Friday, March 12, 2004

Having landed 

Last few weeks, I was thinking it's all been said, if not done, many times over- nothing I can write about India can be remotely original or vaguely interesting. As dusk falls at the end of my first day here, the mosaic of colors and smells and sensations and visuals are still with me. It feels kinda trite, but what can you do- it will only ever be this one time that I get my first day in India.

I am under a fan recylcing the hot air, redolent of the exhaust fumes that rise over Bangalore, inside an Internet cafe that doesn't serve coffee, just off the famous MG [Mahatma Gandi] road where many of the expensive shops are. The radio is blasting popular music on the city's "hot" station, with the English-speaking anouncer sharing info about the weekend's big parties. Spotted two of only five Westerners I have seen all day, here. Sinking gratefully into the familiar process of checking email. I used to scoff at the notion of being exhausted within a few hours of being outside in a big city here, but I kinda see how that can happen, now.

You know you are on your way to India when the Air India stewardess calls over another, who in turn gets the head steward and they all assemble around your seat debating the nature of the pudding you are served (consensus was that it was phirdi, a wheat-based yellow-hued custard)- and invite you to join them at Hotel Delhi for some REAL dessert. When the stewardess brusquely shoves the fish at your seatmate, even though he wanted chicken, twinkle just visible under her scowl. When a request for "veg" option is not met with a raised eyebrow. When your travel agent books you on a direct flight, London-Mumbai-Bangalore, that ends up also including a brief two-hour layover in Delhi. No-problem.

You know you are in India when the smells of the airport are somewhat similar to how the old airport oin Athens was, in the 80s; cigarette smoke and old carpet and closed spaces and unbathed bodies and synthetic fabrics and exgaust fumes and airplane waste. Seeing a swarm of sparrow-size mosquitoes flying every which way on the smaller plane to Bangalore, you think of the 3 bites you already got on your ankles and wonder if sucking it up and spending a couple of hundred dollars on those malaria pills was maybe not as superfluous as it seemed from NY. When you see a poster of Sai Baba alongside a neon image of Ganesha as you change money at the airport (note: not worth doing. You can get better rates in town, if you have enough to see you there- not Nilgiri's though, whose rates are even worse). When even at 6 in the morning, the traffic and crowds and pollution and busy-ness are enough to send you back to the quiet room for a five hour nap, after just a couple of hours of sightseeing.

I am bringing some gifts for some Tibetans here, and they were gracious enough to pick me up from the airport. I am traveling with entirely too much luggage, just an embarassing amount of stuff. Here I am, on my way to enlightenment, and I am clinging to the reassurances of having all the stuff I could possibly need- antibacterial wipes and 3 pairs of sunglasses and moisturizers and bathing suits and enough underwear to see me through about 2 months without having to do a wash. Globetrekker, I ain't. Although I do have a backpack. Borrowed though it may be, it's an image I can live with. Also a decent-sized duffle bag and an enormous suitcase. Hey, I am traveling for 6 months!! So the Tibetans joked that they thought maybe we would take a rickshaw into town, but upon needing two grown men to coax my stuff off the cart, there was no way we would fit so we took a taxi.

They live in the old part of town, Sivasomething, that somehow feels more real than the palm tree lined avenues and apartment complexes in the neighborhood I am in now. Their home is in a narrow alley just off a busy area where one of the main bus stations is at. Narrowly avoided stepping down onto poop, just as I got off the cab. Literally, my first step down would've been right on it. And it wasn't doggy-poop. We arrrived just before dawn, and daylight broke as I stood transfixed at the view from their balcony. There is a pretty spectacular tiny temple dedicated to Ram, with sun-washed deities populating its outside walls and towering up to the skies. There is also a mosque, a little further off, and, they tell me, a Christian Church around the corner. The apartment is very different from anything my Westernized sensibilities know. You sit on the floor and "go" in the hole that is just off the balcony and wash with the help of a basin and pitcher. Which I was very relieved to do, after about 20 hours of plane-time and nearly two days' travel-time. Felt human for about an hour and then exhaustion hit, as my host took me around town and showed offf the numerous gardens and parks and a couple of impressive-looking buildings like the High Court and the base for the State's parliamentary reps. I faded fast. Cars and buses and bicycles coming at me from the other direction of where I am looking and stares, stares from everyone. No westerners. Which part of me really digs. Hightailed it back for a nap, which no doubt was a disappointment to my host since he took the day off (they have a shop in the Tibetan Center that sells stuff like purses and shoes and fabrics) to show me around. I pledged, sleep for one hour only. Slept through my alarm and didn't emerge until about four. Everyone talks about the heat, and maybe because I slept through the hottest hours of the day, I don't see what the big deal is. It's hot and stinky but man, I grew up in Athens in the 80s. We did not have AC anywhere, then.

It is amazing, this area. There is a Subway sandwich place that smells exactly like the outlets in America, with that same smell of fresh-baking bread pervading the surrounding 3 blocks; one of few Kentucky Fried Chickens is here, as is Baskin Robbins and Pizza Hut. No McDonald's. There are shopping malls and Internet cafes and unpaved sidewalks and street vendors. I am amazed, and try to wipe the smile off my face. Almost got me in trouble, as I smiled to myself and looked up as a youngish guy was checking me out. Took me a few minutes of walking to realize he had followed me and was about to speak to me. I give him the Look and changed directions, like don't you even THINK about it. He didn't follow.

There is definitely an element of macho bravado, here. Dude, I am a New Yorker, she says. Striding purposefully through harried pedestrians, seemingly unperturbed as a busload of commuters just stare, looking straight ahead as the little beggar-girl trails her pulling at her sleeve: please miss, please. Not sure whether it will crumble or be strengthened, but for now the all-pervading attitude and oft-repeated refrain is: No-problem. Accompanied by the head nod I am looking to perfect, in the coming days and weeks.

The Tibetans will host me for a couple of days, and I may check out Sai Baba's summer ashram that is 45 minutes from here. Then, Mysore next week. Am planning for my first day to be 5 months to the day from that morning when Guruji said to me, at The Puck in NY: "you come to Mysore, when?" and I told him, next year. So, March 17th it will be. And I have somewhere to land; overpriced though it may be (5000 ruppees for one month or 1250 for one week or 2500 for a fortnight), it will be safe and 5 houses away from the shala. No-problem.

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