The Professor, the Chair, the Bag, the Train, the Change

The alarm goes off, the professor runs to the bathroom, I let her get ready first (even though I set up the alarm twenty minutes ahead of time to get myself showered), because I know at this point how anxious she gets about timing. No trace of latin timing reside in that woman, she’s punctual as it comes, she’s also white, North American and old. It’s 4:40 a.m. and our train is at 7:00 a.m.

It’s incredible how you can become acquainted to someone when you spend every single second of the day with them for a few days. A week together and I’m fully aware and conscious of the things that bother the professor, and the things she needs, like sitting. It’s become quite a spectacle actually… a senior white woman, with wild, greyish-white curly hair, wearing a traditional Pakistani outfit with white Adidas tennis shoes and holding on to a big blue bag and a mini-folded chair. The type of chair you bring camping, or a to a BBQ, or to the beach… she brings it with her at all times. What the observers do not know is that she cannot stand without moving for more than a minute. I’m not quite sure why, and I figured she’d tell me if she wanted to, but the professor holds on to youth in spirit and I have a feeling that any talk about the way her body is giving in to the turning wheel of time is not welcomed. And so as we go through security, when entering the metro, or a monument, or a museum, or temple, the Indian army guards surround us pointing at what looks to them like a weapon of some sort.

“It’s for sitting, I need it!” she says holding the chair as close to her body as possible. Of course they do not understand, her english is to perfect for them. Even for me sometimes. It’s the moment when you realize that your status as english as a second language speaker allows you to understand how to communicate with other ESL people. Something average native speakers ignore, if they have not gone through the process of speaking a different language. The slangs, the way things are explained, the way sentences are formed all become confusing labyrinths for those of us who learn…

“It’s a chair,” I calmly say. They look at me now, and let us through looking perplexed at the idea of carrying a chair around.

Another beautiful scenario is when we stand in line at the “women’s only” section of the metro, specially the late runs when Indian women are heading home after work, school or market visits. When the metro takes a few minutes to arrive, the professor swings her chair open and happily sits. Everyone faces her with puzzled looks, no one understands what she is doing. Women refuse to line up behind us, and instead crowd over to other lineups who are more full. When we hear the bustling metro approach, she stands un and closes her chair, and everyone around laughs and points. The professor does not seem to notice or care, but I do, and I wonder what it is they are thinking? “Crazy old woman carrying chair around to sit for a few seconds”, or something more like, “oh Americans! Can’t wait in line for a minute!” Either way, if they knew, like me, that she’s in pain when standing they wouldn’t laugh. But they do, and the confusion and misunderstanding makes me smile as I start pushing our way to the inside of the metro…

Our lovely front desk boys have arranged for us to have delicious dal and roti with Indian tea (chai) before we part for the mountains of Uttarakhand. At 6:00 a.m. our driver is waiting for us, and into the fog we go, the boys carrying the professor’s bag because she cannot carry it, and the front desk boys waving good bye, reminding us to write a review on trip advisor and stay with them on our way back to Delhi. The early morning quietness of the city fills me with wonder and nostalgia, I’ve only stayed there a week, but I was starting to see the city as any other, full of mazes and movements… we arrived at the train station where we had to hire a coolie to carry her bags, he then walked us to our train about 350 meters and then pretended to charged us 500 rupees. The professor gave him 150 rupees while arguing that the price for one bag is 150, and constantly repeating “no” as the coolie looked upset and disappointed. I looked away, I did not hire him and I did not have the energy to leave Delhi in an argument.

The images started first slowly and then fast as we rode through villages and farms. In the early minutes of the morning, I kept seeing men, women and children coming close to the tracks to “do their morning business”, squatting down, giving us shameless peaks to their private parts as they pooped or peed. I had the delight to see a young boy pooping while five of his friends stood around him and conversed happily. There’s no shame in India, and that’s the way it should be. I thought I was liberal using the toilet in front of my partner but I’ve yet to gather the girls for a wine night as ask them to accompany me to the backyard while I squat… The father the distance from Delhi the greener the land, the smaller the villages and the longer the farms. The vastness of India’s farm land allows me to rejoice and settle in to the idea of living on a farm for three months. The villages we go through have that general Indian look I’ve seen so far, narrow two story buildings built from a mix of brick, wood, cow dung and mud. Colourful bed sheets and clothes hang from the small balconies, cows are warmed with beautiful twine shawls, wooden pots hold grass and water for them to drink, women and men start the day looking strong and holding tin pots with warm food, most women cover their mouths to avoid inhaling the dust of the passing train, many are travelling by motorcycle, some in cars, some are walking cows, some milking them, or working the fields, already making cow dung “cakes” to use for oil later…

The one thing I’ve noticed about India is that everyone has a job, no matter how small it may seem to us overachieving Americans (the continent), but absolutely essential to the way of living and the community. I later learn from Mahadev, our spiritual guide at the farm, that this job segregation comes from the caste system. Regardless, people here work, every day.

I begin imagining life at the farm, when I start to notice the landscape changing from vast farmlands to thick forest. Thick cores with thick branches that extend to very small branches and no leaves, tall cores with small branches in the top filled with leaves, medium height cores with tons of branches and leaves. The same kaki-coloured monkeys sitting upon branches, eating, playing or scratching each others’ backs looking for fleas.
I start to think about the book my grandfather gave me for Christmas, “Magical Trees in Costa Rica”, and start inventing names for this beautiful trees.

I’ve fallen asleep, the train announces the arrival to Dehradun, the professor is hiring a coolie to grab her bags, I tell him repeatedly that I can carry my bags as I start the process of throwing them upon my back and arms, yanking them from his arms as he continues to suggest its obligatory to hire a coolie. As I start to walk outwards, the coolie directs us to one of his rickshaw friends who charges us double the price for the trip to Navdanya Concentration Farm. I am adjusting to being in movement again and breaking away from my thoughts and idealism, we agree the price and jump on a rickshaw to undertake a 45 minute bumpy ride to the farm. The craziness starts to fill my head with thoughts of anxiety, what if he doesn’t take us to the gate, how will we carry the professor’s bag, what if I don’t like the farm, what if… “breathe” I think to myself, “everything will be okay”. Soon enough we drive away from the city and into the farmland once again, I start to feel more at home once more when we turn onto a mango tree orchard and beautiful hand painted signs say: “Welcome to Navdanya”.

We jump off and a wonderful man, whom I’ve had the pleasure to get to know slowly now, named Geetpal grabs the professor’s bag and drops them off in the entrance of the farm.

“Leave there, no worry, safe, put down, put down,” he says smiling and helping me to my bags, “come, we have food”.

We walk past the main office into the dining hall where we are welcomed to a full Indian meal: chapati, rice, dal, aloo curry, carrots and radishes for salads, and water on the side. I began to unwind and slow down, this is a new type of life and energy here. Slow down, breathe, reflect. Slow down, breathe, reflect. Slow down…


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