Tell people I’m from the Bahamas
Americans face an unfortunate situation when traveling abroad: they’re from America. The only countries whose travelers have a worse reputation are Israel and France.
Regardless of the country you’re visiting, the United States has probably done something bad there. Perhaps the US has done good there too, but people focus on bad things. This results, sometimes, in you being treated you as though you personally committed atrocities, or, more often, that because you’re from a rich country you yourself must rich and should therefore be charged lots of extra money for things.
In some cases this can be avoided by denying that you’re American. Many traveling Americans claim to be from Canada, but this doesn’t resolve the rich country problem, nor does it erase other generalized stereotypes about the West in general. Plus, unless you’re advertising your Canadianess with a gigantic maple leaf on your backpack, as Canadian backpackers tend to do when abroad, people will detect that your aren’t really Canadian.
The way I resolved this problem was by telling many Indians that I’m from the Bahamas, a nation about which there is almost universal ignorance. Sometimes people, upon hearing this, would nod in uncomfortable confusion; at other times they would want more information and I would tell them that the Bahamas is a small Caribbean nation next to Cuba, and upon hearing “Cuba” they would associate me with communism and say “Fidel Castro” and smile, but it would be impossible to wrap me in any national stereotypes and this sometimes made life a little easier.
Wipe ass with hand, not wash hand
In India toilet paper is absent in almost all public toilets. Sometimes a small water gun is attached to the wall or tank, and this can be used to jet unwanted debris from your anus, but generally, unless you remembered to bring your own paper, you’ll have to use your left hand like most everyone else.
This has happened to me more than a dozen times. No problem. After the first few experiences the aversion drops away and you discover a part of your body you’ve never been that intimate with. You scrape excess feces off with your left fingers, then wash that off with a small bucket of water, afterwards thoroughly soaping and washing your hands.
A few times, however, there was no soap available and I would have to walk around, sometimes for hours — handling money, waving hello, opening doors — before finding a soap and sink with which to wash.
Imbibe high dosages of Tramadol and Hashish and pay rickshaw drivers to peddle me aimlessly around cities
I was first prescribed Tramadol in India for tooth pain. Then, because Indian pharmacies will sell you anything, I began using it for recreational purposes. I would take a 100mg to put me into a state of muted euphoria, and then smoke hashish out of my tiny wooden pipe. In the resulting stupor all fear of death and injury would evaporate and I would float out of my hotel room towards the nearest road, where I would hail the first bicycle rickshaw and pay him a few dollars to drive me around the streets for hours as I absorbed the chaos with stoned astonishment. Sometimes I would bring along a joint to keep the high rolling.
Ate something onto which human ashes had landed
On the banks of the Ganges in Varanasi, Hindus have been cremating the dead for thousands of years. The bodies are burned in the open, on the ghats, for everyone to see. There are three to four bodies aflame at any given moment. When the bodies have been reduced to small bones and ashes someone from the untouchable caste scoops up the pile and tosses it into the river nearby, where people are bathing and washing their clothes and splashing around and having a pleasant time.
The first time I walked in upon this scene I had just bought a deep-fried jalebi that had been cooked in a cauldron of oil that seemed it hadn’t been washed for years. There was a gentle snowfall of ashes blowing around and a tiny piece of ash landed on my jalebi. I ate the jalebi.
If you are in India and you are not from India you will be stared at. The streets, for most foreigners, are a maelstrom of astonished eyeballs, especially in smaller towns and villages. They are not menacing stares, but the stares of those who see an alien. It’s tough to become accustomed to this, but after a few weeks or months you learn to ignore it. Every once in a while, however, you might feel the need to do something, which is a pretty dumb need, especially considering that whatever you do the staring isn’t going to stop, but you just can’t help it.
Sometimes I would stare back thinking the starer would feel self-conscious about their staring and look away. This never worked. It was hopeless. I would stare at them and they would stare at me staring at them. Sometimes I would give a snarky smile, encouraging them to interpret my stare as ironic, but they usually just smiled back, genially, completely unaware of my annoyance. Then the staring would continue until I gave up and walked away.
Pretended to be a journalist to get things for free
A few years ago I made a fake press pass using a template I downloaded off the internet. It’s attached to a lanyard and has my photograph on it and it looks official.
I would often stroll up to archaeological sites and other places of interest to tourists with this thing around my neck and attempt to walk straight in. I would usually be halted and told to buy a ticket. At this point I would pretend to be annoyed and tell them I was journalist, there to write about the site for some fictional travel magazine, claiming that “they” (whoever “they” were) said it was okay. This worked about 3% of the time.
Used diarrhea as an excuse
Nearly everyone who visits India falls ill almost immediately. Hygiene in most places, especially with regard to street food, is questionable and newcomers’ bodies are not accustomed to the bacteria. This makes diarrhea a common, socially accepted topic of conversation among travelers, and many days will be spent within a few feet of a toilet.
Exploiting this, I would use diarrhea as an excuse to get out of any situation I wanted to avoid.
Didn’t shower for two weeks
The more time you spend backpacking in India the rarer showers will become. If you’re staying in cheap hotels you’ll often be showering in cold water, which usually sucks, and even if you do shower you’re probably just going to get dirty again as soon as you put on your dirty clothes and step outside into the dusty, malarial heat.
I would usually shower once every three days, but there was one two-week period, stretching from the Punjab all the way to Madya Pradesh, that I neither washed nor changed clothes.
Made Punjabis dance to strange music
In one town where I lived for a few months there was a bar/dance club that was always filled with Punjabi men in their 20s, who came there on the weekends to get drunk and dance. There were never any women. The Punjabis didn’t seem to care. The bar usually played loud dubstep music that made you want to shoot yourself. The Punjabis loved it.
One night I talked the bartender into allowing me to DJ for awhile. I plugged in my iPod and commenced to play music that was extremely strange and incongruous with the environment. The playlist included: “Beat It,” by Michael Jackson; “Blue Velvet,” by Bobby Vinton; “Maneater,” by Hall and Oates; “99 Red Balloons,” by Nena; “I Ran,” by Flock Of Seagulls; “Whole Lotta Shakin Going On,” by Jerry Lee Lewis; “I Touch Myself,” by Blondie; “Dream Baby,” by Roy Orbison; “Hot Stuff,” by Donna Summer; “Shake, Rattle & Roll,” by Big Joe Turner; “Rock Lobster,” by The B-52’s; “Dancing Queen,” by ABBA; “The Wanderer,” by Dion; “Like a Virgin,” by Madonna; “The Loco Motion,” by Little Eva; “Super Freak,” by Rick James; and “Girls Just Want To Have Fun,” by Cindy Lauper.
At first the dance floor pretty much emptied, except for a few haggard-looking men who continued to stumble around in a desultory fashion, occasionally casting me confused and/or amorous glances, but by the time “Maneater” came on they started really getting into it, and by “99 Balloons” they were in full swing, moving their bodies in ways that seemed novel and exciting, to music they’d never heard before, totally oblivious to the fact that they were part of an experiment.
Went to yoga class to check out girls
Yoga girls are usually hot and India is full of them. I began taking classes to meet such girls and this quickly turned into an exercise in trying not to be caught staring as they thrust their buttocks into the air during downward dog. After a few weeks of yoga, however, I began to realize the incredible effect the practice was having on my body and mind, and I stopped going just for girls. I’ve been practicing yoga ever since.
Acted completely insane to get people to leave me alone
After awhile the number of people who approach you on the street for money or food or to sell you a flute or hashish or some other trinket, or to get you into their carpet shop, becomes unbearable. Usually they will go away after a few minutes of badgering you, but sometimes it goes on for an eternity. Often, in the latter case, I would act like a lunatic in the hope that they would leave me alone. I would throw my hands in the air and make absurd noises, or start pulling my hair and moaning. Sometimes I would just stop and stare directly into the sky and point at nothing until I felt their presence slowly, cautiously back away.
Pretended to be mute/deaf to make people leave me alone
As an antidote for the above situation I would also sometimes pretend that I had lost my ability to speak or hear. Sometimes I would go as far as to appear interested in what people had to say, and then take out my notebook and write things in a non-existent and incomprehensible alphabet, and show it to them, and then appear frustrated and angry at my poor condition of non-intelligibility. They usually walked away in confusion.
Threw my trash on the ground
I am an avid recycler, but in most places in India trashcans are non-existent, or if they exist their contents are just dumped in the street at the end of the day, raked into a pile along with other trash on the street, and set on fire. I would sometimes carry my trash around for hours looking for a bin, but on occasion I would just throw it on the ground, feeling horrible about myself and the state of the world, and walk away, forgetting the whole ordeal almost immediately.
Repeatedly ignored signs forbidding the use of drugs
In one restaurant that I frequented (I went there nightly for a few months) I was asked, on at least a different hundred occasions, at various times by nearly the entire staff, to kindly put my joint away and not smoke there anymore. I would complain, claiming that I knew that they were paying off the police, which was probably true, or apologize and tamp it out. As soon as the authority figure walked away I would light up and began smoking again, encouraging others to do the same. I also did this in hotels with similar signs.
Refused to buy a cell phone
I didn’t want to be contactable. By anyone.
Bhang Lassi camel rides
Bhang is a specially prepared mixture of leaves and buds from the female cannabis plant. It is consumed in liquid form via scrumptious yogurt-based Lassis and sold by men who’ve bribed the police in roadside shops in the tourist quarters of dusty cities. Bhang is sort of like a mushroom trip, producing intense bodily euphoria, an overwhelming sense of wonder and joy, but also, sometimes, ghastly onslaughts of paranoia and premonitions of impending doom. On a few occasions in Rajasthan I downed a few of these and trotted out into the desert on a camel with other strangers shouting incomprehensible nonsense at the sky.
Took Indian girls’ virginity
This happened twice, both with girls over 25 (consensually). I was wild for Indian girls but they were difficult. Everywhere we went they would be worried that relatives or friends of relatives were watching us, worried, if seen around town with a louche young Westerner, that rumors would spread and eventually get back to their parents, or other parents, and their marriage prospects would be dampened.
I went along with the idea both girls seemed to have that Westerners were all into free love, but the resulting encounters, in both cases, were culturally confusing and somewhat stifled and left me feeling drained.