Sunday, September 12, 2010

India

As hard as the crash had been, the black case holding the Hari Krishna's staff had barely been scratched. Walking gingerly out of the emergency room's sliding glass door, I carried it for him. In the cool night air we loaded his bags into the trunk of the tipsy good Samaritan's Mercedes. Pausing, he gave me a look and we laughed in the way strangers do when they've been through something nearly inexplicable.

"Do you know it's purpose?" he asked me, gesturing to the case. I shook my head. He pondered a moment.

"It brings you out of this world and places you between this one and next."

I looked it up and down and his explanation gave me chills. I didn't answer, and handed it back to him.

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My flight from Amman didn't take me to Delhi straight away. Having my visa delayed had caused me to re-book my flight, and all of a sudden I had 8 hours in Bahrain to kill. I did the most obvious thing one would do when visiting the UAE for the first time - went drinking.

My friend Amna, who had invited me to join her and her friends on the beach in Sharm Al Sheik, lives there with her family and was excited to hear about my last minute visit. She picked me up at the airport in her blue Renault convertible and took me across the bridge into downtown Manama. In my brief glimpse of the city, it was hard not to be impressed by the towering buildings across the island skyline. The literal and figurative rise of the Gulf states is something to see with your own eyes, the urban sprawl and endless strings of familiar chains. Like my adoptive home Los Angeles, it sprang from nowhere in such a short period that everything still gleamed. The signs advertising the city's Grand Prix circuit - a cruel tease.

We went first to her family's place in an older section of the city, where I sat with her Dad and brothers and chatted about my work and my travels over strong Lebanese Arak. Articulate and opinionated, I felt right at home delving into all the esoteric corners of the film business - Amna is a documentary producer and has more than her fair share of informed opinions.

Piling into their SUV, we all headed to a nearby hotel to watch a world cup game at an Irish pub. Long ago inoculated to this kind of surreal cognitive dissonance, I knocked back a few beers with them and relaxed. Best layover ever.

Soon it became time to head back to the airport, and Amna, far more sober than I, dropped me back off with a fond farewell and a promise to return for a longer visit. Making it through security and finding my gate while still slightly intoxicated wasn't the easiest airport experience I've had.

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I obviously slept well on the flight, and arrived into Delhi early in the morning. The airport was quiet and I experienced none of the aggressive cab drivers on the curb that I expected. The air was still and cool and surprisingly clean. I called my hostel to let them know I had arrived and they sent a car. A few minutes later a beat-up old van pulled to the curb and the driver showed me a hand-written paper with my name on it. I threw my pack in the seat and jumped in.

The drive through greater Delhi took the better part of an hour. Better things than I could write have been written about the first experience of India, but I'll add simply that they are all true. The poverty is baldly shocking, people living in shacks built from trash or simply just sleeping on the sidewalk. Beggars approach at every intersection, displaying their gruesome handicaps to you. Cows meander blithely through traffic. The smells and sounds are a tidal wave that washes over you. But maybe it was the overnight flight and a growing jaded feeling in me, but I felt little that first morning. All I wanted was to get back to the hostel and get more sleep.

And though it was still morning when I landed, I soon realized my grave mistake in timing with the seasons. Delhi would be gripped in the next few days with a very bad heat wave. The days would reach 120F with as much humidity as I've ever felt. Being outside for more than an hour was an impossibility and even the locals would refuse to go out. Even the stray dogs would huddle under whatever they could find.

The place I had chosen was in a tiny pocket of south-eastern Delhi, quite far from the center of the city but in a quiet area near a local university. But the explosion of India's economy was apparent - what was once described as an empty street by a cab driver that had grown up there had grown into crowded rows of shops and restaurants with a perpetual cab-rickshaw-motorcycle-pedestrian traffic jam.

The place itself seemed an awful lot like a frathouse bred with a yoga studio. Religious iconography hung haphazardly all over the walls and free beer was served promptly at 8pm every night. Hot water, or water at all, as I had grown accustomed, was a rare luxury, and the power would go out several times a day as we all cowered pathetically next to the precious air conditioners.

I was brave enough those first few days to try and sit on the patio and smoke, but - if you ever wondered if those warning labels on lighters about high-temperatures and direct sunlight, wonder no longer. I set mine down at one point and within a few minutes it exploded on the table with a loud pop, showering me with neon-green plastic.

But nobody goes to hostels for the setting, you go to meet other travellers. I immediately bonded with two girls from a university in Boston who were there doing water-quality studies (obvious joke: so you guys drink from the tap and go wait around in the bathroom, right?) They had made some local friends and invited me to go to a house party with them to pose as one of their 'boyfriends' to deter a creepy dude that was hitting on them in between telling them his utterly serious theories about aliens controlling civilization. The nickname stuck, and was amusingly confusing to everyone around when both of them would say "hey boyfriend!" and I'd answer.

My real plan had been to get to a hostel in Delhi and find some people to tour with. Unfortunately, everyone had gotten the memo about the weather except me and the hostel was virtually empty. Undeterred, I set out on my my own. Getting into downtown Delhi involves a complicated negotiation with a rickshaw driver who is willing to drive the 45 minutes into the city center. This is easy for a local and less easy for me, the whitest man in 100 miles. Once there, getting around the congested, construction-filled streets is equally challenging - and people stop you every few feet trying to sell you something or other.

Having said that, those first few days of playing tourist I became a little bit shocked at what I perceived to be a complete lack of curiosity about western tourists. Obviously, this is a big city and naturally people wouldn't be surprised to see a foreigner, but I had been warned that I would get a lot of attention and staring on the streets - but I didn't. In what must be a chicken-and-egg problem, I was also surprised at my own lack of curiosity about the culture around me. After being in so many places for a long while, everything became deja-vu. The sales pitch of the street vendor, the gruff cab drivers, the shouting little boys - it all started to just blend together. My attempts to engage locals in conversation would be politely ignored.

It was a real unravelling of the curious, adventurous spirit that had carried me this far and all the little dramatic moments that had seemed quirky and interesting to me started just getting on my nerves.

Getting a SIM card for my phone was a monstrous exercise in frustration, with a mountain of paperwork involved and it took an entire day of cajoling and strong-arming salesman to get one. It was turned off in a week because, apparently, tourists aren't really allowed to have them.

In a rickshaw one day, my driver ran over a guy's leg, cutting him superficially. It turned into an all-out streetfight, with the two guys throwing punches at each other while a huge crowd of onlookers held them back. I got out of the cab and started walking away, leaving the guy a few bucks for an eventful 20-foot ride.

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I took a rickshaw home from a bar early one night with Shreya, one of the two girls that had christened me fake “boyfriend." We had met a guy she was seeing at a swanky local bar, a smartly decorated multi-level club filled with a curious mix of drunken European tourists slurredly mingling and locals dancing in tight circles. The crowd and the music didn't thrill me and I was feeling quite worn out from traipsing around the city that day. I told her I was going to take off and she wanted to share a cab back with me. We bid her french friends adieu and grabbed a rickshaw in the parking lot.

It's a curiously human foible to see patterns in randomness. We desire so strongly to correlate chaos and call it fate. But rationally, I can't believe what happened was anything more or less than a quirk of time and place. If I had left a few minutes before or after, we wouldn't have been where we ended up. And maybe things would have been ok without us, but they might not have been. At the bottom of the equation, no matter how you add it up, fate brought Shreya and I to where we needed to be.

In the darkened intersection, the rickshaw's natural-gas engined idled roughly, drowning out what was otherwise a very quiet night. Across the way, in the lane perpendicular to us, was a large agricultural tractor - the kind with the huge rear wheels and drivers sitting openly astride a huge, rumbling engine. The trailer they pulled behind them was overflowing with sand.

Travelling so fast that it pierced our peripheral vision before we could even flinch, a modern Toyota cab hit the back of the trailer so hard that rose up off the ground and spilled a mass of sand all over the street. The cab instantly became half-size, the whole front end collapsing in on itself, shedding bits of glass and plastic everywhere. The windshield clouded with the white explosion of its front airbags.

"Oh, fuck" is what I believe I said, at that point. Without as much as a backward glance, the tractor peeled off in a howl of diesel smoke, spilling sand everywhere.

I motioned to the opposite curb and Shreya, in Hindi, urged the driver to stop. We waited a long, long moment to see if anyone would emerge from the car, but no one did. That was the point that urgency began to set in. Jumping out we ran to the car and opened the doors.

The driver, dazed but apparently unharmed, stumbled out of the front seat and immediately began to inspect the absolutely catastrophic damage to his cab. We went to the back and pulled the door open, calling in to the passenger to ask if he was alright.

In my life, in the last few months, I have seen a great many surreal things, but the sight of that man pulling himself out of the ruined car ranks very highly. His head was shaved clean as a newborn, except for the small tuft grown long and tied back from the top and he wore only the flowing pink robes of his order. A creased face of a man in sixties, with piercing, curious blue eyes that clearly showed he was as surprised as we were to be pulled from the seat by another Caucasian and a small South Asian woman in a western dress and heels. It is impossible to understate this strange moment.

Nonetheless, we helped him up and made sure he was ok, and with the exception of a small cut on his head he seemed to be. Sitting him down on the curb, we fetched a bottle of water from the back of the car and gave him a drink. Shaking a little, he tried to verbally sort through the last few minutes before the crash. The driver, he said, had not even touched the brakes. A small crowd of onlookers started to form, and they mutely watched the scene unfold.

Before we could even move, he collapsed on the street and began seizing.

Shouting and screaming, we grabbed him and tried to keep him from hitting his head. Shreya and I looked at each other with the exact same thought. Is this man going to die in front of us in the street while we hold him?

I looked up at the crowd and started yelling for them to call an ambulance. Shreya cradled the man's head and pleaded with the shaking man to stay conscious. Everyone pulled out their mobile phones and stared mutely at them, unsure of what to do. After a few horrible seconds, the man seemed to relax and come back. He sat with with some effort again on the curb again.

In the opposite lane, a brand-new Mercedes E-Class screech to a halt and the driver jumped out. A short, bearded Indian man dressed in business clothes ran up to us and told us with deadly certainty that we need to get this man to a hospital, an ambulance would not be coming.

Helping the shaken Hari Krishna into the Mercedes, we closed the passenger door and stood for a few seconds. She leaned in and told me in a hushed voice that she smelled alcohol on the driver's breath. Still tired and wanting nothing more than to be home, we both knew we couldn't leave him. With a sigh, we climbed into the back seat and sped off.

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The next few hours we spent wandering in and out of the ER at a nearby hospital. We stood by the man's bed, spoke with him and the hospital staff. Tests determined that he was concussed but otherwise fine. Hours went by, we were there well into the night.

I told him I was from Santa Monica, and he told me he had been there many times, including studying at the temple a few blocks away from where I used to work. The Mercedes driver, have long ago sobered up, told us he owned a series of gas stations in New Jersey, and he felt he hadn't been to temple enough lately so a bit of Samartinism was in order.

The doctor, in an amazing display of bedside manner, told the man drolly as he lay in the hospital bed that he had been very lucky, as car accident victims sometimes seem fine for hours and then die suddenly from internal bleeding in the brain.

We never did find out if the driver was ok, but he left the scene very quickly and is surely in some trouble for causing the accident. We all just hoped he was alright.

Finally, as dawn began to creep into the night sky, we hugged the Hari Krishna goodbye and accepted his gratitude with our relief to have been there to help. He had a plane to catch to Istanbul, where he would continue on to a conference in Italy. Shreya and I wearily found another rickshaw and gratefully return to our hostel. She had a train to catch in a few hours to Lucknow, where her and her friend's study would continue.

That night haunted me for a while, and still does. The kindness in the man's eyes, the gentle acceptance of his fate. I remember talking with Shreya just hours before about altruism, and the kind of people that would help strangers in need. I remember standing at the bar that night drinking Budweiser with Europeans thinking, "I travelled so far... for what?" I thought about what I had left behind in Amman, and how being alone and untethered again started to feel so daunting.

Early the next morning, Shreya woke me up to say goodbye and we embraced tightly, feeling like we'd been friends for years though it had been days. I slept another fitful few hours and then packed my own bags. I had booked a different hostel, closer to the center of Delhi, where I hoped again to find some companions to travel with. The place I chose was called "Smyle Inn" and was located on the infamous backpacker street, walking distance to the train station. The heat remained oppressive and I found with some horror that the new hostel had no air conditioning to speak of. To make matter worse, this street seemed to be under heavy construction and was an unpaved dirt road that in the windy afternoons would be a choking dust storm.

I stayed three nights, trying my best to chat up the other guests and, using the ancient computers in the hostel, attempted to contact local couchsurfers. I had no luck, so I scoured my guidebook to determine my next move.

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The conclusion that I eventually came to was to head north, into the mountains, where the weather would be more forgiving. A popular destination that sounded interesting to me was a small town call Dharmsala, the home of the Dalai Lama and the seat of the exiled Tibetan government. For ten dollars, I booked a 12-hour overnight bus ride.

For those who’ve never been on one, describing a very long bus ride is difficult. I hesitate to continue being so negative about my experiences - I’m not visiting Disneyland, after all. But imagine being on an airplane, a very very long flight, with no food, no drinks, and no bathrooms. There’s no light to read by, unless you bring your own, and certainly no in-flight movie. In a move that left me feeling slightly cowardly, I paid extra for air-conditioning. As the bus bounces violently over dirt roads and winds up tight mountain passes, you simple close your eyes and try to make sleep come. I became quite lost in my own head, wandering through the passageways of my memories of what I had seen and left behind. For the first time, I became really homesick.

What finally broke my self-flagellating reverie was the sun. It poked through the horizon in the final few hours of the bus ride, finally giving the passengers a glimpse of what they had come for - the jagged green mountains of northern India, a million miles away from the dusty maze of Delhi.

We wearily and gratefully excited the bus in Dharmsala in the crisp air of the early morning. All of our lungs had a collective moment of joy breathing in the clean smell of the mountains, and the fluttering sound of a dozen identical Lonely Planets being cracked open to look for a hotel. A few of us banded together and shambled with our packs up the long hill from the bus station into Dharmsala proper. This took about 2 minutes, as Dharmsala is 3 streets that intersect in a “square” at its center.

We walked into the first hotel we found, and saw that it was clean and modern, with a picturesque cafe in the middle and good, fast wireless internet. Rooms were eight dollars a night. I said ok, but my companions were on a stricter budget and would later find shared rooms down the street for four dollars.

When I opened the room and set my backpack down, sprawling gratefully out on the bed, I was hit by the most intense feeling of isolation I’d ever felt, being hit like a freight train with the realization of how far I was from anyone that I cared for.

I spent five days in Dharmsala. I got quite sick, finally, and spent a few of them locked in my hotel feeling simply miserable. I stopped sleeping, instead staying up very late scouring the internet for options, communicating home furiously.

I was just tired, worn out. Completely drained of all desire to keep going the way I had been. My next step had been to take another 12 hour bus, and a 3-day jeep trip across a frozen highway into Kashmir, but I just couldn’t do it. I thought long about finding volunteer work of some kind to not just waste the 3-month visa I had fought so hard for in Jordan. But nothing materialized, and all I really wanted was to be home. One night, at about three AM, I broke down and booked a plane ticket.

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I bought another bus ticket the next day back to Delhi, and took all the drugs the pharmacy could give me as well as the ones I’d brought, which is a medically dodgy thing to do but such is the state of mind I was in. Within 24 hours, I had come full circle, and was back at the Nirvana Inn, the first hostel where I had stayed, though everyone I knew had long gone. Within 48 hours, I was on a plane to Los Angeles via Amsterdam, 26 hours in transit.

If I’m hard on myself, I’d say that India was too much for me. I’d enjoyed the relatively close distances of smaller middle eastern countries, more tolerable weather and my own feeling of exoticism. But in all fairness, I felt a sense of finality. After four months I was overcome with a desire to try something new.

So, home then, though it would hardly feel like it. More like, just a stop over in a familiar place, before I would leave again.