No, I Didn’t Wander the Streets of Calcutta. I Survived. That’s All.

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Place: Delhi International Airport

Time: 11:30 PM (plane delayed)

Location: At the gate, sitting

Who: Me, three other Americans, and an Indian. We all happened to sit next to each other.

One of the other Americans was a theater professor at UC Riverside. The other two were a couple from…where else…San Francisco. Both had just finished their travels in India.

The professor spent 10 days in Calcutta, a week in Varanasi, and some other small villages. The San Francisco couple also spent two weeks in remote parts of India where “we didn’t see another foreigner.” They both loved their trips. They started telling stories.

“You think Delhi is intense?” the professor asked me, “You should go to Calcutta. I mean, that’s intense. There were times when, in the back alleys, I said to myself, what the fuck am I doing in Calcutta, but man, it was so worth it.” He proceeded to tell a variety of close-call stories, tender moments with local families, and ground breaking cultural experiences. Since he’s a theater guy, he over-dramatized everything and “performed” each phrase with tremendous energy (unintentionally). I tried to take notes on this conversation as it unfolded me but i was laughing too hard.

The San Francisco couple then talked about all their wild adventures, meeting Indian generals, not seeing another white person for weeks, etc. It’s their 6th time to India.

“So where did you go?” they asked. I told them I was in Mumbai and Delhi. They looked at me as if I was some kind of copout. “You should really stay out of the big cities,” she said with a “Oh how cute” smile, “the small places are much better.” So there I was, sitting in Delhi, happy that I’m even ALIVE and SANE after two weeks in this third world country, and I’m immediately out-done by the people sitting around me.

Finally the theater guy engaged the Indian sitting there quietly. The Indian, it turned out, worked for software outsourcing giant Wipro and as he described his work, the theater guy clearly didn’t understand a thing. If you don’t understand what someone is saying, there are two good paths. One is to smile and pretend to understand, the other is to ask what the person means. Never, ever, ever positively affirm a statement if you think you don’t understand.

“Companies are moving into India for their software work…” he said.

“Got it, so they’re finding other places than India to do their work,” theater guy responded genuinely.

“Investment is flowing into India AND China,” he said.

“Ok, so China is stealing the Indian investment dollars,” theater guy responds genuinely.

That’s when I started laughing. I felt bad for the Indian guy, who probably thought his English was just not good enough to communicate these basic ideas. Soon enough, the theater guy gave up trying to understand, and both he and I returned our focus to killing the mosquitos buzzing around us.

Somewhere along the way I learned the professor teaches at UC Riverside full-time but does adjunct work at Pomona College, too. I told him I’m going to Claremont McKenna. The Indian guy said, “Where?” Professor responds, “Oh wow, Claremont McKenna. There are these five colleges in LA, they’re like the Ivy league of the west coast, they’re very private schools, these small colleges. CMC is VERY conservative though. I mean way out there. So many right wing wackjobs. They are so…” At this point cut him off. I had to stop the theater professor whose carry-on reading, I noticed, was a book by Hugo Chavez. “CMC’s political balance is 50/50, for both profs and students. This makes it very conservative by higher ed standards, but balanced objectively.”

Finally, we boarded, I faced the disrepair that is an Air India airplane, and we jetted to Hong Kong on the red-eye. So long, India. More detailed reflections on all you gave me, forthcoming.

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