First Impressions

nathanielkiddnathanielkidd on 1222253082|%B %d

“I bet the first thing you’ll notice,” my father said, several weeks ago, “is the smell. The smell of India is like nothing else in the world.” Well, we did ultimately detect the smell. But it wasn’t the first thing that caught our attention.

The first thing we noticed was the lights. As we came into India, our plane passed through a night clear as dark crystal. Far below, we could see evidence of the world we were entering: circular clusters of light twinkling dimly against the stern blackness of the earth below, like so many miniature yellow galaxies.

They weren’t American lights. In America, our lights live on grids and shine brightly, boldly delineating the light from the darkness. Populated areas are dense, defined blocks of light, while empty space comes in vast, dark tracts. But in India, the lights are huddled in thousands of little disks scattered randomly across the landscape. This wasn’t civilization as we knew it—we were not, as they say, in Kansas anymore.

“Oh my gosh,” Sarah said, her voice tense with awe and fear and excitement. “What are we doing?” We took turns asking each other this question throughout our journey. Turns out, it’s one thing to boldly announce, “We’re just going to go, and we’ll see what happens when we get there,” and quite another to be landing in a strange, new world, knowing practically no one for thousands of miles in any direction.

I held her close. “I have no idea,” I said. “But we’re doing it together, and with God’s help.”

The second thing I noticed was the facial hair. I had never realized how out-of-fashion a good moustache is in the United States until I scanned the sea of faces in the customs queue for “Indian Passport Holders.” There were several guys with an impressive hairy caterpillar on their upper lip; several with a dark black comb, and several regal looking gentlemen with a salt-and-pepper handlebar. Full beards were also quite popular—and of course there were plenty iconic Sikhs, with impressive mane and turban. Only a few men were completely clean-shaven.

I reached up felt my own scrawny white boy beard, and I asked Sarah, “What are we doing?”

Then, of course, there was the traffic. The human traffic was dense, but manageable. (Our excursion into New York City proved to be a helpful preparation exercise.) But the street traffic was utterly insane. We were in some tight driving spots on the East Coast, but Indian traffic made that look like childsplay.

“Driving in India— very difficult” our friend told us as we pulled away from the airport. “No one will wait for you. You must make your own way. If there is road, you drive on it.”

As near as I could tell, the rules of the road were 1) drive as quickly as you can until you encounter an obstruction, and 2) use your horn as regularly as possible.

In America, you can usually tell what company a truck is driving for by looking at the back of the truck. If you use that method in India, you will discover that there are two main truck companies in this country: “Horn, Please” and “Blow Horn,” then maybe a few other smaller carriers, like “Please Blow Horn,” and “Use Horn, Please.”

“In India,” said our friend, “Your car needs good breaks, and a working horn. Don’t worry, horn is sign of respect. It says ‘Here I am: don’t hit me, and I won’t hit you.’”

Sarah and I held hands tightly in the back seat, as if alternately exclaiming “We’re in India!” and asking each other, “What are we doing here?”

When we got to the YWCA, our two porters were almost too helpful. They carried our luggage, showed us how to work the air conditioning, and the TV, and the hot water, and asked if we needed anything, and somehow they managed to do it all in about one half of one second. Fortunately, our friend was still with us, and he kept us from being entirely overwhelmed and confused.

When the porters left, our friend sat down with us and we prayed, thanking God for our safe arrival. The television, which had been swimming silently through channels in the background, suddenly decided on a program, and noise suddenly burst forth at full volume, like the voice of God. The porters had put a remote control in my hand, and I tried to discreetly turn off the set, but naturally it didn’t work. Our friend concluded his prayers for us, and then got up and turned off the television.

He bid us a good night, and we collapsed onto our beds.

The view from our window.
The view from our window.

“What’s that smell?” Sarah asked me, as we lay staring at our frantic ceiling fan.

“Which smell?” I had almost stopped noticing it. We rolled onto our sides, and looked at each other.

“You know…THE smell. The one that’s been in the air since we left the airport.”

“Ah,” said I, “I’m not sure. My first thought was gasoline, but not quite as pungent.”

Sarah looked thoughtful. “Hm. Maybe. I was thinking gunpowder. Not gunpowder, you know, but…like fireworks. Those little ones you throw at the ground, that explode with a SNAP.”

“Or maybe like bad electricity,” I joined in, “You know, like when you hold a light switch halfway between on and off, and the lights flicker, and you hear that buzzing, and the smell…”

“Maybe,” Sarah said.

We stared into each other’s eyes for several long moments.

“Well, we’re certainly in India,” I remarked.

Sure, it was stating the obvious. But as many times as we said it, or thought it, it hadn’t yet become obvious to us. You have to live something for a while, before it becomes real. I think I understand why babies cry when they enter the world.

It’s still emerging reality for us: we are in India. Certainly, we are in India.

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