Sunday, December 20, 2009

Home at last!

Okay, so there’s no such thing as “final thoughts.” This is likely to be my final entry, though. Nothing so profound here as in the previous entry, but this one does get me back home with a few insights into the aftermath. Here goes …

The last two days at MCC were filled with worries about packing. How on earth was I going to get all those books shipped and pack everything else into two suitcases and a carry-on? Once upon a time (including summer 2008) you could send things via sea-mail. It took a few months, but it was relatively inexpensive—but that’s no longer available. After checking out the speedy delivery options (very expensive!) and the postal service (perversely, even more expensive—30+ kilograms at 575 rupees/kilo gets into hundreds of dollars in a hurry). So … turns out the least expensive option was to check an additional bag at the airport, for only $150. After hearing such high prices for the other options, that suddenly sounded awfully good! Of course, they didn’t all fit into just one bag, and that made it difficult to get everything else in, but once I figured out, hey, I’m coming back soon, I decided to leave a carry-on bag (with a few clothes, umbrella, Tevas, etc.) behind with Joseph. Then it was no problem to fit in the rest of the stuff. Gabriel was able to pick up the final order from the tailor, but there wasn’t quite time to get the order from the jeweler at Spencer Plaza. And as it always happens, once I was all packed I received a very large gift from the college! Ah, well …

Outside of packing there were things to do on campus. Suri arranged a lovely farewell party in my honor with a few good friends—Jubi, Vimal, and the gang. Saturday was the Seshagopalan concert. Sunday I had lunch with Dr. Kingsley and his family, and Sunday night was the Anderson Hall Carol Service with dinner to follow. As usual, Kingsley was the magnanimous host. Whether it’s a group of J-Term students or just a single guest, he wants to be sure you eat well and are well entertained, and boy, did I overeat! On top of that, it was a great chance to catch up on the news, talk a bit about a possible short-term residency (maybe January 2011?) at University of Madras, and share the news from back home at Elmhurst College (where Kingsley was visiting professor about ten years back). After lunch it was back to the guest house for more packing until Mike and Anne showed up to go to the carol service. Talk about a long program! It’s customary for the college principal to give the sermon at the Anderson Hall (all-college) carol service, and that ran the usual length. What took the time was the music. There were three things listed in the program, but by the time were done, we had heard another three or four things—and they were all good! I would not have minded so much if I were not so eager to hear the choir at the end! The program listed the students in the Sunday School and the Campus School kids (who are always good—well trained by the music master there!). Then we had a faculty choir led by Principal Alex on guitar (the man does everything!), several numbers by students in the Student Christian Movement (a duet, a solo, and the very fine male a cappella sextet we heard in Martin Hall), and another repeat—the truly beautiful candle dance by the Martinians. Finally the choir! I was sitting only a few rows back on the center aisle, and Vimal stood in the aisle just in front of me. It was all I could do to resist the temptation to sneak up behind and give him rabbit ears or horns or something. I decided the solemnity of the occasion demanded a bit more decorum … and if the choir totally lost it laughing before they sang, well, that could be good or bad. Anyway, in spite of Vimal’s warnings to have no expectations, the choir sounded really good! It was a nice mix of contemporary and traditional, they were well prepared, and the choral sound was lovely. A charming end to the service! And dinner was nice, too. Finally had a chance to sit with Dr. Cherian and his wife. Then it was off with Mike and Anne to see their place at the social work department guest house. They really have it nice there! Beautiful tiled floors, a spacious common room with plenty of lounge chairs and a fridge, and a roomy guest room with A/C—even a small kitchen! Worth considering for a future visit, though it is way off the beaten track with some water problems … and no internet! It was a good chance to sit with Mike and Anne in their place, talk some more about St. Olaf and MCC, and say our farewells. Ended up staying pretty late—we all wanted to savor the moments.

After a late night finishing the worst of the packing, it was my last morning at MCC. Jubi and Vimal joined me at breakfast time to say farewell—always hard to know just what to say at times like these, but I was very glad to see them. Then off to a farewell reception hosted by Principal Alex. It was almost intimidating sitting in the room with MCC’s “power elite”—the principal, bursar Soundaraj (the number two man on campus), several deans, and many department chairs. Thankfully, many are now friends, and Mike and Anne showed up, too! Now that I’m so well acquainted with Indian ceremony, I had some idea what to expect, and it was actually quite lovely! The principal thanked me for my service and talked about my visit and the MOU with Elmhurst that is at long last being finalized (now that I’m done and gone!). Dr. Gabriel talked about the specifics of my visiting professorship and all that had been accomplished. I was invited to speak (I should have expected this!) and managed to say the most important things (even with my lack of a good night’s sleep). And finally Alex invited anyone in the room to say something. Several people added their thanks and reflections, including kind words from Dr. William (dean of international studies), Dr. Joshua (philosophy), and others. It was a nice affirmation that my time at MCC had been well-spent. They sent me off with a lovely (large!) gift along with cards and letters for me and for the Elmhurst president … and I was ready with an Elmhurst College tie for Dr. Alex (something every well-dressed MCC principal should have!).

Then it was back to the guest house to relax, have lunch, take care of a few odds and ends (including gifts for the IGH staff), and wait for my afternoon departure. Suri came by during the noon hour to say good-bye—one of many small gestures that were greatly appreciated. Gabriel showed up with the car a bit early, and after a few farewells at the guest house, he took me and my bags to the airport. As we said our own farewells at the airport entrance, I was suddenly a bit choked up and had to tell him I was feeling sad to leave. He was surprised at that, and I had to clarify that I was more than happy to go home to Virginia and family and Christmas celebrations. But as I’ve reported here, four months of my life can’t be ignored, and it was not easy to take leave of those who were such good friends and took such good care of me—my Angel Gabriel and my good Saint Joseph. After exchanging heartfelt Christmas wishes (for each of our families, too!), we said farewell and I went inside.

It was to be a 7:25 pm flight, but we were on the road before 4:00. I didn’t want to be late with worries about the extra bag and all, and it’s nice to have some un-pressured leisure time at the airport. So I checked in, waited to pay for the extra bag at a second counter, went back for the boarding pass at the first counter, sauntered over to the men’s room and then through the security check, took a short walk around the waiting area, and sat down to figure out what to do for a few hours. I happened to look at the sign on my gate and saw that a flight to Delhi was boarding. That prompted me to look again at my boarding pass to check my flight number … and I noticed it was the same as the flight that was boarding! Another quick glance at the boarding pass and I saw I had misread the boarding time (16:25, not 6:25, d’oh!). At the check-in counter I had mentioned that American kept changing my Chennai departure time and that I didn’t care which flight he put me on as long as I got to Delhi and then to Chicago, but I didn’t realize he had put me on the earlier flight!! So I jumped up and presented my boarding pass at the gate. As I walked through the door to take the bus to the plane, wondering what would have happened if I had not double-checked my boarding pass … here’s an announcement over the intercom, “Will Mark Harbold please report to the gate for immediate boarding.” I would have been taken care of either way!!

Frankly, I was glad to take the earlier flight. The 7:25 flight would have put me in Delhi at 10:05, leaving less than three hours to figure out how to transport myself (and possibly my checked luggage) from the domestic to the international terminal, several kilometers apart. I was very relieved to have nearly 5 hours. Now the clerk at the desk in Chennai said he would check my bags through to Chicago, but that I would still have to pick them up at the carousel, transport them to international, and re-check them there (presenting my receipt for the additional baggage charge). Thinking that seemed really cumbersome, I asked the help desk at Delhi domestic terminal if that’s the way it worked. They said no, just go to international terminal—they’ll have your bags there and you only need to identify them. Well, as good as that sounded, I thought I’d better hang out at the baggage carousel for a short while just to make sure. Danged if I didn’t see one of my bags almost immediately! So I grabbed a cart, collected all three bags, and wheeled down to the transfer desk (at least the helpdesk gave good directions for that!). Ten minutes later my bags and I were on a free (yay!) shuttle bus to international. It’s a surprisingly long bus ride. You never leave the airport, but you have to go all the way around the runways. I got off, put my bags on an available cart, took the elevator up, and proceeded into the terminal to check in. There were the usual 20 questions going through line (did you receive anything from anyone, have the bags been in your possession, etc.)—but they mix that up with unexpected questions, to throw you off guard, I think (what electronics are you carrying, how long have you owned them!?). In my tired state, I don’t know that my answers sounded very confident, but they waved me through, re-checked all three bags without further charge (I had my receipt!), and handed me my boarding pass. Then it was on through immigration and the security checkpoint.

I still had nearly three hours to kill, but was glad for the extra time. Since there had been no time for last minute Christmas shopping in Madras, I bought a few things in the duty free shop for once: a couple of CDs, a T-shirt, and a small plastic tuk-tuk (that’s what they call them in Delhi, anyway, the three-wheeled motor rickshaws that are so darned convenient & inexpensive for short jogs). We can keep that around the house for the grandkids or Virginia’s students to play with. I also decided to be the first to wish Virginia a happy birthday—on her birthday! At the stroke of midnight, Delhi time (half past noon in Chicago, where it was still the day before her birthday!), I called both our home phone and her cell phone. She wasn’t available to answer, but I sang happy birthday on her voicemail. (Five days later, she still hasn’t deleted the message on her cell phone!) Then it was time to go home—the looong 15 and a half hour direct flight to Chicago. I sat next to an older Sikh gentleman who was heading back to Indianapolis after a visit to the Punjab. His children had all moved to the States some time back, and when he retired he and his wife had to choose between staying home alone or moving to the U.S. to stay with family. They chose family, and he’s lived in the U.S. for awhile now. He was bemoaning the lack of close family ties in U.S. culture and the alarmingly high rate of teenage pregnancy out-of-wedlock. Knowing the often devastating effects when young mothers are not yet adults themselves, I could not help but agree. I slept as much as possible, but could not manage more than two hours at a time. It would have been less if I wasn’t wearing a nice sweater and my warm wool Nehru jacket (from a previous trip to Delhi)—those planes can get chilly at high altitude! I passed my time eating, sleeping, stretching, and watching TV shows or the flight path on the monitor … and finally we were in Chicago, landing at 5:15 a.m. on Virginia’s birthday! Sitting near the very back of the plane, I was one of the last ones off, so it didn’t take long to march through immigration, claim my bags, hand in my customs declaration, and go out to the lobby. And waiting there for me with a nice warm winter coat was …….. Virginia!!! Hallelujah!!!! The long separation over at last. We went straight home, had a wonderful home-cooked breakfast, opened up my bags to show her my treasures and her birthday presents … and then I went straight to sleep, in my very own bed.

It’s been strange to readjust to life back home. Not difficult at my age—it’s easy to slip right back into old habits—but this time I notice ALL of the little differences. I’m probably driving Virginia crazy with my incessant comparisons and observations! Can’t be helped! I thought I’d try to adjust sleep patterns as little as possible to ease the re-transition to India, but the long flight totally threw me off my schedule, and it’s proven virtually impossible to go to sleep as the sun comes up. So I’ll just have to adjust all over again when I go over with my students. Oh, well! In the past few days I dropped in on my department chair for an update on the past four months, I met with Lynn to make last minute plans for the India J-Term, had a lovely reunion with my middle sister who drove down from Wisconsin to visit, and attended Lyric Opera’s production of Merry Widow (but no Murugan’s idlis afterward—darn!). I don’t have much Christmas shopping to do, did most of it in India, so I’m trying to relax, keep up on my sleep, and make sure I take care of everything necessary for J-Term travels. (Did I mention it's seems really cold here?)

Looking ahead, I’ve got Christmas celebrations with family (can’t wait!), 26 days in India with the students in my Indian Art & Music course, and then a sabbatical to come home to and a revised version of my monster instructor’s resource manual for Bedford/St. Martin’s Press to get cracking on. Still hard to believe I’ll be away from Elmhurst College for an entire year! At some point I’ll have to work up a slide show and short talk to give for students and faculty colleagues, maybe this spring. I’ve had the title picked out for quite awhile. It’ll be “I Was America, and So Can You!”—a paraphrase of the title from Stephen Colbert’s first book. For my Indian friends, I WAS the face of America. Many of them have had experience abroad and know that Americans are just as varied in their ideas and world-view as Indians are, but I remained the easiest person to consult since I was there, and there were precious few other Americans around. And the “So Can You” part will be a pitch for more Elmhurst faculty to take advantage of the faculty exchange program, now that it is in full swing! I was the guinea pig, as Joseph was fond of pointing out, but I think we’ve got a really good thing going, and it’s time to pass the torch to someone else.

So, to all of you who have followed the blog, whether family, friends, students, colleagues, or others, whether back home or in India: thanks for reading along, and I hope you enjoyed it. I hope the occasional (frequent?) blow-by-blow descriptions were not too tedious, and I hope at least some of my insights were of interest. And since I had no way to monitor who was logging on, it was especially nice to hear from some of you that you WERE reading and enjoying. That made for a special kind of connection both with friends in India and with friends and family back home, and it helped ease the occasional loneliness. Concerning the loneliness, I decided part way through my stay that a certain amount of it was inevitable for anyone attempting to do what I have done. Joseph confirmed this in conversations, reflecting on his own visiting professorship at Elmhurst ten years back. But if you stay lonely, it’s your own fault! Wherever in the world you are, you’re still responsible for your own happiness, and with so many warm, friendly people around inviting you to drop in anytime (even though I’m never totally comfortable with that), you can always find points of connection. Doesn’t take care of homesickness, but it sure helps.

Well, that’s it for now. Thanks for sharing the journey. Please accept all of my wishes for your health and happiness, and have a wonderful holiday and a blessed new year … and please convey my best wishes and season’s greetings to your family as well! Cheers!