Monday, February 28, 2011

Arriving in Mumbai - Part 2

So like I said in my previous post, I sat on the kitchen floor eating cookies for breakfast while pondering the concept of an Indian family, when my friend Tushar and his cousin's family told us a true story about a girl named Jing Xie from China.

Tushar:  "Two years ago I arrived here very late at night in Mumbai, I got out of the gates and I was waiting for my luggage, and there was this girl also waiting for her bag.  We spoke a little and she told me her name is Jing Xie from some city in China.  Her accent was so thick she was barely comprehensible, but I did understand, mainly because over the years I know so many fresh-off-the-boat Chinese like you [referring to me]"

Me:  "Yeah, whatever."  [I smirked]

Tushar:  "So anyway, this girl, she has got to be the most naive person on earth."

Alok [Tushar's cousin's adult second son]:  "OMG yeah, unbelievably naive."

Tushar:  "Apparently Jing Xie met some Indian boy through the internet, which prompted her to watch two Bollywood movies.  She then concluded that India is a magical place and that she should visit it at once."

Me:  "A bit nuts, but go on..."

Tushar:  "So, Jing Xie arrived with no information about India whatsoever, she was to meet the Indian boy who was then suppose to travel with her.  She didn't know much about the boy either from the looks of it."

[Lots of laughter from my host family when they thought of Jing Xie]

Tushar:  "But the boy never showed.  She paced back and forth, asking everyone at the exit gate if he was the boy, but no one understood her English, which was extremely broken.  I was the only one who gets her.

Then of course she started crying, and if you know Indians...they love a good drama.  Soon fifty people surrounded her, and I was by this time trying to fix the situation.

No one really tried to do anything for her, but they all had their opinions on what should be done to the boy, "Someone should call the boy's parents and tell them what a bad son they have."

I was in fact really tired, but I could not leave her there, so finally I suggested that she should come with me to my cousin's home for the night."

Alok:  "Yes yes.  This was like 3 a.m.  Imagine, we were all asleep and we got a phone call from Tushar saying something about a Chinese girl crying.  We hung up and forgot about it.

[Lots of laughter]

And then Tushar indeed showed up with this Chinese girl at our apartment.  She was dressed in the most bizarre outfit...she was wearing a little schoolgirl uniform."

Tushar:  "Oh no, not before she insisted first she and I must go to the Mumbai police station to let them know she was with me, a total stranger.  All of a sudden she decided to be untrusting.

She was stubborn as hell, she wouldn't believe that I am a nice guy and only trying to help.  Finally we went to the police stand, and she insisted that the police record both our names and her situation.

The policeman said to her, "But Miss, we don't really care where you go."

And then she said in her ridiculously thick accent, "This man [Tushar], can is, or not, a killer."

The policeman was very confused, "Is he trying to kill you?"

She answered, "I not sure."

In the end the policeman thought it best to just write down our names on a piece of paper, immediately after which they threw away in front of our faces.  But she was appeased and she came to the apartment and stayed the night."

Alok:  "The next morning we tried to find her Indian boy from the only phone number she kept.  It turns out this boy actually lived more than 100 km away, he entrusted a friend to pick her up at the airport but that friend bailed.

Of course we got tough on this boy.  We threatened to tell his parents, and in India that is a huge deal."

Tushar:  "He is actually a nice boy, just as naive as Jing Xie.  He was really scared when we threatened him, he said he was on his way to our apartment."

Alok:  "It was so ridiculous.  When the boy arrived, our entire family [all seven + Tushar] sat down like a panel and interrogated him as if this was a match making.

We found out where he worked, how many brothers and sisters he had, his past time interests.  We did all this in straight faces...he was quite frightened.

[Lots and lots of laughter]

Then, we came up with the most brilliant plan.  We got his parents' number and we called them, and we made up a story about how we had a daughter and we were interested in matching her with their son.  We talked to his parents quite a bit, as is the tradition in such matters."

Me:  "Wait a minute, what's the point of calling his parents?"

Alok:  "We were not going to release Jing Xie to him just like that right?  What if he is a psycho killer.  He needs to know we mean business and that at any time we could call his parents and tell them the truth."

Me:  " the way, how old is Jing Xie?"

Tushar:  "I found out she was 37, no way to tell from her face though.  The Indian boy was 22."

Alok:  "Finally we let them go off and tour the city, we took Jing Xie around a little too.  She really enjoyed the sights.

We made sure this Indian boy behaved though, we made him call us everyday he was with her to check in, or else we'd call his parents."

Tushar:  "I tell you, this girl left India very happy.  She thought it is a magical place."

[Laughter, laughter, laughter]

I laughed very hard like everyone else in the kitchen, thus marked the first memorable event of my trip.  And as for the rest of it?  well, it was every bit as bizarre and endearing as this story.


Saturday, February 26, 2011

Arriving in Mumbai - Part 1

The beginning of my journey started in Mumbai.  I arrived very late at night, and after weeks of anticipation, I was pumped full of energy.  My friend Tushar was to meet me at the airport, otherwise I had no idea where I was to go.

Fortunately my friend was there to greet me when I exited the gate, and another one of his friend Omkar also arrived at the same time.  Tushar himself got to Mumbai only a few days before, but he was already all settled in his cousin's home, which was where Omkar and I were to stay as well.

Tushar and I go way back for more than ten years now, we met in the university dorms while he was in med school and I was in my freshman year as an engineering student.   Over the years, he often accused me of having a biased opinion of him:

"You only see a part of me Jackie."  He often says, and his Indian roots was mainly that hidden blind spot he was referring to.  So this trip ought to bridge that gap yeah?

We arrived at his cousin's home; it was a two bedroom apartment, and I was surprised to find his cousins an elderly couple as I had expected someone our age.  It was very late at night, and after appropriate formalities of greeting our hosts, we soon went to bed.

And only after a few hours I opened my eyes to warm yellow sunlight fusing into my room, and when I looked out the window, I saw a long red colored sari flying off the side of a wall.

"I am in India."  I mused.

I stepped over where the boys slept on the living room marbled floor and watched them snore under thin pink mosquitoes nets, and then I tip toed out into the balcony for a looksie.

You know how you've just arrived in a new country and you had imagined this place for a while, and then you see it for the first time and that is the impression that stays with you, well, this is mine:

Autorickshaws spewing black fumes, cows with flowers on their heads pulling a buggy, smoke from garbage piles burning next to the road, men dressed in white cloth walking barefoot to the Jain temple, boys playing cricket, a pink temple at the entrance of a slum next door, a wedding procession blocking the street, men in orange turbans, DDT spraying, women in saris, water puddles, cars honking, little boys in school uniforms...all in one visual frame.

"Doesn't this place make you feel alive?"  Tushar asked me from behind, he then took an exaggerated deep breath, held it in for good measure, and then belt out,

"Yup, the natural and unnatural scents of a whole lotta life."

"You mean all that life over there?"  I pointed to the direction of the slum next door, thus began the first of my series of judgmental outbursts in India.

But Tushar knows me well, he simply ordered me back inside to take a cold bath with a bucket of water, the standard showering method in India.

When I came out the boys were stuffing their sleeping bags away, and Tushar was in the middle of a passionate speech.

"... people here [India] live in harmony, they are not depressed like people in the west.  That is because people in the west are so isolated, no family around, they only think of themselves.  People here look out for each other.  Look at this family for example, my cousin has two sons, and their wives, and their toddler son, everyone living under one roof together...happily.  You should hear how they laugh in this apartment, all this would be unthinkable in the west."

I sat down on the floor to have a listen, my wet hair swooped up and wrapped in a towel.

"...There is a community here, and so people do not need things like they do in the west.  You see way less of the problems like drugs, alienated youths, and depression and such as you do in America."

It must be noted that Tushar is Canadian.

Despite my natural skepticism, at that moment, with the scented air coursing through my lungs, my mind did take on his sweeping generalizations rather favorably.

Breakfast was served on the floor in the kitchen, and immediately I saw tiny cockroaches scurrying across.  I pretended not to notice.

Cookies for breakfast, plus spiced chai with raw milk.

Like I mentioned in other posts, I had been an avid traveler for about a decade, but I had never been on a trip like this.  You have to understand, there was tremendous buildup for my recent embarkment.  I had quit my job for one, then there was the comparatively ambitious itinerary in India, plus the length of my journey...all adds up to bring on a considerable amount of dread in me once I began.  On top of that, there was the usual trepidation of traveling in India:  are the toilets going to be clean?  what happens if little kids steal my stuff?  Oh Slumdog Millionaire really brought up some visuals here.  I know I will get sick, what if I shit my pants in a long train ride with a toilet that is only a hole on the floor and I fall on my ass?

Such thoughts can drive a sane girl nuts.

A little boy of about two, grinning from side to side, and bottomless, came running into the kitchen.

"Good morning little one."  We all did a little cutsie talk.  He basked in the attention for a while, and then he turned around and took a piss.

His grandmother ushered him into the bathroom, and his mother wiped the floor, the marble floors covering the entire apartment now made sense.

"In the west, it is ridiculous how much diapers we throw out.  Here [India], mothers just know when their kid will take a dump."  Tushar remarked.

I too think it is freaking ridiculous the amount of diapers are used in the west, I am just not sure about anyone peeing so close to my chai.

But I was very ready to accept new norms, at least for the duration of my journey.


Tuesday, February 22, 2011

There and back again

Hello all,

So I am back after what feels like a long time in another world.  I just got finished uploading a ton of pictures on Facebook and I am very flattered by all the attention I received from my albums, soon I will share them in this blog.

I am someone who had traveled, I have immersed my body in mud pits in Columbia, I visited science labs in Cambridge University, I had Turkish baths in remote villages in Turkey, I tasted foods all over.  But now I feel like I had not been anywhere before.  There is a world of difference between travel and being on a journey, at least that's the best I can put into words right now.

I thought a lot about how to share my experiences in this blog, but I have decided to write it chronologically, since I think that would be the proper way to document a journey.  I marvel now at the news reports I see on television since I returned a few days ago, the world is demanding change, revolutions flashing right before our eyes.  And feels just right.  I demanded change too and during those same weeks...I had my revolution.