LAURA BRENNAN

April 25, 2009

Home Again

“A run down of the things I did in the first 48 hours back.

-drank a Moonlight Death & Taxes Black Beer as soon as I got off BART (actually 2).”

My last night in Bodhgaya was possibly the best thing that could have happened to me at the time. I was really at my wits’ end with India.It was dreadfully hot and I was tired of being bothered along with just being tired in general. It got to the point that the only things to do in Bodhgaya were to lie around—and to sweat. You could maybe add some other activity in, like reading a book while you were lying around and sweating or talking to someone who was also lying around and sweating, but options were limited… and my iPod was dead.

On my last evening in Bodhgaya, Brian (my Mala-making friend) and I went to our friend Bula’s house. Bula was probably the most wholesome and family-oriented of all the Indian men I met. He had 2 very young daughters that were absolutely adorable, and permitted to run around the house naked as they pleased. I really don’t think there are many things cuter than a little naked baby running around. And, when there are two of them, and they have little nose piercings and beautiful brown skin it is almost enough to make your heart explode. They were both very calm and did not seem to cry or be bothered by much. The older one, who was all of 2, must have been the modern reincarnation of prince Siddhartha himself. She had these amazing brown eyes that just seemed to look right into your soul, and as she was doing this she would turn her head in such a subtle way that you could almost feel her contemplating your existence. I know that one day I will return to Bodhgaya, India, if for no other reason than to meet her again as a woman.

As Brian and Bula entered “Mala Land,” as I liked to call it, I was distracted by Bula’s wife Reta. She could not speak any English but was very inquisitive about communicating with me in any way possible. This quickly turned into a game of  “let’s dress up the Westerner.” The next thing I knew I was getting my hands smashed through tiny bangles (one is still stuck). Once her apprehensions were dismissed by noticing that it was not bothering me, it was on. In no time I had cargile under my eyes, a bindi, bright red lips, painted feet (this is big in Bihar), hoop earrings, a crazy Indian costume jewelry necklace, and paralyzed hands from the henna that was drying on them. Bula and Reta’s whole family had also flooded into the room. It was actually his younger sister who did the henna with an expert’s skill as we were both being jumped on by random children.

After I was adorned properly, it was picture time. They brought Brian and me to the roof of the building where we posed for a countless number of pictures. Debatably, the most entertaining thing happening during all of this was how stupid I looked trying to drink chai with henna all over my hands. They even tried to switch my cups a few times to make it easier… nothing was going to help. The whole neighborhood was also out on their roofs watching us. It was great. Probably my favorite part of the whole experience was, as I was leaving, a little boy snuck up behind me, looked over his shoulders to make sure no one else was around, and then quickly handed me a very tattered little red rose. Then he did the international don’t tell anyone sign by pressing his index finger over his lips. I was completely flattered, and I will die with that little flower in my possession.

Despite all of the problems in India with male vs. female politics, there is a very sweet form of love and flirtation that you can see happening among the youth. It is so innocent and passionate. The way they fall in love almost over night in a fairy tale fashion is quite endearing. Most of the young people I spoke with while I was there had a secret boyfriend or girlfriend that they were dying to talk about whenever they got the chance. Of course, always with whispers or behind the safety of a locked door.

Bula and Brian rode with me to the train station. It was almost midnight when we got there. They walked me to the platform, and we said our goodbyes. I must admit, taking a 17-hour train that started at 2:00 in the morning from Bodhgaya to Delhi by myself was not sounding too exciting. Matter of fact, I was pretty terrified. To make things worse, the station was packed and there was no one for me to talk to or sit with.

I huddled up next to a family with some young kids and grandparents and (hahaha) tried to blend in as best I could. I put my cotton sari on the ground and set up camp. I had my hair wrapped at this point and somehow actually managed to not draw too much attention to myself. I just sat there eating fried dahl and reading my book, hoping for time to be graceful and move quickly.

I almost got on the wrong train. Actually, I got on the wrong train, and when I found someone in my bed, thankfully I got off to ask a station attendant what was going on. Apparently, the first attendant I asked about the train was trying to ruin my life.

When my train finally came I was nearly defeated. All I wanted to do was sleep as long as humanly possible and hopefully not get groped.

Getting groped is something that is apparently not so uncommon for solo female travelers on the Indian rail system. Of course, I got my ticket late and ended up in a medium/close-to-humane compartment where I was the only woman. I was mortified at this. It was dark and scary. It smelled like feet, and even in the limited light of the moon I could see the roaches crawling all over the place. As the men got on the bed-type cot things around me I attempted to give off the most uninviting vibe I possibly could, I even made a few choreographed shrugs, huffs, and puffs.

I laid down on my second level cot and started reading again. My plan was to wait for every other visible person to fall asleep before me. The train marshals came poking through our section with their guns and stopped and stared at me. About an hour later they came through again. I had covered my face with a black scarf that I could see through. They came back to my bunk and poked at me. It really, REALLY freaked me out. I popped up and they just stared at me again. I am not sure for what reason they did this, but I could not decide whether I should have felt safer or started fearing for my life.

At about 4:00 a.m. I could not take it anymore. My whole body was itching (more than usual in Asia). I tried to brush it off as a few bug bites, or maybe the detergent I used to clean my clothing the last time. Maybe I had gotten a flash case of extreme scabies… it would not have been the first time. Then, I started to notice bumps all over my sides. I went to the bathroom. After checking the lock on the door twenty times, I urgently took of my shirt. I was COVERED in hives. I mean covered. I have gotten I don’t know how many little and not-so-little rashes through out my trip, but this was something else. I was on the border of completely freaking out and trying to find a doctor. This would have sucked in ways that I cannot even begin to think about. I told myself that I would lay down for another hour and see what happened. If my breathing got weird or my hives got worse I was going to take action. Thankfully neither of these terrible things happened. After much thought, I traced my breakout to what I had for dinner that night. We had underripe stewed whole mangos. I have read that it is common for people to be allergic to the oil in mango skin. I guess I am one of those people. Once I was in Delhi, I had to make sure by eating delicious peeled mango and it went just fine. This is a good thing because I might have had to kill myself if I could no longer eat the amazing mango.

By morning my compartment had transformed into a bunch of families and a few single men who, from what I could tell, were afraid of me due to my convincing act the night prior. I was still on guard but slowly let it down when I was pretty sure that no one around me wanted to harvest my kidneys or rape me. I offered some of my biscuits (the international olive branch) to the people in my direct bunk area. They obliged and we exchanged smiles and pleasantries. I felt much more at ease and I’m sure they did too. When the train stopped at a station around lunch time, the father even fetched me a plate of curry and rice. It was super sweet. There was not a lot of verbal communication because of linguistic limitations, but the smiles, head nods, and winks were abundant. After a few hours they even put their youngest son up on my bunk, and we had a little game of me tickling him with my feet, which were still painted red, as I read my book. Once he climbed down, we still managed to pick on each other through the space between our bunks and the window.

Delhi was exactly what I expected. I got off the train and made it to Paraganj (the tourist slum) safely…. it is right across the street from the train station. The first thing I was greeted with when I got there was a 250lb Sikh who looked like a grizzly bear and asked me if I wanted to fuck him. I called him a sister-fucker (common slang) in Hindi, and made that noise when you suck in through your teeth with your tongue pressed against it (a major sign of discontent in Indian body language). I moved along. It took me 3 tries before I found a hotel that was suitable and cheap enough. I actually kinda got it good from what later research of my friends’ hotel rooms showed.

That night I blissfully ran into a friend of mine from Kathmandu who was also involved with the music scene there. He was with 2 Dutch guys that I had not met before. We all ended up having dinner together and making plans to go to the Red Fort in the morning the next day.

We did just that. I got to their hotel at 9:30a.m. as we had planned… of course I had to wake them up. I went up and ordered a tea and waited, and waited, and waited. Finally, when all three of the ladies were ready, we ordered breakfast. The worst breakfast in the world—I mean mine was okay; I have learned to have very low expectations when ordering anything Western in the way of food, though their interpretations are sometimes very interesting. It was really bad because instead of the usual 5-15 minute gap between people getting their food, all of our food came at once. Except for one of the Dutch guy’s whose came 45 minutes later. To add to the glory, I asked for water and was told to get it myself. Also, one of the other guys’ bread was so hard that we started throwing it at each other and beating one another as though it were a weapon. You know what, scratch all of that. It was not the worst breakfast ever, it was really quite normal.

The Red Fort was amazing. It was a 17th-century Moghul masterpiece. We also went to the largest mosque in India. It was breathtakingly beautiful, and so peaceful and quiet on the inside that it was almost like the world stopped. Outside there was a young boy with cargile around his eyes that stopped me dead in my tracks. He had the deepest look to him and he walked around my friends and I to explore us.I could not help but be fascinated. I make it a point to not take pictures of people that I do not know, but this was a rare situation. I asked his older brother who spoke English to ask him if a photo was okay. He said it was fine.  I don’t think there has been a day since I have been back that I have not scrolled through my 1600 pictures just to revisit the intrigue that is drawn up inside my chest upon looking into this child’s sage-like face.

As soon as we got back we all split up to handle our bidding. I almost jumped on a bus to the north with my friend from Nepal, but backed out when I checked my e-mail and saw that I  had a message from a Berliner by the name of Marco that I had spent the majority of my time with in Varanasi. He was going to be in Delhi in 2 days. I was very happy to get this news because I had basically decided at this point that I was not going to Hong Kong.

Marco was kind of a needle in the haystack of traveling partners. He spoke Hindi fluently and was doing an anthropological study on the crime and honor system in Bihar, the poorest state in India. He was full of amazing information about all types of dorky things that I found incredibly interesting. He also came with a built-in maniacal sense of  humor and was a great shopping partner. It was kind of like finding my long lost brother—of course he was good looking. I still think I have scratches from broken bangles and bruises from charlie horses from our epic battles. I think the most fun we had together though were the nights we would stay up until 4:00a.m. smoking hash, philosophizing about the state of the world and the state of communication, taking turns reading to each other, and blasting classical music until the sun was nearly in sight. One night when he was reading the equivalent of the Knights of Arabia (Moghul style) one of the older men in his guest house screamed in Hindi, “That boy has lost his mind!” Of course he did not know that there was another person in the room.

That evening I went to a nicer hotel to have a beer (alone) and read my book. As soon as I walked up to the roof patio, I got a bad feeling. I was about to leave when a man who looked like a young 40 invited me to his table. He was already accompanied by a young attractive girl Kiwi, so I figured there would be no problems. My reasoning obviously misfired because I sat down next to a madman. The poor girl with him was a victim of his forthrightness just like me. I envied her as she escaped on an alibi I don’t quite remember, but I also hated her with the darkest part of my being for leaving me in this lunatic’s clutches.

I can’t remember his name so we will call him “Frank.” “Frank” had just been released from 2 years in Mumbai prison, so I guess he had, if there is one, a justification for how creepy he was. He immediately wanted to start picking into my psyche. He wanted to dissect me and dig into the ventricles of my brain and, YOU KNOW, really get to the meat! I can appreciate this in a person. I hate superfluous yammer just as much as your next cynic. But this was executed in such a scattered and tattered way that it was almost like I could watch his thoughts die as they ran out of brain cells to connect to. He had this serial killer jumpiness to him as well. It was captivating. He was the perfect human example of a train wreck you could not look away from. He was all over the place. One minute being lecherous and telling me how seductive and strong I was and asking me if I found him attractive. Then seconds later he was telling me he did not want to die angry and sad like his father. I furrowed my brow and listened. I felt like I was watching some type of experiment gone wrong and I needed a pencil skirt, a lab coat, a clip board and pen behind my ear.

When it almost became too much, my thought-to-be-fairweather New Zealand friend returned to save the day. She was a very sweet and quiet girl. After getting to know her I could not believe that she had actually been talking to “Frank” for HOURS before I even got there. We were trying to create a wall of conversation that he was continuously hammering down with random information. I guess after a while he got tired of this and invited another unsuspecting victim to the table.  This time it was a smartly dressed tall male who looked like he could have been a random German scientist from any of Wes Anderson’s movies. His name was Christian.

Christian was no dummy. He saw what was going on as soon as he sat down. He started to help us build our wall and we began to talk about things that would completely lose “Frank.” “Frank” started to get louder and louder. Finally the head waiter came over and delivered him his bill. He was pissed and threw a fit. I sadly must admit we all laughed into our sleeves his whole way out the door. Poor guy…

I ended up sharing way too many beers with Christian, who turned out to be a hotshot over-cultured Berlin journalist/Arabic translator/political scientist/classical music encyclopedia. Not to mention he had the best manners of any boy/man I had been around in years. I probably should have married him. Yeah, I should have totally married him. We could have had little German robot babies that spoke 7 languages by the time they were 5. Ones that would be able to tell you the difference between a Flemish Rennaisance painting and an Italian one with the glance of an eye… by the age of 4.

As he walked me home (of course, he walked me all the way to the door of my guest house) we made plans to meet in the morning for breakfast. We did just that. I met him at 9:30 as well. He was also not ready. He gave me the option of coming in and waiting for him to take a shower or waiting at the cafe of his fancy-schmancy hotel… I chose the cafe. I was not ready for that type of commitment. To my dismay, it was not open, so I sat on the antique Indian sofa outside of his room and read my book and pretended like I was not thinking about him naked.

About twenty minutes later Christian emerged with hair combed to perfection looking German as ever. When we got outside he broke out the sweetest pair of 80’s Ray-Bans I have seen since… the 80’s. It was kinda like one of those scenes from pick-your-Brat-Pack-movie where the cool guy, say Emilio Estevez, whips out his shades from his pocket, flips his hair, and puts them on his face as he turns his head back forward. All in one finessed motion. If I were to try to execute such a technical maneuver, my hair would be in my mouth and I would without a doubt stab my self in the eye… hard. We decided to go to Connaught Place for breakfast. It’s the nicer part of New Delhi (where we were). We ended up eating at a place that looked something like a conference hotel dining room. It was very sterile and cold. Extremely cold. So cold that my German counterpart was shivering because he was wearing short sleeves. I guess this was one of the few times my excessive skin covering was actually beneficial. As a side note, Indians that can afford AC are infamous for making excessive use of it. Breakfast was okay. I was the idiot who tried to order poached eggs in India… you think I would have learned by this point.

After breakfast we went to an underground bazaar and tried to hunt down a recording of the Ganesha Mantra which he and I are both a big fan of. There is a certain woman singer that does it who blows everyone else out of the water. We could not find it. Then after discussing our plans for the day we realized that neither of us had any, so he suggested the Baha’i Lotus Temple. I agreed. It was nice. It looked a lot like the Sidney Opera House. We hung around there for a while and checked out their museum and then we headed back to Paraganj because he had a train to catch to Rajasthan in the evening to go on a desert camel adventure thing. He spoke whimsically about me joining him and I entertained the idea to myself, but I knew Marco was on his way and I had unimportant things to obsess about until the wee hours of the morning.

Christian and I said goodbye and I went to check my (you will never guess) e-mail. A few minutes later he popped in the door of the cafe and handed me a CD of the female singer of the Ganesha Mantra that we loved so singing another mantra. My heart melted. It was the international equivalent of a mix-tape.

At 9:00 a.m. the next morning I woke up to BANG BANG BANG! “Haalll-oooo!” It was Marco. I let him in and got ready quickly and we were off. I can’t even start to talk about all of the things we did. Besides our evenings of banter and symphonic meditations we spent a lot of time in book shops and eating. Delhi is full of amazing book shops. There are a ton of publishing houses there so everything is also really cheap. I was dying inside knowing that my library has already reached terminal overload and it would take me ages to read all of the books I already have that I want to read, and to finish up the ones I have pushed aside for other endeavors. Marco on the other hand bought a near library of amazing literature.

The last day I was in town a friend of his came in from the college he had been spending time at in Bihar. This guy was amazing. I learned so much in that day alone just listening to the 2 of them rap about the innards of Indian politics that I thought my brain was going to melt. It was a seriously awesome last day. The highlight was probably eating pan. This vile combination of betel nut, pan leaf, tobacco, and ground limestone (so it cuts your mouth and absorbs into your blood faster—brilliant). The best part about it is how it dyes your whole mouth and your teeth bright red. There is probably no better thing you could do to embrace Indian culture, seriously– watching two pastie white people spitting out giant mouthfuls of this stuff.

Delhi International Airport will forever be Hellhi International Airport for me. I will not even get into the semantic bullshit that was getting out of there… I will just say one thing, “it sucked.”

A near 24 hours of traveling later I was finally home. I was home! Watching the waves of the Pacific Ocean smash into the Mendocino coast nearly brought tears to my eyes.

A run down of the things I did in the first 48 hours back.
-drank a Moonlight Death & Taxes Black Beer as soon as I got off BART (actually 2).
-put on blue jeans for the first time in 4 months.
-went for a bike ride.
-had a bagel with the works.
-went to the REI garage sale.
-went to a Himalayan Fair?
-went to a show with a band playing songs about things like “jumping” and “electricity” where I was one of the oldest people… weird.
-visited some old favorite Mission dives that still contain the same shitty beer and loser clientele as always.
-found myself in a conversion van at 2:00 a.m. going to an all-night disco?
-went to an all-night disco?
-woke up in the morning and some how ended up going to Port Casta, a famous East Bay biker bar, with 5 other young girls in a 1978 Dodge Swinger blasting Caption Beyond. It fucking ruled.
-Took countless sexy photos with my friends on top of that ’78 Swinger after many card games and the one Bloody Mary and one half Cape Cod that it took to get me drunk.
-had the most delicious grilled veggies and shrimp ever made at my friend’s house right before passing out… at 10:00 p.m.

Ever since, it’s been strictly business. Well, for the most part at least.

M

M

M

dsc02524Activities:
Alchemy.

Interests:
Tomfoolery, clandestineness, manipulation, esotericism and the abstruse.

Post-its, Q-tips, Jason Toothpaste, Lush, spell check and Dictionary.com.

Kale, peanut butter, wild mushrooms, nutritional yeast, fish in cans, dark chocolate covered almonds, mustard oil, smoothies and seeds high in omega fatty acids.

Funny faces, singing things that are generally spoken, breaking into dance, thumb war and applying a light amount of pressure to the back of someones knee.

Lavender, ylang-ylang, Himalayan Cedar, sweet orange, clary sage and patchouli.

Smiling wrinkles, whispering, blowing kisses, fishy face and blowing on peoples stomachs.

And bikes and goats and spring time.

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One Response to “LAURA BRENNAN”

  1. vinit singh Says:

    hi,
    I felt grt reading your article about your experience in india,specially in bodhgaya.But i also felt that you faced lot of difficulty here because of weather and lonlyness.My self vinit singh offering my invitation to you in my hotel free of cost in bodhgaya,please visit again this place and i assure you your whole trip of india would be taken care.


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