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  • Our guesthouse room has no windows, no natural light. When the electricity goes out, the room is pitch black and we know it is morning only because Willa’s internal clock wakes her and she, in turn, wakes us.

    There is always someone yelling, a television on, a cell phone ringing a ring or an Avril Lavigne song, and the sounds echo through the concrete building walls like a gymnasium. Smoke from the hundreds of cigarettes smoked in the downstairs restaurant wafts up the stairs and fills every cranny of air that isn’t already taken by incense and diesel fumes. We cough at night, in our sleep, and our snot is black. We no longer crack a smile when the other says, “Has Willa been smoking again?” We are irritable and have been around each other with no breaks for too long. Johnny and I argue over everything about nothing.

    Willa is restless and crying to go outside, having long ago grown tired of playing with the blow-up Fanta ball. We step out of the guesthouse and into the fray of Delhi. The cacophony of motorcycles, dogs fighting, men yelling, horns and more horns envelops us. Added to the aural melee is the scratchy music played at top volume from the loud speakers hung on telephone poles. Touts are relentless, pushing incense, henna, bindis, jewelry, bags, saris, shoes, CDs, hippie clothes and designer knock offs, rickshaw rides, guided tours, postcards and maps. Tourists are dollar signs, cows to be milked. Indian and Israeli tourists brush them off with a flick of the wrist, as though they are mosquitoes. I envy the anonymity of the women in burkas. Their screens that keep people out and their private selves in.

    We sidestep trash and food, giant cows larger than horses, puddles of mud and urine, piles of poo - dog, cow and human - and try to keep elbows in from the passing cars and auto-rickshaws. A motorcycle runs up on my heel. I turn around and the driver looks at me blankly before turning and driving off. A street sweeper sweeps black water and trash onto my feet and those of others I’m fighting for space with on the side of the road. A car goes by and blares its horn for so long it’s all I can do not to cry.

    Beggars, children holding babies, mothers holding babies, old and handicapped tug on sleeves and arms. “Hallo, pleeeazzze! Madam, Madam, pleeeazzze!” Pitifully holding out empty cupped palms, gesturing to their mouths for food, pleading for money. There is a man whose legs are both broken and grotesquely bent. And another with an open sore so deep I could fit my fist into it. I give both of them money and hope they will spend it on something that helps them to escape.

    We give up on our walk and hop into an auto-rickshaw. We are going to the India Gate War Memorial, where there is a large playground, and the ride takes us from roundabout to roundabout, out of the congested city and to the wide, tree-lined streets of the suburbs.

    At the park, Willa runs around, studying and chasing the mongooses and chipmunks with long tails. The park guard wags his baton every time Johnny or I sit on a swing or the other end of the seesaw. The equipment is for children only.

    Several buses pull up and uniform-clad children spill out, shrieking and laughing, taking over the playground with their bodies and energy. Seizing the opportunity, a little boy and girl in worn, dirty clothes and bare feet slip through the park gates. (The guard has also chased out several urchins. No ragamuffins. No grown ups.)

    The girl runs over and scoops up Willa in her arms with a “Wheee!” Willa has finally recovered from her stomach bug and I’m hesitant, but she is so happy in this girl’s cheerful presence, so grateful for the company of someone besides her parents. The girl and the boy take turns picking up Willa, swinging her on the swings, helping her through the monkey bars. They work their way through each piece of playground equipment, shooing away the schoolchildren when they don’t vacate a swing quickly enough or play too roughly too close. Willa chortles and readily lets herself be carried around by these children who are four times her age but barely twice her size.

    We say our goodbyes and they hug and kiss Willa, asking us to please bring her back.

    Walking away, I hear little feet running behind us.

    “Hallo! Hallo, pleeeazze!”

    We turn around and the little boy runs up and hands us a metallic green yo-yo. He gestures with his hands, up and down, to show us how to play with it. Johnny tells him that we know how. And thank you. Thank you very much.

    The boy turns and runs back to his sister. He twists around once and gives us a thumbs up and a brilliant smile. His face is full of light and largesse of spirit. My eyes prick with tears and I turn away.


    Photo credit: Johnny Walker
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