Tuesday, June 28, 2005

"Travel Fearlessly - Banish worry and timidity. The world and its people belong to you, just as you belong to the world." -- taken from travelling tips to Iran and Turkey (neither of which I am in)

I think alot of us travel through life fearfully. Fearful of failure, of change, of rejection. One thing about literally travelling in your life is that you are forced to deal with these fears on a more immediate basis. You know when you've been anxious about something and thinking about it and occupied by it and then you realize that you are and you relax and feel your shoulders shift down a good three inches? Well, it took me until 8 o'clock last night to lower those shoulders.

When I left you last, the blur of the initial shock of arriving in Delhi had swirled into the comforting haze of dinner with Kelley and the promise of a birthday retreat the following evening. The birthday dinner consisted of a group of 8 people, most of whom were associated with the US embassy. We drove to dinner in a private car with driver, courtsey of one of the girls in the group. We listened to Jack Johnson (on and on and on) and drove past the Delhites who were comfortably sleeping on the pavement nearby (I guess this is a good time to talk about what Delhi is truly like for the impoverished. Imagine the stray dog that you see on the side of a country highway that looks like it's on its last legs. Then imagine that the dog is a human being, that it's surrounded by 11 million others like it and that it eats, sleeps, excretes all in the same place. The smell of some of the areas in Delhi is one of urine as most of the people, impoverished or otherwise use the street as a bathroom and trashcan equally and indiscriminantly. As you drive around the city in taxis, you are bombarded by touts who are usually either mothers holding mostly naked infants or three year old children with pyshical deformity, sometimes inflicted by their own parents to make them more effective beggars. Sad does not begin to describe their situation and your empathy is truly tested, knowing that the odd ruppee handout is not going to solve the bigger issue. More to follow on this...) So, music happily playing, we made our way to the Defense Colony, an area where ex british officers made their homes and now an upscale restaurant district. Dinner was pleasant and had the feeling of NYC on a weekend night. I talked with a few people from the embassy, one of whom knew a girl who lives on 12th and P, around the corner from me. Small world. (another aside. as i am writing this, the monsoon is officially beginning. it is absolutely pouring rain and people are crowded in the door way. I kind of forgot that the monsoon was going to be starting while I was over here. Hope that doesn't affect my travelling plans...) Anyhow, dinner felt like home, but I knew that I wasn't here to feel like home, so that night at the hotel, I felt as much a neophyte as ever.

The next morning after my breakfast of tomato and egg sandwhich and liter of water (my new vice since alchohol and coffee are out), I met my driver for the day. For 500 rupees or about $10, I had the service of a personal driver to all of the major sights in Delhi for the entire day. Our first stop was Jama Masjid, or Friday Mosque. The driver, Varun, left me at the street to the entrance and said he'd wait till I was done. The walk up to the mosque was unlike anything I'd seen. The condition of the people who were lining the strret to the mosque was worse than what I'd seen before. When you think of the untouchables, these were they. Blind men, crippled children, Indian dwarves with one leg and a pervasive smell of urine, trash and odd cooking smells met me as i walked to the entrance. Old Delhi, where the mosque is located, is the true heart of Delhi, for better or worse. The sea of people was more desperate and overwhelming than before and I felt my shoulders next to my ears. After removing my shoes at the entrance and paying the camera entry fee, I headed into the sahn, or open courtyard. It was in a bit or disrepair, but the sense of serenity was there. It felt holy. I walked around, took pictures of all of the parts of a mosque that i knew I would need for my classes (minaret, quiblah, arcade) and then headed to the South minaret. I paid the equivalent of the 25 cent fee, and headed up the dark, narrow staircase that led to the top. When I got there, the view was worth all of those 25 cents and a whole lot more. The view of the entire city was spectacular and the three other people who were up top marveled at my digital pictures, which I showed them. Then, the other 20 people came up. The area was about a five foot radius circle with a good third of that taken up by the open stairwell. Every time I thought that we couldn't fit another perosn in there, another family arrived. Personal space in India is as much a worthwhile term as traffic light. They just don't exist in Indian vernacular. It wasn't bad, though. Nobody semed to mind and I wasn't the one straddling the open stairwell (those were the three Indian boys) and so I enjoyed it. (People on the whole are much more comfortable in India about physical interaction. I often see boys and men walking down the street arm over the other's shoulder or holding hands. Later in the day, at the Raj ghat, the spot which marks Gandhi's creamation, I had an entire family of Indians come up to me and grab hold for a picture. The kids crawled on me like a jungle gym and shook my hand profusely when they found out I was from Washington DC. It was startling at first, but after a bit, nice. I had spent so much time avoiding people, it was nice to feel so embraced, albeit briefly.)

The rest of the day included trips to the Red Fort (nice in that it had a lot of open space which was a change of pace), the Laskshmi Hindu Temple ( a place of real serenity with people performing puja at each of the shrines), the Humayan palace (an earlier version of the mixed Hindu and Muslim architecture that would influence the design of the Taj Mahal), the Bahai Lotus Temple (Bahai is a religion that basically welcomes all religions and has a cult like feel to it with fairy voiced staff and ambient lighting) and the India Gate (a big gate like the arch de triumph). My driver was very personable and talked to me about his life, his family (two daughters named happy and smile, i can't remember their hindi names) and anything else I asked.

All of this did not necessarily assuage my anxiety (I was after all in a private car all day), but made me feel better aobut my ability to handle different parts of the city. I was exhausted so I headed to an early dinner. There were no tables available, so the waiter sat me at a table with another guy. Turns out that Clayton had been travelling around India for 8 months and was just about to get on a 34 hour train ride back to the south where he knew some people. Our conversation (which started off as all travel conversations do "where you been, where you going?") quickly led us to a friendly banter that lasted two hours. We talked about India, travelling in general, teaching, life (he had taken a year off of grad school to travel and basically decided that he wasn't going back. Just showed me how smart he really was.) He told me that instead of viewing India as someone else's country that he was passing through, he'd started to look at it as as much a part of his world as anyone else's. He told me that when people would ask him if he wanted to buy stuff, instead of getting irritated, he would try to strike up a conversation and ask them if they needed anything since he was going to the bookstore. His attitude towards travel, people and life was the reassurance that I needed to journey confidently. At 8 oclock that night in my hotel room, I totally relaxed and slept for 12 hours like a baby.

So, I'm going to try to remember Clayton's advice and the advice of the Iran and Turkey travlelling guide as i head to Jaipur, Amristar and Agra over the next week and see people as they are and "Travel Fearlessly". I hope you do the same...


At 10:22 AM, Blogger Robert Taylor said...

Can you tell me a little bit more of what you saw with Bahai? I was interested when you mentioned it.


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