Indian Summer

A young mid-westerner reflects on his summer in India

Calling it a “vacation” might be a bit of a stretch, but through his correspondence with friends back in the United States, 29-year-old, Minneapolis native Paul Lickteig offers up a refreshing variation on the old elementary school essay chestnut “what I did this summer.”

Lickteig, who is studying to become a Jesuit priest, recently returned from India where he worked and traveled from mid-June until the beginning of August. During that time he stayed in contact with friends through a series of emails in which he recounted his impressions of life there. Like a 21st century explorer’s email travelogue, Lickteig’s observations have the quality of urgent dispatches from a different planet (or at least from a different world back to the first world). They run the gamut from hilarious experiences of culture shock that will be familiar to anyone who travels abroad to his painful first-hand encounters with extreme poverty and suffering.

In order to maintain the immediacy of his correspondence, we’ve retained as much of its original form as possible.

Greetings all,

Ok, rather than try to provide a detailed or poignant piece about my time in India thus far, I think it would serve everyone better (you, me, and the people of India) if I just make some very loosely connected observations about this wonderful place.

Regarding my current situation:

  • I am a Jesuit and I’m in training to be a priest.

  • I am in northeast India in a state called Assam. Over the course of my trip, I will be staying with other Jesuits in four different places: Langting, Pengree, Shillong and Bongaigong.

  • The land here ranges from river valley to mountain. The temperature varies from 65 to 100. The humidity ranges from 90 to 100. This is the Jungle. Just today a leopard entered the local town and was killed by citizens of a particular neighborhood. They have also had difficulty with elephants at the airport blocking the runway. Did I mention the monkeys in the trees? One guy I know had a pet one named “Martin.” Martin looked like a little old man. I digress. The point is, I live in the jungle.

Moving on, now that the scene is set, here are some observations:

1. “Ladies fingers” = ocra = me gagging while the cooks watch. I do not eat ocra anymore, but that is the only thing I pass up because…

2. You do not pass up anything that has been offered until you know the person. It does not matter how many cookies or how much mango you have ingested. Your intestines will adapt, so move your mouth and swallow. The tea is there to help wash it down.

3. Tea is the best thing ever. I am talking about the mid-morning and late afternoon events of drinking tea. There is no meal between noon and 8pm. Tea is the answer to tummy rumbles. In fact, after three weeks I have decided that tea is the key to living in this country. One priest I’m staying with claims that one also needs “a little ‘Beedie’ every now and again,” (tobacco wrapped in grape leaves that will kill you about three thousand times faster than regular smokes) but I am not yet convinced.

4. No one smokes here, but cigarettes cost anywhere from forty-five cents to a dollar and ten cents a pack. People chew Betal Nut, a bitter nut that turns your mouth red. When they smile, it looks as though they have been eating those little tablets dentists give kids so they can practice brushing their teeth. You can mix the nut with tobacco, but in general, I have not seen many people smoking. Maybe this is why they are so cheap.

5. Then again, everything, not just cigarettes and India ink, is cheaper here. EVERYTHING! When you tell people that minimum wage in the US is about forty-five dollars a day and that it is nearly an unlivable wage, they freak out because a good job here pays forty-five dollars a week. Bad jobs pay less. Mind you, this is not some weak job like working at the popcorn counter (I am using this example specifically because I heard a kid working at a theatre say “Man, they work you like a slave here.”) The bad jobs are things like chopping bamboo (about two dollars a day) or cleaning out the drainage ditch (where the entire city puts all of its refuse, without bags, in stinky mounds to await removal at some later time that has, as of this writing, yet to arrive.) I will never listen to anyone complain about either their job or how bad they have it at work without being reminded of some of the things I have seen people doing here. The deal is that most of the people here do not have a pot to piss in, but rather a pot to bathe in. They get their water from a pump and take their daily wash, sometime in public. They eat rice and dal (a sort of gravy made out of chick peas or garbanzo beans, if you like) three times a day. Meat is eaten maybe once a week (twice a week if you count fish. There is plenty of Mango and pineapple to eat in the countryside, but a lot less in the city.

6. In the city, the people are not as poor, but it is much, much dirtier. There is filth everywhere. Garbage is piled in the street. The diesel engines kick out stench and carbon. The human refuse mixes with animal refuse and engine refuse, piling up, covering everything with a layer of grime. It is kind of like NYC, only without garbage cans, garbage collectors, and with livestock. People do a lot of strange stuff in public. Like picking their noses, taking baths, going to the bathroom by the side of the road (they either let it hang out or squat, with or without little umbrellas. When it is raining, all you see are these two legs sticking out beneath an umbrella canopy like a catcher with his own, portable little metrodome.)

7. They do not give two licks about baseball. Here, Cricket is the greatest game in the world, and India holds second place on the global circuit. Everyone asks me why Americans do not like Cricket. They assume something is wrong with us.

8. They also assume that something is wrong with us because of George Bush. I know that some of you would rather eat ocra than admit that GW is a shady character, but the verdict here is already in. Yes Saddam is a madman, but Bush is a conniving lunatic who must be stopped. The preceding sentence is a paraphrase. The point is, the fact that Bush is the leader of our country and, (I suspect) the fact that we do not like Cricket, both point to the fact that Americans have some serious problems.

9. Really, though, Americans do not have any problem that is not about a hundred times more difficult to deal with in this country. Racism, sexism, classism, religious conflict–this country has it harder, hands down. These are serious issues that everyone knows about and the media talks about, but will just not go away. From politics, to corruption, to public utilities, the sheer magnitude of this country’s population seems to make the difficulties with addressing certain issues rise exponentially.

10. Speaking of public utilities, A) I spent the last two weeks in place without running water or electricity. It had electricity before the last election. Now nobody can decide if the current party is punishing the region for not voting, or if the current establishment is that much more inept than the previous. The fact remains, no electricity (days and nights alike are spent sweating in ninety degree heat and 99 percent humidity) except for two hours a day in the market when the generator is turned on. I had cold drinks there on three occasions in two weeks. Leechie juice. It was delicious. B) The roads here are absolutely insane. Imagine a paved bike bath. Now double the width of that and you have the ideal highway. Now make a couple of big potholes every twenty feet and you have the majority of the roads. Now remove the blacktop and double the quantity and size of the potholes–the size of small ponds (my backside and I both wish I were kidding) and you have the roads that guide at least three hours of the trip to Langting (and probably every other small town in the region). The last twenty-five kilometers took one hour and that was good time.