My former self of grade school age and oversized-shirt fashion sense would have never fathomed my first solo flight at 12 to Tallahassee would expand into a lifestyle of making the unfamiliar familiar. I remember having the realization that not everyone speaks English in this world, and I have to admit that other similar social realizations did not come that long ago.
I don't know how life deals me these unexpected realities, but last week, for the third time, I lugged my backpack around north India in pursuit of culture, adventure, and untampered water bottles. My nomadic high school of employment booked an 8-day trip to the cities of Amritsar, Delhi, Agra, and Bhopal, and I joined half of our students on a journey of planes, trains, and auto rickshaws. This time, I was better equipped with shirts that covered my backside and the confidence necessary to tromp through traffic made by engines and animals.
On this trip, I had someone else's experience to focus on: that of my students. This was their first big trip away from their host school for the term and debatably their first encounter with "real" India, however that can be found or defined. On Friday afternoon, after trying to squeeze 60 learners into a classroom and multiple meetings in the space for one, we loaded bags and bodies onto a bus headed for the airport. After temporarily unleashing a bunch of nomads into their natural environment - an airport terminal - and enjoying some seat back entertainment in the form of old Bollywood music videos, we landed in a dark Amritsar and arrived to a moist hotel room.
So far, all awesome.
Arriving anywhere at night makes a hotel feel like a teleportation chamber, and once those front doors are penetrated in the morning light, the eyes open to everything.
In sickness and in health, a hand supports another Piercing eyes lock with a foreigner in a bus while perched atop a seat of transport, awaiting company or business, with ease Golden pots steaming, lined up like Russian dolls What it must feel like to squeeze the scalp of all the hair it's ever grown A patch of red wall blackened by urine, chemistry unknown Well-swept, tidy dirt punctuated by piles of market trimmings Medians clarify lanes and direction but force treacherous U-turns I see helmets in the land of turbans and waste management by all Paul Newman surrounds one man's purchases of the morning…and then we park.
Amritsar was on the B-list for me when I first visited north India. Though it had the notable Golden Temple and the insane display of masculine stupidity at the Wagah border, it didn't have mountains and, therefore, didn't summon my attention.
I was so glad I saved it for another trip, as experiencing the winding alleys surrounding the temple, the sardine can of a queue to its golden center, and the slurping of a community meal with a bunch of inquisitive students was rewarding. It was also an immense delight to give a bunch of 14 year-olds no advance warning about the ways in which the Punjabi neighbors express their similarities and differences to each other - by goose-stepping and kicking their own ridiculous fan hats after a display of lung capacity in the microphone.
We're aware of lorries of people and wonder where they go. We're cognizant of caged birds and the sad co-mingling of dead and alive. The dark is rare, except in the night we fear. Here, darkness is ever-present, and instead of being lame with guilt, fear, and discomfort, one must develop an ability to endure and carry on, helping when understanding and facility blend.
It was at this place and in this whirlwind of Punjab where it seemed like our kids opened their senses and, though still cattle-like, grew more aware of the world orbiting around them: truck-loads of villagers, transport animals carrying far more than their weight in over-stuffed bags, and dead (or soon to be) creatures mangled on the road.
An impact is possible. We are in this. So far, everything's comin' up learning.
It hurts to be happy in the morning, and here I am in another community that is fully aware of this reality for me. I'd rather not have people I teach in a classroom or colleagues so informed about my rough transition from dream state to awake, but we're far past that line in the sand. Moving from Amritsar to Delhi involved an early morning train with all belongs in tow. I stood with ample space between giggling teens/instructions and myself, simply awaiting a car and seat to summon my slumped form.
Reading a few lines about meditation lulled me into a C-curve, forehead pressed to glass that presented a rural world of too much to process. Though I was tired and uncomfortable, I was also reminded that transit time is peaceful purgatory, a duration of time that remains untouched due to the restraints of the physical world and our own technology. How wonderful that we cannot teleport just yet.
Upon scrambling off the train in Delhi, I became ancy to visit the spots I know in Old Delhi; however embarrassing it is to list Pahar Ganj Main Bazaar as an old haunt or a nostalgic pull for a person who travels. Regardless of these desires, I boarded a bus with my students to the opposite end of town where we ate in a hotel basement and plopped our bags down in a Trip Advisor hotel surrounded by nice homes.
I've gotten in the habit of needing a tea time in the afternoons, and after one impromptu tea party on a yoga mat in the quad, it has become a highly anticipated informal setting for teachers and students to chill and talk about deep thoughts in snake-prone grass. With a quick Whatsapp message, ten random kids assembled on the roof of the hotel with their room's provided coffee mugs and a sleeve of cookies. The view of Delhi, as I've witnessed it with every trip, was faded and smoggy, but peering over the rooftop wall, we watched a slow demolition project unfolding with construction workers in flip-flops.
Moving around Delhi, the emphasis was on connecting history and the present with ourselves. Walk in the footsteps of non-martyr Gandhi's last steps before martyrdom. Squeeze artfully through the cracks between people, pillars, and piles of trash along Chandni Chowk and witness different belief systems co-existing effortlessly. We went on public buses and the sleek, new metro, taking in visions of passengers, both old and yuppie-esque. Sitting along the National Mall of Delhi, it felt like two days of time well spent, and yet it was but a scratch.
At this point, it was evident to me that we are really learning to cater a trip to the learning and the stability of students.
Translucent marble lets light penetrate the layers of white minerals a bit before it reflects back what energy and luminescence the sun and moon provide. From sun up to sun down (and a full moon here and there), this complex welcomes anyone with a ticket and shoe booties to see a day pass through the reflection of light of the Taj Mahal.
The numbers are currently rising to five million per year, and the environment is that of relief and giddy bliss. It is here, in the heat of the day, that all citizens from all countries can feel free and encouraged to jump over, lift up, sit with, and sometimes eat up the symbol of love and India.
A city boils nearby, and others continue battles over the effects of this acceptance of all to be in the presence of an awe-inspiring stereotype. It appears as though the reflection of light off the marble and in the pools of water are the only types of reflection truly embraced in this place that resembles Mughal (and British) paradise.
Instead, we hold up a barrier instantly, attempting to capture a moment we are vaguely familiar with ourselves. We must memorialize a space we were barely in long enough, so that others can know, including the people we haven't yet become.
I feel as though its the same for me every time, although pre-day offered a far more accessible portal into the past. I am always fighting reality to try and meet my expectation, angry about something even when I reached the light at the end of the tunnel. I should know this about myself when planning, anticipating. I should remember that when I look at something iconic, I'm really trying to look at myself... and not merely through a photograph (or dare I say, a selfie).
We don't just merely want to see ourselves with the Taj or any other icon, but in these worldly moments, we want to find ourselves in them. Is it selfish or innate to want the world to reflect who we are? Is that why we are drawn to photographs? The mirror images of the Taj in its long pools? And if we are to truly access our reflection, what is the reality or need that makes any technique possible?
Different year, same mental battles at the Taj (or any iconic monument); battles to be present and experience a place the way I project I will in anticipation. Thankfully, I could pull away from the group on many occasions to explore this internal conflict and put words on paper. Whether they seem conclusive or not, they helped propel me a little more forward than I would have been simply following the kids with a camera.
After calming my conflicting emotions from the Taj, we packed up our bags and boarded a train to Bhopal. I scored a side seat in the Sleeper Class next to a wide open window. It begged to be used; wind and dust to the face also demanded awareness of what was streaming by.
We suddenly saw rural villages and dry paddies resting. Golden sun was beginning to take form, elements almost aligned. What at first appeared to be wild aggression was just a couple water buffalo with itchy heads and a penchant for teamwork. Beggars made themselves known amidst the snacking and excitement of a journey. Kids bounded around the train car like monkeys playing "Hot Lava." My left ear was brown with dust by day's end, my eyes dry and creased.
This journey is happening to our bodies and our minds simultaneously.
This destination really had everything to do with disaster, which made its immense beauty unexpected in my eyes. There was a central lake in this city that resembled some northern Italian tourist stops, especially when the sun glistened across its top in the late afternoon. I was expecting a mummified city, like Pompeii, from the 1984 Union Carbide disaster that took place within the city limits. I was soon to learn that an eerie difference between these two disasters was that while one was visible ash falling from the sky, the other was completely invisible destruction of life.
While in Bhopal, I also meandered past the Grand Bedsheet Festival (must note for next year), journaled by the lake, saw the first Buddhist stupas in India, explored cave paintings in the hills, and enjoyed an amazing Rajasthani meal that busted my seams. It was probably best that our accommodations went from modest (and wafting with Kenny G ballads) to grandiose (in the Jenan Numa Palace in Bhopal); I think this progression reflected our sense of community and voluntary absorption of India into our veins.
Though my steam was running low by the end, the students and I agreed that the trip was a bit of a mental recharge to engage with where we were living. I spent many hours chatting with the students about their upcoming first graduation ceremony, gender inequality in India, and traveling solo as a female around the world. I pretended to be a guru in a cave on the train, accepting students into my lair (joining me in my double seat) for questions about life and happiness. My answers were usually, "Write about it!"
(They have yet to realize that I am full of bologna.)
My frequent advice was delivered ironically, as I came away from this week with a strong realization that blogging was something I needed to do for my own mental stability and unfortunately something I don't do as often as I would like. I am probably insatiable in this aspect, as the completion of one blog post usually sparks the concept of five more that require more time to complete than I am afforded.
Working at TGS continues to layer upon my consciousness more and more experiences that I cannot keep up with, including this one. I keep trying to maintain a balance in work and play time, in order to make space for introspection, but if you've been reading for a couple years now, you know this is an ongoing battle for me. I probably talk about it far too often...often enough to be ironic.
How does one keep moving and maintaining a balance between presence and retrospection?
You'd think teaching this would make me a master, but I continue to learn alongside my students how to not fall into the woes of Travel Writer's Catch 22. My mind runs in place often with the stalling of posts, posts that memorialize how crazy it is that I keep recreating journeys and learning new things from them. In retrospect, it will never be normal for me to travel where I have (or am going), and writing and talking is my only option for moving from running in place to getting where my mind needs to go.
What do you think about that journey, in both senses of the word?