India travel log       

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I can't stop looking at my hand. And not because I've contracted some kind of leprosic disease in an ill advised social encounter in some nameless Calcutta bar as the more cynical of you are thinking. Oh yes, I know who you are... Jesus people get your heads out of the gutter. My mother is reading this. 

No, a few hours ago I was henna-ed at the family home of Bantu, the groom in the wedding that brought me to Calcutta. It's 1:30 AM on day nine in India and we've just finished day one in this five-day matrimonial marathon. The Henna tattoo begins at the tip of my left index finger and spirals down across the back of my hand ending just below the wrist. The intricate pattern darkens hourly and I'm obsessed with is progress. The henna ceremony is for women, or so I'm told by the little girl next to me on the couch as I watch the color dry. I was kind of an after thought. A ‘welcome to the party’ invitation by an aunt who took a shine to me. This is the wedding I've been dreaming about for moths since Lisa extended the invitation, and a solid week since we arrived in Delhi at 2:00 AM Christmas day. 

As I said, it's day nine and this is my first real chance to sit and write things down, a fact that my mother kindly pointed out this morning in an email I’ve just received. Half a world away and I'm getting guilt from my mother. E-guilt. And so I should probably back up and fill you in on our trip so far. The reason I haven't written sooner is not for lack of email access, but for lack of time. Days are intense and nights happen fast, leaving us exhausted and without the headspace to write a proper email.  

The wedding has become an oasis in a flood, slowing things down just enough to reflect and share a little perspective. 

Dec 26th
We landed in Delhi after 16 hours flight time and another 6 in airport limbo. We had arranged to have a car pick us up at Indira Ghandi Int. Airport and take us to the Smyle Inn, home for the next few days. Probably. We had a pre-arranged driver to pick us up and take us to our Hostel, which as it turns out was a very good idea. There was an indecent crowd at the airport, and the whole thing is apparently under construction, so choosing a driver and getting to our destination was more of a crap-shoot than I would have been comfortable with after 16 hours of travel. 

Darkness and fog surrounded the plane as we taxied. The view out the window was more or less the same as any other major city at night. 12.8 million people need a lot of light. But unlike flying into NY or LA, the clusters of light were surrounded by cluster of dark. No road lights to mark a patch of land between places, just random emptiness, like a carpet worn thin through use. Leaving the recycled air of the plane is usually a relief, and my body breathes deep for me as soon as I step off the plane. 

Lesson one in India: Forget expectations. What you expected is not what you will get. What you can’t possibly believe will be common place. 

Stepping onto the jetway, haze fills the airport. You wade through it past the terminals, through security and customs all the way to baggage claim and still you’re on familiar footing. The homogeny of airports can be a comfort if you’re in the right place. Tired and creaky and cranky, at least we know this drill. 

Bags collected we walk into a sea of humanity, which simply doesn’t end. There are no places in India without people. A small white piece of paper reading Lisa Eckersberg is a moment of pure joy. Our driver. 

The walk to his cab is a fast lesson in car culture here. Total chaos in darkness. To the right our driver points out the looming shape of a new terminal being built. He’s proud of it, like it was his own home under construction. A thirty-minute ride and unpaved roads gave way to freeway overpasses and finally small cramped streets shared by people sleeping under blankets and cows doing whatever it is that cows do at 3:00AM. 

The man next to me on the plane was from Delhi and his advice was to judge your accommodations by their neighborhood. Had that been the case I would have feared for both my life and my intestines based on the slit between buildings I now found myself in. Down the unlit alley, past the open sewer, through mud and over the sleeping cow to the familiar door sign known to youth hostel travelers anywhere. At this moment I am fully prepared to sleep standing up against the wall with a leg through each strap on my pack. 

The hostel itself seemed fairly clean, and the man sleeping on a cot behind the counter waved a younger man to lead us up to our room with a vague, "sleeping now, take care in the morning..." Appearing from nowhere, this kid sleep-walks us up to our room. Pleasantly surprised, the room was clean, with three cot-sized mattresses laid out across one wall, and more than enough space for the both of us. The room runs us about 750 rupees for two nights (about $30) and best of all (and contrary to my greatest fear) there was warm water for two showers last night and plenty of hot water this morning. Breakfast was included and a couple of cups of sweet and fantastic coffee washed down my malaria pills nicely. 

The light of day brings clarity to all things, and the following morning we found out that the hostel is smack in the middle of Pajar Ganj, one of the bigger Bazaars in Delhi. So we brush our teeth in bottled water and set out to adventure.