I’m going to be doing a storytelling event at the Red Light Cafe tomorrow hosted by The Iceberg, a new podcast featuring real stories. I struggled a bit with what to talk about, but finally decided, after 2 years, to talk about India. If you’re in Atlanta, be sure to check it out, or at least check out the Facebook page to get updates on the podcast to listen to later. Whatever you want.
American Seeks Sacred Cow
June 2011 was the month and year that I should have become insane.
On June 1st, I moved into a beautiful house in East Atlanta with two pretty lesbian girls. I found them on Craigslist and, to my relief, they weren’t weird or psycho or mean or any other adjectives one associates with Craigslist. I had my cat. I had my own space with a bathroom that was mine to clean or not to clean.
Moving is a stressful experience for most people but what made it different this time was that my husband wasn’t coming along. We were separated and we were going to divorce. I got married when I was 18 to the first boyfriend I’d ever had – the first man that had ever shown any interest in me at all, and now it was in the final moments of what I thought would be forever. The space from him in my heart and my brain was now a physical one. I was on my own for the first time as an adult. That was a scary place.
But I had a job that could support me…until June 3rd when I came to work and was told by my boss that the company was closing down. The income I relied on to support my new venture now wasn’t there. And that was a scary place.
The company was being taken over by an Indian company, and a lot of what I would do for my remaining weeks of solid employment was get them up to speed on what I did. On June 14th, the Indian boss asked if I’d be willing to come to India to train his staff. On June 27th, I got on a plane for Delhi for what would be a one month trip training the people who had replaced me.
There are movies and underwhelming TV shows about this sort of thing, but this was really happening to me. I was excited about the opportunity to go to a place so different – a place so very distant from anyone and everything. This was a time of transition for me, after all.
Before India, I never thought of myself as an uncultured person. There were other typical Americans out there, but not me. I’m educated. I’m accepting and welcoming of the differences of others, across all cultures, ethnicities, religions, castes, and income levels. I am a beacon of understanding and harmony. A paragon of equality. I am unmatched in my tolerance.
And then I saw a man shit from my hotel balcony.
My trip to Jaipur had been eventful. A 16 hour flight followed by an 8 hour drive from Delhi in the middle of the night. There was a delay of about an hour as my guide went to a McDonald’s. I ordered a McChicken sandwich that in all of its greasy, over-mayonnaised glory reminded me of home. I got to the hotel and went to the balcony to have my first cigarette in a day when I saw the shitting man. He was driving a cart pulled by a camel. He dismounted and walked over to a patch of grass and took a nonchalant dump as I puffed on my cigarette. My McDonald’s dinner was now a reminder that no, I was not home, no matter how much Iceberg lettuce and sesame seed buns you throw at me.
One of my Indian coworkers would pick me up around 1 in the afternoon. My breakfasts consisted of orange marmalade and the ripest, juiciest mangoes I’d ever had. I watched Scooby Doo dubbed in Hindi. I went to the factory and listened to music on a laptop and came back to the hotel around 11. I would order Chinese food from a Nepalese man down the street. I would stay up until 4am and talk to my friends and family on Facebook. I watched as my limbs became overcome by mosquito bites. Because Jaipur is in the dry, desert state of Rajasthan, my risk of Malaria was pretty low.
I worked Monday through Saturday and had a free day on Sunday to sight-see. I visited the magnificent forts that sit on hilltops surrounding the city of Jaipur. The driving in India terrified me and I quickly learned to not look through the front of the car but to keep my eyes on the side. I learned that the lanes on the road, as opposed to in America, are merely suggestions. On every car trip I was amazed at the variety – rusted bicycles next to camel carts, next to scooters seating entire families, next to large trucks decorated with ribbons and flowers, next to small European cars, next to large Mercedes jeeps. Four lanes? If you’re a pussy.
I visited a tourist trap called Choki Dhani just outside of Jaipur with my boss and his family. It’s a theme park, of sorts, that tries to recreate what an Indian village looked like 300 years ago, very much like our Colonial Williamsburg. The elephants were painted elaborately and all the camels had their finest spit guards. It was here, however, where I began to feel pitifully lonely.
As the days passed I learned that Indians value consistency above many things. Stability is a very good thing. Eating the same food is a good thing. Working a long day is a good thing. Just outside of the factory there was a small village where I frequently saw children without clothes rummaging through piles of old fruit from the fruit carts on the main road. The shacks had no doors and wild dogs, pigs, cows, and sheep wandered from house to house. This was a life of instability. Every day was different there. And that was a bad thing.
And I felt the distance more and more. I was 7500 miles from the people who cared about me and I was utterly alone. As an American woman it wasn’t wise for me to leave the hotel alone. I wanted to take long walks. I wanted to explore. But I felt like a prisoner a lot of the time. But the part that really re-enforced my loneliness was the lack of touch. None of the men at the factory, and there were only men there, felt comfortable with touching me, even in the most benign of ways. A casual handshake was out of the question. If they handed me papers, they made sure to not inadvertently skim my hand with their hand. After two weeks I realized that I had not touched another person since I got there.
After 3 weeks, a former co-worker of mine joined me in India to train her replacements, and I hugged her as soon as she came out of the car. It was good to have a familiar face with me. That next weekend we were going to the Taj Mahal – the thing that was going to be the highlight of my trip. It was the thing I had been waiting for.
Agra is a 4 to 6 hour drive from Jaipur, but it depends. In India, “it depends” is a standard measurement for many things. The cost of this can be this or that, but it depends. A drive from here to there can be this time or that time, but it depends. Everything depends on something else. The variables in India are expansive.
The Taj Mahal has been undergoing a big preservation project since the 80s and due to the pollution, cars are not allowed within a mile of the Taj, which is what every Indian calls it. There are peddlers in every direction and some people ride carriages to get closer to the ticket booths. Small boys, no older than 8 I assume, try to sell you keychains, snow globes, bottle openers, postcards, and other trinkets on the way. One boy spoke French, Spanish, and English to me in order to figure out where I was from so he could sell me a refrigerator magnet. My friend and I walked with the crowd and the entire time I wondered where the Taj was. This huge building should be close. I should be seeing it by now. Where the hell is it? The thing I’ve been wanting to see, the thing I’ve waited for, it’s supposed to be here. The one thing that’s supposed to make this trip worth it is hiding from me. Fuck this place, I say.
I go through the ticket booth and our guide shows us the red buildings at what is supposed to be the entrance of the Taj. I walk closer and the crowd begins to tighten. It’s hot as balls. We’re going through an archway. The flies are everywhere. A few more steps through a darkened hallway and suddenly it’s there. I look up and I see the Taj and the long reflecting pool and the gardens all around and it’s finally here. And it’s the most beautiful thing that I can recall ever seeing. There are birds flying over it and I convince myself that it’s a painting, that I’m not really here. But I am. And how lucky am I to see this, to be so close to it? Thirst and hot and flies be damned, this is a good day.
A week later I came home. My new home without my husband. My Indian boss, after seeing all the work I did, decided to just let me work from home, so I still had a job, at least. And I tried to think about what to take away from the experience and it was difficult to pinpoint it, at first. I had been isolated and now, among the people who knew me, I didn’t feel like the person I was before. I was a sadder person. I was more aware of my distance from others. I was socially awkward where I wasn’t before. I had seen so many things that I never thought I would see, but it all felt like an inside joke that only I would get.
What I had wanted, I think, was a spiritual journey. I wanted to find the real me within the ancient and overwhelming history of a faraway place. I wanted to find the sacred cow. I wanted to know my place in the world. But my real place is with the people who love me, in holding hands and hugging people. I realized that the only adventure worth having is the one that can be shared. My favorite part of the Taj Mahal was knowing that Cassie, my former co-worker and now my lifelong friend, had shared that sight with me. She saw it just as I did.
I think one day I’ll go back. I know there’s more to see, things I probably missed by being homesick. I never went to Mumbai. I never saw the Ganges. There are more adventures to be had. Maybe in a few years. It depends.