from støkksnes to stockton
something like the truth rage against
donn k. harris
donn k. harris
from støkksnes to stockton: gulmargh, india, october 1989
I announced one day in my continuation high school that I wanted to walk across India. No one was listening. A decade later I landed in Delhi at 2am and wanted to walk but the taxi touts convinced me that it was impossible, and so began the adventure, getting steered into a stranger's uncle's business in the neighborhood of Pahar Ganj .....................
Prior to that I had been in Indonesia, a wholly different kind of place. It had felt uncolonized, which was not the case -- the Dutch held it from 1610 until, unbelievably, 1945. The Raj, British rule over India (an India that then included what we now call Pakistan and Bangladesh) was in place from 1858-1947. The 335 years of Dutch rule, evident in architecture and food, museums and a few public monuments, did not seem to alter the basic character of the sweet and accepting people, who I found enormously generous, of sunny disposition, reverent toward children and the elderly, and strongly intuitive, attuned to the emotional well-being of their families and visitors alike. In Indonesia we were cherished as part of their joyful lives. India presented a far less navigable travel climate: appraising and falsely supportive, off-the-cuff entrepreneurs assessed your weaknesses, tested your savvy, began to steer you toward their profitable connections with mind-blowing ingenuity -- taking you to the back entrance (discovered later) of a hotel you named at 3am, showing you it was locked, then transporting you to their uncle's hostel in a neighborhood of cows and rickshaws and ear-cleaning gurus waving recommendations from Europeans at you (I am safe, sir, I am very clean, look what the Frenchman has written); government travel agencies selling non-stop bus tickets that were anything but . . . . . held up at the Nepalese border overnight on a trip promised to be non-stop, the next morning we boarded a local bus from Sunauli-Bhairawa (border towns) to Kathmandu, another twelve excruciating hours, hot and damp, crowded and pungent, until we were disgorged in the relative comfort and beauty of Kathmandu at about 6pm, a 24 hour trip that took almost 48; and a few days later, back in India, the scam of the un-scammable: the capper, the government posted price limit on horse rides at one small juncture, can't charge more than 75 rupees, says so in English and Hindi (the "75 " written in arabic numerals anyway) but I knew something was up, I told my travel partners that there was no way we'd get a simple service at a fixed price. 'They will demand a high tax at the end or some other kind of mandatory fee that they would insist the government always checked on: You wouldn't want a small businessman with a family to be ruined, would you, sir? In India we would be ashamed if we didn't accept the tax for the government. But a more proper name for this tax was baksheesh, a cross between a bribe and a tip and extortion ............. so we went on our ride and it was fun, the guide a wizened old man, tiny, didn't speak, didn't make a sound even when we passed some of his countrymen, didn't look up to check on the route, just walked the horses over the sharp rocks in the rough sections. Precisely two hours in, although he had no watch, we stopped by a stream, the horses drank ............ two hours back and we had our four hour ride, 75 rupees per rider, in 1989 that was $5 each. 'See,' said my wife, not as cynical as me, indicating our guide: 'the last honest man. Give him a tip.' Something made me hesitate. I looked at the old man, who was watching us, an almost childlike curiosity on his face. 'No,' I said, 'The government rate is 75 rupees, we'll set a good example by sticking for once to a price.'
But I never believed it was all legit ...............
............. and sure enough, that night in the small hotel's gathering room looking at photographs of the local sights, drinking beer as we waited for our communal dinner, I realized they hadn't taken us to all the places they had advertised, renaming things, in effect cutting the trip in half. 'That's why they sent the old man with us,' I gloated. 'If we knew enough to complain he wouldn't understand.' We had given gave the money to the slick younger guys who spoke English. This peasant conspiracy was a far more sophisticated arrangement than the blunt thievery of the bank manager in Srinagar who counted out rupees for our $100, handed the young clerk a stack that I then counted as I stood at the teller's station in the ancient bank, found to be short by about $15 or over 200 rupees in 1989 currency, and was about to open my mouth in protest when the manager, fully expecting this when he saw me counting, gave the stack of bills he had held on to, in full sight, to the stoic teller who had wandered over to him as I counted, then counted again, the manager meeting my eyes before I said a word with a look that I interpreted as, okay, you count, you win, that's the way of the world. Maybe next time I get you.
What the hell had the British done to these people in the 89 years of the Raj?
ARIZONA and UTAH: Transformed by the desert at the Bicentennial
Summer, 1976: The look, the sound, the rush of silent time, the ancient echoes of millennia past . . The rest of the world dithered and blathered, but then there was the desert, and I awoke one July morning to the deep rumbling sounds of a trio of Harley-Davidson riders, roaring through the desert at dawn, cock-sure and perfect. I was on a Greyhound from Biloxi, Mississippi to Phoenix, Arizona for my first Air Force assignment after basic training and radar operator school. I didn't yet have a Harley, but that was the day I knew I'd purchase one. At sunrise my new companion, a middle-aged black woman whose son was in the Army and who watched over me on that three-day trip, gently nudged me awake and simply pointed out the window. The light had just crested over the dry Arizona hills east of Tucson; huge saguaro cacti glowed as if on fire from within. The riders were still visible in the impossible distance. Later that morning I was to see huge fields of prickly pear cactus with their flowers somehow still in bloom beneath the merciless sun -- and my love for the desert was born. The arches are from the national park in Utah named after them, Utah being the state with perhaps the most astounding scenery; the bizarre hoodoos seem like a trick enacted in a photo lab, but they encircle Bryce National Park for miles in central Utah.