Camera and Flask
The Photography of Steven Gray


Camera and Flask // Steven Gray: Photographer. Storyteller. Artistic journalism and storytelling around the globe. Based in Pensacola, Florida.

India, Day 1 - Goodbye is always the hardest part.

This is part one of my recap of my forty-day journey through India.  Some entries will be short photo essays, others will be more prosaic, long-form narratives.  This first one is more along the lines of the latter.  Enjoy.

"So, when do you leave for India again?"

"In about four hours."

Every trip is bookended by goodbyes, first to the people you leave at home, and later to the people you meet while traveling.  I hate goodbyes, and this day was to be full of them.  I love traveling, but only in the middle.

The night before I left for India, I didn't sleep well.  Even though my day's schedule began early, I got up several hours earlier than was necessary, because I simply wasn't resting well, and laying in bed rolling back and forth seemed a greater waste of time than getting up and pacing back and forth on my feet.  As there was a marginal possibility that my family would finish construction on our new home in my absence, I rose up and got dressed amidst a landscape of stacked boxes containing all of my worldly goods, which I had packed in anticipation of the possible move.  The environment drove home every aspect of the idea of "leaving home," and for a brief moment I felt like I wasn't coming back.  Once I had my clothes on, I had nothing left to do.  My bag and check box were both packed, double-checked and by the door.  Yes, I packed six weeks' worth of clothing in one backpack, my Monsoon Gearslinger.  I pack light and travel light.  I anticipated the inevitability of my buying gifts or a some new shirts along the way, and a packable duffel bag, reduced to a six-inch disc of fabric when collapsed, dangled from the clip of my backpack.  Sadly, my own efficiency had left me with too much time on my hands; the morning dragged on forever.  I was also experimenting with intermittent fasting at that time, and as such I didn't even have breakfast to kill a half hour.

I did a lot of pacing until I called my dad to say goodbye.  He was out on a business trip to Washington D.C., and I wouldn't see him again until I arrived home.  Afterward, I left at 7:00 to meet my friend, Jeff, for coffee and a book swap.  He had lent me Lucifer's Hammer, and I wanted to return it and loan him my copy of The Four Hour Body before I left town.  We only had about forty-five minutes to chat, a restrictive time for two people with a tendency toward motored-mouthing, but we did the best we could with the time we had.  But upon saying goodbye and exiting the Drowsy Poet, my next stop wasn't the airport; far from it, in fact.  An associate pastor at my church had passed away that week, and I wasn't about to miss his memorial; international flight be damned.

The loss of Pastor Mike Dekle was a blow to our church and the community at large.  Mike wasn't just a gifted administrator, he was a devoted husband and father and a great friend to many people.  He and I weren't very close, but I saw all four of my grandparents succumb to terminal illness, and I was very sensitive to Mike's own battle with cancer, and I wanted to support his wife and son during the service.  In addition to supporting the family, the service allowed me the unforeseen opportunity to see the members of my church one final time before I left town, as well as a number of other old friends from other churches in the area.  The service was a celebration of a well-lived life, and the reception gave me a chance to say a few final goodbyes and pray with friends.

After the service, my mother, sister and I went to one of our favorite restaurants, Siam Thai.  It might sound funny, eating Thai food before going to India, but I honestly love Asian cuisine, whichever region it hails from.  Siam Thai is also a family favorite, and I wanted one last opportunity to splurge on something familiar and well-loved before leaving home.  Several plates of chicken and bamboo shoots later, my mother and I had coffee at a The Bad Ass Coffee Co. while my sister attended her voice lesson.  When the lesson was over, we regrouped and the three of us went to the airport together.

In the airport restroom, like a scene out of Burn Notice, I changed out of my jacket, trousers and tie and put on a lightweight khaki shirt and a pair of Magellan cargo pants, emerging from the lavatory looking, well, like someone bound for India.  India was (and at the time of this writing, is) in the throes of monsoon season, and I had purchased several new athletic shirts and a few pairs of fast-drying pants for trip, all in accordance with a self-imposed rule of "pack no cotton."  I would love to travel the world attired like Indiana Jones or Josh Bernstein (I even have the hat), but practicality often dictates otherwise.

Clothes changed, there was still time to kill before I needed to go through security, and I re-entered the limbo of the early morning.  I sat with my mother and sister in the terminal, and we passed a few minutes in uneasy silence.  There really wasn't much to say.  We're an emotional bunch, and I didn't want to cause any unnecessary strain by speaking too much.  In the context of a year, seven weeks isn't a terribly long time, but it's still a respectable period of time to be apart from loved ones, especially when I would be making so much of the trip alone.  We talked a little bit, here and there, but I was honestly relieved when the time finally came for me to put dignity on hold and pass through security.

The actual goodbye was still hard.  I hate leaving people at the airport; it reinforces the separation before it even begins.

After the last hugs and kisses were exchanged, I shouldered my Gearslinger and went forward.  The exact protocols of TSA screenings change a little bit each year, but I stay one step ahead by keeping all of my change, toiletry carry-ons and phone in plastic bags in my pockets until I'm through the screening area.  It's a practice that saves me the trouble of rummaging around in my backpack while ill-tempered fellow travelers urge me to hurry up.  As much as possible, I like to design my circumstances to stay relaxed.  It works pretty well, so much so in this case that a female flight attendant, seeing my buzzed hair and single, compact bag, asked me if I was military, because she was unused to seeing any other group of young males be so polite while going through security.  Plus one for Southern manners.

Once through security, I boarded the plane.

The plane flew.

The plane landed.

I found myself in Miami International Airport, with a long layover and, again, very little to do.  I wandered through the terminal, marveling at the sameness of every shop.  I made a few phone calls home, speaking once more to my dad before I crossed the threshold into the realm of international phone charges.  My father runs his own business, and with the added pressure of handling a lot of his own contracting in the construction of our new home, he had been unable to see me off at the airport himself, and it was important to me to speak to him one more time.

When dad and I were finished speaking, I hunted down a coffee shop and bought a cup of green tea to chill out with while waiting for my flight.  It was a long trek--the international terminal in Miami rambles on interminably.  On the way back, I passed a heavyset black man on the concourse, and he hailed me in a thick Caribbean accent.  It turned out that he was from Haiti, and was passing through Miami on the way to visit family.  He was having trouble finding his gate in the massive terminal.  It so happened that I had seen where his gate was located on my way up from my first flight, so I walked with him for a while and took him to where he needed to go.  He summed up the airport with a single sentence: "Miami's just too big, man."

Couldn't have said it better myself.

My Haitian friend at his gate, I made the hike back to my own gate (tea still in hand!) and gave Jeff a ring to tie up the loose ends from our abridged conversation of the morning.  Jeff has also served in India; that was actually where we first met and became friends, and that left us with plenty to talk about before I left to go back for an extended period.  Anyone who has been to India will testify that it is a hard country to adjust to, between the cultural differences and the sheer frenzy resulting from a population of 1.2 billion people, and Jeff and I enjoyed a few good jokes as to the challenges facing me upon my return.  As we spoke, the call came over the loudspeaker: it was time for my section to board the plane.

I finished with Jeff, shouldered my bag once again and boarded the plane.  It was late.

Next stop: London.