Tuesday, February 10, 2009

First World Wake Up

I've been back in Baltimore for four days yet my body insists I am still in India. It's a hybrid existence that leaves me nodding out in 4pm meetings and waking up amidst 4am darkness. Although the east coast is unseasonably warm, a brief encounter with 15 degree winter the night of my bedraggled return has me still sneezing and sniffly.

To add to my body's confusion, the usual experience of returning into the smooth, safe First World wasn't there this time. The first time I returned from India I worried that I had gone deaf, it was so quiet over here. No wild multi-tunal honking, no shops blaring Bollywood, no puja prayer broadcasts from crackling loudspeakers. Either I'm used to India or the US gets more like what our parents called the Third World each day.

JFK airport, where I landed from shiny Doha-via-Delhi was crowded, littered and bird poo-ed--a small flock of birds were squawking above the Delta ticket counters. Baggage took eons to arrive--I nearly gave up to go nap. On benches, people squashed in from all sides. I fell asleep on my armrest, and awoke with my head on somebody's lap--do Americans not have space issues anymore?

At BWI, a tout spotted me with luggage and offered an overpriced ride home. The taxi descended from the I-95 flyover--oops, overpass--to meet crippled men clunking across abandoned streets to tap at the window. At Charles Street, desperate hands arrived with rags to wash our windshield. Our frozen lumps covered in tattered blankets could have used the fires people light on Delhi roadsides to keep warm on winter nights. The radio issued dire warnings about the collapsing banks and huddled masses of unemployed, 600,000 turned out in January alone (our government promises to put them to work building roads--like Rajasthan's famine relief projects). The taxi passed McDonald's, not Bangalore and Jaipur's shining-new restaurants proffering spicy, upmarket veggie burgers, but sagging with sallow, dirty arches: eateries hawking cheap food that would sicken one more insidiously than the pani puri snack stalls in the Indian markets.

The newspapers said, America's health system abandons the poor to impossible decisions between sickness or bankruptsy. Luckily, I had pills from India to mend my ailing stomach and help me sleep. I woke up in the moonlight, confused. A helicopter shuttled across the sky looking for a murderer.

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