Thursday, January 14, 2010

Be Kind Whenever Possible

While checking my travel plans earlier in the week, I notice that the itinerary says, “First Class” next to my seat assignment.

“Oh crap,” I thought. When I booked the tickets with the corporate travel agent, I specifically asked for business class (and did even that with a guilty wince when they told me the price). I don’t want Pearson thinking I’m trying to take advantage of them, so I call the agency to inquire into the matter.

“Oh yes, Ms. Krajewski, I see here that you’ve received a free upgrade.”

“A free upgrade?” I confirm. “At no extra cost?”

“Yes,” she says, “That’s what a free upgrade usually is. How lucky for you!”

“I’ll take it!” I say, and slam a fist down on the kitchen counter as if I’ve just surprisingly won an auction of all of Jackie O’s sunglasses for the low, low bid of NOTHING. The dog gives a slightly nervous look. I assure her all is well.

Two days later, I’m standing in line at Gate K19 at O’Hare Airport when a skinny, grey-haired Steve Martin-type pushes between me and the other row of people in the “Priority Access” line.

“Excuse me,” he says, as he clunks people with his teetering valise, his wife trailing behind in his wake. “We’re PRIORITY,” he says like he’s just been named President of Earth.

I step to the side, looking at my ticket that reads in all caps: PRIORITY ACCESS while the King of the World walks all the way to the front of the line and right up to a scowling flight attendant who looks at his tickets, points, and shakes her head. He does the same. Finally, they both turn around and part the sea of first class and business passengers through which Mister Priority just waded. As they get within earshot, I can hear the flight attendant telling the argumentative Mister Priority, “Yes, all of these people are first class or business class. I checked all their tickets personally.” She rolls her eyes and they walk on.

The first time I flew first class for this whole India project, I felt terribly guilty. I took notes about how it would be nicer for everyone if they partitioned out the space on the plane evenly, giving each person a reasonable amount of room instead of giving some a whole wash closet full of space while others receive something nearer a child’s coffin.

But I fear a change has come over me. As he walks past, I, too, roll my eyes at Mister Priority and wish he would just stay in his assigned place—behind all of us first class and business class passengers. What an idiot!, I think.

This time, I want that whole, sordid, huddled mass to stay away from me with their coughs and sneezes and their body odor and their too big carry on bags that they will stuff into too small overhead compartments but only after a good 30 minutes of futzing.

This time, I’m expecting a hot hand towel served to me before dinner so I can freshen up—and I’m not despairing for the folks who don’t get one.

This time, there may as well not even be a back of the plane. We are all First Class—except for that one Priority clown, and he’ll have to deal with the Air Marshall if he comes pushing up here again now that we’re on the plane.

This time, I’m entitled. I’ve been deported. I’ve been detained. This whole thing has been a mess. So this time, I deserve a hot towel, and The New York Times—and maybe even a miniature, plastic glass of champagne. Damnit.

But then I think, *gasp*:

Is this how jerks happen? They decide that whatever headaches they’ve gone through mean they deserve better treatment than everyone else? I don’t think so. I don’t think this model of jerkness is sustainable. For instance, I know the minute I see some poor handicapped lady shoved into an economy seat, my sense of entitlement will evaporate in a guilt tornado.

No, I think real jerks don’t base their entitlement on previous pain and suffering, or even hard work. They just think they’re by nature more fabulous, more wonderful, or more deserving. Or maybe they don’t even think about it at all.

Or maybe I’m just trying to justify my momentarily not feeling guilty about the obscenely priced “luxury” of first class flight.

Nonetheless, I flip on the tv and peruse the available movies and shows, hoping there would be some new ones since my last international flight was rather recent.

I settle on the movie District 9, as I remember Scott telling me I might like it. In the midst of the opening credits, Peggy the flight attendant introduces herself and takes my dinner order: the saag paneer (a vegetarian dish of spinach and cheese).

Meanwhile, in South Africa, a race of aliens disdainfully called “prawns” is being held prisoner, experimented on, generally abused, and readied for a forced move to a new concentration camp to be known as District 10—until the male lead accidentally encounters some dark, toxic fluid which causes him to start mutating into an alien.

Half-man, half-alien, he quickly begins to identify with the tortured prawns and realizes they are not mere monsters, but intelligent beings with very recognizable emotions, and strong family bonds.

The flight attendant rushes past me and leaves a plateful of glistening PRAWNS on my tray table.

For a moment, I consider eating them even though it’s the wrong order, but then I look at the prawns, and I look at the t.v., and I look at the flight attendant and just say, “Ummmmm…”

Thankfully, without my having to explain the complicated and rather lame reason that I will likely never eat shrimp again, let alone at this moment, Peggy whisks the plate away and replaces it with my new meal—mushy spinach that was never a member of anyone’s family.

As the movie wraps up, I think, how would I review this? I’d likely have to say something about it being directed by Peter Jackson. This being the case, I was hoping for some giant walking trees, or at least a soft-focused, slow motion pillow fight at the end, but no such luck.

As the movie wraps up, I also think about how I really have less and less an appetite for violent entertainment. The blood and the guts and the guns and the fire and the explosions. I wonder what it’s all for. I wonder if, like eating prawns, I should avoid it completely—but I’m not one for hard and fast rules, except (subsequently) when it comes to eating prawns.

I find the classy eye mask in my first class ditty bag, slap it on, and recline the seat all the way backwards so that it pretty much resembles a bed. I put on an episode of 30 Rock, but don’t even make it all the way through before passing out.

I wake up a few times to hear people walking around or asking the flight attendant for things, but I don’t turn my seat back into a chair until there are just about two and a half hours left in the flight.

So my flight will work out to about eight hour’s sleep with about three hour’s chilling on either end of that. It’s not bad.

We land without incident. I get off the plane, and get through immigration with no problems at all. The monitor tells me to head to Carousel 5 to get my bags.

Our arrival was about thirty minutes late because they held the plane to fix some mechanical problems. Now, as we all gather around the empty carousel, our arrival is delayed even further.

About thirty minutes passes before any bags come out. Then, they appear few and far between, as though the Indira Gandhi airport hires one three-toed sloth to unload the baggage from each international flight. I imagine our sloth outside, moving like the goo in a lava lamp, just taking his time with our bags—one at a time.

I posit this theory to a black guy with braids from Chicago. He says, “You know, in India, they take time.”

Just then, I see my blue suitcase coming toward me, drenched in some sort of toxic-looking black liquid. I rethink my sloth theory. Maybe they have giant prawns working the baggage, I think, but I keep it to myself.

My second bag isn’t far behind. I grab them both and walk through the “green” customs lane, which means you have nothing to declare, and down the ramp where the taxi drivers line up. I read the signs for my name and get to the end of the ramp without finding it.

Must’ve missed it, I think, and head back up the ramp to examine the signs more closely, looking left and right with no luck. I try this trick two or three more times until it’s clear to me I require a strategy beyond looking for my name on a sign at this point.

I am so, so thankful at this point that something like this didn’t happen to me on my first trip into the country. I would have filled with panic and dread and done who knows what.

This time, though, I have a local cell phone (that I hope is still charged). And I have rupees in my pocket. And I have already spotted a pre-paid taxi stand that looks like it will work.

I take out my cell phone and call up the number of The Residence Hotel in GK1, but I get the crazy India dial go-round which consists alternately of strange beeping, Asian music, and a woman’s voice recording saying, “We’re sorry, that number does not exist.” I try every possible combination of numbers and area codes, with and without the plus sign (which sometimes helps but not always). I even ask a uniformed guard to help me dial. Nothing works.

Plan B: scratched.

Plan C? I’ve got Ranjani’s number in my cell. She does HR for Pearson. I call her up and tell her what’s going on. She says Kavita was supposed to confirm the airport pick up, but she’ll make some calls.

In the meantime, a driver holding a sign for The Oberoi Hotel says that sometimes the drivers wait outside as well. I’m suddenly sure that’s what happened, and I’ll soon feel silly for calling Ranjani and bothering her.

I drag my bags behind me into a shoulder-to-shoulder crowd. I barely hear it, but catch my ringing cell phone. It’s Scott. He wanted to congratulate me on getting here okay. People push at me from all directions. I see a few signs, but none of them say my name.

“Scott, can I call you back? I’m trying to find my cab and it’s a little chaotic.” I hang up.

Nope, there is nobody waiting here for me: inside or outside. There is nobody at all. They messed up.

A dark-skinned driver with pointy incisors approaches me, “Madam, do you need a ride?”

I tell him yes, but I want to use a pre-paid stand. At this point, I’m thinking I’ll go back to the stand I saw inside the airport, but Toothy points me to a pre-paid stand that is conveniently this side of the pulsating throng.

He leads me to the booth where an Indian version of Danny DeVito fills out a little form and takes 250 rupees from me. He tells me I can take any of the black and yellow taxis in the lane, but Toothy is all over this deal. He grabs my bags and leads me towards the back wall of the arrivals section to a small, cracked up, hatchback.

He shoves my large bag, then my small bag into the back seat, and then I start to get in as well. Before I can sit down, he stops me by putting his hand between my legs. I vigorously swat his arm away, saying, “What do you want?”

He, apparently, wants a tip for having put my bags in his backseat. I think, what else will he want if I get into his cab with him alone?

My cell phone rings while I still have one foot in his backseat. It’s Kavita.

“Vicki, what are you doing?”

“I’m getting a cab,” I say, irritated.

“No! Don’t! It’s dangerous! You should wait. The hotel says they’re sending somebody. Don’t take a cab. It’s dangerous,” she says.

Yeah, no shit. That’s why it would have been nice if the HOTEL WAS HERE TO PICK ME UP!!!!

But, like my prawn joke, I keep this to myself. “Well, I already paid, Kavita. Just tell the hotel to cancel.” For a fleeting, unreasoning moment, I think I’ll somehow enjoy the guilt she might feel if something happened to me. I also want to prove I don’t need anybody’s stupid help.

“NOOO,” she says. “Wait at the airport!”

“Okay,” I give in. Toothy already touched my hoo haa in a crowded public place. I don’t want to even think about where he might really be going tonight. Kavita’s right. It’s dangerous.

Changing direction, I tell him I’ll give him his tip if he just takes my things out of his car. The hotel is sending a cab for me.

I dig into my backpack and hand over 100 rupees in exchange for the harassment I received. But Toothy is the gift that keeps on giving. Now he and his friend want to talk to me.

“You are marry? You are hot, sexy lady. You live United States? You give American dollars to me.”

I tell Toothy I have to go inside to wait for the hotel taxi, but then the phone rings again. It’s someone speaking mostly Hindi, but every 20th stray word makes me think he has the right number. It sounds something like, “slkdjrfweoiuredhj Miss Vicki slkdj aoeiruoiel sdfkljsahdfjhasd Hello? sdlkfjasdhfasdfhh taxi hotel lkejrewoir howeirdkdjfshjfghd skjhieuht Where you now?”

I try describing where I am to who knows whom, but the call gets dropped. All the while Toothy and his friend are leering at me. “You don’t need cab. You pay. You have cab. You like this car?”

The phone rings again. It’s my mystery caller. This time I don’t listen to anything he’s saying, but just start describing where I’m standing until I see a man with a navy blue rag on his head talking on a cell phone, and heading straight for me. He doesn’t tell me who he is, but he says, “Taxi?”

I guess.

I’m not sure this second route seems any less dangerous at this point. Who is this guy?

He points me to the pre-pay booth and tells me to get my money back. I tell him to forget about it, but he insists. Toothy and his friend drag my bags back to the pre-pay booth while the mystery man negotiates a refund from Danny DeVito.

Toothy wants another tip. American money. I tell him I don’t have any. He asks about five more times, with the same result.

“Indian money, then,” he says. I tell him I already paid him.

The mystery man is done speaking with Danny DeVito. I just have to sign for the refund, which I do.

Then the mystery man takes my bags and leads me to the other side of the booth to a large white minivan. He and a second person wordlessly put my luggage into the van and open the door for me to get in, which I do.

I really hope these are the guys from the hotel.

It is a wordless drive. I am angry once again. I even sent an email directly to the hotel this time telling them my flight number and all the details. I’m so sick of everything going wrong.

Well, I tell myself, not everything has gone wrong now, has it? They fixed the mechanical problem on the plane, didn’t they? They upgraded you to first class, didn’t they? They let you into the country this time, didn’t they?

Whatever, I answer myself. I’m still sulking. I decide I’m not going to tip this taxi driver at all. Tip him for what? Forgetting about me? Not showing up when he was supposed to? Jerk. And I also decide not to tip whoever it is that will help me with my luggage either. Dumb hotel. They don’t deserve tips for messing up.

Then I think of my Yahoo signature line. It’s a quote from the Dalai Lama. It says, “Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.”


He’s right.

We pull up to the hotel.

I tip the driver.

I tip the guy who helps me with my luggage.

Then I go try to figure out if that black, toxic prawn liquid on my blue luggage is a permanent stain.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Don't Leave Home Without It

Don't Leave Home Without It (a/k/a How to Turn an Ordinary Shower into Heaven)

I still fully intend on finishing the last few entries that conclude my first experience in India. My notes have been waiting for me all this time.

However, I have to get this update out now. I have been offered another position in Delhi, beginning in October, 2009. I will be the English Language Teaching Director. As preparation for assuming this position, I was invited to attend three days of meetings in Delhi, beginning on September 14th. This is the story of how that went.

No one mentioned to me (nor did I know) that one needs a visa to spend even ten minutes on Indian soil. So I happily went on my way at the Cedar Rapids airport and the Chicago airport—where the gate agents all checked my passport numerous times and told me I was all set for my latest trip to Delhi. Have a nice flight. Thanks for flying American!

Fifteen hours later, I’m dragging my way off the plane at the Delhi airport. I get through the H1N1 check with no problem. I walk to the next set of desks, and I am halted in my tracks. The man behind the desk starts flipping through my passport again and again. Finally he says, “Where’s your visa?” And I happily explain to him that I’ll only be here for a few days, so I don’t need one. Instead of letting me go get my bags from the carousel, he asks me, “Why did you come here without a visa?” “Because I didn’t think I needed one,” I reply. “But why did you come here without a visa?” he asks again. Perhaps he wanted a more creative answer, perhaps he thought my response was a lie to cover up my evil plot of becoming an illegal immigrant in Delhi. But I had no other answer. “I didn’t think I needed a visa,” I repeat. He shakes his turban and beard at me and motions toward a cross-looking, grey-haired man wearing a swine flu mask who leads me towards a shady office with one-way glass. An Indian woman walks by behind me and looks quite worried. “Are you okay?” she whispers. “I’m fine,” I tell her confidently, truly without worry. I just have to explain my situation to this guy and everything will be fine. Yet in the back of my head, I’m wondering if this is the start of one of the Discovery Channel’s episodes of Locked Up Abroad. Could I get thrown into some Indian slammer and be sentenced to nine years of hard labor? Naw, I think. I should have never watched that series anyway. It gave me nightmares. It’s like watching one of those doctor shows and then becoming convinced that you have the rare ailment featured in the subplot.

The masked man walks behind a contact-paper wood grain desk and motions for me to enter his office. I sit on a dirty, saggy couch as he paces and asks over and over, “Why did you come here without a visa?” The answer is the same every time: because I didn’t know I needed one… Eventually, he thinks of more questions. I answer them all and produce my itinerary, the hotel confirmation, letterhead, a list of contact people and their phone numbers, my return ticket dated September 18th. He looks at it all, poking each document with a pencil, then he unties the top part of his mask and gets on the phone. “Yes, sir. Yes, sir. Tika, sir. Tika, sir. Acha, sir. Acha, sir,” he says for the next three minutes. He then leaves the room and returns a minute later with an entourage of shuffling men in faded denim shirts. They form a circle outside the office door and intermittently shoot squinty glances my way. Two more people come into the room. I get the sense they’re tending to something else. As the man with the baseball hat sinks down into a crushed cushion of the opposite couch, he sighs, “Nooo visaaaa?” to the woman on the swivel stool, who shakes her head in reply—both of them acting like I am an inanimate object. The crowd outside the office keeps pulling more people towards it like a static-ridden sweater attracting lint. I wonder if everyone in the airport knows about this now. I wonder if they’ve sent out a code red about me, if this constitutes an “international incident,” if I’ll make the evening news, if I’ll be a two-second story on CNN. What would the headline be? “American Woman Makes Huge Mistake – Pays For It.”

Finally, the crowd disperses and the masked man returns to his desk. Half of what he tells me is intelligible. I get the idea that I have to call someone important to get out of this jam. “Who? Can I have a phone number?” I ask. He shakes his head. “No! You must know. Do not you have someone from your company?” I tell him I’ll make a few phone calls, and he wanders off again. I’m alone in the office for a while, but the whole time men are pacing outside the door.

I fire up my cell phone and notice a waning battery charge. I look at my list of phone contacts. I hope to see Vivek’s number there, but it don’t. I call Joanne, the ELT President I’ve been working with, dreading the thought of telling her of my predicament. I dial three times before the call finally goes through, and Joanne, thankfully, answers. “Joanne?” I say. There is a long pause. Maybe I have the wrong number. Maybe she was asleep already. “Yes?” she finally says.

“It’s Vicki,” I say, while actually meaning, “I’m a useless turd and I apologize in advance.” In preceding weeks, Joanne said over and over again how important it was to be at this meeting, and I assured her I could make it.

“Oh, are you here?” she asks hopefully.

“Well, I’m at the Delhi airport and I don’t have a visa because I didn’t think I needed one and nobody told me I needed one and they won’t let me in and they say I need to talk to somebody and get them to call someone important…” I break for air, and notice there’s just static on the line. Our connection’s broken. “Hello?” No reply. I wonder how much she heard. Shortly thereafter, my phone rings. I pick it up. “Joanne?” It’s her.

“Something happened with the phones. I think we got cut off. So you’re stuck at the airport?” She seems to have heard almost everything. She asks if I’m okay. I am. I am quite fine. No one’s dragging around a large gun. No one’s got any handcuffs yet. I figure if I behave pleasantly, then the worst thing that can happen is for them to send me back home. I fill Joanne in on some details and she says to hold tight. She’s going to look for Vivek’s number and call me back.

Now it’s me pacing the office and clutching my cell phone, which rings after a few minutes. “Hello?” I say. There’s some noise, but no one responds to me. This happens two more times. Then she finally gets through. She found Vivek’s number, and called him, but he’s not there right now. So she’s going to call Sharad from Educomp and see if he can help. She’ll let me know.

More waiting. More pacing. More impromptu crowds and gawking passers-by. Occasionally, people shuffle in and poke at the papers I’ve left displayed on the desk. They talk about me in Hindi, then leave, not even having made eye contact with me. I feel like I’m watching a play about myself—or maybe like I’m on display in a zoo.

I sit back down on the sagging couch and look at my phone, wondering if I should try to plug it in and charge it—or if that might be a punishable offense. As I ponder this, I notice that I have a message indicator. Someone left me a message and it didn’t even ring. I think my phone has Delhi belly. The message is from Joanne. She got in touch with Sharad, and he’s sending someone to the airport to meet me. She includes my savior’s name and number. I call him immediately and get through, but there are a lot of people talking in the background and it’s hard to hear him. He says he’ll be here in two minutes. He wants to know where I am in the airport. He doesn’t know if he can help, but he will try. I thank him profusely, and rest assured that I’ll soon be grabbing my checked bag and heading to The Oberoi Hotel. I luxuriate in the thought of clean, white linens and beige drapery, but after that, I wonder if Vijay’s two minutes will be Indian or standard time. If the former, I could be waiting here for an hour or more. But no matter. Everything will be okay. It has to be.

Turns out that Vijay really meant two minutes. I am so happy to see a friendly face as he shakes my hand. I thank him profusely, but he warns me that he doesn’t know if he can help. I think, “Stop being so modest, Vijay. You know you’re here to become my hero.” Several denim shirts gather around him and lead him off towards the stairs. On his way out, he tells me he’s learned of something called a Temporary Landing Permit that the airline can issue for $200, so he’s checking into that.

Just as my hero falls out of sight, two new people in more serious business attire approach me as I sit on the couch. The man who looks to be in his twenties wears a creased white shirt, black pants, shiny shoes, and a necktie that says, “Livewell Aviation Service.” His badge has a sideways picture of him on it, but no name. Anita Singh, customer service associate, stands just behind him as he addresses me. She nods as he speaks, seconding everything he says.

“Ma’am,” he says sharply, “Get up. You have to go now.” Whoa. I was expecting the wheels to turn for a much longer time before hearing an ultimatum. I explain to him that I have a friend in the process of checking with the airline. He says I can get a Temporary Landing Permit. This provokes Livewell. The sides of his mouth point downwards. “Ma’am, you have to go now. Come on,” he says, but I resist, telling him I have to wait to hear from my friend.

“I just talk to your friend. He tell me you have to go. He call me. He call me on cell phone.” He looks at his phone and reads out Vijay’s phone number to me—but I don’t believe him. I insist on talking to Vijay, whom I call.

“Vijay, what’s going on? Did you tell someone I have to leave?” Vijay says he’s still upstairs looking into the permit, and that I shouldn’t leave yet. I hang up and relay the message to Livewell the Goon, whose eyes narrow as his stance widens like he’s getting ready for a wrestling match or to hit a home run.

“Come on now,” he says, “to get a TLP you need to speak to someone in the office, and you know very well there are no offices open now, so you will go home and apply for a visa. There is nothing open until twelve o’clock tomorrow, and you can’t stay at the airport until then. And you can’t leave here without a TLP. So? Let’s go,” he declares victory. I don’t even move a little toe.

“My friend is still talking to someone. I need to wait until I hear back from him.”

Livewell the Goon realizes that, at this point, he’ll have to either drag me bodily from the couch to a plane, or wait and let me talk to my friend. Bitterly, he opts for the latter, mumbling, “Do as you wish,” as he walks out of the office door, followed closely behind by the silent Anita Singh, customer service associate.

Ten minutes pass, then the Hit Couple returns. This time, Anita speaks. “How many checked bags do you have?” I tell her one. “Just one?” she asks. Well, just one if you don’t count the nerve toxin package that I swindled in between my butt cheeks, I think.

“Yes, just one,” I say, smiling.

I expect them to lay into me again and try to force me out, but instead they have an agitated conversation in Hindi with the masked man who first led me to his office. Arms wave. Nostrils flare. Then they all leave. I am again alone, guarded by a pudgy, turbaned man shuffling his way back and forth by the blue and orange immigration desks just outside. The airport is quiet. The rush of passengers from incoming flights has subsided. Slowly, the swarm reconvenes outside the office door. Livewell the Goon cracks his knuckles loudly, one at a time. I wonder why he’s so brusque, so seemingly angry, and so hurried to get me gone. I feel like the pox, or a termite infestation, or a hot potato, or a time bomb. I check my ass for a fuse. Nothing. Why are they so panicked?

The Goon and Goonetta walk back into the office and sit on the opposite couch. I stare at the floor. I stare at the crooked world map on the far wall. I look everywhere but at them. I reason, like my childhood dog used to do when she jumped onto the nice furniture, that if I don’t look at them, they can’t make me leave. I take out a notebook and start writing about what’s happening. That way, when CNN finds my notes, the world will hear my side of the story. As I take notes, Anita Goonetta comes over and pulls the boarding pass out from under my hand without even asking to see it. She and Goon speak almost inaudibly to each other. She chuckles a bit. Goon gets up and stands with his arms crossed and his legs apart in the middle of the doorway, staring out like a sentinel. I’m going to love seeing his face when Vijay the Great shows up with my ticket to freedom.

Now six men, seven men, eight men enter the office and crowd around my papers like they’re performing a dissection during their biology lab. They are silent, but point and shuffle. Someone spells my last name out loud, stumbling when he gets to the “double u.”

“What? What? WHAT?” I just want to scream, but stick to my not-getting-locked-up-abroad plan and play it cool.

I call Vijay back to check on his progress. “I am very sorry, Miss Vicki, but it looks like we cannot get anything today.”

Well, then, he must have another plan, I reason. “So what should we do now?” I ask.

“You will have to go home and apply for visa,” Vijay says. Okay, so Vijay was not my hero. That doesn’t mean there’s nothing else I can do. I can call someone else. I can just make a break for it. I can ask to go the bathroom then climb out the window. I can…

The Goon interrupts my planning session. “Excuse me, ma’am. Please come with me. You have to go back. You cannot stay here.” I look up and see Anita Singh, customer service associate, standing at the door with my checked garment bag in her hands, the large metallic luggage tag in the shape of a star seems to mock me. “SUPER!” it says.

Crap! I stall by ignoring them and writing in my notebook. He glares at me. I wonder if he can tell I’m writing down everything he says. I wonder if I should ask for a group picture. Lots of Indians love being photographed. That could stall things.

“Now, ma’am,” Goon demands and takes a step closer to me.

“Okay, okay,” I mollify him. “I’m coming. I just need to make some notes and place a call.”

“You can call on the way,” he says, motioning for me to get up.

Now that’s just rude and unnecessary. Let a woman who’s being booted out of your country at least let her boss know why she’s going missing.

Livewell the Goon starts grabbing at my papers on the desk and putting them away. “Fine,” I think, and start packing up.

When I’ve got my bags, Goon demands, “Follow me.” He and Goonetta take off quickly, walking around the counters and behind an escalator. Every three steps, they shoot an angry look back at me to make sure I don’t run away. As we approach an elevator in a dark corner, I wonder where they’re taking me. To a torture room? To the electric chair? To a white slavery broker? I remember a tip from that gruff cop on America’s Most Wanted: don’t ever let your kidnapper take you to location two. That’s where they plan to do you in.

The elevator rings and the doors part. “How do I get out of this? How do I get out of this?” I think and think. Goonetta points to a corner behind her in the elevator. That’s where she wants me to stand. I comply. Goon looks at me and says, “I need your passport and your boarding ticket.”

“I don’t have my passport,” I tell him, growing worried. “You took it.”

“No,” he says. “I gave it back to you.”

“You never gave it back to me. Where is it?” I try to keep the panic from raising my voice too much.

“I don’t have it,” he insists. Then Goonetta points to his shirt pocket. He touches it and realizes my passport is in it. Thank God. He fails to apologize and simply looks away.

The elevator doors open and we are on the second floor. As I follow my jailers, I dial up Joanne and tell her what’s going on. “So why can’t you stay in the airport?” I don’t know. “Who are these people?” I don’t know. “Is there a scheduled flight that they’re putting you on? Because if there’s not, maybe you can stall until tomorrow.” I don’t know.

Why wasn’t I asking more questions? I can be more assertive than that. Goon throws my garment bag onto a dirty and broken x-ray machine and walks off to get someone. I stand there with Goonetta. I muster everything I have to sound pleasant and nonchalant. “So, Ms. Singh,” I ask her, “do you work for the airport?”

“No, the airline,” she says, and I notice she has on a lot of pink lipstick. The airline? So the airline people are the ones being so aggressive and rude to me? Interesting.

“So what is going on here?” I ask Anita. “I need some information. Is there a flight scheduled? For what time?” She tells me they’re putting me on the same plane I flew in on; it’s the same flight to Chicago. It leaves at 11:30. I ask if they’ve also booked a flight to Iowa. “I can’t leave if there isn’t a plan to get me home,” I say, hoping I’ve found a stall tactic or a snag in their plan. Anita tells me she doesn’t know. I’ll have to ask the others.

I continue questioning her. “So can’t I just stay in the airport until we can look into a TLP?” I ask. Goon overhears this question.

“No you cannot stay in the airport. It is immigration law. Besides, you cannot get a TLP. Our airline does not issue TLPs,” Goon reports. But he is about as believable as Pinocchio with a ten-foot nose. Still, there is no arguing with him on this point. There is nowhere to run; nowhere to hide; and he is not letting me go or changing his mind. Goon has brought with him a dark-complected man who tells me in a pleasant tone that he needs to ask me a few questions.

“Also, we have subjected your bag to an escalated security search,” he smiles. I imagine them rolling my dress clothes through dirt piles and smile back. He asks me all of the standard, “Did you accept a gift from anyone? Have your bags been in your possession the whole time?” questions. I tell him every bag has been in my care but the one they apparently confiscated.

“That is wonderful,” he says. “Here are your tickets. One for Chicago; one for Cedar Rapids. You can go through security right there.” He points to a long line, then Anita says, “Come upstairs with me.” I’m confused.

“He just told me to go through security.”

“But there is a lounge you can wait upstairs for priority customers.” And I do seem to be their priority. “Come with me,” she says, and walks up the stairs. I follow her to a well-appointed lounge. “You can take some food or drink. Whatever you want,” she tells me.

I walk in and survey the food. Nothing looks appealing. I grab a tiny mug and get a double espresso from the machine. Then I sit down with my luggage and hope that they forget about me, or that they call me too late to get through security.

But my hopes are dashed again. I’m not even done with my espresso before I am escorted downstairs. At the end of the security line, I kindly let people in front of me thinking I could just do that all night until the TLP offices open. When the people stop coming, I wonder what would happen if I had a giant, pretend seizure. But I conclude being chained to a government hospital bed would not be a good solution, and very hard to explain to Pearson, that is, if they allowed me to make phone calls.

I finally surrender. I’m not staying in India. I can’t believe it. I’m going home.

I take out my electronics and put them in bins that run through the scanner with my bags. I walk through the metal detector, then stand on a raised box as a woman with a wand checks me thoroughly. I feel like we should have a smoke when she’s done.

Behind Security, there’s a little gift stand with the usual elephants and Buddha statues. I check it out, thinking I might feel better if I can at least come home with a souvenir. But they’re overpriced and I have similar versions of almost everything they’re selling.

Okay, this is it. I walk towards Gate 10 to board flight 293. They ask to see my boarding pass and point me down the hall. There’s another queue. A woman at a podium is collecting the boarding passes. When it’s my turn, I ask if I can at least upgrade to first class, which I was told before I left that I was booked for anyway.

She refuses, saying that the system tells her that I am in business class.

“Yes, I know. But I think it’s a mistake,” I tell her.

She tells me she cannot upgrade me because there’s no certificate number in the system. “If you can give me a security number, I can upgrade you.”

I dig through my papers. I’ve got my AAdvantage number. Is that it?


I’ve got all my past flight information. Is it in there?


I take one last stab. “Look, I’ve just been on a plane for fifteen hours, and now I have to spend another fifteen hours travelling—and all because the American Airlines people let me through when they shouldn’t have. Can’t you at least upgrade me as some compensation for that?”

She has a different answer this time, “This airline does not do upgrades. We cannot give complementary upgrades.”

There’s no use in trying to reason or persuade. I deflate and pack my papers back into my bag.

“Wait,” she says, “What I can do is give you a row with nobody else in it, so you have it all to yourself. Would that help?”

Her glimmer of sympathy somehow makes my eyes well up. I say yes, sling on my backpack and continue on to the next line. Here, they are searching everyone’s bags. I put my backpack and suitcase on the table thinking of the long, long trip ahead of me, thinking about how I let people down, how I should have known better, how I won’t know what’s going on with my job assignment. Tears run down my cheeks.

“Madam, are you okay?” the woman searching my bags asks.

“No,” the word jumps from my lips before I can think that the polite answer is always, “Yes.”

She looks concerned. Then the woman tending to the lines standing by the bag checker leans over to her and says, “She has no visa.” They both nod.

How does everybody know? Am I the only person in the world to have done this? Will I be included in the next edition of the Guinness Book of World Records? Will this incident be carved into my gravestone? “Here lies Vicki Krajewski. She has no visa.”

Next, I have to take off my shoes and stand on another box and spread my arms and legs out to get the wand treatment a second time—as if I might have sprouted deadly adamantium claws in the ten minutes since my last wand experience.

In my increasingly delirious state, I think maybe the flight attendants will let me change my seat if they feel sorry for me. I drag myself to 13D and sit down, noticing that business class is a lot nicer than I feared it would be. The seats even lie flat, sort of. If you don’t mind being on a slant. But there’s elbow room and leg room. It’s not like coach. I put my seatbelt on and keep the pillow and blanket on my lap, wanting to bury my head in it like an ostrich. A few minutes pass and a man sits in my row. I wonder if he changed his seat—if he’s not sitting where he was assigned because he thinks there’s more room in my row. I even ask him. “This is the seat I have a ticket for,” he says. So the ticket agent lied to me.

I hold my head in my hands and my nose runs. A flight attendant asks me if I want some orange juice. I say, “No,” but keep looking down. A minute later she passes by and puts some tissue in my lap, which only makes me cry harder for the kindness she’s shown. I use all the tissue.

I was planning on not eating during this flight, but when dinner arrives, I actually feel a little hungry. The flight attendant addresses me by name, “Would you like some dinner, Ms. Krajewski?” Of course she knows me; I’m the famous woman without a visa.

I accept the dinner, watch a movie, and then, thankfully, fall asleep. I wake up somewhere over Russia to the sound of the man in my row snoring. There are about seven hours left ‘til Chicago. So I put on my headphones and find some Peaceful Dreams tracks through the plane’s audio system.

The flight is smooth and we arrive at O’Hare so early that they can’t let us off the plane because the customs counter doesn’t open for another half hour or so. It’s 4:20 in the morning. I recline my chair and turn on my Kindle to read for a bit.

They finally let us disembark, and I feel a sense of dread as I approach the official at the desk with the fingerprint scanner. What if they don’t let me in? What if I am forever destined to live in an airplane flying the same route? It’s like a Kafka plot, or maybe a Samuel Beckett play—that one where the woman spends her whole life partially buried in the sand on a beach, or the one where they’re just looking for Godot.

I present my customs card and passport to the man behind the desk. He examines it and asks, “How long were you in India?”

“For two hours,” I reply. In retrospect, it might have been more like three.

The man cocks his head at me. “Really?”

“Yes,” I say, not offering any information I don’t have to provide.

“Why?” he asks.

“Because I didn’t have a visa,” I reply, “so they sent me back.” Really, where have you been that you haven’t heard about this? On Mars? I mean, everyone else knows.

“Wow, That stinks,” he says, and hands me my passport, allowing me through.

I claim my luggage, take a train to the domestic terminal, call Scott, eat an omelet prepared by a jolly Greek man, hang out a little longer, then board my plane to Iowa.

As the saga draws to a close, I do a quick self-assessment. On the plus side, I’m uninjured and I haven’t been locked up abroad. On the down side, though, my throat hurts, my back hurts, my hair is greasy, my contacts are hardening onto my eyeballs, my teeth are wearing sweaters, and I stink. Bad. It’s Monday and I’ve been wearing the same clothes since Saturday morning, marinating in them, really.

Scott picks me up at the Cedar Rapids Airport and drives me home, continually apologizing. I tell him it’s not his fault, but he says he’s just showing empathy.

I walk into my living room and am so glad to see window treatments that aren’t tiny plastic, unbreakable shades. And there is a whole couch! That I can sit on! I stand there for a moment just taking it in. Then I head upstairs to wash up. I peel off my pungent clothes and throw them into the laundry, then climb into the shower, which is no longer a shower at all, but pure salvation, pure, spiritual and bodily cleansing, pure bliss—better than a thousand full-body Swedish massages.

I shampoo my hair and do a little math. I've spent 32 of the last 48 hours on an airplane. Then I think about what I might post on my Facebook status as an update. I decide on, “Vicki Krajewski discovers miracle secret that turns an ordinary shower into heaven.”

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Durga Puja

Monday October 6

Monday at work I try to blow through as much of chapter nine as I possibly can while still maintaining the quality of my edits. Because I fly out on Friday instead of Saturday, I won’t have that day to work, and Thursday is Dusshera, a holiday, and Tuesday is the day the people from London are filming the video of me. This leaves just Monday and Wednesday as full work days this week. I get a fair amount of work done before five o’clock when I leave with Jonaki and Shinjini to attend a Durga Puja celebration in CR Park.

Shinjini rides in a separate hired cab and Jonaki rides with me in Palminder’s cab. The second cab will take Jonaki and Shinjini home when we’re done so Palminder doesn’t have to drive way out of his way.

Jonaki suggested we go to a smaller celebration that Anindo from work invited us to, but Shinjini is set on this one where we hear the crowds can be choking and the queues can be labyrinthine. Jonaki hopes we don’t blow up or get hijacked or have hijinx. Our track record of going out together includes both landslides and bombings. But when we get to the street where the festival is set up, there are no throngs. There are people around, but certainly not long lines for anything. This festival is several days long. We may have missed the crowds by coming the day before the apex of the event.

Soma told me if I didn’t sample the street food tonight, “It would be a culinary sin.” Shinjini leads us straight up to a pushka vendor. Pushka sounds Polish, I tell Jonaki. She agrees. It is decidedly not a Polish food, though. It is a little crusty puff, which the vendor makes a hole in with his finger, then ladles in a spicy, soupy mixture of vegetables. You have to pop the whole thing into your mouth at once, else the soup will get everywhere.

“I’ve never gotten sick from this,” Shinjini tells me, but she has an Indian belly. Mine’s still American. The questionable part is the watery mixture. I don’t think the water’s been boiled, and I don’t think it’s bottled water. They keep it cold by floating a big piece of ice in it. Is that ice made with Aquafina? I don’t think so. No matter. Before I know it, pushkas are being handed to me one at a time in little foil bowls. The vendor passes them out methodically, one to each person gathered around the stand, and we pop them into our mouths, trying to avoid dribbling. I swallow thinking, “I hope there are no parasites. I hope there are no parasites.” We eat three or four each and Shinjini asks if I want more. Nope. That’s enough. She pays the man and we walk on toward the main celebration.

There is a railing made of bamboo that leads into a large tent-like structure that was built for this three-day celebration. We walk through the lane made by the bamboo, obviously meant to contain a long line of people, but now almost empty, then get to the security check at the entrance to the tent. Our bags are searched and we are combed over with metal detecting wands, then we can enter.

Inside there are big screen television sets, a car showroom, a booth selling a sports beverage called Horliks, elaborate chandeliers and, the main attraction, a one-story tall glittering idol of the Goddess Durga and her family. Durga is depicted at the moment she is defeating the evil Ravana, a glowering green guy who is emerging from a bull. Ravana had the power to shape shift, so was almost undefeatable, but Durga killed him as he was in the middle of changing into his human form. As the myth has it, Rama invoked Durga to help him defeat Ravana because Ravana had a wish granted to him that he could not be beaten by any man.

Durga Puja is a Bengali festival. Jonaki and Shinjini are both Bengali, so the celebration reminds them of home. Delhi being a mishmash of Indians from everywhere, you can find Durga Puja pandals being set up all over the place. There’s a large tent and a glittering, many-armed icon in the park by the Ahuja Residency, and many more scattered about the city.

We sit before the pandal waiting for the ceremony to happen. People mill about and find seats behind us. A pair of reporters approaches us and starts asking about the celebration. When do the pujas take place? What is the story behind the pandal? When they leave, Jonaki remarks about how little they knew. Where have they been? Why don’t they have a clue? They were as clueless as me, I offer, laughing. It is only after Shinjini loudly agrees that we realize the journalists are setting up their camera directly behind us. We sit on our hands in momentary embarrassed silence.

The ceremony begins. There is an insistent drum beat and offerings are made to Durga, held up before her then displayed for onlookers. There is food then flowers then fire. Officiators bring pots of fire to the crowd and they stick their hands in it, just as they did at the Iskcon Temple. The drumming goes on and on and soon Jonaki asks if I’ve seen enough. There’s still more to do. We can walk through the carnival area and we still need to eat, then there’s a whole other pandal in B Block that we can look at.

We meet up with a former Pearson employee who now works at Sage Publications and wander through a lane full of food vendors and carnival games and little kiddie carnival rides. Kids shoot bb guns at a wall full of balloons. More kids ride a tiny ferris wheel. There are vendors selling toys, decorations, graphic novels of Hindu myths and other baubles. The streets are lined with endless strings of colored lights. This is much more festive than church bingo, I offer. This is a full-on street party.

The B Block pandal is an elaborate golden wall of gods and goddesses with four-foot Ganesh statues lining the sides of the enclosure. There are the same chandeliers and ceiling fans set up inside this huge building that is erected mostly out of bamboo and fabric solely for this three-day festival. At this enclosure there is also a sound stage with live singers.

At the next food booth I eat momos: little dumplings with cabbage and other vegetables inside. The dumpling dough is thin and delicate and the dipping sauce is sufficiently spicy to clear my sinuses.

By the time we finish eating, it’s almost nine thirty, which is bad because Jonaki told Palminder we’d be done by eight o’clock. I get a little antsy, as does she, yet we still need to stop at a sweet shop on our way back to the cars. The evening wouldn’t be complete without it.

At nine forty, we leave the sweet shop and walk to the cabs, but the party we leave behind looks like it’s just getting started. The band plays on, the lights glow, the vendors hawk, the people munch on street food.

Just when I thought my time here would get boring, with nothing to look forward to but coming home, I am treated to this kaleidoscope of sights and sounds and tastes. I just hope my stomach is sturdy enough to handle those pushkas.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

My Last Sunday

Sunday October 5

The phone rings at five a.m. It’s Mister Kandhari waking me up for our Sunday morning gurdwara visit. I throw on some clothes and walk over to his garden. I’ve beat him getting ready today. He’s still putting on his socks. I haven’t worn socks since I got to India. This is probably why I’m ready before he is.

He calls to his house helper to get the tea ready. It is sweet and milky, and we eat it with biscotti. Mister Singh joins us and partakes of the tea and biscuits, and then we’re off. Today we don’t pick up Poonam. I ask where she is and Mister Kandhari says she didn’t call this week.

My last visit to Bangla Sahib is very routine. Mister Kandhari pops out of the car and heads off to the langar, and I follow Mister Singh to the shoe check. On the way into the temple he introduces me to a friend who is serving a soupy, spicy lentil dish out of an enormous pot in the area in front of the parking garage that is under construction. I don’t quite understand what this extra food is for, but the man is clearly taking pride in dishing it out. He hands me a small bowl made from dried leaves and a chapatti and ladles in the hot stuff. This thing with eating spicy food so early in the morning is something I’ve not quite gotten used to. It is jarring. It’s not even six o’clock and my mouth is on fire and my stomach is saying, “Does not compute.”

We walk inside the temple and sit down to listen to the Japjee being sung. I’m not as tired today as I was last week; I can stay conscious when I close my eyes. So I close my eyes and breathe and think about what Mister Singh said about wishes. I wish, because what can it hurt? I wish Mister Singh’s wife would get better and not feel miserable. I wish Baloo’s leg would heal okay. He’s the dog with one ear who is friends with Acha and Baby. I saw him limping the other day, poor guy. These are my two wishes today. I wish them over and over, and in between I just listen to the singing.

Soon enough it’s time to go downstairs and start serving. I sling out loaf after loaf of bread. The woman passing out too many slices isn’t here this week, so I don’t get in trouble by proxy. I pass out sensible helpings to the people sitting on the grass mats.

When my arm starts to shake from holding the basket, I know it ‘s almost time to go. I follow Mister Singh back to the shoe check and we meet Mister Kandhari back at the car. They would like to take me to Lodhi Garden today. Every Sunday there’s a members breakfast. I can meet the other members and have something more to eat. As long as we get back by eight thirty, I say. I have a scheduled Skype call with Scott, and then I’m planning on going to church. It’s my last Sunday here, so I’ll have to say goodbye to everyone there. They say no problem. We’ll be back even earlier than that.

It’s just about seven thirty when we pull up to the brick wall that runs the perimeter of Lodhi Garden. Mister Kandhari parks the car and Mister Singh walks off briskly. Is he hurrying because of me? Mister Kandhari trails behind.

We walk over a bridge and into a large rose garden where people are spread out on blankets, their heads touching the ground between their thighs. This is a yoga class, Mister Singh tells me. They come here every morning. If I were staying, I could also come. He interrupts the instructor and tells him that I am here visiting from America and I have been doing yoga since the age of five. Mister Singh has misunderstood something I told him earlier this morning, that I’d been in dance classes since I was five and I’ve done a lot of stretching because of it. Now he’s announcing that I’m some kind of yogi to this classful of ardent yogiites. The instructor steps off his mat and motions for me to lead the class. I tell him I couldn’t. I’m wearing jeans. He insists. I am mortified. I sit on the blanket and do a stretch. The whole class follows. I do a second stretch. The class mirrors my motion. I’m teaching a yoga class in India. After two stretches, I stand up and bow. “Namaste!” I fold my hands and say hastily. They clap for me as I step back off the instructor’s mat.

Next, Mister Singh leads me through the roses past a short rock wall to an area where a ring of banquet tables are set up. “Members, members!” he announces. “This is my friend from America! Vicki!” I feel like slinking back to the yoga class and leading more stretches. A man with a curly mustache comes up to me to say hello. Mister Singh tells him how I just led the yoga class.

“Do you know what yoga is?” the mustachioed man asks. I think it’s a rhetorical question, but he waits for an answer from me.

“Um, exercise and concentration,” I venture.

“NOO!” he exclaims. “Yoga is ancient practice from the Vedas. It is the way to unite your body and your mind. What does your mind do?” He wants another answer.

“It wanders?”

“YES!” he exclaims again. “But yoga makes your mind controlled. You overcome. You find peace. You master your mind. And THAT is yoga,” he tells me and bows, hands folded.

Mister Kandhari wants me to eat. He shoves a plate in my hand and scoops some potatoes in a watery sauce into one of the little sections. Then some peas. Then a chapatti. More spicy vegetables before eight in the morning. I dutifully eat my helpings of these foods, then he asks me if I want more. “What do you want? You want sweets?” I tell him I wouldn’t mind some rice pudding since it looks like they have some and he leads me around a loping tree to the other side of the table where they are serving kheer from a giant foil tray.

I eat my pudding and get introduced to dozens of people, one after another extending welcoming greetings. “We do this every Sunday,” Mister Singh tells me.

Soon enough, it’s time to go. I follow Misters Singh and Kundari back to the car and they drop me off at the Ahuja Residency in plenty of time for my Skype call to Scott. He prefers with the bombings that I avoid the auto-rickshaws, but people are expecting me at church and there haven’t been any attacks this weekend. Chances are I’ll be safe.

Chances are much higher I’ll be safer if I just stay home. My mother would like it if I hid under the desk until it’s time to go. It’s safe down there—except for the occasional beetle who can wonder by and leave you a case of necrosis. Safety is not something you take for granted here, but the risk of something happening is also something you can’t let paralyze you. It’s a balance.

I set out towards the market to catch an auto-rickshaw to church, but halfway there a car pulls over. It’s Ursula, the pastor’s wife, with her two little red-headed children in the backseat. “Are you going to church?” she asks with her British accent. “Do you need a ride?”

I certainly do. No risky auto-rickshaw for me today. Ursula is a godsend.

Church goes by quickly and there is much milling about afterwards. Ruth, the woman with eight children, invites me over to her place for tacos while one of her children stands with her head resting on Ruth’s thigh, eyes glazed over. The kids have all been very sick this week. High fevers. Ruth will understand if I don’t want to come over and risk getting sick. I say it’s okay, but later change my mind. I don’t want my last week in India to be spent in bed with the kind of body-wrecking fever I had a month ago. Besides, Mister Kandhari asked me if I want to go back to the orphanage with him today and I told him yes. I catch an auto home and the ride is, thankfully, uneventful.

Back at home, there is nothing much to do. I watch some tv, read some books on Sikhism and generally laze around, procrastinating on my blogging which has become a little tiresome by this time.

I walk to the market and order a dahi vada at Sagar, then walk home, stopping to pet Acha and Baby and Baloo, whose leg seems a little better. Maybe that wishing at the Bangla Sahib worked some magic.

Mister Kandhari never calls, but I talk to Jonaki and Skype with Scott. I’m still trying to get used to the discovery I made yesterday: that I’ll be leaving on Friday night instead of Saturday night. Because my flight departs at midnight I had the days mixed up until I looked at the ticket and figured out that leaving at midnight on October 11th means I need to get to the airport at eight o’clock on October 10th. I won’t have my final Saturday in Delhi as I planned. This day, Sunday, is my last weekend day in Delhi. I am marking lasts: my last visit to Bangla Sahib, my last service at Delhi Bible Fellowship.

The day is over before I know it. Tomorrow will be my last Monday in Delhi.

Friday, October 10, 2008

The Way Home

There are just three more hours before I leave the Ahuja Residency for the airport here in Delhi. I have taken copious notes this week in my journal but not had the time to do my daily write-ups. The week has been filled with festivities, busy times at work and sad goodbyes with the thoughtful, intelligent, witty, considerate, soulful and otherwise wonderful people I have been lucky enough to meet while I've been here.

I just got done giving Mira her tip and cried even then.

Even Palminder told me he is "very, very sad" that I'm leaving. Fancy that.

So anyway, I will chronicle my last week in India, but it's a task I'll undertake when I'm back in the United States. The week has been too full to write each night.

To everyone I've met here in India, best wishes and thank you for making me feel so comfortable and so accepted while I've been here.

To my friends and family in the United States, I can't wait to see you all again. Thank you for cheering me on from across the world. I felt your support with me every step of the way.

Check back next week for more entries. I promise to draw this thing to a proper conclusion--or maybe just keep it going. Who knows?

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

A Smile Face

Saturday October 4

I was going to be in Jaipur today. I was going to go to Neemrana. All these plans fell through. So I am just spending the day in Delhi, getting some last minute shopping done and relaxing.

I take my copy of Main Hoon Na back to Mercury Audio Video in Khan Market. It doesn’t say anywhere on the package that there are English subtitles. I wonder if I can exchange this copy for one with subtitles. The man at the store tells me he thinks this copy has them. When I question this, he opens the package and tries it out on a mini-DVD player for me. There are the subtitles I’m looking for. Excellent. Flaming auto-rickshaw car chase, here I come!

While I’m there, I wonder if they have the CD of a song I’ve heard on the radio and liked. I sing it for them and they puzzle a bit, then a young guy thinks he knows what I’m singing. He opens the CD and plays it for me to make sure. He’s got it. It’s the song. I thank them and roam around the market a little more, picking up some thank you cards and a package of key chains.

Back in the parking lot, I tell Palminder to take me to the Lotus Temple. There’s a big traffic jam and when we finally get there, the free parking lot is closed. There are busses parked all along the street and there’s a market that’s popped up from out of nowhere: stall after stall of Prasad and burgundy and gold fabric. This is for the upcoming Hindu holiday of Dusshera. I snap a few pictures of the stands and thank the men for letting me photograph them. “Thank YOU,” they say, clearly happy to be my models.

The walk to the temple is crowded, almost shoulder-to-shoulder with people, and it’s hot; like, sweat-rolling-down-my-face hot. By the time I reach the doors, I’m in no condition to meditate, I think. But then I walk inside. The same feeling is there: a palpable and inescapable sensation of complete well-being. I sit down on one of the marble benches and fold my legs. The temple is crowded. Lots of children fail to understand that they shouldn’t make noise inside. A little boy behind me keeps whispering to his mother, who keeps whispering back to him instead of quieting him down. A woman with a Lotus Temple badge around her neck walks by and motions for them to be quiet.

I close my eyes. What should I ask today? What is God? Or did I answer that question for myself the other day? I don’t feel like I did—at least not conclusively. I don’t feel like I know God. I ask the question here but get no answer. I feel rather alone in the big echoing chamber with the high ceiling. Am I? Am I alone here? Is it just me? Or is there something, someone with me making me feel this peace again? I don’t feel anything separate from myself, external to myself. Maybe God is in me. “What is God?” I ask again, but no answer comes, or no answer comes in the brief amount of time I give myself to focus on the question between being annoyed at the crowd and the heat and wondering about other things. The book by Swami Vivekananda that Vivek, the CEO, lent to me said that God is so huge that humans can’t contemplate or understand “him,” so it’s necessary to give him or it human forms. It is only in the human form that we can love God. That’s why we have Jesus and Krishna and the gurus in Sikhism. This seems to me ultimately true. If God is this formless, infinite abstraction, what do we do with it? Still, if God is human, it creates all kinds of problems. We judge him on human standards, expecting him to be just and kind and fair and on and on in ways that specifically make us happy. Then we just get mad at him when it doesn’t seem to work that way. Or, I do.

I get up and walk around the perimeter of the chamber, reading the brass quotes that are so familiar.

“Should prosperity befall thee, rejoice not, and should abasement come upon thee, grieve not. For both shall pass away and be no more.”

“Wert thou to speed through the immensity of space and traverse the expanse of heaven; yet thou wouldst find no rest save in submission to our command and humbleness before our face.”

These words were revelations for me a few months ago.

I round the space and get to the exit but I can’t say goodbye to the Lotus Temple just yet. I stand on the stairs and regard the place, and as I do I feel such a strong lack of any tension or worry in every atom of my body that my fingers start to tingle. I can feel the same vibration spreading up my arms. What is this? Why is it that this place does this to me? How can I carry this with me into my life? I sit back down and close my eyes again to study the feeling. A few moments pass and a line of about seven Indian people with large red folders forms at the front of the temple behind the spray of flowers and clear plexi-glass lectern. It must be three o’clock. It must be time for the Baha’i service. I’ve missed it every time I’ve come, but this time, only because the tingling sensation literally stopped me in my tracks, I’ve stayed long enough to see it.

It begins with a hymn sung in a language I don’t understand. The first man finishes his song, then closes his folder and steps away. Then the next man steps up to the lectern. He also sings in clear tones, the words echoing back and forth inside the dome. He also closes his folder and steps away. Next, a woman steps up and announces, “A Buddhist Prayer.” I get a sense of what is happening only now. This service is seven different prayers from seven different world religions. The Buddhist prayer is in English. The woman says that to give up desire is to conquer all sorrows. So if I give up wanting to posses the people I love, I will no longer be sad when I’m not in their presence. If I give up the desire for perfect health, it won’t be so traumatic when something goes wrong. It will just be a fact, something that happened. The woman continues.

“It is only the fool who thinks to find true happiness through wealth or material pleasures. All these things are temporary and fleeting.” I think of Mister Singh and his ailing wife and the problem of a wish-granting God.

“If you ask for something foolish,” Mister Singh said, “then He won’t grant it.” This is a different definition of foolish than I’m used to. Maybe this finally makes sense. Maybe the Lotus Temple has given me the answer I was looking for even if I didn’t form the question myself this time. Maybe God does grant non-foolish wishes, but those are trickier to make than they seem. Is asking for cessation of someone else’s pain a foolish wish? Or is physical discomfort not the true cause of sorrow at all? Is it only the mind that makes a situation wonderful or terrible? Nothing is good or bad but thinking makes it so. Here I am again with the lesson of emptiness in this big, empty temple where I was just feeling the expanse of the dome over me and so much nothing. That was what I was supposed to feel here today: emptiness. This is what I need to remember. This is what the Lotus Temple is gifting me with today; this is, perhaps, its parting message to me.

The woman closes her folder and makes way for another woman who announces, “The Lord’s Prayer.”

“Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name,” she says. I try to listen to the prayer like it’s the first time I’ve heard it. I try to find it as fascinating as the Buddhist prayer, but it is so trodden. It is so rote. I’ve said it so many times without thinking about it, it’s a struggle to hear it anew, even here in the Lotus Temple, in Delhi, in India where day is night and on is off and everything is different. This prayer is still the same.

The service ends with a Baha’i song. A woman sings that nothing can hurt her because she is armed with the name of the Lord. She closes her folder and walks away. All the people with folders have spoken. There is no ritual or ceremony or sending off. The service is as simple as seven read prayers. I stand up and walk toward the door. I hope I get to visit the Lotus Temple again before I leave. I plan to return during the day on Saturday before my flight leaves at midnight.

I return home and spend a little time reading and relaxing. Mister Kandhari says we’ll go out to eat tonight. He picks me up at eight and we first drive around for a bit. “You like my style?” he asks me. “This is how I like to enjoy the city,” he says.

He grabs a bag of snacks from the backseat and something to drink for each of us and he tells me about a meeting he attended in the morning. He’s very excited. Defence Colony has raised fifty crore to turn the nala that runs behind it into a large park. There were lots of dignitaries at the meeting and Mister Kandhari, the “green man of Defence Colony” was invited to help with the landscaping. The project will take a year and a half to complete. He tells me I can see it when I come back. I will come back, won’t I? Do I promise? I will keep in touch, right? I will remember him, yes?

Yes, of course. Yes.

He drives to a park by the Habitat Centre and parks the car. We’re going to eat some paneer tikka. The wala from the tiny slanted shack comes to the car window and takes our order. We’re eating drive-in style tonight. A few minutes later there is a plate of chutney and fresh chapattis and paneer. Mister Kandhari hardly eats any of it. “For you,” he tells me.

He looks out his windshield at the park in front of us and cocks his head. “Vicki, life is whatever you make out of it. You understand me?” he says. I wonder where this thought came from. “This time can be a heaven or it can be a hell. It all depends on what you do, who you spend time with, if you spend time with nice person, good person. You see?”

I see. I think of the desperate Skype conversation I just had with my husband wherein I told him this last week in India was going to seem like it would take forever because all I can think about is coming home. There are no more exciting plans, nothing else to look forward to. It’s going to be hell. But it doesn’t have to be. That’s my choice to make. It can be heaven. Nothing is good or bad but thinking makes it so. Mister Kandhari reminds me, as the Lotus Temple did today, of emptiness.

I finish the last cube of paneer and Mister Kandhari throws the plate out the door. “Come, I buy you sweets. You like kulfi?” He puts the car into reverse and backs out onto the street.

“I love kulfi!” It’s like ice cream with fruit in it and sometimes it’s served with little vermicelli noodles. “That’s very kind of you. Thank you,” I tell him.

“You have kulfi before? Where?”

“At Mister Singh’s house, one day after dinner.”

“Oh my goodness, oh my goodness,” he says. “You see, you do things so people remember you well. You leave the people with a smile face,” he tells me. “I like to leave the people with a smile face.”

We pull to the side of the street in front of the Defence Colony market. There is a wala set up to the side of Moets. He’s there just to sell kulfi. He dishes up a serving of the ice cream, puts the noodles and some syrup on the plate and hands it over to me. Doesn’t Mister Kandhari want any? He takes one small bite with the spare spoon but tells me the rest is for me.

A good Sikh doesn’t eat much, doesn’t talk much, gets up early in the morning to recite the name of God, and leaves the people with a smile face.

A few minutes later, we are in front of the Ahuja Residency. He’ll see me in the morning, yes? I’ll come with tomorrow to the gurdwara? Of course, as long as I get my wake up call.

“I’ll call you, yes. I’ll call you,” he says and touches my head. What can I do but smile?

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Elephants in Traffic

Friday October 3

At work I finish chapter eight and take on chapter nine which seems less dense, less labyrinthine and less opaque. Work is hopeful.

I take a walk at lunchtime and notice a monkey on the wall by the tea stand. Since I’m all by myself and this monkey seems contented as he rips apart seed pods, I linger and watch him eat. It’s mesmerizing the way he uses his little fingers to split and peel the pods to get to the seeds. In just about a week my lunchtime walks will no longer hold the promise of monkey-watching. I figure I’d better take advantage while I can.

On my way back to the office, I notice two more monkeys shaking the tree above where the first monkey was eating. Three small children are pointing and laughing. There’s another monkey inside a building that’s under construction. I watch him inside the frame of the building, then a dog pops up from out of nowhere and barks at the monkey who is completely unaffected. As I walk down the street, there are more monkeys. Two of them peep into a large jug of water that someone’s left out in the road. Another one grabs the exhaust of a parked motorcycle. Another one hugs a large earthen pot. Two more shake a tree just out of reach of a barking dog. There is a veritable gang of monkeys in the industrial estate today. My lunchtime walk has turned into a safari. Suddenly the monkey that was on the second floor of the hollow building is in the tree right in front of me. It only took one lightning fast jump to get him there. I get a sense that a monkey attack doesn’t happen in slow motion and that it might not be so safe to be standing around gawking at the hoard. Reluctantly, I walk back to work, back to chapter nine.

After work, Jonaki and Shabnum and Soma are going shopping for their maids. They want to buy them saris for the upcoming holidays. Would I like to go with? It’s quite nearby. Of course. I never turn down a chance to shop, plus I told my coworker that I would buy her a sari if I got the opportunity. This may be it.

Shabnum rides with me and we meet up with Soma and Jonaki in the hot night air of the Madhu Vihar market. The first sari shop is too expensive. We try a second one where they are selling for as little as a hundred and thirty five rupees: that’s six yards of fabric for about three dollars. The sari I select for my coworker is not quite that cheap, but it’s still a steal. We part ways with our bargains in hand.

I walk back to Palminder’s car and climb in. He has found a food stand, thank goodness, so he won’t be pouty and hungry now that I’ve kept him an extra half hour. We pull away but are stopped a few hundred yards from our parking spot by two enormous, lumbering elephants festooned with shiny fabrics and tassels. Yes, traffic is stopped by elephants. This would never happen at home, I think to myself. The elephants slowly cross the road and the traffic picks up again, but we have to circle around. It seems that the elephants were the beginning on some parade. There are men with portable chandeliers and men with drums. There are marching bands and floats full of flowers and lights and people dressed up like Brahman the god with three heads and Hanuman the monkey god. Palminder tries to get out of the market before the parade heads us off, but traffic comes to a complete halt in front of us. We’ll just have to stay and watch the parade. There’s no choice. I laugh at the absurdity of it and apologize to Palminder. It looks like I’ll be keeping him tonight for a little longer than I planned.

Palminder and I get out of the car. Luckily, I have my camera with me. You never know when you’ll get stopped by elephants and a parade of lights, so it’s best to always be prepared.

“It’s so beautiful,” Palminder says as a giant pink head with a fairy coming out of it's mouth rolls towards us. The giant pink head and flaming lips and pointy ears look a little dastardly to me, but I suppose this is a cultural thing.

“Sikh people,” Palminder says when a marching band of men in turbans comes past. He actually seems to be enjoying himself. It’s nice to see.

The parade ends and we climb back into the car. He drives us through twisting streets full of shops. This is not the usual route home. I get to see a new part of Delhi tonight. It resembles Amritsar a bit, with the shops right up to the sides of the street. I miss Amritsar. There is a tear in my eye. This place is so vexing. There is garbage in the streets and so much poverty and at the same time it is so mind-bendingly rich in color and culture and faith and joyous celebration. America will seem so boring, I think. I realize tonight that I will miss India.