Longtime townie Jeff Brunell finally returned to school just before turning thirty. He’s in southern India, completing his graduate field work and taking stock. These are his findings. To see the entire series start here.
Journal Entry Number 1
Waking up: my room at home looking like a dirty hostel, just the basic furniture and tumbleweed receipts across the floor. Not much sleep – the Christmas Eve, or incarceration, anxiety. Saying that I prefer See you later to Goodbye, particularly when it’s goodbye.
Coffee: no sense today in taking twice as long to reach the better stuff. I’m going where there may be no coffee, or inaccessible coffee, or bad coffee. I walk to the 711.
I find unusual warmth inside, doors held, the way that home shines brighter whenever I’ve decided to skip town. Absentmindedly checking the USA Today; sobering to think that I’ll miss all the U.S. sporting news.
Great Northern makes breakfast for my last day, but I’ve already left too little time and rush through it. I take my last cavalier shower, guzzling tap water and letting it climb into my eyes. I return, and Northern eats at my desk while I sweep. I want to seal the room as well as I can for Zie’s arrival; she’s taking over this space next month, when she returns from having spent two years overseas.
Sweeping and making the bed, I’m wearing only my towel, because I don’t want to sweat through the travel clothes I’ll be stuck inside for the 30 hours ahead. And I am sweating, because I’m nervous, and because I’m sweeping vigorously, urgently, and running down to the basement every few minutes. I got caught in the rain last night, and my shoes keep bouncing open the dryer door and stopping its cycle.
Soon: I’m out of time, the shoes are as dry as they’re going to be, and I’ve forgotten whatever I’ve forgotten. Seeing the room as a hostel room, as my stranger-self, entering: This hostel looks reasonably clean, though that wind-shattered pane on the door (shit- I never fixed it) is plainly dubious.
I’m leaving my mosaic lamp stuffed with Christmas lights; a friend’s graffiti canvas; my parents’ ivy plant, which I’ve nursed maniacally for the eight years since they left Maryland; nearly 30 well-conceived Chinese food fortunes taped to the door jamb.
Loving texts and calls are coming in from all corners of my life. It’s the same sensation of abundant goodness that I was surprised to meet in the 711. There’s even relative equanimity when I think about Celly, and her maybe-fiance, and how decisively lives may change over the course of any given six months.
What remains unchanged: the truck stop near my parents old house, where too many of my friends and I mutated from teenagers into thirty year-olds with teenage lives. Major Dee drives up into the city, saving me a tense day of shuttle-to-train-to-metro-to-shuttle, and then backtracks toward Dulles. We stop off at the trucker restaurant and find Doc and five year old Jamie outside.
Doc is going to launch his magazine and I’m going to write from India. Major Dee says that he likes thirty; that some long-overdue composure is finally arriving. I’m thinking: Whether or not we have any gusto left for it to serve.
Jamie is playing with Legos throughout our hurried meal, and he’s imaginative, almost totally self-contained while we talk. This kid, when they first found out he was coming, I thought: don’t do it, and actually winced at their humane decision to move forward; in the service, I thought then, of an abstraction. Now: he is at least as real as we are, and we’re heading for the horizon.
Major Dee speeds to the DC Beltway and we wax philosophical. He says, my six months away provide him with a good mile-marker, and he wants a lot of things different in his world by the time I return. I say that I find relief to the degree that I forgo the direct pursuit of happiness and let it show up as a happy ancillary, if it so chooses. And I bastardize a proverb I heard years ago: chasing multiple rabbits means catching none. As in, I think I’ve finally realized what a lot of people seem to understand innately: one imperfect decision at a time is superior to scattershot, no matter its potentials.
He drops me at Dulles.
I get my boarding pass. I tell Facebook that I’m turning off my phone for the foreseeable future, and I text Celly with my email, in case she can’t just swing through. I see Michele, and we go through security together.
We reach our gate, and still no Lena. Her texts broke off two hours earlier, when I thought she was leaving for the airport. The plane starts to board. Lena planned the whole trip through Mumbai and down the coast, so it seems unlikely that she’d had any difficulty reaching Dulles.
First class starts to board.
She appears in the terminal distance! Composed and deadpan, she tells us that she was detained by TSA after they found a collapsible baton she’d intended to check. I think that we all feel both relief and a little misgiving. Because the TSA guy asked her, “You’re going to get another baton when you get there, right?”
My seatmate is returning to her home in Bristol, UK after a year at an ashram in rural Virginia. She says that I don’t have the American accent- that I sound South African. Before the ashram, Ramona was a social worker and midwife, but elected to “take some time for life.” Her children are travelers themselves, and she says that she could really be anywhere. It’s her daughter’s pregnancy pulling her back to the UK.
She says that the center in Virginia offers month-long intensive classes and lodging in trade for work. And now, this feels more like something I might actually pursue than it ever would have during the years when I was always telling myself Now or never about that sort of option.
I think that we’re both concerned we’ll pester the other, so we watch movies on Virgin Atlantic’s magical headrests. I watch This is 40, and it makes me cry.
Sometime later: I realize that it’s midnight, we’re way out over the Atlantic, and I get more sentimental still. Crossing the ocean for the first time, years after effectively giving up on old dreams of traveling, I’m awed that I’m having this experience; feeling like life is just beginning, like I’m finally allowed to take this trip alone. I get really weepy, and say a clumsy kind of prayer in thanks that this is happening. Looking out at the stars way above the black clouds, north Atlantic, I’m terrified and humbled at how much heartier, bolder were my forbearers to take this trip, in reverse, by slow boat.
My reverie bleeds back into the carnival of Richard Branson’s rockstar airline.
Virgin Atlantic: I get a New Jersey’s kid’s kick at the subtle British manner, even when it condescends to me. And such pillows and blankets! Each flight provides two square meals, with coffee, and near-constant rotation of tea, juice, and water pitchers. They have a free selection of films, albums, and games, though few of interest to one who slept through the last decade in media. The bathroom forbids smoking, but provides an ashtray just in case.
Descending toward London, I listen to a hits album from Antony and the Johnsons on which they’re backed by a Danish orchestra. For all of the arresting vocals, I key into a track where the singer just speaks. They used the term “unbaptism,” and continue, saying that transgender folk have native religion- witchcraft- because no other faith will take them in, and describe a political climate too often more concerned with the private matters of individuals than with rainforest devastation. The stage banter ends with the assertion, breezily delivered and dead serious, that only a feminization of our politics will save the world.
At Heathrow, I email my parents that we’re halfway and safe. I do my exercise routines, broadcasting my poor form to the haggard sales travelers and the poor woman with the chronic cough. I withdraw money for the week ahead.
On our second leg, I sleep for most of the nine hours. I’m seated beside Akshada, and she’s returning from her first two years’ study in computer science at R.I.T. We talk about Rochester, familiar to me because it’s where my brother and his family live. She says that she’s glad to be back somewhere that builds more than three stories up.
For our time in Mumbai, she recommends: Shivsagar restaurant; Rema Krishna (Andheri West); Juhu Beach; Bandstand (Bandra West); Nariman Point (Churchgate); Taj Hotel; Leopold’s Café; Linking Road (Bandra West); Carter Road (Bandra West); Dadar West; (Siddhivineyak Temple); Manis crepes; Shivaji Park for food trucks.
And she notes: wild dogs chase bikes.
The approach to Mumbai is starless, and smoky wisps or black clouds spin over the obviously enormous city. Buildings of mortar and balconies crowd the streets, like I picture LA or Cochabamba, and they do go more than three floors up. Just before landing, the stewardesses walk up and down the aisles, warning us to cover our eyes, and spraying insecticide.
Disembarking, we see the ultra-modern Upper Class seating on Virgin Atlantic- glass partitions and double-spaced, diagonal seats with multiple cushions and full recline. Each has a separate footrest. Moving through the cabin, it registers for the first time that we three are the only white people getting off of this plane.
At the baggage carousel, I’m stuck that there’s no difference in this process from the one I know in the U.S., right down to the weariness I feel in waiting. I feel unconcerned, unhurried when showing my visa, and we move quickly through the customs declaration line. I have my money changed to Rupees. Maybe for tiredness, or being, in fact, overwhelmed, but we move dreamily, swiftly through the queues and out of the terminal. I come away with an impression of ease, almost like ambivalence, within what was at the same time a typical, officious airport setting.
Out on the pickup promenade, my first outdoor breath of India, and I brace for terrible, since I’ve been told to expect as much. Instead, it’s perfumed, though not heavily, and foulness only comes later; in the parking garage, where one might expect it anywhere. I’m awestruck at the lights and palms and swooping canvas canopies of the airport’s exit plaza bazaar. The driver is right in our line of sight, looking bored and holding a placard with Lena’s name. Two young men in the parking garage place our bags in the back of his van, then ask for a tip. In confusion and feeling like a gross tourist, I hand over a few coins. Lena tells me afterward that this was foolish.
Saying nearly nothing, our driver takes off through slums of Mumbai. He cruises and weaves at double the posted speed limit. Honking to pass is the practice here, and he honks to pass nearly every car on our trip downtown.
Even via the bypass road, the slums appear vast and structurally tenuous- labyrinths of mortar and tin, splashed everywhere with color and fading storefront signs, seemingly
bound together by ubiquitous blue tarps. And they are teeming with energy magnitudes greater than in anyplace I’ve seen before.
We roar up behind four boys on a single motorbike, and our driver honks and tailgates while I cringe. The boy piloting the bike guns it and loses him. We catch up at their destination, as they’re climbing off the bike, and the one on the back, who’d kept turning around anxiously, gives me a knowing grin.
We pass a pack of wild dogs atop a trash pile. Two among them fight, lazily.
We make it forty minutes across town at high speeds without once coming to a full stop- the couple of red lights that we do meet, our driver eases through. The only vehicle to slow him, briefly, is a box truck, a detailed mural on its side and its back open wide. Roughly a dozen older women in traditional dress look eerily calm, literally piled in.
Arriving at the hotel: the taxi driver wakes an older man asleep at the gated door, and he lets us in. Inside, a cool and wood paneled office, where they tell us that the air conditioned room Lena reserved is unavailable. They take our passports and information; say they’ll get us a third bed. One of the hotel attendants takes me back into the street to find food. The first choice- from appearances, an entranceway security-gated for the night- opens to reveal several young men in a tiny chrome diner, one of whom says, “Closed.”
We go a few blocks away, and my first pedestrian impression is that Mumbai scares me. Trash is all over the ground, and the 1 a.m. streets are still and nearly unlit. I see no authorities or 711s within earshot. But directly, the attendant takes me to a place where the counterman provides a clear sense of what to expect from the food and gives me a fair price. After myriad warnings, I’m concerned about my digestion but decide to take it on faith.
While my guide and I wait, some older men come in. The first shakes my hand and the next asks where I’m from. I tell him Washington, DC, which is funny, coming from Baltimore. The first says to me earnestly, “Welcome to India”. As nervous as I am, jetlagged and way outside of my little world, his sincerity is resonant and grounding.
At the hotel, we take turns showering, discuss wake-up time, and I wonder when to take my anti-Malarial medication. I do my exercises, to keep the wolves at bay, and wash the dishes. I brush my teeth, but decide to throw away the brush (I received a spare on the plane) after reflexively rinsing it in tap water. Tentatively, I approach the toilet without paper, squat atop the seat. And I remember my mother’s hilariously illustrated (to an eight year-old) copy of The Squat Position. The little book, with its appeal to colorectal health, was probably right after all.
The cold shower, nerve-wracking in my avoidance of drinking the water, is unexpectedly triumphant. The bathroom is an open marble cube, with shower head, sink, mirror, Western toilet, twin wall spigots, bucket, and drain. Before I turn off the overhead water, I look myself in the eye, in the mirror, as I cover in soap. After some uneasy hours, this act somehow restores my optimism- like, here I still am. I flip up the frosted plastic slats over the open windows. And I look out, dumbly.