Wednesday, October 14, 2009

India: The first morning

I've been in country for less than 3 hours. Despite an arduous journey and total exhaustion I find it impossible to sleep. I'm vibrating with excitement, nervous energy and anxiety over the coming day. My half conscious mind projects itself into the dark void just behind my eyelids. Here, images float and warble with the sweet illogic of half formed dreams. Disparate ideas find a meeting ground where they intermingle and become new, strange entities that elicit myriad emotional responses, all of which still remain to faint to recount. I lay there in this state for what seems like hours.

and hours.

and hours.

Suddenly I start awake. It's morning. Early. About a quarter to 6. My Indian roommates are shuffling about in the dim light, engaged in conversation. They cycle into the attached bathroom, which I now gather is out on the balcony. I crack my eyes open to steal glances at them as each returns from his morning ablutions. Their pressed shirts, slacks and ties offer some information. No accomplished businessman would be caught dead in a youth hostel. They're obviously low level, probably entrepreneurs, industrious up and comers, fellows with some great idea come to pitch it to the big money. As I observe them on the sly I wonder what their real story is, and marvel at my ability to be judgmental even in a sleepy haze.

Today must be important. They take their time to get ready, double check the knots in each others ties, argue over what I guess are minor details. By the time they're prepared to leave it's nearly 7:30, and I've been feeling impatient for them to depart for at least half an hour. I haven't been by myself in almost 2 weeks. I need a little space. Some me time.

They bump around for a few more minutes, rechecking briefcases and locking up valuables in the large cupboards next to my bed. Finally, at the behest of the eldest among them - a gentleman with hair graying at the temples - they take deep breaths and breeze out in silence.

I'm alone at last. I groan through a long, deep stretch. My mind and my muscles shudder to what could euphemistically be referred to as attention. I'm groggy. Still, I sit up on the bed, assume a cross legged position, straighten my back, put the lip of the pillow under my butt and begin meditating. I can't focus, but I go through the motions anyway. Yeah, I'm really groggy.

For some reason, this experience is vaguely familiar. My thoughts are disconnected and ramble about at will. Then, briefly, I'm able to pinpoint this sensation. I liken it to one of my youth, of smoking a joint and watching game shows on the Spanish channel; nothing makes much sense, but I'm relaxed and enjoying myself nonetheless. 50 minuets pass and I finally give up.

I strip naked and drop my legs over the side of the bed, letting my feet come down gently onto the lukewarm tile floor. I place my palms down to my sides and lightly grip the edge of the mattress. I take a few deep breaths and try to formulate a plan. My mind feels as though it were floating in murky water and I can't get beyond the idea of a shower. OK, a shower then.

* * * *

I walk out onto the balcony, the heavy glass door opening with a whoosh. The floor is raw concrete and littered with random junk; a pink waste basket laying on its side, a rusted clothing rack, a single beige sneaker with the back crushed down, as though someone felt it would take too much time to work the thing on and decided it would be more functional if used as a slipper. I look to the right, sure enough, the bathroom is out here. The sink is against the wall just next to the door, the shower and toilet are set back into a nook, each behind separate lime green doors. Lime green, the color of indifference. I pan my head, take in the entire scene and nod a little, there's no doubt that I'm in a foreign country.

I turn my attention to the view in front of me, leaning my nakedness against the yellowed, chest high wall. I look out at Chanakyapuri. At New Delhi. The trees are large with thick eye shaped leaves; the tops of these monsters jut up from the horizon as though they were jealous of one another and vying for my attention. The surrounding buildings are basic structures, their cracking plaster an off white, with wrought iron railings, barred windows and mossy patches crawling out from overhangs. The sky is a dark gray hovering above dense humidity and I can see the rain drizzling and flitting about like mist.

I sigh. I'm not looking forward to today. I'm not looking forward to the travail that is getting around and out of a foreign city. A city that's full of desperate hustlers that need my money to survive another day. The anxiety and bombardment I tried so desperately to avoid only the night before are surely awaiting me. Patiently stalking me, like a tiger somewhere at the edge of the surrounding darkness. I linger on that thought, then snort and roll my eyes. I need to stop being so dramatic. I'm being very cynical about the great unknown.

"Yeah, be positive. Positive but cautious. Cautious and prepared. Yeah." I smile at my soliloquy and new found confidence.

All at once my awareness comes back to my naked body. I'm beginning to feel sticky. Damn, it's only 8:30. Today is going to be one hot, wet mother.

"Yeah," I reiterate. "Stop worrying and take a shower already."

* * * *

The water is cold. Cold-cold. The kind of cold that makes one pant and gasp for air. A small placard situated just between the handles reads: "Water is solar, please wait for sometime." I laugh. Not some time, but just, you know, sometime. I can see the overcast sky through the bars of the window. No sun. No hot water. Sometime indeed. I sigh for the second time today. Oh well, what can you do? I take a deep breath, crank the water on high, and go for it. I dodge in and out of the freezing downpour, soaping up with a bar that has been left on the window sill. I finish quickly.

Stepping back onto the balcony I'm shaking and involuntarily chuffing. I'm no longer sleepy. And I'm clean. Bright red, but clean. Going back into the room it occurs to me that I don't have a towel, so I plant myself in front the giant fan and accept the hard wrought air like a gift. It takes 5 minutes to get dry, allowing me time to plan.

First: check out

Second: head to the New Delhi train station

Third: purchase a ticket to Dharamshala

A solid plan. Easy-breezy. But somehow I'm aware that this is nothing but naive confidence and doubt begins to insinuate itself into my psychology. I have to work hard to force it back. Reassuring thoughts begin to play on cue:

Checking out early without knowing the train schedule isn't a bad idea. No, a train will be leaving in a timely manner for my exact destination. Of course one is. Why not? And I wont get hustled, I'm too savvy. Everything is going to be fine.

Everything is going to be fine.

* * * *

I check out. Walking out the door and down the marble steps I'm immediately greeted by moisture. It leaves a thin, damp layer, but doesn't soak through. Ok, I'm outside. Phase one of the plan is complete. So far, so good. At the gate, I take a moment, exchanging pleasantries and rapping with the guard. He's good enough to call for a ride and within minuets a rickshaw is puttering up to give me a lift to the train station.

The vehicle is comical. It's essentially a 3 wheeled scooter with a 2 person back seat; it's complete with handle bars and a manual foot clutch. The operator's space is open on both sides, something like a delivery truck. Metal railing separates the driver from the passenger, and all this is housed inside a black canvass tarp. I chortle. It looks like a Darth Vader helmet on wheels.

The man behind the handle bars reaches through to the back seat and opens a slender canvas door. I'm ushered inside and my bag is handed in and laid on my lap by the guard, who is never far away. He gets a 5 rupee tip from my temporary chauffeur. Nice little racket, I tell you. I sit back, re-situate my bag next to me, and before I can take another breath we lurch forward and are off.

The small engine sounds angry. Part of me is waiting for it to catch fire. I'm not sure, but it sounds like he's in too low a gear.


But it doesn't catch fire and we bounce along, making our way out of the sleepy suburb. Soon we're screeching our way into the normal din of city traffic. Though it's not quite as heavy as the night before, now cyclists, scooters, rickshaws and donkey drawn flat carts have joined the party. Not to mention hundreds of pedestrians huddled under umbrellas or daily newspapers, all negotiating around the vendors and hustlers. And a lot of foreigners. The rickshaw's square windshield is dirty, and a lone wiper is struggling to provide visibility, slapping about in an irregular fashion. Because of this I'm only able to gather impressions; I make out dreadlocks, tweed jackets, backpacks, crocs, levis and floopy hats as we go gliding by.

My observation is cut short as my attention snaps back to my immediate surroundings. Though we're going no more than 25 miles an hour, I become aware that I'm holding on for dear life. The wet roads and dense traffic don't seem to affect this drivers confidence. We dodge around slow moving buses, break hard so to miss colliding with the rear ends of cars. Sometimes we utilize the center of the road, the front wheel guided by the dividing line. At one point, we come upon two lorries clogging up either side of the two lane road and the driver makes a snap decision; it seems too narrow and I flinch as we shoot the gap. I go wide eyed -- we're traversing a veritable canyon that could collapse inward at anytime. We come bombing out the other side and a sudden gush of wind has us wobbling and teetering our way back into the mix. Holy hell, that just happened.

Before I can protest another rickshaw cuts us off and we veer hard left. Out of nowhere an oblivious cyclist appears, we jerk right and go up on two wheels. I brace for a right side impact. I'm going to break an arm. Lose teeth. I'm going to die. Instead of calamity however, the rickshaw settles back down and we continue to hum along. I can hear the spray of water as it's displaced by our wheels. I catch a glimpse of the drivers face in the rear view mirror; he's grinning profusely and all at once I burst into laughter. He follows suit. He's clearly messing with me. I decide to relax and let things happen. I'll be at the train station soon enough.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

India: The first few hours

I arrive. It's late, almost 10. Its been 23 hours and 4 airports since I left Denver. The transfer I had to make from Midway to O'hare was nothing if not easy. Thanks Chicago. Frankfurt juggled the internationals unnecessarily for my taste, but nothing to get in a fuss over. Air India was divine. I was served some decent vegetarian dal with white rice and a side of kheer on two occasions. They had a few good movies to boot. Still, I'm glad its over.

And finally Delhi. I've slept well on the flight, so I'm not groggy or vacant. The terminal is typical third world; dingy and dank with thickish air that resists inhalation. I follow the signs to immigration. I'm prepared for chaos, but it's smooth. The immigration official stamps my passport languidly and waves me through without a smile. Poor chap. I wonder if he hates his life. I hope not.

I wait 45 minutes for my luggage. After 30, it becomes comical. I smile at a little Indian girl who keeps saying "Come here baggy. Baaaggyyy, come here!" Finally I see my own baggy, grab it and quickly consolidate it with the contents of my short range pack.

Confident and ready, I head for the monitary exchange. I want to get some cash quickly so that I can suss out a prepaid taxi post-haste. According to my sources, prepaid taxis are the bees knees and eliminate the bombardment one may encounter at the hands of Indian taxi drivers just outside the terminal. I want to avoid bombardment at all cost.

At the money exchange, I hit a small snag. The man behind the counter, sporting a slight frown, informs me that they only deal in cash, and that I will need to use the ATM machine outside the main terminal. Great. I head out, stopping to inquire at a booth entitled "Easy Cabs" thinking this might be the prepaid business I've heard so much about. It's not the same, which means it's not government sponsored, but it serves the same function. After a brief exchange I agree to return with cash in hand.

To leave the terminal I don't have to exit the building, but I do need to go up a wide ramp, either side of which has a waste high railing where the family, friends and business partners of arrivals are resting there elbows or holding signs, eagerly watching for loved ones or business associates. This set up also affords these folks the opportunity to gawk at fellows like myself, with my button down wrangler shit, thrift store jeans and gigantic blue back pack.

At the top of the ramp I have 3 options: straight, left and right. I find the ATM almost directly ahead and off to the right of the main exit. I square up in front of the machine, my balance precarious as I haven't bothered to take off the 60 pound pack strapped to my back. I begin to fumble around with my money belt. It's on pretty tight, making things difficult for my fingers to get at. All the while Indian faces watch from just outside; airports, everything is made of glass. I ignore the starring and insert my card, removing it quickly, just like I'm told. I hit the button for English. Then I pause, I'm not sure how many Rupees to get. I try to do the math.

"1 dollar equals 50 Rupees or so, so..."

It's bloody well confusing. I guess and try for 60,000. I don't have 60,000. The machine tells me goodbye. I'm getting flustered. I drop my card and clunk my head on the front of the machine while picking the thing up. The faces outside continue to watch. I feel ridiculous. I chuckle and remind myself to relax. This really is kinda funny. I rub the sore spot on my head, inhale the thick air and start again. After a minute I have it figured out. I now have 6,000 Rupees and am ready to get a taxi.

I look around and reassess. Instead of heading straight back to Easy Cabs, I decide to go to the right of the ramp, following a sign that reads "Prepaid Taxi." It's like a glowing beacon and I drift towards it like a gnat. It has an arrow and everything. Things are working out. How exciting!

While dreamily imagining the ease with which I'm about to get a taxi, I absently step through automatic double doors. Suddenly I'm outside. I'm no longer absent. To the left and directly in front are bare cement walls, to my right 500 or so Indian faces and bodies crammed into and filling the space that must lead to the prepaid taxi stand. I don't want to be outside. An onslaught to my senses begins. Bodies are brushing past on all sides. Eyes stare. Horns honk. I hear languages I don't understand intermingled with arguing and laughter. I smell armpits and petroleum and what could be baking bread. Baking bread? I'm feeling claustrophobic. I panic. I really fucking panic. I do what comes natural, I retreat. I turn around and a man in a khaki uniform stops me at the door. His thick, well groomed mostache tells me he's a cop.

"Where are you going?" He asks sharply. He's also glaring. He's good at glaring. He must practice.

I explain myself in careful English. "I just came out and want to go back to use Easy Cabs."

"Let me see your passport." He extends a demanding hand. He takes a hard look at the document and a hard look at me.

I smile.

"Ok." He waves me through.

* * * *

I head straight back to where I came from. Another officer asks for my passport at the entrance to the ramp. It's quick however and soon I'm back at Easy Cabs.

I have a pleasant exchange with the female attendant who gives me a receipt and directions to the taxi stand. I do as I was told. I make a left at the top of the ramp instead of a right, away from the side of the building where all those people and all that noise were congregating. As I'm leaving I notice the prepaid taxi stand. It's inside, near where I'm about to exit, the very place I didn't look earlier. Figures. I go through another set of automatic double doors and am again outside, but this time on the opposite side of the building. Easy Cabs is nowhere to be seen. With receipt in hand I ask several people, many of whom want me to use their taxi service. It takes 10 minutes, but I finally find what I'm now referring to in my head as Moderately Difficult Cabs. The cabbie doesn't speak any English. The receipt says his name is Mr. Charles.

"Hello." I say. "5 Nyaya Marg, Chanakyapuri please."

"Chanakyapuri?" He asks.

I nod in the affirmative. He quickly confers with a colleague.

While he's busy getting the directions down I look over the cab. It looks like one of those 1985 Toyota mini vans with the box shape and pointed snouts, only shrunk down to about half the size, as though someone put this thing through the wash and forgot it wasn't supposed to be sent through the dryer. I also note that the steering wheel is on the right hand side, remnants of British colonialism I suppose.

It appears Mr. Charles has got things figured out. I opted to use the prepaid cab because I don't want a hassle. I'm not looking for a story. I get both. We depart from the airport in the truly mini van, horn blowing and jockeying for position among the hundreds of other vehicles all trying to get somewhere in Delhi.

The main highway is a three lane nightmare with no shoulder. The road is butt up against the cement dividers on either side, at the base of which are dull yellow lights that constantly blink, running in a pattern against the flow of traffic; I'm reminded of the runway where the plane landed. All at once the blinking stops and the road becomes dirt, as if the infrastructure here got fed up and decided to simply walk away. The bumps are jarring. This smooths out after the road condenses down to one lane, and we fight another car for position. We get close but never collide. I think I can smell the other drivers shampoo as we pass.

All at once we spill out onto what appears to be an average city street. New Delhi I presume. The traffic shows no signs of letting up however, in fact, it gets heavier. I've never seen so many cars and I've never seen so many cars making so many dangerous maneuvers; except perhaps in a fantastical movie chase where lots of people are dying. Vehicles weave and thread themselves between one another as though their paths were preordained. It's like watching thousands of lovers dance. And honk. Man, do they honk. I let the scene wash over me. I'm really enjoying myself.

Eventually the traffic thins out and we appear to be in a suburb of sorts, albeit overgrown with fauna, and in place of lawns there are instead high, white plastered walls. I can feel the youth hostel getting closer, my eyelids are feeling heavy in the anticipation of a soft place to lie down.

The taxi jerks left and pulls to a curb. Mr. Charles puts one finger in the air, letting me know to wait a minute as he steps out. What the hell? I've heard stories of cabbies pulling this kind of business, any moment I expect him to return with a man who is going to tell me my hotel is closed or that he is on the phone with reception and they have double booked my reservation, that I'll need to stay somewhere else; they'll have a swell alternative already chosen no doubt.

I'm not disappointed. A moment later Mr. Charles returns with a man who needs a shave, his wispy hair pulled back into a tight pony tail. To my surprise however, the man is genuinely helpful. He reassures me that he has given us accurate directions, and that should something dodgy happen, I am to instruct Mr. Charles to the local police, who will help me get to my destination. I thank him and we are off again.

Another 2 inquires and 15 minutes later we are in front of the hostel. I'm relieved. The man at the guard post eyes me suspiciously, posturing in his blue uniform, but allows me to sign in without further difficulty.

I trudge up the marble steps, find the reception area and wait another 20 minuets while a fellow is checked in ahead of me. Even in my bleary state, it is not lost on me that it will take this long for me to go through the same process. I smile and accept the situation.

It passes quickly enough and soon I'm knocking to get into the dormitory style room I've been assigned. An effete Indian man with squinting eyes opens the door and bids me to enter quickly. It's nearly midnight. I feel a little bad. 3 of the 4 beds are occupied, all by dark huddled bodies trying to fend off the harsh florescent light that has been clicked on for my benefit. I've been assigned to bed 4. The gentleman who ushered me inside is in bed 4 and lets me know that I'm welcome to use bed 2. I don't argue.

I find my spot. The mattress is bare except for a thick white cover and hard pillow. Despite the steady flow of air emitted by a clamorous fan, the room is warm. Nearly 80 degrees I would guess. No need for covers. The light is clicked off. I strip down to my boxers, plop onto the mattress and sigh. I'm here. I'm in India.