We arrived in Bangalore before dawn, in the deep dark cauldron of night.
Shuffling and shuffled from hall to hall arriving in Customs in a dense crowd that resisted queues and spit us in fits toward the sleepy wave of an official’s hand. The hall echoed with an industrial din of thudding stamps moving from ink pad to document, ink pad to document hundreds of times over.
In the washroom, the housekeeping staff sat on a flattened piece of cardboard. In saris, and barefoot, one woman sorted her thick long damp tresses of freshly washed hair, while another collected rupee coins for torn rough patches of toilet paper and flakes of soap.
Exting from the airport, drivers in winter caps pulled low over their faces, and bidi smoke rising from their lips, moved towards us in silhouette under a dust pocked sky.
This was my first trip to India, and my friend Lisa’s fourth. She sorted our car and driver and after walking to the fathest back corner of the parking lot, we folded into the tiniest van, then trundled out, sharing roads with ox-pulled wooden carts and domineering festooned lorries, juggernauts of the roadways, that shook our small boxy van as they rumbled by.
The Central Railroad Station had closed for the night. And so I followed Lisa underground into a darkened passageway that was home to families gathered around fires, and where many were deep in sleep on the ground. We crossed beneath a large traffic circle toward the light at the far end and up to the bus stand into a thick cloud of churning diesel fumes. In a few minutes, and for a few rupees, we were sitting on our backpacks in the last seat of an overfull third class bus.
I remember sleeping for deep but brief intervals, thrown awake every time I toppled from the “big air” at the height a bump, or pit in the road, and crash landed onto my backpack.
When the bus slowed into Mysore, Lisa woke me and the city appeared as if by magic spun from a Kipling tale. My first site was a majestic gated palace lit with fairy lights and the next, a golden statue of a great Maharaj.
From the bus stand, and into a rickshaw, Lisa guided us to a small hotel across from a second palace. Twenty-four hours after leaving New York, we climbed the stairs, walked along an outdoor passageway, stepped into a quiet room, washed our faces, laid down shoulder-to-shoulder, and slept.
It could not have been long after, the sky a barely lighter grey, when Lisa sat up and whispered, chai.
Had the festooned royal elephants paraded below our room announcing the mighty Maharaj with a 12-gun salute, I would have slumbered through. But from the other side of our door, a few feet across an outdoor passage way and down one story to the street, my experienced guide heard the hiss of kerosene from a chai seller’s cart that was blessedly parked below our room.
Lisa dressed and in a few minutes returned with two slim sturdy glasses each topped with a square of torn newspaper; a wisp of a lid to keep our chai piping hot.
Sweet, full of fat, malty and bracing with the distinct flavor of Assam’s blackest dust tea, I relished my first taste of India.
Within 30 minutes, we had finished our second glass, winced under the shock of the briefest cold bucket bath, and dressed. And then, I was chasing Lisa down a broad and quiet road under a canopy of shade trees as she raced to our teacher’s classroom.
Join Lisa Schrempp and I in New York City on April 28th at 2:30-4:30 at The Shala for Soumya — Boon of Soma:
Glowing Like the Moon with a Peaceful and Gentle Beauty a special workshop on Chai and Beauty.
Lisa is a wise yoga practitioner, skilled, insightful Ayurvedic counselor; and a beautiful master of chai.