Wednesday, May 16, 2012

India: Many Rivers to Cross

I finished planting my parents vegetable garden with just enough time to take a shower, eat some spaghetti and Asparagus my Mom made for me.  Tom and Edwina stopped over to say goodbye, and we took some pictures in the backyard.  Some with my hair down, just in case I shave my head.

My flight was at 830pm, and Etihad Airlines recommended getting to the airport 3 hours early.   That meant we had to leave at 400pm in order to account for the potential mind-bending traffic we experienced the day before coming from Midway back to the house in Lincoln Square. 

I heard many complaints from my family about the impact of the NATO Summit on Chicago traffic, businesses, and even jobs.  It sounded like this was turning into a springtime snow day.  Or snow week.  And, everyone was concerned with the protesters, and how widespread the damage from them will be.

It’s not like the planners could have picked a more celestially foreboding weekend to have this event.  Knowing full well that dozens, or hundreds, or thousands of protesters were potentially going be in the streets around the most powerful army on the planet when the Moon eclipses the Sun – boy you couldn’t get a B-Movie SciFid drama than this.  If it ain’t the Anarchists with bags of feces, stored for days in warehouses near places the police were expected to be en mass, it’s Transformer Aliens screaming in from above blowing the city to smithereens.

We got into my father’s Oldsmobile.  No really, he’s got a late 90s Olds.  Sweet ride. And, we drove up Foster.  Surprisingly, no traffic.  And, not much on the Kennedy either.  Even after having left late at 415pm, we still managed to navigate to the International Terminal at O’Hare by 500pm.  I can’t tell you the peace it brings me to be early when deadlines are involved.

My Dad recommended a SmartCart to roll my two bags of luggage in.  Great idea.  Got into the Etihad line, and they weighed my carry on.  Apparently only 7 kilos are allowed for the carry-on.  Unless you have a laptop, and no extra bag for the computer, then you get a bonus 4 kilos.  I squeaked in at 10.5 kilos, and got my carry-on approval tag. 

This airline is rated #1 in the world, and I felt like it was a 21st Century version of the 1950s - Muslim style.  Everyone who worked for the airline was young and beautiful.  I mean like made up to be on stage or something.  And super super friendly and helpful.  I mean, the type of helpful you don’t have to barter for.  The kind that is offered to you as though you have an in with them. 

I was 2nd in line when they put an extra person at the counter so I didn’t have to wait.  The checking of bags and security questions were the ones we used to hear a few yeara ago.  You know, about having your own bag, not accepting gifts from anyone, etc. 

Security was right around the corner, but as I walked up, looking at the Brookstone to the right, I realized that I had a 3-prong Apple cord, and my 2-prong was in my checked luggage.  So, I diverted into the store, and got an education from the super-nice dude at the counter.  I mean, gave me a demo of the adapter I already had in my bag that already did what I was concerned about.

Perfect.  Back out to the security line 20 feet past the store.  There were just three lines, and I went with my porto-pottie festival logic and went for the middle line.

Bad move.

So, the middle line shared an agent with the right line.  It was going smooth until I was the next person in line.  A 7-person family with kids aging maybe 4-14 came up to check in.  The Dad and the oldest son were selected for extra security.  Uh-oh. Mom looked a bit stressed.  I would imagine being separated from the Dad, and having to keep the 4 youngest ones corralled while going through airport security would be a nightmare. 

But, they weren’t

These things are the modern equivalent of having a meeting spot when you go to the amusement park in case anyone gets lost.  You have to really plan ahead and have contingencies.  In reality, this family had planned ahead, and both the parents and children looked as though they had previously had a dress rehearsal.   Dad had to sort through the 7 passports in his hand to give the rest of the family theirs. 

While they sorted that out, I was in limbo.  Another agent had to come to personally escort Dad and Son #1 away for personal service.  The line to the left of me also generated an extra security situation.  And, the guy felt singled out and started complaining immediately. 

I was the only white guy in the middle of a few dozen people that were either Indian or Muslim, with the hijabs and colorful dresses making it fairly obvious which were which.  It felt like a Seinfeld where instead of the one high profile guy holding up the line, it was like nothing but high profile.  No wonder they recommended 3 hours.

But, eventually I sailed through.  The temporary logjam broke, and the passenger flow went back to normal.  I was at the gate 3 hours before liftoff.

As I walked up to the gate area, it was obvious there was a row of people who weren’t like the others.  All of them were long-haired folks who weren’t just posers.  These were real rock and rollers.  Old school.  I had to find an outlet to boot up my computer for some final check-ins and business, and there were scarce unused outlets.

I looked on the other side of the hallway, and there was a big guy with long brown hair in a ponytail halfway down his back and a tuft of gray in his beard wired to the wall.  Looked like just one cord, so I scooted over and verified the open plug beneath his.  He offered to plug mine in and wrap the cord around his back so I could sit next to him.  I was with my peeps.

I had an interview with a publication to discuss the history and wonderment of Pet Fountains.  Yes, I know it sounds like a 2-minute conversation to most, but I managed to have a 1-hour conversation.  I actually enjoyed it, but that was the first impression I gave to him.

When I got off the phone, we introduced each other.  He was Jeff, and yes, in fact, they were old school Rock and Rollers.  He was playing in the Bobby Whitlock Band.  He was Eric Clapton’s other song-writing half in Derek and the Dominoes.

It’s weird to look up someone’s wikipedia page to verify who they are while they sit 25 feet from you.  Wife and all.

Holy shit.

So, the Celestine guy that I am, I see that this flight wasn’t just random, but apparently was one of these non-coincidences.

Unfortunately, I had left till last minute the tasks of calling in to my credit card companies to let them know I would be in India for 3-1/2 weeks.  So, most of my time was spent overcoming automation with repeated commands for “human”, “agent”, or “a real freaking person” if it went on long enough.

I just had to tell them I will be I India till June 4, and don’t lock up my credit cards on me.  Please.  The hilarious part was talking to customer service people in India, who, once on the phone, were quite excited I was coming to see their country.  Craziest century ever.  I have to call India to warn the company I am doing business with who thinks it’s perfectly satisfactory to have people from India answer my call, are suspicious if they see my card actually used there.

 So, I had just enough time to have a conversation with Deb that started in the waiting area, and then through 5-levels of boarding verification and security that included a K9 unit guy walking the guideway to the plane with a big German Sheppard. 

When I boarded the plane, it immediately felt like I was in another world.  There were subtle signs, like the fact that English was always subtext in anything printed.  But, all the women had the same pulled-back-into-a-rock-solid-bun look..  With perfectly tilted cute hats, and a hijab that was wrapped around the side of the face to please the arabs, while not freaking out the Westerners. 

I was put into the back of the plane on purpose.  When I changed my flight, I spoke to Etihad on the phone, and the girl offered up the advice about the best seating.  She asked me my preference, and I said I didn’t care – Window.  She warned me that then I would have to climb over people to go to the bathroom.  I immediately responded that at least people wouldn’t be climbing over me.

She recommended the back of the plane, because there are often open seats and sometimes you can lay down.  Cool, back of the bus it is.  As I walked down the right aisle of the Boing 777, I got to the 4th section for the commoners known as “Coral”.  Coral is nice.  Not Pearl or anything, but still, I like Coral. 

I noticed that Bobby Whitlock and his wife are sitting just a few rows in front of me.  And, the rest of the band is scatterned rows all in my section.  The guy I met, Jeff, was across the plane, but eventually moved across the aisle from me.  And, I had an open seat until Areesh showed up.  Just a good looking clean cut 20-something on his way back from Chicago.

Upon sitting down, I noticed the amazing electronics on the back of every seat.  Not only was there a touch-kscreen as big as an iPad, but there was a removable remote control with a mini-keyboard on the back.  Oh, and to the right of that was a USB port, and then a Universal electrical outlet.  All that freaking out about being able to connect and have power, and I could just plug right in.

The sun set as the plane boarded.  I was told early to shut off my phone, and I decided not to confront them about the unlikely possibility.  I think they had a much better handle on the odds.

So, I started reading my book, Plan of Chicago as we finished boarding.  This continued through taxi and takeoff.  I got through 40 pages pretty quick.  Then, the first meal arrived.

Mine came early, because I had the special gluten-free meal.  I remember the days when special orders had to basically wait until everyone else was done eating till it finally came out of the kitchen. 

The food was really good.  A nice salad with Italian dressing.  Then, carrots in a butter sauce.  And, finally a mini-tray with chicken and mixed veggies in a tomato-based sauce.  I didn’t save the menu.  Oh yeah, they handed out menus first, even though there were no real choices.

I was stuck reading for the next hour as they delivered meals to everyone else on the plane.  I wanted to work on writing my book, but the tray needed to go somewhere.  With the person in front of me going into super-sprawl mode, there just wasn’t the room in front of me to put it anywhere else. 

So, after a while I navigated my tray to me feet, and decided to use the interim time to learn the computer system.  There were TV shows and Movies of all varieties.  I mean ones us Americans never see.  Middle Eastern shows, Indian TV shows.  Even Korean and Japanese. 

The flight attendants speak every language.  I mean languages the average American doesn’t even know exists.  So, you can see this airline is truly a World airline.  They know their customers, and how to make everyone feel welcome on the same plane.

So, poking around the computer system, I found that not only do they show you were you are on a map, with options to see a hemisphere or a relatively local map,  but they also have live cameras.  You can see the pilot’s view as well as the ground below on your TV screen.  So everyone can keep their windows closed.  I didn’t calculate that after an 830pm sunset, there would be a midnight sunrise over Canada. The map showed our rout would go nearly over Greenland and Iceland, and then back across Ireland, England, Brussels, Germany, Switzerland, Hungary, Turkey and eventually Iraq. 

After finding the camera, I used the rest of my time to see how good the computer was at Chess.  My friend Jay, who I was going to visit, said he was a good Chess player.  I play backgammon much better than Chess.  So, I anticipated that we’d play a few rounds while I visited.  But, for some reason, when I loaded Chess into the system, the button necessary to select a position to drop your piece wouldn’t work.  So, I tried backgammon, and that game worked.

The computer opponent sucked at backgammon.  I won 15 straight points in a row.  Arguably I should have quit quickly after realizing the inferiority of the logic used for the “hard” setting, the highest setting.  But, because the computer sucked so bad, I wasn’t satisfied with just Gammoning the computer, I wanted to Backgammon the computer.  I was so close so many times, including the 3 Gammons I had in the bag.  Areesh was even rooting for me when we landed in Abu Dhabi, but I could not finish my slam dunk Backgammon because every time the flight attendant would make an announcement, it would freeze the game. 

But, eventually I put in an epic writing session, cranking out 16 pages of content for my book.  Instant Carpal Tunnel had me rubbing my numb wrists at the end.

The flight had non-stop food.  After the dinner was an amazing Mousse Dessert with coffee.  But, just an hour later, they had another dessert.  A Klondike Bar, no less.  And, 2 hours after that, there was a sandwich too.  I watched the time go by in US Central Time, and the sandwich amounted to raiding the fridge in the middle of the night. 

But, that wasn’t all.  Around 6am, the food carts come out one final time to deliver . . . Enchiladas.  I love Mexican food, even for breakfast.  And, this one was quite tasty, with a chunky tomato pico all over it.

I mean, the term “airline food” makes some shudder, but I can say that I will honestly remember the food I had on this flight. 

Getting off the plane in Abu Dhabi, I could see the colorful artistic architecture welcoming me into a huge circular room, with retail stores and restaurants encircling the flowerlike center column.  I quickly found a table and a glass of wine.  I had just seen my second sunset in less than 14 hours, and while it was morning back in Colorado, I felt no better time than the present to slip into the current time zone. And, maybe trigger some elusive plane sleep.

I settled into the cafĂ©, and opened my laptop to talk with Deb on Skype.  It makes being away so much easier.  Hearing the voice of the one you love is one thing, but seeing their beautiful face just takes it to another level.  I turned the laptop around so she could see the beautiful architecture. 

Then, I noticed that the band was sitting in lounge chairs right in front of me.  After finishing up with Deb, I walked over to them and chatted for a bit about the concert they are headlining on Saturday.  I told them about my plans to shave my head that day, and they were all like “Noooooo, we love long-haired people!  Come see us all play instead.” 

So tempting.

As I’ve contemplated shaving my head, I’ve given many people important to me a chance to weigh in.  Many have encouraged me, and pointed out what a special opportunity it is.  A few have had a reaction of shock and perhaps doubt that I would follow through. 

I even had an offer from my Lakota Indian friends last week to save me the money, and shave it for me.  Warfield asked me why I was going to India, and I mentioned shaving my head as part of the motivation.  I talked to him and Shiloh about why I felt it was part of the path I had chosen, and was aligned with my commitments to follow that path.  Shiloh came out of the bathroom in their hotel room with an electric buzz clipper in his hand and said “I can save you a few thousand dollars and do this for you right now.”

It was humorous, but it was an effective way to deliver the point.  It’s not about a stunt to shock my friends.  This is a spiritual practice, and without the respect for the practice, the benefits of the prayers and intentions that go along with it are unlikely to manifest.  Spiritual advisors often give the best advice through humor, and I’ve learned to listen closely for that advice from Warfield and Shiloh.

At this point in the journey, I’ll just say it’s one of these things I’ll have to think hard about.  Music is such an important part of my life.  It’s hard to imagine not going to see this band play in Bangalore, but at the same time, my friend Jay and his family have to be considered.  I may be able to zig-zag on a whim, but their time and schedule have to be considered as well.

The right answer will come, and what is supposed to be will happen.

So, the band and I parted ways, each destined for a different city in India.  I boarded the much smaller and more regular aircraft going to Hyderabad.  I was in the middle of the plane, and most were seated before I boarded.  Apparently, when getting in line in India, cutting in front of others isn’t inappropriate.  There was a long gray-haired gentleman who started out next to me in line, but boarded at least 30 people in front of me. 

As I walked up the aisle, I got my first taste of the warmth of the people.  Those seated looking forward looked me straight into the eye.  I am the type who was not originally comfortable with long eye contact with strangers.  I think I treated it as though someone was peeking in your window.  It’s not bad, as you are walking by a window to casually glance for a second, but to stop, put your arms on the sill, and stare into the window to see what is inside is just not appropriate.  And, if the owner caught you, you’d be embarrassed and look away and move on.

Here, instead of being embarrassed, the owner comes to the door and lets you in with a wide smile, thanking you for looking in the window.  Meanwhile, they return the sentiment by looking in your window too.  Silent wordless introductions and mental embraces. 

There was a difference too in the demeanor of the people.  I’ve been on many flights, and while there are sometimes groups who all know one another, most of the time it’s people flying solo, couples, and then those who may have children.  On this flight, there were tons of kids.  I mean, probably 20% of the flight was kids.  And, while the adults didn’t all know one another, it was obvious that everyone was comfortable with strangers, and you could see the conversations flowed easily as people put luggage in the overhead, and navigated around one another to their seats.  Many smiles, many laughs.  And, the kids all looked at ease.

The nearly 4-hour flight was fairly standard.  The meal was just as good as from the first flight on a bigger plane.  Proving to me that US Airlines could provide the same service if they wanted.  This was just an Airbus 318, which I’ve flown many times in the US.  It’s not the plane, its what they put in the plane.

I learned to use my time away from my laptop writing to try to slay the Backgammon Computer dragon again.  Chess was disabled on this flight too.  Must have been some network software error.  It took another 5 games, but I finally Backgammoned the computer, and retired with a 20-0 record.  I felt fully capable of crushing Jay if he let me play Backgammon.  For chess, on the other hand, I would be a bit unpracticed. 

As we entered final approach, I decided I had to have music.  They didn’t seem to be electronics nazis on this plane, so I kept my headphones in my ears, and pressed play on my iPod.  I had been listening to the February 12th Widespread Panic show from this year in Denver. 

I looked out the window into the night sky, seeing the lights of Hyderabad below.  For such a huge city, I expected it to be brighter, like Chicago, blazing like a hot fire on the ground below.  Instead, it was more like Chicago around 1980 when they started to convert to the pink argon lights.  Bright spots, but many softer bluish glows around the peremeter.  With lots of dark spots in between.  A city of 9 million or so, perhaps, but it didn’t’ seem like everyone had the benefit of well-lit streets.

As we approached the runway, I had forgotten the show had Jimmy Cliff’s “Many Rivers to Cross” in the encore.  A huge wave of emotion came over me.  I had heard the song in Mexico with Panic just the week before, so I got to know the song, and look up the lyrics.  While standing on the beach in Mexico, I had thought about what this Hiatus year without Panic would bring into my life.  I thought, this is the year to do something big.  Something really big.  To go for it, and not just proverbally.

I never imagined going to India.  And, that was just 3 months ago.

On a trip where I am writing about being apart, and then coming back to the love of my life, hearing this song as I landed in India just seemed perfect.  There are no coincidences.

The next song to play was The Rolling Stones “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”, and I think for my Panic friends, the concept that the soundtrack for my journey was playing will resonate.  It is a moment I will never forget.

Getting up to leave, I saw my friend Hareesh from the first flight, and gave him my business card.  It took him 3 attempts for me to get his name right.  Areesh.  Hasheesh.  Oh, roll the R, with a slight H at the beginning.  I have a hard enough time remembering names as it is.  I fear butchering the name of everyone I meet.

Once off the plane, the Customs was fairly standard.  I turned over my documents, and the agent asked for the address where I was staying.  He wasn’t going to accept “at my friend Jay’s house”.  I tried ringing Jay.  He was in Istanbul, and while it was nearly 4am locally, it was probably even earlier in the night where he was.  No answer. 

I called his assistant, MSK, who was to be arranging my pick up at the airport.  I hesitated about waking him in the middle of the night.  But, he answered right away.  He said he would text me the address.  I was put to the side of the agent, as he let other people play through.

After 10 minutes, no text.  I had been trying to pull up an email with the info, but no luck.  So, I tested to see whether my phone would be able to use Internet, and sent an AIM message to Deb, who pinged back promptly.  I had to guide her to “that folder in the bottom drawer in my office”, which took her a few minutes to translate into the answer.  I filled out my form, and was quickly passed through.  I was hoping not to miss my bags coming out.  I wasn’t really afraid of theft, but I would just be more comfortable not having my 2 purple bags spinning around and around on the carousel tempting anyone.

So, I walked down the hallway, and noticed everyone going to a Currency Kiosk.  After waiting in a short line, I pulled out $200 to change over.  Figured that was a good start.  The guy said incredulously, “That is all you want?” 

I said, well, I didn’t think I need that much cash to start.  He pointed out that it was kind of like duty-free, as there weren’t the same fees at other exchanges.  He recommended $5000.  I had to inform him, somewhat embarrassingly, I don’t have $5000 to exchange.  But, what he said made sense.  So, I pulled out my stash of $100 bills, and gave him most of my cash - $1000.  He asked me again if I was sure this was all I wanted.  Yes, I was sure.

So, from behind the counter, he pulls out a stack of cash wrapped in a bundle like it was a drug deal or something.  I mean like 4-5” thick. 

“Here you go, 49,000 Rupees.”

I said sarcastically, “Oh, that’s it?”

No, there was small change too.  Nearly 50,000 Rupees.  You couldn’t even fold this stack in half to put in your pocked.  Great, now I had changed my money into the convenient Rupee, and could correctly answer the question: Are you happy to see me, or is that 50,000 Rupees in your pocket?

By the time I got to the baggage carousel, I was surprised to see everyone on the plane there still waiting.  My friend Jay had told me about how people in India have a high tolerance for inconvenience.  You learn to wait.  A lot.

So, I got myself a SmartCart, free at this airport vs. $4 at O’Hare, and made a recliner with my carry-on bag.  After 15 minutes, the bags were still not coming.  Then, 4 airport workers climbed up on the carousel, and then started going down the ramp to where the bags should have been emerging.  Yep, this wasn’t going well.

They handed up 10 or more bags, and then climbed out.  Problem solved.

The automatic machinery fired up, and my bags came out fully intact.  One last Xray of my carry-on, and I was green-lighted to leave the airport.  Welcome to India.

Suresh was waiting for me with a placard with my name on it.  The airport is open-aired under a very high roof.  But, Suresh was allowed to park at the curb, and walk over to get me.  He probably had to wait an extra 45 minutes, but nobody made him do laps. 

It was a little weird getting into the left side of the vehicle as a passenger, but less weird that driving on the left.  I had limited experience in Europe, and that was more than 14 years ago.  But, that wasn’t even the scary part.  Apparently, everyone is encouraged to use their horn while driving. Like, all the time. What would probably earn you a road-rage ticket in the US, by getting up on someone’s ass, flashing your lights, and aggressively honking your horn is not only normal, but ALL the trucks have signs on the back saying “honk horn” or something to that effect.

The roads from the airport were like a highway.  Like, meaning they were paved and had dotted lines.  But, there were a few interchanges that were, let’s say, incomplete.  It was a bit like a highway designed by Mad Max.

And, driving in the lanes is merely a suggestion.  An ignored suggestion at that.  Most I saw were driving ON the dotted lines.  Which, if you had been brought up that way, might make sense, actually.  But, spacing and distance were all relative, and the honking made people dart and swerve around one another.  Many curves in the unlit roads made each passing move interesting, particularly because there were also all sorts of people, bikes, mopeds, and motorized 3-wheel carts, all moving at different velocities.  Or, just standing there not moving at all.  At 430am.  Seriously, there were people everywhere.

We pulled into Jay’s residence in time for the morning light to come up, and I took a walk around the grounds before going to bed for a few hours.  I had seen photos, but this place was really something special.  I looked over the wall of his house onto the slums that had been built below in the past 10 years.  I could see clotheslines on roofs, and now dozens of people going about their morning routines dirt streets that were simply the spaces between their unparallel buildings, lean-to’s, and other dwellings below.  Here was this amazing Gaudi-inspired structure, and the unfinished top-floors of the slums below were looking to eclipse the view.

I fell asleep quickly.  Jay’s plane from Istanbul would be arriving in a few hours.  I settled into my first dreams in India.  Or, maybe this was all a dream.

Garden awaits renewal

Dad likes to sift out the roots and other large stuff from the soil

Thyme, Rosemary, and Sweet Basil in the foreground

Tomatoes are planted


From the porch

The flowers take up the rest of the garden

This should look different when I get back from India

My Mom and I

Mom & Dad

Now you can see us

Edwina jumps in

With Tommy and Edwinna
Exiting the Jetway

Stunning Architecture

Shops and restaurants around the perimeter

See all the tiles?

Note to US Airports: Add Loungers!

First Sunrise in India

And right over the edge of the property is . . .

Jay: This was to be greenspace

The Garden

The Pool

Stairway from the patio overlooking the Garden

Jay's office over to the left, overlooking the pool and garden

The J-Pod

Inspired by Gaudi from Barcelona

Looks like a place for a wedding!

The Rose Garden

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