Improvisation is one of the finest skills any human can learn. It doesn’t matter whether it’s music, language, socializing, survival, problem solving, cooking. Any and all of these require a hefty dose of improvisation. Seeing what’s not working, thinking of new ways to make it work, and adapting your approach and methods. Things rarely go as planned, and the best way to salvage a great outcome from shoddy circumstances is being adept at improvising.
This is what I have basically been trying to accomplish all day as far as gaining access to the internet. Honestly, I find going days without being connected to the webs rather refreshing. I am reading more, seeing more, thinking more, scrolling less. In many ways it is an advancement in consciousness. The only problem is that my work is becoming near impossible. It’s hard to realize how much we connect and communicate with one another until it’s gone. Much like we take our fingers and toes for granted until one of them is missing. I found that out the hard way recently when I chopped off the end of one of my most used banjo fingers. Hey, I was using that!
In any case, much of my day today was spent traveling around on foot in search of a solution to my connectivity problem. The international plan I have through my American carrier is pretty much limited to text and email. The problem then, lies in the fact that all the work I did previous to landing in India was connecting with musicians and artists through Instagram. This is an amazing platform that has allowed me to reach some wonderful people right here in New Delhi before I ever even arrived. However, when the two times I opened the app, I was hit with a $25 charge each time for going over my allotted data. This made the app pretty much unusable. Thus, my meetings and communications with Delhi musicians quickly became obsolete. I had to improvise.
I found a cafe, bought a latte, and gained access to the internet for one hour. This allowed me to gather my contacts, communicate with them, and send them over to my email, which was working. Right as the hour ran out, I received a message from “The Human Library” saying that we will meet today. But before we could set a time, my internet was gone. Thus. I headed down the road for a couple of miles and found another cafe, this one called “Cafe Connect”, which sounded like just what I needed. Here I ordered a strawberry lasse, which was delicious, and finalized the plans that we had been trying to make. We would meet at the “mall”, just outside of Pizza Hut at 6pm. Improvisation at work.
On the way to the mall, a very crazy storm began to stir. I quickly noticed that storms in Delhi are a bit different. They carry with it the severity of dust and trash flying through the air at remarkable speeds. It’s almost as if everything in the city that had been swept under the rug was immediately airborne. It was quite the spectacle, but also a formidable obstacle to moving through space. In need of an improvised plan, I threw on my sunglasses, which made the dark darker, and pulled up my shirt as a scarf. As I reached the mall, I was covered in dust and who knows what else. It felt like what I could only imagine as a bad trip at Burning Man.
In 20 minutes it would all be worth it, as Alok, aka “The Human Library” came into meet me. He is a poet and photographer who I found on Instagram and we instantly hit it off. He called his Mom to cook us up a homemade dinner and invited me over to his family’s house. There I chatted in candlelight with the sweetest family you could imagine. We sat down on the floor, crosslegged, and ate some amazing chicken curry fashioned by his mother’s hand. She sang a traditional Indian song for us, we talked about life and love, and all was joyful.
Sometimes obstacles aren’t impediments in your way, but rather opportunities to enhance your skills of improvisation.
Do you ever have one of those days, one of those experiences, that afterward, you know you will never be the same again? It’s like crossing a threshold, gathering some life-altering information, seeing something that you can never erase from your mind. For me, that was today. The parts of New Delhi that I saw and experienced today will forever change the way I see and think about the world. I already know that words will be insufficient to describe what I saw and felt, but I will try nonetheless.
The day began with a venture out to find some food. I’ve been putting it off by snacking on the oatmeal that was available in the apartment. But three bowls later that had finally run it’s course, and it was time to become assimilated. I’m normally a pretty adventurous eater when traveling abroad. The Chinese and Thai street foods stands I’ve frequented have been nothing but delicious. It’s just that prior to my visit here to India, everyone has done their level best to relate all the horror stories they could muster. Tapeworm, Delhi Belly, toilet water soups, even the security guard checking my boarding pass in Atlanta gave me some dire warnings. Regardless, I have to eat, and my Banjo Earth budget doesn’t allot 5 star restaurants for every meal. So, here we go.
My first taste was a street stand just outside of a half empty mall. Inside was a KFC, but they weren’t open yet. So I just decided to jump in. I saw they were serving Naan bread with some other goodies, so I said I’ll have one of whatever that is. He fixed me up a plate, brushed off a swarm of flies, and I sat down for some vittles. The food was actually very good. A small helping of beans, naan bread, raw onions with a pepper, and some brown sauce for dipping. It was very spicy and very tasty. The main issue was keeping the flies off of me and my food. From what I’ve noticed, that is something you just get used to, and eventually stop swatting. But I’m a long way from that point.
A few guys sat around, amused at the sight of me at their street stall, and were laughing and being friendly. There are no napkins, and everyone pretty much eats with their right hand (the left is reserved for other matters of the body). So there’s this interesting mix of finger licking, clothes wiping, and shaking hands. I guess we’re all just in this together!
Happy to have some food in my belly, I finished up and went on my way to further explorations. I flagged a rickshaw, which here is a motorized open air cart/taxi, and told the driver I wanted to go to the Chattarpur subway station. After driving around a bit, and seeing some confusion on his face, we ended up at a Subway sandwich shop. I soon realized my folly. Here, it is universally known as the metro. I will not make that mistake again. Around the corner was an amazing temple complex, so I had him just drop me off there instead. inside I found some exquisite temples and statues. I wondered into one of the main domes, which was a tribute to Kali, one of the Hindu gods. Inside I was welcomed with an anointment of a red dot on my third eye, along with a string bracelet that is for “very good luck” by the residing priest. It felt as though I was baptized in the Temple of Kali. She is the goddess, toting a multitude of severed heads, who rampages through the creation mercilessly destroying evil. I guess that works out well.
After basking in the glow of my newly befriended deity, I head for the metro and find my way to Chandni Chowk, or Old Delhi. This is where things get really interesting. After navigating my way through some bazaars and tight alley markets, I find myself in one of the most beautifully chaotic scenes I’ve ever experienced. Motorcycles zooming through waves of people, horse drawn carriages carrying loads of goods, a cacophony of horns, street vendors selling everything from spices to peacock feathers, Hindi music blaring, mazes of electrical wires streaming overhead, and me. An hour walking through these streets felt like a lifetime and an instant. It was the most psychedelic experience of my life so far, and I’ve had a few. Mind melting, inspirational, confusing, discouraging, hopeful. I was transported through time into the distant past and the brave new future. This few blocks of city activity will forever change my view of life, humanity, myself. It was all I could do to wiggle out of this maze and make may way home.
For awhile after, and still now, I find myself in somewhat of a daze. Speechless, numb, like the morning after the wildest night of your life. The only thing to do upon returning home was to find the nearest bed and pass out. I needed to put my mind back together. I felt like Humpty Dumpty after his fall. I was warned that India might do this to me. I had no idea it would happen so fast and in such a beautifully chaotic fashion. I can hardly wait to go again.
The few minutes I got to spend sitting in Abu Dhabi airport people watching was amazing! The diversity of people in that airport was something I have yet to experience. People with tattoos all over their faces, muslims in full regalia, Indian clerics making their way back home, and wild-eyed travelers like myself, all together in one glitzy shopping mall. I sat down for a moment to catch my breath and wait for my gate to come up on the board, enjoying watching the humanity zoom past me. I met a couple of Indian nationals from Pennsylvania while waiting to board the flight. The first showed me how much I got ripped off my exchanging money at the airport (I got an exchange rate of 55 rupees to 1 dollar, as opposed to the google informed 65 rupees to 1 dollar). But I knew there was business in the middle there, and only exchanged $100, so not much was lost. His cousin, the more quiet one, I soon found out, was on his way to Punjab to attend his Father’s funeral. His Father had died in a car crash, and I could sense the pain in him. He had just been there two weeks ago to visit, and was on the long journey back home for the services. I really felt for him. Unexpected deaths like car crashes are so hard to come to terms with. But at least he had got see his Father alive and well two weeks ago. A small condolence in this crazy and fragile life.
Upon arriving at the Delhi airport, I went through customs, which was very easy and quick due to my electronic visa that India uses. As I walked out, there stood a man with a traditional Indian head wrap, a well manicured mustache, and a placard with my name on it. This was not due to the international popularity of Banjo Earth, but rather to the hospitality of my Indian friends who had arranged it. Alas, maybe one day. It still felt pretty cool regardless.
We got to the car, and were off. Navigating the horns, bikes, motorcycles, and cars of the Delhi streets. Traffic lanes here are much more of a suggestion rather than a law. The weaving and bobbing is definitely not for the faint of heart. I was struck by the tropical nature of the air in India. From where I had just come, I was obviously in a different world.
We got to the apartment gate around 330 am, at which time I rang the bell and the landlord came out to let me in. Apparently, he is accustomed to the comings and goings at all time of day. The apartment, generously opened to us by some friends of a friend, was spacious and beautiful. It was quite hot, however, so I really got the fans going, cranked up the wall ac, took a shower, and looked at the toilet. There was a water hose with a spray head on the side of it, and no toilet paper to be found. I quickly realized that I was not very well prepared for this moment. The first attempt at this new custom went rather disastrously, and from that point forward my strategy has been to coordinate my bathroom and shower activities. Haha! In any case, I accomplished what was necessary and settled in for some rest at what must have been around 8 am.
After a little rest, I woke up excited to explore. Without much to go on as far as maps and destinations, I just started walking outside of the neighborhood to see what I could find. It didn’t take long to realize I have never been to a place quite like this. The hutongs of Beijing and the back alleys of Bangkok were tame compared the dusty streets of New Delhi. I tried to take few turns and remember them, but my curiosity got the best of me and I was soon enough lost. But, when traveling to new and amazing places like this, getting lost is often times the best part.
The three to four hours I spent wandering around was probably the limit for my mind to take in one afternoon. The environment, the people, the smells, the heat, the cows, the dogs, the motorbikes, the horns. It was a lot. My mind was officially blown, my mouth was full of dust, I was thirsty, and I was exhilarated. This is why I travel. Earth is such an astounding place. It has so much diversity of culture and experiences. Watching how people go about life, the best they can, in the way that they know, is enlightening. You just can’t get a grasp of this reality taking a stroll down your neighborhood street in a quiet suburb of America. The world is turning. Fast. And I want to go on this ride with all of you. Hang on!
The travel was grueling, but several strokes of luck smoothed out the path. When I first arrived at the Atlanta airport, my JetBlue flight had been postponed due to weather. After watching a fight almost break out in front of me between two women, I finally got to the desk. She informed me that I would not make my next connector flight in NYC due to the delay. There was only a 45 minute window to get off my first flight and get to the next one, which was located in a completely different terminal. Feeling like the Universe was on my side, I said “let’s go for it”. Reluctantly she agreed, put me on the front of the plane to increase my chances of success, and sent me on my way.
Running from that first plane to the next one, carrying a heavy pack and an even heavier banjo case (32 lbs!), was one of the best workouts I have ever had. I felt the soreness for at least 24 hours afterward. It felt like an exercise in Navy Seal bootcamp, except not at night, in the rain, with drill sergeants yelling in my face and machine guns going off all around me. In addition, because my pack was full of weird music-making electronic devices, I got pulled aside for a special search. No problem, I told the guy. My flight leaves in fifteen minutes. Take your time!
In any case, when I finally arrived at the gate, 7 minutes before takeoff, the crew was all hovered around the computer and pointed at me excitedly as I ran to the gate. It really did feel like I had heroically just returned to base after a grueling battle. I know there were a few casualties behind though, people who were on my flight who missed this next one to Abu Dhabi.
After getting on board and putting my luggage in the overhead bin, I was rewarded with an empty row of seats. This would be a huge plus for my 13 hour journey from NYC to the United Arab Emirates. After watching the Last Jedi for the first time, enjoying a glass of red wine and a meal of chicken curry, I nestled in , stretched across 3 seats, and enjoyed some much needed sky rest.
You never really know how much you have to do leave the country, until you try to leave the country. Though you’ve been thinking about it for weeks…doing some here, doing some there…When it comes down to crunch time, the enormity of the tasks at hand seem to hit you like a landslide. That is until you make it to your gate, notice the nearest bar, and discover you have a few minutes to burn. That moment is zen bliss.
It didn’t take long into this trip to get reminded of the beauty, color, diversity, and complex nature of humanity. All it took was a journey through Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson Airport. The sheer force of the species comes flooding back as you wait in lines together, experience delays and reroutes together, solve and create problems together, and go along to your destinations together. All races, colors, religions, nationalities, personality-types. We’re all riding on this hunk of flying metal, this space bus, hurling through the atmosphere at hundreds of miles per hour, snacking on pretzels and coffee.
I met a sports ticket scalper from Brooklyn and a 1st grade teacher on her way back from Belize while at the bar waiting to board. He promised to get me the hottest deal to the games when I’m in New York, and she had to make it home tonight, shake off a long weekend in paradise, power through a morning hangover, and welcome 150 kids into class at 730 the next morning. Life is full of hustles and challenges.
A beer at the bar prior to boarding is one of the best tasting beers you can get. Sipping that IPA while knowing you are hopping on a jet and will be in another place in a couple of hours is exciting, refreshing, and delicious. The main drawback from this practice, however, is the 45 minutes (seems like 2 hours) between the time you board and the time the seatbelt light goes off, freeing you to attack the restroom with wild abandon. That extended wait is brutal torture, and provides a wonderful meditation opportunity of mind over bladder.
ATL to JFK to Abu Dhabi…Then from there on to New Delhi. It’s a 24 hour trip, plus the day you lose flying into the future. Nothing shows the folly of man made time zones quite like flying around the world. Soon the clocks fall apart, the day turns into a night into a day, the world slows down, and the only thing that exists is this moment.