Monday, December 13, 2010

The journey has begun...

The other morning bright and early I got up to go get my visa to India. It was a freezing cold morning and I'd bundled up. I had a reservation and, surprisingly for me, I arrived on time, only to find a line out the door. I thought the fact that I had a 10:40 reservation would be relevant, but apparently it was not. The guy before me had a 9:40 reservation. It was going to be a long morning and I had to get to work.

I was perhaps fifteenth in line so I thought I should go up and tell the Hispanic guard with the walkie talkie and wire in his ear that I had an appointment. A woman in a fur coat with a red-dyed fur hat was putting on her mascara behind me and I asked her if she'd hold my place. "I'm not in line," she told me in a thick Russian accent.

As I approached the guard, a Russian man (the husband of the woman in fur, it turns out)with a lot of dandruff was shouting at the guard about not having an appointment but needing a visa. The Russian man was going into a long, complicated story about his documents and his need to travel, but the guard would have none of it. "Go to the back of the line, sir."

Just then an elderly Indian man approached and said that he too had to get a visa and he couldn't wait. "Do you have a reservation, sir?" the guard asked. The man replied he did not but he required a visa. "But do you have a reservation." Once more the man said he did not. This elderly gentlemen was nicely dressed with a cap on his head that looked "ethnic" to me. I'm not sure how else to describe it, but the matter took a kind of cultural turn. This gentleman began shouting at the security guard.

Meanwhile the Russian was still trying to explain his problem, but the guard began shouting back at the Indian gentleman that he needed a reservation. Around me a Sikh in an orange turban was yelling into his cellphone in a language I did not know. Other people of Indian descent were also on their phone, some crying, some begging for documents from family members. "I need my birth certificate," I heard one girl sob. "Fax it to me."

When the elderly gentleman refused to take no for an answer, the guard called upstairs for backup. "I need help down here," he said. When a woman appeared, he shouted in Spanish, "I need some one to tell this crazy asshole to go away." I'm not sure who understood him, but I did.

Finally the manager of the visa venue came outside in his shirt sleeves on a freezing day. "No walk-ins, absolutely no walk-ins. You must have a reservation," he shouted in a distinctly German accent to the angry elderly gentleman and the Russian man who were now both screaming.

There was lots of rumbling from the crowd. Some people left. Many did not have a reservation. The line shortened.

Things settled down. After about half an hour, I was first in line. I was told to turn off my cellphone and prepare my documents, which I did. Then I got upstairs where there were two more very long lines, one that snaked around, and one where you had to wait to get your documents examined.

After about fifteen minutes a woman asked me to come up to the front. She looked over everything. Said all was in order, but I didn't have enough pages in my passport for the India visa and therefore I was denied.

"What do you mean?"

"You need visa pages in your passport. You have only one page available. You need two."

"But no where did it say I needed two."

"Well, you do."

This is what I get for traveling so much.

I was told I had to go to the US passport office and there I would be issued new pages or a new passport, depending on what I preferred, but that I would have to make an appointment for this and that could take several days (which it did). Before leaving I thought I should make another appointment for my visa, but on the way to the computers, I ran into the manager who asked me my problem and I explained about my passport pages.

He nodded, then made a sweeping gesture of the room that was filled with the troubled, turmoiled masses, snaking slowly around in their lines. "Why don't you just mail your application in?"

"May I?"

"Why would you ever want to come back here again?" The question for him was clearly rhetorical, but I couldn't help but note the disdain in his voice. His message to me was coded. Because it was clear to him that I was white and educated and many who frequented his establishment were not.

I made a mental note that I would not mail my application; I would return in person if I could.

As I walked out, the Hispanic bouncer asked me why I was leaving so soon. "My passport doesn't have enough pages."

He shook his head, his voice filled with pity. "That's a bummer," he said.

On the packed subway, heading to Grand Central, I needed to write some of this down, but I had nothing to write on. So I took out a piece of paper and tried to scribble notes on the pole. A young man of mixed race asked if I wanted to sit down. "No, thank you. I'm getting off at the next stop."

"But you're trying to write on that pole." I shugged and he held up his hand to me. Not knowing what else to do, I high fived him. He looked a little stunned, then he burst out laughing. "I was holding it up for you to write on it," he said.

As we pulled into Grand Central, I wished him a good day. On the train to work I nibble from the snack bag Larry had prepared for me. My purse is always filled with all kinds of things - gloves, water bottles, snacks, pens, life savers. I wasn't paying that much attention. I was reading and nibbling. Then I ate a dog treat. Apparently I also had a bag of these.

I sat back, gazing as the train crossed the Harlem River, a part of my commute to work I always love. So, I thought, the journey has begun...

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

A Room with a View

This morning I was working on my itinerary to India. I wrote to the travel agent who is helping me and told her that in Varanasi I wanted a room with a view. I thought about this a lot after I wrote it. While traveling, I am hardly in my room. And yet, like so many of us, always want a room with a view.

Last spring in Istanbul my husband and I moved downstairs three times because the first room with a view was only available for two nights, the second, one floor lower, for the next two, and then, when he left me and went home, I found myself living on the street level. As Larry said, "we're moving down in the world." But what makes us suffer the inconvience of moving just for a fleeting glance of the Sea of Marmara.

Well, everything, I guess. We all want a perspective. A vista on the world. I am the kind of person who will panic in a stuck elevator or an MRI. But give me a view and I can breathe - if I can see the world. This was never made more real to me than when I agreed to wear a Winnie the Pooh suit at a children's book fair. The mask went over my head and I literally stopped breathing. Someone had to take over.

"Don't fence me in," has sort of been my motto for a long time. We all need it. Open spaces. A sense of freedom. Last summer L and I stayed in the south of Spain in an apartment that was billed as beach-front, which it was, but, for reasons to complex to go into, it actually had no window that looked out on it. The living room in fact was completely enclosed. My fantasy of standing on a balcony, looking out at the Mediterranean, dashed.

E.M. Forster understood this as much as anyone. When Lucy Honeychurch and Miss Bartlett arrive at their pensione in Florence, only to learn that the room with a view that had been promised to them was not available, the women are crestfallen. "I wanted so to see the Arno," Lucy says. It is of course Lucy's search for a room with a view that leads her to opening her spirit, to visiting the Santa Croce with no Baedeker, to experiencing life in its rawness, and, ultimately, to opening her heart and falling in love, as we all knew and hoped she would, with George.

In Forster's book there are many views and not just of the Arno. One character comes to "view" another in a new and special way. Someone does something with the "view" to doing something different.

So despite the annoyance I have sometimes caused my family (in the Caymans when I made us switch from a room with a pounding AC and a view of the parking lot to one that at sand level that looked at the Caribbean; in Istanbul when I made us change room three times just for a glimpse of the sea) they have in the end come to see the pleasure in seeing. Visual openness can lead to an openess of heart and spirit. And the two will go hand in hand.

I am excited for the journey ahead. I am looking forward to my view of the Ganges. And beyond.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Traveling in the Shadows...

For a long time I have been interested in negative space. Not what is before us, but what is not. Not the object, but the space around it. For me many journeys are like this. It is not what is in the itinerary, but what happens in between. Not what we planned for, but what we didn't anticipate. There's a quote by Henry Miller that expresses this is another way. Miller says that our lives are shaped as much by those who refuse to love us as by those who do. This is a kind of emotional negative space. Not what is, but what isn't. Not what we see, but what is implied.

On our recent trip to Morocco we hired a guide. From the minute I laid eyes on him I knew it wasn't going to be a good match. I wanted stories. All he could tell me were facts. It was obvious from his demeanor that he had told these facts over and over and they meant nothing to him. When we were near the presidential palace, he asked if I wanted to take a picture. I didn't. I'm not interested in snapshots. But out of politeness I complied. In the middle of my snapping the picture, he took the camera from me and pushed the button himself.

He wanted me to see what he saw. What he assumed every tourist wants to see. He would not have understood if I told him that what I wanted only exists in the shadows.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Journey as Surreal...

Gabriel Garcia Marquez once said that to him there was no such thing as magical realism. What people saw as magical in his books actually happened to him. Part of his youth was spent growing up in a large house where many relatives had died. When Gabriel was bad, his grandparents never punished him. They just locked him in a room with so and sos ghost.

To me every day life can be quite surreal. I recall the swimming pool my friend Carol and I found in the middle of the Mexican desert. Pristine, full of water, but when we got in to swim in the cool, soothing waters, a campesino arrived and told us that we couldn't swim in his patron's pool. Where the campesino came from and where his patron was remain mysteries to me. Apparently the patron didn't have the funds yet to build the house, but he had dug and filled the pool.

This picture above reflects one such moment. Larry and I were late to get the ferry to North Africa. We raced to Algeciras which had the slow ferry (as opposed to Tarifa that had the "fast" ferry; I wanted to sail into North Africa the way the Phoenicians did). At the terminal we learned that there was a ferry leaving in ten minutes and another in two hours, which meant that with the time difference if we took the later ferry we'd arrive in the middle of the night.

We tried to grab two tickets, but two Moroccan men were having visa issues in front of us. Finally they stepped out of the way as we purchased our tickets to Tangier. The ticket clerk phoned the ship's captain to say that two passengers were on the way. As we were led, racing to the huge vessel which could easily hold a few thousand people, I asked the woman guiding us if we were the last passengers. "No," she told me, "you are the only passengers."

I made her repeat it twice. "Unicos??"

As you can see from this photo, except for a few truckers who had cargo in the hold, we are in fact the only passengers. We are standing alone in this enormous ship's cafe. Two hours later we docked in what would not be Tangier ("I was misinformed" - one of the many lines from Casablanca I recall)but a place call Port du Med. We ambled alone down the gangplank to greet the solitary customs official who waited for us in an empty parking lot.

In the 1930's Andre Breton went to Mexico to teach surrealism to the Mexicans. He wanted a table on which he could do his work and he asked a carpenter if he could make him such a table. Breton drew for the carpenter an architectural drawing of a table - diamond shaped, two short legs in front, long in back. A few days later the man returned with a diamond shaped table built to architectural perfection with long legs in back and short in the front.

Shortly thereafter Breton left Mexico and returned to France. When asked why he was leaving, Breton is reported to have said, "I have nothing to teach the Mexicans about surrealism."