Stories from the trip to India
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Jan. 15th 2004. I am happy to report to you that I arrived safely in Calcutta last night, mostly problem free... after 4 full days of travel (Toronto to NY, NY to London (England), London to Bombay (India) Bombay to Delhi, Delhi to Calcutta). Having seen more 747 planes in succession than I ever have in my life, I'll be ready to make a few train journeys from here onwards (another "first" for me) but this won't happen for another week or so. I expected to be culture shocked, and I am not disappointed. I am in awe, taking in the teeming life of this incredible country. Let me fill in some details for you.
I got sick with a throat/sinus thing on the flight from NY City to London and tried to do the best I could, I swear. I drank huge amounts of liquids on the plane, some of which were. complimentary wine, gin and tonics, and baileys on the rocks. It felt good at the time, but I should have been drinking clean water while I could get it. It was a huge Air India flight, which meant that the plane windows were decorated on the outside like little palace windows (cheesy, but fun) and I was being offered super spicy dishes for EVERY meal including breakfast. My stomach was in shock. My limbs were stiff. My eyes burned, trying to watch a movie without the headphones, because I couldn't admit to myself that I was interested.
Our plane (which left London headed for Delhi) was forced to stop in Bombay (now known as Mumbai) instead of flying the direct route because the smog is particularly severe in the winter months, making it hard to land planes there at night. The airline put us up in a hotel called the Tulip Star about 30 minutes from the airport. All of us climbed on a bus headed to this place, and the ride was CRAZY. I loved every minute of it, I was going out of my mind. the overwhelming smell of open sewers, entire families making fires and evening meals on the side of the road, the lush and glossy green vines and feathery palms, everything so "other". Leaving a Canadian winter behind and entering this completely new world of warm humid air made me feel as if India and my home in Canada had changed places in my heart.
So the bus window was open, and my head was sticking out, dodging banana leaves and betel spit with my mouth open and eyes wide. Neophyte nostrils flared with heaviness of diesel fumes, incense, and the rest of those sweet smells of everything Indian. One of the sweetest things I saw on the way to the tulip star was the way every inch of real estate was used: I saw the tiniest of working spaces for a tailor which was a 4 foot by 4 foot balcony space possibly 6 feet deep. The table was maybe 2 feet off the ground and an ancient singer sewing machine sat there waiting for its next job. This was built about 7 feet off the ground over top of other shack like shops, and other balcony's and windows and walls were built around this little sewing space. Life upon life upon life.
How can I explain to you the houses, like poured concrete boxes falling apart with grime and 50 year old paint and charcoal stains? Tiny huts selling a little bit of everything, sometimes no bigger than 5 by 6 feet. People sleeping everywhere, covered in small blankets, or the clothing they own. In one corner, women with their sari ends over their sleeping heads are curled up close for warmth like puppies on the ground. Beside them, two young women are still awake, talking around a small fire as our bus passes under the bridge where they have made their home. Warm orange light makes their faces beautiful and then they are gone and some other beauty takes their place. Stray dogs, thousands of them in every color, search for scraps in the cool of the evening. Unless they have refined taste, (and they don't) their luck will be good. Garbage is everywhere, and dirty plastic bags are thick like the fall leaves under a Canadian maple. Beauty and ugliness circle around each other, dancing in the backwash of this waterfall that becomes my first memory of India. My eyes blur. I hide myself in my shawl, quietly overwhelmed. What could I show you if my heart could take pictures?
The tulip star. This monster of a building was such a contrast to everything I had seen from the windows of the bus. It had the appearance of a "five star" hotel from the outside, with the interior of "one star." Oh the luxury of the moist carpet and sheets, heavy with the damp night air. We eyed the label-less bottled water with suspicion and went to sleep.
We landed this morning in Delhi, and Chris booked two tickets for our flight to Calcutta leaving in the early afternoon. I think I was supposed to be excited about a glimpse of the Himalayas but I was too drugged with all these new experiences to care.
Getting off the plane at the Calcutta airport, I found a bathroom and took my first "hole in the ground" crouching pee. Washing my backside with water using my left hand, while trying to keep my sari end out of the hole was something I should have practiced. My evil handbag was wooing the sodden floor. I struggled to avoid mopping the cement with it, thankful that my body was currently transporting liquids and not solids. Chris grinned at me when I walked out. I grinned back. I was going to have to poop at some point, but not quite yet.
Calcutta's welcoming committee greeted us as we stepped onto the street. Ten or more prospective taxi drivers caught sight of our luggage-weighted bodies and followed behind Chris yelling "hello sir!" in an anarchy-driven chorus. Avoiding their hospitality, Chris steered me around them like a rapid snakes and ladders game, and headed to the pre-paid taxi booth. Experience does "not pay" what these friendly drivers wanted to charge us and we hopped into a yellow cab for a more reasonable price. I went from shocked to stiff with the anxiety of watching our taxi driver maneuver a route from the airport to the South India Club in the late afternoon traffic.
Cars are small here. It's a big country, but India knows how to pack ten people (carrying livestock) in a five-seater three-wheeler. There are monster buses carrying out the job of public transport; huge metal hulls like a fleet of retired airplanes with the wings chopped off. They're painted all sorts of bright colors, with fancy script and pictures like a circus or gypsy cart. Most sport an old pair of shoes hung by their laces from the back (to ward off the evil eye). Also along that line of spiritual protection are the elaborately scrolled signs in Hindi warning "those who look with the evil eye, may their face go black!!" etc. and of course there will be a sign that says HORN PLEASE! because there are lines on the road, but NO ONE USES THEM.
The way you pass other traffic is by honking your horn, and everyone is always passing, all the time, in the most insane ways possible. Cows, chickens, children, dogs, men and women are crossing the street in every direction like crows flying across a field. A bullock cart (crude wooden wagon usually drawn by a long- horned bull) carrying a load of melons is trying to cross in the path of an oncoming bus. Bright yellow cabs that look vintage 1950 turn the corner en mass like a swarm of wasps. Little mini cars called auto rickshaws (with one wheel in the front and two wheels in the back) belch black smoke and dart in and out of the main flow of traffic. Carts pulled by humans, bicycles with liquid refreshment strapped to the back, and every kind of invented wheeled thing is trying to get to where it wants, on it's own terms, in it's own particular way. Horns, horns, and more horns are blasting. In fact, sometimes someone will sound their horn as a warning, to be followed by ten other cars who will blow theirs for the hell of it.
Here is the typical Indian way to drive:
Rule 1. Gain the top speed of your vehicle. If you are an auto-rickshaw that will be 40 miles an hour. If you are a small taxi, that will be 60 miles an hour. If you are a bus, then 80 miles an hour is your maximum speed on a main road between cities (and Chris informs me that this speed is "scary as all get out"). For everything else (folks on foot, bicycles pulling carts, bullock carts, rickshaws) the rule is "run like hell" if you can.
Rule 2. Decrease the distance between you and the vehicle ahead of you. Until you have about 2 feet between the both of you, keep going at top speed, then honk your horn as if your life depended on it. (Horns come in a variety of every tone, but mostly the volume is LOUD)
Rule 3. Begin passing along the right or left, whatever you feel like, JUST KEEP SOUNDING YOUR HORN AS IF YOUR LIFE DEPENDED ON IT, BECAUSE IT DOES. Pay no attention to the lines of the road at all. They are a trick of the current ruling party in power to enforce some sort of system. This is nonsense, so just "go for it." It doesn't matter that the two lanes running in one direction already have three cars abreast, you can always squeeze something else in there (Basically, think like a fat guy at an all-you-can-eat buffet).
Rule 4. Judge carefully what you can get away with. If the vehicle you are passing is a bus (approx. 50 feet by 15 wide with about 150 people inside at max. capacity, not including chickens/goats etc.) then you must be prepared to yield a little, especially if you are an auto-rickshaw.
SPECIAL NOTE! IF you have a small shrine of Ganesh, the very popular elephant headed god (and others who are favorable to your cause) secured on your front dashboard, AND if the shrine is surrounded by multi-colored electric lights blinking on and off, AND if there are garlands of marigolds around the statues of your gods, AND.there are offerings of nice and tasty sweets, then, and only then will you be able to make exceptions to the above rule.
Rule 5. PASS and then stop honking.
Rule 6. Continue in the above manner until you reach your destination.
We arrived at our accommodations alive, and I think praying had something to do with it. (Compared to the taxi ride we would take along the Grand Trunk Road only nine days later, this first trip was comparable to a paddle-boat ride in a glassy pond)
The South India Club is a lot like a community center with budget rooms and an on-site restaurant. This is our home for the next eleven days, hidden in the heart of the older "non-tourist" part of the city near the Gariahat market. It's a simple place that has enough character to keep me happy. Staying here is possible only because Chris speaks the language fluently, and we are able to interact with the folks in the market and at this hotel who are not fluent in English. I have a room on the second floor that looks out onto some decaying buildings and banana trees in the garden next door. The bathroom is completely tiled with a drain in one corner. It boasts an English style toilet (leaking as usual) and a small sink. There's a shower-head that doesn't work, because it's expected that you'll be taking a bucket bath like everyone else. If you want hot water, someone has to bring you some in a plastic bucket. The mattress on the bed is hard, like a piece of wood with half an inch of fluff and cotton covering it. The floor is polished cement, rust-red in color, and the door and window trim is bright neon blue. It's clean, and I am terribly happy.
The doors of my room have a huge bolt on the inside that keeps mean people from coming in. There's also a huge bolt on the outside so you can lock your room when you leave for the day. It gets locked with the kind of lock you used in ninth grade to lock your high-school locker with, only this is how everyone locks up anything, including their houses. I am afraid that this means someone can also bolt you into your own room if they want to. The possibility of this makes me nervous about any building in India, especially since glass windows don't exist here. Instead, wrought iron grates are fitted over every window, with shutters to keep out the elements. I try not to think about fires, or being locked in my room from the outside, unable to escape out the window. On the flip side, any creature of the animal kingdom five inches or smaller can crawl in. That's a lot of possible wildlife coming into my bedroom. The smells of Rashbehari Ave, the cold draft at night, or the heat of the day creep in and out freely. The mosquito's do likewise.
It's all about planning. Chris had this beautiful old-fashioned mosquito net hanging in his very bug-free NY apt. I figured it would come in handy if we packed it for the India trip. So tonight we pulled it out and he helped me rig it above my bed. I will be very happy to NOT get malaria. There are more mosquito's here than I thought, and I'm not on any sort of medication due to the advice of several people who told me to take certain precautions but not worry about the pills. I was feeling particularly cheap back in Canada, so this advice worked for me.
I've met Krishna and his lady friend who are from Bihar. They are also staying at the South India Club for about a week. He's an older gentleman in his mid 50's (I'm guessing) who's politically motivated and speaks English well. He talks to me about how he is teaching Bihari women the Hindi script through art classes, using the art that is already famous in that region. He's an interesting guy, but what I really want to do is talk with the woman traveling with him, who is like a student (with benefits, I'm pretty sure). She's younger than he is, by about 20 years maybe and she doesn't speak English, so it's tough. We smile a lot at each other. Before bed, I hear her in the communal bathroom, coughing up huge chunks of lung. I assume she is suffering from the same pollution that is quickly turning my mucous membranes into super glue, even though I haven't been here more than one day.
Sleep evades me like a client owing money. It's 2:30 AM and there's this terrible need to pee. I crawl out from under the bug netting to find the leaky toilet in the dark. The night is terribly quiet but my thoughts are buzzed. I've seen too much stuff in too short a time. I am trying to process. I toss around from position to position, imagining that I am being bitten by something. All you have to do is THINK that something is biting you and it will feel like it's truly happening. Your body will completely co-operate with your imagination and invent itches for you. More impressive gagging and coughing from the communal bathroom beside my room wakes me from several half dreams at a little past 3, and I am getting edgy and depressed.
At 4:30 AM a few crows begin to settle into the palms outside my blue shuttered windows, starting the morning chatter at volume 1. In an hour, the noise has risen to volume 11 and I now realize with despair that there will be no sleep for me. Indian crows are the same size of our North American crows but slightly more purplish in color. In fact, I would go so far as to say that their looks are prettier, but their cries are darker, more "bass" in tone, as if the pollution has kept them congested like most of the humans here. Twenty crows sitting in my courtyard challenge another gang of birds in the courtyard next door like a gang of pissed-off rappers growling VaaK! VaaK! VaaK!
There's a second kind of bird preaching this morning and I don't know its name. The way it sings is so unlike any Canadian species that I wrote the notation down in my notebook. It's very curious, a composition in 4/4 time, that repeats over and over, like a kirtan, increasing with intensity until the bird goes nuts and rapid fires the last note ten times or more.
5:30 AM and someone under my window is washing metal pots, tossing cutlery onto the stones. Car horns begin. I sigh. Tankers in the harbor sound their horns and in the distance a damp reverb clings to the sound. A vegetable walla moves his wares down the road calling "heeyyyyy.. Ooohhhh" letting housewives know he is passing. The soft flap-flap-flap-flap of a large winged bird passes over the palms. I'm exhausted but wide-awake hearing everything. I think this is called jet lag and I have never had it before.
We're not wasting any time. I will start my tabla lessons today, on my second official day in Calcutta. My guru (teacher), Gouri Shankar, lives about 2 hours away in the town of Srirampur, and I am looking forward (I think) to a very challenging route to get there. Chris is going with me and I am secretly glad even though I told him I could do it on my own. It's a two-hour trip on foot, bus, open door train, and bicycle rickshaw. I am out of my element and scared. There's a brand-new-very-unlike "me" that is shy and can't speak the language or look into the eyes of the 20 Indian men who are staring at me and not smiling while I keep my eyes focused on my lap.
Gouri Shankar is a man with quick wit and an easy laugh. He's an amazing musician, and performs all over the world, often in the United States. I know that he's familiar with the culture of both North America and India so I don't have to feel too shy. I can tell that I will enjoy having him as my Guru-ji. Chris is listening to the lesson and asking questions on my behalf that will allow him to coach me later on, which is really good. We are also recording the lessons on our mini disc walk-man so I can spend the next year concentrating on the lessons learned while I'm in Calcutta for two weeks. My legs aren't used to sitting cross-legged for two or more hours at a time, and I know Chris feels my pain. He remembers earlier lessons with his sitar teacher that left him feeling crippled too.
Whoa. Here I am with a brand new beautiful tabla set. I've made the leap into Indian Classical music and now face the next twenty or more years to learn one of the most difficult rhythm instruments. What am I doing? I don 't even feel like I have enough time in this life to write songs anymore! I keep my little fears to myself and learn to play Te Re Ke Te - Ta Ko Ta Ko - Ta Ko Ta Ko - Te Re Ke Te. Then we have an amazing Bengali meal cooked by Gouri's wife and we head back to the South India Club.
In the train station beggar children giggle at the white skinned sari clad girl and run at us, crying out "Hari Krishna! Hari Krishna!" anxious for rupees. I'm ashamed that I can't speak more of the language because I want to communicate and the six Hindi classes I took back in Canada aren't enough. I laugh about how many times my mind has drawn a blank forgetting my lyrics (the ones I apparently know)on stage. This is the girl who's trying to learn a new language? Ha!
Jan 18th. It's early Sunday morning and what I want is a nice plain hot cereal of steel-cut oats this morning, on my forth day in Calcutta (Oh merciful Lord, send Gruel!) I want toast and jam, or fruit. I want something that you can't sneak one speck of hot chili into. I want it so bad I might cry in the next minute or so if I don't get it. What I'm going to have placed in front of me (if I go down to the kitchen) is an exceedingly hot, slightly sour and greasy South Indian dosa (pancake like a crepe, filled with spiced potato, chutneys on the side and a watery sambar (lentil dish). This will be my forth dosa day. I don't know if Chris has noticed that I am eating less and less at every meal. I can't help it. Honestly, I liked Indian food when I could have it by choice. Chris is a smart guy in that he has stayed at the South India Club before and knows that it's one of the cleaner eating places around. There's a really good reason why we're continuing to eat meals here. But I am beginning to feel sorry for myself. My stomach is tight and hard with hunger and I've been up with coughing most of the night. The flu bug I caught on the plane is staging a coup. I'm losing.
The stoic and gruff cook working in the kitchen of the South India Club has been taking note that the white memsahib on second floor (who happens to be the only white memsahib for a mile around) hasn't been eating any of his nice food. He approaches Chris to find out what the matter is. Chris tells him "The memsahib is not so used to the hot food." Cook says "Go to the market and buy her banana, bread and jam and boiled egg. You make Memsahib happy". My prayers are answered! God bless the cook!
Chris and I sit on a bench looking over the courtyard and eat fresh Papaya (with lime) on a bright green banana leaf. He is traveling to an area outside of Calcutta called "Salt Lake City" where his Guru, Partha Chatterjee will give him his first lesson of the year. I'll be staying behind to rest and watch a presentation of South India music and dance that will be taking place this evening in the hall on the third floor.
Monday Jan. 19th. Feeling very sick with the flu, coughing all night. Chris has brought me fresh roses, a pomegranate, some fruit that looks like mushy crab apples, a few oranges and some little bananas. These sorts of presents make me overwhelmed with happiness.
I made the right choice when I packed more handkerchiefs than underwear for this trip. I hardly use the latter and have gone through all three handkerchiefs yesterday. Last night they were so used up that I began blowing my nose into the shawl of my salwar kameez. Oh if only I could find some real alive peppermint tea!
My Guru visits the South India Club and I have another lesson in the afternoon that totally drains me. I can't focus, can't believe I'll ever get good at this, can't feel happy in my own skin. My teacher leaves and I proceed to hit a fever of 101 degrees. Chris finds a really nice woman doctor who's on call with the South India Club and she checks me out. The fever breaks around 1 or 2 AM and I sleep.
I get my first real appetite on Wednesday after a dholak lesson, and we head to Sadar Street and the Newmarket area where the tourists live. The best oatmeal I ever had. Boiled egg and boiled vegetables, mashed potatoes and spring rolls. Heaven has come down to earth. Then we stroll to the Raymond suit people. Chris gets measured up for a suit, choosing some beautiful black merino wool fabric.
We take a chance and find a restaurant serving Chinese food. I know Chinese food because I live in Toronto and you can get the real thing there. In India, what is called Chinese is a hybrid of Indian and Chinese cooking that has chilies in it.
There's a big wedding celebration being held at the South India Club this evening and we have made friends with some of the bride's family. They've been really kind, making us feel welcome and allowing us to take as many photos as we want. It's my first time witnessing (with such detail) a Bengali Wedding and I have taken about 4 rolls of film. I've also gotten brave and wandered around on my own today, taking pictures around the neighborhood; men with yokes carrying water, and rickshaw wallas sleeping on the sidewalk. Until I can speak the language I am going to be shy like I was in kindergarten or grade school and so I end up mostly taking photos of non-threatening buildings and bamboo scaffolding.
In the mornings a very nice older man from Nepal (who doesn't speak English) drops by my room. His job is to make sure that my floor is washed clean and smells nicely of Dettol (another very Indian smell). If I have managed to crawl out of bed before he gets to me (and wash, brush, put on my sari, braid my hair, and make the bed) I'll open the wooden doors so I can feel a little social. Curtains in front of these doors give you some privacy and I made the assumption that no one would dare to stick their head into my room since I was technically "out of sight". Not true. I learned that if you've unlocked your door, someone is likely to come in. A teenaged newspaper boy drove this point home by busting in on me yesterday, with only my underskirt and sari blouse to keeping my privates from shame. Trust me, in India, this ain't enough covering for a proper lady. I stammered one of the only Hindi words I knew which was "ek" (the word for "one" that is pronounced a little like the English word "ache") and added the English word for "minute" hoping he'd understand to come back "in one minute". I found that the proper hand motions for "get out of my room!" also worked pretty well.
The older man from Nepal is courteous. Making his rounds, he will stand outside my room, cough a mild little "memsahib, I am here" cough and wait for my appropriate response. At first, both of us stood rather awkwardly and looked at each other from the corner of our eyes, trying to smile, unsure of what to do. I wasn't sure why he was there at my door, and he wasn't sure how to tell me what he wanted. Like I said, he's the one that brings me hot water in a pail for bathing, or washes my floor, but I am flustered because I don't know enough about how things are supposed to work culturally. He is flustered because I stay in the room instead of exiting when he's working in my room, but I don't know that yet. I solved this by asking Chris about protocol and I learned something new about how things generally work:
Woman in bedroom= DO NOT ENTER; PROBLEM
Woman not in bedroom=OK, NO PROBLEM.
No matter how hard I try to do the right thing while I am here, I usually end up getting it wrong.
Chris's parents used to be doctors in a little village in Nepal. His dad wrote about the experience in several books. One of the chapters was titled "Natives 1, Visitors 0." That's one of the best tongue-in-cheek ways to describe my next three months in India.
In Brief, (because my back is really sore from typing all of this.and are you guys reading this anyway?)
31st of Jan. we left for Chandigarh where Chris performed some concerts. We visited the famous Rock Garden, which was amazing, and then took a day trip to Simla, where all the Indian newlyweds go for honeymoon. Sadly, most of the photos I took of that time were stolen from our suitcase and chucked in a Brooklyn garbage can sometime this April (a whole other story!)
Feb. 8th, we survived a bus ride from Chandigarh to Delhi and I met my first cow in the middle of the roadway. Our visit to the Taj Majal on the 10th is one I hope never to repeat. I do have some nice pictures of that trip though. Back in Delhi, Chris performed several concerts while we visited with Stefan, a friend of ours who's an amazing artist and visionary living about 45 min. outside of the city. Pete, Chris's partner in the band "Aradhna" flew in on the 13th, and I did a show with them at a local coffeehouse. Fiona (who is now Pete's new wife!) showed up later that same night (coming from England ) on a surprise visit to scare the crap out of him.
Feb 16th. An all night train ride dumped the four of us in Lucknow (where Chris used to live for about 8 years) and we spend the day hanging out with a ton of friends. Peter's birthday was on the 17th so he made us all eat butter chicken at the traditional roadside place he loves. Breaking my rule of "in India I am vegetarian," I committed sin. Paying for it 4 hours later, (and singing 20/20 in the morning) around 3 am, I lost everything in my system from both ends - at the same time. All of us got sick in the end. By the 21st, we had all recovered and visited at least one small rural village for a concert where Chris and Pete were performing. Some of Chris's family arrived that day as well. This is where this section of my India story ends and becomes my wedding story.
For those of you who are still reading, we were in Varanasi from February 23rd to March 1st, and Rajasthan (Mandawa, Dundlod, Parasurampur, Jaipur, Jodhpur, Jaisalmer, and Barmer) from the 2nd of March until around the Beginning of April. We traveled for about 4 or 5 days to Ranikhet (UA) for hiking and concerts before leaving from Delhi on April 7th to go back to NY city. I got back to Canada on the 21st of April.
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