by Elizabeth Galewski
You’ll know it when you’re really gone.
My alarm went off and I shot out of the hard bed in my dingy Delhi hotel room, every cell in my body charged and eager. I was going to fly to London that day. I was going to pack up my bags, go to the airport, and fly to London. I was leaving! In a few short hours, I was going to be out of India!
I quickly packed my bags one last time. “Once I’m at the airport,” I told myself, “For all intents and purposes, I’ll be out of India.” Airports are non-places, I figured, the same everywhere you go.
Then, however, I got to Indira Gandhi International. This particular airport wasn’t, I discovered, the same as everywhere else. I had to deal with multiple redundant security checks, a surprise “passenger service fee” of 200 rupees, and a scavenger hunt for mandatory baggage tags. By the time the frisking came along, I had decided that the airport wasn’t really “out of India,” after all.
So then I told myself that, as soon as I got to the gate, I’d really be out of India. Surely I would have passed every major obstacle by that time.
But then I got to the gate and saw a crowd of a few hundred passengers (it was a 747, after all,) packed in a great mob around the door to the skyway.
Not out of India yet.
After about forty-five minutes, I finally made it past the crowd and the (multiple, redundant) ticket takers. Surely it was over now!
But no! In the skyway were approximately five Indian men in military uniforms, demanding to inspect each passenger’s passport. This was, of course, a redundant procedure. The passports had already been checked many times.
Finally, though, I was allowed to board the plane. I settled into my seat with an audible sigh of relief. Out of India!
It was a nice first-world airplane – clean and modern and reliable. For the length of the flight, I cackled in glee, drinking soda with ice and eating fresh salad with no fear of becoming ill. There was a real Western toilet, with – my god – its own supply of toilet paper. The pilot spoke with a nifty British accent. Oh, yes.
But there were also things about the flight that struck me as odd. I watched the in-flight entertainment and found myself cringing at images of Western women wearing tank tops and swimsuits. I found myself marveling at the decadence portrayed in Western films – the glorification of sex, money, and drugs. I found myself shocked and scandalized by Western music videos, which dripped with gold jewelry and bare legs. Do these people have no shame?
I was sitting next to a middle-aged Indian couple – I imagined what they thought about the images that were flashing on the television screens. I cringed even more.
Then, when I got off the airplane at Heathrow and took the Tube to my hotel in Bloomsbury, something felt even more gravely wrong. London seemed very different than it had two months previously, when I had passed through on the way to Delhi. That time, I had been blase, and London had appeared much as I had remembered it from previous trips, and much like every other large European capital that I had visited. I had spent that day at the British Museum, looking sadly at the Elgin marbles – gray and lifeless in those humorless galleries – and wishing they were still attached to the Parthenon in Greece, bathed in the gold light of the Mediterranean.
Having just spent two months in India, however, London seemed utterly strange, quite different from how I had remembered it. This time, I did not go to the British Museum. I did not go to the Tower of London. I did not go to Big Ben. Instead, I walked the streets of London. I walked without a destination in mind, feeling my feet hit the pavement, staring at the world that was rotating slowly before me.
I walked for hours, which turned into days. I gradually realized that physically leaving India might not be enough to qualify as being “out.”
I was in London, but I was not out of India.
It wasn’t just the way people dressed, in immaculate gray wool and pressed slacks, not a single rip or missing button. It wasn’t just the obvious wealth implied by clean streets, gleaming storefronts and electric street lighting. It wasn’t just the restaurants, where astronomical prices went to support a clever decor and where the tablecloths are tossed in the laundry after every customer. It wasn’t just the cars, which usually had only one passenger. It wasn’t just the buildings, which were beautifully painted, with clean glass windows. It wasn’t just the air, which was clear and breathable.
More than the obvious wealth of the city itself, it was the people who astonished me. It was the people, and the way that they walked around on these streets, ate in these restaurants, and breathed this air. They did these things as if they weren’t remarkable, without thinking, without realizing the extent and breadth of their wealth.
Two months previously, I had been one of them.
If anything, two months previously, I would have said that Europe seems a bit dingy to my American eyes, since the buildings are so old.
They say that India will change your life. I didn’t believe them, until I stepped off that 747 in London. Now, I think I know what they were trying to say.
I may never manage to get out of India. And I no longer want to.
Elizabeth Galewski‘s story won the Silver Award for Travel and Transformation in the Second Annual Solas Awards.
About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.