Saturday, March 1, 2008

We May Be Traveling But It Doesn't Always Feel Like Vacation

Written and Posted from Agra, India

We wake up with a start at 5:30 in the morning. There is music in the air, singing in a foreign language, and honking, but that's not what woke us up. No, it's the sound of laundy being done downstairs, the loud slapping of a wet sheet against a stone, and the sound of the people doing the laundry, chatting and talking to each other. Their voices carry up the open-air stairwell to our room. We put earplugs in and fall back to sleep. But an hour later we wake again to the sound of construction. It is constant and ever-present, this changing and morphing and betterment of Delhi. This morning it is the sandstone polisher, working the floors to a gleaming, marble-like white. We make ourselves get out of bed by 8:30 because there is a lot to see and do and we want to pack it all in. We run the hot and cold taps into our bucket and begin our "shower" but then the power goes out and it's a cold bucket shower but it doesn't really matter anyway because within the hour we're cruising down the street in a rickshaw and when we look into the sunlight, we can see the dust particles in the air. In fact, the smog is so thick that it hangs low enough to obscure our vision just a few feet in front of us. By the time the smog burns off, it is early afternoon and hot. We buy a bottle of water but end up throwing it out because after we do the squeeze test, we notice water leaking out of our allegedly sealed bottle. We settle on some Cokes instead, consoling ourselves that we'll be loyal to our dentists and our gym memberships when we get back home.

The millions of school kids on their field trips stare at us as we walk by them. "Hi! Hello! Candy?" they shout at us as we walk by. When I smile at the girls, they giggle behind their hands and wave at me. When Matt smiles at them, they bump into each other, awkwardly laughing and blushing, their midnight-black braids swinging on either side of their face. The boys poke each other in the back, the language of a dare the same, even if I don't understand the words. "Hi!" a bold one finally says, his round cheeks so sweet that I want to take him into show-and-tell as my new little brother. "Hello," I reply, and he puts his hands over his heart, grinning at me.

I raise my camera to take a picture of the shy little girl sitting by herself and staring at whatever monument we've come to visit. She reminds me of my favorite girls, the ones I know who were likely to sit by themselves on a field trip, either in quiet contemplation, or uncertainty about how to join the big group. No sooner have I raised my camera than we are surrounded by a mob of shouting and excited kids, all eager to be her new best friend now that she's made friends with the white lady and her camera. I snap the pictures as quickly as I can, trying to capture their eager faces, their fingers making a peace sign or giving me a thumbs up. Through the wonders of digital photography I show them the picture and when I do, they shout and laugh, a cacophany of children's noises. "Bye! Bye America!" they say as we walk away.

In the few paces it takes for us to approach the rickshaw driver we have hired for the day, we are approached by five other rickshaw drivers and six people selling postcards, miniature chess boards, water, and jewelry. We keep our heads low, trying not to make eye contact with any of them, a constant stream of "no, thank you" coming out of our mouths.

Back in the rickshaw, our driver asks us if we could please do him the favor of stopping at his friend's store. "No buy," he says. "You see something, you like it, you buy it. They give me coupon for petrol. Good for you, good for me. Friends." And we sigh, having lost this battle a million times before, "okay," we say, "but only ten minutes." Our driver is happy, pointing out new buildings and areas of the city as we're on our way to his friend's store. Once inside, we carefully walk through every room, making sure not to spend a minute more or a minute less than we have to. We finger carpets and sandstone boxes and pashminas, knowing that we won't buy anything, feeling vaguely guilty for the shop-keeper who follows our every move. "You like scarf madam? Beautiful scarf. Cheap for you."

We head back to our hotel to check our email and reconnect with those people on the other side of the world who we miss so much. The connection is too slow, we can't get to gmail, we're pretty sure the guys next to us are cooking up a spam scam. Missing home more than when we walked in, we head back out to find some dinner, using the "if it's full of women and children, we can eat there too" test when we're in doubt. We order too much food because we want to try everything, and we talk and talk and talk about our day, about Boston, about our friends. We order two more bottles of water and we check them both before we leave the restaurant.

Walking back to our hotel, children, young, beautiful, dirty children pass us. Touching my arm so that I can't help but look at them, they hold out their hand, palm outstretched, and then bring their fingers back to their mouth. "I am hungry," they are telling me. And though my instincts are to scoop them up and walk right back into the restaurant, I adapt the same stance as I did earlier in the day when offered a miniature chess board, hang my head and say, "no, sorry. I'm sorry." I'm even sorrier when a young, beautiful, dirty child walks up to me with an even younger, beautiful, dirtier infant that is clearly hers, and the baby, only just old enough to hold her head up, holds out her hand to me. I give her 5 ruppees and walk away, feeling ashamed of my full belly, my full camera card, my full wallet.

And then it's time to relax and look at pictures, to sort through the remnants of our day, to wash the dirt off of our faces and to marvel at what our lungs must look like, given the state of the tissue we just blew our noses in. We open our sleep sacks so we don't have to touch the bed and we set our alarm clocks, making sure the our earplugs are nearby so we can put them in at 5:30am again.

This life that we're living over here is nothing like our real lives, our lives with things like the T and our cute SUV. It's nothing like the life where I covet designer jeans and Matt dreams about the Dodge Charger he wants someday. It's basically the opposite of being on vacation because for us, at least, vacation is a place where you can put your feet up, where someone brings you drinks when you ask for them, where sleeping on the sheets isn't something you give much thought to. No, this is more like a hiatus, a time warp, an experience in an alter universe. To say that it's occasionally hard and exhausting is an understatement. But I wouldn't trade it in for anything. I'd do it again in a heartbeat. All of it. The beautiful buildings and sights to see, right there alongside the hungry children. The amazing tastes and the 5:30am wake up. Yes, I know that I'd do it all over again without even thinking twice about it. There is time enough for vacation; now is the time for travel. And for the next month and four days, travel we will do.

1 comment:

Amanda said...

The children would make me sad. Try not to bring any home - save that for our trip together!