I was picked up from the Bangaluru airport by a man who didn’t speak any English. During the nerve wrecking 40 minute drive to my apartment he and I communicated with pantomime. Thank you Amity. High five Rikyo!
A theme of India has been duplicity, this lesson I received from an HR guru working for one of India’s largest conglomerates. “About Indian when any statement is true, the opposite is also true ”. The drive from the airport to my apartment gave me a clear example of this mystical duality.
Indians are the best and the worst drivers at once. Just as Vishnu is also Krishna. Imagine that you had to navigate this situation on the road every day with at least two of these circumstances being true at all times.
– Cats, dogs, cows, and occasionally monkeys are trying to cross the road.
– Torrential monsoon rain
– children, the elderly, people pushing heavy machinery, and to my shock the blind are trying to cross the road as well.
– There are no delineated lanes, even in a four “lane” highway.
– Cars pass on both sides
– The road is bumpy and checkered with pot holes
– There are chunks of cement and debris in the road
– Every one is in a fanatic hurry and some people bought their licenses rather than earned them.
– There is thick smog in both the day and the night cutting visibility
– Some cars and even trucks have no lights on or on any part of the car even at night.
– Trucks are carrying people in the back
– Motorcycles are weaving and speeding
– The roads are dimly lit
– Text-messaging ‘nuff said
– Hormonal young men are racing or (extra) speeding
– Trucks’ cargos are dangerously fastened. (So many trucks’ cargo depends on one flimsy rope.
– The police have no intention of regulating traffic and are just scanning to collect bribes. So you need to speed away from them.
– Some drivers are drifting off the road sleepy or drunk.
The list of butt-clenching thrills goes on and so do Indian drivers. Despite the chaos I am still in one piece and a billion people are still in one piece for now. For this I would polish the brass badge on India’s lapel that boast in shiny letters, “ Good Drivers”. Even though they are the worst drivers on the planet they are simultaneous the best. Snobs occasionally lament getting Indian taxi drivers in the states, but in their recklessness they are excellent.
Once I arrived at my flat I was pleased that I had learned British English. Without British English ready at my finger tip-tippies, I would have struggled to understand the people who did their best to explain my apartment. I live alone in a three-bedroom apartment. There is no laundry or laundromats, just a bucket and clothesline. I have a waist high fridge and a table-top single electric burner. There were no sheets or blankets, just some soggy mats and some relic cots. In the rubble I found a queen-sized mattress and flopped it on the floor. The apartment is on the first floor and has three balconies that open on to the street. The doors close with bolts, but they didn’t lock. I luckily brought locks with me and I fastened them shut. There was a vent letting in mosquitoes, I sealed it with the duck tape I bought in Bangkok. The apartment must have been abandoned for some time because it was a tad moldy and had some rooms used for storage. I like it here though, I like that it is rustic. I like that they provided me with a bowl of water next to the toilet for washing my left hand. I really love that they gave me a space that wasn’t ready and that I got to prepare it to my liking, I created a Laundromat, a gym, and a dining/office in the space of two hours.
Outside my apartment is real India. Not glittery Mumbai, but the dirt road stray cows India. Next to my apartment is a butcher. Yes, a singular butcher. A man with a knife! He sits on the side of the dirt road along side a bunch live chickens sweltering in their sunburnt cages. He is probably younger than me. When a customer arrives he artlessly beheads and skins a chicken while on his phone, then he chops the body and gives it to you in a bag still pulsing.
Across from my apartment is an undeveloped plot of tall grass. I have seen people dart in and out of the grass. I assume that they are going to the bathroom in the bushes. I am certain that the men are, but men are awesome, I saw a woman enter the grasses and vanish. I can’t really gauge if this area is poor enough for that.
A short walk down the trashy dirt road I found a store, actually lets back up and talk about the road. This road has plenty of trash and stray dogs protecting the place from cheerful pedestrians. There is so much junk around that everyone walks in the center of the road. The place naturally has a distinct smell. Intense smells are all over India. I understand entirely why Indians love incense. I picked up a packet and walked around my apartment spreading the scent.
When I lived in a place with no littering, I never littered. When I lived in a place with some littering, I did it some of the time. Now I live in a place with heavy littering, and I don’t think I will. For me littering was a guiltless luxury, now that littering is a necessity and I suspect people are using the field as a toilet all the fun is utterly gone. Damn.
The store was ok, but since the area is not wealthy, there were few fresh vegetables and no fresh meats, minus the chicken stranglers who shares a wall with me. I have to learn to cook Indian food, because the western foods are scant. I walked in a daze through the store. I couldn’t really understand what the store offered. It wasn’t a supermarket, but it had the appearance of one. To my surprise right in the middle of one of the store’s alleys the workers had set own a mat and were eating with their hands. The eating with the hands does not surprise me, I was surprised by the location. I think that one of the store attendants guessed I was an Arab. I’m not going to correct them, anything another than a self-righteous wealthy American will do. Thanks dad for the middle-eastern camouflage. Again the store was ok, and I am lucky to live near one.
The area I live in doesn’t have any goras, whites, except for the one other volunteer. I haven’t met her yet. she is a mid-career art therapist. I’m excited to meet her though. I get stared at with pure white eyes jetting out of dark south Indian faces. I smile at the stares and they seem to go over well. The idle young men who look at me have silently persuaded me not to go out at night.
After shopping for bread, bell peppers, peanut butter, and drinking water. I tottered home. I decided to smile and make eye-contact with my toothless building attendant. He is the only person who knows that I live alone. I want him to like me. I am sure that the locals will be watching me and he will be watching as well. I gave him a “namaste Aana/bother”. His sun dried raisin face and mushy toothless lips gave me a “Namaste” in reply.
Rather than floating around the neighborhood like a white ghost, I think I would be safer if people knew me. However there is difficulty and risk in that.
A. We don’t have a common language
B. Knowledge is power, a give and take truth.
I decided that for the time being I will cover my windows and try to be invisible until I can gauge if the area is safe. I saw a cricket bat for sale and I imagined getting it for comic protection. Right now I don’t have a phone and so if I am in trouble I can only call on my wits. It will be seven days before I get a phone. I’m not afraid of anything except the inevitable power outage.
I visited the school for one hour. The place is small, but full of spirit. When I saw the children smile I knew I would love it there. I was immediately excited by the kindergarten class which all said, “ Hello, Deren Aana”. I am so excited to spend time with those butterballs of crazy fun.
The school day starts at eight a.m. and ends at four p.m. The children come to have breakfast. For many of the kids the school meals are the only meals they can eat. The meals are provided free to the children by charity organizations and from corporate social responsibility funds. The Hare Krishnas, who we think of as musical loafers in NYC, do righteous work in Indian and around the world. On somedays their kitchen provides for the children. The first time I was going to have the food I was scared, because I had never been served food in the manner that it was served to me. Although certainly hygienic, my newness to India, Indian style, and India’s water made me squirm a bit, before I took the first bite. I ate it and I although I can attest that it is good food, I will bring my lunch from now onward.
The children, K-12, receive three meals a day at school. There final meal is a protein shake. For some of the kids they will not eat again for sixteen hours, when the next school day begins. The building is rudimentary, designed like a double decker- cinderblock public storage unit. There is no staff room or designated space for the teachers. There is however, a computer room with Internet. The computers are powered by car batteries, it is wild to see. This post you are reading, although written in my internetless apartment was posted on a computer that is being powered by a car battery that is resting on a rack next to the computer table.
The last thing I will mention today was my first meeting with Mr. Vikram (all names are changed). Mr. Vikram is a serious man that I find so amusing. He has a dark complexion and blazing white eyes. His stare is rather intense from his uniquely bulby eyes. He told me something with a damns serious face that just made me burst out laughing. As he was explaining my apartment to me he said in a thick Indian accent, “ Make sure to turn off the hot water or you know…. Boom ! ”. His flaring eyes and hand gesture pushed me into laughter. I think he is going to be a major character in this story.