Is This My Life Right Now?

13 July
It is some godforsaken hour of the morning when we arrive at our hotel in Delhi. The taxi, annoyed that we’d pre-paid inside the airport, goes off the instant we evacuate his vehicle, leaving us to wonder if that mangy, emaciated stray dog is chewing on a real animal or a stuffed one as we make our way to the hotel’s glass door. There are people and dogs sleeping on the streets, and through the glass we can see the hotel employees sleeping on the couches in the lobby. Rachel knocks and wakes one of them, and he ambles unhappily to the door.

“I made a reservation here,” says Rachel. She hands him a card.

The man is tired and does not care. He is ready to turn around and lay back down on the couch. A group of men, standing just up the street, spots us standing there vulnerably, surrounded by our luggage, and swarms with offers of alternative “very nice” hotels “not far” from here. I pretend that I cannot speak English. Then I hear Rachel say, “excuse me–no–I have a reservation!” and I turn to see the door shut and watch that employee go back to bed, leaving us completely stranded on the street, in Delhi, at 2:30 a.m., with only the dog, its meal, and the group of hotel-men for company.

It is this moment when Julia, a girl in my group, thinks, “Is this my life right now?”

The question becomes representative of our summer in India. When the train to Amritsar pulls up to the station in Pathankot, so full of people that they are spilling out the doors–even standing between train cars–Julia says aloud, “Is this my life right now?” We are not eager for those overwhelming hours on an overflowing train, yet we board ten minutes later. We are fortunate; that same day, a train identical to ours crashes fatally elsewhere in north India.

A few days later, we decide to see how many people can fit in an auto rickshaw. It turns out that the large Amritsar rickshaws can fit all seven of us without any trouble–with the catch that three of us–Elizabeth, Bonnie, and I–have to ride in the back seat facing oncoming traffic. Bonnie and I, on the sides, are reasonably secure, but Elizabeth does not have the walls of the little car to prevent her from falling out during a quick stop, like the two occasions when our driver runs into other vehicles. I hold the latch of the tiny half-door with an iron grip and link my other arm through Elizabeth’s while someone else wraps a scarf around her waist in a makeshift seatbelt. Elizabeth is too tall to keep her head inside the little car, though, so she sticks it outside, grinning hugely at the motorcyclists as they drive by and stare at her in bewilderment. Once I hear her shout delightedly, “Is this my life right now?”

Until you’ve been here, you don’t know the half of it.

I remember skimming parts of my brother’s letters from Madrid, disinterested simply because I had no frame of reference for stories about living abroad. Last summer, I would have found Patrick French’s Tibet, Tibet boring, but now in the light of the Wanderlust I find it fascinating. My brother began his first email to me in India with the greeting, “Welcome to the world!” I guess that giving in to Robert Service’s “Wanderlust” and living its lows, in a train station in Pathankot, and its highs, on a rickshaw in Amritsar, is an initiation of sorts.

And sometimes, the experience is neither a high nor a low, but profound all the same. Some of these times are when “the Wanderlust has taught me . . . it has whispered to my heart / Things all you stay-at-homes will never know.”

I hear these whisperings myself one night in the city of Amritsar, when the time was nearing midnight.

I am wrapped–quite literally–in a royal blue sari edged in gold flowers and small blue beads. At the Harmandir Sahib, the glittering golden temple of those of the Sikh faith, visitors are required to cover their heads and remove their shoes. Periodically I rearrange myself–pull up my skirt, pull down my head cover, try to cover my midriff–as we take tiny steps past the glowing temple and toward the communal kitchen. Those Indian women make walking in a sari look so easy; “It’s like I’m wrapped in my bedsheets,” Rachel murmurs to me.

At long last we arrive and sit on one of the long straw mats on the floor.  A glance around confirms that sitting cross-legged is the norm, but a futile attempt proves that “Indian style” is another motion not permitted by the sari.

We place our silver-colored plates, spoons, and bowls on the floor in front of us as the man carrying chapatti comes by and gives us each two. Next comes a boy with a bucket of daal. He ladles it expertly into one of the plate’s compartments. A second compartment receives a milky, sweet liquid, and the bowl is filled with water.

And as we sit there, dipping chapatti in daal and gazing around at row upon row of pilgrims and tourists alike, enjoying this free meal together regardless of caste or creed or nationality, I was blown away by the places life takes me. Was I really sitting on the floor in India, wearing a sari, in the middle of the night? Had I actually survived that unbearable heat, my dupatta catching on the cycle rickshaw’s tire, and getting lost on the way back to the hotel? Is this my life right now?

The answer is yes, and because the answer is yes I can see the world that Robert Service describes, with both “the water you can EAT” and “God’s flood of glory [that] burst its bars.” And there’s no going back. “For there’s never a cure / When you list to the lure / Of the Wan-der-lust.”

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