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.
What happens when you take a banjo to China, play an old African melody, and jam with a Mongolian badass? Here is the video of Reuben from Banjo Earth: China!
Reuben was recorded in Dali, China, in a one-hundred year old wooden structure. We were invited to record in this amazing place, and introduced to Gawa, the Mongolian throat singer and instrumentalist featured in the film, by some mutual wonderful friends. It was an amazing night of music, collaboration, stories, food, and fun! I hope you enjoy. Read the blog post HERE.