For lily-livered Westerners, swimming in an average Indian river is not high on the must-do list. Visiting the Taj Mahal, trekking in the Himalayas, and eating Tandoori chicken: these are the things Westerners do. Jumping into rivers is not, unless they come to India in search of spiritual enlightenment, and a river swim is part of the program.
And why not, you yay-sayers ask? Well, just make a short visit to an average Indian river or stream, and you will have plenty of material for an answer: the evidence will tend to the conclusion that jumping in would constitute a type of microbial and toxic suicide. As in the Erie Canal, or the Chicago River (that once caught fire) pretty much everything goes into Indian rivers, and in large volumes. For a while I thought things might be different in the mountains: you know—water fresh from the source, unpolluted upstream of swimming insertion point. But India is very well populated. Each mountain spring hosts a small Indian village of about 80,000 people. Streams and rivers fulfill many functions, such as washing clothes with arsenic-laced soaps, sewers for man, beast and business enterprises, and drinking water. Short hikes from school reveal small streams choked with plastic bottles, oily residues on top of water that has a less than crystal-clear cast. The hundreds of cow pats and dog poop you have to navigate around to reach the stream also suggests a rich microbial life in ground and water.
So when the Elementary School proposed a hike through the jungle to swim in a river, quite a distance down the mountain from Kodai, I had my doubts. But who am I to be a Grinch? The kids and I got our suits, and off we went. If everyone else swims in it, why not us?
Now, a little background to this mental predicament is useful in understanding it. Culture shock is an ailment suffered by everyone who moves to another country. The symptoms and their stages are pretty predictable. First comes awe and delight. The new country is, well, so new. Everything is exciting, strange, unusual and mostly fun. The locals do the funniest things. This is the stage that most tourists stay in, as they’re in the new country for a week or two.
The second stage is the crash. This is when all the frustrations from being a fish out of home waters catch up with you, and you just want to go home. The bus schedule is in another language. You can’t understand anybody. The ones who speak English give cryptic answers. You can’t use a telephone. You get cheated in the market every time you try to buy something. The dogs bark too loud at night. You can’t get cans of Spaghetti-O’s and so on and so forth. Often times this stage coincides with getting horribly sick—violent diarrhea, typhoid, malaria and the sniffles all at once—which makes the longing for home even more powerful. You just want a long bath in your own bathtub with familiar TV programs and familiar food to comfort you.
In the third stage you take a deep breath and begin to come to terms with the new place not being Kansas anymore. Yes, the TV shows are really, really weird and awesomely stupid. But they should be because this isn’t home. The fourth stage is when the new place becomes home. Normalcy has a new definition. It is Kansas, after a manner.
So where are we on this scale of stages? We haven’t crashed yet, and do not run around weeping and wailing because we can’t get a corn dog with cheese-whiz on top. Not that we would have gotten one back home, but the inability to get it would be the point to bemoan. We haven’t lost the wonder yet. The Tamil head-shaking during conversations still makes me smile in a deep, soulful way. It is so expressive. I just love it. But perhaps we’re already coming to terms with this being home for a while. In short, I don’t know. I really would love a good glass of Scotch, but that is not to be had for many hundreds of miles and at great expense. Perhaps we’re experiencing all the stages at once.
Back to swimming. A really common symptom of the low-point second stage is the sense that everything is vaguely threatening, especially with germs. The restaurants will make you sick. The beds are infested with bugs and mold. Everything is dirty. The water will make you sick. Now in India, unfortunately, many of these things are simply true, rather than figments of our heat-oppressed and culture-shocked brains. Jump in the water? You must be crazy. We boil and filter it before drinking. Logically, we should boil and filter the river before jumping in it.
On the other hand, we’ve been here for 45 days, and we haven’t gotten sick. OK, we’ve occasionally needed immediate access to the restrooms, but that happens State-side too. And frankly, I have never felt healthier. We’ve been eating well and maybe even gaining some weight.
The first few nights we were here, we stepped carefully at night in the dark wondering what vermin horror we might encounter. But aside from the monkeys, rats, and dogs, which are all outside, our house is as clean as a whistle. OK, not really perfectly clean. I have come across silverfish the size of trout in the bathroom sink. The occasional gecko finds a resting spot behind a picture on the wall. And the occasional conga-line of ants appears in the kitchen. But these experiences are amusingly similar to ones back home. Well, no geckos in Connecticut, except those bought and kept at great expense in aquariums, and the silverfish are several powers of ten smaller. And oddly, when we turn the lights on in the kitchen, the ants freeze. It’s quite easy then to smush each of them in turn. No need to hurry, even. They’ll happily wait to be smushed. They even look around as they wait.
Now the dirt in town is, well, a little heavier. Everything has a layer of dust and dirt on it, especially during the dry season. But in my efforts to become one with my adopted nation and get on with living in India, I had an “egg and cheese parotha” (pronounced bah-rot-ha)at Amsa’s for 15 rs. This is one of those hole-in-the-wall eatery joints with more grime than paint smeared on the walls. In fact, it’s hard to tell the paint from the grime. You swear the grill is made of compressed dirt, not metal. And yet the food is delicious. The staff are very friendly. The parotha is a little bit like a small and dense fried dough. Add a scrambled egg and slice of cheese, then wrap it in a piece of palm frond. You don’t eat the palm, but it gives the brata a pleasant fresh-cut grass smell. Quite yummy. And now 1 week after eating at Amsa’s I can say with certainty that there was no virulent strain of giardia or e coli lurking on the utensils or work surfaces of Amsa’s. I am in perfect health, and waiting for the next chance for a parotha.
Apologies. I got distracted from telling the tale of a swimming excursion. So everyone else is going swimming, why not us? Are we as hardy as the next man? Who knows. But in we jumped. In we splashed. It was lovely. Cool water on a hot day. Dried in the sun. Sat in the shade. Went down water slides. Ate a box lunch provided by the cafeteria. That was last week, and we’re all still perfectly healthy. Amen.
Out of the jungle and into the water....
Just like Roxbury Falls back home
Unfortunately, we did not come across any wild elephants.