Archive for January, 2009

Free Fall

Saturday, January 10th, 2009

I woke up in free fall- a more cosmopolitan, intercontinental version of that jolt you sometimes get, twitching awake with the feeling you’d just been dropped from six inches above the mattress. The twitch in this case was not a muscle spasm, but first of a long series of air pockets buffeting the plane roughly along like a kid batting a balloon across a living room. Routine stuff, nothing scary, but on a quiet plane where I seemed to be the only one awake, a little eerie.

It was about 3AM—not sure whose 3AM, but it felt like mine. A steady stream of air potholes jolted me wider awake, so I flipped on my MP3 player- and looked for Scott Walker’s Nite Flights, a sucker for program music. Somehow it was missing, but the Bowie version was there so I put it on and looked out the window at the black void below us. The monitor embedded in the seat in front of me showed a map with an animated avatar of Swiss Air 53 just south of Ireland. Elevation 30,000 feet. Ground speed- 850 km/hour. Outside air temperature – 84 degrees F.

Just as I read this, Bowie howled: It’s so cold

I never know what the fuck Scott Walker’s lyrics mean, and sometimes I feel like my inner music supervisor is pushing it with the references and resonances, but this was as satisfying as if the song had been playing on auto shuffle or something, so I started it over and scanned the map and looked out the window, but all you could see was shreds of cloud catching in fleeting gray streaks on the wing.

there’s no hold
the moving has come through
the danger brushing you
turned its face into the heat
and runs the tunnels

it’s so cold
the dark dug up by dogs
the stitches torn and broke
the raw meat fist you choke
has hit the bloodlight

glass traps open and close on nite flights
broken necks
feather weights press- the walls
be my love
we will be gods on nite flights
with only one promise
only one way to fall

The flight monitor is as morbid as my inner music supervisor. Besides the basic geography and ocean topography, there are x-marked spots strewn all over the Atlantic marking the sites of historic shipwrecks: Andrea Doria 1956, Titanic, 1912, etc. I’m not squeamish, but why the hell would you put this on an in-flight monitor? Now showing on entertainment channel 1: Airport 77. Channel 2: Airplane. Channel 3: Alive!

Most every airport I can think of suffers in comparison to Zurich, where I spent my three hour layover so it isn’t really fair to talk about Zurich and Delhi together, but I have to say that Zurich airport, is not only a fantastic place, but an excellent palate cleanser before five weeks of sensory overload. Camel-sponsored smoking booths quarantine indoor smokers in stylish little Scandinavian looking saunas that faintly smell of smoke just outside and minimalist public art that fits the big emptiness of the space really nicely. I took advantage of the bathrooms for what would probably be cleanest and mos comfortable situation for quite awhile and sat in the waiting area to marvel at the general mood of peace. No need for Music for Airports here, the gentle sound of shoes on stone, murmuring conversation, and absence of programmed sound except the sparse, occasional bong of a chime in a descending minor-third interval followed by a civilized, congenial voice beginning “Damen und Herren…” All this is really nice to listen to alone, without CNN, or a layer of airport smoothjazz on top.

About 18 hours later I landed in Delhi. Before the hatch even opened, I could smell that smell everybody talks about. My cousin told me of a friend who was struck by the aroma on arrival but who could no longer smell it when she left, so I was sucking it in like I was at a wine tasting to store it up for later. It took me several days to parse the various notes: full-bodied humidity, with a complex nose of predominantly diesel exhaust and wood smoke. Endless finish, differing each time, with hints of incense and food, occasionally eclipsed by lurid flashes of excrement and urine- especially in crowded public areas. This is different from the sweeter barnyard undertone, sort of a combination of manure and hay that is present but barely detectable throughout, most noticeable on worn clothes after bathing, or at home weeks later. In the airport, it is mainly humid diesel, but my newly arrived nose was imagining all the rest, trying to impose a ceremonial quality, though it was mostly just pollution, I think.

DEL, in addition to the smell, has dreary fluorescent lighting, mysterious silty puddles on the floor, and bored looking military personnel yawning over their rifles. Immigration proceeded wordlessly and without incident, then I found my bag, which I was convinced would be lost, unattended in a pile of others in the middle of the floor by the baggage claim. Nobody watching it, but no sweat either, I took it and headed out, past the money declaration booth and some armed guards who I expected would be more of a nuisance on the way out. I had nothing but 155 rupees that a friend had handed me left over from her trip. It would have been fine to show up at the hotel without even that, I figured out later, but not knowing, I waited on line to exchange a little cash, figuring on getting a better rate somewhere else later. The Thomas Cook attendant yawned and told me I didn’t want to use them, they’d charge a fee. He pointed me kindly to the Punjabi Bank, who gave me like 1860 Rs for my 40 bucks. I asked for a receipt, which he told me would cost a 100 Rs. I’d read it was crucial to have a receipt to prove you were exchanging and not earning money in India, and you couldn’t buy train tickets or change money back on the way out. This may be a selectively enforced rule, but I never ran across it. Still, I stuck with the principle throughout, and balked at any and all service charges the whole trip, even for petty amounts (20Rs), and everyone always backed down, with the exception of the Punjabi Bank teller. I refused him and he gave my money back. I went back to Thomas Cook, ten feet away and asked the friendlier guy there, who had watched the whole transaction.

“Oh they charge a fee for a receipt, but not for the transaction. We charge for both. You don’t want to change your money here” I looked at him quizzically, but he didn’t break. He nodded over his shoulder across the floor from where we stood.
“SBI. State Bank of India”
Thanks buddy. Not sure why he didn’t want my business, but I appreciated the lack of hard sell, and went to join the line. Of course this was the one to use, it’s the only one with a long line, at 1AM. We waited for a long time while something went on between the teller and some Northern European Hare Krishnas in full saffron cheesecloth regalia. Evidently the color of their money was not much more convincing, and we all waited for a half hour while they discussed it. I anticipated this for all dozen of us, but after the Aryan Krishna unit moved on, we all passed through quickly, despite that there was one teller on duty and four or five more idly looking on, coming in and out with lunch boxes, chai, and filling water bottles from a water cooler held together with duct tape. I was thirsty, but I waited.

I took my money and went through the gauntlet of drivers, piled one on top of the other along railings for a hundred feet or so on both sides with placards. None had my name so I figured being an hour or more late, that he’d left. That’s fine, I saw the pre-paid taxi booth, and was not being swarmed by beggars and pick-pockets, so I felt like I could handle it. I had splurged on the hotel’s 500 rupee pick-up service, not knowing what to expect other than extreme fatigue. Lonely Planet fosters undue paranoia about taxi scams, I found. Find out a reasonable price ahead of time,
stand your ground, and be patient. For 500 Rupees, I could have had 2 round-trip taxi rides. Or one and a good meal, and a teenaged prostitute. But who knew?

Before I took a cab, I decided on one more pass through the gauntlet, if I had missed my guy, I didn’t want to be held accountable later if I didn’t take the ride. I walked back in and out, around a guard who was about to tell me to beat it but suddenly decided I was ok. I read every sign carefully this time, ignoring the self-consciousness amid the stares and chuckles I was getting. At the end of the second side, I saw one card on the floor, with nobody holding it, reading “John Heath: Vivek Hotel” I pointed to it and a few drivers nearby shrugged, then one gestured behind the crowd and a kid came running up and shook my hand. Vinny.

“First time in India?” I heard for the first of probably a hundred thousand times. Hadn’t yet learned to say no, of course not, been here many times, just never this store/street/town/city. Just the same his “Welcome to India” felt genuine. He took my bag and led me outside, where the crowd gets a little hairier, but not impassable in the middle of the night. Probably quite a scene out here in the daytime. Drivers mobbed me and I was glad to already have one. As we passed a western girl in terrible shape, smoking a cigarette and staring into a corner, with no bags, she looked like a junkie hooker if I’ve ever seen one, though who knows what she was hoping to accomplish at the cab stand of New Delhi airport at 2AM on a Sunday morning. Vinny winked at me and said “looks nice!¦you like?” Funny how close earnestness and irony can sound. He led me away asking what I did and when I said “music”, he responded:
“Oh, I like music. I give you tep?” I figured he meant tape, so I said sure, I’d like to hear it, but he shook his head annoyed. “Tep, tep, money! Baksheesh!” Um. I clarified his non-sequitur request, that I give him a tip, and he cheered up.
“Yes! I like money. You give me some money, I am happy” He asked if I had USD on me, and I lied that I did not, out of caution.

In the lot we found a car and he woke up someone inside- Antoine, I thought, sleeping there since 10PM! But no, it was another Indian kid- the driver. They drove me around Metro construction detours that got me too turned around to follow a map- even with the compass my friend Deborah had given me for the trip, so I sat back and hoped for the best, through miles and miles of desolate long avenues which reminded me kind of West Oakland. They ignored me, so I calculated a fair tip and sounded out Hindi letters on signs, amused to find that I’d slowly decipher a sign to find it was transliterated English. Delhi Metro.

We pulled into a dusty lane with a few straggling kids burning stuff in small heaps, and rows of metal-shuttered shops. A cow lay in the dirt at a fork in the road, and I naively marveled at it. We parked and I tipped Vinny – 100 Rs. He looked at this 20% tip like I’d spit in his hand. I thought was too much for one surely, and maybe even for two, but it was 2AM and I’d kept him waiting but his reaction woke me up. How about the driver, Vinny indicated with a gesture? I said that was for both of them, masking a confusing mix of guilt and indignance.

“That is not good. Very cheap Very bad tip”

Not for the last time, I felt a mix of feeling as complex as the varying details of the aromas I smelled. Not for the last time, I decided to stick to my cheapskate guns, letting his ire fuel my response. I told him that’s too bad, and we went inside. I expected to hear more about it, but as soon as I started checking in, he disappeared, my first hint that my instinct was a trustworthy guide in these matters.

Antoine appeared from somewhere in the dark lobby and greeted me, smelling reassuringly of soap. There was a shower or bath at the end of the tunnel. The porter turned on the electricity for the lift, and we made it upstairs, to a funny little room with curtained windows and an air conditioner that looked like it might just as easily house chickens as an AC. A hollow, wood-slatted cage mounted in a wall looked past an inner fan to the courtyard of the hotel. The manufacturer’s tag on it read “Citizen: 100% Satisfaction, 0% Worry” If it were hotter than 68 degrees F, I’d dispute those numbers, but for a first photo op of the trip, very accurate.

A squatting bath was the only bathing option-spouts in the wall fill a 5-gallon bucket intended for bathing a little pail at a time. The water was frigid, I’d have to wait until morning for the porter to bring up a hot bucket, so I took some melatonin and went to sleep for four hours to the soundtrack of the gurgling toilet and the live spatter of water in the corner of the bathroom- the sink drain is just a pipe that empties directly onto a drain in the floor, where the tilted floor also leads the bath water.