Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Oh My Soles

Sunday I awaken a little later than usual, talk to Scott for a little while, then go downstairs to grab a quick breakfast before Julianne and Susanna come to pick me up for service at the Delhi Bible Fellowship.

It’s been a while since I’ve been to a regular, Christian church, and the prospect still feels somewhat obligatory to me. This Sunday I’m going more for the fellowship than the worship, and I feel vaguely like I’m using God just to get to His friends. I hope He’ll understand.

Scott is concerned. He doesn’t want me going to this church from a place of weakness and getting sucked into something I wouldn’t otherwise be a part of. I tell him it’s not like that, but I see his point. I’m alone. I’m vulnerable. If some alien-worshipping kooks want me to drink their kool aid (or chai, as the case may be), there’s that much more chance that I’ll find myself sucked in by such an offer. But this is a harmless and nurturing Bible study group, and I hope I have enough wits about me to discern between a nefarious cult and innocuous worshippers.

Julianne arrives promptly at 9:15, and I’m still eating my mango. I tell her I’ll hurry and she says it’s fine, take my time, she’s just got an auto waiting outside. Her roommate had volunteered to drive about six other people to church this morning, so there was no room for us. I feel bad that I made Julianne get an auto just for me and come all the way out to my place, but she says she’s happy to do it.

We get to church a minute or two late, find Susie and sit down next to her. How is her toe? It really hurt last night. She had to sleep with it raised up on a duffle bag. But it feels better today.

The regular pastor is still in England with hepatitis. “Didn’t he get his shots?” I ask Julianne. Yes, but you can only get immunized for A, B and C. The hepatitis strands go from A to G, she says. I wince.

We again begin with a traditional hymn then sing a few modern ones with band accompaniment. I am thrown off by the imagery of the first modern song, “Open the eyes of my heart, Lord.” I get a visual of a Pink Floyd album cover: a heart with a slightly menacing eyeball in it. Hearts and eyes just don’t mix, I think.

The sermon is about the importance of prayer. The man giving the sermon gets into a repetitive loop about how Jesus knew it was important to pray, and he went up on a mountain to pray and he prayed for a long time because he knew how important it was to pray, so he went up on a mountain and prayed for a long time because it was important and so forth. If he were a computer, I would have opened the task manager to see if the program was still running. But I know he means well.

I think about the difference between prayer and meditation. In prayer we are so focused on addressing ourselves in our terms, in speech, to another person-like entity, who we expect to respond to us in terms we’ll understand—like a person might, albeit an omnipotent, omniscient person. I even remember someone explaining prayer to me as “a phone call to God.” You just chat Him up.

“How many people here have had their prayers answered by God?” the man asks. Many people raise their hands without hesitation. Mine stays down. I don’t even know what the question means. What is an answered prayer? A wish granted, like a genie in a magic lamp kind of thing? I pray for my uncle’s health and he gets healthy. I pray for a safe trip and have one. Is that an answered prayer, or is that coincidence or luck?

Or is it something more like the quiet voice I heard the other day in the Lotus Temple? Was that an answered prayer? The thought for some reason frightens me. It defies reason and logic. I had asked myself a question and answered it. That’s the scenario that makes sense. But is that what happened? I’m unsure. I had asked the question precisely because I couldn’t find an answer by myself. I “put it out there,” so-to-speak. And then the answer came to me in the second person: You are whole. I asked a question and got an answer. I didn’t even know who I asked the question of. Myself? The universe? The air in the Lotus Temple? The birds? Was this an answered prayer? I wasn’t praying in the first place, I think. I was meditating. Does that matter?

How were all these people so confidently raising their hands? Had they received postcards from God? Packages? Emails in re: your prayer, signed “Love, God”?

Then there’s the whole God-as-unfathomable wizard theory wherein you believe that God painstakingly answers every prayer put to Him. They’re all on big stacks of 3x5 cards, being transcribed by Jesus. It’s really quite an operation. Anyway, He replies to each and every one in the order received, it’s just that we, with our human perceptions, don’t always understand or even perceive the replies. The whole “God works in mysterious ways” theory. I’ve always found this tact dissatisfying. God answers all our prayers, we just don’t know it or can’t see it or understand it. It seems like a weasly way out of the conundrum of answered versus unanswered prayers. Why pray at all if what we get in return is scrambled code? Why not just let God take care of things the way He was going to in the first place?

This is why I think meditation works better for me. The stakes are not so personal; the focus is not on expectations either being met or unmet, requests answered or unanswered.

I prefer not to wonder if I will be one of God’s popular children and get asked to the dance, or if God won’t call me back because He’s busy or I’m not Chosen enough. I prefer not to think of God as The Riddler who answers my frequent requests with confusion and complexity.

I prefer to sit and think and try to feel what comes to me rather than worry about what I want from God.

I prefer to meditate.

We bow our heads in prayer, and I try to think of this act, instead, as meditation. It is freeing not to worry about getting an answer (or not) and then understanding it (or not). It is freeing just to wait, and observe, and see what comes rather than remaining wrapped up in everything I want to request from life, from the universe, from God.

It’s strange that prayer seems to focus so much on personal desires when a central principle of so many world religions is the need to get beyond that personal desire and become more selfless. Maybe I have never understood prayer at all, I think. Maybe I need the beginner’s course, not the advanced level where everyone raises their hands because their prayers have been answered.

After the service, we stand around and talk. There’s a group of Christian missionaries from Minnesota. They are spreading the Word when they can through aerobics classes on University campuses right now, but they hope to come back later and dedicate themselves to this work more formally, more full time.

The conversation draws to a close, and we decide that the group will go out to lunch: Susie and Julianne and her roommate Susanna and Susanna’s friend.

Susanna, Julianne’s roommate who can drive in Delhi, is from Hong Kong. Julianne tells me she came here to start a travel agency, and she did, and it’s very successful. Angshuman’s words about India echo back to me, “It’s all growing; it’s not already grown up. Whatever you’re interested in, you can do.” I wonder if this is how the United States got the moniker “land of opportunity,” because our country was a frontier like this once too. Our country was “an emerging market” not so long ago. But we have changed so much since those days when you could hang out a shingle and start a business or travel west and claim Native American land as your own. We have changed in ways that are regrettable and ways that are commendable. On the one hand, it’s harder to “make it,” and opportunities in America seem fewer and farther between. On the other hand, we hold “it” to a higher standard, with more integrity and better protections for our laborers and consumers.

I think of Upton Sinclair’s Jungle as a narrative of an “emerging market,” a world without laborer rights, or consumer protections and controls. I’d hate to tour the factories near the Pearson office. One day I was leaving the bathroom when another woman walked in. “Why don’t you use the other bathroom near the lobby?” she asked me. “It’s nicer. This bathroom is bad. There are all sorts of chemical smells from the factories nearby.” The bathroom is assailing to the senses with a corroded concrete wall, and an industrial looking fan that doesn’t fit tight into the space it sits in, and a floor that always seems to be seeping something. And if this is what it’s like next door to the factories, what is it like inside? I shudder to think what’s in the air I’m breathing over here.

Anyway, Susanna knows a good Hong Kong/Chinese restaurant we can go to, so we all pile into her little yellow car and head off down the street. The food is fantastic and reasonably priced (it costs about two dollars for lunch). Susanna tells us how to make all the various sauces that are used in our meals. I decide to try to drink the filtered water everyone else orders instead of buying a sealed bottle. Julianne does this all the time and gets away with it, so it can’t be that dangerous.

After lunch, Susie mentions she is going to get her eyebrows threaded and her legs waxed. I say I’d like to get a pedicure sometime, and she offers to take me along with her. I am thrilled. My feet have been like abused and rotten hams since I burned my soles at the Jama Masjid mosque, and I’ve just been resigned to dealing with it until October. So this is a thrilling revelation for me.

Susanna drops Susie and me off at Susie’s place, and we walk up to her apartment. It is also relatively nice with high ceilings and a new paint job. There are mattresses on the living room floor because her air hasn’t been working and the living room has a big ceiling fan.

Susie runs into the bathroom to bandage up her knee before we leave, and I check out her bookshelf: some John Grisham, The Ugly American, a few books by William Darymple (the famous Brit who knows more about India than the natives), and many India travel books.

Susie asks if I want an expensive pedicure where the massage will be a little more serious (done by a man), or the cheap one where they don’t really take a lot of the callous off. I say I need the serious pedicure.

We walk from her apartment to the Malviya Nagar Market just a few blocks away. She leads me into a salon which looks unremarkable. There is a front room with a counter at which the man makes appointments and takes your money. There are a few shelves of products for sale. Then there is the back room with sinks, hair-cutting stations and a few chairs against the wall. Susie sits at a hair-cutting station where they thread her eyebrows, and I am seated in a black plastic chair. “Don’t expect a massage chair with water jets for your feet,” Susie cautioned me—but I wasn’t expecting that in the first place.

A woman brings a sudsy plastic container of warm water, and my technician nods for me to put my feet in. My gaze fixes on a flat screen tv above the sink stations showing the Discovery Channel. Video of cave dwelling animals with no eyes plays as my feet are massaged, then soaked, then moisturized, then exfoliated, then soaked, ad infinitum. Aside from the lack of crazy massage chair, this pedicure is much like one I’d get in the United States, except it feels so much better because of the trauma my feet have been through since arriving: the dirty streets, the barefoot treks through temples, the rubble littering the walkways between my guest house and the market. As the metallic polish dries on my toes, a quiet Hank Williams song plays from over the wall. I wonder if this is chic here, as this is the upscale salon, according to Susie. My “expensive” pedicure costs about six dollars.

“My sister makes fun of me,” Susie says on the walk back to her place. “I never get any of this stuff done at home, but here it’s different.”

Services are cheap; goods are expensive, Brandon told me before I left. And beauty salon services follow that pattern. Why attempt something yourself when it costs so little to have it done for you?

Accordingly, there are no DIY stores here: no Home Depot, no Lowes. You hire everything done. And it is normal to have a maid and a cook if not a guard as well. The other day at lunch, Shabnum offered for us to try some of her okra curry. “Did you make it?” Amar asked.

“No,” she said, “the maid did.”

Back at Susie’s apartment, her houseguest for two months has created something of a disaster zone on the living room floor. Maggie is packing; she returns to Wisconsin tomorrow (by way of London where she has a little layover). Maggie just finished a two-month stint teaching English here, but has failed to get to the Taj Mahal during her stay. “Oh well,” she says, “I’ll be back.”

Susie asks Maggie if she’s had her PowerSweat yet. Maggie has had serious Delhi belly for almost a week. The doctor prescribed at least a litre of PowerSweat a day—but recommended two. Maggie wrinkles her nose. “That stuff is gross.” Anyway, she’s feeling much better.

Maggie messes with masses of bangles, scarves and a large container of chai to fit it all into her luggage, then leaves for dinner with friends.

I tell Susie I should go, too. I want to get to the market today and buy a shawl so I don’t freeze next week at work. I have to steel myself to make this decision to use the auto-rickshaws for travel by myself. I feel without a net, dependent on strangers to be kind and fair. I feel like Blanche DuBois.

Susie walks me down to the market and bargains with an auto-wallah for me. It will be 40 rupees to get to the Lajput Nagar market from here. “That’s fair,” she says, as the market is a good distance from her apartment. “But don’t pay more than 20 or 30 rupees to get home from there.” She and Julianne have taught me, “Meter say?” (That means something like, “Use your meter to determine the price.”) And they’ve taught me, “Tori dour hay,” which means, “It’s very close.” This should help me bargain for a good price if I can remember these phrases when I need them. This Hindi has a way of flying out of my head when I am faced with an actual situation. I can recite it all in my room but when I meet someone face to face, it’s like a nightmare acting moment where I go blank and forget all my lines. I walk through the market repeating to myself, “Tori dour hay. Tori dour hay.”

I also have to retain enough directional orientation to remember the street where I can catch the autos, but this shouldn’t be too difficult. I am more concerned about being at the auto wallah’s mercy because I am relying on him to know my way home for me. I can’t get there by myself.

At the market, it’s hard to find a store that sells shawls. The first man I ask shows me socks. The next store sells only material. The next store has a sign outside that says “Shawls, sale, 50%”. Inside I see a beautiful shawl made of Pashmina wool, but it is priced at 1,700 rupees (roughly $40). When I ask about the sale, he tells me “twenty percent.” White girl mark-up, I figure. This is much more than I want to spend, so I move on.

I wonder through the scene and a man asks me if I want hangers. Another man has a large shoulder bag he’s sure I want. There are baskets. There is fabric and clothing and kitchen supplies and food. Just as twelve cars smash into three lanes on the highway, there are five or fifteen vendors in the space that one mall store would take up in the United States.

The second place I find that has shawls is cheaper, but you have to really look at what you’re buying here. I learn this from the cautionary tale of Julianne’s 100 rupee sari told at lunch today. It is full of stains. Likewise is this cheap shawl.

Searching the vendors, I come across the 10 rupee earring stand I was hoping to find again. I buy 10 pair (10 pairs of nice earrings for about $2). They are pretty, good quality, and will make good souvenirs.

Finally, I find a “fixed price” store that has a sale: 20 percent off. They have no posted 50 percent advertisement, so I have to trust them that they’re not fleecing me. They probably are. Nonetheless, there’s an attractive, nicely made shawl with no runs in the fabric or stains on it priced at about fourteen dollars. It’s not as beautiful as the first one I saw, and it still seems expensive (especially for something I’m only buying to keep from freezing at work—something I probably won’t wear out around town or when I get home), but I can’t find a better price out here on my own and I’m getting tired of trying. I check out and the balding, smiling shopkeeper asks where I’m from. The United States, I tell him.

He’s been to Fort Lauderdale, he wants me to know. And to Las Vegas. The fountains at the Bellagio are the best, he says. And New York, New York and Paris, Paris. They are all very nice.

I am proud to have accomplished this much by myself. I found and purchased the two items I was hoping to find and purchase—even if I paid more than I expected for the shawl. I think, maybe shawls are just a more expensive item than I thought they would be.

The only remaining task I have on my plate is visiting the ATM I found here the other day with Julianne. I am running low on cash, and the ATM in the Defence Colony market dispenses 1000 ruppee notes, which are all but impossible to break in the land of no change. I can’t figure out which way the ATM is from where I am in the market. I wander for a bit, getting harangued by henna artists and a shoe salesman who convinces me to buy a pair for eight dollars (which I also think is a little costly). Before I have no money at all left, I decide to ask a rickshaw driver for help (like I’ve seen Sonu do when he’s lost).

“Namaste,” I greet the man on the bicycle, then, “McDonald’s?”

There is no end to how lame I feel being the only white girl in the market asking which way the McDonald’s is, but that’s where the ATM is, and I figure it’s an easier landmark to point me towards than the little machine that dispenses money. The rickshaw driver easily points me in the right direction, and I thank him. “Shukriya.”

At the ATM, I pop in my card, enter the info, then get an error message, “Incorrect Pin.” I try again, and get the same result. I try three more times, slightly panicking. What if the bank turned off my ATM? What if I don’t have enough money to get home in an auto? I don’t know the way myself and it’s getting dark and I might be stuck here.

I check the funds in my wallet. I have 100 rupees left. That is at least enough to get home.

I hail my first auto wallah all by myself. He wants 50 rupees to take me to the Defence Colony market. “Too much!” I say. “Meter say?” I ask him.

“No. Fifty,” he is firm.

How do you say very close again? Tori… tori… bahoot acha hay? No, that means very good. “It’s very close!” I tell him.

“Fifty,” he says, and a second auto-rickshaw pulls up beside me.

“Thirty,” he says, and I take the deal without even trying to bargain down to 20 or 25. I hop in and we cruise toward my market. We’re getting close, I think, and the wallah says, “Tikka?” Ok? He wants to let me out on a block that I know is near the market, but I’m not sure how near or in what direction. I had a vague nightmare flash that something like this would happen.

“NihaN,” I tell him insistently. “Defence Colony Market.” I just won’t pay him until he gets me where I need to be. He nods. Tikka.

It’s only a few more blocks, and I recognize the surroundings. “Tikka. Acha,” I tell him, and he pulls over. I give him the 30 rupees and hop out, relieved that I’ve achieved my first solo auto-rickshaw ride. It won’t be as hard next time. Next time I’ll bargain a little more. Next time I’ll remember the phrase “tori dour hay” because I won’t be panicked about my ATM card not working.

At the Defence Colony Market, I decide to try my luck with the evil ATM that gives out the big money bills. The same thing happens. I get a message saying, “Incorrect pin,” but this time I notice why. I am using my regular Visa card, not my debit card. My bank hadn’t shut down my access after all. I need to stop panicking when I get to an ATM, I think. I’ve made it ordeal now almost every time.

I get my money (including two 1,000 rupee notes that will haunt me for more than a week as I try to break them and fail).

It’s not getting dark yet, so I decide to take my chances at Sagar again. The food is so good. This time I order an uttapam and a fresh lime soda. With the uttapam (a thick pancake with veggies in it) they bring two chutneys for dipping, then a coconut dipping mixture and a sambar stew for dipping, then two more coconut dips and another sambar stew. I wonder if they just forgot they already gave me all the dips to begin with, or if they’re stuck in some sort of temporal dip-delivering loop. Either way, the food is good and costs about three dollars, dips included. They even break a 1000 rupee note for me.

I love Sagar, even if their idli gave me the Delhi belly.

After dinner, I remember that the tailor said my kurta would be ready on Sunday. I wonder if he’s still there. I walk out of the market and behind the park to his stand. I find him at his counter with a box of screws dumped out in front of him. He is smashing a metal fitting onto another metal piece with a pair of pliers, engrossed. He doesn’t even notice me until I greet him, “Namaste.”

He looks up from his project and I see recognition register on his face. “Ready,” he smiles and points at my shirt, which is hanging behind him.

“Bahoot acha hay!” Very good, I tell him. “Danyuvaad!” Thank you. “Namaste!” I unleash my entire Hindi vocabulary on him—except the part about the broken toilet. He smiles back and puts my shirt in a little plastic bag with paisley designs on it.

Since it’s still light, I wander into the small park across the street and notice some ladies doing some power walking. I fall in behind them, doing laps and trying not to sweat too much. An Indian parakeet flies right above my head and lights on a tree branch long enough for me to get a pretty good snap of it. A large Indian woman wearing an iPod and a t-shirt lopes around the walkway in the other direction. She looks like someone else has put her up to this exercise thing and she is resenting every step. I don’t really blame her, in this heat.

On the way home from the park, I see a little brown dog who wags her tail at me. I extend a hand, and she comes up to me and allows me to pet her. This is a great gift for me as I miss my animals back home so much. I thank her profusely. “Acha, acha,” I tell her. Good, good. I don't know the word for dog. She enjoys the attention much more than I thought she might. She may never have had her ears scratched in all her life.

The guard at the guest house opens the gate for me as I enter from my much longer than planned day. I left in the morning thinking I would sit through a church service then come home and write. But this is so much better. I have so much more to write about… if I can ever find the time to do it.

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