Sure, I've left America before.
I know myself to be a wanderer, I won't deny that. A year in Japan, a summer in Ghana, a couple of weeks going Greyhound cross-country back home. Just like to kick around in a new place, check out mountains, and start up new projects along the way (like teaching maths, sketching in watercolours, or editing Digital8 video clips). Always planning in the back of my head where to go next and how to make it happen.
Strong case of wanderlust? Yeah, you could say that. Anyway, I announced I was backpacking it 'round India and all hell broke loose at 219 Shady Grove Lane. Never mind that by regular American standards I was a full-grown, mature, independent-minded (isn't that what I'd been brought up to be?) 23-year-old adult. Perfectly capable of making her own decisions. Of pulling herself up by her bootstraps. Of forging her way in the world.
And when I added I was quitting my job and going to India for three winter months, then hitting New York for the big time, my mother and father nearly killed me.
Vhaaat?! Are you crazy?! India! Bribes and corrupt. No law and order. Why you always want to go somewhere? Stay one place only. Study more, get better job. America is best place. No! You cannot, we won't let you go. Not safe.
Mom and Dad stood their ground on this one, putting up a helluva unified front based solely an eerily strong, almost religious conviction. Going to India? No. And again, no. No no no no no no no no.
What was the big problem with India, after all, there would be family there. My grandparents, whom I hadn't seen in six years. Wouldn't it be great to check in and see how they were doing? See if they remembered me, if they even knew who I was? C'mon, guys. How can it be so bad?
No, Dipika. Why don't you go for further studies instead? Or we could introduce you to nice boy, PhD student? Dad has friend who has son, bright, studious. Maybe get married best thing for you.
No, thanks. And anyway, I've already booked my tickets. Raleigh-Durham, London, Delhi, Dubai, New York. Booked and confirmed, window seats all the way. Hm? Yes, I'm going alone. What's the big deal? Jeez, don't worry, I'll be fine.
That's when Mom fainted, and Dad stopped talking to me.
I'm telling this story to Sinead and Aisling, two Irish girls I met standing in line at New Delhi railway station today, while booking my tickets for tomorrow's trip.
New to this whole India-travel thing, I've been observing and talking to other people. They seem to know exactly what they're doing. There's a whole queue of backpackers here, and through the din we catch a blend of many languages. About half these travellers are out here on their own, Bisleri water bottles at their sides, reviewing earmarked selections of Rough Guide and Lonely Planet. Despite the cool November weather there's an uncomfortable thickness in and around the station.
I'm looking through the railway timetables, drawing lines across my Government of India tourist pocket map, plotting in my head what I think I'd like to do.
From Delhi I'll go west, out across to Rajasthan, then scoot around down south to Tamil Nadu. I always wanted to check out Mumbai, for some reason, try out the real pao bhaji. After that I think I'll come back up to Delhi, rest for a while, maybe do a two-day trip over to the Taj for sunset. Aruna Masi says she'll drive with me if I can wait until Chingoo's exams are over. Then I think I'll hit a trail up north -- would love to catch a toy train somewhere around Shimla. A couple I met on the plane from London had gotten me curious about Himachal Pradesh. It sounded fun.
Excuse me? That is ticket clerk.
No sorry, I mean, I mean... I'll go to... what's that? Does it leave tomorrow? Yeah, I just want to go somewhere in Rajasthan. Yeah, that's fine.
He gave me a funny look.
Oh boy, I thought. Here we go again.
The blurred lines of people in motion. Buses, buffaloes, the jangle of bells and clink of jewellery against glass, horns beeping at every corner and glints of sun caught off reflected side-mirrors in your eye. Peanuts for sale there, and here's corn on the cob. A girl of five or six wears a tattered orange lenga, comes up at a stoplight with open hands and a face that knows too early life is not a bowl of cherries. I'd been in Connaught Place all morning meeting her sisters, wandering through the bookshops for paperbacks for the road. Crime and Punishment is in my daypack and I'm on my way back home.
Yes, I know it is going to take some time here. I guess I was a little overconfident. I'd just got into Indira Gandhi International Airport straight out of a two-week hop through England. I thought I was used to the idea of being a stranger. And yet in India I am only a half-stranger.
Juxtaposed in the land of my parents' origin is my Midwest American accent. Crazy, really. Every time I open my mouth, I seem to baffle those who assume from my name and features I am theirs.
So here I am.
Where have I wandered that I felt so strange? (Read: What the hell am I doing here?)
Tonight, my candle snuffs out as the last trails of agarbatti wash above my writing desk. I close my eyes and try to catch some z's, but think of Mom and Dad back home, who are probably worried sick. In my heart I know they can't help it -- I am their one and only daughter. And if I've learned anything so far, I know that in India, they say a child is a gift from God.
I am alone, single, young, and travelling through India. Tomorrow, I leave for Udaipur, the Lake City of Rajasthan...
Dipika Kohli, to fast-forward a bit, survived her trip.
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