By morning, the bus was winding up the base of the Himalayas. A morning sun was rising, and it revealed a vast land of trees and the potential treacherous falls. I had read about bus accidents, falling down part of the mountain, dozens dead, injured. Stories I kept to myself, withholding from friends and family. The paths are narrow, one way up, one way down. And just like a Delhi taxi, the luxury bus’ horn would often blare around curves. All you can hope for is that another luxury bus is far in the distance, no chance meeting today. Several months after leaving India, I would hear of an older volunteer becoming this very statistic. So many broken bones, wounds an aged body can’t easily heal from. She was transported to Delhi, and that was the last I heard.
From the bus stop, we rode in taxis as far as cars could go. Several old men were waiting to pile our luggage onto their backs and trek along the hilly, pebble ridden pathways. Their hunches seemed permanent, like the spine had wilted over after so much heavy lifting. These men were frail, bony, missing teeth, and they shuffled along with two or three suitcases upon them without complaint or an open palm once they dropped our bags.
The flat was two bedrooms, six cots, a kitchen without a fridge, and a bathroom without a shower. We were in middle class accommodations, and we were greeted by an old woman just waking. Her name was Kay, she had several decades on me, and her style of talk entailed a faint yet consistent whine. A stray kitten mewed, and she grabbed it up, cuddled it, and went to get it milk. The kitten was starved, manged, and looked sickly. We wouldn’t touch it. My flatmates were Jaye and Hailey, both of which I had spoken only little with in Delhi, but both would come to be my closest friends in India.
The buildings in Dharamsala are like skewed steps, levels upon levels scaling the mountainside. If homes were close enough, it was possible to jump across rooftops, and this is precisely what we did to get to the main house just below our flat. Jaye and I had gone to the main house, for what I can’t recall, but there we discovered that half the volunteers were a driving distance away in a new, upper class rental. And something in both of us crumbled. This group of volunteers was all we had of the familiar, and we were like a newly formed family being split in two, possibly never seeing them much again during our time in India. Along with that, it was finally seeping in that our flat was more than humble, the cots were hard, the absent shower was already missed, and somehow, though I had tried so much not to have expectations, I felt letdown, disappointed and somehow felt a fool. We made it to the side of the main house before we looked at each other and began crying under a tree. After several minutes, I said this was our one time to cry over these things, here at the crying tree. Things weren’t what we expected, but what we had was enough.
This wasn’t a perspective held by all. Pat, a middle aged woman and real estate agent from Florida, had used her vacation time to come volunteer. But even before unpacking her bags, she had decided this wasn’t for her, and we found her in a chair on the flat patio all smiles. She had decided to leave and in the morning would take a luxury bus back to Delhi. From there, she wasn’t sure. She felt cheated in a way, as if there were aspects of this program grossly misrepresented. To a certain extent, I agreed with her, but if people were truly made aware of the circumstances, I don’t believe much would show. I remember the brochure with a smiling girl toting pottery on her head and the program description that seemed to heavily reference Tibetan culture, like the candy to lure the babe. Yes, in some ways, certain elements had been vaguely defined or conveyed, but I was there, I had enrolled, and I planned to see it through.
The first day or two is a bit of a blur. It is draining to be in a place that is not your home, trying to find your bearings, trying to remain positive in mind, and being surrounded by two dozen people feeling the same way is both comforting and problematic. It is easy to get stuck in that feeling, that unrest, and anxiety. The staff kept us busy with meetings, a relay on finding our way around the lower Dharamsala bazaar, and throwing us into our placements. Right away, all of us complained about the separation from the others, and this seemed to birth a new issue for the staff. We were demanding to see each other, to still know our new friends. And once the rest of us saw the three floor home the rest were staying in while half of us had spotty electricity, bucket showers, and warm juice to drink, it stirred a bit of resentment, and some voiced the unfairness of such drastic differences in living conditions when we all paid the same to be there. It was unfair, but my feelings would have been assuaged if we would have been given a fridge, never in my life did I crave cold drinks like I did then. Warm water, warm soda, warm apple or mango juice, room temperature invaded everything in that flat, and it irked me to no end.
I remember one day after my volunteer work, I returned to the flat, flicked any bugs off my pillow and from under my sheet, and laid down just to stare at the ceiling. I was eying the fan, its blades circulating, just watching it wobble. And then it slowed until death. The sigh that came out of me, this odd sound of shameful frustration. At that moment, all I had wanted was air to blow on me, through me, refresh me. But the electricity, like so often in Dharamsala, went out. I felt like I had been teased. And that is a good bit of experiencing India, desperately missing the minute luxuries we are so used to. How a fan without its life support could put me so close to tears back then.
This disjointed excerpt is to become a bit more common. Though I remember experiences and feelings, I don’t have a precise memory of daily events, my mind has skewed linear memory. So my history of India is merely bordered by that alone: my history of India. Chronological is irrelevant in this place anyway, for it is all circular, cyclical. In the end, I get to the same point no matter what path I take: a plane home. So, the future of the this mapping is more focused on the experiential than dates, it is my reflections, my botched memories, my torment, and my rebirth. All in the womb of India, all seen by the eye of Shiva.