Friday, March 23, 2012

The Unexpected Souvenir, Part 1 (Life Changing Moments Series)

This is the first post in the Life Changing Moments series to not appear on a Wednesday, but that's okay; it's also the first post in the series to be broken into two parts (and the second part is scheduled to drop on Wednesday). I'm so thankful to have readers like Ellen Weeren, who are willing to share their moments with me out of the blue. This particular moment--spread across two posts--manages to show various pieces of a culture that was foreign to Ellen and her friends. Being able to share her experience so honestly is really something incredible.

Ellen graduated from college with an English Writing degree 20 years ago and began her career as a law enforcement policy writer, newsletter editor, and conference planner. When her second child was born in 1999, she quit working and quit writing. Then, three years ago, her husband was very unexpectedly offered a job in New Delhi, India. After Ellen literally threw up, she moved her family across the ocean to a country she knew very little about. She knew it would be amazing but she was also more than a tad overwhelmed. As part journal and part therapy session, Ellen started a blog about her family's adventure--A Reason To Write, which has received international recognition as one of the best travel blogs in the blogosphere. Moving to India was a gift in many ways--a gift to see what rest of the whole world is really like, the gift to travel, and the gift of many reasons to write again. Ellen enjoyed writing so much that she started a second blog called A Reason To Read, where she reviews books. Since returning to the U.S., Ellen continues to pursue writing and is even now dabbling in a little fiction. You can follow her on Twitter at @EllenWeeren or @AReasonToWrite.

Ellen Weeren

Many westerners are hesitant to travel into Old Delhi. In fact, some companies even discourage their employees (especially the women) from going there because of the congestion, the dirt, and the male-dominated crowds. But I had two expat friends who were as eager for adventure as I was. We happily made plans for a visit to Old Delhi, refusing to be scared and refusing to miss out on the benefits of living abroad--the benefits of visiting places vastly different from what we knew to be normal and comfortable.

Old Delhi is just that kind of place. It is different in every way from anywhere I had ever been. It is alive with all that India is about. Old Delhi is a fascinating and wonderful corner that has been written about many times over. But it is best explored in person. The noise, the smells, the tastes, and the crowds just don't share themselves with a passive reader--they demand a captive audience who willingly slips in between the cobblestone pages and walks the alleys, someone who can't simply lay down a book and turn away.

Old Delhi Bikes

Uncomfortable Moments
However, I did appreciate the need for caution. There were certainly other experiences that surprised me throughout India and made me uncomfortable. Moments I simply did not understand. More than once, I saw a dead body strewn across the side of the road and easily ignored by many, many people passing by.

I was never able to reconcile that. The very nonchalant way that someone can distract herself from a human being lying forgotten or, even worse, avoided on the side of the road. Sometimes covered. Sometimes not. Without reporters dreaming of headlines. Minus crowds of people gathering and gasping in disbelief. Mostly just people moving on--or moving around--busy with their own ways, barely glancing over to see what happened other than to side-step the inconvenience of it all.

I always wondered who was at home waiting. Who did care that someone had stopped breathing through no fault of his own? Where was the person who had wreaked such havoc and how could he feel comfortable leaving such devastation unattended? What story would the family have to create with the absence of a caring witness?

Most of these memories simply dissipate into the haze. They fade and lose their sense of reality. In fact, unless armed with pages of my own words capturing the stories and proving that I once believed them, it might be hard to convince even me that some of it truly happened. I sometimes find myself thinking, "It couldn't. It wouldn't." But, then I would remember, "Wait, maybe it did."

Bathing Near a Train

Ignoring the Warnings
But Old Delhi was waiting and we confidently ignored the warnings. We knew enough not to go alone, to keep our purses tightly in front of us, and when to cover our heads. We understood the importance of being careful, but the promise of a tremendous experience drew us in.

We wrapped ourselves in colorful dupattas (scarves) and climbed the red stone steps to the Jama Masjid Mosque where Shah Jahan himself ended parades atop elephants with feasts and prayer and reflection. We gladly kicked off our shoes and rang the antique brass bell hanging from a new rope at the Jain Temple, letting the gods know we were there and asking them to keep watch over those we loved.

We visited our favorite jeweler and his family and spoiled ourselves with shiny trinkets and sips of chai tea out of the porcelain cups once owned by the jeweler's grandmother. We laughed that our new jewels were really for our kids and our grandkids and that we would just hold them in safe keeping until they were mature enough to care for and appreciate them fully.

We admired the seriousness of the kneeling students studying in the Fatepuri Mosque as they rocked in rhythm with their chanting. We found ourselves rocking slightly too, just like women do when they see another mother comforting a newborn, except this time we rocked forward and back. We inhaled the chili pepper dust and braved the stares of the testosterone-filled Spice Market, where we dined on delicious raw cashews and scrumptious pistachios as we watched men bathe in buckets right out in the middle of the streets. They only required a willing water spigot and small sheath of fabric to protect their modesty--two things not always easy to find. We understood the urgency to take advantage of the availability of water, even if it meant bathing on the street, in front of westerners who were taking pictures.

We slowed our pace when we saw the Sikhs reverently bowing as they entered their Gurdwara and praised their dedication to feed those who were hungry. We relished the fact that just up the street of Chandni Chowk was also the home of a Baptist Church and a Jain bird sanctuary. All of the world's major religions have a presence on that street and we soaked in just how wonderful that was. We marveled at just how misunderstood Old Delhi could be in the scrutinizing view of western eyes that were so quick to form judgments based on headlines alone.

We raced on to the famed Karims restaurant and joked, as we asked for our sodas in cans and paper plates for our food, that we were brave enough to eat the food but not brave enough to eat it off of their potentially unclean plates. We ate chicken and lamb soaked in oily, spicy sauces and ignored the stares of men who really did not grasp our comfortable presence.

We learned, we laughed, and we wore ourselves out. Our glow grew with every stop--we treasured the spirituality, the friendship, and the shopping.

A Land of Extremes
While we walked, we each shared our own stories of how we came to know India as such a land of extremes. How it could draw in your breath and steal your heart in the same exact moment with its paralleled regality and desperation. Children stood homeless on streets lined with fancy cars. Beautiful monuments captured history and graffiti.

For each of us there seemed to appear undeniable moments that made it impossible to pretend that we lived in a world where suffering didn't drape around us like a misty rain--slow, steady, and lingering--and if you stood in it long enough, saturating. For each of us, there were memories that we could not escape or deny.

It was best not to dwell on why it could be hard to live in India. So, on the way to the car, we distracted ourselves from the heavy pieces of our conversation and continued to enjoy the sights, sounds, and smells of Old Delhi. The roofs in the alleys donned hundreds of electrical wires laced between the buildings. Those wires served as balance beams for the monkeys who danced across them over our heads. Those monkeys watched over us, not serving as our protectors or entertainers but sizing up the potential of our packages, spying what we carried to determine if any of it was worth stealing. We did our own dance over unknown and smelly splats on the crackling walkway and tried to identify what each might be. Quickly, we decided some mysteries were better left unsolved.

We kept pace with the men and animals pushing and pulling carts and with the few women present who were covered in dark, shielding veils. Those women stared at us with as much fascination as we found in them, each of us wondering what could possibly be appealing about the others world.

Our walk continued as we maneuvered through the alleys in tandem with children coming home from school and merchants delivering their wares. A space that was meant to fit just barely three people somehow expanded to fit more than 10 as we twisted and turned to avoid colliding into others. Pungent spices continued to make us sneeze and even gag a little. Young brides shopped for handmade wedding invitations. Incense burned right around the corner from the used auto parts shop rich with its own smells of flaming rubber and grease.

As time dripped away, we knew we had better hurry and bustled to the car in a little bit of a panic as the realization sunk in that we might be late for school pickup. We got in the car and immediately started calling the different school offices to be sure they knew we were on the way--explaining that just this time, we would be just a smidge later than normal. "Traffic is horrible," we said and winked at each other while holding our hands just right so that our new rings reflected against the glass of the car window.

(Part 2 will be available on Wednesday.)


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Check out previous posts from the Life Changing Moments Series:


Charade said...

What a great read. And I'll be watching for the second part.

Nin Andrews said...

I agree. Thanks for this! My daughter is in Kenya now, and she was recently in the desert along the Somali border, working for Catholic Relief Services. I have to say, I love traveling vicariously . . . But I am not eager to get on a plane.

Maggid said...

Totally Enjoy this post. I'll make sure to read next Wednesday . . .
Thank You,

Glenda said...

I love to read about India, the mysterious country, I think because I have only known a couple of natives of the country and found them enormously interesting. We have difficulty understanding a country with such extremes between the rich and the poor. I look forward to the rest of the story.

Catherine Johnson said...

Wow, that was a brave move. It's fascinating to hear all the little details like the monkeys. Thanks for sharing your experience with us.

Ellen said...

Thank you for all the kind comments. Please do come back on Wednesday to hear the "rest of the story".

Unknown said...

Visual writing is pale in comparison to the scented writing masterfully created here. Scent, smell, taste, touch- Left me smelling the air, imagining the incense, rubber, grease, sweat, cooking, smog, even high wire acrobatic thieving musky monkeys.