Prelude: After two years and the realization I have never accurately chronicled my month in India, I’ve decided to do so. Already, I feel gaps in my memory. I made the error of not keeping a journal during my travels, and now, I’m concerned about losing India. Before it fades, I want it to be scribed in a place it is safe because my mind will be unable to retain it all forever.
Sitting at the Charleston airport, I felt the nausea rising. My stomach soured and the anxiety in my chest closed in. I had waited until seeing my father go before I gave in to these emotions. If he saw me in such a state, he would have crumbled. I thought what a crazy girl. Traveling to such a land by myself, deserting all I knew. The month to come seemed illogically long. Before boarding the plane, I bid my farewell face first in a toilet, purging my anxiousness that had infected my breakfast. Out of all the countries to choose from, I handpicked India for my first transcontinental adventure…my sanity was justifiably questionable.
The connection flight was fourteen hours, hovering close to Icelandic territory before returning southward. I divided my time between watching a Bollywood film about an actress torn between two lovers (which I thought quite salacious content for an Indian film, of course it was sans kissing) and another Indian action movie. I struggled not to laugh aloud when each action scene was done in slow motion. Dozens of bullets slowed to snail pace as the actor mimicked Matrix-like limbo dancing movements. Except, the hero lacked stoic Neo attributes, and reflected more of a Rico Suave with a leather jacket made circa 1980.
The vegetarian dishes Continental served terrified me. I thought if this was Indian food surely I would wither to nothing. It was dry or unrecognizable mush. So, I found myself savoring the rolls and butter. It’s an odd silence late at night in a plane, hovering thousands of feet in the air, and feeling an ice cold chill all over from the altitude. At times, I would peek around my seat just to notice the contorted unconscious bodies. The way a mouth sags in deep sleep, count the set of headphones and droolers, and notice if anyone else is a fellow insomniac like myself.
When boredom settled in, I attempted to read the first of two books I brought with me: Ishmael by Daniel Quinn. I had decided that on every great adventure of mine, Ishmael would accompany me. Rereading its pages, I finally began making notes. Writing questions to a book that cannot answer me. Reacquainting myself with the same epiphanies I had several years ago during the first read, and hopefully new ones. Ishmael does well at mapping. Outlining the history and great schism of humankind and the cultures born from that great divide. Consider it the tale of Cain and Abel, each brother a metaphor for two sibling cultures, and it is the dominating culture etched with the mark of god. Only the divine can judge for the sin of killing our brother culture. But that’s not the point of the novel. The murder hasn’t yet been committed, and if our culture can prevent it, it will bring survival to all, including the world.
At the airport, I forgot to change money. And only did I realize this as I found myself walking down a corridor where hundreds of Indian men’s eyes were fixed on me. It felt like a projected force almost stopped me because never had I been such a fixation especially to so many. It was immediately that I felt the “otherness” about me. I stood out with my pallid skin and Western clothes. No daughter of Parvati was I. I skimmed the crowd of plaid dressed men and Tibetan monks in search of a sign. A literal sign that said Cross Cultural Solutions. But nothing. I had been forgotten, and at that moment, I had desperately wished I had bothered to learn some Hindi.
Leaving the airport was not an option. Once out among the taxis, I wouldn’t be allowed back in. I walked to a vendor, a small stand of candies and magazines, showing him the name of Bella Singh and her phone number. He spoke broken English, but I suppose my worried eyes conveyed that I was in need of help. Stepping from a platform, he locked up his store and walked me to a pay phone that didn’t work. He dialed the number several times, but nothing. Staring at the number, he kept his head down, mumbling Hindi. Finally, we walked back to his shop, and he dialed the number on his cell and held out his hand. I gave him two dollars American to make the call.
Bella, yes, it’s Priscilla Thomas and I’m at the airport…yes, the Delhi airport. No one is here. Bella?
I wasn’t expected. There had been confusion in the flights. Another volunteer had the same exact airline and flight times but for the next day. It was thought that I’d be on the same flight. Bella mumbled to wait there. Someone would come in the next several hours. Then a dial tone. I listened to the echo of that hangup for several seconds, feeling something had gone amiss in that call. Surely, Bella didn’t mean I’d be waiting for hours in the airport. Surely, Bella understood the graveness of my situation. I was standing in a foreign land, all these men watching me, staring like I was the Elephant Man, talking to me through these deep, prolonged gazes that somehow managed to make me feel vulnerable, invaded, and quite frankly, made me squirm. I handed the shopkeep’s cell back, and pulled my luggage to a large gray pillar. Leaning against it, I plopped onto my suitcase, and pulled out Ishmael. It distracted me from the stares. At times, I felt like some men walked close to me as if to observe, to see up close the exotic other.
After awhile, I finally was able to laugh a bit at my situation. Here I was, first night in Delhi, stuck in the airport and surrounded by more men than I could count. And I just started laughing in the airport thinking of course it would me that would be forgotten. Of course something problematic would have to arise from the start, and it would be the accurate foreshadowing of things to come. It taught me immediately not to expect what I expected to come to fruition. And of course, this pale woman from the West, laughing almost hysterically only made more take notice, but never did anyone approach me or say hello. And I thought, jeez, if they just had introduced themselves perhaps I wouldn’t find them so perverse for staring.
Two hours later, a short Indian man walked feverishly through the lounge, each a quick step of purpose. And setting eyes on me, he knew I was Priscilla, the girl who messed up her flight. Lalit talked quick, and almost didn’t bother to stop for me. He talked and walked simultaneously, and expected me to know to keep up. It took me five tries to get his name right because he said it fast. Finally he broke down the syllables like I was a child, versing them slow, because it seemed to irk him to hear his named botched by English tongue. I thought his glasses were too shiny, but I liked his laugh and smile.
The next volunteer’s flight was delayed, and being impatient, Lalit decided it best to take me to the flat. I haphazardly followed him through the throngs of people and vehicles, struggling with my one large bag to maneuver through the crowd. The Delhi night was unkindly hot, and the air seemed heavy, unfresh. Finding himself a dozen paces ahead of me, Lalit shook his head, waited for me to catch up before finally taking my bag over his shoulder and pushing me along through the people. The parking lot was like a tightly pieced puzzle. There were no driving paths, just cars lined up in any position possible. And it seemed enough men were around with keys to move cars. Lalit was talking to several drivers, helping them move, and organizing the shift in the puzzle in order for our taxi to get out.
The vehicles in India are much smaller. Compact cars and slim short vans. I never witnessed side mirrors. They’d be useless in the streets of Delhi where lanes seemed just as absent. Cars seemed to attract each other, staying close, and had a side mirror been attached, would have a life span shorter than a fly. The taxi driver spoke poor English, but enough to talk to me. Lalit was on his cell, perhaps with Bella. I think I had become a troublemaker from the beginning.
Small printed icons of Hindu deities were taped at the top of the windshield. The driver was delighted when i could name each one correctly, and not even ten minutes of knowing me, he already wanted to know if I liked India. YES! I said excitedly, and at the time, I was lying. I wasn’t sure what to think, and after a bit, he turned up his music of high pitched voices and talked to Lalit. Being a passenger in India is tricky business. Having faith in a driver is like faith in god because your life is definitely in those wheel holding hands. Each sharp turn sent me against a door or lifted me several inches from the seat before plopping back down. I quickly learned to press a hand on the roof, a foot on the floorboard, and the other foot against the backing of the center console. It wasn’t always effective, but it prevented slamming into metal. And all the honking. The noise fills the mind, these loud obnoxious horns. Honks if cars get to close. Horns if one is switching lanes. They took the place of middle fingers and profane insults, but their degree of irritation was much greater. I don’t believe the driver ever looked right or left; he merely honked his horn and began merging. Perhaps he figured it was complimentary to even honk, at least his neighbor had been made aware. But it oddly didn’t jostle me too much, I just tried to laugh it off, knowing I just had to trust he wouldn’t kill me my first night.
Even at night, the streets of Delhi captivated me, but not in a nostalgic way. Buildings seemed products of war, either completely abandoned, falling apart, crumbling to lack of care and age. But what was even more odd is that several decrepit buildings would lead to a beautiful site, a well kept hotel with large vibrant lights or a small cafe that conveyed a hint of European style. And all the trash, the plethora of litter and garbage just settling upon the streets. In certain parts, Delhi was a wasteland.
A cow was eating out of a dumpster and a hundred feet away was a late night food vendor where a dozen or so men ate and chatted. It was then that I wondered where all the women were. Men and cows, that is what is out at night. And that realization struck me as odd. Like I had witnessed a weird phenomena, the disappearance of thousands of women, and not a cow or man found the absence warranted of worry.