India hits you like a sucker punch to the gut.
You are now constantly alert. Your senses are in hyper drive because, if you dare let them slack, you may run the risk of being flattened by a auto-rickshaw or an errant elephant. It’s a visual and audio buffet. You are constantly evaluating — and re-evaluating — your surroundings against everything that you’ve ever known. Every guidebook will tell you that India is synonymous with old adage to ‘expect the unexpected’… but even then, this predictable ‘unexpected’ is never something that you could possibly compute to expect.
You find irony and juxtaposition on every street corner. You’ll spy a provocative billboard advertising that latest in Western women’s fashion just as a burka-clad woman walks beneath it. You’ll think you’ll hear the call to prayer on the station platform and realize that it is simply a blaring iPhone ring. You’ll be sent all over hell-and-creation in search of official stamps and seals and signatures, only to be told to write out a formal letter on the back of someone else’s crumpled up visa photocopy. You’ll pick up a magazine headlining India’s Independence Day in Hindi and open it up only to read a review of Justin Beeb’s latest and greatest in English. You’ll be told that Iranians and Americans hate each other, only to break bread and break fast with these new friends at sundown that day. You’ll be trucked around by an autowallah and realize that you feel safer than driving in New York City because, hell, in order to have survived in India this long, these people HAVE to be good drivers.
I braced myself for my landing in New Delhi: this, I was told, would be the supreme wake-up call. But, when I arrived in the airport: all was quiet. Where were the bustling bodies and drum and hum? No where to be seen. We silently exited the terminal and passed through customs without a word. Okay, I thought…it must be coming. Soon.
It didn’t quite come when I realized that we would be having orientation at the Taj, the crème-de-la-crème hotel in all of New Delhi. Fabulous digs, lots of good eats, and tons of conversation with fellow grantees. We attended sessions on how to avoid contracting the bubonic plague, why getting arrested here is a terrible idea and how yes-means-no and no-means-yes. Then, wrapping up orientation as quickly as it started, we were farmed out to our respective locations.
From there, I went to Aligarh to register with the local government — the fabled and dreaded FRO process of expat lore — because I am affiliated with a university there.
I rode there in the top bunk of a dark train sleeper car, snaked around all of my luggage. Inside, it was roughly 95 degrees with at 200% chance of humidity. About two hours had passed by the time we had stopped. I waited a minute. Out of curiosity I looked down to the man below me and asked, ‘Aligarh?’ to which he nodded and replied ‘Aligarh!’ WHAT?! So I threw myself off the bunk, hurled my luggage down and tried to scoot out of the car as fast as I could. A bumbling fool I was, a woman in a lime green sari came to my rescue. I hopped out of the car just as it started rolling again. And then, I looked around. I stopped. Have you ever had hundreds of sets of eyes boring into you? And that’s when it hit. I won’t give you the week in detail, but let’s just say it involved guesthouse rooms with dead-bolted steel doors and bars on the windows, bribery and dead puppies. (Contact me about this great vacation destination)
The outskirts are lush and green and on the way from the airport I saw kids playing soccer in empty lots and women selling clay pottery. I saw more pet dogs than stray dogs, and I figure any city that can take care of its animals must be alright (right?). Today I hopped in an auto-rickshaw to try to get a cell phone and internet stick, but had no luck with either. After some charades and some broken Marathi (heavy on the charades), my very nice rickshaw driver lead me into a few shops and I came back with some clean (ahh…) garb. I was hoping to make progress on the housing front, but no such luck today. Hopefully I’ll find some language classes, or at least a speaking buddy to help me along in the event I have an impulsive urge to buy street mangoes or the find need to yell obscenities.
But now, from the bed of my temporary hotel room, all is quiet. But, while writing this, I turned on the TV only to find ‘A Passage to India‘ playing on the old MGM movie station. I have to laugh. India has had a funny way of keeping me on my toes in large and small ways. I guess India initially hits you at once, like they say, but it keeps coming back in seismic waves. It has a constant way of reminding you that, sorry sista, you’re not in Kansas — or at Marist — any more. It’s these funny little things that happen here: the unexpected kindness and the cross-cultural communication missteps have been more shocking for me than seeing an elephant saunter down the street. It’s been a whirlwind week. To think that, this time last week I was home snuggled asleep seems so far off. I can’t even begin to fathom — or expect — what lies ahead in these next 9 months…