India makes you think about things differently. I did a lot of reading before I came- blogs, travel guides, native accounts, emails from Hema. "India can feel like an assault on your five senses. It can indeed try your patience," said National Geographic. Yes. It does. It's overwhelming. Hema warned me about that. "You know, I grew up in a home where everyone is in and out of your room, up and down the stairs, the maid is in the bathroom and the cook is in the kitchen, but now when I visit sometimes I just want to shut my bedroom door." Ah, I said. Yeah, going home to see my family over the holidays or for a big wedding can be like that for me, too.
Here is what you encounter in any given two-minute period of time while walking down a main road in Old Dehli: Five goats, a herd of cows, a decrepit dog, a woman balancing dried dung patties in a basket on her head while four different people beg you for money including a one-legged guy in a Playboy sweatshirt (eat your heart out Hugh Hefner), a dozen people entreat you to enter their shops, (Pashminas! free to look!) as a man blows kisses and grabs his dick in your general direction. On the other hand, the gesture could be intended for the rickshaw of schoolchildren mugging for your camera while a toddler poops on a curb before nearly getting side-swiped by a family of four on a moped as a monkey fucks with electrical wires over their heads and a retired couple from Britain pays three times as much as they should for an decorative throw rug while acting smug about the bargain they think they've gotten.
That's a typical two minutes in Old Dehli, and it never ends.
Note: I have pictures of all of these things, minus the pooping toddler, and while this entry would be SOOO much better if I posted them, I'm blogging from a hotel in a holy city on the Ganges, and there's so much more to shoot. It's almost time to leave to capture sunset I can upload later. Sorry.
"India is a functional anarchy," said one blog. God yes. There is no unifying language, religion, or culture. Yes, there is a tremendous economic boom. You really, really can't function here without a cell phone. Hema's sister-in-law has loaned me an old one of hers, loaded with about 200 minutes for about US $.50, mostly so I can call my driver to pick me up wherever I am.
Let's talk about that. One of my goals for this trip is to shoot the kind of pictures I would need should I ever find myself in a meeting with an editor from, say, National Geographic or Getty Images, something I could show and say, "Look. I got myself there on my own. I know now that a trusted driver makes all the difference. I am capable. Please send me back and pay me."
And my driver, who was hired for me by Hema's protective big brother- so protective, in fact, that she chided him, "Angie is not made of glass" after his eyes grew to the size of dinner plates when I announced my desire to take a first class train to the holy city of Varanasi on the Ganges- made a world of difference. My driver in Agra, where the Taj Mahal is, negotiated rates for me, translated, hired a nice, reputable guide when he *couldn'*t translate, paid tolls, and stayed resolutely by my side when a holy man decided I needed to be aggressively blessed in the extremely polluted Yamuna River.
My aggressive blessing is recorded for posterity on video, which I showed to Hema when I got back to New Dehli. It's pretty funny hearing me try to recite Sanskrit phonetically. At one point I accidentally say, "You....gay." Completely unintentional. About five minutes into the video, Hema said, "At this point, I would have told this guy to fuck off and walked away." I endured and escaped unscathed onto a boat, and then off it again when my driver told me, "cheating, cheating." I waded through the water to another boat, thinking "tetanus, tetanus."
Truth be told, if it weren't for Ram, there were a few situations where I might have been totally fucked. Then again, I wouldn't have ventured beyond the tourists' path without him, so maybe not. I've only had the smallest glimpse into the driver/photojournalist dynamic, but when I think of all the drivers and translators who've died helping journalists in Iraq and Afghanistan, there really ought to be some sort of monument.
Anyway, back in Dehli.... I've given up feeling guilty about having a driver. After watching my friend's sister-in-law got dropped off from work, then driven back out to pick up a freshly tailored blouse for another sister before asking her driver to pick up Hema from the mall, I decided to surrender and agreed to have the driver take me to and from a salon. Look, there's a whole lot of "taking off your shoes to be respectful" here, and my feet were so frightfully unpedicured that if I were home, I could have gone out for Halloween with my un-pedicured feet serving as my only costume.
Also, my eyebrows could have doubled for caterpillars marching across my face. I decided that today was "immersion day" and that having a personal driver take me to get my eyebrows threaded at a salon where I was handed the October issue of the special India edition of Marie Claire (Our Big Wedding Issue! Hand-woven saris you'll treasure for all the years of your marriage!) practically counts as professional research.
That's my story and I'm sticking to it.