series india: first impressions

My 1980 kitchen calendar recalls these memories:

March 20, left Columbus for NYC. Four hour flt delay, finally left [for India] at 1:30 a.m.

Already feeling the full effect of long hours rushing about–hurry up and wait–and sit as patiently as I can with Hubby and our two daughters, then 5 and 9, along a row of hardback airport seats. Our carry-on baggage with travel must-haves are stacked all around and at our feet. Hopefully we haven’t forgotten our toothbrushes or anything really important. We’re shuttled to a new gate and face a four-hour flight delay. Four hours of waiting with young children is a very long time. Flight time to London, where we’ll spend a couple of days adjusting to the time difference of about six hours forward. A large party of young French people sit behind us in back-to-back seats. They’re being very noisy and rowdy, slamming things about and flinging themselves down on the seats with no regard for anyone nearby. They annoy me greatly. For many years forward that experience, I will let that incident color my impression of French people as a whole–arrogant disregard for others.

Sometimes my penchant for holding on to things pays off in unexpected ways, as in a series of entries jotted on the calendar that hung in my Ohio kitchen in 1980. I see here that I saw Dr. Eklar at 9:45 a.m. for a physical on the 4th of March, and I had an appointment with Cher the next morning at 9. I barely remember Dr. Eklar and Cher not at all. A hairdresser perhaps? Two days later I took both our daughters to Dr. Snashall who was, I suspect, checking out the welfare of their general health–having required vaccines maybe?–for our upcoming visit to India. As someone who had only ventured outside the U.S. once–a few years earlier to Canada’s Niagara Falls famous Horseshoe side–I was excited and edgy. Except for the brother I’d met in California in 1968, I had never met any of my new Indian family. It would also be their first look at me.

After a 3-day stopover in London, we were approaching the airport in Delhi around 1:30 a.m. local time. As I looked out the window at the darkness all around, there was only a sprinkling of lights even as we approached and landed on the field, I remember thinking that if there were any way at all to change my mind, wiggle my nose like Elizabeth Montgomery’s Samantha in TVs Bewitched would, and hightail it back to Ohio. The darkness with which India greeted me was like a bad omen. I was used to landing at night in US cities full of bright lights, not the blackness I was facing in this strange place, landing on a field, having to transfer everything to a bus that shuttled us to the blackness of a sleeping airport. I wanted travel and adventure, I thought, but what in the world was I getting myself into?

As soon as we were in the Terminal, immediately we did what women everywhere do after a long sit-down event–we went to find the lavatory. When we did, we had to step over several sleeping bodies to get to the facilities. There were everywhere, outside the entry and inside, several tiny women laying on hard floors wrapped only in cotton saris, no pillows or mats of any kind to cushion their bodies. I wondered if they slept there for lack of homes to go to. Turns out they lived and worked there for change from foreign travelers like me. The culture shock was just beginning, and only the beginning of hundreds of questions to follow.

How could I not be bewildered by the crowds of people, both those arriving and those waiting around the corridors hoping we’d pay them to truck our luggage to waiting taxis and buses. The airport customs lines  was very long, and the girls and I were worn out. Everyone seemed to be pushing and shoving to get to the front of the lines. I had added Indians to the same s-list I’d put the French on, when suddenly the brother I’d met in California and hadn’t seen in ten years appeared. Another man introduced himself as an underling of Hubby’s eldest brother whose government position warranted special favors from subordinates, and suddenly our bags were selected and set aside of dollies to be swept along to a special line–no waiting in this one, and there were comfortable seats and nice gentlemen at desks to make our entry into India nearly effortless. I was too tired to think about whether it was fair or not, just very grateful to be spared the ordeal of that long line we were rescued from. I was also very surprised to see someone in one line whom I recognized: I didn’t know her name then, still don’t, but she was one of the fringe female characters that appeared in the TV shows Gomer Pyle and Andy Griffith from time to time. I always wondered what she was doing there, seemingly alone, and very grateful for the sight of another Westerner a sea of brown faces.

After clearing customs, another miracle: a car and driver magically arrived to take us to the home of the brother who came to greet us. All of us climbed into the small car and despite my exhaustion I was all eyes peering at the homes we passed on our way to brother-in-law’s home. At the time I’m sure I didn’t fully appreciate the interruption we were causing in our host family’s normal routine. There were two small girls waiting to greet our own two. Their sleeping schedule went to pot, but not once did I hear a single complaint. Every thought and concern was for our comfort only, and mine particularly. My first taste of Indian family life.   to be continued

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9 thoughts on “series india: first impressions

  1. Aren’t you glad you kept that journal? I always do the same when I go on trips. I kept one when I semi forced my white collar husband to buy an RV and go across the USA. Later we both agreed those trips we took in our little home on wheels were some of our best times together.
    I am sure you will enjoy this trip to India much more because you have your notes from last time. Have a wonderful time. You deserve it.

    • Well, you’re right of course. I just wish it had been a journal. I only jotted notes down, but I have that kind of sensory memory–not the good kind that remembers math formulas or the intelligent stuff–that makes me remember the other little details of an experience that others may not. I picture myself in the plane’s seat, for instance, and go into a kind of trance where memories flow out. I suppose it’s why I write.

    • I just hope I can be honest enough not to offend anyone familiar with the circumstances (family in India) and blend it with the journey’s (Nos. 2-4 or 5) that led to understanding, a coming of age if you will. I’m not sure I’m a good enough writer for that. But at least the stories will be preserved.

  2. Reading this, I feel as if I were there. Its so exciting I can barely wait for the next blog. I always keep a journal or notes of journeys too but I can’t tell the story like you do. Well done! sue

    • Thanks, Sue! I’m always worried readers will find my experiences boring, and sometimes have to push myself to write them. I’ll think of you next time.

  3. I am like a ten year old kid eager to read more. All I know of India I have learned from G and his brother, both small kids….and the acres of photographs they have everywhere. I am so looking forward to reading about this 1980 journey as you relive it.

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