It took me 36 hours, three planes, a train ride, and a taxi cab to get from Philadelphia to my apartment for the next six weeks in Kolkata, India. My checked suitcase and I made it together despite a tense 40 minute transfer window in Zurich where I was told United had pulled me off my corresponding Swiss Air flight. Thanks to the Swiss Air agent who put me back on my second plane. On a trip across three countries and four languages, surprises lurk at every turn.
The other thing that became apparent, as I dealt with authority figures in three airports, is that as a traveler I am irrevocably at the mercy of strangers all the time. This is particularly true in India where I have no local language skills. English knowledge is unpredictable, and I often need second and third parties (strangers and kind bystanders) to step in and facilitate transactions/exchanges with officials at various security points, gates and payment centers.
I realize the human condition is inherently one of being at the mercy of strangers, I just wasn’t feeling it so acutely, so personally every minute. In India, I have few communication skills and therefore no recourse — if I annoy or frustrate people and they choose not to deal with me, I could be in trouble. Of course, everyone is a professional, and they do their job (kindly), and we are in public, so there’s a measure of expected outcomes, but I’m feeling quite vulnerable. One of the reasons I feel vulnerable is that I am a tall, broad American woman. I am big by U.S. standards and I am really big and visible in India–in some ways representing all the economic advantages of my society. I’m not only visible, I am economically desirable to vendors of services. So far it seems most of public life in India– shops, street stalls, various services– is conducted by men, so I am also extra aware of my femaleness and its relative standing in the power hierarchy. I’m used to being an assertive female in the U.S.–I’m already moderating those impulses even in my severely sleep deprived haze. I’m too busy being grateful for people working with me across all my differences. On the whole, everyone is being extraordinarily kind and gentle and patient.
And then there’s the gripping experience of going through Kolkata traffic in a taxi, which even at 6am had me in deep prayer mode. The acceptable margin of space between vehicles, and between vehicles and pedestrians, is another form of unexpected, excruciating intimacy.
Today I nap, and listen to the crow outside my window knocking on the glass. He and I understand each other. (More pics to come.)