The mango vendor bellowed through the dirt alleyways of the apartment complex. Fresh mangoes, delicious to the tongue. The orange belly sweet and wet. Sometimes it just takes a perfectly plucked mango to make me smile. Often it was only the fruit that could be trusted.
The Delhi cook was a short man, fattened in the belly like a hog. I swear he wore the same plaid shirt, dark grays with thin lined reds the entire time I was in India. He touched meat. Handled dead animal flesh in his hands. I assumed he must be Muslim or a Hindu known for constant penance. Balding with a mocking mustache on his lip, he never said much. If he talked, it was only to other staff members. Just like taxi drivers, a cook could hold a life in his hands. We were advised to never eat outside of what we cooked or was provided by this man. Sometimes, I wondered about his hands. Fingers stumped of growth, chopping up vegetables, the sweat on his hairless head. I’d picture his sweat droppings finding their way into our cuisine. Dinner served!
Before Dharamsala, we attended brief meetings. No training provided, but a forum to discuss what to do and what not to do. Materials would be provided at the site. Creativity would be our crutch. Don’t give money to beggars. Bella outlined the pyramid of beggar scamming. Children may look hungry, dirty, and impoverished, but the money only goes to baba, a relative, a pimp. I had already seen this at a stoplight. A small boy shaking a tambourine while his equally youthful sister did contortions. Barefoot in a median, anklet tarnished, and it shook with the tambourine. If they caught you staring or snapping a photo, their act paused, and you were confronted with round dark eyes and open palms waiting for payment. Did they just not give you the National Geographic photo you wanted? Show it to your friends and family. Add it to a forgotten album, all at the loss of ten rupees?
The women were told to be most careful. Never take drinks from a man. Never be alone. Western clothes if only loose. It best to stay in the kurtas and dupattas. Because of my skin color, sex, and birth culture, I would be assumed to be rich, well educated, and a whore. Never forget. Never let it slip the mind that each person I meet is pondering silently if I will give them money, speak intellectually, or let them bed me. Never forget. No, how could I? I kept thinking of the airport men, all the stares, never had I wanted to be encased in glass, dressed like a mummy. Don’t touch. Don’t look. Don’t see. Forget me.
Kashmir boys are to be avoided. Tibetans offer the best bargain, but I’d learn, not so much. They acknowledged the Tibetans, but said little. One young girl, eighteen, had found out the Dalai Lama’s birthday celebration would be taking place our first days in Dharamsala. She asked if we could leave placements early to join the festivities with the Tibetans. NO! It was loud. It was surprising. The tone of voice that came with the mention of the Tibetans. It wouldn’t take long to figure out why.
After the meeting, walking through the park made of clay earth and planted trees, we played a game. Human Frogger. The rickshaws and cars pass quick, honking their horns, even if you don’t step a toe into the air. The slower ones go by only to gaze at the foreigners before gaining speed. Timing when crossing a road is everything. Eyes constantly darting side-to-side, and if you go, there can be no hesitation. A lack of commitment will have squandered precious seconds and by then, you’ll be in line for a collision. Pedestrians don’t usually fare well in those. Sometimes it’d be five minutes before it felt safe to dart across. I think street loiterers enjoyed watching us. And trust there are always people hanging around on the streets of Delhi.
When not avoiding rickshaw collisions or discovering the extent of my “otherness” in this place, I walked the complex. My small Sony cybershot in hand. Always fascinated by flowers, hanging laundry on balconies, and Indian billboards. On a lot next to the apartments was a mosque, a humble sized place for prayer. I thought it was an abandoned place until I noticed a man praying. They kept rugs rolled up for pilgrims at the side of the opening. I never knew open faced mosques were built, as if a chunk was cut out so the voyeuristic eye can see.
Back in the flat, I stared at the ceiling, at the mold that was bleeding down the wall. That can’t be safe, I had thought. And my imagination pictured mold spores floating like snowflakes in the air before being caught in the gusts of numerous inhalations of my nose. I was ready for the Himalayas. Delhi was ablaze with heat, the dry earth only breathed hot. The noise was irksome, all the horns, even the mango man was becoming unwelcomed. Delhi was suffocating to me, its pollution of air, heat, and overpopulation. I yearned for the mountains. The next morning, we would be Dharamsala bound.