I drank chai in the dry heat at least twice every day – my only break from rice and savory curry. It sat on the sunned bench in a small silver tank. The creamy brown tea was hotter than the air, burning my fingers through the small paper cup. I stood in the middle of the brown sand drive, loving my India dessert.
A gecko smaller than my pinky finger hid between my suitcase and the wall. He scampered out of the room through the crack under the door, came back once, and left again. I felt guilty for wanting him gone, concerned he didn’t like the open hallway.
I experienced love and homesickness in the form of baking chocolate chip cookies with once the wrong kind and once the right kind of vanilla extract.
Middle-aged women prayed for me on a Tuesday afternoon. We were under the ceiling fan with the window open – one in starched sari and one in worn salwar kameez.
I frequented the tailor shop, always scattered with uncut, patterned fabric, smiles the main form of communication, the green-gray-eyed seamstress always curious.
Rats, monkeys lived at the train station, the baby monkey clinging to its mother’s thin and stretched belly. I stood for hours, careful not to let the edge of my foot touch the ground beneath my sandals, ready to run if the animals inched closer when the light intermittently went out.
I watched the sun rise from my bunk on the overnight train, sandwiched into a compartment with one young and one old Indian man and my travel buddy on the three other beds. All were asleep while I fearfully clung to the orange ball shining through the dust-covered window. It looked like The Lion King out there.
The older man made conversation with us in 10 or less English words at the end of our train ride. I’d been afraid of him the entire trip after hearing him grunt and seemingly argue with an attendant.
I bought chai for two rupees from a chai-wallah who got on at one of the train stops while the others continued to sleep. He offered me a second cup and had the happiest smile.
We sped up switchbacks to the hill station in the back of a taxi, signs warning fast drivers in English at every turn.
I looked up to the moon in the clear black sky through the palm leaves, the fumes of mosquito repellent and gasoline-smoke strong.
I ate the sweetest supermarket pineapple alone on the roof, rushing to beat the mosquitoes.
Rat-or-bat noises squeaked through my window air conditioner after I returned from a two-week trip. I pulled my bed away from the wall. The noises stopped after a week.
My favorite dining hall dish was spicy red egg curry. On that forever mound of white rice.
I ventured into the kitchen pantry to find (and eat) the Nutella I knew was there but was only served when guests came for breakfast.
I pretended to learn to cook but was only overwhelmed – all to get some home-made food and spend time with generous friends.
We ventured to the city – to buy a cell phone, go to the dentist, and get subway – all in an auto on our own. It was a long day.
I haggled prices and talked with an accent that wasn’t mine. Did anyone think I was mocking?
I bought an expensive long green sweater for the mountain’s cold evenings – and because I trusted the quiet shop owner.
I squinted at the Himalayas after climbing hundreds of steps. We took the cable car down.
I rode a horse along the mountainside, fearing for the blisters I’d have from the stirrups, and fearing for my place in the saddle, as we galloped down the steep, stony path. Sultan was white and followed my directions, but he listened more to our rushed guides.
I met students – held their hands and sang with them and told them about OHIO.
I watched older students mock their teachers in a skit. So composed were they usually, I finally saw them free and pressing boundaries.
I listened to the fears of young women facing long train rides and life in villages. They held my hand on their bunks.
I recorded the names of my soon-to-be-teacher-friends and attended their farewells three mornings in a row.
I ate lunch with beautiful ladies, young and old, every day under the pavilion. When it got hot, we moved to the almost-air-conditioned dining hall. They always shared their homemade food, and it was always the best. They always joked, and we always laughed, grinning and holding each other’s stares.
My friend some days in the spring brought to work jasmine for my hair, and I saved all of the flowers in a tin.
I fainted on the street in the busiest and most dangerous part of the city, but I wasn’t afraid. These friends I’d known a few months – I trusted them.