Traveling mercies

January 15, 2007 at 12:00 PM • Filed under India 2007

          My friend Rene, before I left for India, wished me "traveling mercies." I'd never heard the phrase before. So far, though, I have met many mercies.
          Outside the National Museum in Delhi, waiting for it to open, I was approached by a young Indian woman from London and her mother. After we visited the downtrodden museum, in which I was followed like the Pied Piper by a stream of adorable schoolchildren ("Hello!  Madam, hello!  How are you?"), the two Londoners and I decided to visit an open-air market called Dilli Haat, where the mother took her arm in mine and demonstrated how
bargaining works.
          It is a game with a very pre-determined outcome. First, you ask their price. You roll your eyes at what they say and offer half. They protest. You stall a bit, then they offer something just below their original price. You roll your eyes again and walk away - but before you are out of earshot they call you back. The whole scene is repeated. It might even be repeated a third time. Then you leave with just over your half-price offer.
          "Don't let them cheat you," my Indian mother said as the three of us shared a Gujarati snack that involved chickpea flour soaked in a sweet sauce.
          Next day I met Tim from London, outside the Red Fort. Bored with his job as a film sound engineer, he was traveling Asia for a year. I couldn't keep track of everywhere he was planning to go. Although it was wonderful to speak English with him, it was also wonderful to walk the haunted Moghul palace grounds in silence with him, and in Old Delhi I was even more fortunate to be in the presence of a man, walking those cramped alleyways both putrid and pungent, from where thousands of curious eyes peer with wonder.
          At one point we were followed for 10 minutes by a tenacious, barefoot boy, skin black as dirt, begging us, begging us. I gave him a piece of chocolate and then shoved him, a shove of love, because in following us he may have gotten lost from his home, if he even had one, and I didn't want him to follow us more. "Go!" I shouted at him, not sure if he knew what chocolate was. He melted into the chaos of Old Delhi. Soon Tim melted into the chaos, too, after we wished each other well and told each other about our respective blogs. (I will post his here soon.)
          I met a third traveling mercy on my first train ride yesterday, from Delhi to Agra, where I am now. I had just gotten on the train, flustered from my experience in the station and bewildered by the train car, when I saw a white face - oh, I hope her seat is next to mine! - and it was. Wisia, from British Columbia and on her way to Kerala to see her guru, had been to India before and instructed me on the ways of an Indian train car. And then we discovered that both of us had recently given up traditional career paths, and had both recently discovered the importance of being patient while waiting for the universe to provide you with direction, and were both in the process of realizing that who you are is more important than what you do. We shook our heads and smiled at the commonalities, and when not talking peered out through the open train window at the flat, fertile farmland that links Delhi with Agra. 
          Wisia, Tim, mother & daughter from London - thank you for your company in this exhausting, exhilarating, noisy, filthy, fascinating, kind, infuriating and stunning place - and traveling mercies to you.