In August, Delhi had been soaked in heat, its cluttered old market neighborhood sticky and pressing in close. The dusty crowd, the sheer volume of surround-sound stimulation, overwhelmed me. Still reeling from the sudden shift, I could only leave my hotel room for an hour at a time; and I showered at every return. A previous traveler had told me to leave Delhi as soon as I could; I took off for the Himalayas with no intention to return.
Six weeks later I was passing through and met Charnita, the future co-facilitator of the workshop.
From then on, it was home base, grounding weeks of sporadic movement. I resented its pollution haze which wrings out gorgeous sunsets and early death. Its center-less patchwork maze distorted my understanding of urban life, and the reckless harassment dueled with Hyderabad for Worst Gender Trouble.
Over time, reliable auto drivers appeared among the ruthless, the smog lifted to reveal the stars, and I grew into a new appreciation. Returning from Varanasi at the end of November felt even more like coming home.
Nomadic life does that to you: “home” takes on new space every few days, in a way is attached to anywhere your backpack rests for more than a night. It’s a lifestyle, not a vacation. Living unattached to a physical place can bring out the essence of community and home when you choose to build it. Without the assumed pedantry, the general slog of living can become something more than itself.
Jyoti, a Belgian friend, welcomed me back to Lhasa House in the Tibetan colony of Majnu Ka Tilla with fresh fruit and toast — luxury itself. Among long term travelers, cultural identification can become fluid. Jyoti has moved beyond travel: although Belgian, she lives in Nepal and is only in India to fulfill visa requirements. Emanating peace, she evokes a Buddhist atmosphere; naturally, she felt deeply connected to Nepal years ago and rearranged her life to make a transition possible. Although we each inherit a culture, to suggest that that is all we are limited to does not match reality. Encountering, engaging, and embracing other cultures requires thoughtful ethics. At the same time, not everyone’s assigned cultures, countries, and practices match their inner selves.
Jyoti shifted to my former rooftop room, and rented the kitchen across the way. We wander the (Indian side of the neighborhood) market, a medley of colors — produce piled high in front of seated vendors. We collect vegetables for dinner from the waiting heaps. And choose oil out of the options that a shopkeeper lays before us, as browsing is rare outside of Western-style grocery stores. More often, the salesperson reaches for your requests; there is no casual perusal of what you might want to purchase, no search for potential inspiration A LA leisurely Americans. You are expected to come to the shop with articulate-able purpose. I struggle with this.
Once we have flour, we cross the pedestrian bridge back into Majnu Ka Tilla, and climb the four flights back to our rooftop home. Having access to a kitchen again produces excessive delight: to know all ingredients, return to brief veganism, and, most dearly, prepare fresh vegetables again.
Stories of temples and poverty, scarves and friendship mix in with the spices. I battle with dough in my first attempt at chapatis without watchful eyes guiding my work. The imperfect (American?) version. On the laundry-bedecked terrace, Jyoti covers the rusty low metal table with a stretch of bright fabric, and we lay out the haphazard dish collection. Under the slightly smothered stars, we reimagine convention and celebrate our good fortune to have such a beautiful little home.
Every pop of my personal bubble ate away at my composure. Chicago culture ran on insulation; breaking, reaching out to another, was a choice. My previous criticisms of such a system creep back into my brain when my frustration overflows. To move through a city of millions in silence and isolation seemed unnatural. To live exposed can be unbearable. Perhaps I could call India an education in extremes, which turns a critical eye back upon “home.”
Slide my stories away if you think I am overreacting. That question is no longer useful to me.
I see the intensity of my environment in the moments that I am free from it. Returning by wander to the gurdwara, having promised to join them for lunch, I paused to escape the dust and heat via a selection of shops set back from the road. I had been babying myself with the small glass bottles of Sprite, cool fizzy medication for only ten rupees — they must be immediately drained and returned for recycling. The shopkeeper offered me a chair and then walked away. He tinkered with the fruit piled on the stands at the sidewalk, spoke to the one or two men attending the produce, and accepted a phone call.
My presence was accepted and ignored. I drank the soda, gratefully silent and unperturbed, deeply aware of how unusual this was.
The day before, I had attempted to make a similar escape, diving out of the harassment-constant streets into a small cafe and ordering the cheapest drink, those small glass bottles. I sat down at a table and was soon joined by two men, despite several empty options surrounding us. I immediately stood and took another spot without making eye contact (trying to play the good girl), sipped the last, and left amid sniggers and stares. Writing this, I entertain fantasies of having tossed my soda into faces, laps, pouring it slowly in great expanding anger on the table they invaded.
This time, I gently added my bottle to the crate with the other empties, and joined the men at the fruit stand to pick out a small, lovable cantaloupe (a.k.a. muskmelon). With spaces to relax, I had truly begun to ease away from being constantly on defense, the tension/energy releasing into being able to enjoy the city again.
I ducked into bakeries, curious about the purpose of mysterious stringy noodle-like sweets and delighted by the discovery of peanut butter cookies. I poked through tiny bookshops open to the street and wondered at the chaotic piles of complicated pans and dishes.
Able to feel something other than anger, frustration, and fear.