Thursday, August 21, 2008

Indian Summer: Chapter 1

I've been back in the United States since Saturday, have recovered from jet lag and returned to Charleston and to work and normalcy-and there are moments when India feels like some long, crazy dream. Juxtaposing my life here with my experiences there, it sometimes seems like it must have been a dream-or at least a different planet. When I was in Paris, everything felt so different, but there were definite moments of familiarity-echoes of home. Plus I could walk down a street without everyone immediately recognizing me as a foreigner. Only when I spoke did my true outsider status become apparent. But in India, 95% of what I saw and did was unfamiliar. For the first time in my life I was in a truly foreign situation, not just foreign because it's not the United States, but foreign in the sense that there are no cultural guide posts or signifiers to help you on your way, foreign in the sense that my mere appearance proclaimed loudly to everyone around me that I was from thousands of miles away. It was the scariest, strangest, most exhilarating, most exhausting, most rewarding, most challenging, and most amazing trip I have ever been on. It was one of those all too rare experiences where you're fully aware of life not just as a static state of being, but as movement, as something dynamic and active, life not as a noun, but as an all caps verb. To summarize the whole journey in one blog would mean typing my fingers raw. So I'm going to split it up, dive into the details and little moments of the last two weeks. Because as much as I write these blogs for others to read (and I really hope people will enjoy reading about my trip) this one is going to be unabashedly, selfishly for me. Because when I'm old and gray I don't just want to remember the 150 or so frozen seconds on display in my pictures. I want to remember it all-the good, the bad, the sad, the beautiful. I want to remember everything.

Chapter 1: Journey to Dehli

Going into this trip, I was fully prepared for two weeks of "roughing it." From what I read in guide books, half the hotels in India didn't have running water (which proved to not so much be the case in the places we stayed, which were by no means luxury hotels). I was prepared for sweaty, non AC days and cold showers at nights, and holes in the ground passing as toilets. I even packed for such an existence, with high tech clothes that could ward of sun and bugs and dry almost instantly. For all the technology that the tags on these clothes advertised, I wouldn't have been too surprised if they were also bullet proof and capable of flotation. I bought a fifty dollar water bottle with a filter designed to stop even the most persistent little microbes and parasites from invading my body. I bought a first aid kit and stocked up on a medicine cabinet's worth of over the counter and prescription drugs. To sum up, I was ready. Even though I had already done the whole hostel thing in Europe, I was convinced that India would be rougher and more difficult, not to mention more dangerous than anything I had experienced. Lets just call it Western Fear of Nations East of Greece.
So there I was, primed for a real rough and tumble, bare bones existence. I made it to Chicago without incident, other than a two minute bout of insane turbulence that almost caused me to promise my life away to a variety of different gods and religions. And then came the fun part, a fourteen and a half hour flight to New Delhi where I would meet up with my sister and my brother in law. So I did what any sane person would do with four hours to spare and a mind numbingly long flight in coach ahead of them; I found an airport bar. This was the first time I had flown since turning 21, and to my delight I discovered the wonder of airport bars. Whoever thought up this concept deserves a series of accolades and maybe a Nobel Peace Prize, because if there is any place on earth where a tall drink is in order, it's at an airport. People with hours to kill at airports are almost always tired, stressed, nervous, or just bored. Before I would buy a pile of magazines and sit by the gate, watching planes land and take off outside. But on this trip, I realized how much better airports are from the inside of a little bar. Almost everyone else at airport bars are alone, so you don't feel weird or alcoholic for getting a drink by yourself. So while in Chicago, I whiled away a couple of hours with a couple of pints, reading my magazines and quietly enjoying the company of other travelers. After two beers, I felt ready for my flight, maybe even capable of a good sleep if I got one more drink in after take off. Now I was really ready to start my adventure, to be a true backpacker. I hadn't even packed a hair dryer after all. This was going to be a new kind of trip for this normally, medium(ish) maintenance gal. About ten minutes before boarding, my name was called and my heart dropped. The last time I flew overseas I had to deal with satanic airport workers, delays, missed flights and mixed up baggage. I thought that surely this had to be something bad. So I walked up to the boarding counter and was promptly greeted by a lady with a dour expression on her face. Again I was sure it had to be something bad. But then, she hands me a new ticket and with zero expression tells me that if it was "alright with me" they had upgraded me to business class. Then she thanked me for my cooperation. I had to stop myself from skipping away. For twenty two years, I have only flown coach. I have walked through many a first and business classes, but never have I been one of the few, the privileged fliers who get their own security line and their super special Group 1 boarding status. And I was getting this upgrade for a flight that was more than twice the length of what was until then the longest flight I had ever been on. Immediately all of my philosophical notions of roughing it and traveling in true, frugal backpacker style went out the window. All I could think as I boarded (first, of course, because only peasants have to wait in line to board a plane), was that I could not be more happy to ditch all of those suckers in coach and move on up in the world. And business class, well it was just everything I thought it would be and more. I sat down in my seat and almost burst out laughing. I stretched my legs all the way they could go and I still didn't reach the seat in front of me. I had so much room on either side of me that I could practically extend both arms and not disturb the gentlemen to my right and left. I looked for the lever or button to press to manually recline my chair, but wait, levers and buttons were long gone. On my remote control, not only could I control my ac, my television, my lighting, but I could recline my seat into a multitude of positions, with separate controls for my fully extendable foot rest. I couldn't stop looking around my seat and inspecting things. And it only got better. First flight attendants came around with a tray of champagne, complimentary of course and before the flight even took off! I quickly gaged that the reason they do this is so when the poor schmucks in coach file past, your gloating can be at a maximum when it comes between sips of champagne. And oh did I gloat (silently of course, give me a few more flights like this and I'll actually start evil laughing). It's stunning how quickly I went from a nice, practical girl who was perfectly okay with flying coach to a haughty and entitled flyer who began to think that it would be impossible to go back. I mean could I really be expected to go back to a bag of cold nuts when in business class they give you a ceramic bowl of warm nuts-and oh would you like some more?-then sure, here are some more perfectly warmed nuts, because what kind of person eats cold nuts. It's sickening how immediately I was seduced with this lifestyle and how increasing disturbed I became when thinking of how I used to fly, and how I lived through flights where I wasn't given a full menu to choose from at the onset of the flight or BOSE noise canceling headphones. I mean to think of all of those times I lived without a goodie bag of moisturizer and lip balm and cozy socks. How did my feet stay warm or my skin moisturized? I must have been some kind of commoner. Oh yes it all went to my head, or maybe it was the free Pommery Champagne that I was able to order again and again. But let me just paint you a picture of this and tell me you wouldn't go over to the dark side: you're lying fully reclined-as in completely horizontal, no part of you touching the floor or the person next to you or the wall of the plane. You can't hear anything except the movie on the screen in front of you because these BOSE headphones are so amazing you're already thinking how you might be able to keep them. You're full from a five course dinner, food that wasn't just good for airplane food, but excellent by food standards in general. You're very warm and cozy because you have a massive down comforter over you and you're wearing the fuzzy blue socks that came in your bag of free stuff. And you sleep, like really sleep-on an airplane! I may have been ready to sell my soul for a lifetime of upgrades but can you really blame me? I'm ruined forever now, and I hope American Airlines is happy.
So anyway, well rested and moisturized, albeit a little stinky (sadly there are no showers in business class, although honestly I wouldn't have been surprised if there were) I arrived on time in Delhi. I departed the plane and now came the interesting part. I had three hours until my sister and brother in law arrived at the airport, and after going through customs and retrieving my bag I sat down to wait. I could have gone to the hotel, but the thought of venturing out alone into this crazy different country was way too much for me. Despite their flight arriving an hour late, they got there, and off we set. The first thing I noticed was the air-and it took me a moment to place what I was breathing and smelling-pollution-smoggy, hard to breathe pollution like I had never experienced. Unfortunately that's just one of those things about Delhi-there are so many people in this country and it seems a great deal of them reside in the sprawling, endless capital city. And I guess if you have that sheer number of people and cars and auto rickshaws and cows (they create their own type of pollution so I've heard)-it's just inevitable unless there are a lot of measures in place to prevent it. The second thing I noticed was how many men stood around the airport with signs for passengers to hotels. We found our own driver supplied by our hotel in Delhi, and followed him to his car in the airport lot. I remember trying to process the fact that I was in India, that the dirt below me was Indian dirt and the air I was breathing was Indian air, but it was almost impossible to process. I do remember that everything felt distinctly new and that I was definitely somewhere different from anywhere I had been. This feeling was only confirmed with the drive to the hotel. First lesson learned in Delhi: traffic is insane-like bonkers you're going to die or hit a small child or animal or be hit by a bus kind of insane-or at least that what it feels like because no one stays in their lanes and there's this constant chorus of beeps to the point where it's impossible to tell if you're driver is beeping or if it's from the cars around you. Gradually I learned that the beeps aren't so much aggressive, screw you, American type beeps but simply beeps for the sake of beeping-kind of more for drivers to announce their presence it seemed. It was night time, but I could make out a lot and I stared out the window the whole time, trying to soak things in. I remember being shocked the first time I saw a dog lying on the side of the road, because I thought it was dead, hit by a car or something. It's funny now because after a day in India, I realized that dogs on the side of the road or on the road or on the sidewalks or anywhere really aren't strange or unusual sights. They're not dead but sleeping, because these dogs live on the street and they're alll over the place. I also remember being shocked to see people sleeping, not because I'd never seen a homeless person before, but because of how many people I saw sleeping on sidewalks or in yards or even on medians. And most of them are young men, who look normal except for the subtle dirt on their clothes if you look a little closer and the obvious fact that they're sleeping outside. I knew India was poor, but I guess nothing prepares an American for the first time they go to a country with legitimate, widespread poverty. Because as horrible and sad as it is for poor people in the US, it's nothing compared to the poverty outside of our country. When we arrived at the hotel there was a woman who came immediately up to us. She was holding a sleeping baby and she asked repeatedly for money. Again the feeling of shock crept up on me, and I almost expected the taxi driver or the hotel bellman to do something. But it didn't take long in India for me to learn that devastating, women and children on the streets poverty is not unusual. It's not welcome or encouraged obviously, but from the first few minutes in Delhi, I began to understand that I knew little about what it really means to be poor and hungry in this world, how blessedly sheltered I have been from these realities in the United States. And again, I know there are some people here who are homeless and starving, and kids who don't get enough to eat, but the depth and severity of the poverty in India is on an altogether different level.
We clamored into our hotel, were shown our room which was pleasantly modern, if small, with a functional, modern style bathroom, ordered some very late night room service and talked about the next couple of weeks. We flipped through channels and saw a blend of Bollywood, Indian soap operas, and random American reality television (hello Survivor). And in one short hour, from the time we had left the airport until the time I pulled on my pajamas, everything I had expected about India was smashed into bits. I realized that India was going to be new, all of it, every moment and every thing was going to be outside of the scope of my imaginings. Preconceptions about what hotels would be like were out the window because the hotel we were in resembled in many ways any hotel you would find in the US. But then again, preconceptions about just life in general here were also changed, because all of the things that are minor or at least well covered up in the US, the poverty and the dirt and the smog-all of those things were completely in your face in Delhi. I remember lying back in bed, and feeling a lot of things, the residual glow from my luxury flight and determination to get an upgrade on the way back home (this was altered dramatically when I learned how much upgrades cost on a flight from India to North America), the relief of connecting with my sister and brother in law and not having to navigate Delhi alone, the shock and excitement of that half hour cab ride from the airport-all of the things I had seen swimming in my mind without much order or understanding at that point. But most of all I remember through my culture shock and through my exhaustion, feeling excited, truly excited about what was still to come.

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