The doors to India were many: continual flights and airport waits, customs lines, and sleep deprivation. It took two days of travel through invisible time lines to reach the smudgy netherworld of New Delhi at 3 in the morning.
Many people were out on the streets, like it was the most natural thing to be up and about at that time of night. I figured with a population of eight and a half million, Delhi was a city that never slept.
The air was filled with a scent of burning cow dung laced with incense. As Mark, Marco and I wheeled two big carts of luggage and video equipment – 900 pounds of it – a cavalcade of cabbies and street urchins who wanted to assist with our bags accosted us.
“I help you!”
“No, I help you!”
“Thanks anyway,” we told them as we rolled the massive carts ourselves toward our waiting bus.
Two dark-eyed, dirty-faced boys began to fight each other, trying to commandeer our carts.
“No, thank you,” Mark said with a finality that scattered the boys, sending them back to the airport for other potential work.
The other members of our tour group were hauled away on a bus. A second bus for the video crew and our baggage awaited us. We stowed our belongings aboard, and then climbed on. The bus belched forward. I settled back into my seat, too tired to dwell on the honor of having an entire bus to the three of us plus the driver and his assistant.
The bus zoomed along, joining a highway with heavy traffic. Through the smeared bus windows, we saw cyclists weaving in and out of thick traffic. The handmade steel-framed bikes were a far cry from our neon hybrid-metal ones.
As we slowed to a crawl, I wondered at the practicality of driving to a hotel an hour away for two hours of sleep, after which we would turn around and then return to the airport.
My mind refused to adjust. I shut my eyes. I opened them when I heard Mark tell the driver to “Stop!”
The bus pulled to the side of a street where some sort of ceremony with lights was taking place.
“Puja,” said the driver, pulling open the door. Mark and Marco grabbed the video camera and deck, and left the bus. As tired as I knew I was, I wasn’t going to get left out of this adventure.
People with bare feet and robed women with dots on their foreheads abound. They were kneeling, chanting and worshipping icons decorated with strings of yellow lights, in an outside grotto. They took the video camera and cameramen in stride, watching all three of us with curiosity, while concentrating mainly on their ceremony.
At a certain point, the three of us westerners found ourselves surrounded by some of the more curious people, as well as passersby.
In the excitement of the moment, Mark and I gave each other a kiss on the lips.
Immediately the mood turned dark, and our “admirers” closed in.
The bus driver yanked open the door and called, “Get in! Get in!”
Once we were safely inside, he slammed the door, and we lurched away, leaving a crowd of disgruntled Indians behind.
Once we were back in the traffic flow, our driver turned to look at Mark and me. “Tabu,” he said, pointing at his lips. A simple loving kiss had almost started a riot.
Once the bus pulled to a stop in front of the Kanishka Hotel, I shouldered my back pack, which weighed in at 45 or 50 pounds, and headed for the hotel entrance.
The curb was so slim I missed it. I stumbled and fell on my face. My knees cracked against the cement. Mark came running to help me. “What happened? Be careful, honey!”
I got up as fast as I could and limped toward the hotel entrance.
“You go and get checked in to the room now,” Mark said. “Marco and I will handle the equipment.”
As I headed inside for that precious two hours of sleep, I thought to myself, “Yes, indeed, this most certainly is the land of instant karma!” And I promised to any resident spirits, I would indulge in no more public kissing on the streets of New Delhi.
Tea Time (Autumn 1993)
At 8 am, we boarded a plane to Bagdogra, gateway to northern India. From Bagdogra, where military jets scream in and out every ten minutes and your camera will be confiscated if you try to take photographs, Mark, Marco and I piled ourselves and our equipment into a jeep bound for Darjeeling, “Queen of the Hills.” At a rate of 30 mph, the top speed of these handmade jeeps, it took us three hours to reach Darjeeling.
The town sat on the crown of a mountain surrounded by tea plantations. India produces over a quarter of the world’s tea, and Darjeeling provides a quarter of the nation’s output.
How the Indians loved their tea with cream and sugar, and how that sweet habit would grow on me. I would become addicted to the moment when a server would set that delicate bone china cup and saucer down before me, and my tongue would salivate for that first draught.
Perhaps it was the strange marriage of the English and the Indian, west and east, back when the English, our former foes, too, had infiltrated this country and taught the natives some manners, including tea time and the cream-and-sugar-in-the-tea thing. Darjeeling tea was known as the “champagne of the East.”
We arrived at the Chancellor Hotel in time for dinner. We had as much curry, rice and dahl (lentil soup) as we could eat, down in the hotel dining room. The place was owned by a boisterous German man who provided hearty loaves of bread with real butter, and beers to go with the meal.
Mark, Marco and I were here to document the Fourth annual Mt. Everest 100-Mile Run and first-ever Mountain Bike Rally. There were more runners than mountain bikers, probably 50 to 7.
“Did you see the banner slung across the road as we drove up?” Mark chuckled. “Welcome American TV Crew. I think that was meant for us.”
“That’s pretty wild,” Marco said, helping himself to more bread and meat. Marco was an ace cameraman who had been around the world shooting for National Geographic, ESPN, ABC and the credits go on. He came by it naturally, as his dad was Director of Photography on American Graffiti and other large projects.
Mark’s and Marco’s fathers had been friends since they were kids, so Mark and Marco were like cousins. Even though he was a high-ticket cameraman, Marco decided to join us on our “World Odyssey” for what we could afford to pay him, which was not much.
Marco is a man who flies enough to request the aisle seat at the Emergency exit for his long legs. He’s tall. Here in India, Marco emphasized the Disneyland “Small, Small World” qualities of India. He had to bend to pass through many of the doorways, and tonight would mark the beginning of a series of beds too short for all of him.
“Hey, I’m gonna get a shower,” Marco announced, shoving his plate away, then standing up.
“Come by our room later,” Mark said, “So we can charge up the batteries.”
Electricity in India is not the given it is in the United States. The shower idea was ill-fated since we rudely discovered that the water heater was on only in the early mornings. Rather than bathe under a flow of ice, we all decided to go to bed covered in road dust.
Mark rose a few times during the night checking on his batteries. The electricity seemed slow and sputtery, the charging process eked on. It sure wasn’t Kansas or any other place on Earth I had ever been.
The next day, we learned that just because the water heater allegedly comes on in the morning, that didn’t mean it would stay on. Mark showered first, luxuriating under a thin stream of tepid water.
“Uh oh,” he said.
“Water’s already getting cold.”
“Uh oh.” Cold showers are best in places like Tahiti or the Bahamas, not in the shadow of the Himalayas in October.
“I’ll save you some hot water in this bucket,” Mark said.
I had wondered what the bucket was for as I’d stubbed my toe on it during a night foray to the toilet. It was all making sense now.
The dribble of water turned cold fast so I washed my hair in the bucket with my lips held tight against the entry of even one drop of water which could end up killing me. Many people had warned us about drinking the water in India.
“We’ll let the batteries charge up today,” Mark announced, “and use this as a location scout/sightseeing day. We’ll take the bikes.”
“Sounds good to me.” I wasn’t ready to get to work yet. I’d just been sitting on various forms of transportation for the last two days. It would be nice to get a little exercise.
After a breakfast of runny oatmeal, jam, toast and tea, we three wheeled our bikes out into the narrow cobblestone streets, and began riding down towards the city center.
Darjeeling with its crisp mountain air and winding roads, was a perfect mountain-biking location. We did not see the number of bicycles we had seen on the flatter grounds of Delhi. Perhaps the Indians thought bikes were not meant for the hills!
Soon we came upon a market, with stalls from which people sold their wares: clothing, textiles, jewelry, brass, art, Chicklets, anything, everything. This aisle of stalls led to a town square where people began to gather and surround us as we rested on our bikes.
Two of the bikes were painted gold. I think the Indians thought they really were made of gold. The crowd drew close, to touch the bikes. Kids with snot ballooning out of their nostrils kept touching my bell, to make it ring. Some people touched us, too, maybe because they had never seen white people before… Or maybe because we looked like aliens in our bike Lycra.
Mark jumped on his bike and began hopping it, a la Ot Pi, at the time, the world’s best bicycle Trials athlete. The crowd opened a circle of room for Mark to perform his stunts, which, crude by performance standards, were wowing the Indians.
Some people threw rupees in appreciation. When Mark had sufficiently impressed the crowd, and exhausted his bag of tricks, Marco and I got on our bikes, and the three of us rode away, leaving an audience as mesmerized as if they had been snake-charmed.
When we returned to the hotel for lunch, the batteries were finally charged. We decided to go out with the equipment that afternoon to the local monastery.
As the Great American Video Crew with support from the Indian government for our “World Odyssey” project, we had a jeep with driver at our disposal.
The Buddhist monks did not seem surprised to see us. Their monastery was set like a jewel in a mountain south of Darjeeling and was probably included in the itinerary of every visitor to these parts.
We took our shoes off before treading inside the main temple. Huge statues of Vishnu and Krishna stood in the altar area. The place was a riot of bright colors, a color photographer’s dream. One of the monks took us on a guided tour showing us a giant prayer wheel, and more icons.
He took Mark and Marco, with the camera equipment, into a room where I was not allowed to go, since I was a woman. I chuckled to myself thinking I would be seeing the video footage of the room soon enough. The monk obviously did not have a clue about the capabilities of video.
What would later be revealed to my womanly eyes was an old monk painting erotic art on the walls of that off-limits room. As gorgeous as it was, in deference to the monks, we never used any of that footage in the “World Odyssey” video.
It takes a few days to get from here to there to here. It took a little while to realize we really were in India, where electricity, hot water and mountain bikes were miracles. Where health was a commodity to be strictly protected. Where people with nothing could be happy.
To Be Continued…
Patty’s chronicle comes from the creation of the “World Odyssey” DVD available here: