I write while stinking of insect repellent and sweat, sitting under the fan in my bedroom, and trying to gather my scattered thoughts while the (not so) harmonious sound of evening traffic, people, birds and cows plays on the in the background. I’m currently in India on a short research trip visiting the ladybird research group at Lucknow University and it’s been quite the week. To be honest I’m not even sure where to start. People always say the best thing to do in such cases is to start at the beginning, but the colorful boisterous blur of life since getting here doesn’t lend itself well to chronological order. So I’ll start with the best bits first.
India is hot and spicy, with delicious food and insects that in turn find me delicious. Right now I am covered in so many bites I look like I have the plague, this is all despite copious application of repellent and the use of a mosquito net at night. They must be ninja mozzies. This teamed with my normal skin, which everyone thinks is a rash (“but it looks so red and sore??”) and my highly regular trips to the toilet (my system apparently does not like the food as much as my taste buds do) has led the entire office to adopt an attitude that I am an ailing sick lady that needs looking after. It’s actually really nice, I’m plied with food that they think will sooth my stomach (unlikely) and am continuously being offered tea. So much delicious tea.
I’m incredibly lucky that the lab here have fully taken me under their wing, as my Hindi is rudimentary and pretty much unintelligible and I can’t even manage to cross the road on my own. Yes I am being serious about the latter. Crossing the road here, in the centre of the city, involves walking across six ‘lanes’ of traffic. I use the term lanes loosely, as it merely describes how many buses you can fit width ways across each side of the road. Mostly hoards of bikes, motorbikes, tuktuks (they call them autos here), cabs, cars, vans, and cows all weave in and out of each other in what appears to be a race to get to some unknown but obviously highly urgent appointment. In to this mele Indians blithely step out, waving a hand at the oncoming traffic as if it were merely an irksome puppy and proceed to cross. Having been brought up on a diet of ‘stop, look, listen’ I find this new attitude seriously hard to adopt, especially at rush hour, and mostly stand very hesitantly at the edge of the road until I can sprint across at breakneck speed during a break in the traffic.
Overwhelmingly I prefer to be part of the traffic, specifically on a motorbike. Yesterday I had possibly my best experience of the trip so far where not only did I go on a motorbike, but I rode pillion for an hour across the centre of the city (FYI 2nd biggest city in Northern India) at lunchtime rush hour. I have a sneaky feeling that I should have found this terrifying opposed to completely electrifying. I now understand why people are addicted to biking. Despite the fact that I was wearing an ancient dusty old helmet and a thick layer of sweat, sun cream and dirt, I had the unshakeable feeling that I was in fact a movie star and that at any moment Channing Tatum would turn up in the lane next to me. On the return ride I accidentally let one of my internal whoops of exhilaration externalise, at which point my lab mate, who kindly agreed to drive me, put his foot down and executed a couple of swift maneuvers around a cow and between two fast moving trucks. So. Unbelievably. Rad.
The mornings here are exceptionally beautiful, and fortunately can be experienced in all their glory from the roof of my hostel, think National Geographic centrefold. It’s also the best time of the day to ‘notice’ birds. They are absolutely stunning, and for the centre of a city it’s surprising how many there are. I’ve seen everything from sunbirds to black kites (approx. 20 spp so far and counting), though my absolute favourite are the red whiskered bulbuls, which all have feathery mohawks and a punky attitude to match. There were a pair feeding a fledgling on my way to yoga class the other evening and I ended up spending so much time watching them that I was half an hour late.
The roof is also a great place for hanging out, reading, and generally watching the city go by. I had my first free day since I got here today, and spent the late afternoon walking around the roof sunbathing and watching the kites. This time I’m referring to actual kites not birds. Kite flying season is in full swing here as the weather hots up – in India heat not cold driving wind is used to fly kites – and takes a similar format to that outlined in ‘The Kite Runner’. The kites are all pretty similar in shape and size, the idea instead of simply flying them being to cut the strings of all the other kites in the vicinity. Consequently the city’s airspace is currently crammed with bobbing, battling and cut adrift kites. I bought my own last weekend in the old city and flew it over Holi from a friend’s roof, you can get them so unbelievably high! Luckily I didn’t have to battle anyone though, as my skills are definitely no match for the ruthless tactics of the local kids.
Other than science I truly have no idea what else India has in store for me. It seems that the only plan you can truly make here is for plans to change, so I’ve had to learn very quickly to just go with the flow. Fighting the unpredictability is like walking uphill through treacle and embracing it is like joining a dance.