While traveling through the north of India, David walked from the India Gate in Dehli to Agra’s Taj Mahal, a six-day, 130 mile journey along the side of the Golden-Triangle highway. What follows is an excerpt from his trip.
The hot, Indian sun is in my eyes as I sling my backpack down to the road’s edge. I glance at my watch, thirty minutes past four. The sun is going down quickly and the road in front of me is a ragged trail of truck-farting, camel-carting asphalt.
I’ve been walking along the side of the Delhi-Agra highway for a day and a half, and I’m already behind schedule. My initial plan was to do a twenty-mile-a-day, six-day pilgrimage from the India Gate in Delhi to the Taj Mahal in Agra. Now I’m dealing with the after-effects of “Delhi Belly,” a type of traveler’s diarrhea potent in northern India, and the Taj Mahal is still over one hundred miles away.
I peer back and forth, breathing heavily in the smog. There are dozens of people standing around doing absolutely nothing. Three scrawny men slurp chai, throwing down cards onto a latticed canvas cot. Two others lean against a telephone pole watching me warily. Flies buzz around their heads in concentric circles. As I return their stares, a bearded old man on a shiny new bike pulls up from behind. He is a sadhu (holy man) wearing traditional orange garb, and non-traditional, sleek aviator glasses. The combination of new and old is disconcerting, as if someone has outfitted an old statue with an iPod.
I give him a “Namaste” to which he nods languidly. I point to a sign on his bike that is hand-painted in cursive Hindi, presumably touting his destination. “Where are you going?” I ask. He smiles, waggles his head, and then points down the road. “Mumbai.” My jaw drops. Mumbai is over 700 miles away. His journey is five times my little jaunt to Agra, royally trumping my own efforts.
The sadhu polishes his glasses as a bloated rickshaw carrying eight Indians pulls up beside me. The rickshaw driver makes a caveman sound, motioning me to hop in. “No I’m walking,” I answer. I’m met with quizzical stares. “Where going?” the driver shouts, thumping the steering wheel. “Agra,” I answer. He responds blankly. “Agra!” I try again, this time emphasizing the “Aahh”. After two more attempts, I finally hit the correct syllabic sound. “You walk to Agra?! Too far!” he says. I nod my head, and start to inch away, choosing to leave rather than explain myself. I turn back to the sadhu, to wish him well. He nods, lowers his glasses, and slowly glides away, floating alongside the blur of traffic.
I resume my clumping gait, sweaty and hot, my body worn from the road. The sun has burned away my energy reserves and my calf muscles feel like tight violin strings. An endless river of flotsam lines the side of the highway. Masala potato chip bags, water bottles, cigarette wrappers; the waste mangles my senses. My eyes begin to water, and the smell of rotting fruit makes me gag into a ditch. The refuse is burned into warped piles of plastic and ash in a semi-controlled blaze to reduce waste. An empty cola bottle is launched from a car, bouncing off a torn barbed-wire fence, before coming to rest next to a stray goat.
I kick the bottle to the side, and eye the stream of traffic warily. There is a definite vehicular hierarchy on the highway. The trucks, stumpy armadillos, are the undisputed kings of the road. Cars are in the middle, and everything else—motorbikes, rickshaws, tractors, camels, wheelbarrows, and people—are at the bottom. Fifty feet away, I see three vehicles sweeping the width of the highway, all trying to pass each other. Two semis have edged a motorbike onto the shoulder and the bike is barreling towards me. I dive off into a grassy safety net of cow dung, as the three vehicles roar by.
I listen as the bike’s chainsaw engine dissolves into a distant drone, and then wipe my pants clean. I bumble towards an old, grey man getting a shave on the side of the road. His bald head reflects the afternoon sun, while the barber’s scissors nip at his beard like a bird, pecking. I give the men a cursory hello, and head towards a farmer’s field behind them to partition myself from the subsonic traffic.
As I sit behind some sparse foliage in a recessed hill, I notice one of the bushes stirring. A young man casually strolls downward. He is dark skinned and wears a pink-collared shirt, untucked. He speaks in a loud grating squeal, “Hello, HOW are YOU?” He emphasizes all the wrong syllables.
His name is Jaikir. I tell him I’m walking all the way to Agra, and to my surprise, he doesn’t blink an eye. I get up to go, and so does he. We start walking together, his blue flip-flops complementing his pink shirt with USA emblazoned on the front like a cow-brand.
Jaikur shouts out some questions. “IN America, WHAT is your FATHER’S name?” His questions are right out of his school English language classes. I give stilted replies, wondering if I’m the first foreigner he’s talked to. After one mile, I fully expect him to give up, but he continues to walk.
A young man on a motorbike pulls up from behind and stares at Jaikur, then me, with a look as if he’s trying to solve a complex math problem. “Where come from?” he asks. “David from America,” Jaikur proudly proclaims. The man looks back and forth between the two of us. He doesn’t know who to pose his question to. I grin and slap Jaikur on the back. “Walking partner!” I say loudly. Jaikur beams, while the man looks even more confused. “We walk, Agra.” The man shakes his head, and gets back on his bike, while Jaikur playfully waves goodbye to him.
More trucks zoom by us with rear signs proclaiming USE DIPPER AT NIGHT. The dipper is the high beam lever, used for passing; flicking it up and down flashes the beams on and off which creates a split second strobe, momentarily blinding the opposing driver into passable submission.
The cool evening air temporarily lifts our spirits, but fatigue soon sets in again. Jaikur’s sandals are now more flop full, his walk less energetic. He looks at me and says meekly, "Jaikur and David walking to Agra… " but the last syllable, the ‘gra’ is lilted up, like his words are being tugged out with a fishhook.
I look at myself in the reflection of a passing truck and see a strange white-man with long hair, reddened skin, and bags under his eyes. The sadhu on his long journey, the barber perilously close to traffic, the walker, walking for no apparent reason, they all seem oddly familiar.
I hitch my pack back on again as Jaikur finally bows out, succumbing to the miles. I watch him go, leaving with a much more awkward dawdle than the elegant departure of the sadhu. The sun has almost buried itself behind the garbage-strewn horizon, and I need to stop and rest. I lean against a large rock on the side of the road doing absolutely nothing, while the India traffic streams by. It is the best part of my day.