i am not sure how to explain some of this . . . i wrote this the first full day i was here.
it is 5:30am and i have slept for 2.5 hours. i am not sure what to do. i am hoping that writing will help me relax again and sleep.
the call to prayer is being sung. it is strange to be here. it feels like a real return to something. india had a transcending power on me in 1997. i had been alone for months. months of solidarity in one of the most densely populated places in the world. forced to face the paradoxes of humanity. all of the opposites: beauty and ugly; delicious and sickening; aromatic and revolting; peaceful and horrifying. plus something about this place is just spiritual. it begs for you to introspect. i couldn't, and still can't, help it.
india has a smell that, i guess, doesn't change. it hit me even as i walked off the plane. the smell reminded me of the zenned out pilgrim i had been 12 years ago when i left, just before the chariot incident (a story for another day). i could feel my body slow down. i had my flip-flops on so that helped me feel like a pilgrim. but everything is different. i can't really tell yet if the place is really different, or if i am the one who is different, or if i am in a different realm of travel so it just looks different.
getting off the plane all those years ago, the airport looked like a washed out, pissed over greyhound station. there were lots of beggars IN the airport. people in rags without teeth. men just standing around holding automatic weapons but doing nothing. women in torn saris cleaning bathrooms, sleeping in bathrooms on cardboard IN THE BATHROOM, etc. there were just a handful of westerners and everyone else seemed to want to touch me. i was most definitely a foreigner.
the airport is not the same, at least in my perception. it is now clean and well maintained. i saw no beggars. the immigration went super smoothly. not problems, no issues.
last time my backpack was the LAST piece of luggage to come out. it was two hours of waiting for luggage. this time, mine was in the middle of all the luggage (so much for priority) but the whole system was much smoother. within an hour of landing, i am quite certain everyone had their bags. also, there wasn't the crush of the line. last time, in line for immigration, people were pushing and shoving and just throwing their passports at the immigration officers. this time, people were calm, stayed in line, did what they were told. same at the luggage. last time i thought i was going to be hurled onto the rickety conveyor belt, this time no one was pushing. people were polite. so different.
the biggest, strangest difference i saw was coming out of the airport. years ago when i walked out into my first foreign country, i had no idea where i was going. it was 5:am and i needed food. i was tagging along with some other travelers who were going to the leopold cafe (later made infamous by the terrorist attacks). we walked out of the airport and there was an amazing crush of people. rickshaw-wallas, taxi-wallas, prostitutes, who knows who else was there. people were grabbing at us and pulling on us. i was totally wigged out. this guy i was tagging along with, pulled me into one of the taxis. i was scared to death. am i being kidnapped? what is happening??!!! it was one of those old white ambassador taxis. the driver pulled away and i thought we would die. the driver was a maniac. we sped through the city in the morning. people were starting to work. we passed the slums and the kid with diarrhea and the woman cleaning out the open sewer, colorful tata trucks and slum after slum after slum they didn't end. i could see nothing redeeming about the place. it seemed like the hell of the earth. it was scary, unfair and wild.
this time as i walked to get out of the hotel there was order. walking out of the airport, there wasn't a crush of people. you have to walk along a wall of windows to get the the exit. i think it is so you can see if where the person you are meeting is. there were lots of people, but they weren't pushing and pulling on people. i spotted a man holding a sign "mr. teabelly" as i passed around to the exit. outside there is a yellow barrier that keeps the travelers and the "picker-uppers" separate. no one was crossing the yellow barrier. there wasn't a rickshaw to be found. just people holding signs, and official taxis. no shouting. no touching. i walked up to the man holding the "mr. teabelly sign". and we walked on either side of the yellow barrier until we could actually meet. he took my bags, walked me to a mercedes, offered me bottled water, and drove me to the hotel.
so who knows what it is. i am a different kind of traveler. i have work to do, a real mission. i know where i am going and i have money to pay for it. then i hadn't been out of the US. in fact, i the biggest city i had been in was LA and the farthest away from gilbert i had been was austin, tx. maybe 38 (or so) countries changes you? maybe i don't see things the same. it isn't as scary, it isn't as unfamiliar, it isn't foreign anymore. can india become not foreign?
also, i have money. a few days in this country and the US government will have spent well over the $700 i survived on for 3 months (or however long i was here). maybe that is it. i have become that person i hated to see. the ex-pat that was so removed from the "real" india that they never saw it. last time i was here i road second-class non-a/c trains. now it seems that i don't even have time for trains, i will fly. and the flights seem cheap. so has that changed me? am i a different because i now travel with money and live in excess?
my hotel room has two bathrooms. it has a jacuzzi tub. 2 huge flat screen t.v. what is all this? the india i visited before is not the same one as it was when i came 12 years ago. that is certain. i am just not sure why? there are still slums. i can see them outside my window. i saw a father walking his child in the moonlight during the call to prayer through the slum of scrap wood and corrugated steel. it makes me wonder how i ended up here? an american, with an education, working for the US government, with access to the white house and health secretaries. how in the world has this happened to me and that guy down there, in the slums, how did he end up there?
i was listening to cnn while i unpacked. someone had figured out that if they took all the stimulus money and doled it out to every human being alive on the planet. everyone would get $1200. maybe that is a better solution? $1200 to that guy walking his child during prayers would probably change his whole life. what would happen? that money would FLOW into the economy. it would probably move all over. it might change the entire power structure though. india and china would get the most money because they have the most people. it would flow through all sorts of shops and up and up and up. anyway, that is a different topic.
this feels like a return. a homecoming. it also feels like it is a new place, strange, unknown. i am excited for the next couple of weeks. really excited to be over jet lagged and get some breakfast this morning. i don't expect that india will change me like it did last time, but maybe it will remind me of why i got into this business in the first place. it tugs at something in me, that is for sure. it makes me pause. it slows me down.