The flat was humid. Central air a concept not yet embraced. I waited with Lalit in the corridor when Bella Singh and her nephew, Jeetu, arrived. Wearing pants and a sleeveless shirt, Bella forwent the traditional saris and kurtas. Her heavy glasses matched her intense gaze, and no one spoke as she sat in thought. She mumbled about me being early, and I responded that I sent my itinerary, it clearly said the day. But she brushed me off as if a fly had merely buzzed in her ear. Things would have to be switched around. Undoubtedly due to my fault.
The Delhi flat was spacious, placed in a middle class community gated off from the streets. It was a prized location of doctors, business people, and now foreigners. Sitting in the living room, I noticed the tele was broken. The carpet was a deep hue, similar to dried blood, and random toiletries littered the entertainment console. Remnants of volunteers past who discarded unnecessary items. Soaps, shampoos, tampons, clothes, it was all there like a poor man’s thrift store.
Once Bella determined I’d stay there, they all swiftly rose and left me to face a closed door. I’m not sure what came first, the mouse greeting me or me hearing the soft squeaking. I didn’t panic. Only roaches send me into fits of bad dancing and shoulder spasms. This was no ordinary rodent. Small with a furry coat of light brown and a pinstripe line going down its spine. It seemed the product of interspecies mating. A mouse and a squirrel in a Romeo & Juliet star crossed lovers tale. In the animal kingdom, I suppose the coupling wasn’t impossible, just odd. I thought him cute nonetheless and named him Tobias.
In the three bedrooms there slept volunteers at the end of their journey, preparing to go home or venture on in their travels. One was awake long enough to give me a brief rundown of where bananas, Nutella, and juice were, along with the fact that the flat’s water ran on a generator, which was only turned on for two hours in the morning and two in the evening, basically long enough for a shower and chai in the morning. And then for a shower and chai in the evening. Without the power meant no running water and no flushed toilets. I was told two of the girls were sick, and not to look too close into the toilet basin. Of course that’s like telling a child not to watch a bloody horror scene with human limbs being butchered. The site was repulsive, immediately enabling gag reflexes. Colored vomit, excrement, urine and blood make for a traumatic vision and smell. Had I thought it sanitary, I probably would have peed over the shower drain instead of risking a bottom first meeting with that toilet. By the time I finished brushing my teeth with the help of bottled water, I had convinced my bladder to wait until the morning, which it kindly obliged.
The next day, several of the young women sat at the dining room table eating bananas and toast dressed with Nutella (a delicious creation I had never tried until then). I noticed one girl had not shaved her legs in quite some time by the length of the hairs, but I tried not to stare. She was tied to India by genes alone, but wanted to visit. Leaving CCS early, she had decided to trek across India alone. What was concerning wasn’t a young woman traveling alone, but the fact that she was diabetic, carrying her insulin shots in a small case. I thought about the potential outcome of her stranded in a rural town with insufficient medical care and no insulin. Another seemed sickly. Tall and gangly like a baby giraffe, she was disenchanted, cynical, ready to leave India. Her diet had consisted of bananas and juice for several days since sickness settled into her bowels. Later that day, she would faint at the Delhi airport, be denied access to boarding her flight, and have to return for a rushed doctor visit in order to fly the following day. It surprised me what a two week stint had done to her.
I used this time to ask them questions. Find out the good and ugly of it all. This was no reality, no, nothing like the glossy brochure. I was sweating just sitting, breathing, and listening to their stories, their advice, their forewarnings. This batch of returners were unable to take a luxury bus back to Delhi, finding themselves piled into a small, non air conditioned van, for over half a day. Their moods were warranted. I was told to go to Amristar, see the temple, they said. Expect what you wouldn’t have. I was already well on my way down that adapted thought.
As these veterans began to leave, my fellow novice India travelers were coming in. I greeted each one with a smile and a quick rundown about the water situation and the flat mouse. If I could have photographed the facial reactions, the eyes growing large, the surprise and shock of what we had all gotten ourselves into, what a album I’d have! Not all of the volunteers came to that flat, but I enjoyed the ones who did. Likely my quickest bond formed with Jennie, a middle aged woman who reminded me of my feminist guru back in Charleston. She had a carefree laugh, a witty humor, and an air of a woman in the know. We sat in the living room and talked for several hours her first night. She came to India with her college bound daughter, Beth, who physically appeared to be Jennie’s opposite with long, taut straight hair and fair skin. Jennie was a professor of sociology (I believe), and it was a deep conversation on feminism, socio-political constructs, and the stories of our lives. I won’t delve too deep into our late night talk because for being strangers we freely revealed so much, including the roots of our pain and struggles. It is not my place to tell Jennie’s story, but I hold it close.
Another Beth was a Floridian gal who had decided to chop off most of hair before leaving and frequented vibrant colored bandannas to hold back what was left. She had managed to raise a good sum of money to fund her volunteer work, and was usually seen with a small camcorder. She wanted to document her placement and make a disc for those who helped her.
Shilpa’s heritage was in India. Her parents were rogue lovers, defying the traditions of arranged marriage to runaway together. Eventually both families accepted the union, and eventually came Shilpa. She was a confident pre-med student, intelligent, and sharp. At times, I thought her a bit pompous, but I realize that seems to be a trait of my generation.
Elsie was an amateur body builder pursuing a degree in economics. Practically half of her luggage was actually protein powder. Never have I witnessed a person of such diligent diet and exercise. Her body molded to the muscles beneath, and in her passion, she found the confidence she said she had always needed. If not body building, she always spoke in economical speak. Sputtering off theories, vocabulary, tangents that no one but her understood. It usually made me laugh because religious studies was my “economics.” I’d be halfway through breaking down a tradition or analyzing a Buddhist thangka in the Mcleodganj bazaar before realizing only I knew what I was talking about, and I likely was the only one who cared.
Before dinner one evening, we had all decided to nap. Because there are few options in the summer heat in Delhi, sleeping seemed best to wait out the peak hot hours. In the evening, Elsie shook me partially awake and said, “Dinner,” before walking out of our room. Startled, I had somehow forgotten myself, and stuck in that sleepy half conscious haze, I felt a quick wave of panic, not knowing where I was. And then the epiphany came quick, and I said aloud without realizing it, “Fuck. I’m still in India.”