India really loves cows. They are sacred and eating beef doesn’t happen in India. Anywhere. Well…it’s not impossible, but it is unusual, unlikely and pretty unacceptable.
Cows roam free in India, no big deal. In that vein, so do cats, dogs, pigs, sheep, goats, horses, chickens, large turkeys, monkeys and camels. But cows are the most frequently seen and large in number. They walk in the street with the cars. They nap on the side of the road. They eat trash near touristy areas and scrounge for food near markets. They’re cherished, but yet malnourished and neglected.
Jon and I never got used to seeing a cow nonchalantly crossing a busy street. We got such a kick out of it – in a city with such crazy driving (no one obeys traffic lights, people drive both ways on both sides of the street, etc) these cows would just casually meander out into the road at random. It was a miracle that people were able to stop for them and let them pass.
The huge amount of farm animals in general that live on the streets of India definitely contribute to the filth there, and the stink. Parts of India smell very much like a farm and are dirtier than one. Aside from cows, the monkeys in India were everywhere. They usually came out in the morning and evening when temperatures were cooler. They would run and jump from rooftop to rooftop, or hang from trees, or swarm the forts that we visited up in the mountains. I loved watching them and would look for them constantly.
The presence of farm animals in the streets creates a stench. It is already dirty because there isn’t a fantastic trash disposal / plumbing system in place. Add to that the presence of cows, camels, goats and the like, and you get a really stinky situation.
The animals weren’t the only thing that smelled in India. There is a laundromat in the center of Mumbai – called Dhobi Ghat – and this place is really a scene. It’s in the middle of the city and is a huge area designed to wash the clothes of the people of Mumbai – like a drop off service. People send their laundry to Dhobi Ghat, and the clothes washers slap the clothing against stone walls and in “soapy” water. Then they hang the clothes out to dry. The fact that this is even considered a laundry is funny, considering the condition of the water the clothes are being “washed” in. The entire Dhobi Ghat smelled like farm animals and stale soap.
The smell in India has a lot to do with the poverty there, and the lack of sanitation in general. On day 11 of our trip, we got a firsthand view of the poverty and poor infrastructure of this country. We had to drive 120 miles from Jaipur to Agra, to see the Taj Mahal. The drive was only supposed to be 4-5 hours. But the day before we left, we found out that there was some kind of worker strike happening in the area. As a result, the (only) main “highway” (qualified as a highway because it was paved) was closed. In order to get to Agra, we would have to take some back roads. Our driver assured us he knew the way. He didn’t.
This day of travel also happened to be me and Jon’s first day of being sick in India. We woke up at 3 am to get on the road. Jon immediately puked his guts out. I started randomly getting sharp, crippling stomach pains that would come and go like labor pains. I wondered if I was going to have a masala baby. Our trip in the van wound up being 10 hours long. For about 3 hours we drove on desolate back roads through fog so thick we could barely see the road ahead. At one point I thought we were for sure going to die. Then we reached more populated areas.
This part of the trip was by far the most intense. We saw people living in extreme poverty out in the country, far away from city life with little connection to medicine, technology, fresh water or the outside world. People lived in little huts made out of mud or clay, with no doors. Children played in the dirt near their family’s cows and didn’t have enough clothes to keep them warm in the chilly, early morning air. There was one water pump in the whole village and everyone looked hungry and filthy. It was a tough ride, watching these people live in conditions that I could hardly believe.
As we left this rural area and approached a tiny town, we saw that things were just as bad in the nearby city as it was in the country. We saw dead animal skeletons on the side of the road, completely picked clean of any flesh. I saw a hungry little dog eating a pig’s head in the middle of the street while people walked past as if it was no big deal. I felt guilty for feeling cold and sick, and for being sorry for myself. These people were always cold, had no access to medicine and no clean water. I realized how spoiled I (we) really am (are).
We finally got to the Taj Mahal and it was beautiful. It was like looking at a postcard and after the hellish trip getting there, it was a very stark and strange contrast to look at this incredibly beautiful, extravagant feat of architecture having just seen the intense poverty that exists just a few hours from there. It was surreal and we were all a bit shell shocked after such an eventful day.
India is really dirty. It smells. There’s cows and dung and dirt everywhere. Even the laundromat is filthy. But as we learned on our very long drive to the Taj Mahal, and also throughout our time there, it can also be really beautiful.
© 2011 Jonathan Meter and Jessica Hertle