An ongoing and occasional series on a 3-month trip I took to India in 1982. I was 25, and traveled by train across the country alone, writing an article on the then-unknown Indian film industry and combating the anxieties of youth and solo travel. Often includes references to what I wore. I kept journals, and abstract them in these page. You can find the previous posts here, and a Google map of the trip, here.
When I was young, we used the idea of “Calcutta” as an archetype for any poverty. But in April of 1982, after weeks traveling the rest of India, Calcutta itself felt like recognizable civilization. Bookstores everywhere. People impassioned about the tradition of Bengali poetry and film. And despite the city’s physical decay, entrepreneurs all around.
I also took care of a few tasks that cities permit, taking tuk-tuks and bicycle rickshaws around looking for English-language books,
and visiting the post office.
This man made a living by mailing other people’s stuff. For the illiterate, he wrote addresses. For the busy, he navigated post office bureaucracy and delays. I asked him to post a bottle of Ayurvedic massage oil to a friend in New York. She told me later it arrived, smashed to bits. I couldn’t explain to her why that was really OK. My explanation would have been too bound up in the man’s skin condition, his slicked back hair and black umbrella. I would have needed economic theory to explain cost of labor, delays of clerks, and the optimism of small businesses everywhere.
Then things got very blue.
I took an airplane to the Andaman Nicobar Islands. We landed on a strip in the middle of a prickly field.
I wasn’t supposed to take pictures, the soldiers told me, all uniformed as they were.
I had reservations at the only Western hotel on the island. A Sheraton, if I remember, still under construction. On the edge of a very blue sea.
The rooms were little cabins, each with their own entry to the tropical out of doors. I ate in the large, palm-frond covered, open air restaurant. The only other people at the hotel were Texans, there to map the bottom of the Indian Ocean in the developed world’s undying search for oil. But they left me alone, their collegial endeavor more compelling than one traveling girl.
I heard them laugh, I remember the sound of clinking glasses. I wrote,
I have been very glad to spend these four days on the island. Not to move more than a few feet in the morning, from bed to table to deck chair. This hotel room is beautiful, wood floors, handmade bedspreads, and fresh flowers every morning. Why do I feel so small?
Looking back, I see that this stay was my vacation from the India trip, and I wanted it to resemble vacations in developed nations. The sound of jackhammers, from the ongoing construction, began to drive me nuts. I went to the hotel desk, and asked, “Can someone tell me where to find quiet?” Someone could. They assigned a staffer, Matthew. He took me down to the dock, where we got into a little motor boat. Over the blue sea we went to the next island.
It was empty.
I mean, empty. The island had been a pineapple plantation for years. Was now reverting to itself. We walked on wheel tracks. The luxury of beaches is as much about what isn’t there as what is.
I sat on a rock for a while, Matthew under the trees. I swam. We didn’t talk. The horizon had returned and I could see things from a distance. It’s much better to feel small under a big sky than surrounded by people you don’t know and a civilization you don’t understand. Quiet is far less isolating when there’s no one you need to talk to, but someone’s there just in case.
I was beginning to understand not only India, but my own loneliness. I wrote,
I miss being loved. I want never to have to make an effort again or try or have hassles. I am worn to the breaking point from planning and arranging. I can’t schedule another thing. I just want to find someone to take me on a hike through beautiful mountains, feed me, and put me in a sleeping bag at night.
I never want to hear another regretful Indian voice tell me, “No madame, it is not possible.” When I get back to the US, I am never again going to refrain from saying, “Take care of me.” To hell with always taking the difficult way.
The hard part is to make it look easy. The best way to make it look easy is for actually to be easy. The puritan curse of believing that easy is evil, lady. Easy is smart. Lisa, from now on say to yourself twelve times a day, “Easy is smart, easy is smart, easy is smart.”
I am only now, at 54 going on 55, understanding what my 25-year old self said on a beach, in the middle of the Andaman sea, on a retired pineapple plantation. Easy doesn’t mean no work, easy means using the majority of your talents well, in the company of people who support you.
We took the boat back. On the dock a fisherman mended his nets with his toes, the sea behind, persisting in blue and calm.