Learning to See

INDIRA GANDHI INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT, New Delhi—So check out that dateline. That’s right. I’m at an airport. And I’m about to get on a plane. Do you know what that means?

That’s right: reboot! Truly, Nomadly, Deeply will now have a new starting point, to be revealed in a moment. But allow me a digression first.

I’ve just spent two months in India, from the cool, wet mountains of the Himalayas in the north to the sands, palm trees and tattoo parlors of Goa in the south. Along the way, I explored Delhi, Hyderabad and Mumbai. And yet, after two months, I still don’t know India at all.

Oh sure, I can spout the usual tourist bromides: the people are hospitable, beautiful temples, tasty food, perilous gastrointestinal adventures, economic growth, crushing poverty, blackouts, Bollywood, blah blah blah. Right. You know all that. I looked at a lot of things. But I didn’t ever really see the depth of India.

Part of it is my experience as a journalist. Our tribe’s instinct is to go in, get a very quick overview of a place, slop some broad-brush strokes to establish the narrative—India is a bundle of contradictions!—and then write our books that say little but lift the writer up as an authority. (Yeah, I’m looking at you, Nick Schmidle.)

But the reality is, we’re not experts. We’re not authorities. Our accounts often leave the locals befuddled. Some of this is because of the unavoidable Rashomon effect. But a lot of it, and I have to include myself here, is just being in a rush to file a story and falling prey to unconscious confirmation bias.

Mind you, I’m not saying all journalists are slap-dash hacks. Some are, sure. But the tendency to look rather than see is just an inherent and unavoidable occupational hazard. I have a feeling that deep down, every foreign correspondent feels they’re not getting the “real” story, but that they do the best they can in the face of looming deadlines.

(At this point I must give cry to the despair in my heart, because I had a lovely, 1,000-word blog post that contained the wisdom of the ages, and the damn Internet/WordPress ate it! Curse you internet gremlins! I shall endeavor to recreate said wisdom.)

In this vein, I confess I didn’t give India a chance or approach it on its own terms. And that’s not fair. India is a complicated series of interconnected cultures, societies and religious communities, and it deserves better than recounting a Bollywood club crawl or some moving encounter with a beggar child. Clichés rarely illuminate, so in the absence of being able to say anything, I often chose to say nothing.

That’s not to say India didn’t deeply affect me or change me. It did. But in a way that was more of an antidote to my years in Pakistan, for which I feel a great deal of anger. I need to let that go. As my friend Mark Dery told me recently, it’s not fair to consign an entire nation to the shit list simply because I was going through a rough patch.

So, India. Mother India was a psychic tonic of a sort, giving me a fresh view of South Asian cultures that I didn’t get a chance to experience in Pakistan. (Or, more accurately, I didn’t choose to experience. In my defense, it’s a pretty tough place for a Westerner to move around.) But like I said before, I didn’t really engage with it. I never learned to see it properly.

And this is a tough lesson to learn. Learning to see is a skill that has to be developed. It takes time, patience and perseverance. And it requires one to slow down, making profound travel a deeply ironic experience. For although “travel” seems to imply restlessness, to truly know a place, you have to linger. You have to have a place where you can set down your bag and you’ll know it will be there when you come back. For me, I need a quiet place to sleep, think, write and cook. (In the same way that you have to stop and see a place, to understand it and its people, you have to be able to cook and eat it, too!)

Which means I was doing India all wrong. I dashed around the subcontinent, always concerned with train bookings, lodgings, reservations, logistics. I worried about timetables and not spending time wisely. In the same way that I looked instead of saw, I moved instead of traveled. I ate Indian food, but I didn’t taste India.

So, getting back to the airport, it is time to move on. The challenges of leaving India via land or sea are legion. Geographically, and mentally, India is an island, surrounded by the Bay of Bengal, the Indian Ocean, and the Arabian Sea as well as mountain ranges that rise in Baluchistan and continue to become the Hindu Kush, the Pamir, Karakoram and eventually the Himalayas. The only real point of contact with the rest of Asia is the flat, fertile Punjab plains that connect India with the Indus River valley and thence, through mountain passes, to western China. Going that way would take me back through Pakistan.

As I mentioned in a previous post, Pakistan is sketchy for me, posing a unique security challenge. Plus, this is a terrible time to travel in the Land of the Pure. For one, it’s August, which means it’s hot as hell and the days are long. This brings us to Ramadan, which is observed/enforced with zealotry rarely seen outside of Saudi Arabia. Posh eateries in Islamabad are being raided for serving food during the day and authorities are muttering that even non-Muslims and foreigners are not exempt from the Islamist and coercive laws put in place by the dictator Gen. Zia-ul-Haq. Pakistan may not be able to control its territory but its cops can sure ruin your lunch.

This made the prospect of five days on a twisty, windy mountain road through—admittedly—some of the most spectacular mountain landscapes on earth a grueling ordeal. Not able to eat or drink for fear of offending my bus-mates? After the Pakistani spy agencies were sniffing around and insinuating I was a spy? That sounds like asking for it.

To top it off, there are reports that China is cracking down on Ramadan observances in Xinjiang province, home of Kashgar, which could spark communal violence and the closure of the border with Pakistan. After days on the road with no food and water, the prospect of not getting across into China was just too much to bear.

Ergo, reboot. My new destination is… wait for it… Bangkok! It has much better land and sea egress options without the security scares of Pakistan. This is the zero point, the real start. Since India felt like a bit of a prologue anyway, this feels right and proper. And the flight over—this time it really is the last one, I promise—reinforced my issues with air travel. In four hours inside a metal tube, I went from one of the most sexually uptight places in the world, India, to one that just puts it all out there. It was jarring. I can’t even call it a transition. It was like ice turning from solid to gas in one second, or falling off a cliff while trying to tie my shoes.

I’ve decided to rent a little place and put down roots for a little while. I’ll stop moving and start knowing the place. I’ll learn to cook some of the local food.

As for what’s next? Well…

We’ll see.

Image courtesy of Chris Allbritton

1 Comments on “Learning to See

  1. wow…so I take it…we probably do a lot of Thai curries and explore street foods 😉