India as full-on experience comes in extremes, spreading and splaying out with sensual overload and layers, like veils, revealing themselves in strange and exhilarating faces and forms. The cultural newness, the utter unfamiliarity with what a Western mind might call normal keeps you on your toes. Travel there is as much an encounter as an adventure. What are these people thinking? How does this place even operate? For me India’s been eye-poppin’, heart opening, stomach churning, nose wrinkling, confounding, joyous and fascinating. It’s with the latter that I’ve kept returning, not always sure why but pulled back by the utter contrasts of the land, its people, the gestalt of it like nowhere else. There’s the densely saturated colors, the silks and fabrics, finely wrought artwork, crenelated castles mounted atop rock outcroppings surrounded by endless desert……..the stuff of travel brochures, all there. There are holy sites, often located by tour buses crunched in front and surrounded by fetid pools of water where people bath, wash their clothes and brush their teeth. Spirituality is tangible, easily felt and interwoven with everyday life, nothing about it hidden. There’s a subtle, softly surprising interconnectedness between people, me included, the interpersonal boundaries Westerners take for granted utterly blown and distorted. That connectedness sometimes loud, pushy but seldom aggressive, often magical with a simple glance or smile, other times utterly maddening. One can surrender to what’s being presented or – alternately – find yourself fighting the chaos and commotion asking why can’t things just be normal when in fact they’re not. Nothing’s usual. I learned early on that when I needed things to be the way I needed them to be – which usually doesn’t happen in India – I didn’t have a very good time. When I stepped back into something like a OK, here we go sort of mind state, things turned out differently. That lesson has been ongoing. It’s one thing to drop into a state of acceptance when meditating with others in a crowded holy site, people talking, walking to and fro, brushing by. It’s another to sit for a hour or two on a train stopped in the middle of nowhere with no announcements and non-functioning AC because the electricity powering the train has cut out. And there are people everywhere, looking directly at you in ways that one might assume at home was either a sexual cruise, that you were being hit on for money or they were outrightly crazy. But they’re not. Just intensely curious. I’ve sometimes had the thought on having an Indian man look at me that I was his first earthling. That invitation for contact can be warm, humbling or strange. Or all three. But it’s not the way we do it back home.
So it was with all of this as backdrop that on one trip to India, I had come to the end of my visit and was preparing to leave. My traveling companions and I were in Varanasi, on the banks of the Ganges; congested, exotic, everything happening all at once. Easily the most compelling place I’ve ever been. On that last day I had one final task; finding a post office to mail the collection of cards I had gathered for friends back home. A friend and I approached the desk clerk at the hotel to direct us to a post office and we started walking. Since there are no street signs, there were a few wrong turns, some turnarounds, a couple more askings of directions, dodging rickshaws, tuk-tuks and gaggles of shoppers. Then we saw a red box in front of a building. It looked like a post box, no sign indicating anything but it looked enough like a post office to go in so we did. There was a counter of a usual size with people behind it and a sign: ‘Buy stamps here.’ OK, I thought, this must be it. Seemed straightforward. Then I looked around. It was a large room, sort of, more like a cave. Had these walls ever been painted? Varanasi has a power outage every day from about 11-3 so the only light inside was that coming in from the sunlit street. I couldn’t really see the back wall. Nothing much seemed to be on the walls, maybe an official poster, little more. There were desks in the back with men in spectacles bent over huge crinkled ledgers looking, looking. How could they even see anything? Off to the side several men stood. Were they doing anything in an official capacity? It seemed for a moment I had entered a Kafka novel. My mind was searching for some order that wasn’t readily coming.
And there was this: of the 5 or 8 staff people behind the counter, no one paid the least attention to us, the only 2 customers who had entered the building. I stood behind the plexiglass counter at the ‘buy stamps here’ position and waited. A clerk maybe eight feet away looked down at a piece of paper in his hands. I stood there. After a few minutes another clerk came along and elbowed him, thrusting his neck in our direction. No words exchanged. It was like they were all under water. The clerk approached us. ‘What does a stamp cost for a post card to the US?” He mumbled something that I couldn’t quite make out and I thrust rupee notes across the counter and held up fingers for ten stamps. He pushed stamps back……and many rupee notes in change. What I had thought was the need for a 20 rupee stamp was actually 2 rupees. Pleased. I had my stamps. I went over to a side counter to stick the stamps on my cards. There was a little glass bowl with a sponge to moisten stamp glue. The sponge was bone dry. It didn’t seem like a good idea to lick the back of Indian stamps so I asked and motioned to the clerk if there was water for the sponge. A blank mumble. But by then communication had been transmitted. I wasn’t getting any wet sponge. I went back to the side and phatuy-ed a little spit onto my finger, wet the stamps and thumbed them onto my cards.
OK, mission close to accomplished but something in me wanted to know it was complete. I did that super pantomime thing people do in frustration when they really want to communicate something that doesn’t seem to be making its way across the language divide. Standing tall, bugging my eyes at the clerk behind the counter, now sort of looking in my direction, in firm, clearly enunciated speech I said DO I (pointing index finger to my chest) TAKE THESE (pointing to the cards, raising them up in dramatic move) AND PUT THEM (holding cards between thumb and index finger, raising them up for good view) INTO (swivel body and pointing in direction of red post box) THE BOX (back to holding cards between finger and thumb, pinkie slightly extended and doing a half loop as in dropping them into a container) and for good measure ending my pantomime pivoting back with a raised eyebrow towards the clerk suggesting a question. He looked at me blankly, almost shook his head as in ‘no’ and mumbled flatly. He extended his arm towards me. That seemed like progress. I gave him my cards. He turned around and dropped them on the floor behind him. I looked at him and felt a little deflated. If there was anything to say now I didn’t know what it was. It seemed like some basic post office transaction that I thought should happen hadn’t happened. I wondered if my cards would ever arrive. I walked out on the street. It was like walking out of a surreal dark aquarium.
Twelve days later all my cards arrived at their American destinations.