In December 2007, I went back to India after almost 14 years, and took my new husband of 5 months and 9 ½ year-old son along. To say there were some changes is an understatement. The trip began with mixed feelings, ok, with much disappointment, even as we tried to leave our home city of Denver. Our yogurts were confiscated and my 9-year-old son had to endure no entertainment for about five hours, something he had looked forward to.
In New York, we struggled to make our flight at JFK after being misdirected by a Delta stewardess. We were at the opposite end of the airport, having gotten there through rain, with no sidewalk, with my 9-year-old son and new husband struggling along, nearly missing cars. The flight was about to leave in 15 minutes; there was no way we would make it to the other side in time for departure. We looked at each other, and started running, breaking out in sweat. Panting, we arrived to see a herd of people gathered at the check-in line, and waited behind passengers arguing with Air India attendants. We explained our plight, and found out that the flight had been delayed, but that we would need to hurry to make it to the boarding gate. Running again, we made it to the gate, with a disorderly herd in what was to be a boarding line. Once there, we learned that our seats were nowhere near one another. We tried to trade with passengers in line, but were advised to try to do so once we were seated. Once seated, we were successful in exchanging with two kind souls so we ended up together for the leg to London, but no such luck from the London-Delhi leg. Once on board Air India, we were chagrined to discover that there was no working entertainment – about seven hours until we reached London. We tried to settle in.
In London, we were sequestered, with not enough room for all to sit; so we sat or laid on the floor, waiting for our flight. This time, it seems we got a different Air India plane, and most passengers seemed to have working entertainment, except me. Since we were stuck with seats in different parts of the plane, I was able to at least negotiate with a customer sitting next to my son and sleeping to trade with me part of the time. My son was excited to be able to watch TV and cartoons much of the flight, having been deprived thus far. This unfortunately meant that once we arrived in Delhi, he was exhausted. The mob scene appeared once we deplaned, and different herds went to different areas of the room at Delhi airport, which ended up in one big herd, to clear customs and get baggage. There were no windows and we were packed into the space like cattle to slaughter. I propped my son to sit against the wall as we waited. He was promptly asleep.
Once making it through customs, we managed to locate where our bags should have arrived, only to discover after searching for at least an hour, and seeing less and less bags appear at the conveyor, that none of our three bags had made it! After another hour of trying to determine the process of reporting our loss, we were ready to leave the baggage area and possibly go out into real Delhi. Our flight was due at 10pm and it was now about 5am. We were to be picked up by a staff member from the hotel we had booked and we were concerned he would not be there by now. We were exhausted and frustrated and we hadn’t even left the airport. Once we exited with our carry-on luggage, we ended up seeing our misspelled name on one of the signs held by many weary-eyed drivers. I then began my three-week Hindi-speaking adventure. I tried to explain to the driver what had transpired. He said he was just about to leave and had missed his dinner.
Our first step out into the balmy Delhi night on December 15, 2007 was alarming and exciting at once. I was finally here! And then I tried to make out what I was seeing around me – old, wrecked cars, people sleeping in various corners. It seemed to be a movie set from long ago. What a perfect interpretation of a by-gone era! Then I had to remind myself that it was not a set, but the country I was born into; and I was leaving the airport I had last seen in 1994. I looked at the faces of my husband and son, trying to determine their thoughts thus far about the country I was from. It was their very first impression. I thought they must be horrified. It was a surreal scene, stepping out in this strange, foreign land.
There did not seem to be a defined parking lot, yet the driver seemed to find an Ambassador car that we piled into, no seatbelts in the back, which we would expect the remainder of the trip. We were off, whizzing around the snake-like streets of Delhi. There did not seem to be many street signs, after the “Welcome to Delhi” sign sponsored by Samsung, in equally big letters. Light signals were not used, favoring honking instead. It seemed numerous times vehicles were approaching us, ready for a head-on collision, and the driver calmly backed up or swerved around. Passing cars constantly after notices of honking were common. Amazingly, after going through a questionable, littered neighborhood, we arrived at our “hotel.”
All I could mostly make out was the litter around and a general sense of disorientation and chaos. I thought the hotel manager was snippy and when my husband mentioned he wanted to compare rooms, the manager announced in Hindi, “and now they want to compare rooms!” We were shown to our room, and I scolded my husband about wanting to compare rooms at this time of night. I then forgot where I placed my bag containing our passports, alarming the staff again. I went outside to see if the car that brought us was still there. Instead, I stood there, frozen, looking around in horror. I could not believe I was here and had brought my family here. What was I thinking?! Maybe some of my disappointment and concern for bringing my family was due to being tired after our long trip and complications. I went back up to my room, where I discovered the bag placed on a table. My short-term memory was shot. Fortunately, I had somehow decided to pack pajamas in my carry-on, which came in handy as we settled into the room for long-awaited sleep, lying down, rather than trying to manage it sitting up for two days on a plane.
My husband and I got up a few hours later, had delicious breakfast with some foreigners, mostly from Europe, and then slept until late afternoon. We got up again, saying “good morning” to the manager as we passed, who shouted “good afternoon!” We managed to take our very first auto rickshaw to Connaught Place, where we went to restaurant I had gone to before, Nirula’s, and ordered pizza of all things, which of course didn’t compare to what we could have at home. We later realized Delhi had “Pizza Hut,” which would have been a better choice for pizza. We stumbled around the area after eating, starting one of our chores of trying to convert our cell phones to use in India and came across a tour operator that we ended up using after too much time and expenditure.
Within a couple of days of staying in Delhi, longer than planned due to our luggage being mishandled, we were able to pick up two of three bags. This was after much disconnection, very poor customer service, amazingly maddening processes, being ignored, yelling, crying, and even paying storage fees. My son being in tears was the worst part. The two bags were of course not the most important of the three we packed; they were the soft bags that I expected to get torn into, something that had occurred on previous trips. Therefore, I had placed the most valued items in our third, hard-case suitcase, which we would see over a month after returning from our trip. Nevertheless, having gotten the bags the airline was in possession of, we were able to finally leave Delhi and begin our trip. Hopefully the rest would not be as frustrating.
We were happy with our comfortable Toyota SUV provided by the tour operator, and having a driver taking us on our adventure. It was great to slowly leave Delhi, with its stop-and-go traffic, pollution, and mayhem. There had to be some stops along the way to give my son nausea medicine. Finally, we were relieved to see pastoral land and eventually the fields of Rajasthan, where I am from. We occasionally stopped to photograph landscapes, villagers, and local market life. This is what we had come to India to see! The stress of the trip started to be replaced with awe and joy. My son tried to do some homework while the drive continued and we enjoyed listening to our MP3s.
After stopping at a very nice, elegant rest stop with attendants and souvenirs, we reached our first destination of Agra to show my family the Taj. Although I had seen the Taj several times before, it was my first time seeing this “old friend” at sunrise. From Agra, we traveled to a bird park in Bharatpur, where we saw some rare birds, owls, monkeys, and deer. We were told the birds were few due to a water shortage for the past several years. From Bharatpur, we went on an ambitious journey of seeing my state of Rajasthan in a short time that included my village of Khairthal in the town of Alwar, Jaipur, followed by Udaipur, where the lake palace featured in Octopussy is located.
I was skeptical of locating my former village, as I only knew that it was in the town of Alwar and not much else. I was even more skeptical of finding the house I had lived in until the age of 7, before moving to the US. The driver was perhaps more skeptical than me that this task would get accomplished. After asking numerous people and driving for what seemed like eternity, we were there. I rolled down my car window to ask gathering folks whether they were aware of someone with my last name having lived there.
Almost immediately, individuals in the gathering commented on having the same name as me and were commenting on my mom’s name – that I was her daughter. We were swiftly directed to the homes of relatives, where we were offered chai and snacks, while other relatives gathered. Many photos were taken and we were finally shown my former house, where the current tenants allowed us to view the interior of my former home, which had now been divided in two. I was able to show my husband and son the right half of the home I had many memories of, the best of which included sleeping on the roof. I tried to recall where in the neighborhood I had played and tried to communicate as much as I could with relatives in Hindi while they spoke my former dialect, “Kuchi”, which I understood. It was a short visit, not more than half hour, and we had to leave to make it to our hotel commitment in Jaipur, where we arrived at 11pm.
After two days in Jaipur, where we toured and shopped for my importing business, we took off for a day-long, difficult drive to Udaipur, where we ended up staying only the night before we had to fly early the next morning to Kerela. It was a drive that should have been replaced by a flight, so we could have had more time to tour. Once we arrived in Cochin, Kerela, we had to take a one-hour car ride to Fort Cochin, a quaint town where we spent a mellow Christmas in 70 degree weather while it was freezing back home in Denver, CO. It was at a questionable restaurant in Fort Cochin that I became impatient with our food restrictions and decided to have some chutney at room temperature. My risk of course did not pay off and I promptly ended up with intestinal issues. Our next stop was Allepey, Kerela, where despite killer mosquitoes, we enjoyed a magical three-to-four hour boat ride where we were able to view village life and take many photographs. I almost did not venture out on the boat ride for fear of needing to go to the restroom while stuck on the boat. Seeing the views and villagers, I was very grateful that my risk paid off and my intestines cooperated.
Unfortunately, after a bad restroom experience en route to our next and major destination of Varkala Beach in Kerela, I was not such a fan of my country. The views and beach time at the care-free, hippy town of Varkala soon brought back my pride in the country again. I met a Turkish future pen pal while getting beautiful black henna patterns on my hands and feet, over-looking a sunset over the Indian Ocean. The henna was part of the preparation for a simple Hindu ceremony on the 31st of December my new husband and I were able to squeeze in at a temple in Varkala before heading south to the Trivandrum airport an hour away the next morning. From there we flew to Bangalore, the new Silicon Valley, for an overnight stay before heading back to Delhi in the North for an overnight stay before heading back to the US. We were happy to have seats together on the flight back and after missing a flight in Chicago, finally made it back to our regular life in the states on the January 5th. It took at least a week to adjust physically and somewhat longer mentally. We appreciated the simple non-chaotic part of daily life and being on the road with tranquility on smooth roads.
Looking back, I can see some differences in the country from my trip in 1994. Back then, there were no cell phones. During this trip, it seemed everyone, including the drivers, had them. I half-expected the beggars to pull them out after a Bollywood tune went off. There was more road work going on, which was a relief. There was a presence of American restaurant chains such as McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, Subway, and others which I had not seen in 1994. The crowds at Delhi airport were beyond imaginable and surely greater than my previous trip. I have heard that it will probably get worse before it gets better, as the country tries to catch up with its growth.
Overall, I felt I had accomplished my objectives of reconnecting with my native country and introducing it and its culture to my husband and son. I hope it was an experience we can build on in the future. I hope that the trip will prevent potential attitude issues in my son, having seen boys his age begging and working. I hope he will be more grateful for all that he has and will have a broader perspective on life. I was very grateful that he did not get sick and complained very minimally. Despite the frustrations experienced, we became closer as a result of our adventures and are ready for the next trip, a focus on the Himalayan area in the North, which we have reserved for a summer in the next couple of years.