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September 28, 2008 / calebdresser

In the thermals of South Asia

I was never a glider pilot. I did some solo time in light planes during high school, but have flown a glider only once. It was a cool Massachusetts evening in early summer, the kind where you wish you could hug the chirping bugs in the grass by the airstrip. Our friend Roy showed me the ropes in an old two-seat trainer, the low sun glinting on the canopy as we took off behind the towplane. The controls were light and graceful, the silence magical once we dropped the cable. Free. Edging east, we searched for lift. The idea is that warm air rising off a field or parking lot will carry the glider upwards faster than it sinks towards the ground, though the evening cool meant convection was tapering off.  Nonetheless, before too long we felt a bump and the aircraft changed under my hands from blushing waltzer to tipsy disco chick.  Lift. There was little enough, but we got what we could out of it and then entered the base leg of our approach. The swish of air was replaced by the rumble of rubber on dirt, and we were earthbound once more. Before I thanked Roy and we headed homeward, he said something that stuck in my mind. “What you prop-plane people call turbulence – we call lift.”

I’m right back where I started four months ago, at the International Guest House near IRRI’s office in New Delhi. They put me in 212, just a few steps from the room I shared with William when we first arrived in June, jet-lagged and green as little rice seedlings. I weighed 155lbs, was cleanshaven, ate with my left hand, and knew less than a dozen words of Hindi. Aj, meh righty hai at mera khana, mera Hindi tora-tora hai lekin Bharat ke log ke English acche hai, thanks to the beard and blue eyes I’ve been asked if I’m a Muslim from Afghanistan (I’m not kidding), and I don’t want to guess how much weight I’ve lost. There have been rough times – a lot of them – but there have also been plenty of good ones. I’m going to miss a lot of people when I leave.

Today I presented my data at the IRRI-India office, and they were kind enough to find me a room here for the night. Tomorrow is the train to Patna in Bihar, where I plan to stop and pick up information before working east into the region affected by flooding in the wake of the Khosi river breach nearly a month ago. After that, I’m going to break down and play tourist at the Taj, collect a wee bit more data in Modipuram, say a lot of goodbyes – tough ones, for I really don’t know when or if I’ll ever see some people again – and head back to Delhi for the longest day of my life, a day that will begin in the dusty streets of the third world and end 33 1/2 hours later in the pristine calm of my late grandfather’s living room.

Turbulence. Its bumpy, but it keeps you in the air and the view only gets better as you gain altitude. Its the only way to fly.



Leave a Comment
  1. BenGolas / Sep 28 2008 6:19 pm

    Scary thought: I might, for once in our lives, be heavier than you.

    I’m really looking forward to exchanging stories when you get back. Best of luck with what will soon be your last week in India!

  2. Sarah M / Sep 29 2008 12:35 am

    Caleb! Good luck with all the end of your research. I know it can be hectic. Try to have as much fun as you can in your remaining weeks overseas (I think you will be able to manage that).
    Can’t wait to see you and hear in person about all your amazing adventures and all the amazing people you met (and to give you a hug for the first time in months).

  3. Margaret McCandless / Sep 29 2008 3:03 am

    Only out-of-date articles seem to be available here, on the Khosi River breach. We wish you the best of luck in your travels, as you see if you can help there, and as you get a bit of time for the Taj Mahal, too.
    How amazing to read that you have turned in your data, at the IRRI-India office. This phase of your life, and our lives, has sure presented the unexpected.
    Be safe, dear.

  4. Cousin Barb / Sep 29 2008 9:10 pm

    Wishing you blue skies and steady thermals. Safe journey home. See you in Great Barrington.

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