Planet Haolewood

A toolbox, a change of underwear, and a surfboard.

Monday, March 23, 2009


“How was India?” The question kind of stumped me when I got back. “Good” seemed a little anti-climactic. “Great” is how you might describe a vacation where you scuba dived and sun bathed. Like India itself, my experience there was many things at once. The best I could come up with for a one-word answer was “different.”

Maybe that’s what those who travel independently to far away places are looking for. Wanderlust is a kind of boredom with the familiar, a desire to experience something genuinely different. Difference wakes us up out a pattern of relating to the world we already know. Instead of being able to anticipate what was coming my way each day, I was forced rely on my senses and react to events as they unfolded one moment at a time. On Kauai, I already know what’s around the next corner, but in India I had no choice but to relate to the world as it actually is instead of an idea of the world that already exists in my mind.

Wanderlust doesn’t run all that strongly in my veins. It had been 12 years since I’d left the country. While rewarding in the long run, the difference was exhausting. Indians looking to scam tourists are adept at recognizing this kind of exhaustion in their potential victims. I had been warned that the Deli train station was a particularly bad area for these con men but I was still fooled, if only temporarily. As I walked from a cab toward the massive and chaotic station a friendly man asked me what train I was taking. When I answered he told me that train was nine hours late but if I followed him he would take me to where I could exchange my ticket for another train that departed shortly. Like an idiot, I followed him even though he was walking AWAY from the station. It only took a few moments before I came to my senses, stopped following the man and headed back toward the station. Even more incredibly, when another man approached me with a similar story seconds later, I started following him, too! Again I did not go far before realized my mistake and ditched my new “friend.” Needless to say, my train turned out to be right on time.

Why was I so vulnerable to these con men? I’m not really that stupid and I knew enough about traveling in India to know that they were probably trying to scam me. Of course, I only went along with them for a few moments, but even that is amazing considering the implausibility of their stories. Here’s my explanation: I was somewhere truly different and had no idea what to expect. Anything was possible. How could I even entertain the possibility that a strange man would approach me in the parking lot of the train station, know that my train was late and offer to help me exchange my ticket? Because stranger things had happened.

As I stood in line at the entrance to the Taj Mahal, a friendly man approached me and asked if I had my cell phone charger in my backpack. He explained security would not let me enter if I did. Cell phones and cameras were permitted but not ipods and cell phone chargers. He offered to take me to a cloakroom where I could leave any prohibited items. As it happened I did have my cell phone and charger with me. I left my place in line and followed the man for several blocks to a deserted looking building with a sign in English, a couple of men sitting behind a desk and some lockers.

I know what you’re thinking. “That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. How could he be so naive?” But it turns out the guy was telling the truth. Cell phone chargers and ipods are not permitted in the Taj Mahal. When I arrived at security, they were turning away confused people who had these items with them and sending them to the deserted looking cloak room several blocks away which was in fact totally legitimate. There was no scam to steal my cell phone charger. I collected it without incident when I left. The man who helped me had hoped to gain my trust so that I would agree to hire him as a guide (which I did not).

How about another example of strangeness involving cell phones? I bought a SIM card in Mumbai and the man who sold it to me told me it would be activated in a few hours. My brother in law had bought a SIM card from the same man and his phone was working, but mine wouldn’t work. We had left Mumbai so I couldn’t go back to bought it. I found a help center and asked if they could get my phone working. The woman working behind the counter had a cold. It appeared to be near the end of her shift and she did not seem very excited about the challenge of figuring out what was wrong with my phone. She typed on her computer and fiddled with the phone, all the while sniffling and shaking her head. She told me I’d have to take it to the call center in Mumbai. When I told her I couldn’t do that she fiddled with the phone some more and then passed it around to several other people in the office, including, bizarrely, one of the other customers waiting for help. They all spoke to each other gravely in Marathi and shook their heads. I had been there quite some time and I was loosing hope. Finally she handed my phone to one of the other help center workers, who looked at it disinterestedly, pressed a few buttons and handed it back to me. “There’s a network problem. Try it tomorrow after four. It should work then.” I surmised this was the guy whose job it was to get me out of the office. I gave up. It seemed clear no one there was going to help me.

I did not have even the slightest hope the problem would magically go away the next day as the man had told me, but I tried my phone anyway. It worked and it continued to work without any problems for the rest of my trip.

What had seemed so improbable had turned out to be true. In other cases it was the other way around. A friendly woman at the tourist information counter at the Deli airport reassured me how easily I could catch a bus into the city but I wandered around in the chaos outside the airport and asked many people where the bus stop was. All I succeeded in finding were other confused people looking for the bus stop. I couldn’t get back into the terminal to ask the woman because I didn’t have a ticket. Eventually I just took a cab. What had seemed like a slam dunk turned out to be impossible, and that collision of expectations with reality is the difference between a trip and an adventure; it’s what creates the heightened awareness that I think so many of my friends with wanderlust like about international travel.

The day I left the ashram a boy approached me as I walked to the bus stop. He asked for my autograph. It was toward the end of my trip and the absurdity of the request registered only dimly in my mind. Dozens of foreigners walked up and down that road every day on their way to and from the ashram. I signed his notebook and continued on my way. I was getting used to the strangeness. Had I stayed in India longer, the feeling would have faded as that reality became more familiar.

Maybe it wasn’t a “great” trip or even a “good” one, but I got a lot out my travels in India. If I had it to do again I would have skipped the floundering and gone right to the good stuff, but that’s not how life works, is it? The floundering was an absolutely necessary part of a process and what I learned was that I’m more flexible and resilient than I knew.


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