April 23, 2013

Encountering the Other: from Fear to a Rooftop in India.

Two weeks until proposed departure.

List of things that could go wrong as according to a list I scrawled in my travel journal:

I lose a limb.

My dad sends a Navy Seal to extract me.

My dad disowns me for traveling against his wishes.

A monsoon hits and washes me to sea.

I get sick and shit until I die.

I get drunk and stagger off into the jungle.

I make a great snack for a Bengal tiger.

I die of stench.

My deodorant doesn’t work.

(I’ll add more later.)

Somehow, with the above well in mind, deciding to fly half way around the world to a country I can roughly draw the shape of from memory seems brilliant. In fact, if I don’t go, I will certainly fix myself into a neat, little puddle until someone steps on me and hears my small plea: it will sound more or less like this:


Like a hand held pencil sharpener farting.

But that doesn’t happen. Instead, I go to India against the wishes of my family for an impromptu adventure. My encounter with the other goes something like this.

The Arrival

A crowd of opportunists swarms outside the airport, reluctantly, I would think, scanning for white tourists like myself. I hate the situation, and judge myself for it. I am asked which country I am from in every interaction. I say America and know many of the people I encounter will never see my country because of the skewed world economy and a general unfairness in how the cards are dealt. In these moments of negotiating prices and services, there is palpable otherness: I am an animal stumbling in unfamiliar territory, keen to learn, and angered by the rules of the game. So, I think, are the people I am doing business with.

I am traveling with two men. One approaches each negotiation with belligerent pomposity. Weaseling a low price is a point of pride. Displaying curiosity or respect is of no importance, or perhaps not a factor in any equation governing his life. I witness several interactions in the first couple days, which escalate to uncomfortable, and entirely unnecessary confrontations.

It hits me my first morning in the city of Cochin, several days after arrival, that I am in a foreign land filled with exotic sounds, and a wonderful messiness worth examination, and I am alone. I cannot depend on my fellow travelers for comfort. I will need to rely on the same philosophy that landed me in a seaport full of swindlers, lovers, tourists, soccer players, and potential friends: my firm belief that through marvel and resolution, we can carve ourselves anew.

So here I am, scrawling my get away plan into my journal, timing my own dramatic extraction from the people I flew over with. I have no local currency, I haven’t eaten in two days and a bird is cawing incessantly somewhere above my body. I am jealous of the bird for two reasons: I want to take flight, and when I open my mouth I want an exotic sound to come forth and announce to the world, hello, I am brightly colored and have wings. Sorry for you.

I want, more earnestly, to understand the world as a bird must understand the world in its cracks and hard places.

Back home, in the snowstorms, the birds puff up their bellies, hopping from branch to branch to become warm by their own exertion. These songbirds, too, must know their vulnerability in direct relation to their strength. I wonder by what conditions they are tested.

I could not feel more estranged from my environment. I must appear like a child in a fleshy mask painted to look brave.

I try by best to conceal my fear, but I am spotted, and that is how I met Adu.

The first thing he wants to do is cook me food. And eventually, I let him. Two samosas, and a big piece of chocolate cake. Food has never tasted better. He sits across from me with an interested gaze and transparent eyes. He is the softness, the damp earth on which a thoughtful bridge can be constructed, word-by-word, smile-by-smile, if the conditions remain both honest and almost, unbearably new. I remember the first time I discovered dew waking up in a sleeping bag covered in dusty ice, so fragile it would dissipate it you look at it. Abu looks at me with his caring eyes and I feel myself disappear. I feel no edges, no country, hear no accent, see no difference in skin color, think of nothing that separates the boundaries of the hostel room from anywhere else. For the first time after many months of routine back home, and days of fear in a new place, I feel completely, uncompromisingly human.

We see each other once more before I am to leave his small city. I once read a passage about the rise and fall of great cities; how the bones of buildings become flat again, how rust gives way to earth, how earth accepts some material more readily than others, our own expiring bodies amongst it all. How often I reflect on this with mild depression as I take in new sights. I have been immature in my assessment of the world, I realize, as Adu and I count the stars through the stubborn night clouds.

Just as memory has helped cultures to transform and heal, our personal memories, too, can change us in ways we will never dare to explain. There are feelings in this world too important to name.

In the absence of fear, I discover another way of inhabiting a place. I say goodbye to my friend and walk determined, into the night.


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Ed: Kate Bartolotta

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