician with a social media post he later claimed was made by his son. Two Muslim men pretended to be customers in his shop, and tried to cut off the tailor’s head when he began to measure one of them. There are ongoing court cases over this. Sometimes more.
Music comes to me from the balcony of our rental in Udaipur, the white city in the state of Rajasthan. It is the last night of the Durga festival: a religious celebration of the goddess Durga’s reign over evil. She offers protection to her devotees. The days-long event ends each evening with dancing in front of Durga idols. She is the goddess with 10 arms. On this last night of Durga Puja, the music is louder and processions more active. Yet, on this balcony, it is peaceful. Later, Durga idols will be submerged somewhere in Udaipur lakes as a symbol of her journey back to her own world. She must need rest.
I am a lucky woman. I visit cities and countries, and sometimes other worlds as a commoner goddess. To do this, I need to unplug and process all that has happened and the ways it makes me feel. Tonight the spouse wanted me to join him at a local artist’s home. We are trying to help his business. We were there a few days ago, will see him tomorrow, so now I want to stay in and cocoon from the chaos outside. Spouse can’t understand and exclaimed: “I’ve waited my whole life to be in India!” So have I, dear man. Wings don’t heal like bones. Tomorrow I will flitter around India like a butterfly.