18 July 2011

Is This My Life Right Now?

13 July
It was some godforsaken hour of the morning when we arrived at our hotel in Delhi. The taxi, annoyed that we'd pre-payed inside the airport, had gone off the instant we evacuated his vehicle, leaving us to wonder if that mangy stray dog was chewing on a real animal or a stuffed one as we made our way to the hotel's glass door. There were people and dogs sleeping on the streets, and through the glass we could see the hotel employees sleeping on the couches in the lobby. Rachel knocked and woke one of them, and he ambled unhappily to the door.

"I made a reservation here," said Rachel. She handed him a card.

The man was tired and didn't care. He was ready to turn around and lay back down on the couch. A group of men, spotting us standing there vulnerably, surrounded by our luggage, swarmed with offers of alternative "very nice" hotels "not far" from here. I pretended that I could not speak English. Then I heard Rachel say, "excuse me--no--I have a reservation!" and I turned to see the door shut and watch that employee go back to bed, leaving us completely stranded on the street in Delhi at 2:30 a.m., with only the dog, its meal, and the group of hotel-men for company.

It was this moment when Julia thought, "is this my life right now?"

The phrase became representative of our summer in India. When the train to Amritsar pulled up to the station in Pathankot, so full of Indians that they were spilling out the doors, Julia said aloud, "is this my life right now?" Nevertheless, we boarded the train ten minutes later. We were fortunate; that same day, a train identical to ours crashed fatally elsewhere in India.

A few days later we decided to see how many people we could fit in a rickshaw. Turns out that the large Amritsar auto rickshaws could fit all seven of us without any problem. The catch was that three of us--Elizabeth, Bonnie, and myself--had to ride in the back seat facing oncoming traffic. Bonnie and I, on the sides, were reasonably secure, but Elizabeth did not have the walls of the vehicle to prevent her from falling out during a quick stop (like the two occasions when our driver ran into other vehicles). I held the latch of the little half door with an iron grip and linked my other arm through Elizabeth's while Julia wrapped a scarf around her waist in a makeshift seatbelt. Elizabeth was too tall to keep her head inside the little car, though, so she stuck it outside, grinning hugely at the motorcyclists as they drove by. Once I heard her shout delightedly, "is this my life right now?"

Until you've been here, you don't know the half of it.

I remember skimming parts of my brother's letters when he spent two years in Madrid simply because I had no frame of reference for stories about living abroad. Last summer, I would have found Patrick French's Tibet, Tibet boring, but now in the light of the Wanderlust I find it fascinating. My brother began his first email to me in India with the greeting "welcome to the world!" I guess that giving in to the Wanderlust and living its lows, in a train station in Pathankot, and its highs, on a rickshaw in Amritsar, is an initiation of sorts.

And sometimes, the experience is neither a high nor a low, but profound all the same. Some of these times are when "the Wanderlust has taught me . . . it has whispered to my heart/ Things all you stay-at-homes will never know." This happened one night in the city of Amritsar when the time was nearing midnight.

I was wrapped, literally, in a royal blue sari edged in gold flowers and small blue beads. At the Golden Temple, Harmandir Sahib, the holiest location on Earth for those of the Sikh faith, visitors are required to cover their heads and remove their shoes. Periodically I rearranged myself--pull up the skirt, pull down the head cover, try to cover your midriff--as we took tiny steps into the communal kitchen within the temple compound. Those Indian women make walking in a sari look so easy; "it's like I'm wrapped in my bedsheets," Rachel murmured to me.

At long last we arrived and sat on one of the long straw mats on the floor.  A glance around confirmed that sitting cross-legged was the norm, but a futile attempt proved that Indian style was another motion not permitted by the sari.

We placed our silver plates, spoons, and bowls on the floor in front of us as the man carrying chapatti came by and gave us each two. Next came a boy with a bucket of daal. He ladled it expertly into one of the plate's compartments. A second compartment received a milky, sweet liquid, and the bowl was filled with water.

And as we sat there, dipping chapatti in daal and gazing around at row upon row of pilgrims enjoying this free meal together regardless of caste or creed, I was blown away by the places life takes me. Was I really sitting on the floor in India, wearing a sari, in the middle of the night? Had I actually survived that unbearable heat, my dupatta catching on the cycle rickshaw's tire, and getting lost on the way back to the hotel? Is this my life right now?

The answer is yes, and because the answer is yes I can see the world that Robert Service describes, with both "the water you can EAT" and "God's flood of glory [that] burst its bars." And there's no going back. "For there's never a cure/ When you list to the lure/ Of the Wan-der-lust."


  1. You guys will be saying "is this my life right now" all through your first month back home and even beyond. One of the best things about a good, solid cross-cultural experience is the awareness it inspires about your own lifestyle, beliefs, assumptions, and choices.

  2. That's a great point, Jay, I am sure reentry shock will be another profound experience. I have mixed, bittersweet feelings about going back--in some ways I am just excited to have my straightener and sweaters back, but my heart breaks a little bit that I'll be leaving my host family and McLeod. There are some things I've learned in India that make me want to change America, like the obsession with consumption and the abundance of waste we produce every day. In McLeod you can see and smell the waste everywhere, whereas in Utah we cart it away so we can forget about it. That doesn't mean it doesn't exist and isn't accumulating just like it is here. The way I live here, walking every day and going to bed at 9:30 is another thing I am going to miss. Ah, now I'm sad that I only have a few weeks left!

  3. This is an awesome piece, Kristen. Very literary in all the best senses. I'm so glad you are recording and reflecting on these experiences in such a complete way. This is nearly in finished form. Well done.

  4. Oh the Delhi hotel. It was so fun to read about it through your eyes! Great post. One of my favorites. "Welcome to the world!" I totally understand the whole skimming thing. It is so hard sometimes to be able to relate to people after you have experienced this kind of stuff. I really struggled with that when I first came back from Ghana. Some things you really just have to see and experience. It is not that people don't love us or what to understand, it is just that they have zero frame of reference.

    That is why it is so nice to have good friends from the group you went with to talk it through. :) Yes, you are not going anywhere. Muahahaha.

  5. Seriously, that is the phrase that single-handedly describes so much of our experience. I liked that you gave examples of it being said in exasperation and frustration, as well as in delight and awe. Right now, in an internet cafe, I can't see out the windows because the rain and fog are so thick. I can't hear myself think because the monsoon is so loud. And I can't imagine myself being anywhere else. This is it. This is all we need for the time being, and it's amazing that the sheer adventure of it all can sustain us so well. I liked reading your perspective of The Hotel Situation. I will never forget that. I also loved your description of your meal at The Golden Temple. Good post, I'm in agreement :)

  6. Wow, thanks all!

    Don't even worry, Rachel, we'll have long conversations about India while we're doing yoga together and no one else will understand :)

    Julia, I love that you wrote that in the monsoon rain because I definitely came in here to escape the rain, too! You have always had the greatest attitude about the good and the bad things in India. I think adventure suits you :)

  7. What a great post Kristen! As someone who has been through such similar experiences, it truly brought a smile to my face and reminded me of sweet memories. And also, what a great discussion with other group members too ;)

    Seriously though, there were be so many things that no one else will be able to relate to when you return home. Just as Jay said, the re-entry shock can be tough. You have been "enlightened" in many ways and will probably lead a different life style and have different thoughts once returning home. The tough part is realizing that most everyone else is still the same and won't be able to relate or understand. But while it can be tough, it can be a very beautiful path as well. As you have already quoted "The Wanderlust," would it be bad to also quote "The Road Not Taken?"
    "Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
    I took the one less traveled by,
    And that has made all the difference."