The next thing I noticed was the stuff everywhere! Living on the mountainside like we have been makes a visit to the capital a jaw dropping experience. And then I noticed that our boogers were already turning black.
It has improved here, though, over the years, since they instituted green fuel technology in the auto rickshaws and buses. The auto rickshaws themselves are like small yellow and green beetles, swarming by the hundreds, overtaking and passing the larger, more sluggish automobiles on the road. Some of the vehicles are ridiculous, in already tight spaces, giant SUV's make driving almost impossible.
Then there are the people, the millions of them. The row of men napping on their bicycle rickshaws on the side of the road, cracked heels dangling off the vinyled edges of the seats. The acrobat children who flip on the sides of the roads to get us to look and them, wanting money for their child labor efforts. The colorful saris, the dupattas and scarves everywhere.
Sometimes in culture-colliding moments, I feel the world tilt like I have a severe case of vertigo. Such was the case today at the U.S. Embassy, when I sat in the waiting room and watched the woman with the freckles dispense advice and forms with a Mid-Western accent, her comfortably padded figure an ideal of smiles and friendliness. The room slid dangerously from left to right, the chairs all stacking up on one another with my strong sense of dislocation. Where were we? Technically America, but in the center of our India.
Now I have broken away for a moment, jubilant with the success of our passport mission, knowing that Solo's passport will be in our hands in two weeks, with a train ticket for tomorrow night in hand, hardwon by Chinua. I'm running around to do some shopping, finding myself in Khan market, another culture collision, where there are stores I can't find elsewhere. It's a strange place, guarded by security companies to keep touts and beggars out, which makes it a simple shopping experience, but a little uncomfortable, since everyone seems to be so much cleaner and wealthier than I am. Should I be here? Or should the security guard stop me at the entrance?
It is much like the embassy today, where I wiped my baby's head, damp with sweat, and considered our flowy and sun-faded clothing, comparing our dirty, cheerful selves with the pressed clothing of the other inhabitants of the waiting room. The damp curls on the sides of YaYa's face trickled sweat down her cheeks and I wondered how the others had managed to arrive at the embassy perspiration-free. Possibly they jumped from air-conditioned car to air-conditioned waiting room, rather than piling into an auto rickshaw like the six of us.
I can't imagine a mall in the West where some people are kept out and others are let in. On the other hand, there are strict No Soliciting signs on the doors, which would definitely prevent the men who trail me for blocks, demanding that I pay attention to their handkerchiefs or towels or chess sets. (I particularly love the way the chess wallas react to my "no", offering hopefully, "Backgammon?", as though I possibly detest chess but am an avid backgammon player.)
Have I idealized the West? Or is it true that a working child would not be allowed to turn flips on her face on the dirt on the side of the road? It's hard not to blame the government here. And then there is the woman we met so many years ago, a beggar with a baby who called out "Chinua!" as we walked down the street, marveling at our four children, none of whom we had, the ten years ago that we spent each day sharing a meal with her.
It's a homecoming in a way, this Main Bazaar in Paharganj, the backpacker's ghetto. I spot the guest houses where I hid away, my teenaged self in utter shock at the way the world had been ticking away in the dirt so far from me in my clean Canadian cul-de-sac. The beggar woman looks amazing, clean and healthy, barely any older, walking home with us to make sure that Chinua will take her out for a meal. I consider this woman, young, with a home, with English skills better than most people I meet in India. She is so friendly and lovely that she must have a different opportunity somewhere else. But maybe the begging life is addictive. I mean, she's famous around the world, in a way.
Everything here has something that contradicts it. With a mind like mine, always in overdrive, it is difficult to be at rest. No matter where I go, there are questions and answers, and there are contradicting answers. Now I will go and find Kid A a birthday present (ahead of time) in a mall where I am an outsider, just a hippie in a well-dressed throng, trying to find something that will not break in a day. I am both wealthy and not, and very aware of both.