World travel is good for your soul; at least that's the stereotype. But it's a big wide world out there, and every revelation on the road doesn't come from watching the sunrise or staring up at a mountain. Sometimes you learn just as much getting scammed or robbed or watching someone whose life you can't imagine do a job you never knew existed.
I'm not talking about gigs like tchotchke salesman or hotel manager. Those jobs exist in every tourist hotspot everywhere. These jobs are like nothing you'll see in the United States, or any other country where "government regulations" and "enforced labor laws" are things.
It was India, and I was going to motherfucking Pizza Hut. Save your recriminations and talk of samosas. My traveling companions and I had spent the last three weeks annihilating bathrooms across the great desert of Rajasthan, because that's what happens when you drink the wrong lukewarm instant coffee in Jaipur. Now we were further south, there was a Pizza Hut, and we weren't eating one more motherfucking dosa.
I'm sorry, dosa! I didn't mean it.
So Pizza Hut it was. In India, they're pretty upscale joints, and this one was located in a fashionable part of Allahabad. Out in front of the expansive shop was a man in an ill-fitting uniform that suggested "security guard." He carried something in between a stick and a cudgel.
We ate. It ruled. We left as the sun staggered off to drunkenly bone the moon and made our way to the tuk-tuks. But our path was quickly blocked by a gang of street urchins, who darted about between us and proceeded to do adorable street urchin-y things. Before we could fully appreciate their cuteness, the Pizza Hut guard ran up waving his stick belligerently and shouting at the urchins in Hindi. They ran off as he gave pursuit, swatting them. A realization struck me just as the baton struck a fleeing kid's butt.
This man's job is to hit poor children who get too close to Pizza Hut.
As if Pizza Hut needs any help hurting children.
He'd made a career of frightening and assaulting kids to enforce the sovereignty of America's second-best terrible pizza. I never saw an Indian Papa John's, but if it exists, I assume they have guard towers and snipers.
Culture shock is one hell of a bitch. Landing in a place like Bangkok or New Delhi can be overwhelming. It's loud and smoggy, and there are animals everywhere, and just all the people. My first view of New Delhi was essentially indistinguishable from a city in Fallout 3. Our bus dropped us off in the center of a dense urban sprawl at 3 a.m. The only life on the streets were gaggles of emaciated homeless men huddled around garbage fires, roving packs of equally homeless dogs, and the odd cow or seven.
Fire is what happens to garbage when there are no garbagemen.
Everyone and everything looks more sinister by the flickering light of a trash fire. And the daylight traded sketchiness in for the outright bear-taunting lunacy of rush hour traffic, India style. Cars and pedestrians follow traffic rules that exist only in their own heads. Elephants sometimes share the same highway as little three-wheeled golf carts and semi trucks. New Delhi also has the most polluted air in the world, and just breathing there for a day is as bad for your lungs as chain-smoking two packs of cigarettes.
Don't get me wrong; I fucking love New Delhi. But if you're a starry-eyed Westerner flying to the subcontinent with visions of Eat, Pray, Love in your head, that first day in New Delhi is going to be a hard one. And when you start freaking out and trying to plan your escape from this Blade Runner-ian dystopia, there will be travel agents there to "help" you.
When the word "help" is in quotation marks, that means it's fucking expensive.
Did I say "help"? I meant "terrify you with fake bus schedules to convince you there's only one ride out of town and they've got it." For bonus points, these guys often pretend to be (or just as often are) government officials. They'll pull up bullshit versions of a booking website for the Indian train systems and convince you everything is booked, and you'll have to charter this van for $2,000 and two weeks. Pro Tip: The trains in India are never, ever booked (as long as you're willing to sit in the hallway, next to the bathroom).
These guys aren't limited to New Delhi, either. You'll find the same scams running in Bangkok, Shanghai, Beijing -- anywhere young Westerners routinely get in way over their heads.
"Where ... where does my backpack go?"
On the streets of Rishikesh, a beautiful city nestled in the Himalayan foothills and bisected by the Ganges, a man dressed more or less like this spotted us across a crowded city street. His face took on a serene cast and he drifted our way.
Ours didn't have the, uh, lips. But basically.
Before anyone could react, he stuck his finger on my friend's forehead and smiled beatifically as he murmured a beautiful, melodic prayer. It was one of those moments of intense spiritual connection Rishikesh is famous for (it's the same city where the Beatles had their ashram). And then, with the same beatific smile, he reached out a hand in the universal gesture of "Money, bitches."
India is the most religious place I've ever been. Parades happen on a nightly basis in some cities -- one night I watched a baby riding a horse down a street in South Delhi, surrounded by a bunch of bejeaned young men dancing their hearts out. It's not uncommon to wake up (or fall asleep) to the sound of cymbals crashing and children chanting. But it's a huge damn country, and they're so good at capitalism, you guys.
Also good at: night parades.
That's led to a whole industry dedicated to taking advantage of "seekers" who make their pilgrimage East loaded down with euros and dollars. Rishikesh is considered one of the most sacred cities in India. It's also a big open-air college for dreadlocked hippies who want to learn yoga or tantric sex. Some of those teachers are honest men trying to impart their idea of truth. And some of them are just as happy to sell you hash, if that's the kind of "enlightenment" you're into.