Sometimes you plan and plan a trip, but in the end that magical feeling you so wanted to remember forever eludes you. Squatting in the patchy shade of a camel-chewed tree, this is how I felt after my desert safari in Rajasthan, India. Suffice it to say, a young, single woman should think better of safaring alone with male guides… I had lost my faith in India and the sincerity of its people. I stepped heavily into the sand-blasted local bus that would take me back into the city and away from my disappointment.
He was the first person I laid eyes on and he was the most beautiful child I’d seen in India. There was a calmness about his gaze that immediately began to settle the anger I had been feeling for being fool enough to travel alone into the desert like that.
I watched him for a long time before drawing my camera from my bag. I knew I wanted to capture his eyes. They danced about his dusty face and tiptoed in my direction shyly. Despite the heat and the sand, this boy’s face was clean and pure. He was nearly a man in his culture, but guarded the innocence of boyhood. The corners of his mouth crept upward and his smile touched mine. It was in that moment that I found that magical feeling I thought I would leave India without.
Getting to Turkey was a flightmare. This is what I wrote in the midst of it all:
It’s too late to be poetic. This post is factual. And by the time you read it, the outcome will have already unfolded. But now, sitting here writing this, things are still uncertain. And I’m really frickin’ tired.
Minutes before I left Shubhangi’s house for my 10:45 pm flight from Mumbai to Istanbul via Muscat, I got a text from the airline saying my flight had been delayed until midnight. I took the cab regardless, figuring it was just as well to wait at the airport as in the empty house.
When I checked in I asked about my connection in Muscat: Fine. Even with the delay I’d still have an hour to make the transfer, which seemed do-able, both to me and the Jet Airways agent. Jet Airways even stroked its passengers’ bruised timetables with a little dinner on the house, and I wrote this blog, feeling sunny:
It’s official. Jet Airways earns the gold star for coolness. First off, my flight out from London Heathrow to Mumbai was priceless and worth every (very slight) inconvenience of the layover in London rather than taking Air India’s direct flight from New York JFK. Featured as one of their in-flight amenities when you check the Jet Airways website, their ‘foot hammock’ really packs a bang in the realm of comfort for such a little thing. In addition, economy class seats give far more leg room than any other airline I’ve flown with. (A product of the fact that they’re an ‘upper level’ airline or because they’re made for long haul flights while most of their competitors fly predominantly shorter distances?)
The flight from LHR to BOM was probably only half full, allowing me to have three seats to myself and almost lay down fully to sleep. Overhead compartments could very well store checked luggage they’re so roomy, and flight attendants handed out ice cream bars for dessert. Yeah. Screw you, Airline Food!
Movie selection was top notch (and much more user-friendly than Virgin Atlantic, who lets you choose your flick but not when it starts running. Not cool for those of us who prefer to read a bit or take a nap between movies, rather than go one flick to the next straight away.)
I flew Jet Airways on the first leg of my trip out of Mumbai as well, the short leg from India to Muscat. The plane was delayed and about the time passengers should have started boarding some crew rounded up all the travelers outside the gate and ushered us to an in-airport restaurant for a free dinner as an apology.
Ok, so Jet Airways didn’t give me the cool travel pack I got from Virgin with a malfunctioning pen and smartly-decorated sleep mask. But they totally win the prize for service and amenities. Now, if they’d just suck it up and join a codeshare alliance I’d be the happiest passenger on the block.
But that was before the rest of the flightmare. Back to this story.
Midnight turned into 12:20 and then 1 am. After four and a half solid hours at the airport I brought the issue of my connection up to the desk agent at the boarding gate. And it’s a damn good thing I did.
Turns out Americans (and most everyone else) need a visa to enter Muscat, and airline stop-overs are limited to six hours. Also turns out there’s only one flight on from Muscat to Istanbul, and that flight was going to be my flight at 2:20 in the morning, which I was going to miss thanks to the delay. So, basically if I boarded my delayed flight with Jet Airways I was going to find myself in the Middle East illegally. Not really how I wanted to spend the wee hours of the morning.
So… options? Well, option one was to get booked onto the same scheduled route the next day. But after all the schlepping and all the Turkey build-up that’s really the last thing I wanted. I didn’t want to go back to Shubhangi’s and be a burden to her family and Jet Airways wasn’t feeling like putting me up in a hotel.
I found myself stranded with two Swiss nationals who’d been trying to get home since the 17th and were still unsuccessful because of the volcano. Option two, which we all decided to go with, was to get booked onto Turkish Airways direct flight from Mumbai to Istanbul. But Turkish Airlines was quoting upwards of $700 USD for a ticket and didn’t have a credit card machine, so they were only accepting cash.
After some finagling, the desk agent found a travel agency at the airport which was quoting slightly less than that and would take credit cards. And thus began our trek back out through immigration (Hoops? Does anyone like to jump through hoops?) to purchase new tickets for the 4:50 am flight to Istanbul. My passport now holds a big stamp that says CANCELED over my Indian immigration stamp, which has already raised eyebrows.
Turns out the travel guy was about as awful as Turkish Airlines price-wise, and I purchased a new ticket for $780 USD. Do I have $780 USD? Fuck no. Did I buy the ticket anyway? Yeah, I did. It’s just money, I’m telling myself, and when I get a Jet Airways staff on the phone you can be damn sure I’m going to do everything in my power to have them reimburse the difference in ticket prices in exchange for my pain and suffering. I have to go back through Expedia to get my first Jet Airways ticket refunded, which I can only imagine will be a piece of cake… Yeah. That was sarcasm.
I made the desk agent, who, at this point had carted my ass and the asses of the two Swiss all over creation, buy me a water, as I figured this was the least Jet Airways could do for the bullshit I was dealing with. (Incidentally, the Swiss couple couldn’t book the new tickets because his bank card was declined and he needed to get someone to wire money from Switzerland because this was the only card that worked in India. I was really afraid the lady was going to start crying again when her husband told her the news, but she seemed to hold it together… at least while I was there.)
Then I retrieved my bags, and completely re-checked in, passing through immigration and security again. At that point the new Turkish Airlines flight was delayed by a half hour. (Post Script – In the end it was delayed by two and a half hours.)
I spent a few hours of the wee morning chatting with the poor desk guy over chai and now am sitting at the gate, another hour to go until boarding. It’s late. I’m tired and I want to brush my teeth again. I did manage to get a hold of Selma, who I’m staying with in Turkey, via SMS sent from the desk guy’s phone, and let her know I’d be getting into Istanbul around 9:45 rather than 6:30 am. We’ll see if I can get phone credit, if my Turkish SIM even works, if the phone’s got juice, and basically if the Evil Eye has befallen me or not once I get there. So far every flight I’ve taken either into or out of Turkey has been cursed in one way or another. This one has proven no different. More updates to come once they’ve all happened and I can get me some internet to post this blog. In the meantime, I think I’ll just nap sitting up.
** Final Post Script **
I left Mumbai after 11 hours in the airport at 7:10 am. Since arriving in Turkey things have been nothing but sunshine. Red tape awaits me regarding my messed-up fight with Jet Airways. I’ll just add that to the list, right behind getting my money for my lost luggage back in November.
I cried tonight as I walked away from Hamara Footpath for the last time, and I remembered the night I walked away from Slumdog Millionaire. These things aren’t the same, but I still made a coloration in my head.
Five weeks in India and my heart never really stopped pounding – From fear. And culture shock. And simply from wanting to get the hell out of India and into a place that suits me more. I told Nupur that tonight, the girl who oversees HF, and she scoffed, “To each their own, I guess.”
“Some cities resonate with some people, and some cities don’t,” I said. “Mumbai isn’t my city. But I’m going to miss these kids.”
I said my goodbyes as thoroughly and as quickly as possible. I didn’t want to cry. I knew I would, and I did as I walked away, re-moistening my contact lenses after they’d been dried by the dirt and grime of the footpath.
There’s a love teachers have for their students, and I have that love for these kids. A love born when a teacher is overwhelmed by the potential children possess. A love that grows very strong when a teacher feels the obstacles her students face and wants with all her might to help them overcome. This love lives when the children want to overcome too – either consciously or unconsciously – and the teacher sees her purpose and feels validated.
There’s another love that exists too; one that must be held carefully, but not extinguished. It’s a love somewhere between this first love of a teacher and the love one grown person shares with another. I’m embarassed but I felt this love too, towards a boy from the streets, old enough to be an adult. It’s a love born from shared, though very different, struggle. A love for another human being because of his determination to overcome. Because of his immense hard work and sincerity and kid gloves with all the children he chooses to guard and look after. Because of his sincerity and good nature. It’s a love that knows it cannot and will not ever exist in reality. Because of class and geography and ethics and Fate. And yet I felt this love for this student in my heart. And I cherish it.
As I held his hand I wished him well. I told him I believed in him, that he was smart and if he studied hard he would succeed. I’m sure he’s heard these things before, but I hope he knew how deeply I meant them. I think he did. He held my hand back and his gaze lingered, entangled with mine in mutual respect.
“I’m the teacher,” I told myself. “Someone for him to look up to. I admire his strength and he admires mine and that is where this feeling comes from. He holds me in his heart for what I’ve taught him and I hold him in mine for what he’s taught me. Now push him away and pray that he flies.”
Mumbai is not my city. India is not a land for me. But I will be back because of the love I have for these children. Because in their eyes, after five weeks of a fast-beating heart, I’ve finally found my Mumbai.
I think Gregory David Roberts based the dialogue of his Indian character Perbukar , in his classic 800 page set-in-Mumbai novel, Shantaram, on the people of Rajasthan, not Mumbai. And I think he got a lot of the details wrong about Bombay.
When I first read Prabu’s dialect, the bit about “What is your good name?” I called Bullshit. It’s one thing to write the haltering, British-coated dialect of Indians, but nobody asks for someone’s good name. Until I was in Rajasthan, when somebody asked for mine, and I was finally able to place Prabu’s pattern of speech as Rajasthani.
The taxi drivers, swarming on me at 4:45 in the morning as I arrived at the station, like hungry dogs attacking a bloody piece of meat just tossed over the fence, helped me find the other piece of the puzzle.
“Hello, ma’am. Welcome in Jaisalmer. You needing a hotel, I take you best hotel in town, oknoproblem.”
“Hello, ma’am. Which one your hotel? Hello, ma’am? I taking you there, your hotel, 20 rupees, no problem.”
“Hello, hello ma’am?” (No female is ever anything but a ma’am in India.) “I taking you your hotel, anywhere in the city, 10 rupees, no problem.”
And then, not to be undersold, a third: “Hello, ma’am. I taking you anywhere you need to go in city, five rupees, no problem.”
“This one, he take you not where you wanting to go,” The second one creeps back to tell me, or maybe it’s the first or the fifth or the eighth. “Me, I taking you where you wanting to go. You no wanting to go there, you no pay, okay?”
There’s something distinctly different about the Rajasthani’s speech. The accent actually isn’t as thick as that of the Mumbaikers, but word choices are more literal, picked up along the way rather than studied in a book. Something similar, I imagine, to how my Turkish sounds. My camel guide, for instance, referred to any young creature as a puppy. “Yes, I learn them to ride camels when I am a very puppy,” he boats.
And about Mumbai. Roberts has a way of beautifully describing the city and his characters’ mental workings, but sometimes he stretches way too much to make things read the way he thinks they should, thus producing some serious anachronisms about Bombay.
For instance, he talks about the quiet and still of the night streets in Colaba, a section of South Mumbai, and mentions some desolate side streets he explores: “We took the long way to her small house, walking beside the sea wall that runs from the Gateway of India to the Radio Club Hotel. The long, wide street was empty. On our right, behind a row of plane trees, were hotels and apartment buildings. A few lights, here and there, showed windowgraphs of the lives being lived in those rooms… I said good night. And I was singing quietly to myself as I went back along the silent brood of streets to my hotel.”
I don’t think that much has changed in the less than ten years since Shantaram was published. And I’ve never seen any part of South Mumbai deserted, not even past midnight. And all turning down side alleys has ever yielded me has been the same number of people in an even smaller amount of space.
I’m really enjoying the book so far, especially checking off the locales I’ve visited too, but sometimes I wonder if the author might have chosen a different city, which could have given him the same amount of hussle and bussle feelings of Mumbai, plus the actual juxtaposition of silence. Because I’ve never experienced silence in Mumbai.
One of the first things I remember about Tuesday is The Road by Jack Kerouac. I’ve read the book but don’t remember the details. One of the travelers had picked it up at a book exchange and it was laying open in the guest house garden. I remember it inspired me to read more Kerouac.
Tuesday I lived the life of an iconic traveler: The traveler without inhibitions; with daring and dreams and no plans. South India is a haven for hippie backpackers, for cyclists who don’t read maps and who wave to small brown children as they fly past without helmets. Tuesday I was one of those cyclists.
Wednesday I heard mention of The Motorcycle Diaries and I took part in a conversation about the energy of the universe and how the full moon affects humans.
Wednesday I said why not and joined a wayward group fused in the garden cafe of my guest house and grown to maturity at a juice shack with a thatched roof down the lane. The group rented three motor scooters. There were six of us: A Chinese-Canadian, two Brits, a Berliner, an Italian and myself. We set out with our only direction being “an adventure” and hopefully “some villages or something…”
We found ourselves down untraceable dirt lanes, jostled over bumps of packed tan sand, face to face and smile to smile with men in lungis and women carrying parcels on their heads. More than once we found ourselves down dead ends, maneuvering scooters back from tiny grandmas gesturing wildly in the opposite direction, being encircled by children chattering excitedly.
We pulled our legs in tight to the scooters, ducking to avoid overhanging palm fronds. We passed through lanes smaller and smaller until we were stopped at an eternal railroad crossing. We waited for three trains to pass, amusing everyone at the train platform and on both sides of the tracks – five painfully white (and quickly turning shades of pink) young people on scooters (And one brown girl too?).
Eventually the sun began to threaten its descent and we began asking for the beach. As the golden orb sank into the Arabian Sea, so did we. I was wearing all my clothes and rode home sopping wet, half wrapped in a sarong belonging to one of my cohorts.
I must admit to, at one point, singing at the top of my lungs the Indian tourism jingle, “Incredible In-deee-aaaa!” while my moto driver belted out a song from Ama the Hugging Mother’s ashram. He swears the place changed his life and he sat meditating on the rocks just after our flight down the long stretch of road by the beach. Next time I come to India I want to visit that ashram. These are the things you learn when you backpack with the world.
Thursday and Friday nights I wiled away the hours of the morning and the evening both in the guest house garden: just lounging; just talking. Being what I imagine a backpacker is supposed to be: an exchanger of stories; a smoker of… well, many things; and an intellectual explorer of the world.
South India is a land of backpackers. A land where you can wear short sleeves – or no sleeves – or no damn shirt at all if you’re also willing to wear the banner of being significantly well-browned (or well-reddened). You can wear your bikini too. It was a refreshing thing to have been in Kerala, in a land of travelers. I embrace my inner hippie with a great big OM.
Pink flowers on a stranger’s terrace make me think of my mother and immediately I think of the day I sold my plants. They were a collection; a way of unconsciously connecting to my mother and I sold them when I moved to Paris.
I think of all the things I’ve sold over the past few years to pack my life up and travel. I’ve saccrificed a part of myself for travel; made a trade believing I could only ever have one or the other.
I’m ready to have pink flowers on my own terrace again. And I’ll continue to travel the world.
Everybody wants to know about the desert now, and what it’s like and how I enjoyed things. Rajasthan and the desert are different than Mumbai. Still India. Still a mindfuck, but a different sort.
In Mumbai the humidity is so thick my hair barely dries by the end of the day. In Rajasthan my hair is dry before I’ve left the hotel room. In Mumbai you can’t walk more than a foot without tripping over another person. In Rajasthan it’s generally the cows you can’t avoid. Look out – cow! A shopkeeper smiles as I attempt to navigate a narrow side street in Jaisalmer. India holy cow, he adds helpfully. India peeing cow, and I narrowly avoid the spray from a bovine behind. In Mumbai the poor are everywhere; covered in dirt and dust and crouching on the pavement. In Rajasthan this is the same.
In three days in Jaisalmer I saw as many women in Western dress. And even in the larger city of Jodhpur women in parts are scarce. Rajasthan is truly the land we read about in the West, where men wear turbans colored according to their caste and women are draped head to toe in brightly colored silks and fine cottons.
In rural Rajasthan I saw women with tired bracelets from elbows to shoulders, similar to the stacked neck rings you see women wear in Africa. Babies and children’s eyes are smeared with charcoal, partly to protect against infection, but partly to ward off the Evil Eye, making boys and girl alike look like dark-skinned baby beauty queens, left out in the head and beginning to melt.
The poor women in Mumabi still wear gold, if even just one piece. An investment, Shubhangi explains. From birth a female collects gold, in the hopes that she will never be faced with selling it to save herself or her family from starvation. In Rajasthan, the poor women wear necklaces strung of beads or woven threads, cheap silver trinkets or religious emblems. Many women in the desert wear nose rings the size of Maine scallops and on my bus ride back from the desert (Yes, I took the Indian equivalent of a Mexican chicken bus and it was a highlight of my trip) every woman without exception had her head draped with cloth. I’d like to think this is to protect against the intense desert sun, but I have a feeling modesty is a larger factor.
Julie is the blond New Zealand spit-fire whom I met at the Pol Haveli Hotel in Jaisalmer. We talked about Indian men, but really this discussion cannot include Indian men from the cities, educated beyond the fourth form and often better-traveled. This was about rural Indian men: the ones from Rajasthan.
I was getting harassed by these Indian boys the last time I was here, in Delhi, Julie told me. And there was this old man sitting, reading the paper, with glasses, and he looked very wise, like a professor or something, you know, and so I asked him… (This is the kind of person Julie is, I discovered in three days with her at the hotel. A girl who routinely approaches strangers on the streets without worry and who carries a picture of Borat in her wallet and shows it to Indian men who hit on her on the train, explaining that this is her boyfriend she’s meeting at the next stop. )
I asked him why Indian men all treat women like shit. She pauses, scratching a bug bite on her leg. And he looks all serious and says to me, totally serious: It’s because in your movies, Madame, we see kissing and sex. But in our movies we just see singing and dancing. So, we all think that is what you want.
I’ve heard this before, and I decide to make an analogy for the choir, partially defending the ignorance of a large percentage of a nation:
I can’t totally blame them I mean, I blame the system, not the people, for not educating them, but you can’t totally blame someone who’s never been taught any better.
But there’s also this cultural gap, I shake my head half in exasperation, half in confusion. I mean, say I’ve grown up my whole life watching movies about Namibia. And every movie I see, all the Namibians are always wearing loincloths and beating their chests and stuff. And then I go to Namibia and I see people wearing jeans and t-shirts. Sure, this is going to confuse me. But I’m not going to go and start ripping off these guys’ pants and banging on their ribcages because this is what I think they’re supposed to be like.
You see these people with your own eyes and then you reassess what you were told, you know? You don’t assume that the thing that’s standing in front of you isn’t real and the movies you’ve seen are. And you don’t go and try to make them what you thought they were supposed to be like if what you thought was wrong. Why can Americans see that but rural Indians can’t?
Julie likes my analogy. I like my analogy. But the answer to this question (and the reason for the problem) might lie in those Westerners who come to India and fulfill the stereotype. Westerners like Julie who considers her current boyfriend, a Rajasthani, “not bad because at least he doesn’t beat me or anything…”
I often make discoveries about myself and my current mind-state by writing emails. Something comes out to a friend and it’s something I normally would have had to sit down and consciously think about formulating into a blog. String of consciousness from today:
“The mindfuck of India… ahh, a country like I’ve never experienced before and honestly, my first real third world experience since Venezuela threw me for a loop over 10 years ago. It’s hot. It’s crowded to the point of not being able to move. People throw their trash on the ground; the same ground they urinate on and shit on. Mumbai is swarmed with taxis and cars and smog and Jaisalmer and Jodhpur with sand and cows. Everyone stares. Men leer and think I’m going to have sex with them. Children call and grab and ask for things. It’s a crazy place, India. And I think it will be a long time before I come back again.”
“I’m missing spring in Boston too, which I guess isn’t a total phenomenon, but is a little unexpected. Maybe it’s because it was just Easter, or because my cousin is opening up a little sandwich shop in rural Maine and I saw pictures. But I keep thinking of home – both home in Maine with my mom and the absolute nothing-ness of it all – and home in Boston with my friends. Not that I miss that monsoon I left in, but I keep having this feeling of the weather – the cool of winter mixed with the kiss of spring sunshine – and getting nostalgic. But maybe it’s because I’m in the middle of summer all of a sudden in a place where it’s impossible to get cool and equally impossible to go swimming.”
“When I get into these ‘fragile’ states I often find my heart beating so fast. It’s SO hot here, which makes sleeping very difficult, and I wake all through the night with my heart racing, sure that I’m dying or something. This is the fragility of me. But the strength of me is that I’m always still here the next minute, the next hour, the next day. ”