Saying that I was unprepared for India is an understatement. Of course, I was prepared in all the usual ways: my backpack had all the proper gear. I just didn’t understand the emotional preparation I needed to have packed as well. In truth, no one is ever really prepared for what comes at them there.
We arrived pre-dawn from Dubai, a stopover in the wee-hours of a late August night. I don’t know what I was expecting, but from the outset, every sensation was a surprise. The smells, the thick, languid air, the crush of bodies even at 5 am, the complete confusion about where we might go to catch a way into the traveler’s area of Delhi. Our friends had been to Delhi a year ago, and gave us the name of a good, clean inn where we could stay the first five days of our trip. A good hotel sounded good to me. I had visions of lush gardens and unusual, colorful birds, tea on a veranda listening to the sound of the city far off in the distance, away from the high-rises that come with all modern capitals.
The public bus left from the front stoop of the airport, and we threw our bags up top and got in. Even so early, with dawn breaking, it was packed full. We were lucky to get a seat, as most were standing. It took almost an hour, and we kept looking for the high rises that would signal the nearing of Delhi, but we never saw them. Perhaps we were on a wrong bus, we thought anxiously. The driver came to a quick halt, pointed to us, and said – “You. Here.” We had asked to be left at Connaught Place, the center of Delhi, and from there we would get a tuk-tuk to PaharGanj, the street with our hotel. We looked around. No, surely, this isn’t it. There was no building over three stories high, no gardens or fancy architecture to tell you that you are in the middle of the financial district of one of the most populous countries in the world. Everything was mildewed, and falling to pieces. Cows and people, literally, slept in the streets. Rickshaw drivers were sleeping in their cabs, parked anywhere that seemed mildly safe. No, this can’t be it! But the driver was insistent, so we got off, pulled out a map, and began trying to figure out where on earth we could be.
A Sikh tuk-tuk driver stopped and asked us where we wanted to go. We explained we were lost, that we had wanted Connaught Place. Where were we? He looked so puzzled, and said, “This is here…” and swept his hand at the vista. Toto, I don’t think we are in Kansas anymore! How on Earth could this place be Counnaught Place? I felt instantly defeated.We climbed into his vehicle and he zoomed around traffic and down side streets, towering over our heads with electric wires and improbably balanced architecture. It was only a short ride to our hotel, and my dismay grew when he ground to a halt and pointed. There would be no garden with colorful birds. It was a cinderblock, five story “high” rise crammed into an alley (Paharganj) with dozens of other almost identical buildings. People were milling around, carrying tea and food, cooking, walking, opening shops. The road was covered in trash. I stepped out, and felt a tug at my pants. A little girl, so unfathomably dirty, no older than six or seven, was holding a newborn baby in her arms, the afterbirth still attached. The baby’s head was rolling around in her arms. She held her arms out for money, and our driver shoo’ed her away. I really, at that moment, didn’t think I could do this…this thing called India, not if it meant looking into the eyes of such poverty and not being able to help. I literally felt sick to my stomach. It was 6 am.
I have a hard time admitting this, but I was barely able to leave my bedroom for the next three days. The one hundred degree heat coupled with the 99% humidity was one issue. I had just come from Greece, the land of lovely beaches and sea breezes. It was hard to adapt. But I was scared. That was the main reason. Scared to face that child again, overwhelmed by the thought of walking in the crush of people. Scared to find out the source of that smell…the smell of spices, mixed with urine, mixed with death that seemed to waft up from below. Our hotel room had a large bed, a toilet in the room (I didn’t know how lucky we had it!), and a ceiling fan that had once been a jet-engine. There were only two speeds: on and off. On was enough wind to make you feel like you were in a tropical storm. It was better than nothing.
The other thing about this hotel (another thing I was blessed to have but didn’t even know it) was a rooftop restaurant. In the mornings and evenings – anytime really – it was pleasant to sit up there and read, drink tea. The food was decent-ish. There were plenty of travelers to talk to. We made conversation with anyone we met, feeling very new-kid on the travel block, and tried to listen to others explain to us which way was up.
I was still too scared to go out.
Chris kept making forays into the streets to check things out, coming back with tales of crazy sights. Squashed kittens, flat as a pancake, in the street. Public toilets that I can only imagine, to this day. Tasty food he had sampled, how close the train station was. Meanwhile, I slept and read, lounged and read some more, sat in the upstairs restaurant and looked at life moving five stories down, and thinking, “Oh my god, what have I gotten myself into?”
The first night, I noticed them. Then for every night after, they became my source of joy, something desperately needed in this completely foreign place that was testing every internal reserve I had. What was this bright spot? Kites. At dusk, every night, the kites would rise in the sky…not one or two, but hundreds in every part of the city. They would rise from the ground and from roof-tops, and were flying as far away as the horizon that I could see. Little boys and girls were sending up colorful kites into the sky, and battling each other in friendly games of kite-war, above the busy streets and squalor around them. They were a multitude of shapes, sizes, and colors, but most of them were quite plain. All of them were hand-made, it seemed. For the hour or two before the stars came out, these kites danced in front of me like hopeful beacons, until those brighter beacons of hope could emerge from the night sky. “Could it really be so bad out there?” I considered. This city where everyone flies kites at night, this playful tradition, began to lull me away from fear.
Eventually, yes, I did leave my hotel room and explore the city a little bit before our flight to Ladakh, which would take us far north into Tibetan territory. When I returned to Delhi two months later, it seemed down-right civilized. Our hotel felt like an oasis of luxury. The grinding poverty still made my being ache, but I had developed calluses and coping skills there too. And the kites were still flying nightly much to my delight.
I had another fearful transition in our travel experience; the days and nights after returning home to New York City. Encumbered with 100 kilos of gifts and “stuff” in two enormous duffles, I made my way back alone from Nepal; Chris took a detour to Greece to pick up our computer and other things stored on Crete. My brother-n-law and sister-in-law opened their doors to me and gave me a room in their apartment in Chelsea. Again, I spent a few days sleeping and looking at the overwhelming landscape around me from five floors up, trying to realign my world to a familiar reality, but one that no longer held the meaning of “home” for me. I couldn’t remember that I had lived here for years, that I had felt comfortable here. There were too many people, too many cars. I was, again, intimidated.
My first foray out into the streets was to do a little grocery shopping at the corner deli. An everyday act for all New Yorkers, this one took a great deal of mental preparation on my part. I remember distinctly walking up the street, looking at everyone’s faces, not recognizing myself in them anymore. “I don’t belong here now.” When I walked into the market, I was overwhelmed. I just wanted something for lunch, but left empty handed. Too many choices! Dozens of drinks? Dozens of sandwich options? Endless supplies of fruit and vegetables, most of which were not even native to the US, much less the northeast or in season. Why, why so much choice? Do we need all this?
My self-imposed roof top exile began to wane over the next days. On the 4th of July, my relatives took us out on their boat into the Hudson, inviting friends of mine to help alleviate the obvious anxiety I was displaying at re-entry. It was quiet out there, the Statue of Liberty and the World Trade Centers helping me to recall the particulars of this place where I had once worked, lived, and created a life. I knew that I no longer belonged here, in this place, but watched as the fireworks lit the night sky that evening in celebration of the playful and awe-struck child in each of us. Where would I find a home again? Would I ever feel tied to one place again? I wasn’t sure at that point it was possible, but I knew that wherever I would find a home in my heart, there would need to be hope, kites, and children flying them.
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