I’m always surprised by how calm & peaceful the West Village is at night. I don’t remember it that way – I remember crowds and cheerful shouting and lines at restaurant doors and the smell and lighter-flash of cigarettes everywhere. And yet here it is, Tuesday nine or ten PM east coast time… and this is a photo of a street, with no one on it, and just a distant glare of lights from a taxicab a few blocks away.
Or to put it another way: every time I walk through the West Village at night, I feel more as if the end of the world already happened, and no one noticed, and now it’s the aftermath.
It’s not that things are totally deserted; they’re not. It’s not that the area’s unsafe; as far as I can tell, it’s not. There are small groups of people, twos and threes walking peacefully home, holding each others’ hands or the leash of a small cheerful dog. Fragments of overheard conversations are things like, “but I’m romancing you!” and, “she’s thirty-five, man? What are you doing?!” (which sounds unreasonable until I add that the two guys having this conversation were, in my estimation, themselves only twenty-two or twenty-three years old). A tall college-aged woman in a long t-shirt style dress and a sturdy-looking man about the same age played some version of tag-plus-hide-and-seek down the empty streets, ducking in and out of doorways and laughing at each other. A skinny man in a hat and a worn but still stand-out suit played a viola on a streetcorner, its case open in front of him as a hopeful target for donations. He played well as far as I could tell, and unlike many street musicians, used no backup speaker. I gave him a little money, and he asked if there was a song I’d like to hear.
The bakery was closing as I walked past, the staff inside wiping down counters and slinging on backpacks. A few restaurants had cozy yellow lights in the windows and a few people seated at tables, talking quietly.
There were a lot of empty stores and a lot of construction of new stores (why build new stores if the existing ones stand empty? I don’t know.). Some of the streets were torn up; some of the streets were blocked off.
It was in many ways a lovely place. It was in many ways a lovely walk. But mostly… it was quiet.
These are the cameras I know of:
in the City of London, throughout the alleys and courtyards and all of the streets –
so that on vacation, K asked, ‘do you think there are even five minutes of our day
that haven’t been recorded?’
and I said No,
while standing outside the house of Dr Johnson
admiring both the architecture and the statue of his cat
(there should be more statues of cats);
the camera in the satellite circling the globe that last photographed my house
sometime just before I bought it –
I can tell by the patio umbrella used in the purchase staging, a different color
from my own patio umbrella;
the cameras at traffic intersections
in my small suburban town;
the professional camera taking professional photos at the literary talk I went to last night;
the cellphone cameras of the audience members at the literary talk I went to last night;
the camera in the taxi in New York;
the cameras in Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv;
the immigration camera I looked into at customs
upon returning to California;
the camera on a neighbor’s drone
that last flew over my yard and others’ yards two summers ago
until another neighbor threatened to call the cops (or maybe until the grandson flying the drone got bored);
the cameras on the dashboards of cars on the freeway;
the cameras at what used to be the Golden Gate Bridge tollbooth but is now stand used for cameras taking pictures of license plates;
the cameras in the hands of many of the people I saw at the beach;
the cameras of the instructors at the standup paddleboard yoga class, because you never know which image will attract a new customer;
the camera in the sea otter exhibit at the Monterey Aquarium, because who doesn’t love sea otters;
the camera in the penguin exhibit also, because who doesn’t love penguins;
the camera sent down a volcano;
the cameras that recorded everything on YouTube;
the camera used by a surgeon
to diagnose a friend’s illness; the camera my colleague used to take a selfie of all four of us
because we achieved a day off sightseeing
at the end of a business trip far away from home;
the cameras used to record and document violence
and the aftermath of violence
and the discussion of violence;
the camera I used to take a picture of cherry blossoms
in a country not known for cherry blossoms;
the cameras in the conference rooms at work
used for videoconferences;
the cameras we see
and the cameras we don’t.
Five years ago, I traveled to India regularly. The engineering teams I worked with were based in Bangalore & Hyderabad, and I flew SFO -> FRA -> HYD, or SFO -> DXB -> BLR, or SFO -> YVR -> BLR. I memorized airport codes and where to get juice & coffee behind security. I grew to expect 2am arrivals at a busy airport, slowly weaving through customs, the way the roads outside the city center fly past in the middle of the night with pockets of light gleaming out from food stands on the side of the road, stray dogs lounging in the half-dark, Bollywood songs on the radio and the smell of burning rubber, trash, and incense drifting in through open windows because I just couldn’t take one more moment of closed-in air.
I hated the jetlag but travel meant I could work with my closest colleagues in person, rather than on the other end of a videoconference screen at the worst possible time of day for all of us (depending on daylight savings, India is either twelve and a half or thirteen and a half hours different from California; either way, it is the toughest possible timezone to coordinate with from California). I hated the food poisoning but I loved the street vendor snacks behind the business school, and the mix of sweet / savory that comes from chutney and raita, and breakfast and drinks at the hotel, with the humid air smelling again of flowers and burning trash and incense.
There is nothing like seeing a city with someone who lives there, and my colleagues showed me the things they loved about the places they lived: the light show and Charminar and a mosque and temples and historical forts and the pearl market, where someone’s uncle helped me choose a necklace and earrings I still have; restaurants with lazy fans swinging above; gardens with trees I’ve never seen anywhere else; painted elephants and donkeys blocking traffic. On weekends I went sight-seeing: the Taj Mahal on my first trip, a zoo with giraffes whose heads swung lazily above the fence and telephone lines; Kerala, where I stayed in a hotel with a long lazy-river style swimming pool winding between the hotel rooms and the restaurant. I never made it to the hill stations or Darjeeling, but I expected to.
Then I changed teams, and I no longer worked directly with India.
So it’s been five years.
Two weeks ago, I went to Delhi, part of a larger group. “Is this your first time in India?” the group leaders asked us, and I felt almost guilty saying no: they so wanted it to be exciting, and isn’t the first time anywhere always more exciting? I went to the doctor and checked my immunizations, got a refresher on typhoid, was glad to learn I was up to date on tetanus, because regardless of India, I frequently get scratched by hedges and stray bits of fence as I work in my garden; picked up antibiotics at the pharmacy because I’ve got a 5:7 ratio on getting food poisoning.
I had heard that Delhi was different, and on the one hand, I thought it must be; and on the other, I thought, It’s still India, and although difference might be obvious to someone from there, who saw nuance I couldn’t, I wasn’t convinced it would seem all that different to me.
Delhi: a walking tour through old town, with the smell of the spice market and trash mingling in the heat; chai from a chai-wallah, snacks from a storefront proudly claiming its founding in 1952; the Red Fort, which I saw only from outside; flying a kite off the top of a building made of crumbling concrete, with teenage boys doing laundry in buckets on the roof; another rooftop covered in drying flowers, saffron-yellow and bright fuschia, to take to the temple as offerings to the gods; looking down into a room with no roof, with shadowed figures making rotis by hand and then carrying them up a ladder onto yet another roof to dry. Stepping onto the metro, brand-new and shiny, quieter and faster than any public transit system I’ve seen in the US – not that that’s much of a standard – and air-conditioned. It moved so smoothly that although it was so crowded, I couldn’t reach a bar or ceiling handle to hang onto, I had no trouble staying upright when it stopped and started at stations. Talking with a woman on the team in Delhi, who’d started at the company two months back, about what it’s like to live in Delhi, and what it’s like to live in California. We met with people in their homes, saw the neighborhoods they live in, dodged potholes and dogs and piles of refuse, accepted chips and Coke and hospitality. I did not get food poisoning. I didn’t even really get jetlag (although I am looking for wood to knock on as I write this).
And now I’m back.
So was it different? In some ways, yes – it’s been five years, and from a tech company perspective, many things have changed. You don’t call your driver and leave a missed call to tell him you’re ready for him to pick you up; you just text. You don’t give someone visiting you elaborate directions; they just call when they’re close, and you talk them in. On-app shopping, delivery, calling for a car – all are now common. At a mass level, India essentially skipped the laptop stage and went straight to smartphones. From a broader-than-tech-company-perspective, things have changed too. The metro is incredible; the last time I was in Bangalore, theirs was still until construction. The middle class in India is visibly growing, and becoming more middle. A whole host of changes, really fundamental shifts, go along with that.
But then again, in some ways no. The poverty is staggering. Walk down the street and try to count the number of people who at least to Western eyes appear to be malnourished: there are so many that you won’t be able to. The infrastructure, metro aside, simply isn’t present in the way it should be for a city this size. Basic systems for water and hygiene aren’t present, or can’t keep up, or both. There’s a major marketing & infrastructure campaign going on about restrooms in India right now, and while that’s a step towards having decent restrooms, the need for such a campaign highlights what isn’t present yet. The growing middle class, at least the people I talked to who I think would fall into that group, feels precarious. They’re hanging on more tightly and working harder and more hours than I would imagine for a middle class almost anywhere else. I suspect it’s very very easy to glance over your shoulder and see how easy it would be to fall out of this group, down to the next.
So would I go back?
During my last trip for my previous team, five or so years ago in Bangalore or Hyderabad, I didn’t know that it was my last trip. I didn’t anticipate changing teams, and I thought India was part of my rhythm. Two or three years later, after I changed roles and my work shifted, I realized I might not have a reason to return to India again. I didn’t see this most recent trip coming, until it did.