Landing in India is like landing in a dream; it’s hard to know what is real and what isn’t. But this sensation takes a day or so to set in. My story begins before that. It begins when I was to be reborn in India with shaved head, done at my own hands. I had decided a few months previous that I would shave my head in India. Many people, when told this, feel compelled to ask “WHY? Why would you do such a thing?” To this I have many answers. For one, I’ve wanted to shave my head at least once in this life as sort of a bucket list item. But on a deeper level, I wanted to come into India as a new born, with eyes open and new. I wanted to be as a child here, eager to learn and discover, and open to all that I see. I also wanted to remove vanity from my time in India. I sent home all my makeup (except the glitter, of course, which I’m saving for when I teach hoop at a circus school in Nepal. Why glitter is important in hoopdance is obvious and a silly question I won't take time to address.) and I’ve resolved not to pluck my eye brows or shave. I want to be serious in my yoga studies, meditation and devotion while I am here, and to remind myself of this, I see my shaved head each day in the mirror.
The very first thing I set about doing, after checking into my hotel, was to finally do what I had decided I would do several months previous. I would shave my head, by myself, if I had to. Earlier that day while still in Cambodia, I set out to find a set of clippers so I could do the job myself if need be. I managed to find some clippers and now, safely deposited in my New Delhi hotel, I pulled out the buzzer, clipped on the proper guard, and pulled a large bucket underneath the mirror. Before beginning I took a few final photos of my hair, a last goodbye before it disappeared for the next few months. I gave myself a good long stare in the mirror and then broke into a huge smile and stretch, reaching my arms far into the air and back, as if I wished to hug the whole world and all of its inexplicable strangeness. Because, despite all those reasons above, I still do not fully know why I must shave my head, I just know I must and thus I stopped asking myself bottomless questions and accepted that not all can be explained.
I plugged in the buzzer, dipped my head over the bucket and flipped the switch. . . Nothing happened except a low “mmmmrrrrrr” sound. The blades did not move. “Fuck,” I thought to myself. I tried plugging into a different socket. Nothing. I tried moving the lever arm which shifts the position of the blades. Nothing. I waited and thought for a few moments, directing some carefully chosen telepathic words to the stubborn buzzer. I tried a few more times to turn it on. Nope. Nada. Not happening.
“Well shit,” I thought “I guess perhaps I was not supposed to shave my head in India after all.” And on this puzzling note, I went to bed.
In the morning I woke up with renewed vigor to tackle this darn buzzer problem. I took out the kit with all the accessories and examined each one. I came across a small bottle of oil and an idea struck me. I took the oil, clipped off the tip and dripped a few drops onto the blades. I then took the small brush which came in the kit and spread the oil between the blades on all sides. Satisfied all the oil was spread out, I plugged in the buzzer and flipped the switch. “BRRRRSSSSSOOWWWW” the buzzer declared triumphantly. “YES!!!” I shouted to the mirror. “Now we can get on with this.”
Holding the buzzing buzzer poised at my temple, I gave myself one more appraising look. “This might be harder than you expected,” I say to myself. “Fuck it,” I say back “let’s do it.”
Half an hour later, I’m looking at a new face in the mirror. Not all the hair is even, and I messed up the back when I took off the guard, forgot, and then went even out the hair at the base of my head. This left a few run-way like stripes before I realized what I had done. At this point I swore loudly and started working on blending the every short areas with the slightly longer areas, using my camera as an extra mirror so I could see what I was doing back there.
Something about my face looks more elegant and severe. I’m hypnotized by my own new visage and take far too many photos trying to document what I see. So much for avoiding vanity. Still I can’t help but fell exhilarated and refreshed. I take shower, running my hands over my prickly yet silken soft scalp over and over again, somehow still incredulous that it’s gone, my hair is no more.
So far my time in India has gone rather smoothly but I can feel this place has its suckers on me, holding me still and extracting all the money it can before letting me go. I let my money go too easily, unsure, naive in this new foreign place. Ever since my first taxi cab ride yesterday morning which plopped me off at the Government Tourist Agency, I have been caught up in a tide, rolling along the gushing flow of money draining from my pockets.
Sure they have been wonderful to me, treating me like a queen, driving me around New Delhi and watering me with cups of chai. They have invited me into their home to eat beside them and relax in front of the TV with them before letting me sleep on their queen size guest bed. But still, I can sense the dark greed lapping at their heels. Yes, my host was exceedingly helpful last night in planning my trip itinerary so as to make the most of my time here and to ensure I book my train tickets early so as to not get stranded in one place for too long. But how much of this helpfulness came from good will and how much came from the unrestrained desire to squeeze dollars from my pocket?
At one point he got on the phone to make my reservations but he spoke to the person on the other end in English, and the buttons and screen on his phone were dark. I had the distinct impression that he wasn’t talking to anyone on the other end. After he hung up (a movement which caused his phone to light up suspiciously) I asked him why he had spoken to the person on the other end in English. He hesitated for a moment before replying that it was so that I could understand what he was saying, but why should I need to understand? I understand he is making my booking, that is enough, I do not need to know every word he says. I was unsatisfied but had nothing more to say short of accusing him of faking this phone call, which I could not do seeing as how generous of a host he was, so I kept my lips shut.
This morning when I could not give him cash for the reservations he asked for an advance of $100. As I only had $90 on me, I reluctantly gave him all my US dollars. Before he left me to have his driver shuttle me to the Airport to catch my flight up north, I had him scribble a note of the advance on my receipt but even this feels like a feeble effort to validate my submission of handing over the money.
Money money money. Here I am, in beautiful India, about to gaze upon the Himalayas for the first time and all I can do is gripe about money. Ok, so I might be getting stiffed. It is my first time in India and I do not know how to avoid these things yet. I must be patient and talk to more travelers, get more information and advice before I can expect to know better.
Still this dreamlike state continues. In the plane ride my mind is clouded by the dark stories brewing in the compelling novel that has me spellbound “The Space Between Us”. My mood is further fowled when I retrieve my bags off the belt only to find my hula hoops have been bent. This might seem like folly to get worked up over but these instruments are like brushes for a painter: break them in half and the art is so much harder to produce. In my art, my hoop dance, the magic I weave arises from the manipulation of a perfect circle. Even a small dent in this circle, rendering it into a slight tear shape, makes it so much harder to weave the same magic. So I cursed, too loud, and threw them on the ground, cursing several more times, but quieter and under my breath. I knew there was no one to whom I could complain and what difference would it make anyways? The damage was done and no airport official would give a hoot about my stupid hoops, a child’s toy. So I just had to bottle up my anger and stuff it deep down.
My anger quickly melted, however, when I stepped out into the sun and was greeted by my new host, the manager of the guest house where I will be staying. His name is Ash and his face was warm and softened by a distinct kindness. The first thing he said to me after calling me by name was that I appeared to him in a dream, with my eye brown ring and the color and shine of my eyes. What a bizarre and yet beautiful thing to say. I liked him instantly and could tell he was a spiritual man.
I lifted my gaze from this man and noticed the crisp stillness of the air and its clear coolness against my skin. The sun was positively beaming down, bouncing brightly off every white car and wall. Even the sounds were clearer, more sharp and crisp. It was the silence between each sound that created its definition. There is no silence in Delhi, one quickly realizes. The sounds in Delhi are like liquid, all flowing into one another, creating a sound-scape that is like a crowded fish tank, full to the brim and teeming with frequencies. But here, I could hear every rustle of fabric as I took off my bag and shoved it in the back seat of the car. I could hear the shuffling of feet against the pavement 30 feet away. Each sound stood out like a gem and rang clear as a bell. I stood for a moment, awestruck, and wondered, not for the first time since I arrived in India, whether or not I had landed in a dream, whether what I was experiencing was real.
We are driving into town from the airport now and I am overwhelmed by everything I wish to capture, in words and in my camera. The people and the buildings are so different here. The women and men dress more warmly and in a more middle-eastern style. Many more women wear the head scarf and men wear white skull caps or short cylindrical caps. The men wear long flowing garb, a heavy baggy poncho like garment, and loose pants beneath while the women wear the usual splash of colorful sari’s and Punjabi’s but with extra sweaters and scarves for warmth. (The Punjabi is another traditional Indian dress that consists of a long tunic like dress worn over billowing loose pants which close at the ankle, and a long scarf which is draped around the front of the neck and falls behind each shoulder.)
The buildings look more European with painted window panes and tipped roof tops. The leaves on the trees are turning from green into yellow, yellow into orange, the sign that is fall here. The yellow leaves stand out like lights against the sheer blue sky. Other trees sport bright orange leaves, maple I think, and still others look like the trees in DC, tall, erect and stripped of all leaves. Winding through this small city are many canals which serve to amplify the colors of the trees and painted boats by multiplying each image in the rippling reflections.
We travel down a street running alongside a large lake, along whose shore rests hundreds of colorful painted boats, long and wooden with cozy bench seating. The seats are long and reclining and adorned with patterned fabric and cushions. It is into one of such boats that I am led and soon we are off, paddling across the lake. All along the opposite shore are endless house boats which serve as hotels on the lake during the busy tourist season in the summer. Each hotel is decorated with fine lattice wood work and boasts a large sign declaring some ridiculously pompous name such as “New Panama”, “New Taj Mahal”, or “Crystal Palace.” One apparently belongs to me as it is named “Top Erin Deluxe.”
As we continue to paddle farther across the lake I am struck with the strangest sense of Déjà vu. Suddenly I am entering another floating village, spookily similar to the one I had visited just days previous, worlds away in Cambodia. There are floating stores selling food wares and water. Others sell clothing or craft wares. And running between these stores is a traffic of boats, large and small, all powered by paddle and thankfully not noisy stinky engines. Boat drivers and store keepers all call out hello to each other and joke playfully before continuing on their way demonstrating the easy camaraderie and familiarity between all the men. I have stumbled my way into yet another floating village except this one exists at the foot of majestic mountains which tower out of the mists and ripple in reflections on the lake; this one lives in the far north of India where the culture and the language is a blend of Indian, Pakistani, Nepalese and countless others; this time, instead of merely passing through and snapping photos of the village, I will be living in it.
Upon arriving at my host’s abode, I quickly realized that though I am not the first traveler to pay to stay here, this certainly is not a guest house in the usual sense of the word. I am staying in the family’s house (though to be fair I had the option to stay out in the floating boat hotel out front but refused, preferring instead to skirt loneliness and stay closer to the family) and am waited on hand and foot by their kindly, yet quirky servant Monzouri. Also living in this house is the warm and smiling Mama Hassina, the two daughters Sofina, who is about to finish her degree in Business communications, and a younger daughter who’s name escapes me, as well as the elderly Abdul, and Ash, my host. I have a bright sunny room all to myself, which was further brightened by the colorful vase of flowers Mama Hassina brought up for me yesterday. The flowers are from the garden outside where dormant roses line the lawn but other flower bushes, scattered here and there, are in full bloom.
It’s quite cold here, even within the house I can see my breath, and I am cursing my veneurable shaved head. The large poncho they provided me is a saving grace, as are the “winter wife” heaters they keep close when sitting. The heaters are wicker baskets with clay pots inside. The clay pots hold coals and, when, stirred with the metal spoon attached to the basket, emit a wonderful glowing heat. To keep warm, one holds a winter wife under the poncho and sits with it close by, holding ones’ hands over the wicker handle to warm them. To keep my head warm I wear a scarf wrapped around it and this does the trick just fine.
Though I have been enjoying my time here thus far, watching everything with eyes wide as a child’s, yesterday culture shock hit me like a kick to the stomach. I went for a walk through the town with Abdul and the intensity of the small city and its crowded trafficked streets was overwhelming. Gone was that initial stillness and quiet I had felt in the Airport parking lot. Instead a rushing pulse, like the one I felt in Delhi, courses through the streets. Everywhere I looked my eyes met foreign sights: strange street foods, unfamiliar dark faces pressing past, crowded shops whose merchandise was spilling out into the cramped walkways. I finally felt the cloud of that elusive sensation I for which had braced myself my whole trip but had not felt in full force until this moment. “So this is culture shock,” I thought to myself. In need to talk to someone or something, I whipped out my note pad and scribbled down my thoughts:
“I’m having a hard time engaging my surroundings. Everything feels strangely unreal, like I could pull back a curtain and discover a world closer to what I’m used to. Everything, the faces, the dress, the streets and buildings, the language and the eyes upon me, everything feels profoundly different. The pace of the small city here leaves me breathless and seeking a familiar face, or even just a familiar language in which I can confide my inner turmoil.”
I wrote this while sitting in the watch shop of one of Abdul’s friends, a kind and large man who quickly offered me tea and biscuits while one of his shop keepers ran out to fetch a power converter for my camera battery charger. The people I meet are always so hospitable and generous, and genuinely interested in where I came from and how I came to visit their removed little city of the North. It is not the kindness of these strangers that is bothering me, but it is rather the simple fact that I am among strangers which has me in a somber and pensive mood today. Later on while sitting with Abdul in very tiny café (so tiny that I had to share my small bench seat with a plump woman eating the lunch they serve), while eating vegetable samosas with tea, more words were eager to tumble out of my mind, through the pen and onto paper:
“It’s the eyes that really get me; soft, dark and bottomless, these eyes, hungry with curiosity. Sometimes they belong to a strikingly handsome face and it takes some will power not to return such a powerful gaze. It also kills me how silly I feel under their scrutinizing stares as they scan my hodge-podg mess of patterns and garments that are foreign and wrong. I want so forcibly to wear the traditional dress and hide my pale skin and foreign face behind the cover of the head scarf. Shanti Shanti, they always say. Slowly slowly, in time.”
So I breathe patience; patience that I might get used to the stark class difference in the home between servant and resident; that I might get used to being waited on like a princess, a hot water bottle ready in my bed at night and tea and food prepared for me. Patience that the faces will soften with familiarity, that the streets will not seem so claustrophobic, and that living in the middle of a lake where a boat ride past floating stores and houses is the only way to get out to the city, might not seem so bizarre in another few days. Shanti, shanti. Slowly, slowly and in due time.
A fiery fairy who has set off to explore Asia and discover new things about the world and herself. The journey is one to fully realize her strength and an unwaivering faith in her personal power.