[from early December:]
Goodbye to the miniature train community and into an old-fashioned taxi styled after the British round-bumper, crank-down-the-window town cars. Maybe it’s a literal left-over from occupation days, now worn from pushing through chaotic traffic. The truth is that I’m thrilled to be in it, crossing the illuminated Howrah Bridge and passing though Kolkata’s almost-NYC-feel streets. There are some moments when you are thrown out of yourself, an “I am in India!” feeling, where the scene slows and snaps into its own experiential photograph. Any stress becomes worth it.
I’ve heard that Kolkata is a city of the arts, and I am not disappointed. There are enormous museums, a little too hectic for my capabilities at this point; I never made it to the extensive Delhi ones, either. And parks with clusters of cricket games and picnickers. One of my fellow guest house resident’s is here to study the tabla, a difficult drum to learn; most players begin as children if their father is a musician. This lanky hippie man confirms my quiet hope that music events are happening every day in the city. The truth is that I won’t go to any of the concerts either. I love India, in some ways I feel more comfortable here than in the States, but my capacity for stimulation can be maxed out by a walk.
The small foreigner area concentrated on Sudder Street has several bookstores (along with the best naan I’ve ever had and a shop with tacky shiny plastic Christmas decorations): not just books-added-for-foreigners kind of places, proper ones that support the foreigner crowd but aren’t soulless. Books in India are disproportionately priced; a new book costs as much as a hotel room. One spot has a mixture of new and old books wedged into wooden creaky shelves, some stacked in the corners.The squat man in white with a scruffy beard brightly points out the cheapest Hindi guide; he tells me that his father owned the shop before him, that it’s been there for sixty years. I break through the dramatic haggling over a trade for a popular travel story, Holy Cow, with an American “I like your bookstore and would like to buy it from you, and I think that 200 rupees is a decent price!” He proudly beams, and accepts.
I took a vacation from my journey, going at life sideways by setting aside the hectic train-by-train-bounce for a turn at being in one place, with a roommate or two, in a city that I would always think I was leaving. “Normal” life carries routines and permanence, spotted with brief, liberated excursions with an external existence, as the extraneous and surreal bits of life that float above the general (seemingly consistent) narrative.
My friendship and collaboration with a young woman teaching critical thinking (disguised as English classes) inspired my return to Delhi. Our extensive conversations on life and social dynamics produced a workshop on gender and sexuality for college-aged women.
I survived the smoke-choked week of Diwali by isolating myself from the city’s insanity, writing and researching. I left the university neighborhood for the peace and familiarity of the Tibetan community just to the east, and although over the following month I traveled at brief interludes, I would always return home, to Delhi.
We are a week into December and despite many failed attempts, I believe this is it: I am leaving.
Time to finish off the Indian piece of this journey, a.k.a. Kolkata (Calcutta), and move on. Although this place has challenged me beyond my expectations, I have moved through the distress and frustrations into a new acceptance and understanding. Here, having plans is silly and things often happen for no reason; but it is immediate, alive, and honest about what it is (not about the prices).
To India: I will see you again.
p.s. will slowly continue to add my stories
My backpack has been packed and repacked, straps adjusted, objects shuffled around or abandoned. I’ve poured over the guidebooks, chosen my gear (it took months to settle on a mosquito net), and made contacts in India. I’ve got a notebook with carefully recorded directions, safety instructions, and advice.
It’s been six months since the seed of this journey was nestled into my brain, an offhand comment that rolled through my mind during one restless night and bore a lengthy email to my family – a declaration of intent-to-travel that has manifested in my small, overbearing pack, ten shots of various unpleasant and/or deadly diseases, and a six-month visa for India.
I’m living the Gap Year Traveler, mixed with some New Age Pilgrimage and Wandering Soul.
Intense preparation was part escape, as I tired of DePaul and being a College Student. It also shaped my understanding of the coming months, taking note of where I felt called to, how the places related to each other, the path found in maps and ideas. But, most of all, it is my liberation. With extra caution and understanding, I can take calculated risks that push myself and my journey farther into adventure and fuller engagement.
While you could argue that a traveler is going out to “find herself,” the experience has been more an education in perspectives. Some self-reflection slides in with the fresh understanding. Several summers ago, in Europe, I noticed that reactions to my eating vegan revealed how people viewed their food – from a plastic-encased, disconnected food product that silently appears in the grocery store to a purchase from a known farmer’s cows that someone passes every day. Even before I cross into a new culture, reactions to my journey expose how others understand their lives and roles in society. Each encounter produces a particular form of lifestyle that otherwise might blend into a generic “normal” somewhere in the world. It all sounds very grand, a journey to India, but it is a matter of perspective. This is tame travel to many people, to others it is nearly unthinkable – “but who are you going with?” I promise, I do not hold any pretense of innovation or uniqueness.
For the past few days, I’ve found myself thinking “but what does it mean?” over and over: an attempt, perhaps, to comprehend this new way of moving through the world as I wait at the precipice, the potential that the next piece of my life could hold. This has been a summer of waiting in the distance, a slow advance in a watery neutral space. Here, sitting in the O’Hare airport with my netbook balanced on my knee and surely-soon-to-be-thinned objects waiting beside me, something has concluded. Yet somehow still here in the liminal space, not quite on the official journey, I have reached a new dimension of anticipation. An inner quietness, a familiar traveling mindset that I feel descend whether I am waiting for a bus or a lift. A space where constancy is in the movement, where the temporality of life is more fully present, where beginnings and endings are pronounced. I am shifting into a different way of moving through the world, as I will shift through many spaces and forms in my life.
So. To India.