Thursday, April 26, 2007

Five Hops, Four Skips, And A Jump

I arrived in Delhi around 10am after a three-hour flight from Chennai and proceeded from the airport to Paharganj, the backpacker area near the central train station. With only 30 hours left in my least favorite city ever, it didn’t seem so bad. I spent a few hours resting in a tiny, windowless room at the top of three flights of dark, vertiginously steep stairs. There was just enough room beside the bed for my bag and a tiny TV stand with peeling lacquer. After my 3am departure from Auroville and all the hours that came between it and the hotel room, TV seemed about the right speed. When I attempted to turn it on, all I got was static, so I took a nap instead.

In the late-afternoon, I ventured out for some last minute shopping, and stopped at a restaurant where I had eaten on my last visit to Delhi. It’s long and narrow, barely accommodating a row of tiny, two-tops. The cashier is at the front, which opens directly into Paharganj Main Bazaar, and the kitchen is on top of a tiny set of improvised stairs at the back. At the stairs, the hall branches right to accommodate two more small tables, claustrophobically closed off from the street and below the opening in the floor above the stairs. That’s where I found myself, seated next to a handsome, young Basque named Paulo. It turned out that he was leaving for Europe the next morning after several months, so we were in the same situation, living out our final hours India. Paulo asked me what I thought of the place. Not content with my answer, which didn’t include anything metaphysical, he asked if I thought it was true, what so many people seem to think, that India is an especially spiritual land.

My initial answer was no, I don’t think spirituality is place-contingent, but as I kept talking, it came out that I did think there was something unique going on. Of all the places I have been, India challenges your boundaries most. If you’re afraid of dirt, unimaginably disgusting events will ensue. If you have personal space requirements, they will be constantly violated. If you’re stingy, people will try their best to part you and your money, and if you hate noise, you’ll be drowned in the cacophony. I know, sounds extremely un-magical, but I learned a lot by having to constantly readjust my own requirements, and on the positive side, when you really need something, a friend, a laugh, a plan, India delivers. It’s probably not magic; rather it’s the fact that there are so many people and so few enforced rules that anything can, and does, happen.

When I returned to the hotel, I mentioned that my TV had no reception, and the manager said he’d send a boy up to check on it. Thirty minutes later, he jiggled the cable cord barely connected to the wall by one wire, and pointed and clicked the remote to confirm that no channels were coming in. Satisfied that it really did not work, he informed me that the problem was my 350 Rupee room. The rooms for 400 had working TVs, while the others, apparently, featured broken ones. Without a TV or a book, and having had enough of the street for one day, I went through my bag, discarding all the things that were too tattered and dirty for America.

I spent the next day hanging around: I didn’t have to leave for the airport until 7pm, I didn’t have any shopping to do, and I didn’t feel like making any last minute excursions, so I sat at a street-side table and marveled at the goings on. Bloated cows and mangy dogs scavenged the narrow street amidst multi-direction, laneless traffic, tourists, locals, auto-rickshaws, bicycle-rickshaws, cars and carts, all managing, eventually, to make progress in their chosen direction. Across the street from me a vagrant boy sat down in a gap between a motorcycle and a makeshift stall on the edge of traffic, spent 15 minutes constructing an ingenious house out of trash, and then went around trying to sell it. It was election season, so local campaigners in rickshaws plastered with oily smiles and slogans drove slowly up and down the street, playing music and shouting from bullhorns at volumes that obscured their messages in feedback.

Three stories up, atop a sign suspended from a window by a rusted cable, two pigeons pecked at each other and retreated to opposite ends of their narrow platform. One flew at the other and landed atop its back then hopped back into its own corner, where the other returned the attack. There wasn’t any food up there to fight over, so I was curious about their point of contention. Watching this go on for several minutes, these two birds with open air on either side into which they could easily fly away rather than continue their pointless pecking, it struck me that this was India’s gift to me: I now understood that if something bothers you, it's absurd to stand there and fight it, because pecking at something is just a waste of time when the possibilities are endless.

Eventually, the pigeons figured it out too, and I went to my room to shower in preparation for the big journey: after liftoff from Delhi, I would be 42 hours in transit. An hour later, bag in tow, I went back to the same café, where I had arranged for a taxi to the airport. While I waited, a skinny man emerged from an alley carrying a political banner about one storey tall and three quarters the width of the street. He held onto the canvas sign by the cross-supports on the back as he made his way, amazingly, across the street to a bicycle rickshaw. Once he and the sign mounted into the passenger seat, the driver began to pedal slowly, and they somehow made progress: apparently, anything is possible. I was late to the airport due to my tardy taxi, and there was a line 30 minutes long just to enter, but eventually I was seated in a jet, full of anticipation. I took five different airplanes, meeting an old friend during my Seoul layover and having dinner with an uncle and aunt at LAX. Two days after I left the ground in Delhi, I was greeted in Virgina by a little brother, a gentle mother, and an adorable dog.



Blogger kmjns said...

Desiree, I feel I have come to the end of this long journey with you. Thank you for every moment. I will most likely never take the trip to India myself, but I lived it thru you. And I thank you for that. Come visit Annapolis soon. Romeo and I are in the old house on President St again.~Megan

11:20 AM GMT-5  
Blogger Desiree said...

Thanks Megan, I appreciate that, really. I'm looking foreward to seeing the old place sometime, and Sir said he wants to meet Romeo.

5:40 PM GMT-5  
Blogger Christa said...

I neeeeeeeeed an epilogue. :)

1:40 AM GMT-5  

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