A long absence, busy living, watching and savoring new tastes and smells. Time here like water, flows easily and I’m finding myself at home, relaxed and in harmony with my surroundings. The last time we were in India was in 1998 and at the time the initial impact of India was strong for me, so it’s with some surprise that I have discovered this unexpected love…Yes India too has changed a lot in the last 15 years but I feel the change is also inside myself, induced by a year of travel in Africa, where my eyes have become accustomed to poverty, to seeing families sleeping on the street and living, what for us, is an inconceivable life . I am this time able to get past my discomfort and start to appreciate the dignity of this ancient culture, and explore some hidden joys of a system based (still) on different values with its own logic.
The journey here was surprisingly smooth and unstressful. The children were abnormally patient, too busy looking around to feel tired; they stayed up an entire night, only to collapse once in Mumbai. Giulio was justly impressed with the view of the clouds from 10,0000m and logically wanted to open the window to get a proper feel…Luca too mused at the vast desert below ‘the empty quarters’ contemplating our alternative route and planning future trips to Oman..Yemen…
Landing at Hyderabad airport, Luca and I look at each other in awe…are we in India?!! Last time we landed 15 years ago, there was a typically loud, confused, bustley, busy airport with taxi drivers fighting over our luggage and people everywhere….maybe it’s because its 3 in the morning, but the contrast is striking. Quiet cues of people line up in neat rows to show their passports, whilst clear glass panels with the repeated and elegant silhouette of a traditional Indian dancer leads us along immaculate corridors…. soft classical Indian sitar music played at just the right volume mixes with the almost imperceptible voices of people talking…..with the exception of course of our two excitable little Italian kids, with their powerful voices and last grams of energy. The building itself is modern with high arched ceilings and delicate eye- shaped skylights. There are ‘ecological’ water fountains with no cups or glasses to dispose of, steel and glass mix with green lush plants growing up and down walls, fed by discrete tubes….We drink an’ instant chai’ in a plastic cup and contemplate this new Indian reality.
For the first time in my life we are picked up by a driver holding a card with our name on it, courtesy of ‘Mandhana’ our saviors in Mumbai. I’m grateful not to have to look for a hotel, and am curious to see if the city outside reflects the inside of the airport….of course it’s a big Indian city, grubby, overcrowded and dusty, to my tired morning eyes. I’m not a city girl and the lack of greenery and horizons, always makes me a little uneasy, as do the people sleeping on the sidewalk and trudging through the garbage.
….A week later to my surprise I feel very at home here. After Djibouti, I suddenly feel rich again, and everything is easy. In only twelve hours we have passed from having to weigh and watch the content of our shopping cart carefully, to gaily throwing everything and anything in with nonchalance. I have a strange craving for shopping, quite contrary to my usual nature. Here everything is available in small highly specialized sectors, often with beautiful packaging at ridiculous prices. We exorcise a month of skimping buying little insignificant treats and giving way to momentary whims. I am almost happy when Giulio’s sandals break, so that I can get them stitched along the roadside…small luxuries that in Europe make no sense anymore: better to buy a new pair.
Lusira is already infatuated with India; its colors, rituals and possibilities. A country where everyone dresses like princesses and has intriguing jewelry, where people make garlands of sweet smelling flowers to adorn colorful gods in the nooks and crannies of ancient trees along the road, where English books telling exotic stories cost less than a bottle of water…..and where she too can finally possess her own ‘princess’ outfit. We buy her a traditional mirrored Rajasthan skirt and top and some metal bangles. She wanders around the apartment in full glory moving her hands delicately like an Indian dancer, proud to show her belly button ‘like the Indians’. She eats rice skillfully with her hands and later, to my joy, I find her and Giulio nude in the bathroom washing all their clothes. The Cinderella story has truly stuck in her head…she tells me “….yes mummy, I must work all day because I’m a princess and then at night I’ll go dancing”. Her movements are already expert and I can’t help wondering if the quarter of Pakistani blood running through her veins has found expression in this corner of the world.
I’m too am going to enjoy myself in this country…It’s of course not only the shopping but a strange feeling of integration , my face somehow fits in and I feel at home .Here I don’t feel judged and self-conscious, no one seems to be measuring me up…Am I friend or foe? No one is surprised when I speak to them out of the blue. If I’m wondering over a menu or trying to decide whether the pink liquid in front of me is for dipping my food in or for drinking, someone politely points me in the right direction….I’m not too rich, I’m not too poor, I’m not too thin I’m not too fat, I’m not too black I’m not too white (of course I probably am..but that’s what it feels like) I enjoy taking my shoes off when I take my kids to the pediatrician, I enjoy being advised by an old gentleman on which is the best hair oil, I enjoy washing my feet and hands regularly and sipping chai with a little mouse hiding under the sink. I especially like the cheap taxis run on methane gas that make visiting an unfamiliar sprawling city with small kids easy, comfortable and even enjoyable. All I need is an address to get back too and I can lose myself until the next empty taxi.
After a hard week of burocracy (one of the things I definitely don’t enjoy here) we finally drive our dusty truck out of customs, the port and into Indian traffic at rush hour. We don’t have far to go, as Mandhana kindly offers us a parking possibility outside their ware house. It is also an opportunity of visiting one of their production lines. Prasad tells us of a traditional but modern clothing company, where a loom works beside the latest in computerized stitching technology, and where the silent hand stitching room for prototypes is kept jealously apart from the busy factory floor. A life size print of my nephew Ben watches over the work floor. He came a few years ago to visit India and did a little modeling for Mandhana. The hint of Asian features in his otherwise more European face fits with the modern…. I gaze up at him and mentally say hello…somehow even our visit here seems to ring with a certain harmony. East, west…west, east. Circles within circles.
After a few days of making our truck fully operational again, we say goodbye to the city and to Mrs.Karleni, Raul and other members of the Mandhana staff that we got to know. We turn on the engine and head south…I’m happy to be back on the road and full of enthusiasm. It is much easier to find quiet spots to spend the night than we imagined, and the first white beach we visit is deserted , with just the local school children visiting during lunch hour to do 100m races and to fuss over Giulio and Lusira…….next stop Goa.
Goa, for a long time destination for ‘hippies’ and ravers, now still one of the most popular seaside vacation destinations in India. We came here because it was close to Mumbai and we had another friendly contact where we could base ourselves, get out of the city and relax a little. The most positive side of our Goan experience is definitely the people we met and friendships clenched. Peter Kabir, opened his house and heart to us and offered us his non- beachy haven away from the hustle and bustle in a little village near Mapusa….The Goan’ scene has changed its face but still attracts a variety of beach bums…and bums is the right word. Somehow the male g’ string is still in fashion here and large, white (and often shrively) bums can be admired alongside local ladies selling coconuts, fresh fruit and jewelery. The delicate classical Indian music in Hyderabad airport seems like a dream, as the tufftufftuff of the base rings load and far along the coast. There has been a huge rise in Russian tourism, and the locals have learnt the essential words to sell their goods. …O.K. lets be fair…Goa is just not my scene but does seem to satisfy a lot of people’s needs to relax and chill out….The Portuguese style houses buried in the thick tropical vegetation and Mapusa daily market did win me over in the end, as did our little family expeditions ‘Indian’ style on Peters’ moped. There is definitely a special undefinable relaxed quality to life here, but it is one that I feel can be enjoyed more by the sedentary population. After months of travel in Africa there is a distinct European feeling to everything, and I am anxious to head north to Rajasthan.
I’ve taken so long to update the blog this time that I take the opportunity to wish you all a MERRY CHRISTMAS….we came to Goa, the only Christian region of India, to make it easier for Father Christmas to find our anxious children….Its finally cooling down in the night here and Giulio and Lusira are convinced that it’s because it’s going to snow soon….with 2012 around the corner, never say never!!