Wednesday, July 13, 2005

First Impressions - the epic version

Unfriendly. Unfriendly people at the customs and immigration desks, no please-thank-you no smiles though I'm smiling like an idiot. And they treat me like one, talk to me like one till I want to tell them, Listen, you schmuck, my toe-nail has a higher IQ than you so don't you talk down to me, don't you condescend to me. But instead, I smile, answer questions-meant-to-rile succinctly and clearly, wait for my visa to be stamped and walk into the wilderness.

Alone, everything new and strange seems newer and stranger. I can't understand the announcements. There's no tonality for me to pick out, no nuance, and the words, amplified by the PA system, having a booming quality in the middle of my quiet panic. I want to turn around and go home now, but I get through Customs and to the Arrival Hall.

To find that I have to pay a whopping $3 (over 120 bucks!) for a luggage trolley - something that's absolutely free in any airport in India. Con-men, I think, forking out the money, and take my trolley to the luggage carousel with a sign for AI191 and some other flight. I watch the same luggage go round and round on the carousel and mine seems to be nowhere in sight. As I begin to panic, I notice that lots of luggage has been taken off the carousel and placed neatly to the side, so I push my trolley past all these bags, round the carousel, eyeing each one hopefully, but no, my stuff's not here either. After 15 minutes of doing this, I discover that there's another carousel, also with luggage from the same 2 flights. Is it just me, or is there something really stupid about splitting up luggage from 2 flights across 2 carousels instead of dedicating one to each flight?

I pick up my luggage and head out. Find a taxi ($42 + tolls - 1600 bucks! I could go from Delhi to Bombay for 1600 bucks!) driven by a Sudanese guy who asks me if I know where Sudan is. Of course I do, I'm not American, I think, before I remember not to generalise (generalize). As we wend our way to the hotel, we make some wrong turns, and I look for people to ask directions from. But the roads are frighteningly empty of people. Cars zoom by, windows rolled up, like through a freakish ghost town. Around me, familiar names whiz by, a landscape of malls and shops - JC Penney, Home Depot, McDonalds, Buick, Pizza Hut. Familiar yet strange.

Finally, we make it to the hotel, which has to hunt for my reservation. No, they don't have an international call facility, so I'll have to go to Wal-Mart to buy a phone card. My room is lovely, inviting, and after 24 straight hours of traveling, I'm desparate to have a bath, but even more desparate to hear a known voice, to ensure that I haven't fallen off the planet into nothingness.

Wal-Mart is a 10-minute walk away, but it takes me nearly 20, because I lose my way and there's nobody to ask. Finally, a woman smoking a cigarette outside a building seems me peering across the road, explorer-style, and asks me what I'm looking for. I'm new here, I tell her (to explain my solitary presence on the un-peopled road). Wal-Mart - can you tell me where the nearest one is? Right over there - she points across the highway. But you can't cross that. So she directs me around and I find my way there, constantly worried that I'll be arrested for jay-walking, crossing roads any-old-where, feeling like a character in a Kafka novel.

The idea of the fat American is clearer to me now. Wal-Mart has no carts smaller than me, and everyone walking out has a cart-full of stuff that they haul, waddling, to their cars. Nobody walks, everybody drives, and most people are humongous. I wonder about the direction of causality here.

Like pretty much everything else, Wal-Mart is huge. Like 4 football fields put together. I feel small, dwarfed. I want to disappear. But I take a cart and walk down aisle after aisle, searching for groceries (milk, juice, bread, cheese, vienna sausages, corned beef and a couple of micro-wave pasta dinners) and a phone card. There's a self-check-out counter, but I'm too scared to try that, so I queue up with all the others. $23 (for almost nothing). Walking back, through my disorientation I can feel the excitement of seeing firs - firs! - and little wooded areas, and all my white-christmas fantasies are awakened.

But the weather now is much like Bangalore weather - about 25 degrees C, cloudy, a little humid so that I'm sweating as I walk back with my bags.

Back to the room, a couple of quick calls home and to A later, I check the clock to find that it's already 8:30 p.m. (my watch is still on IST, a faint connection with the familiar). Dinner (bread, cheese, sausages and juice), a long hot bath to wash 24 hours' grime off me, phone call from home and quick chats with N and V, promising to meet over the weekend. Flip through channels (all universally boring) and turn out the lights on my disorientation, hoping the darkness and some sleep will bring relief.

And the disorientation is everywhere. It's not just about driving on the wrong side of the road. Everything is the opposite of what I'm used to. I had to fill up the INS form 4 times, because I'm used to the instruction being below the writing space, whereas on these forms, it's above. The lights turn on when you flip the switches upwards, not downwards. The flush handle is on the left side of the cistern. At 8:30 p.m., it's still light out, and at 9:00 p.m., it's dusk. When I wake up at 5:00, it's already light out. Where is the darkness?

I wake up early (3:00 a.m., 3:40 a.m., and so on) and eventually get out of bed at 5:30. Some unpacking and arranging of stuff, breakfast, and out at 7:30. A ride from X, who works with us, for Y and me, who are both staying at the same hotel. X drives like an Indian, changing lanes abruptly and taking U-turns where they're not allowed. We get to office - a grey stony building from the outside. Inside, work-spaces are large and big windows look out on the road and greenery. But I have no laptop yet, only a workspace, and the dis-orientation continues. X and Y log in and start up and get onto calls. I get a cup of hazelnut flavoured coffee and check my mail and log into the blog, waiting to see how events unfold.


vijaydinanathchauhan said...

welcome bebbe to the lonely land. but they are polite for sure. i don't know what lurks beneath the surface. should be interesting to know. by the way, i jaywalk to office.

progga said...

Bebbe, you need to email me your contact information.
And how far be-eth office from residence?

Anonymous said...

Oh, the orientation comes soon enough. The wide-eyed wonder will disappear, to be replaced by acceptance. Identification with, ah, that's a separate story and I think, an individual issue!!


Heh Heh said...

though you will come across the occasional jerk, its a friendly place. conversation is easy to come by. Most of all, agree with N. The identification with comes soon enough.

Itineranting said...

Derlin, NJ nos. of the ongle & ondy are yours to have ;)
Else wanna hop across and meet our friends from days of yore in NY?!

warya said...

such an interesting post. not seen america (don't want to) but am familiar with the disorientation.
waiting to read more.

yesbob said...

*sniff sob* you remind me of my first landing here, letting my watch run on IST and feeling glad for it ....

yesbob said...

and $3 is too much, atleast, the guy gives change - I always wanted to advise someone to convert some into euros ...

progga said...

Warya, I'm all better now.
The disorientation hasn't gone, but it's eased. After I survived my 1st 24 hours.
It, ondy and ongle will not remember me, best not to call and remind them!
And yesbob, What??? I just could not understand that last comment.
N, fingeek, orientation underway. More on that soon, and on any remaining disorientation. Wide-eyed wonder, however, maketh me sound like Gopal of The Inscrutable Americans fame, which I strongly object to.
Yesbob, btw, I kinda thought you were in India.
VDC, call you tomorrow.

wooster said...

before getting there, was eager to meet indian faces (for that one connection with familiar). saw some americanized indians and wished i had never met them...

progga said...

Luckily I haven't come across those types yet, Wooster. The ones I have come across have been interesting and warm and great conversation and multi-dimensional. I'm gonna keep visiting them until they throw me out!