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.
I’ve been warned about train delays in India, but it had never happened to me, so I didn’t pay much attention. My departures and arrivals are carefully timed, avoiding suspect late night hours. This worked well, until my train from Delhi to Bodhgaya was delayed: instead of leaving at a completely manageable 10 PM, its departure time was pushed forward to 4:30 AM. Jyoti and I stood at Platform 1, staring at the screen. My hope that it was a mistake ached in my body as I wondered how to spend the night at the train station.
But the answer was simple, I needn’t have worried. We returned to Majnu Ka Tilla where I was able to rest for a few hours in Jyoti’s room, and arranged a lift to the station via the guest house staff. Three or four guys standing around the desk, chatting in Hindi to each other and Jyoti. Everyone gets involved, a classic experience. In the early hours of the morning, I woke the man sleeping in the lobby — a staple in any guest house — who called the driver again.
The train arrives in the fading darkness, as promised, but we will stop and start, inching our way towards Bihar. I suspect that we have been shuffled out of the way, an odd one out of sync with the rest who must wait for everyone else to pass by so as not to disrupt the others. Slowly slowly, we ease east.
I’m not well-stocked, and ration out what food I have if we have a train-apocalypse where our pace slows to walking. A good-natured man in our cabin space points it out, and I make a quick joke about perpetual train rides. And the train passes its original arrival time, then threatens to ignore its proposed one as well. Night settles in.
We’re moving, but not that much. Railroad tracks stretching into the black hole of Indian delays, always progressing never arriving. I am afraid to sleep, lest I miss my stop. I sit, awake, by the window, waiting blankly.
My ticket is for the middle bunk, which drops down to form the seat-back during the day. The men around me suggest that I rest, and I explain that I am afraid of oversleeping. I look up into their genuine smiles, their involvement in my well-being. They explain that I will be woken, that no one will let me miss the stop. So we convert our cabin area into bunks, and all stretch out to sleep.
When the conductor comes, he fusses over my ticket. “This ticket is for yesterday. You must buy a new one.” Appalled that he could blame me for his own train being delayed so long that we are into the next day, I splutter a protest, but it is drowned out by the chorus of voices around me, my cabin-mates charging in with Hindi in my defense. The conversation leaves my comprehension, but the conductor leaves me alone. I am told that he was confused. I suspect that he had been attempting a scam, but I keep the thought to myself.
As promised, someone wakes me when we are nearing Gaya, and I collect myself. It’s an awkward early hour, nearly 4 AM on the following day, but it is much better than arriving at midnight. I had been anxious over the anticipated intensity of the coming days. Now I was all patience, and fatigue.
Another white female foreigner had arrived sometime in the night, and is sleeping on the bunk below mine. Someone wakes her up as well, in case she is going to Gaya as well. Confused and in a daze, she explains that she is not. Those of us who are leaving wait in the aisle, quietly but warmly, another little community alive for a moment because of a train.
I want to keep the happy memory, as I make my way through the crowded (despite the hour) station, but I begin to wonder if I was treated so well because of my race. Would a young Indian woman traveling alone through the night receive such kindness? No one is simple, I would not deny them their humanity; but after this much time in India, I need to acknowledge that my skin color and foreign status opens doors and generates useful attention.
I’ll wait out the night, go to Bodhgaya by auto rickshaw at sunrise. Normally I would sit on the floor with everyone else, somewhere near a cluster of women. But the hour and the severe economic difference in Bihar, the poorest state in India, amps up the spotlight, and I slip into the first class waiting room, my face granting me instant permission.
November continues without a clear answer from any of the workshop leads. The ambivalence leaves us wondering and waiting, even from those who actively pursued us for our experiential, discussion-based approach to gender issues.
The first week of November is electric. I’m writing, filling in the blanks in both the project and my education, reading some relevant material procured via a professor back in the States. I’ve tried most restaurants in the neighborhood, and have established which dish at which spot are the best — finding the nuances of quality and flavor across similar menus of noodle soup and steamed dumplings. The local cafe has wi-fi, couches (!), real coffee and muffins; the staff recognizes me now.
But the ambiguity saps my focus, and I slowly slip into darkness.
Something feels “wrong”… an unsettled feeling, an inability to truly engage. I often take an auto (rickshaw) to Charnita’s to meet and discuss the workshop — the drivers are starting to recognize me and they don’t waste time doubling the price — but I am realizing that it isn’t the workshop anymore.
Anything is overstimulation. Taking the footbridge over the six-lane traffic to the Punjabi side of the neighborhood is a nightmare of human misery. The impoverished moan their agony, stretching out stumps and wasted limbs for ten rupees — not enough to solve their problems, not enough to change the system. The streets on the other side are packed with tiny specialized shops selling dishware, snacks, sweets, clothes…piles of vegetables and fruits wait to be weighed and bagged. The scale reminds me of Egyptian hearts being tested for quality, the seller holding it up and tossing metal blocks into one concave dish until it nears balanced. Back across the footbridge whose population has multiplied as we near dusk and the shoppers return home.
I hide from everything, even the quieter Tibetan spaces, and let myself slide into depression. Half the day is given to sleep, consistently not leaving bed until 2 p.m., and then only to roll downstairs for a single meal somewhere before retreating to my now-somber room and deeper into my shell. I fall into the old bad habits, developing an emotional dependency on a particular Indian brand of caramel candy.
Sitting on the top step of metal suitcase, near the water tanks which are responsible for the water damage in my room below, I exhale cigarette smoke into the hazy Delhi night sky, gaze out over the smog and lights into the quiet chaos below, and wonder at my own pollution.