Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Catching Up: February

Time was of the essence. I told the cabbie to step on it while I changed into more presentable clothes in his backseat. I almost forgot how to tell him this because it was the first English-speaking taxi driver I´d dealt with in a very long time. Wait. Let me back up and start from the beginning.

I never envisioned my first trip to India would be so fraught with bother. Due to recently added rules, I was not able to obtain a visa in Argentina. The only way for me to make this trip happen was to fly to Chicago and get a visa there. Time was incredibly tight. I packed in 20 minutes after work on Wednesday, scooted out to Ezeiza, and boarded a flight to Miami. I arrived in Chicago on Thursday morning at 10am. If I couldn´t make it to the Indian Consulate by 11:00, it would have been impossible to get the visa in time.
I wasn't expecting to see camels, but there were a whole lot of 'em. The photo I am missing is of cows wandering the streets, acting like they own the place, which they kind of do.

The cabbie wasn't in the mood to chat, but he did me the favor of zooming downtown. Fate or luck or Jebus also did me the solid of presenting a Kennedy Expressway generally free of traffic. Long story short, I finished my submission with 20 minutes to spare and time to do some work in the Chicago office. By 6pm, I was collecting my freshly updated passport and was soon on my way to my parents´ house for the evening.

A relaxing visit with the family passed all too briefly before I was back in the sky. Light snowfall delayed the Chicago to Dallas connection, but I made it in time. As luck would have it, Belu was in Dallas working and we returned to Ezeiza together. We shared a relaxing breakfast Saturday morning at an airport caf√© before I started the security process all over again. From Buenos Aires, I flew to Sao Paulo where a torrential downpour delayed us for two hours. Finally, we departed for London. What was originally a nearly 3 hour transfer was now compressed to 40 minutes. Despite having just spent three of four nights on airplanes, I found the strength to OJ Simpson my way through Heathrow and barely make the flight to Mumbai. After three hours sleep in a dingy airport hotel, my colleagues and I made our last connection, Baroda. Of course, the suitcase wasn´t so fortunate and was "probably somewhere in London." Needless to say, I arrived exhausted, but I can certainly declare that Ryan Bingham ain't got shit on me. Seriously, I´m the lunatic who drove all over the US for four months, but I never want to do anything like this again. Four out of five nights on the move is simply too much.
Traffic was only 25% more insane than in Buenos Aires, but I suppose we're talking about a pretty high baseline. The major difference - drivers are expected to honk to indicate where they are. All the trucks have this same phrase written on them, and they mean it (the "please" too).

I was in India for a very busy week of work, which you don´t care about. Unfortunately that left little time for sight-seeing. Coworkers who had been there previously warned me that the traffic was bonkers and the level of poverty was shocking. But I have to say that neither really put me off. I suppose after trips to Brazil and enough traveling around Argentina, I am prepared for such experiences. Many people had told me that I would be greeted with a level of poverty far beyond what exists in South America. Yes, it was another level, but the fact that I took it so easily in stride indicates that things aren't so different. After all, the Indians take it in stride. I suppose I´m Argentine enough (but that's a topic for another day).
From the gondola on the way to the base of the mountain.

People often ask what I miss in Buenos Aires. While family and friends clearly top the list, the only tangible yearning I have is for the wide variety of food we take for granted in the US. The most glaring hole in Argentine cuisine could be summed as "anything spicy." I admit I could do a better job seeking out more ethnic joints, but I have tried the Indian food and it simply doesn´t measure up. Near the end of the week in Baroda, our hosts questioned whether we had gotten tired of Indian food. Hells no. I was aprovechando. I never came across old my favorite mattar paneer, but what started with a dosa lunch on the first day continued throughout the week was pure heaven for me and my palate. I can´t begin to name all the dishes we had, but it was all fantastic. And I´m proud to report that my time in Argentina has not weakened my ability to take on the heat. Every runny nose was well worth it. Any prior concerns about food cleanliness or other digestive issues were irrelevant for me (though my friend Madison battled through a nasty case of the Delhi Belly on our last day).
This pond was way up near the top of the mountain atop which sits the temple. Give it a click and you can see on that little staircase there are some people either washing clothes or at the very least going into the water.

While he suffered back at the hotel, the rest of us visited a temple dedicated to Kali. This was an experience unlike any I´d had before. Atop a small mountain, the temple is relatively small and simple. Shoes are not allowed, and the entrance area is more crowded than a mosh pit, with people pressed up against one another. But there was not even a hint of pushing, and the throng moved peacefully in order. Most were carrying coconuts or other treats so the food can be blessed and then shared with family or coworkers.
OK, so I did get a cow picture. This was in the area surrounding the temple. She was all dressed up with nowhere to go. I'm not sure I was supposed to be snapping this photo without a donation, but there was nobody nearby and I had no local currency on me.

There were various obvious rituals, but I was unsure if it was more insulting for me to foolishly participate in them or to ignore them as a curious tourist. My friend Stephane and I split the difference, doing our best to go through the motions without drawing too much attention to ourselves. But that didn´t stop us from receiving funny looks. Many locals eyed us with curious stares. This wasn´t the Taj Mahal, so nobody was expecting our kind. Our hosts told us later that it was likely that outside of movies and TV, many of the people visiting Kali's temple had never seen a white person. I found the attention, well, cool. A few of the bolder ones asked us where we were from. The answer of “France, Germany, England, and the United States (by way of Argentina)” did nothing to quell the curiosity.
An American, an Englishman, a Frenchman, an Indian and a German walk into Kali's temple... Oh, you've heard that one already?

That day at the temple is what I will take away most from this journey (well, that and a heckuva lot of frequent flyer miles). There was a certain tranquility to the people we encountered, a tranquility that matches my professional experiences with the Baroda team as well. How the crowd of people that felt so comfortable pressed against each other is something I won´t soon forget. I know there´s a lot I can learn from them. To journey from BA-to-Chicago-to-BA-to-London-to-India and only have one day to explore is really a shame. But since I have a visa, it just means that I get to come back again. My taste buds only one small part of me that is eagerly looking forward to it. I saddled up for the 40+hour trip back to Buenos Aires with no doubt that all the hassle was worth it.

Also: look! monkeys!



Other writing from February:
A to B Back and Forth: Avatar
Best Foreign Oscar Predictions (I was right!)
Top 50 Albums #33 - Bad Religion - The New America
Death of a Terminator
Top 50 Albums #32 - Juno - A Future Lived in Past Tense
A to B Back and Forth: Sherlock Holmes

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