Sunday, March 18, 2012

To catch you up

3/15/12-3/17/12 (Well, in India it's 15/03/12-17/03/12)
My journey has officially begun and thus far it has been quite an adventure.
7am March 15 and we're on our way to Hartsfield Jackson airport. I'm neither excited nor nervous, but numb- still in disbelief that I may've pulled this off. I was fully convinced that this day would never come. On the drive I kept thinking-statistically this is the most dangerous leg of the journey. After a late departure from Macon, we (my mother and I) made it to the airport with time to spare. We mess around buying last minute items including the final installment of the Hunger Games and as we trudge slowly to the gate I hear "Maggie Rogers, Last Call." Didn't mean to cut it THAT close but now my adrenaline is flowing a little. After a teary goodbye I board the plane. Actually, I wasn't teary. I didn't cry at all. The night before, I said goodbye to Olivia with the same stiff upper lip. Leaving two of the most important women and not one tear from me. It's not that I'm not sad, I just feel so guilty making them cry I can't really acknowledge the situation without having second thoughts- so I am distant and seem indifferent. There is such a sweetness in their vulnerability, it makes me want to protect them. They love me so much it just seems like it would hurt more to know that I too was scared.
The flight to Newark was nothing of consequence. The 7 hour layover was not of consequence either except that I received a stow away gift in my purse. Olivia had recorded herself reading the entire 2nd Harry Potter book to remind me of home and keep me company on lonely days. I'm touched but I don't listen to it. I'm not ready to think about home. For the first time ever, I'm very much alone.
7pm I board the plane to Amsterdam. Take care USA! The only thing noteworthy here is that while boarding , I made eye contact with an Indian boy near my age. I noticed him because he walked with a slight limp and because he smiled at me. I secretly hoped in that moment I'd be seated next to him. I wasn't. 8 hours of flying and we arrive in Holland blood clot free at 7am. Just before descent the sky is blinding pink. I'm watching the Holland. It's at this time I begin grinning like an idiot. Unfortunately when we land, the ground is blanketed in fog so the scenery is bleak.
During the 3 hour layover I saw my friend (he doesn't know we're friends yet but I do. I have a 6th sense for such things.) I sat at the gate and he approached me. "YOU'RE going to Mumbai?" he said flashing the same smile that had eased my nerves just hours ago. We chatted comfortably for a while and I realized that I've only been gone for 15 hours and I'm missing home like hell. He tells me he's a Mumbai native who frequents NYC working in the jewelry business. He gave me his card stating that if I ever need anything, he's a phone call away. He has no idea what kind of peace this gives me.
Soon it is time to board. European security regulations are not the same as American. All liquids must be removed from your bag, put into a separate plastic bag and sent through security (which is at the gate.) A flight attendant grills you on how long you've been in AMS and if your luggage has remained in your sight, has anyone given you anything since you arrived here. I consider mentioning the business card but think better of it. The Dutch flight attendants are not like the Atlanta ones. Sometimes the Atlanta airport reminds me of Disney world with the staff's perpetual pep. The Dutch flight attendants don't laugh or tell me that the flower in my hair is pretty. They do their job and roll their eyes. I notice that I am the smiliest person in the whole airport. So much as eye contact with another person causes me to reflexively flash a full set of teeth and wave emphatically (what gives Europe?). More about security. After the initial baggage security you have to stand in what reminds me of an upright MRI machine-let it scan you and no matter what it says you still get pat down by an attendant. It doesn't bother me but it's time consuming. It's in the pat down that I meet Jim. His name isn't really Jim but he reminds me so much of Jim from the Office I can never think of him as anyone else. Rule to live by: If he reminds you of Jim from the Office, you can trust him.
"Rogers? M Rogers?" Calls a flight attendant from behind security, waving a boarding pass. I investigate and find I've been bumped to 1st class. "In trouble miss Rogers?" asks Jim as he is frisked with a metal detector. We talk for a while until we board and he and the other poor people sit in coach while I ride first class- perk of flying standby. The flight attendants are much more cheerful in first class. They feed you constantly, your chair massages you, and you drink from real glass. They show you Oscar winning movies and tell you you're smart and beautiful. I love first class.
I also love who I was seated next to in first class. John is a business owner who frequents first class and laughs at my jokes. He has a 16 year old daughter and insists he walk me through customs. After 24 hours of flying, no make up, an oversized shirt and a pony tail I don't look a day over 16 which is what prompts him to make the offer. 30 minutes until we land in Mumbai and I've got butterflies. We land smoothly and head to customs, I'm at John's heels. The airport isn't crowded-in fact it's eerily quiet. Customs gives me grief about my forms being incorrect but won't show me the error. They just keep shoving the paperwork in my face-literally- and sending me to the back of the line. I can see John ahead of me patiently waiting. I feel very stupid.
Finally past customs, I have to exchange currency so I say goodbye to John. He gives me the contact info for an employee of his that lives in Mumbai- in case I ever need help. John is on the growing list of people who have moved me with their simple sweetness since the trip began.
Currency Exchange and Visitor's Services are at the same desk so I ask if there is a shuttle to my hotel. They answer yes and point me towards the exit. Call it culture shock, temporary insanity or extreme jet lag but I am NOT prepared for the next part of the journey.
I step into the Mumbai night and see a big courtyard, empty except for two security men holding big guns. Around the perimeter are literally hundreds of taxi drivers holding signs and begging you to choose them to give you a ride. I stand rooted to the spot, staring. A shove awakens me as a security person (same uniform, same gun as the two in the yard) thrusts me firmly into the courtyard. Evidently I am holding up traffic. I'm pacing the perimeter back and forth reading signs and after 40 minutes I'm ready to panic. I ask around and keep getting different responses. "Oh that hotel is 45 minutes away, oh that hotel is an hour away or I know that hotel is an hour and a half away". People keep carrying my luggage for me no matter what I say and expect payment every time they put the luggage down. I pay up- I'm a mess. It's about now when I start to fall apart. Out of the corner of my eye I see Jim. I wave frantically. Sensing something is wrong he quickly comes to my aid. I have just enough motive to look cool in front of him, I somehow keep myself from crying. "Just don't leave me." I say. Jim nods and proceeds to interpret the situation. I'm not listening- I have shut down. All I can do is bite my cheek and look skyward so tears don't run down my face. I can see now that it's not that big of a deal but I'm jet lagged, I am alone, I don't know who to listen to and it's 1am.I could still go to the hotel that's been reserved but I can't justify getting into a car and driving in the middle of the night for that long if I'm not totally sure where I am going.
The day before I left, I realized my flight was landing at midnight and perhaps it would be unwise to wander to find a place to stay. After an hour of Google searching hostels, I was frustrated. As if it fell from the sky, a message from Imaad appeared in my inbox. Imaad is an old flame of an old friend but we've managed to stay in touch on the grounds that I think he is amazing.
In the message he wished me well and said if I ever need anything, he's got connections in India. I responded immediately outlining my predicament. His brother works for a hotel chain that has a hotel in Mumbai. Within the hour Imaad had a room booked with a family discount, claiming me as his fiance. (if only.)
Everything was set until I got to Mumbai and it all crumbled. Taking some one the longest route possible is an old trick meant to run up your taxi bill but no one was letting up on this and I was too tired to fight. Jim and the man devised a plan. The man would get me to a hotel near the airport, transportation is covered. I was still too much of a mess to be happy about this problem solved. I just wanted to cry. I bit my cheek and asked Jim not to leave. He hangs out a while and a man who works for the hotel comes be my escort. "I have a good feeling, I think you can trust them." says Jim. He gives me some contact info and waves goodbye. If Jim from the Office trusts him, so do I.
Minutes later I climb into the back of an unmarked van. Typically this is where the story ends but Jim is right and I get to the hotel in one piece. I go in to check in and get charged 9,000 rupees for one night. For the room I got, this is completely insane. I paid without hesitation, I just needed to get into a locked room and break down. (Jet lag guys, don't give me that look!)
My bellhop refuses to leave without a tip. I've probably shelled out around 11,500 rupees tonight. That is INSANE, but for now I don't have a backbone and everyone knows it. I lock the door, I break down. I HATE India. I proceed to sob and completely over react for an undocumented amount of time. The only thing keeping me going is the thought that tomorrow I'll buy a train ticket and be on my way to Delhi, then to Kathmandu where at least I'll know where I'm staying. Imaad calls the hotel and tells them to help me with everything in the morning. He talks me off a ledge. I love Imaad. Still restless, I sleep for one hour.
Morning comes, no seats available on today's train. I have to check out in 4 hours, I'm running out of cash and I need a place to stay. I need a plan NOW. I should've gone into survival mode. Instead, I assumed the fetal position and picked up where I left off the night before. I pull myself together and get breakfast downstairs. It's some spicy chick pea soup and bread that tastes like grits. I'm the only one in the dining room except for the staff. Sensing my mood, the staff (about six 17 year old boys) changed the channel from the news in Hindi, to the English channel where Spy Kids is playing. They do this to make me feel welcome and comfortable. I can't hide my smile. Even in my self pity, I keep stumbling upon these rays of sunshine.
I return to my room and cry some more. I finally contact my dad, the colonel. If you ever need a white knight, this is who you call. After explaining the situation to him and declaring my trip and therefore my life over-- he fixed it. He just...fixed it. He's a good man. In a few minutes he had booked a flight to Delhi and a hotel for me when I got there. That's all I needed. My mom also deposited some money in my bank account when I told her about all the rupees down the drain. I have excellent parents (even is 2/3s of their offspring are kind of weird), they do their best and I'm so lucky to have them.
What's next? I check out in an hour and my flight isn't until 11pm. Mumbai airport isn't like Atlanta where you can hang out all day. They won't even let you in until 3 hours before your flight leaves. My plan was this- get my things and sit outside. For the next 7 hours. I was so over India, I'd rather just sulk. Still.
Good GOD I am so embarrassed about this never ending temper tantrum.
I check out and the man says, "So, plane or Train?" and I remember that sweet Imaad has told them to look after me. I tell the man my plans and he rolls his eyes and takes my luggage. I swear if he wants a tip I'll break his fingers. "Come back..say...7? Your things will be safe here and I will arrange a ride to the airport."
I take only my camera. I FINALLY shake the mean reds- everything is turning up roses. I walk with a renewed faith in humanity. I am very famous in India, people simply cannot keep their eyes off of me. True confession, I love the attention. I walk about a mile and a half. I don't stray from the main road, I don't want to get lost. There is plenty to see. Probably the most nerve wracking thing I've discovered about India is that the people are in no way afraid of cars and the cars completely disregard pedestrians. I can't believe how people walk amongst moving traffic like it's no big deal.
Can't beat em'? Join em'. I spent time following groups dodging cars and really, it's not that scary. Within 30 minutes, I'd turned pro. Thus far the street has been low scale shops,nothing of interest except for the copious amounts of trash everywhere. To my right there is a dirt path leading into a neighborhood. To follow the path would feel so invasive. It's people's yards, I'd be in their space...but curiosity takes over. Down the rabbit hole I went.
It was exactly what you want to see when you think of India. Big carts of vegetables, bags of spices, people weaving rugs on the floor, everyone bartering, everyone knows everyone's name, kids playing cricket and lots of naked toddlers. I suddenly felt very guilty for hating India, for making a mental note to high five the next British person I saw, and for not really giving it a chance.
People are staring but it's because they don't get tourists in the neighborhood. They're smiling and waving and seem genuinely happy that I've stumbled upon this place. Seeing my camera a man approaches me and asks, "Photo?" I snap a photo and he exclaims "Now THAT'S handsome!". Thus began my job of taking headshots for everyone in the neighborhood. Literally people were lining up. I met SO many people. I couldn't remember all of their names but they remembered mine. "Maggie! Come look at this! Maggie! Meet my family!"
In all, I visit four neighborhoods. The occupants aren't well to do but they're certainly not suffering. Everyone is so happy and content with their lives. The children literally run in packs.
After 4 hours I'm exhausted. I hit the main road again and a voice calls out from a shop window, "You! You come to my shop, I want to show you, 5 minutes!", I told him no thanks. His voice changed a little, "You don't have to buy, just look." So what the heck. I go inside and we start talking. He's about my age, maybe a little older and his English is great. He's selling jewelry and these figurines made of silver. After browsing for a while he pulls out some food he has brought from home. "Eat with me." I shake my head, feeling intrusive. "Homemade Indian food made special for a Mumbai first-timer, just for you." He insisted (Indian people are very insistent so I have learned.) I sat down and dish up some yellow meat (goat) and rice. I ask what part of the goat we're eating and he just laughs. This i my cue to stop asking. It's weird, but definitely not bad. I continue talking to this guy and he gives me an impromptu Hindi lesson. "This isn't your first time speaking Hindi," he tells me. In high school I bullied my friend into teaching me a little. I don't remember much but I'm familiar enough in the sounds to do a decent impression even if I don't exactly know what I'm saying. His comment makes so happy. I thank him and leave when we've finished eating.
I'm so exhausted now. It's hot outside and I've been walking for hours, not to mention I have slept but one hour since leaving Atlanta. There aren't any coffee shops or places to lounge so I perch on a dusty wall right outside of my hotel that can be seen from the nearest neighborhood. I am so tired and it shows. People still pass and wave, stop to talk a bit but I can really only smile weakly and say a few words (before I would have jumped up and done an animated interpretive dance to illustrate my point in the conversation.) An hour passes and three girls approach me wearing their school uniforms. They've been watching me this whole time. They're probably 8 years old. One hands me a bag of chips. "To make you feel better!" she squeaks and the three run away.
30 minutes later, a girl of about 10 gestures for me to come to her. I obey. She leads me to a shady bench on her porch outside of her building. Tons of kids come, most of whom I met earlier to tell me about cricket and their day and their friends etc. The boys are rascals and the girls all seem mature for their age. One of the girls gives me a piece of chocolate. Soon, adults come over. "You made us so sad sitting alone!" they tell me. I'm surrounded by people. The little girls translate for the old women who tell me they're coming to live with me in America. Everyone is bubbly and funny and extremely talkative. A women I don't recognize comes over and whispers in the ear of a lady I've been talking to and the mood changes. Everyone gets serious for a minute and they consult each other in Hindi. I look to my 10 year old translator and she tells me a boy from this neighborhood is missing. He left for "tuition" (school) this morning and wasn't back yet (it's almost 7pm.)
After a few minutes of Hindi, the women feel obligated to continue entertaining me so they switch back to English. The girls play with my hair and the boys perform an impromptu slapstick comedy routine. And me? I'm falling deeply and madly in love with India.
I leave when the airport taxi arrives and I retrieve my things from the hotel. A small army is waving goodbye.
I'm sitting in the airport now about to head to Delhi. I'm sitting in gum that I just now noticed and I haven't showered since the morning. I have dirt under my fingernails and these clothes will never get clean. I couldn't care less. I'm having the time of my life.


  1. I would let Jim read it, so he can see how much he helped you. Scary and beautiful, so glad you are enjoying your adventure. Praying for you now.

  2. Oh, Maggie... this is the beginning of an amazing travelogue! I am so thrilled for you. Traveling alone is so daunting and exciting and scary all at the same time. I love it, myself. Even if things don't go exactly right, you develop a self confidence that you would never have otherwise. Go with the flow and enjoy the ride!

  3. It sounds like you're having an amazing time. I hope this continues to be so incredible.

  4. Love it glad you're safe. Can't wait to hear about the next leg of your journey. this is better than the book I'm reading! xoxo

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. Cathy and I read this like a bedtime story and LOVED it! I actually got a little choked up a couple of times and had to regain my composure before continuing. Excellent read! Can't wait for another installment. Keep it up and in the end you'll have another best-selling book/movie deal based on a blog!

    May earthy and heavenly angels continue to watch over you.

    Love you! -Rob and Cathy Davis