I arrived in India at 2 a.m. in the midst of a storm that I'd fully expected but did my best to ignore. Warning emails had come days prior telling me that I would arrive at one of the rainiest times due to a nearby cyclone. Dark, hot, humid and silent was how Chennai received me. An empty airport where everywhere I turned I'd see a closed shop, empty counters and no hint of life. Not even the cleaning crew.
It wasn't until our herd of passengers moved into the immigration hall that we had our first hint that we'd hadn't arrived in an evacuated city. All the lanes were open and we managed to fill them all up. The group was mostly Indian, many from the United States, with some impatient Europeans and a few uncomfortable looking Americans. The lines moved painfully slow but even at the late time of night few showed outright annoyance.
I had an older couple ahead of me, easily in their 80s, and when the husband took a bathroom break I helped his wife move the heavy bags they’d carried on (I’ve no clue how because the Emirates airline has a surprisingly limiting policy on the weight of carryon bags). We struck up a conversation in broken English. She was appreciative for both the help and the chat. I learned she was coming home after visiting her son in San Francisco, a city about which she had many good things to say.
“Except the weather. A bit chilly.”
When the husband came back he started to chat as well and complained that U.S. cities don’t invest in their own development and infrastructure. I turned to look around me at the dirty hall, the paint that was equal parts scraped and faded on the walls, the no-existent decor and the entirely manual process of getting through immigration.
I am here, I thought to myself. This mix of warmth, inconvenience, friendliness, dilapidation, and irony is one I’ve never encountered so distinctly as I did during my first trip to Southern India in 2011.
I was asked days before by my husband whether I was getting excited about my trip and I explained that the feeling is was more reserved than that. I knew I would be happy being here, I knew I’d enjoy seeing old friends from my first trip and my yoga teacher, but I also knew I’d have to get through the emotional and sensory adjustment, which is no small task for me.
“It’s like jumping into a cold pool on a hot Summer day,” was my response. “You know that you will love being in that water 2 minutes after jumping in… that it’s infact precisely what you need at that moment. But you have to get past the shock of the first few seconds.”
It’s especially a shock to come into India via Emirates because their planes are, truth be told, nicer than many of the places I’ve lived in. The tiny lights on the ceilings glowing through an indigo field, looking very accurately like a night sky or a glowworm cave, the non-stop entertainment, the food (which comes with a spectacular selection and rivals much of what you get in restaurants in the U.S.), the little extras like complementary socks, sleep masks and toothbrushes, and, of course, the free flowing booze that helps take the edge off sleeping while sitting mostly upright (the seats recline more than most airlines but they don’t recline enough if you ask me).
I was trying to wean myself off coffee and alcohol before coming to India, knowing that I would likely have little to none of each, both because of the emphasis of the trip (yoga) and the relative difficulty in finding places where you can get them. But the handsome flight attendant that asked me what I’d like to drink was having none of it. When I asked for water he raised an eyebrow and said “What?! Come on!” and pulled out two small bottles of wine, one red and one white.
“Okay,” I conceded, “white please.”
“I don’t know. Which do you recommend?”
He thought about it for a moment and finally said “You should try both and tell me which one you prefer” and poured a bit of each into cups but then left me with both the bottles... enough wine to get me tipsy.
I spent most of the flight either sleeping or watching movies (“Ant Man,” which I highly recommend and “Jurassic World,” which I’d already seen but very much enjoyed). I also binge-watched the hell out of “The Following,” which my friend Sandra has been pushing me to watch for more than a year now. I loved it but have a really hard time recommending it to anyone. It is some dark shit and makes "Dexter "look like nothing.
All of that was gone now, though: the movies, the booze, the air conditioning, the pretty interior and the heightened sense of order. I was left with the barren walls of the immigration hall, the dirt on the floor and the strangely ironic conversation with the older couple.
When I got to the immigration counter the attendant tried various times to scan my passport. He was not pleased with the results.
“It is not scanning, sir.”
In any other country I might’ve been worried, but here I’d already settled in the understanding that half the time things don’t work, or at least they don’t work like they’re supposed to, and that everyone knows this and adapts. Not much is taken too seriously.
I shrugged and he proceeded to manually type in my passport number and stamped me for entry.
After getting my bags I walked into a sea of Tamil faces, dark, serious and beautiful waiting for loved ones or customers. I saw my name on a board that a tall, severe looking man was holding. I nodded his way and his face lit up with a smile. He tapped a man next to him who followed him hurriedly to meet me. The tall man worked for the guest house where I would be staying and since I would be checking in so late he’d accompanied the driver.
He grabbed one of my heavier bags and led the way to the car. The driver took the other heavy bag and a third man who came out of nowhere took my carry on. I wondered why it took three men to pick someone up from the airport. The three spoke in Tamil as they walked ahead of me, slipping into the darkness and rain amid people, cars, rickshaws and wandering cows. The smell and the noise hit me.
I know this.
When we got to the car, the third man put my carryon bag into the back of the van and immediately turned to me and put out his hand. I shook my head wondering what he meant.
And I realized he was one of the opportunistic folks who stands near the rickshaws and taxis and jumps in to “help” with baggage, looking official but really having nothing to do with the drivers. They’re like the men at street corners in Miami who would start to wash your windshield while you were stopped at a red light and then insisted on getting paid even though you’d never asked for the service.
I gave him 20 Rupees. He shook his head. “Too little, sir.” And I shrugged at him the way I did the immigration attendant. Sometimes that’s all you need to do here. This is a place where everyone knows intimately that things don’t always go as planned, that they don’t work as they’re designed to, that you have to set your expectations aside if you don’t want to be too badly disappointed. Come with this attitude and you’re right at home. Live with this attitude and the world opens up to you in ways you can’t imagine. That’s what India did for me before: it gave me a taste of life without expectations, of setting aside order and comfort to experience something else… something that can get lost or shrouded by the order and the comfort, and most of all by the expectations.
And I could feel India starting to do it again.
I’m here, I thought. And now I’m excited.