Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Took a few days to get the laptop to internet but here are my reflections on arrival!

As we intermittently sped through the busting and bustling streets and sat stationary in the midst of a multitude of motor vehicles all attempting to go in the same direction at the same time and getting no where fast the visceral energy of India came flooding back to me. This is a place that one cannot engage with on a purely cerebral level. It overwhelms every part of you, every sense organ in a cacophonic symphony of vibrational frequencies. It quite literally freakin blows your mind. There are very few truths about India hidden away behind closed doors; all the world knows, that while a lucky few enjoy the fruits of a fast expanding economy, the majority still struggle quite literally from hand to mouth and have barely the clothes on their back to show proof of their existence, but when you see it first hand it still shakes you to the core.
As our taxi driver wove through the congested traffic I noticed a miniature village made of canvas by the side of the road and managed to catch a glimpse of the interior of one of those make shift tents. The tent appeared to be home for a considerable number of extended family members and I saw that its contents, besides the living breathing bodies, in the momentary glimpse I snatched, seemed to be minimal. The image that sticks out most in my mind was of a dark skinned man, probably of no more years than I can claim to have been on the planet (but with considerably more wrinkles from the wear and strain of living in such minimalistic conditions), crouched in a huddle, in dirty tattered clothing, just staring out of the split in the canvas at the falling rain and the passing cars with a vague hint of a wistful expression - his mind clearly in a place far from that road side tent. And it occurred to me that as he sat, perched on his tiny stool, (or perhaps it was simply a rock), his frail little skeleton had probably never experienced truly luxurious comfort, or in fact comfort of any kind for that matter. Had he ever laid down on a soft feather down duvet and felt his body sink deeper and deeper into the layers of cushion beneath? Had his muscles ever experienced that sort of escape, from the toils of supporting the human frame 24 hours a day? And I realized in that instant how easy it was to put life into perspective in just moments of being in India. Why was I planning to be here so long? What was I hoping to gain when I longed to take this journey last week from the comfort of a homely kitchen in England? I mean I’m certainly not going to say that I’m not excited to be here…….. but glad? The jury is still out. I know that on day one in rainy Delhi I’m hardly likely to be able to give our circumstances a fair assessment, but I am wondering whether my hardiness to the rough and tumble of backpacking ways has in recent years, given way to a more willing tendency to the cosy and pleasant surroundings that a slightly bigger budget can afford. What can I say, maybe I got old (I sure aint 18 anymore), but the damp stained walls and the shockingly cold shower spewing forth from the randomly aimed directional jets are not what one might describe as ‘pleasing’. But lest you are wondering if our journey will be over before it’s begun – fear not! I am not faint of heart and already after only one evening on this slighty lumpy damp bed listening to the rhythmic hum of the ceiling fan I am acclimatizing to my environment and beginning to feel at home.
I should also mention that this feeling of uncertainty over my place in India was given a head start by the wonderful striking pilots at Jet Airlines. As we spent our final afternoon in good ol’ blighty we double and triple checked in our minds that our preparations were complete and since we had time we thought why not just check on the progress of our flight. We were due to leave the house only a couple of hours later, so you can imagine our surprise when our search uncovered a horrifying detail that we had yet to be informed of. Our flight had been cancelled. Now if any of you reading this have been through the same experience you probably already know that it’s just not that big of a deal – they put you on another flight (which they eventually did after several mandatory brushes with misinformation and a couple of irritatingly long line ups) and everybody gets to where they are going eventually, but if, like us, you have onward travel plans that depend on stage one running to plan it can throw that old proverbial spanner in the works…..oh screw it! (with the spanner if you like).
We realized that with our new flight departing at a later time the chances of us making our connection had just been reduced by…. Oh….. about 100%. So – our next task was to change our flight to Srinagar and re-schedule it for the following day – so already India was throwing us the first curve ball of many that would be coming our way in the coming months – and which now of course meant a mandatory night in Delhi – and who goes to Delhi to sit in a hotel room? Not us – so off we went to explore Delhi.
During our preliminary excursions to get a peak at Old Delhi, as the light was fading and the misty soft rain lightly kissed our bare arms in the humid chaos, I was greeted with practically every emotion and sensation known to man. The aromatic blend of baking chapatis, sugared dough and asian spice combined with the occasional cloud of incense, a whiff of clove cigarette and through it all the undertone of excrement, muddy puddles and days old festering, stale urine collecting in the road side urinal troughs (for men only of course) made for a see-saw of delight followed by utter repulsion and the unquenchable desire to vomit. Already the constant tug of war in my mind over whether I love it or hate it here had begun. And along with the olfactory sense sensations there were of course the sights. Not a single millimeter of retina is left unbleached for a millisecond in the constant chaos of the streets. From floor to sky there is mayhem. The filth and garbage underfoot only acted to pave the way for the drama of life unfolding before our eyes. The mud is merely a backdrop for the wildly mingling whirling men, women and children that fill the streets. And as you watch cars, taxis, people, cycle rickshaws and cows all weaving together in an endless sea of motion it feels like the perfect synchronization of a millipedes legs all working together in perfect co-operation. You marvel at how it works, knowing that the front legs can’t possibly know what the back legs are doing and yet they move in perfect harmony. No one stops, no one pushes, no one crashes, no one gets angry and somehow the traffic keeps moving through every intersection. Everyone arrives at their final destination. An impossible feat of co-operative magic is in constant flow and it all just keeps on moving. During our brief ride on a cycle rickshaw to deliver us back to a point on the map that we recognized – that’s right we had no idea where we were – we were thrust into oncoming traffic traveling at high speeds more than once but our driver remained steadfast, unfaltering, unflinching and ever certain that the speeding buses and trucks heading straight for us would yield and allow us to u-turn in their path and re-join the flow in front of them – and somehow my heart never skipped a beat – I trusted that in India, though a singe life seems somehow less valued than in the western world, the intention to preserve life is powerful and we would be safe. And among the many things that I was feeling I did indeed feel safe. In the course of our wanderings there were several memorable moments of human connection, a gang of young boys following and shouting ‘hello’ in the most amicable way, an almost teenage lad trying out his ‘how you doin?’ look on me in the most humorous way, and of course a few looks of surprise and amusement that a couple of gringos were strolling around in the wrong part of town. Our role as ‘outsiders’ was clear but we were no less welcome for it than an outlaw in a western saloon with money to spend, and I can truly say that not once did I feel the need to look over my shoulder or check on my pockets even after the sun had gone down.
After an exhausting few hours tramping the streets and taking a crash course in daily Delhi life it was time to fuel our taste buds with the culinary delights of India and so it was that we chose a ‘modest looking’ but busy street side cafĂ© for our evening repast: Veg korma and Mushroom paneer with garlic naan and rice. In a word, delicious! The greatest Indian cuisine ever made? Absolutely not – but after the day I’d had – a welcome treat.
And so – to Srinagar!

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