How much a stranger am I in India?
Here is an example: In Delhi, I stepped out one morning with the intention of hiring an autorickshaw in order to get to a place that was not an easy walk. A cab driver approached me. I got into my defensive mode, as usual.
"You want a taxi, sir?"
"No, thanks" I said, because I was not in the mood to spend that much more for a taxi compared to what it might cost me for an auto.
But, he persisted. The way he spoke and behaved, I was convinced he can be trusted.
I hired him.
As we started driving, he introduced himself as Tasleem, and gave me his business card. "You can also email me, sir, if you want to go anywhere" he added. Imagine that; email has become so mundane! How awesome!
Throughout the drive, I didn't breathe a word about coming from America. Yet, of course, he knew. We talked about America later on. As we neared the destination, Tasleem said with all earnestness, "from here, when you hire an auto, sir, walk a little bit away and then hire. Right here at this tourist place, there are cheats." And a little bit more such advice.
I appreciated his helpfulness. It was also yet another pointer on how much people easily figure out that I am a foreigner.
Especially in places like Delhi, where I was so bloody clueless with my very little Hindi. I had vastly underestimated the pervasiveness of Hindi in Delhi.
I had an easier time in Quito than in Delhi; the irony is that compared to the few words of Spanish I know, it is almost as if I am expert in Hindi. Yet, being a tourist was way easier in Quito. Go figure!
My friend, "S," seemed to be worried sick about me loitering the streets of Delhi. She called everyday to make sure I was ok, and had suggestions for me. Similarly, when I didn't call my parents one evening, the following morning dad called and asked "why didn't you call last evening? I was a little worried."
Perhaps they knew all too well that I will be a fumbling foreigner who would be severely handicapped by the lack of Hindi.
The heights of the lack of Hindi was when I wanted to get an autorickshaw to go to the Red Fort. I walked up to a driver and said "Red Fort."
He looked at me with a quizzical expression, and asked me "लाल something?" I recognized only लाल (meaning red) in what he said. I nodded my head and we proceeded. I still cannot understand why a touristy Red Fort is not as familiar in its English name as लाल क़िला is.
That auto driver made it crystal clear that I am a foreigner in a land that is familiar and yet very, very, unfamiliar to me.
I never would have imagined that I will be so much implementing Freeman Dyson's advice to be a stranger during a sabbatical from work :)
Looking back, I can all the more appreciate "S" and "U" telling me, in separate instances, to simply keep my mouth shut and let them do the talking for me too. Now, that is friendship when they know exactly how to deal with idiots like me. Thank you, "S" and "U" ...