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He left this morning, this oldest boy of mine. I should have been zipping him into a bright red snowsuit, kissing him on the nose, and sending him outside to play with his brothers. Instead, early in the morning, I stood in an airport, tiptoed up to kiss his bearded cheek and whispered I love you into his ear. Time really does fly.

I had him for three wonderfully ordinary weeks, full of the glory of doing nothing special. Yesterday, though, I felt the temptation to make the last day meaningful. I’ve made this mistake before.

Nothing ruins precious time more than the pressure to BE MEANINGFUL.

I’ve learned it’s better to spend the days with open hands, letting the time run freely through my fingers until there isn’t any left, and I am gentle with myself and my few tears, because I’m his mom and I love him and it’s all so very precious without me having to make it so.

 

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Today I was supposed to go shopping.

It’s my last day in India, and I had planned to spend it in the markets in Delhi. I’d thought I’d buy a cashmere shawl, maybe, or some earrings for myself, and maybe snap a few more photographs of this ridiculous, frantic city.

Instead, I am in the hotel. My son is sick, so I’m a mom instead of a tourist, and my last chance to see India before going home is a bust.

I’ve been a bit concerned about going home, to be honest. After seven weeks in India, the thought of landing back home just as the Christmas season is gearing up is daunting. I’ve been wearying myself with the thought of trying to put together a short-order Christmas in a borrowed house in a new town.

But, today, my child is sick, and I find myself immediately okay with stepping out of my India shoes and slipping on my taking-care-of-my-family ones. It’s time.

Soon, I will hug my dears and sleep in my bed and drink real coffee. I will put on some Christmas music, then, and bake pecan tarts and decorate the tree and watch corny holiday shows with my husband.

India is over, and home is calling.

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I am a middle-aged mother with a chin hair problem. Trust me, I have not been stared at while walking down the street in a long time, unless it’s because my skirt has been accidentally tucked into the back of my panties.

I have been stared at in India for thirty-something days, now. It’s because I am white, of course. I am very, very white, right down to my chin hairs, and that makes me obviously different. I also dress and talk and eat and laugh in distinctly different ways.

I am not used to being this obvious.

Here in India, in public places, people will often ask me for a photo. Momma and baby will stand beside me and I will smile with these strangers while Daddy takes the snap. (That’s what they say here. Let’s take some snaps to remember each other by.)

It’s a bit weird and uncomfortable, and I haven’t quite worked out the motivation for it. I’m guessing it’s a combination of novelty and misplaced white-person honour, but I really don’t know.

The street markets, though, are the most challenging. On a good day, I ward off the stares with nonchalance and self-confidence. On a bad day, I’m certain they are all passively annoyed at the clumsy, foreign woman who is willing to pay four times the going rate for a chocolate bar.

Occasionally, when I am feeling righteous, I think things like:

  • This must be what it’s like to have a visible disability.
  • This must be what it’s like to be an immigrant or a foreign exchange student.
  • This must be what it’s like for my really tall friend, Dawn.

In my not-so-righteous moments, which are most of my moments, I am mostly annoyed. I don’t like being stared at. I don’t like feeling like I am different. Being watched makes me feel defensive and feeling defensive makes me suspicious. I assume things about what others are thinking.

Then the t-shirt vender smiles at me and I realize I don’t have a clue. I really don’t. And I am so ridiculous.

They stare, sure. Maybe some of them have negative thoughts about me, but most of them have forgotten about me three minutes after I’ve passed by. I’m no big deal. I’m a passing curiosity at best. And, let’s face it, I’m staring at them, too.

Being stared at in India has been good for me. It still makes me uncomfortable, but uncomfortable experiences are often important, humbling, learn-something-about-yourself experiences.

So, thank you for staring, India. I hope we will be mutually respectful in our curiosity. I hope I  will be a positive example of a foreign tourist in your midst. And when I blunder, I hope you will laugh with me and forgive me my boorishness. It’s not intentional.

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India is built on levels. I am stumbling over little ledges and uneven stairs, every day. I am slow to learn that a walk across a floor or a sidewalk or a road does not assume the surface will be smooth.

After three weeks, I am more cautious. I expect a few challenges as I move about. I accept the stubbed toe with less frustration over the different-to-me architecture and remind myself to lift my feet higher or move more carefully than I do in my familiar homeland. I try to do less charging around and to be more observant. I remember that I am the visitor. And in the dark, I take the arm of my son, whose eyes are better than mine and whose steps are less practised in stubborn habit.

There is a metaphor here for the traveler, I suppose. A lesson for me, at least.

the market in Shillong

the market in Shillong

I would have missed him if Ray hadn’t stopped and pointed him out.

“How would you like to make your living like that?” he says.

I look down and see him, sitting in a little window-like depression in the wall, half-buried below the road, his knees up under his chin and his head tilted forward. A folded up man; he could have fit into my suitcase. On the ground in front of him are locks and keys, his wares for sale.

My hand finds my phone in my pocket, but I can’t bring myself to pull it out and take a photo. I feel every inch of my white skin, standing there, looking down at him.

I don’t know anything about him. I don’t know the things he thinks or feels, whether he has a family, what he will eat for supper or where he will sleep. I can’t begin to understand his life.

For a half a minute, in the busy Shillong market, I look at a man in a wall like I’d look at an animal in a zoo. I can not bring myself to photograph him. I walk by and on the next block I buy a scarf. This is India.


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I have been asked to teach a class to a room full of women. I sit on a chair and smile at them, and they sit around me on chairs and wooden benches, and smile, too.

English? I say.

They look at each other and look at me and we smile at each other some more.

I am teaching a class to women in Lalmati, in the province of Assam, in India, and I do not have a translator.

I tell a small story. I act it out with flapping hands and waving arms and pointing, using all my limited acting skills, and they watch, intense and focused. I know they are not understanding but we try, together.

I pass around pictures of my family and my town. We manage to learn a little about each other, mainly the number of children we each have.

I give each woman a snowflake Christmas ornament. One woman who can speak a tiny bit of English, says, “Flower?”

“Snow,” I say, and I spend fifteen giggling minutes trying to explain snow to women who have never seen it.

Wendy and I bring out plastic beads and gold elastic, and they jump up, eager to each make a bracelet. It seems a cheap thing next to their beautiful saris, but they are excited to make and wear a pretty thing.

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I am tired, walking down the mountain at the end of the day. It seems, perhaps, a silly thing, trying to share stories with people to whom I can’t talk. I don’t know their thoughts or impressions or ideas of what we did together. I don’t quite know my own.

We sat in a circle and smiled and struggled to know each other a little and, common language or not, maybe now we do.

Guwahati, Assam from my hotel window

Guwahati, Assam from my hotel window

I haven’t been in India long enough to know much about it, other than first impressions. The things I was told are true. India is loud and the traffic is crazy and the smell is a hot, aromatic stew of spicy food, rotting garbage, and sweating bodies.

It is festival time here in Guwahati, in the province of Assam. India is celebrating Durga Puja, and in the evenings the streets are flowing with people. They trek from temple to temple, accompanied by horns and whistles and noise-makers of all sorts. It’s a headache-making kind of noise, like a junior high school orchestra warming up.

I won’t presume to know anything about anything. I can simply accept the experience as it unfolds. I think I am falling in love with India, but we are at the very beginning of this relationship, and new relationships are always exciting and full of unknown promise and uncertainty.

Mountain view from the classroom window at Bread of Life School

Mountain view from the classroom window at Bread of Life School

Yesterday, my friends and I were the only white people walking along the market street, and people took pictures of us. Today, we drove a ridiculous mountain road to Bread of Life School, where we laughed with children and ate rice with our fingers and watched a brown monkey scamper across a rooftop. The boys climbed to the top of a mountain with a new friend, and I hugged a dozen beautiful, gracious women.

India is a colourful first date right now. I suppose we might disappoint each other at some point, but like any new relationship these beginning days are meant to be exciting and intoxicating, and so they are.

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