India: First Steps
When I first landed at the Delhi airport, the first thing I noticed was a flock of ducks running in a field next to the runway. Hobbling off the plane with my luggage, I felt displaced, in a way that I’ve never felt before. It is sometimes hard to believe that things that are so different from what I am used to can exist in the same world. I ran around the airport in search of my connecting flight to Mangalore, but could not find it until the final boarding call. I would have probably missed my flight if I had not sprinted to the gate. I know I looked very awkward, because everyone who runs with a backpack looks awkward.
My experience in the country has been like a game of Duck Duck Goose, where I am desperately trying to catch up — with the culture, the mannerisms, the accents, the smells, the flavors, the dress, and other things I can’t put into words. I am really trying to immerse myself in the culture: I eat with my hand, I take cold showers with a bucket, I greet people with my palms touching. But I am still running with a backpack, and I still look awkward.
India is beautiful. Here, the chai is strong and the rains are warm. All the sensory details are amplified. I am worried that when I return home, everything will be limp, colorless, and tasteless. The languages are also beautiful. The words roll off the tongue like water off a rock. So far, my favorite word is rasgulla, which is a type of dessert. It sounds prettier when my hosts say it, but I have been practicing.
When the sun sets, the sky is the same color as the chai. It is probably because of the pollution, but I would like to believe that the oceans around these parts are filled with chai and the sun takes a bath in it in the evening, sending the steam into the sky. There are many vehicles — two wheelers, three wheelers, four wheelers, fourteen wheelers — but my favorite is the painted trucks labeled “Goods Carrier.” I’m not sure what they carry (maybe produce) but I hope they are good things.
I feel like a child here. This is probably the closest I will ever come to being a child again. I don’t know most things about this place, and each explanation from my hosts is followed by another question from me. Everything is fascinating. All the foods are new. I am always giddy and I never want to sleep, even though I am jetlagged and tired and my bones hurt.
I am staying with Mr. and Mrs. Nayak in Mangalore, and travelling throughout the country from there. When I was planning my trip to India, I knew no one in the country. I was interested in secular nonviolence movements, and found humanism. Mr. Nayak is the president of the Federation of Indian Rationalist Assocations (FIRA). We were in touch for five months, by email. We met last week, when he picked me up at the Mangalore airport. His wife, Asha, is a lawyer. She handles mostly criminal cases. They are both soft-spoken and unconditionally kind to me. They are always worried that I am uncomfortable, and I am always worried that I am being an inconvenience. I told Asha that, and she said, “Well, everyone wants acceptance right? That’s who we are.”
The best part is the people. There is no small talk here. People are just as curious about me as I am about them. They like sharing their culture, and I am always surprised at how warm and affectionate they can be to a complete stranger like me. But then again, I can hear the neighbors’ dishes crackling as I write. It’s pretty hard to keep your distance from people here.
Every day, I think the next day can’t possibly offer me anything more spectacular than the day before. But each day, it does.