Helen's emails from India

Helen's emails from India

🗓(I think it will be fun to release these one at a time, but I haven’t settled on a schedule yet. Stay tuned!)

Email Index:

Subject: Bangkok

Date: Fri, 6 Sep 2002

Dad, Ana, Cathleen, Ashu--Hola muchachos! I'm chilling in Bangkok. I've been chillling for five hours. The airport is nice but not exotic or anything. Full of Indians and Pakistanis and a tribe of short Mexican guys all speaking Spanish as fast as they can. Everybody is waiting around. This seems like a waiting sort of airport. But in two hours I leave for India! I just changed four dollars into bagh? --whatever it is, it's bought me a bag of "mixed nuts" that look like an Asian snack mix. It was the only thing that didn't have something to do with squid or dried jack fruit or other things a little too adventurous to be my lunch-dinner in the Flower and Fruit store. That was eighty bagh. The rest of my bagh are paying for fifteen minutes of internet. And I'm using the rest to check my mail. I'll try to write again from Delhi tonight, but if not I should at least manage tomorrow morning--afternoon. I'm going to sleep in as long as I can. It's all very exciting, but in a very sleepless sort of way. :)

I love you guys!


Subject: Delhi!

Date: Sat, 7 Sep 2002

You guys really should have taught me how to make a sending group or whatever it's called before I left. All this time typing in e-mail addresses!

So fun to be in the middle of India, and go over to a computer and have e-mails waiting for me, with fresh news about pergo flooring and dance apprec. classes, and computer techie interviews. Everything is really, really nice here. I figured when everything was so easy getting to Bangkok, that I was probably worrying more than I needed to about arriving in Delhi.

I didn't give you guys any details of the trip to Bangkok really, and I feel like I should go in chronological order. But at the same time, everything since then is so fresh. And chronology itself seems very fragile right now. All these different time zones and my horrible sense of time (witness my inability to foresee microwave buzzers and boarding calls) leave me unsure of whether it was only yesterday that I left Turlock, or a week ago. Is time still going at the same pace there as it is here?

Here it is Saturday, 11:20 pm and I'm sitting in the internet cafe in my hotel (wearing the pink salwaar kameez with white scarf but otherwise standing out very much from all these Indians). I got up at seven this morning, and took a bucket shower--carefully following Ashu's instructions, except that there were only two buckets instead of seven, and just one spout--more like the normal bathtub faucet, aside from it going right onto the bathroom floor. I wonder how many rupees I'm spending to describe my room's bathroom? And I still haven't even told you about the flight to Delhi, or anything!

Okay. I'll start where I'm supposed to, as soon as I've given you one other random bit of news. When I went to buy my train ticket from the hotel travel agency this morning, it turned out that the guy knew John Mock. They were colleagues, or something, and his younger brother was a colleague of David Mock, John's brother? The guy grew up in Mussoorie, but hadn't even been back for six years. And didn't seem to think it was a big coincidence at all that he would also know someone I knew.

Like the Nepali taxi driver last night who expected me to know his tourist friend from San Jose, since we were both from California.

After I e-mailed you from Bangkok, I was hailed over by an Indian looking woman who had a giant diamond in her nose and was about to explode with conversation. She'd pulled me over because of my clothes--was horrified that I might be a foreigner marrying into Pakistan and all it's evils. It turned out she was from Fiji, and married a Pakistani five years ago. She had just left him, and was on her way from Pakistan back to Fiji. It was the first time she'd had her head uncovered since she married him and converted to Islam. She had left her children from her previous marriage, left her country, left everything to go live with his relatively impoverished family. Her husband wanted her to do everything exactly like his parents and his sisters and all the women in his family had "for centuries"--everything from the way she wrapped the saran wrap to walking six steps behind him in public to taking beatings at home and meekly listening while he joined his relatives in calling her a prostitute, other terrible names. She wasn't at all happy about my dating an Indian, though her reasons didn't seem to have much to do with the Pakistani. She was half Indian, but had all sorts of prejudices against them. I think Indians must have low status in Fiji. I showed her a picture of Ashu, and she agreed that he was cute, though she still didn't completely approve of my dating him-- even as non-Pakistani as he seemed, the name Shah made her suspicious. She was still telling me more stories of her evil mother in law when I looked down at my watch and saw it was ten minutes till my flight!

I ran through that hot humid airport like you would not believe. (Ashu, I would have left you in the dust, easily!)

Then, after getting through security and feeling absolutely sure that my lungs were going to implode and my heart explode, leaving a very big mess outside gate fifteen. . . I found out the door to the gate was locked. I was ready to panick, but I calmly walked over to one of the petite thai women in her security uniform, and asked her why the door was locked. She explained that it was because boarding didn't even start for another half hour. I'd set my watch wrong for Thailand time. I leaned against a wall and commenced dying, much to the curiosity of a tall man in a turban and his elderly punjabi wife. More and more Indians showed up as boarding time approached, but even once they opened the door, there weren't more than twenty of us. As people kept trickling in after boarding should have begun, and after boarding should have ended, and as our flight should have already taken off, I began to wonder if flights to India go by Standard Indian Time. Pretty soon the room was crowded with Indians, and there was still no sign of an airplane outside.

I played with a little girl who sat next to me in the waiting room, though in my exhaustion I wasn't completely entertaining, and she would often ramble around, to the opposite end of the room from her parents and me, and then return. A two year old, and completely independent in the crowds. Finally the plane arrived, though very delayed and we took our seats. The man next to me seemed embarassed to be sitting next to me, some strange woman, and he nicely explained that he would go sit in the center isle so that I could have more room to sleep. I didn't need room to sleep, though it did feel more comfortable having that little extra bit of space. There were so many men on the plane and so few women. I think a lot of the people were travelling on business. I slept, so I don't really remember the flight over the Bay of Bengal, etc.. In the night, you really couldn't see much anyhow. Everyonce in a while I would open my eyes and there would be half naked Indian superheroes and heroines running around across the screen, brandishing swords and running through curtains of flames. Finally I opened my eyes again and the movie had been replaced by a monitor tracking our flight to Delhi. Only twenty miles left!

Landing was normal, except that none of the Indians even made a show of waiting till the end of the taxi to take off their seatbelts and start crowding for the exits. The airport was normal too--airconditioned, and extremely straightforward. As soon as we got through the little tunnel to the terminal from the airplane, we were at the luggage place, and there was my suitcase, already unloaded and waiting for me. It all was almost too smooth and fast, because I already had all my things before anyone else was ready to lead the way to customs, etc. I waited. Then followed them to immigration, which was very fast. They had almost ten desks open and working, with little boquets of flowers as decorations. Once I'd had my passport stamped, I was in another hall, where I found a Thomas Cook exchange and traded sixty dollars for rupees. There was a British guy and a couple young girls there as well. He was travelling alone and would have shared a taxi with me if I hadn't had someone waiting. His hotel had offered pickup, but when he heard the difference in price of getting picked up versus grabbing a cab himself, he thought he'd just do it. Then he saw the exchange rate and realized he was just saving himself about a pound, and he should have called. He was in his early thirties, and seemed like he could deal for himself, so I left him arguing with the exchange desk about some bureaucratic problem, and went through customs. That really just means I handed a security officer a piece of paper as I walked through the door. No one really even looked at me. The area on the other side of the doorway was strange--sort of like the celebrity paths outside movie premieres or something. Everyone on the other side of the rope was completely quiet, and completely squished in. Some of the faces came with big signs, and there, on one towards the middle right, had my name and Hotel Ajanta and the magic passcode all printed in big letters on it.

The sign was attached to a short little guy in a blue shirt, with a friendly looking face. I motioned to him and we met at the end of the roped off area. He welcomed me to India, and we then hiked out into the wilds of India. I don't really know if it was exciting of not, since I was just focused on following him and not losing him in the crowd of Indian men, and tourists, and baggage carts. It was dark and misty, and felt a lot like the outside of the Morelia airport. My driver and I talked about the weather and about how many people he'd picked up that day, and whether or not I'd been to India before, and how long I had been in airplanes and airports since I left home. We had a lot of time to talk. We must have walked a mile, and all along I rolled my little trusty little suitcase. We passed fewer and fewer people, went through a tunnel, went past one fenced in parking lot, went along another muddy paved road with stray dogs and past a few more men in Indian clothes and then into another parking lot--sort of like fairground parking--that had a big sandwich board type sign saying staff only. I didn't point out that neither of us really qualified as staff.

Then he loaded my suitcase into the front seat, opened the back door for me, and we were off. Getting out of the parking lots was bumper to bumper gridlock. I admired the grapes he had hanging from the rear view mirror, asked him about his religion, practiced my Hindi on him, learned about his family, his job, his experiences in Delhi. . . He was very nice, and even being tired, it was interesting to learn about his life and Delhi and his mini-version of India. He has a three year old and a six year old and a wife to go with them on a farm with his family in Nepal. He talks to his wife two or three times a week. He thought it was funny that I wasn't married, though he apologized for his astonishment, remembering that we were from different cultures, and that in my culture it isn't as common to marry at fifteen or sixteen. He showed me his travel journal, with entries from different tourists he had driven with to Rajasthan and other parts of India. All of them wrote very nice things about his cautious driving, and his calm, pleasant demeanor, and his amazing ability at aiming them towards good restaraunts and away from touts and other unwelcome aspects of travel in India.

His driving seemed safe enough, though we were using the line in the middle of our one way traffic lanes as a sort of third lane. Outside the car were lots of Morelia type businesses and other rather worn sorts of buildings, and all sorts of people, except for women. Things seemed to move twenty four hours here.

Everyone was awake at the hotel when I got there. My driver handed me and my luggage over to the eight different men still working at the front desk of the hotel. A manager sort of person took me over to a little side desk with comfortable seats and a quiet, dark bearded fellow brought me tea while they first took down my passport information, filed the information for the tourist police sort of office, and asked me about my flight and where I'd learned my Hindi and how long I would be staying in Mussoorie. I didn't drink the tea, but took the passport cover they gave me to make it "safe" and paid for the two nights and the airport pick up with rupees. It turned out that it cost half what I thought--only eleven dollars or so with tax per night. The bearded guy led me to my room (in complete silence) and left, after I had had him show me how the fan and things worked.

The room was really nice. Three good locks on the door, one a churchkey style. The bed was king sized--maybe from twins pushed together. The bed was just made with a tightly fitted bottom sheet (starched, I think) and two folded blankets, plus pillows. The fan hung from a very high ceiling. There is a window above my bed, but it leads into a space, not a real courtyard or anything. There's a nice carpet, a sofa, a television, and then the bathroom--with western toilet and twenty four hour hot water.

I had an Indian style breakfast in the restaraunt downstairs this morning. You look right out onto the street, and everyone on the street looks back at you. When I first came in, there were only men in the restaraunt, and they all stared at me sort of curiously. Later on, more tourists came. I stayed at the table long after I'd finished my potato pancake thing, and banana and yoghurt and glass of water. The street was so crazy. It's small, the size of our alleyway, and has people just flowing through it. Little boys in school uniforms, their arms around each other’s shoulders. Women in white veils riding behind men on motor scooters. Women in saris, women in Salwaar Kameezes, men in suits, men in work clothes, men sharing scooters and wearing funny toy looking helmets, women riding in the back of cycle rikshaws, pregnant dogs, tiny children running around and throwing pieces of ice, honking jeeps, honking taxis, but mostly pedestrians. There's a little shop across the street too, selling film and things, which makes it all even more interesting.

But I haven't actually walked outside of the hotel yet. It is an intimidating sort of street, with the mud, and the wide eyed men, and the sniffing little dogs. A man walked by with a puppy under his arm, as if it were just a briefcase. And later a man walked by with three small children in tow, clinging to his suit--one sitting in his arms. I think it would be different if I had a place to go. For now it's enough just to sit and watch, and there are two meals left to go. That should be a lot of excitement.

I booked my train to Dehra Dunn this morning after I had eaten. I'll take the express at seven in the morning tomorrow. The manager is sending someone with me to help me find my seat and get me settled. The people at the hotel are all very serious and respectful and make life far easier than it ought to be. It can't really count as an adventure while there are all these people around taking care of me!

So, what shall I have for lunch?

I think I'll go scope out the menu. Funny that I can do so much without ever leaving this safe little oasis. Afterwards, maybe I'll watch some TV. They shoved the Indian Express newspaper under my door this morning. Looks like the Indian cricket team is doing alright.

I'll keep you up to date.

I send much much love!

Cathleen has to take lots of notes in her dance apprec. class for me. . . I'm so excited for her!

Gigantic hugs,