First Day. Tuesday.
Sometimes things can’t be explained in words, or pictures, or anything really but experience. Up until I fell asleep last night, my mind had not been able to find anything familiar to compare the whirlwind of images, strange conversations, and range of emotions I’d gone through in a manner of–very jet-lagged–hours. Yet, in the three seconds of semi-conscious thought I had in my bed before I conked into the deepest sleep I’ve had in a while, I figured out a way for me to compare what I had experienced that day with something I could kind of understand: dreaming.
Yesterday was like one of those very long, nonsensical, fast-paced dreams which mostly takes place in an insane lurching, thrilling car ride, where wild images, colors, and symbols flash by and you only have time to grasp them for a second before they slip away. Every once in a while you find yourself free from the car, seeing things that are so exquisitely beautiful they knock the breath out of you or you are staring at a world that is so alien, devastating, and broken that the only way you can really make sense of it is to distance yourself. To think, well this is just a weird dream, none of it is real.
And then, in this very strange dream, while you skid passed all the cows, mules, camels, pigs, monkeys, dogs, people, people, people, rickshaws, tiny children, giant colorfully painted trucks overflowing comically with bricks or paper or logs, cans, or grain and wheat, your car hits a child riding on a bike on his way to school and knocks him to the ground. He seems ok, so you drive on, swerving inches from an oil truck only to gently brush a yellow rickshaw loaded with easily 18 people where three teenage boys in school uniforms dangle out the back doing homework. You keep going, never slowing down until you stop for tea, or appear suddenly at the gate to the Taj Mahal following a strange, mild-mannered tour guide who calls you Birrandah. When you see the white palace, glistening in the distance, the world around you stops for an instant. Nothing, even in dreams has ever been that beautiful. And you have just enough time to think that maybe all of this is real–because you’re touching the marble and semi precious gems and they feel cool and solid–before you are back in that car, zipping around again. The only way you keep calm is by remembering that it’s just one of those crazy dreams you’ve been having for the past few months and everything will be alright. Right?
Oh, except that this one wasn’t actually a dream.
When I woke up this morning, I actually wasn’t entirely sure that yesterday had happened until I turned on my camera and discovered the pictures. I think the dream aspect of the day was a coping mechanism my mind made up because it could not categorize everything that was going on into the reality I’ve lived my entire life. That, and I was tired as hell.
From what I can remember, my day started at 4am, in a dark and eerily silent Delhi. My cab driver was overly cautious and slow (which, in this city, is actually WAY more terrifying than the speedy, non-stop cabs). As I began to worry that maybe we were lost, because we’d been driving in strange loops on dirt paths, passing closed-down, crumbling tin-and-mortar buildings, I saw in the distance The Hilton Hotel, rising up like a shining palace of light and grandeur around the rubble. Who ever thought I’d feel such a wonderful sense of relief at seeing a Hilton Hotel?
The relief was momentary. I was not allowed up into the hotel and my professor was not answering her phone. Politely, the men at the security desk told me that I could wait in the lobby. I’m sure I only waited 5 minutes, but, in that state of anxiety 5 minutes is always hours. Had she and her daughters had already left? What would I do with myself then? I wasn’t worried about getting back to where I was staying, and it wasn’t that I even cared about the Taj Mahal at that point, I just really needed familiar company–specifically feminine company. I have had next to no contact with women so far on this trip except them. Well, obviously they showed up, bleary-eyed but excited to get going.
Our driver deserves an award. To be a driver in India, you must have the MOST incredible senses. You must have an innate understanding of other driver’s motives, and you must have THE quickest reflexes in the world. He drove us around from 5am to 8pm in the most harrowing ride I’ve ever been in. I know I’m being repetitive about driving, and I know I’m using a lot of hyperbole here but I’m not using them idly.
First, the fog grew worse, and as the sun rose (pink, it’s a pink sun), so did the city. All manner of things jumped out in the milk-bottle fog (I’ve never seen fog like this). Also, my assumption about Car Horns was correct–trucks have “BLOW HORN” written in beautifully intricate and colorful letters on their backs. As the fog lifted, the traffic grew more dense. Dirty children pooped on the side of the highway, wiry men sat in circles playing games inches from the traffic. Rickety old women carried bushels of sticks and heavy sacks on their backs. Ten lane toll booths became a perfect place for commerce. Children walked around, tapping on the windows with news papers and trinkets. Men had painted, dressed up, sad monkeys on leashes doing tricks and bowing. My professor told me how to say a phrase in Punjabi which I know will come in handy: “nay, mein ne chaha do” - “no, I do not want it.” I repeated it over and over again. In the car, my professor and her girls shared so many insights about their journey. We laughed and talked about familiar things; Harry Potter and Lady Gaga, and we went silent for the chained up monkeys and homeless skinny children.
By the time we reached Agra, home city of the Taj Mahal, it seemed almost an accomplishment that we only hit one kid and that he was only slightly stunned. There were countless other near misses but that’s just how it is, I guess. It was so busy everywhere. We met up with Shabhir, our funny little tour guide, who rushed us through the magnificent gates, through the lawn, around the inside of the Taj Mahal, and back out the other end in less than an hour. Really, we could have spent the whole day there but our fast-paced walking tour paid off in the end because the wave tourists began to flock in as we were leaving. I suppose being able to see the palace quickly, thoroughly, and in peace is better than being herded, inch-by-inch in a thick mass of other tourists anyway.
It’s funny when you suddenly come to actually understand the meaning of a phrase you often use. I’ve never put much thought into what “it took my breath away” really meant until my breath was sucked from lungs, momentarily, upon seeing the Taj Mahal. I’ve seen pictures and I knew it was one of the 7 wonders and all but, until it was right there, tangible, sitting in all its magnificence, looming in front of me, I wasn’t go to get it.
I have a lot more to say but I’ll pause here for now. I really don’t think I could have had a more perfect, all-encompassing first day experience in India if I had been paid to have it.