North America | United States of America (USA) | The Mid-Atlantic states | New York State | New York City – Stretching and Squawking

North America | United States of America (USA) | The Mid-Atlantic states | New York State | New York City – Stretching and Squawking

Ever watch a large sea bird take flight? Like an albatross, or one of those enormous gulls that has the ability to carry away an entire package of hot dogs while your back’s turned? They don’t *flit* like sparrows or budgies, not by a long shot. Big birds, the sort that can fly for hundreds of miles at a stretch, have to warm up.

They hop a little first. They open up their wings part way, testing the air around them, peering around in indecision, a few abortive flaps, then perhaps drawing the wings back in. Then a second try, a running start, wings out a bit further this time, flapping and running, hopping, stretching the wings a little more. You can *feel* the weight of them, something significant and difficult to drag skyward, but it’s this very weight that gives them the power and endurance to cross states, oceans, even continents.

I’ve been feeling a bit like that bird lately, running and hopping ridiculously along, stretching out just a little further every time, and whether I like it or not, the whole ungainly mess gets airborne on Wednesday.

Wednesday is when I get on a plane and go to London. The following Sunday is when I get on another plane and go to Delhi, and after that I stay in India until January. It’s the biggest trip I’ve taken in over three years, and the fulfillment of a fascination with that country that goes back even further than that.

I always envied British school children a little bit for their Commonwealth connection. Growing up in the UK, I imagine, the colonial legacy lives on in the history books, with the effect of learning a world history focusing on places like Singapore, the Crimea, South Africa, and most especially on India. India and the UK have been linked together to some degree since before the US was a country, and so I like to think that had I been raised on the other side of the Atlantic, it wouldn’t have taken so long for me to finally be made aware of the depth and breadth and sheer *exoticism* of Indian history.

My history of India consisted of a couple of weeks in ninth grade, when we talked about the caste system, and then Gandhi and his influence on Martin Luther King, Jr. A very worthwhile lesson, but where was Ashoka the Great, and the spread of Buddhism, the Muslim invasion, the rise of the Moghuls? Where were the great desert forts and royal cities mysteriously abandoned, the riotous temples of the south, and the long lost holy enclosures of Khajuraho, entwined with figures worshiping, dancing, and screwing? Where were the Portuguese, venturing to Goa and then beyond before Plymouth Rock was even a place on a map? And the British, the Black Hole of Calcutta, Clive and Corbett and Mountbatten, Gunga Din, The Great Game and so on and so on?

I can’t help but think that my whole childhood would have taken a much different course if I’d known these things existed in the real world. I looked for the fantastic in books, and read to the exclusion of nearly everything else in my spare time, but if I’d known how rich it was, India could have been my Narnia, my Xanth. I did come across Kipling’s Jungle Book when I was twelve or so, and swallowed it whole, not even realizing how much of it was based on fact…I don’t even think I was aware that it took place in India, just another fantastic imagined place full of fantastic imagined people and bears that talked and a mongoose that sang. But the mongoose really does sing, a quiet little ticking song, and he really does kill cobras, and boys my age really did keep them for pets as protection in this fantastic place that was absolutely *not* imaginary.

But it took Africa to point me straight, another happy accident in a long series that has defined my traveling career. There is a large population of Indians living in East Africa, brought there by the British in the early 1900’s as a labor force to build the railroads and work the plantations (as well as a number of other places throughout the world….how did I not know this?), and many of them stayed on, moved to the cities and opened shops or restaurants or started businesses. One of those shops was a hardware store opposite the main bus station in Tanga, a port city about two hours from the school where I taught in Tanzania. I went to Tanga once a month or so to buy things I couldn’t get in Mombo, like gardening tools, paint, Raisin Bran and parts for my pressure lamp.

Victor was the name of the man who ran this shop, and he had every spare part imaginable for pressure lamps, as well as the knowledge of how to fix them. He was also full of the most evocative stories and descriptions of his native Gujarat, and would relay them for hours to an attentive audience. My weekend shopping trips to Tanga began incorporating lessons in Indian history and culture, me sipping cumin-laced chai while seated in a creaking wooden chair, Victor gesticulating from behind his desk as he spun tales of the Indian resistance to Japanese invasion in World War Two, or the peculiar similarities between Gujarati and Greek traditional dance costumes.

Dinner at Victor’s house was a revelation. We would sit at opposite ends of the table, and his wife would set out a small bowl of lentils, a mound of rice, and perhaps some curried vegetables. Then a stack of chapatis. Then the pickles: pickled cucumber, pickled mango, tree tomatoes, okra, salted plums, other things I couldn’t identify, soaking in salty, pungent oil. Then chutneys: bitter, sweet, tangy, sharp. Yogurt. Sauces. Preserves. Eventually the entire surface of the table between us was covered in small metal cups, each with a different electric color, a taste unlike any of the others or anything I had ever tried. Eating was an exploration. Dhal + chapati + yogurt + the purple chutney + the mango pickle. Not bad. “Ooh, but try that combination with the lime pickle instead!” “Oh, this is one of my favorites….you see the tamarind sauce over there? No, that dark one. Yes. That, and the curried peas, with rice and that tart pickle over there. Yes. Isn’t it wonderful?” Getting full was a tragedy, the end of a dance of flavors.

In the meantime, his wife had disappeared, gone to the shrine in the other room to pray.

“Would you like to see?”
“It wouldn’t be rude?”
“Not at all, not at all! Please come!”

We took one silent step each into the small darkened room, lit only by a few candles reflecting in the face of this quiet woman, eyes closed, mouthing words by habit. Her head dipped a few times in supplication, a hand raised to chin level, rapidly ringing a tiny bell. The face of Ganesha looked back from the shrine over small dishes of milk, sweets, incense. I was bewildered and disoriented, unable to resolve this sublime scene with this big, garrulous man standing next to me, accepting it all as a matter of daily habit.

Victor did all he could to encourage my infatuation, lending me books, telling more stories, speaking of India in the most glowing terms possible. My intention of going to India has never faltered since then, even though Victor and his wife are four years in my past. It’s always been a shore I meant to explore, just never got around to. I guess I’ve just been stretching my wings since then, getting ready.

The past few summers’ trips have all been worthwhile, educational, and intense in the way that independent travel always is. But with India just a few days off, it all feels like warm-up. Hopping. Even the past few weeks have had this feeling. A week in Vermont, hiking and visiting with friends (*hop*). A long weekend in Seattle, wandering through the arboretum and hooking up with folks not seen since Africa (*hop, stretch, hop, hop*). Even that life-changing week in Nevada at Burning Man feels in retrospect like it’s just part of the preparation. Stretching the senses out, stretching the limits of comfort, stretching my wings. It’s a long flight, I know, but after four years, I think I’m finally ready.

Category : North America | United States of America (USA) | The Mid-Atlantic states | New York State | New York City , Uncategorized