Two Journeys to India
“Repetition and recollection are the same movement, except in opposite directions, for what is recollected has been, is repeated backward.” –Soren Kierkegaard
My recent journey to India — almost exactly two years after a nearly identical journey to India — brought to mind Kierkegaard’s Repetition.
The main character performs an experiment: he wishes to relive a grand old time he had in a certain city staying in a certain hotel going to a certain theater to watch a certain show by repeating the experience. Of course, this is nearly impossible. The weather is different. A bunch of other details are different. And his emotional state is different. Bottom line: he is unable to replicate the grand old time he’d had before.
I’ve found it to be the case that, when I have a great or profound experience accompanied by nice emotions, and I wish to have those special feelings again, and I try to conjure them up by traveling to the site of them, I am sorely disappointed by the mediocrity of the repeated experience. Sometimes there is a feeling of emptiness at the way time has changed and eroded the once-hallowed ground. The people have moved away and moved on. The old hangouts have shut down. They paved paradise, put up a parking lot. Etc. Conversely, when on a wave of nostalgia I travel to the site of a mediocre experience, my memory sometimes imbues it with a glow that the original experience lacked. I am able to enjoy — or grieve — the experience retroactively in a way that I did not enjoy — or grieve — it in the moment.
2014: Journey One
Early one overcast morning in late September 2014, Micah and I got on a bus in St. Louis with our two bags each plus guitars. There was a last minute “where is my passport scuffle,” and then we were on our way. We landed in Chicago and walked several blocks with all our stuff, took the CTA to O’Hare, then took a plane to Munich, which was in the throes of Oktoberfest, guys walking around in lederhosen. Contrary to what you might imagine, the beer at Oktoberfest is not copious and cheap. (Well, if it is copious, it is not cheaply so.)
We slept in the airport, on benches at a dark and silent Thai restaurant with huge tiger and elephant statues above us. I began my acute struggle with jet lag, insomnia, and depression. When we woke up, the airport slowly began to fill with light and with people, and one by one, the restaurants and cafes and stores opened. We dragged our tired carcasses around with our guitars and carry-ons — and by carry-ons, I mean decent sized bags stuffed to max capacity. We made it through security and had some nice German coffee and still we fell asleep at our gate — next to a very sunny window — across from some nice German fellows, who woke us up when it was time to board.
I think I slept and/or played Tetris that whole flight.
The Delhi airport was nearly empty when we arrived at 2 AM or so. It was brightly lit, a vast expanse of dark beige carpet with geometric patterns. When we went through customs and gathered our luggage, we could see that there was a glitzy part of the airport, all silver and white and shiny — there was a new car for sale — plus all kinds of luxury jewelry and perfumes.
We passed all this and found ourselves standing outside in the balmy midnight — weighed down with luggage and big puffy travel pillows. There are the people holding signs. “Welcome, so-and-so” in every language. (In Germany there had been a sign saying “welcome, Michael Raines.” So close.) A crowd of taxi drivers vied for our attention — “sir, ma’am” — but Micah was looking past them. He was looking for an auto rickshaw. Turns out auto rickshaws (or autos, as they are popularly called) are no longer allowed at airports. Moreover, there is no haggling over taxi prices allowed; prices are regulated and set beforehand, based on mileage (or kilometer-age).
After ascertaining that there were no cheaper means of transportation available, Micah, who had been to India four other times, gave in and we took the expensive taxi, rates determined by the government.
That drive at three or four in the morning was the smoothest drive in Delhi we would ever experience. Streets were nearly empty. There was a brightly painted and embellished Tata truck here or there, with its melodious horn, and there was a huge truck with three elephants in it. We saw the elephants from behind.
We arrived at an apartment building in Dwarka, where our friend Simon lives. We were greeted by Seema: “Praise the Lord,” she said. She was forty-something, wearing a Superman. She made us tea and talked to us for quite a while. Told us she’d learned to speak English while working as a cook for western diplomats. That she was a Christian, but she was married to a Sikh. Told us she could make all kinds of western foods. Apple pie. Thanksgiving-day turkey. Told us she could make us eggs and toast for breakfast. Told us she was waiting to move to Dehra Dun to cook for children at a new orphanage that was presently being established by some Russians.
Micah took me on the roof that night, and we looked around at the oddly-shaped apartment buildings — many of which seemed haphazard somehow, as if they were made of legos of different sizes — and the sky was hazy from pollution — no stars — and a strange light hung in its corners.
“Praise the Lord,” Micah said.
Upon waking in the morning — or afternoon — I found that there were lots of people staying at Simon’s aside from us, coming and going, and lots of people waiting in the living room, and that other people would bring them glasses of water on trays.
Over the next few days we got to know some of these people and experienced the hospitality for which India is famous: they cooked for us, did our laundry, walked with us to the outdoor market, bought us things, entertained us with songs and a Bollywood dance or two, and conversed with us in simple English and Hindi phrases.
On day two or three — before I had even begun to recover from jet lag and sheer exhaustion — we visited the outdoor market and sampled some street food, which I loved. However, I soon contracted a nasty case of Delhi Belly. I had “loose motion,” as they call it here — insistent diarrhea that cannot be put off — plus stomach pains and nausea — and I felt like I was going to vomit all the time. It is through this lens that I viewed my first few days in Delhi: Random piles of trash everywhere. Inadequate public toilet facilities. Falling into a massive, deep crack in the sidewalk, into what felt like a pile of trash soaked in sewer water.
The food, with all its spices — which I normally would have loved — made my stomach turn, so one day we did the unthinkable: we went to McDonald’s. I had a McChicken and some fries. Interestingly, that McChicken was more soothing to my stomach — and my psyche — than a bottle of Pepto Bismol would have been.
In spite of all this, my senses were fully engaged: Everything was so strange. When people ask me, “What is India like?” I never know what to say. I felt like I’d fallen through some trap door into another universe. Into Narnia or something. Everyone says that India is an assault on your senses; that’s probably the best description I’ve heard so far. I’ll put it this way: Delhi makes the typical American city — Chicago, for instance — seem like a ghost town.
After a week or so in Delhi, we took a night bus to Nainital, a beautiful kind of Promised Land that lay on the other side of my jet lag and Delhi belly, a place that I won’t attempt to describe here.
2016: Journey Two
We overslept. We meant to get up at 5; it was 7. My mother-in-law watched the baby and made us coffee while we struggled to fit all our stuff into the rental car. There was an oversize suitcase, a big green backpacker’s pack, a small suitcase for the baby, two backpacks stuffed within an inch of their lives, two briefcases, a guitar, a Casio keyboard (an electric with 88 weighted keys — not the kind you got at Radio Shack in 1992, haters — ), and an SUV of a baby stroller. Plus we had a big box of random papers and books that we somehow were going to divide and fit into our luggage before getting on the plane. Thankfully, through an act of Providence, the rental car company had given us an un-asked for upgrade to a larger vehicle — otherwise we never would have fit that stuff in there. Finally, we were on our way, and with a couple of stops at McDonald’s and/or Starbucks for coffee, we made it to O’Hare and sat for a while on the curb with all our stuff, repacking so that we could fit everything into our luggage.
Turns out we had to pay extra for luggage.
I was nervous about this baby-on-a-plane thing. We prayed a lot. They put Audra on my lap and gave me a baby seatbelt that interlocked with mine. She slept mostly through the ascent and cried when she woke up. I nursed her or had her suck on a pacifier for most of the flight, and she was mostly ok. She actually cried most when I changed her diaper in the airplane bathroom on a small white rectangular changing table that kind of wobbled and shook, with eerie, bright lights overhead (who wouldn’t cry getting their diaper changed in an airplane bathroom? My husband pointed out.)
We spent a few hours in Holland with Micah’s cousin. We looked at an old church with a massive pipe organ. There were rows and rows of dead people buried under us. Then we sat outside and had cappuccinos and apple tarts and stared at an empty square. It was kind of gray and cold and empty, as it often feels in Europe to me, especially when going to and from India.
We arrived in the middle of the night. Same beige carpet with geometric patterns. We used two carts this time plus the baby in her SUV. Same lights, same glitz. Same balmy air. Outside, there were all the taxis, but we pre-ordered ours — again, an SUV — and while were loading our stuff into it, there is a political rally of sorts. A parade of Aam Admi guys. At 3 AM. At the airport. Wearing Steak-n-Shake hats and making all kinds of noise.
“Do you support Aam Admi?” we asked the taxi driver.
“No. Congress Party. Congress Party is for common man.”
“I thought Aam Admi was for the common man.”
“No, Aam Admi is for crazy man.”
Back in Delhi. Up the elevator with all our stuff. The people in the house didn’t speak English; our host, Simon, was out of town. Seema was not there.
The next day we reconnected with a few friends. We learned that Seema had passed away. That the orphanage in Dehra Dun had only existed in some Russian guys’ laptops. We talked about another young woman who had died months earlier — something about potassium levels and temporary paralysis — and about her one-month-old nephew who had died of pneumonia. We were given stern warnings about mosquitoes.
The next morning we woke up around 3. When it was clear that we would not sleep any later, Micah made some chai and we took turns hanging out on the roof. The sun was just coming up when I went up there, and I could see some people doing yoga in the park. After sitting silently on mats for a while, they began to laugh — so loudly that I could hear them from where I was. Another gray-haired man in a white kurta-pyjama walked slowly backwards.
All of this made little impression on me. The assault on the senses was gone. The odd glow in the sky had lost its dystopian glamor. It wasn’t beautiful. Wasn’t weird. Was just ho-hum, as if I were looking at houses and soybean fields in Morton, IL. (Speaking of which: I was beginning to hope we would find the Indian equivalent of Morton: Middle-class. Clean air. Adequate facilities, etc.)
On the day I snapped out of my malaise, I stepped outside to pick up a few pairs of jeans and a diaper bag that had been mended by a tailor on the side of the road. Without smiling, he took my 100-rupee bill and gave me my stuff; then he did a gesture that I learned elsewhere is a kind of prayer of thanks for the first sale of the day.
It was late morning, but it was already swelteringly hot. I walked down the street to buy a 35-rupee bottle of diet coke. I opened my eyes wider to see everything: somnolent rickshaw drivers lounging in their silver rickshaws; young men with their pointy shoes and Bollywood haircuts; women in their vibrant saris, their wrists full of bracelets; the big blue temple with larger-than-life-size pictures of some guru.
That which I experience through the senses is just surface, I realize. Growing weary of the sense-world is like falling out of love with your lover so that you can get down to the business of really loving him/her.
Beneath the surface, there is mind — culture — spirit.
To access these, one needs language.