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.