27 August 2012


I like to travel. And I'd like to think I'm kind of adventurous. I tried to pick up a little French when I went there, and Italian for Italy. And having learned a little, I like to try to use it. Anywhere I have gone, English has been in fairly common use, so I've never had to rely solely on what I can learn of the host language. Shame on me.

So, finally, a little late in the game, it dawned on me that I had done almost nothing to prepare for the trip to India. Hardly any reading, and no language study on my own. Dr. Laurel gave us language and culture lessons during our 6-months of preparation - and these came in quite handy. But just weeks before our July departure, I finally got my hands on the Pimsleur introduction to Hindi.

Pimspleur is a system of learning strictly by sound (nothing in print), and is designed for conversation especially around travel matters. (Directions, meals, etc.Maybe they advance to more sophisticated conversation and I just haven't stuck with it long enough. But it's been enough for my short trips.) Surprisingly, neither my excellent local library, nor the College library had Hindi language learning on CD. Audio tapes? Who learns a language on audio tape anymore? So for the first time I bought my Pimsleur guide, and charged through 10 introductory 30-minute lessons before our July 9 departure. It was nearly enough to start getting some of the sounds in my ears. And boy, was I wrong about what I thought I knew.

But thas wasn't the source of my highest anxiety in India. Not knowing Hindi was the heart of it. But I never expected to actually need the language. We would be with 3 - 5 Hindi speakers at any given time throughout the 2 weeks. And as we began to navigate Varanasi, in multiple auto rickshaws or walking groups, it was a rule: each group must have a Hindi speaker and an adult male. There were enough of each to go around.

On our Saturday night in Varanasi, we headed out to the apartment of our host, James, for pizza (Domino's! Goat meat!) and a movie (Bollywood! "Three Idiots!"). We piled into 3 rickshaws - each with an adult male and a Hindi speaker - and just before roaring off, Jane (the bilingual in my rickshaw) was moved to another vehicle. This left me in front with the driver, and 3 American teenaged girls in the back. Annoying, but not  yet anxiety producing.

We were the 3rd of the rickshaws, and the one in front of us had a distinctive marking. It was easy to track in the complicated, fast traffic. I saw it go around a traffic circle, then continue straight on in the same direction. Our driver, however, was clearly not going to complete the circle, but turned left out of it. I pointed and waved, "to that way," but he waved me off and stayed left. Well, I thought, presumably all the drivers have the address, and he knows another way.

This fantasy lasted a while, until I realized that the streets had fewer and fewer rickshaws, that I was seeing traffic signs that were not in English, that the streets were less well lit. I started to scan the streets for sign of policemen. I wondered whether I should tell the girls, "I think this guy is lost - or worse? Pray!" I racked my brain for the little bit of Hindi I tried to learn to see if we could make any sense of each other.

Finally, I asked - I'm sure in very poor Hindi - Do you speak English? Well, no, not so much. He knew enough English to tell me that he doesnt' know much English. We were equally matched; that was pretty much all I knew of Hindi.

Eventually, asked the driver to take us back to Assi Ghat. This is a place close enough to our guest house that  I knew how to get back there. I reasoned - if we're really separated from the rest of the group, at least we'll be safe at the guest house. And the others would be able to find us there.

Did I mention that we didn't have a phone with us? That's another story.

Anyway, when I asked him to take us back, our driver stopped. At a poorly lit intersection. In a very lonely street. He got on his phone, and talked to who knows whom? One of the girls asked, "why are we stopped?" I explained that I was pretty sure our driver was lost. And that I didn't know who he was talking to. And that now would be an excellent time to pray.

The driver took off again, and within a couple of minutes, I saw we were being waved into an even smaller alley. OK, I thought, this is not good. But as we made the turn, there was another of our team's rickshaws, with people just piling out. Whew! And - Thank you, Lord!

The other vehicles had gotten bogged down in one of the pilgrim parades that went through Varanasi every night. They had no idea that ours was on a completely different route. They confirmed that no, the driver did not have the address to where we were headed. And - may I say, this was annoying - no one seemed to udnerstand why I was so upset! "Don't you ever let that happen again! Every group must have a Hindi speaker!"

In the end I calmed down enough to eat goat meat pizza (ha!) and enjoy a Bollywood movie. The poor driver was paid 50 rupees less because he "scared his passengers." And/But we never had another Hindi-free small group!

I've been out on my own in cities in other countries. I've had the occasion to try out German, French, and Italian in places where it may or may not have been needed. But this trip to India proved that I am not the adventurous traveler I like to think I am. Something about the very foreign language. About Asia. Or maybe it was just about being an adult with responsibility for students. Whatever it was, my high anxiety was highly informative.

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