Thursday, November 26, 2009

First Night in India

As my plane skidded to a stop on the runway, I took the chance to glance back through the cabin. It’s interesting being the minority. Everyone has a look on their face like, “What the hell are you doing here?” When the plane attendants bid me farewell in German, I couldn’t help thinking, “Oh boy, now I’m not just one, but two parts removed from America…The US seems a long way off.”

When you enter a really foreign place, you immediately notice the smallest things…the fact that no one has cleaned the glass on the doors for a long time, the brown dinginess that inhabits corners and crevices, the lack of décor, or a haphazardly placed Buddha in the corner of a surgically lit hallway.

I had been to Germany in the last 10 days, an “infected” area, so I was greeted by a finger ushering me toward a group of masked government workers eager to take my little green form that I had diligently filled out on the plane. They didn’t even check me. I could have just lied about having the flu and they wouldn’t have known. One success!

As I walked away from the masked crusaders, I had the familiar feel of purpose come over me as I walked to the passport counter. But I was shot down! The man looked at my little white paper and said in a very Indian accent, head bobbing from side to side, “you didn’t fill everything out; where are you staying?” I explained that I didn’t know where I was staying and that all I knew is that I was going to meet someone outside the glass doors, hopefully gripping a paper with these 8 letters: “ETHAN WOODS.” That wasn’t doing it for him, though, so he told me to go use the free telephone to make a call and pointed in a seemingly arbitrary direction. His directional led me to a long counter against a wall with a single telephone sitting atop it. Above it was a laminated piece of white paper that said “free telephone.” I think I made that sign in third grade.

As I picked up the receiver, I had another familiar feeling come over me…failure. I realized that no sound was being emitted from the telephone speaker. “It’s a different country with new rules and laws,” I thought to myself. “Perhaps there is no dial tone here,” came the follow up. So, I plowed ahead anyways laying a heavy finger on each successive button, the feeling of purpose returning to fight against inevitable failure. One…two…three…four…no sound…five…failure.

“EATAN!,” a voice came from behind. “God, is that you,” I thought—no one knows my name in this country. I did an about face and was greeted with a smile. I recognized the man from the plane, but had not talked to him at all. He was wearing a white winter cap, hardly appropriate for the hot, humid conditions in India. After realizing that my face must be clenched with the lines of deep thought forming above my brow, I said hello. He then explained to me that he had heard me talking to the flight attendant on the plane about my trip around the world and my “shooting in the dark” approach to India. He said that he had talked to the man at the passport counter and told him I was staying with him. I was confused and a little taken aback at his openness and forwardness, but I readily handed over my pen to let him write in his address on my form. If it got me past step 1, I knew I could handle steps 2, 3, 4, and 5. Success two!

It turns out that the guy is a software engineer and was recently working for Ferrari in Italy. He said he was returning home to surprise his wife, whom he’d recently married. Apparently she wanted him back in Chennai with her, but he had a year contract in Italy. I guess he had figured out a way to break it and was quite excited to surprise his wife.

I proceeded to the conveyor belt full of bags and boxes, all eagerly waiting to be snatched up by their owners. So I looked, and I waited, and I waited, and I waited. The thing about having the last name Woods is that you learn what patience is after having been called last in anything that was ever alphabetized, However, my patience was wearing thin, especially because I knew that my new friend was waiting behind me checking his cell phone for lack of a better thing to do. I looked down at the scratch marks on the steel belt and decided that my bags were in fact going to come…and that they did. Success three!

When you walk past a line of frantically waving Indians waiting to receive their family members, partners, and business associates, you kind of feel like a piece of meat on display. It’s like you’re the fish at the outdoor market that everyone keeps asking about, because you look different and out of place. Or maybe it’s just because you’re twice the size of everyone else around you and you’re naturally the landmark for watching the flow of traffic…who knows? All I know is that straight ahead, I found what I was looking for: a white piece of paper with “ETHEN WOODS” written on it…close enough. Success four!

The man who greeted me is called Raghavendra and he is the business associate of Arvind Nayak, who helped to arrange my stay in India. Raghavendra is one of 150 employees in Arvind’s freight shipping business ( and runs the operations in Chennai, one of the seven offices in India (there are two more in Hong Kong and Singapore). Arvind and I have yet to meet, but I know that he is a kind and caring man who has decided to help a wayward traveler who just so happened to graduate Dolgeville High School about 35 years after he did (as an exchange student). He has graciously set up places for me to stay in Chennai, Bangalore, Cochin and New Delhi and found me very wonderful places to learn about the cuisine, the first being a five-star hotel in downtown Chennai. You’ll learn more about him, as will I.

Raghavendra said some words to me in English, I thought, but it was very difficult to make it out through the Indian accent, so I just followed. The sidewalk was a veritable hotel of homeless people stretched out on pieces of cloth or just face on bare cement, some engaged in conversation and some with just a vacant, lifeless expression. I pressed on. Analyzing the flow of traffic, I saw Land Rovers, Tatas, tiny cars, and auto rickshaws wildly competing for the next chance to push forward. I would liken it to a dangerous game of tetris, where everyone was trying to fill the next spot…no blinkers, just honking. I was very confused in my new surroundings, and I had just spent 16 hours in transit starting at 4 a.m. in Vienna and ending at midnight in Chennai, India. My brain was so shot up with holes that it could have been a stop sign in a redneck village. But I followed Raghavendra’s motions, climbing into a tiny car, the driver positioned on the front right. Air conditioning…phew! I was so glad to be out of the oppressive heat and humidity that first struck me as wading through a pot of luke warm hot dog water, when you add the smell. The traffic was moving slower than molasses and the road looked like a war zone. And, if I thought Turkey had chaotic traffic, you should see India! Hit the accelerator hard and hit the breaks fast, honk when not spoken to, and hold on for dear life! Those are the rules of the road in India.

I looked over to analyze my only friend in the world, Raghavendra, as the car windows began to condense with water droplets jealous of the cold on the car interior. I said the only thing I knew to say, “Thank you!”

He smiled and said, “no thanks, no thanks.” That’s when I remembered what I had heard about Indian hospitality. Always a smile and always a helping hand.

The car ride was long and the traffic was unbearable, even at 1 a.m., but I took the chance to acquaint myself with the man sitting beside me as well as his Indian accent. I also surveyed the surroundings through the mist on the windows. From what I could tell, it was India…I wasn’t dreaming. The streets were dirty, the curbsides were high to battle against flooding and lack of drainage, the people were everywhere in the streets and, to reiterate, it looked like a garbage truck with it’s back hatch open had dispersed its garbage all over the road.

As we pulled onto my corner, as I now know it, the road was a puddle of stagnant water and garbage from the recent monsoon rains and flooding. My white blood cells recoiled with horror, the malaria pills in my bags just begging to be swallowed. We rounded the next corner and pulled up next to what looked like a house. Raghavendra said, “come, this is the guesthouse.” I obediently followed.

He rang the bell on the front door and a taller Indian looking guy dressed in jeans and a button up shirt answered the door, feet bare. Raghevendra and the young man exchanged some words, and then the young man flashed a smile and bobbled his head a little from side to side and ushered us in. He led us up a narrow staircase decorated with some carpet and Indian decorations, then opened the door on the right. “This is my home for a while,” I thought to myself. Here goes nothing. I stepped in and the young man flicked a couple switches, causing a fan to start whirring above my head and a fluorescent tube to lazily spring to life. The fluorescent glow revealed a large room with white granite floors, two standard looking beds, a nightstand, an armoire, a brown wardrobe, and a small table with a tv atop. There were two doors on the other side of the room. To my surprise, I heard the familiar sound of an air conditioner rumbling to life. I felt like I’d just won the lottery! It all looked pretty normal, I thought. There were towels, blankets and sheets neatly folded at the bottom of each bed with a small bar of soap topping the neat stack. The clock in the upper right hand side of the room seemed to say that Indians were not one of those timeless cultures that only meet based on positions of the sun in the sky (that was a joke…I knew that). The decorations and curtains were pretty standard looking. I walked across the room and opened door one, after having slid the large silver deadbolt to the “heel boy!” position. It was a balcony with a view of the neighboring building, a staircase extending out of sight above. I closed the door. That only left one thing: the other door. I eased it open to reveal a white tiled bathroom. There was a sink and mirror directly in front of me and some faucets to my side protruding from the walls. I looked down to see a couple of dingy buckets, one that was very large and the other dangling from the side of it, a handle facilitating its grasp. I thought to myself, “well, you can’t have everything.” Little did I know that there was actually a shower above my head, I just didn’t notice it because my gaze was fixed on the buckets and faucets below. I really thought I was going to be sponge bathing for a while. I noticed a drain in the corner on the completely level bathroom floor, which no doubt was supposed to drain the flooded post-shower bathroom floor. And then I saw it…the vestige of western civilization that I thought would totally vanish…a porcelain throne!! Success five!!!

As I sit here at almost 4:30 in the morning, I realize two things: one is that my throat is really dry and I don’t dare drink the water, and the other is that this is going to be an awesome experience!