After twenty-four hours of traveling (and waiting to travel), we arrive, before dawn’s break, in Kerala. The modern miracle of flight continues to befuddle me—without hardly “moving,” we begin and end our journey in two airports, both “alike in dignity,” as if we could change the nameplates written in Malayalam and English and hardly recognize the difference.
Can it be that we were home just the other day (or days ago)? I think of my forebears, lodged and stacked like cordwood, in the underbelly of a ship, the “homeless, tempest-tossed,” patiently crossing the Atlantic in a journey that lasted months. I marvel at their undaunted courage.
I am thankful for the hospitality of the flight attendants, who keep us fed and watered, pouring wine or juice or water and providing warm meals at regular intervals. The inflight movies occupy my mind so that the fourteen or so hours between Chicago and Abu Dhabi pass with little fanfare. I sleep when I can, though not much, and try not to think that our plane—held aloft by science and human ingenuity—is some thirty thousand feet above the ocean.
The practicality of airplane travel trumps sentimentality or romanticism for crossing the ocean in a luxury steamliner, but it seems to me that we, traveling in our semi-sonic sensory deprivation capsule, trade one miracle at the expense of another. I’m not always certain if technological advances are, in fact, for the greater good, or just another in the long, unfortunate line of Faustian pacts. Robert Pirsig’s argues, in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance that traveling via motorbike, as opposed to an automobile, is the only way one can truly experience the call of the open road. The car, with her well-meaning walls and roof, may protect us from elements and assailing fauna, but prevents us from feeling the wind in our nostrils and noticing the black-eyed-susans sprung up against the banks of a nascent playa lake.
If, then, going 65 miles per hour in my 1999 Buick LeSabre, means that I fail to notice or appreciate the subtle beauty of Mother Nature, then traveling 500 miles per hour in a Boeing 747 means that I may as well be deaf, dumb, and blind.
Traveling by airplane is the closest the average person can get to actually “time traveling,” because distance shrinks when it takes a shorter amount of time to travel from one location to another. But it isn’t my preferred mode. I much prefer traveling by car or bus (though I suspect I would like traveling by train, something I have yet to experience, though it is very much on my to-do list). And even though Mr. Pirsig would disagree, in a car—another capsule—it is still possible for one to see the world.
Growing up in the Texas Panhandle, which was about 5 hours away from anywhere decent, my family would load up family minivan and make our twice yearly pilgrimage to that fabled Holy land of the East—Austin, Texas—wherein we would visit friends and relatives. Austin is approximately 500 miles from Amarillo and what our mighty Etihad airplane could accomplish in one hour, took my dad eight and a half. During those eight hours, we crossed from the high plains, through the sandy cotton country of Lubbock, down through the Llano Estacado, past the wind farms of Abilene, to where the scrubby bushes evolve into trees and the land grows into the Texas Hill Country. Like a variegated yarn, the changes are subtle, and perhaps, only noticeable when comparing the landscape as a whole, rather than the sum of its parts.
I press my nose against the window of my family’s Chrysler mini-van and feel the heat our air conditioner is working to combat. I see cattle, telephone poles, ramshackle barns that surely, in days long past, served a purpose.
I press my nose against the window of the airplane and can see nothing. I’m not sure whether or not I find this comforting.
From one capsule to another, we disembark the plane, walking down the long tunnel to the airport terminal, excitement, anticipation, and anxiety tugging at my exhausted limbs. At the very least, when you travel by car or bus or stagecoach, you have had the advantage of seeing what lies ahead, quite literally, on the horizon. You know (or at least, can guesstimate) what the climate will be like, whether or not the natives are hostile, whether or not you overpacked or packed the wrong wardrobe.
In an airplane, such foresight is not (generally) granted to the passenger, and besides, the world looks much different when looking on down below. Landing, therefore, caused my mind to swirl with questions: What would she look like, this India of which I have read and dreamed? Would we be like Dorothy, opening the door to a Technicolor paradise? Would I feel more like Lucy, who, by nature of an enchanted wardrobe, stepped seamlessly from one world into the next?
And, as it turns out, I feel like neither. The terminal is the same, although you notice that the people appear to be dressed differently. The lobby is the same, the signs pointing to Immigration—nothing exotic. No munchkins. No celebratory music. No friendly fauns inviting us to tea. No Technicolor, but then again, at this hour, the Earth is muted by the shroud of night.
Where is the India I pictured? Where are Mowgli and Siddhartha and Gandhi?
My disappointment (disillusionment?) cannot linger long because we have paperwork to navigate and luggage to retrieve. We shuffle like mindless, traveling zombies, too tired to move with great speed. After finding our luggage (miraculously—all there!) and exiting through a great crowd that reminded me of herds of stockyard cattle, we are outside the terminal. Some men greet us and I conclude, by the handshaking of our trip leaders, that these men represent the monastery where we will stay.
We load into the Indian equivalent of a VW minibus and by luck, I end up with a window seat. Coarse polyester curtains block my view, such as it is, and, after failing to push the curtains adequately aside, I use my hand to hold the flap up, like some sort of spinster neighborhood gossip. I press my nose against the window, but the condensation from the muggy morning clouds my sight. I’ve seen enough palm trees in my life to recognize their shadows, but otherwise, the cityscape remains a divine mystery, almost like we traded our large, mega-airplane for a smaller, slower one…
It turns out that we spend the bulk of our time in India in a minibus such as this one, but with more pliable curtains, and when I can, which is often, I score a seat by the window. I press my nose to the glass and watch the seas of color and throngs of meandering people, multi-hued sarees whose splendor is matched only by the brightly painted buses and trucks that haul livestock, raw materials, and people with the same lackadaisical ease. The van becomes our own self-contained capsule, hauling around a group of white American women as its cargo. At one point, another bus, one with no windows, passes at such a close distance that I, if I so desired, I could grab the elbow of its passengers. My nose presses against the window; another face, darker than my own, passes, and in the distance, I see his expression twist from surprise to mirth, probably at the oddity of seeing a face as pale as mine.
We spend hours of time in our private transportation but I grow weary of its curtains, its air-conditioning, and find myself longing to trade places with the intrepid souls crowded in the open-air regional buses. For our comfort, we sacrifice the scorching Indian breezes whipping our hair into knots and tangles of endless frizz. We avoid the aromas of India, the sweet smell of fruit and spices blended with the acrid smell of burning trash and moldy decay. India smells hot—is hot—but oh, to escape her natural discomforts into our own human-made comforts, seems duplicitous and voyeuristic. Though we deny it, we act like the imperialists who conqueror and re-conqueror this land, happy to visit, but only insofar as our Western sensibilities will allow.
Not that I’m immune to this, by the way. My belly soon wearies of curry and fresh fruit. I long for cold cereal, hot showers, and cable television. As much as I long for full-out cultural immersion, I am also pleased when we retreat to our pockets of familiarity and comfort. The capsule is both prison cell and womb, freedom and bondage.
“Embrace India!” One of the friars, with a smile as wide as India itself, encourages us with these two words during a particularly harrowing day of travel. For the rest of our travels, “Embrace India” becomes the rallying cry of the weary traveler, the call to arms for our saturated souls. Embrace her, because she is worthy of embrace. Embrace her, especially when she exhausts your patience. Embrace her when logic fails and God seems otherwise preoccupied. When words no longer convey meaning, the embrace becomes the only response.
But it doesn’t take much reflection to realize that, in all actuality, it was India who embraced us. India who reached out with hospitable arms, who held us, when, like fussy children, we complained about the heat and the food and the inconveniences. It was India who embraced us when our hearts shattered at the vision of crushing poverty and when our spirits danced on cool mountain top summits.
I press my hands into her hands and feel the warmth of her embrace. I press my arms around her arms and she hugs me like the father of the prodigal son. She breaks the barriers of my heart, shatters the glass windows of my self-contained capsules, pushes asides the curtains of my mind in order that I may see clearly. Her embrace is both freedom and bondage, but in her bondage is the capacity to experience depths of human spirit and suffering otherwise muted by our culture’s addiction to desensitization.
To embrace India is to embrace the Self and the Divine, two sides of the same existential coin. I embraced India, but more so, she embraces me. I wonder, for a moment, if this is a window into the embracing of God. I press myself against it: will I—will we—have the courage to look?
by Meredith Kemp-Pappan
Meredith is a candidate for ordained ministries in the Presbyterian Church (USA). She works in the Office of Evangelism and Church Growth at the National Offices of the PC(USA). She holds a Bachelors of Music from West Texas A&M University, a M.Div. from Austin Seminary where she won the Charles L. King Preaching Award for Most Outstanding Preacher in 2008. She is currently pursuing a MA in Spirituality at Bellarmine University in Louisville, KY. In her spare time she enjoys knitting, cooking, and dreams of one day starring in her own Holiday Special.