There's a moment, just before a plane's wheels drop, as the landscape is resolving itself into buildings, then people clumps, when I generally feel great fear. It escalates as Bombay comes into focus.
I know this place from birth, nevertheless, I've never managed to find markers in the brown sprawl and messiness that is India, the eternal sense of fraying. I've left a world of standardization for one in which the imperfect work of fallible humans is everywhere.
No personal space
I leave the isolated splendor of my seat knowing my personal space won't be defined again for three weeks. (I read about an English man who spent years in India, probably squished all the while. Returning home aboard a London bus, he discovered he was lonely.)
I thought I'd be struck, things might be tidier as I emerged from the relative sanity of the terminal into the thick swell of greeters, onlookers, touts and taxi drivers, things might have sorted themselves out. Not so.
Is India Changing?
My father was here last month. He reported a modern India busting out everywhere – great strides, an expanding middle class. It's said India's squaring off with China, we're spectators to this global sumo match.
Happily, rumors that Mumbai is the next Shanghai en route to becoming a sub-continental Singapore, are exaggerated. India's fulsome chaos has not been contained and spirited elsewhere. Bullocks, chapal vendors and babies suspended in saris from trees are all still there, even if in the shadows of cell-phone billboards.
Thriftily, I save 100 or so rupees on my non-air conditioning taxi, $2.00. If those 100 rupees were a bill in my back pocket, it would be plastered to my butt, stuck to the seat, damp as the desert wind, bearing filth, blows through the windows.
At the intersection, a small brown arm through the window offers reading materials, one at a time.
"No. No books."
"Something by, on, Musharraf?"
We reach South Bombay, Chowpatty Beach, the Gateway of India built for a British king and queen's arrival, witness to the British departure in 1949. There are boats to Elephanta Island. There is the Taj Hotel with its excellent public bathrooms, Victoria Terminal where the photos of commuter trains with people hanging out are taken.
Today, as in most days, South Bombay is swathed in a haze of heat that divorces one end of the Queen's Causeway from the other. I feel I've already gone the first round and been transformed. Unimpressive to look at, I bear no resemblance or link to the neatly bundled woman who left an apartment in the cold darkness of Kennedy Airport.
India's not a place of judgment. Ask India what she hasn't seen.
Drooped, I find a bed, a cheap one. I am led to a closet with neither bath nor a fan. The hotel is, remarkably, tucked right behind the Taj Hotel in one of the city's prettier neighborhoods. Many similarly lousy hotels are here, little signs signaling third-floor walkups to a warren of rooms. As with any spot where travelers lay their packs, cheap hotels, hawkers of native dress and internet cafes have sprung up to serve.
I've been here before, my routine is a comfort. I get the Times of India, have a chai, fresh lime soda and fruit salad at Leopold's Cafe. Refreshed and updated, I join travelers to exotic lands and go to check my email. I end up amongst a sweaty mass of hunched backs, next to Ashu_guddu1 who is seeking a partner in matrimony.
It's morning, I'm at the Gateway to India amidst a swarm of pigeons, beside a seller of pigeon feed.
Pigeon Lover 1: "Madame, are you not having pigeons in your country?"
"Oh we have them. We just don't feed them. People speak badly of them," I say.
Pigeon Lover 2: "But madam why? They're so cute."
India has a history of pigeon-love.
Up on the roof the men discuss the different breeds of racing pigeon:
the golays that fly low over the roofs, but in a perfectly straight line,
the fast and high-flying kabuli-kabooter,
or the slow but beautiful, fan-tailed nisarays…
– from William Dalrymple's City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi (referring to Twilight in Delhi)
Strikes have closed down all but Delhi's autorickshaws and touts. I can do nothing until the traders are appeased. It's day three of the strike, against the government's orders to close down illegal shops – (seems a good thing to me, but I don't want to get into India's political waters). So I wait.
A better informed traveler would not have traveled 16 hours to a city in a lockdown. She may have stayed in the hills, at Manali, perhaps.
Sometimes, all of a sudden, I'll realize I'm alone in India and I'll be emotionally winded. It passes. I return to my happy self, in an Ambassador car, overtaking buses that are overtaking trucks. We're all overtaking the rickshaws, whipping by rice paddies and copses of strange wispy pines. I'm on my way – to wherever.
It's monsoon in Pondicherry, as in the rest of the southeast. The monsoon completes its full circle of the sub-continent (coming first to land on the beaches of Kerala in late May). Nothing quite dries, gutters are more fragrant.
Land of a Million Languages and the Overlapping of Religions
Today is the end of the Muslim month of Ramadan and fasting. The field that was filled yesterday with boys playing cricket is today filled with Muslims. They've been pouring in by rickshaw, car and foot, bits of carpet and seating cloths beneath their arms, children in their holiday best – to attend the celebration. Women walk to the field's far end and sit on the side, closest to the church, blocked from the men's view by a stretch of plastic sheeting. The men take their seats before the main platform.
For all I know, India's seven million Buddhists are up to something of their own.
This is the land of a million languages, but it's the everyday overlapping of religions that's really stunning.
Fragility index spiked yesterday – Delhi's darkest characters tried to rook me, its side streets closed in to lose me, my zillionth call to a Bombay hotel claiming they hadn't a cot to spare for my arrival tomorrow. I came to the traveler's sharp edge of tolerance; to my last thread of okay-ness. At the second security checkpoint, I was told there was no coffee. I fought back tears. The security woman sent a boy to fetch one for me.
In Bombay, I check into my final hotel and pay ten times what I did for my first night. Even if my stomach goes south and I lose my last rupee, I will get myself to the airport. Homefree is the phrase.
Girls in Darjeeling
If you're into solo travel, it is invigorating – feed, clothe (wisely), push outwards and investigate (do not hibernate). You get extra credit for exploring, seeing. It's you and your belongings – for a spell. Try to capture all of India and bring it home.
Read more of Courtney's travels at fromacafe.