It was night when we landed. I silently thanked the airline for safely delivering me, and I quietly thanked them for the free food and movie entertainment along the way. It was kind of them to throw these little benefits in with the price of the flight ticket, free of charge. There was also a free ride, between airport terminal entry and departure lounges, on a nice little tram during the stop over in Singapore. They don’t give you free rides in Sydney, and the conductresses don’t wear sarongs either. I should fly more often. My landing in New Delhi was even announced over the aircraft intercom. They went to special trouble to inform me that my luggage would also be departing with me, at the same time, and from the same aircraft.
But they did not announce the weather. I had arrived in Sydney from Hometown, and departed from Sydney to India, in rain and the heat of summer. This prevailing nature of the weather affectionately followed me all the way to Singapore. However, somewhere in between Singapore and New Delhi the rain and heat had departed, to be replaced by the cold and fog driving down from the high Himalaya mountains to the north. Ever keen to hone my new-found skills I meditated momentarily on the possibility that the cold air currents had found their origin up there on the slopes of Mt Everest, and given the belief by a significant portion of the Earth’s population that all things are connected, maybe I was breathing several molecules that had emanated from some of the corpses abandoned wayside along the trekking trails that led from popular base camps to the summit. After all it was Buddha himself that taught it was appropriate and instructive to contemplate the decomposition of earthly forms. This diversion aside, here and now, it was winter, and dry and dusty. No hint of rain. Here also were cars and people, lots of them, real lots. All kicking, metaphorically, about, and there was the melodious cacophony of competing hooting of traffic, each little vehicle calling affectionately to a mate or sundry member of its flock. I had experienced similar antics performed by rival clusters of seabirds jostling amongst their respective fellows in the estuary where I lived. However, whilst both the birds I had in mind, and the cars I beheld, were predominantly coloured white, the owners of the cars were less inclined to do battle. They had found some sort of civilised and agreed interaction, too easily misread as daring and courage, that generally avoided the shedding of blood or the regurgitating of freshly swallowed small fish. Terns and seagulls take note.
I was in India, and there was a particularly pleasant young man with a personalized name placard waiting for me at the arrivals gate. Saviours always have their moment, and at this moment he was mine. No longer morning or lit by the light of day we sped off through the chilly night to my 3-star hotel of over-night stay, the city haze masking all but the closest of buildings. Back home I had come to equate ‘3-star’ with something usually single storeyed of modest form, possessing functioning bar fridges, and maybe with freshly painted pastel coloured fibrous-cement walls. In the Northern Territory, my experience with ‘3-star’ too often had been a confrontation with a sweltering 3 by 3 metre box-like metal bunker called a ‘donga’; this down-market accommodation balanced by an upmarket rental fee.
Instead I was faced by a monolith to new wealth, or at least a monolith built in expectation of it. A massive, sterile ultra modern tower, all perfectly clean, and bearing no immediate relationship to the world outside. There were smiling and courteous staff everywhere. Not a hint of squalor or dysfunctional plumbing, rather, long silent halls with no item amiss. So much for preconceptions.
But I could have been anywhere, Frankfurt, New York, even back in Sydney. It was just so … universal.
It is probably appropriate that at this early point in my story that I back track, admittedly not an action one is normally so happy to undertake at any point during a road trip, beginning, middle, or towards the end. Nevertheless, that I back track in brief explanation of where I am from. My place. This might give some insight as to the true chasm I had leapt, and the comfort zone I had abandoned, even if this abandonment was only temporary.
My one consolation was that I had left a location of few people; ‘Hometown’ seems an appropriate appellation of anonymity. A small town of maybe one hundred or so of god-fearing folk, fearful of change and fearful of difference, and most defined collectively by no more than five or so surnames, this suggesting a lengthy period of historical interaction with neighbours too intimately related. A place where everyone apparently knows every detail of your life well in advance of you actually undertaking any act. A place where people attribute to you, by way of rumour, acts that you never committed nor even considered committing. And I didn’t even live in Hometown. My nearest neighbour was two kilometres away in one direction, and more than six kilometres in any other. My landscape was one of dense forest and cliff faces, my daily social interactions were largely limited to discourses with wildlife and trees that didn’t argue back. I was part-fluent in birdsong. I could drink the water that started on my property to my hearts content. I didn’t have to bother with villagers living upstream.
I had come to a land of so many people that anonymity was assured. I was going to be just another face in the crowd. And what a sizeable crowd it was. There were more than a few ‘Australias’, population size-wise, cuddling up in this subcontinent. The Indian middle class alone was reputedly 300 million in number. That’s a lot of lawnmower and washing machine owners.