The feeling that you’re about to enter another world starts in Frankfurt. You’re waiting to get on a plane for India, and you know which gate your flight leaves from by looking at the people waiting in the area. You see passengers who are not NRI, or Non Resident Indians, the common name used to describe Indian emigrants, people who have left their country to live abroad. There are two categories of Indians at the airport: the ones returning home, who were just visiting, and the people who now live outside of India. There isn’t really a precise way to distinguish them, it’s in the details. And maybe I am completely wrong. You see older women draped in saris, well-worn saris, not the ones that they take out of the closet on special occasions. My guess is that they don’t own western wear. Their hair is long, very long, neatly tucked behind their ears, and gathered in a ponytail. At their feet, they have luggage that identifies them as non NRI: they have printed labels taped on them, with addresses in India. They don’t use, or maybe they don’t trust luggage tags. They use grocery bags as carry on luggage. You see bindis between eyebrows and the red mark at the hairline. Younger women’s make-up, if they wear any, is the heavy line of khol around the eyes. Often, younger women wear loose fitting shalwar kameez with dupattas that effortlessly stay in place on their shoulders (a long tunic over loose pants, with a shawl). Men wear sandals with socks. I don’t follow men’s fashion at all, but I can see that Indian businessmen wear suits with a different cut than what is seen in the US. Then, there is the walk, slow, more of a shuffle.
And they cut in line. No big deal, I can get used to that.
When you land in Bangalore, you don’t know you’re in a country that is struggling to get out of poverty. Everything is modern, up to date, clean, orderly. Maybe because we landed at 1am, there was basically no line at immigration.
Sathya was waiting for us with a big sign, among 40 other drivers. Sathya was E’s driver while he was on a business trip here for a couple of weeks in the fall. Sathya so impressed E with his competence and kindness that we hired him to chauffeur us around here. I had seen a picture of Sathya and imagined him tall but I was wrong. He recognized E right away and walked towards us with a smile so big it lit up the sky. He picked up all our luggage, pushed the cart, and went to get his car. We stood outside for maybe 5-10 minutes, just enough time for India to start stealing my heart. I can’t describe the feeling of humanity you get, or I get, here. Kids started staring at me and looked back towards me while holding their mother’s hand. For those of you who don’t know me, I am blonde with hair down to my waist.
And then, Sathya gave me a beautiful bouquet of roses to welcome me to India. That floored me, in the good way.
The hotel is about an hour from the airport. You don’t get to see much because of the dark, obviously, but I still saw a stray dog, and one tuk-tuk. There are no markings on the road. You assume it’s a two lane street, but there is no demarcation painted in the middle. You just honk. They have speed bumps, that they call speed humps, that are maybe a foot high.
They don’t speak hindi here. The couple of words that I had learned, such as yes and no, are not useful whatsoever. I will take a course in Kannada, the local language. And yes, it’s pronounced the same as Canada.
We are here during the celebrations for the local new year, called Ugadi. Sathya told us it’s a local holiday, celebrated in the 2 states of Andra Pradesh and Karnataka.
The hotel is a five star hotel. Glass windows that are probably 60 feet tall give you a glimpse of the outside world: other modern buildings, empty fields and lots of unfinished construction. This country loves concrete.
We got up this morning, rather early, thanks to being jet lagged. The hotel rates include breakfast. I didn’t want to go, thinking it would be hotel food. I was wrong. They serve yummy indian “stuff”. I say “stuff” because I have no idea what they fed me. I think it was a dosa since it’s what it said on the table, but don’t ask me what it was made of or with. But it was really good. The waiter smiled when I asked him if I should eat it with a fork or with my hands. Hands it is.
After slathering on mosquito repellent, we went for a walk around the hotel. And this is when India stole the rest of my heart.
It is dirty, it stinks of sewer, it’s dusty, it’s loud, they speak a language I don’t understand, people stare at me everywhere, but I feel like I am home. The heat embraces you but doesn’t suffocate you (if you think India is hot, you haven’t experienced a Houston summer).
We walked on the sidewalk, or what was probably designed to be a sidewalk, but often had to walk on the road. Pieces of broken concrete that weren’t stable looked dangerous. You can see the sewage flowing under the concrete. We saw a few dogs, that weren’t as skinny as I have seen in other countries. I bought a dupatta (shawl) and I know I was taken, in spite of my haggling, but I felt naked without one: women do not go out without one. E. got a haircut in a little “salon” where 5 guys were sitting, hanging out, reading the newspaper, watching a soap opera on tv. Crossing the street is a dangerous event. We walked, and people stared. We walked some more, and kids would turn around and look at us, smiling. I didn’t see another white person. We were only half a mile from the hotel, but we were in a different world. We passed a couple of temples, tucked between shops. I saw a guy sleeping on the ground, all facial orifices covered with flies. I am not sure he was alive. I bought 4 bananas for 16 rupees, or about 29 cents. We saw several men wearing western shirts with dhotis, the “pants” that we usually associate with Gandhi.
We took a tuk-tuk (auto-rickshaw) on the way back. Once at the hotel, we had to ask the security guard to translate the price for us. 50 roupees, a dollar. And we know we overpaid.
Tomorrow, instead of making a left when we leave the hotel, we will make a right. And we’ll bring the cameras.