Monday, December 21, 2009

The Eve of Diwali

October 16th

It’s the night before Diwali and I can hear fireworks popping outside the window of my room at the fancy Park hotel in Connaught Circle. My roommate, Melany, and I met the rest of the group today – all very nice women, mostly in their 50s and 60s. Most work in or own successful businesses, many are single or divorced.

When I was telling friends in Oxford about my tour with women our mothers’ age, the general reaction was a good humored “that’ll be a story in itself!” But, as an only child raised in a primarily adult environment, it feels perfectly normal to me. And being among so many independent adventurous women is kind of empowering.

Earlier today we went to Humayun’s tomb – which was beautiful and exotic, exactly as you’d expect. A little history: it was built out of red sandstone in 1532 by a Mughal emperor’s wife (Mughal = Persian conqueror), and is the first “garden tomb” in India.

Then we went to a shrine: a labyrinth of marble-floored narrow alleyways. Beggars and sleeping children lined the walls. The little boys were quite cheeky. They greeted us with a chorus of cheerful “Hello!”s. When one of the women took out her camera, the nearest boy posed, arms outstretched with a giant grin. Cuteness like that well deserved a few rupees, but knowing that many of them are under the control of slum gangs, I was hesitant to interact with, much less finance them. Indians are strikingly beautiful people. Even the beggar women with their skinny babies are beautiful with delicate bone structure and large dark eyes. In India, more so than in any other place I’ve been, the best pictures are of people. Just take pictures of the people and you’ll come out with photographs worthy of National Geographic.

Before entering the shrine we had to take off our sandals and leave them at the entrance. Walking barefoot on hard floors dotted and smeared with wet excrement and stepping in it on the way to a sacred site is almost a microcosm of India as a whole. It’s a place of extremes.

I think I’ve come to India remarkably well prepared. I came with few expectations: I expected inconvenience and discomfort; I expected pushy salesmen; I expected beggars with infants pulling at me; I expected to get ripped off, regularly. If it takes an hour for the hotel clerks to check me in – it’s India. If we get the wrong kind of room every single check-in – it’s India. If it takes another hour just to pay for a purchase and another 30 minutes to get change (if you can get any at all) – it’s India. I say all of this because a few of the women on the trip haven’t quite attained the level of Zen required for this country. Though there are a number who are utterly uncomplaining – bless them. I figure, just accept that nothing is logical, nothing makes sense, and everything takes far longer than it should. Then enjoy the good parts.

Whenever I travel somewhere really cool or beautiful, I always think “I wish my boyfriend was here to see this.” But not in India. He would hate India. First, because walking around barefoot in shit would freak him out on a phobic level, but mostly because he would have no control here, over anything. You have to go with the flow or exist in a constant state of angst and irritation. My boyfriend is very logical and very stubborn. He has fixed notions on how things should be. You can’t do that here. You can’t bring those expectations here. You can’t come in thinking that if they made you King of India for a day, that you could sort the place out in a jiffy – and yet, as an American, or as a Westerner, it is so tempting to think just that.


Lauren :) said...

Beautiful pictures! But no explanations! What is the pic of the women threading strings into the hole-y wall?

Lauren :) said...

Also, how did you know your roommate? Or were you paired off beforehand by the tour group? And which tour group did you travel with? That doesn't sound much like Contiki...