In India for work, at yet another group lunch, a woman I’ve just met asks me and a colleague to describe our most significant takeaway from the trip.
I’m supposed to say something about work.
My colleague responds. She’s saying something, the thing, the work thing, the thing I’ve more or less heard in one iteration or another or another by all the American colleagues in all the 15 days. But I’m not hearing her.
It’s day 15 of 17, and I’m fuzzy and hazy and buzzy and woozy, and I’m done pretending not to be me.
My colleague has wrapped up her point. It’s my turn.
Each day on the way to our meetings, I stare out the window and I watch the cars, the motorcycles and rickshaws, the autorickshaws, the bicycles and trucks–the handpainted trucks with the horn ok please and the double-decker trucks, the triple-decker trucks, the bicycles with the goods, the vegetable carts, the people walking in between the vehicles, the cows. And I watch it work. Sway. Shift. Move in this intuitive way that mesmerizes me.
The way all of the vehicles interact with each other, is what I say.
My colleague is looking at me like I’ve been looked at all week. But the woman, the new woman, she’s listening. She’s interested. She’s also wearing the most fabulous bright pink dress and hair wrap, and I want to escape the group and go buy a dress just like hers and pet a three-legged rescue dog in an open field myself.
After 17 long days with a group of colleagues from the US, finally, a moment of connection.
While everyone has been chatting up each other on the bus, I’ve been staring out the window watching the traffic. Just as I did in high school when we visited the Cloisters in Manhattan in a yellow school bus. The mean girls were being mean, the gossipers were gossiping, and I was alone, mesmerized, staring out the window deciding I’d move here, just here, the Cloisters, after graduation.
It’s hard not to be distracted by the group dynamic.
In my mind, these folks, most late middle-agers, have seemingly reverted to their roles–or perhaps what they fantasize their roles could have been–in high school. The homecoming king, his side-kick, the teacher’s pet, the gunner who sits in the front row, the buddy-buddies, and the mean girl, of course. The one who moves her seat on the plane when she sees that I will be sitting next to her. (This actually happens.)
I revert to my role, too: the loner.
The week before I left, I was not sane. As I understand it now, I was grieving the end of isolation. Rather than the occasional flashback of a simple joy–saving a fuzzy caterpillar on the trail, eating dinner in the grocery store parking lot with N95s hanging from our arms, dancing in mud, throwing snowballs in an untouched field–these memories flooded me persistently for nearly 50-60 percent of every waking hour for a week. They caused physical pain as they swirled their way around my consciousness, torturing me with happiness. I am a loner. And I didn’t want it to end.
A trip to India is a most intense way to punctuate the pandemic. Exclamation point.
My whole life I dreamed of going to India–and being awarded this grant. I tried three times until I was accepted in late 2019. In March 2020, I was scheduled to leave just a few days before NYC locked down. What if they didn’t cancel? It was a quandary: my career or my life?
But they did. And each year the trip would be postponed one more year. I’d sit in my work chair from Staples in my bedroom teaching classes on my laptop and from time to time remember the prospect of the trip. A real-world experience that seemed from a different realm.
And then here it was. The ticket was purchased, and I am buying rupees in New Jersey while momentarily suffocating from a memory attack of the sweetest, simplest time when the sun was setting and the three of us were on the bed playing a board game after a failed BBQ attempt. I was winning. Izzy was purring. We don’t have enough space anywhere else in the little apartment to play.
And here I am staring out the bus window watching all of these vehicles interact in the most beautiful, stunning even, patterns of movement. The group participants are being normal doing normal talking, and I am alone with the traffic.
I see my new friend at a party one evening at the end of the trip. I tell her I’ve gone shopping and bought a new dress inspired by her pink one. When I say where I found it, she tells me it’s the same shop where she bought hers.
I am unable to ease into home.
Izzy momentarily doesn’t remember me. I rush to wash all of my clothes and put everything away as if I’ve never traveled. Not that I don’t want to have gone, but I don’t want the transition. I want to be home, permanently. I want the suitcase to be back in the closet. With stuff on top of it. Hard to get to for next time.
The memories are back. They flood me. It takes nearly two weeks to become normal again. Work. Function. Reenter a life that’s back to the way it used to be. Complex. Choices. Decisions. Options. Thousands of them.
And then, just like that, it ends. This spell I’ve been under. The memories are still sweet, but they no longer suffocate. I smile at their thought, but I no longer long.
Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed this post, you might like this one on Glencolumbkille.
Waiting that long for the trip – that’s patience. Glad you got to finally experience it. I’ve heard about India’s traffic, but never described as eloquently as you just did.
Thank you so much for reading and for this lovely comment. Yes, it was an emotional wait.
I miss blogging. I need to set up a routine so I’m back in it. Hope you are well and thanks again. 🙂
Before I forget, I love the B&W photo at the end. And the pink dress! But what an interesting piece of writing, loved reading it! I know exactly what you mean: I always revert back to the loner’s part, too. And it seems so unreal, the others’ behaviour, making me feel even more like I’m from a different planet. I too am the person who would notice the living traffic wave pulse with life.
Thank you for reading and for this wonderful comment. I am so grateful. And that’s exactly it — exactly how I felt — like I’m from a different planet. Hope we cross paths in our travels some day! Thanks again 🙂
It was my pleasure!
This is such a beautiful post. I read it the day you posted it when it arrived in my e-mail inbox, but I am late to commenting. I find when I am in large group settings for work I am out of place. I do well managing to fit in, but so often I just want to be away from these people I am only around because of proximity. I think your response was perfect, and you made a connection with this woman far beyond the depths of any work you could have done. The cherry on top was the lovely dress you got to take home with you. Thank you for sharing.
I would love to visit India one day.
Thank you so much for reading and commenting. You say it perfectly — because of proximity. That’s just what high school was like — because of the accident of our birth in a given location we are enmeshed with people without choice. It felt so good to move and select.
I’d like to go back to India in a different context. I really loved it. Maybe we could have some sort of bloggers’ meet-up — even make it an annual thing in a different place in the world every time. In the meantime, if you want to visit, our travel director was absolutely wonderful, and I would recommend his company wholeheartedly.
Blogger meet ups we’re a big thing when I first started blogging, I even made some close friends from it. I’m sad it isn’t as popular these days, but meeting in a place like India would have been amazing. Blogging is great because it does allow friendships to blossom because of choice. I find reading someone’s written words to be a great way to peek inside who they are.
I don’t see myself traveling to India anytime soon, but if I do I know who to ask! Thank you for the recommendation.
Maybe we can bring the meet-ups back!