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(Co/a)mputation

I know I have been getting some quiet chastisment from everyone for not updating in a while, but I should explain that my hard drive crashed the second day I arrived here. I have been wandering around a bit lost, reading books, attempting to write out full descriptions in my journal but failing, scribbling “blog post?” next to certain incomplete phrases, for later times. I am thinking of you, just unable to type.

My laptop feels nearly like an organ. I am used to the warm drone on my legs as I sit ankle-crossed or Indian-style on my bed, writing. Peeling its slightly sticky bottom from my legs always signals the end of time spent typing a paper or an e-mail or looking at things other than the papers and e-mails I should be typing. My thoughts didn’t flow succinctly from my brain to the clunky hostel computers I have been using;  my neurons have fettered my thoughts to the synapses of my fingers and my keyboard. This organic disruption troubles me some, but I am also a fast typer and I like to watching Arrested Development online too much to give the idea much weight.

The thing is as disposable as a kidney but retains all my inherent flaws. My folder files are disorganized, my keyboard lacks two keys I never bothered to replace, and the hinge of the screen wobbles. I failed to love it in the way I fail to love everything with any working order. By all means I had this coming, but the separation disoriented me even more than expected. I have spent most of the last two weeks biking into main campus to use the phone, which allows me to interact with call center employees who are well-intentioned but unable to understand me when I say, “I don’t know the service tag. Doesn’t the thing run on fairy dust?” My abhorrent lack of knowledge about this machine that I rely on for everything isn’t new or unrealized before, but now an added level of mistranslation. In some ways my computer couldn’t have crashed in a better location. It’s a homecoming, really, as I am sure many of these parts were manufactured here. I just don’t want it to become a buriel.

In yoga I am learning about muscles I didn’t even know my body had, and when the Dell repair man came he unscrewed and etherized parts of my computer that I weren’t aware unscrewed and separated in less time than it took me to say hello to him. Within five minutes, I had a new hard drive and he was gone.

But my computer was still by all means a corpse, which is how I ended up sitting the tiny windowless room of the campus IT office all afternoon yesterday. The place had a total of three outlets and above me, a fan spun with such devotion that I feared it would unbridle itself from the ceiling at any moment. I listened as three busybodies around me chat in Hindi or maybe Telegu. Their lilt of language was wired with some generic, technical terms that I recognized by ear but were just as meaningless – ram,driver, cd.

They had given me a harsh once-over when I burst into the room asking if they could upload Windows XP to my brand new hard drive, sweating and exasperated from my bike ride there and the situation in general. But tenacity and a sheer doe-eyed look of desperation does pay off. “You will have to wait three hours” turned into “Come back in an hour” and then “we can do it now that you sat across the hall and  realized we were done eating lunch but not telling you that.”  And within the two hours comprising the uploading process, “Find internet drivers yourself” transformed into “Come back tomorrow when we have finished downloading this for you!”

So now I am sitting in the familiar position on my bed, trying to regraft this cold metal device back to my life, but something is askance. The screen resolution isn’t just so. I don’t have any music or photos identifying this hunk of wires and boards as my own web of needs.  I need to re-invent it, re-format it to the circumstances, and decide how much of my old self I am willing to include in this blank, foreign existence.

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I Hate Thursdays

So far, we have survived:

5/24 Insane cab ride to our first hotel from the airport.
5/24 Anne where is your passport?
5/26 Strange men following us in Connaught Place.
5/26 Almost getting hit by a line of motorcycles crossing the street.
5/26 Riots in neighboring Punjab state
5/27 Cycle rickshaw ride
5/28 Train debacle
5/29 Departure from the train on incorrect platform
5/31 80 mph down the GT road from Agra to Kanpur for 6 hours. No seatbelts.
6/03 Food poisoning
6/04 Terrorism

The progression would be more comical if I didn’t think our luck might run out at some point soon.

Last night, after flipping through the Hindi music video channels, we saw in big bold letter on the first news station, “US Advises Americans: Don’t Travel to India.” I felt sick to my stomach all over again.

The U.S. had issued a standard warning in the wake of certain events throughout the country on Tuesday. Civil unrest and public corruption in Punjab. A terrorist suspect had been released in Pakistan. The most nerve-wracking: Three terrorists from the LeT sect supposedly have entered the country. Not that this is really news – I imagine plenty of terrorists have been hiding away in the Northern hills and city alleys every day for decades. However, this group is the same one responsible for the 2008 attacks in Mumbai. Yesterday, one of their members was arrested in Delhi; police in Hyderabad fear a backlash of attacks throughout South India, Hyderabad especially. Tomorrow we fly to this city for a six week study abroad program.

The Indian version of CNN, too, used doomsday caps lock for every scrolling text. We watched until we couldn’t take it anymore. It was too late for decisions and phone calls, so we went to bed, exhausted from the worry and our food poisoning. Our final stop in this whole big bustling country, and terrorist target it the day of our arrival. The irony of these Thursdays makes for predictably terrible sleep patterns. If you remember, last week was the train debacle on this day.

To say, our morning was tumultuous. We made frantic phone calls to our university, our parents, the embassy, for some answers and advice. I don’t write this to scare you anymore than I am frightened myself. Generally, the situation remains stable, and our program remains helpful and concerned for us. We will go directly the university upon arrival, by their car. The university, like this one, lays on the edge of the city. We should be safe, but we are staying alert, and keeping a low profile, as instructed, as best as two white women showing their legs in this country can.

I feel miniscule and mortal. My divorce from America came abruptly in the last twelve hours. Two weeks ago my concerns were if I should take a travel pillow on an airplane for comfort en route to my destination. Now I question whether I should board one at all and if my destination is safe.

Adventure ceases to be funny mistranslations and totters on the edges of close shaves not worth the risk. During our trip, I have felt like an infiltrator rather than a participant in this alluring but inaccessible land. Now I feel as a tiny speck and a target. Every word and face shows a question mark. The sounds are new here. The smells are different. The air more humid. And now the stability that has woven these changes in a manageable and humorous pattern, unravels.

Rather than merely filling passing news reports of a suicide bombing, kidnapping here or there or whatever in the Middle East, terrorism is defining my living moments. This uncertainty is what large splotches of the world deals with on the daily basis, and I have joined it. The difference is that I can escape at any moment. I carry the agency of America in my checking account and passport, even as my national identity peels away like these everywhere temples.

These are the certain risks of traveling and realizing that the streamlines of globalization in America does not translate to the rest of the world. This is what I asked for in coming here, and what I should have considered with more gravity.

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Swimming

A small part of me is missing the ease of a Kansas summer. Like the quiver of the streets, time moves in strange lurches while traveling. Summer is predictably unplanned back home. The permutations in which we go out, sit on porches, drink beer, swim, and work changes from week to week, but the general rotation of these activities insulates the few shorts hot months with a blithe languor.

When the opportunity to swim in a sanitized pool arose, I jumped. It was a familiar throwback to this laziness, and water is a cruel mistress here. People offer and drink it in cool tin cups. Men stripped down to underwear bathe in it shamelessly in pumps sprung up near the street. But you know you have to clutch on your little plastic bottle for your dear non-dysentery life and close your mouth while showering. I was drunk just on the chance to submerge myself in an entire body of the thing.

“Will my bathing suit be alright?” I didn’t want to be inappropriate. I had brought my least favorite one, a one-piece. Dr. Harish, my CReSIS contact here, assured me this was standard wear here, too.

Dr. Harish, Anne, and I walked to the campus pool, a large outside one divided by wading and lap facilities. On the way in I bought a blue swim cap. It is standard for all women, to prevent clogged drains from the long, think Indian hair. After checking in, Anne and I went into the women’s dressing room, which was separated by a strong door, and then a curtained entryway. The men’s door barely had hinges. I put on my cap and my bathing suit. We giggled at my white alien hairless head and exited to the pool.

The pool was full. Full of women wearing swimming suits with pants. Literally suits. Essentially 1920s bathing dresses but with less frill. My bathing suit, although modestly covering the essentials and too much more by American standards, is cut high on the hips like a bikini. These jumpsuits were mostly hued black or navy. Mine is bright pink with polka-dots.

Dr. Harish joined us. “So, the left is the women’s side and the men are on the right. We typically do not cross over.” Oh. Oh. Okay.

My polka-dots and I waddled over the ladder. Acutely aware of the eyes of both genders, I wanted to hide my obvious displacement beneath the water as soon as possible. Anne hadn’t brought a swimming suit, so I was a solo missionary.

I lied back into the water warmed by the day’s heat. The public can access the pool from only 7 to 8 pm, which might be a function of school hours, and swim team practice, or a fear of contracting a darker complexion than the skin-whitening cream of the stores can cure.

Above, the spotlights replaced the setting sun. I stared up at the indigo sky. I could be anywhere in any summer. Except in the left hand corner of my gaze, a peacock’s long fermata form blazed from one tree to the next.

Some sects of Hindus gather at the Ganges, which lies tangent to this city Kanpur, every four years for a ritual washing called Kumbhmela. They believe that all the wrongs of life, no matter how distant or cumulative, will absolve with a bath in the dirty, dirty river. Thousands die each time, trading one blemish for another. Each believes he has the right to the first bath. The tension in the battles scares away even the police.

My skin, too, needed pardon from the heat. I dove down deep to the thickest water. For some seconds, I could hear nothing but the dull pulses of my slow swimming arms. In a pool of Indians, washed clean of my travels, my unjust complaints, my irrespect, I was ensconced in solitude; deaf.

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A moment of silence, please

We hired a car to take use from Agra to Kanpur, where I would be visiting the Indian Institute of Technology doing some work for CReSIS for the next week. I was excited to see the countryside. The train had come too late to the station that all we had seen during our ride were the fluorescent lights of houses and passing cities.

Except, there really is no “middle of nowhere” in India. Some is always selling something or chugging along on their bicycle, carrying impossible loads of everything. Even when cities seem kilometers apart and clearly we are speeding past farmland at 80 mph, shacks line the road. Along the way, it was obvious that the rural isolation of Kansas doesn’t translate here. And I have yet to count beyond 10 in between car horns, even in the countryside.

This part of the highway was called the Grand Trunk, or GT Road. It begins in Pakistan and extends all the way to Calcutta. The government recently renovated this road as a part of its Golden Quadrilateral initiative. Last year, I completed a semester project for my metaphor theory course on this road. Riding on the highway completely edified that all-nighter. The term “commuter village,” which Western media coined to describe mass amounts of people commuting on the highway between cities each day for better work, took a new meaning when a multiple buses crammed full of Indians careening between the roadway lines nearly hit us, or us them.

All the way, we saw women sitting side-saddle on motorcycles behind men. They steady themselves with poised, straight backs and dainty hands placed on the motor in back. They remain motionless even as their hair whips from their golden berets and their drivers weave between everyone. Farther off, in the fields, two or three figures in bright red, pink, blue, move through corn or lounge in the shade of a tree. These solid drops of beauty against the red clay brick masonries, the dull brown of the fields, and the cracked grey buildings appear unexpected but not out of place.

While in Kanpur, we took the highway again, this time on a day trip to Lucknow which is a city about 2 hours north. On our return, our driver suddenly stopped. Although the road congestion seems awful everywhere, we have only gotten stuck in an actual traffic jam one time before. Now, a train was coming.

I have never seen this place so silent. Cars idled. A few people roamed about, bored. A beggar in red tatters sat near an intersection, hand extended. When we returned to Lucknow a few days later to catch a flight, he sat in the same place deserted.

The train whizzed past in no time. The minute the tracks bars lifted, every single vehicle started honking, as if on a laugh track. Those unencumbered in the front lines honked for the sake of happiness. Those at the very back honked in frustration. All those in between honked because suddenly they couldn’t wait idle another single minute. We joined into with our own beeping refrain. We twisted into some impossible space between two large trucks, and it was off again into the loud, mad journey of India.

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The City of Love

We spent our time in Agra lounging in the shaded outdoor restaurant. We read, we walked around barefoot, and we petted the emaciated kitten who tickled our feet while eating. This is the sort of safety and relaxing we expected from our few weeks of vacation before school. We ask the manager to rent us a car or send some more mineral water up to the room, and he says slowly, “Don’t worry chicken curry,” and our request is filled.

Sounds of the city float in from the street – someone playing or singing a song, cows mooing, clamor of a cart, the generator that sits next to the street kicking in. On our last night in Agra, I was sitting in the courtyard reading in the waning light and I heard a louder commotion echoing closer. I went to investigate.

“What is that?” I asked a group of hotel employees chatting in a circle of lawn chairs.

“Wedding.”

I rushed upstairs to tell the others and grab my camera. As we are leaving, the boy who brings us water was waiting near the door.

“You must be very careful,” he warned, sternly. “The men will be much drunk and may cross over the street to greet you. Do not talk to them.” Again, the aid and protection of strangers surfaces at the most unexpectedly important times. This hotel especially has undertaken our well-being with vigor.

What approached us in the dark was like a moving vigil, but with trombones. Men marched blowing into brass instruments and holstered bass drums. Their notes blended with music emitted from speakers attached to a shiny cart leading the procession. Among the musicians others carried swinging bright lanterns, four per pole. The groom sat sternly upon a horse near the back of the train. Illuminated by the lanterns, his face remained somber among the swirl of beats and laughs and colored robes. Behind him a circular light show spun its colors, also on wheels. Truly, a wheel of fortune.

“Agra is the City of Love,” the jovial silver shop owner had said to us earlier in the day.  Our departure was full of it, both ours for the city and in this unexpected march of vows.

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