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Before the Flower Shops Open
April 21, 2017
So…Jet Lag takes strange forms.
Rather than collapsing with exhaustion at random intervals, I seem to have become super human and I no longer require sleep at all. After a mind-bogglingly long day in which the bizarre started to feel normal I forced myself to try to sleep at 11:30pm, and woke up every hour on the hour until finally giving up at 2:30am and wandering about my little room until one of my hosts, Shekar, stopped by with a taxi at 5:45am.
Shekar assured me that all the photographers he knew only took pictures in the early morning, as the sun was blinding by 9am. So off we went, through the busiest streets, over long bridges, through small herds of cows and around innumerable skinny dogs. At times the streets were choked with people: people sitting amidst bright mountains of fruit, people calling to each other, people on bikes and in busses and carrying cement blocks on their heads, people sitting atop busses.
Apparently this was life before the flower markets opened, and as we continued through the city the light came up, a big orange glow casting through archways and into carts. I accidentally smelled some of the flowers being strung up by a woman on the flower market alley, so I had to get more flowers in my hair today. We ended the morning by visiting the college where Shekar studied English Literature: at the American College, which, in my personal opinion, beats most every actual American college I’ve seen. The walkways between the tall brick buildings were loose sand, and the campus was bursting with bright foliage and the occasional lotus fountain. We found the Oberlin building—yep, for students of Oberlin college in good ol’ Oberlin, Ohio, where a wealthy Chinese economist once attended and whose representatives needed a sister college abroad (but given the climate of China in the 50s, decided to send reps to one little institution where this Chinese economist once donated a fair sum of money: the American College in Madurai).
In the next few hours it became clear that South Indian cuisine does not really distinguish between breakfast and dinner, at least not that I can distinguish. For breakfast a yellow curry with rice, for lunch, a similar curry with rice, for dinner…you get it. Also, I think I must be a natural at this whole, living in India thing, because second day and I’ve already been exposed to trying to eat soup with my hands, so eating rice curry dish with my fingers is no trouble at all, in fact, I think I’m over this utensil business.
This evening I visited the home of a Christian woman—it’s been decided for me that I simply must have dinner with enough people in Madurai to expose me to every religious facet of this country. I spent several hours listening to her chatter with a woman from the Centre in Tamil. Tamil is a good 30% English words so it’s not too terribly difficult to pick out the gist of conversations (especially conversations about “irregular periods,” pregnancies, and orthodontia, which was most of my evening). Speaking Tamil, however, is quite another story. My hosts truly seem disappointed by my poor Tamil skills.
By the second hour, it hit. Straight exhaustion. Only it was not tiredness like I have ever experienced before: less of an urge to lie down, more like how I imagine it would feel to be drugged. I guess that’s what you get from three hours of sleep and this much sensory stimulation—and heat. My brain suddenly began moving very slowly. The act of lifting my eyes from the table to a person’s face was a serious force of will, and if I wasn’t paying attention the room would slowly go out of focus. It was also difficult playing a third wheel in this language game, where I’d be pulled into the conversation at a moment’s notice, and catching the shift from Tamil to English in time required steady, patient focus. As kind as our hosts were, and as adorable as their three year old son, John, was, it was a long evening—who knew it is normal to eat dinner at 9pm and then continue talking for so many hours! I was already stuffed from lunch (three huge plates of curry a day is far more than I’ve ever felt socially obligated to eat, let alone on a regular basis) and the super sweet coconut noodles we had for dinner was quite a lot after a few bites. But as a guest, it would be incredibly rude to not finish with vigor; it was all I could do to package up the seconds (plus the impromptu mangoes) to take home with me.
After a photo shoot on their pink cement, rooftop balcony with John, I was in serious pain from the amount of food I had unwillingly participated in consuming, and beyond ready to go back to the guest house. The woman I had walked over with pointed to the taxi that was going to take me back, and I, feeling delirious again, climbed in.
It was the first drive I had been in alone. That was what first occurred to me. But not only that, of the dozen or so drives I have taken over two days, they had always been with the same driver, whom I now knew somewhat well, and had trusted on several occasions to keep an eye on my more expensive belongings when visiting temples and such. But this was a different taxi, with a different driver. Perhaps it was the exhaustion, but I couldn’t keep from noticing that this driver was quite large, mustached, heavy set—not to stereotype, I merely mean if you were casting for a character to kidnap young, naive, American women in the dead of night on back roads in India, he would get the part.
I tried to stay calm.
But through my heavy, tired brain I realized how trapped I was. He controlled the locks. We were the fastest moving thing on the road—even the motorbikes wouldn’t keep up with us, not that anyone was paying the slightest attention to the tinted windows. Through the honking, I doubted my voice could reach anyone.
He could do anything to me right now, I thought.
Countless rapes occurred each year, this sort of predicament was far from unheard of. Smarter, more guarded travelers than I, had been cornered and assaulted. I thought about why I didn’t go to New Delhi: “False organizations for human trafficking is an industry in India, a massive industry,” Heather had told me. And here I was. I had just climbed into it. Second day in India and I was getting into cars with unknown men who had no obligation to take me anywhere in the middle of the night, utterly alone. Slowly I pulled my backpack back over my shoulders and quietly, I unlocked the door. I knew the rough direction to the guest house. Tedious plans started sketching themselves: if he takes a left here, if he isn’t on a road I recognize in three or so streets, ok definitely if we are still driving in ten minutes I’ll run. I was hyper aware of my new MacBook Air and my Nikon camera—he had seen me carry the latter into the car. How much was I worth at this moment? That couldn’t possible come close to what he was getting paid for this ride. I had seen the lifestyles of the lowest class citizens here, and even in the relative comfort I was given on this trip…what someone might do for several thousand American dollars…I didn’t want to think.
I watched his turns with so much fear, my heart beating in my chest. I could already hear a future self saying, “This isn’t the way to my house, Sir, this isn’t—please, where are you…”
I sat there, not breathing. I actually began praying to some sort of God to please, please, let me not have just made the biggest mistake of my life, please please just get me back to the house. I cursed my poor internal mapping skills. I gave up on God and pulled out the little Nokia phone I had for calling people at the Centre, trying to look casual, hoping he would see that I could get in touch with someone if anything should happen—but the stupid thing only remembered the numbers I had already used, with currently included lines to the Centre itself, locked and empty by this time. And the emergency line…was it 112? 221? 211?
But we were on familiar roads. Yes, that was the police box, that was the yard with the chickens, this next turn should do it…
And for one last panicked second I thought he might just keep on driving as we came onto the right street, but he slowed. I was on the cement before the car was stopped. I was wishing him a good night, and I’m sure he caught some of the sincerity with which I thanked him for the ride. I fumbled with my bag praying I had put my keys somewhere accessible. The taxi had stopped in the road and was reversing, towards me, but he simply turned around, and drove off. My hands were shaking so badly, it took me almost ten minutes to undo and redo every one of the stupid locks, to get inside the gate, the front door, the second door, and my bedroom. It wasn’t until I was sitting against the wall, breathing steadily, that I realized I had left the carefully packaged noodles and mangoes in the car.