five weeks in the north

February 21, 2008

I probably can’t be bothered writing a linear account of the five weeks I’ve just spent travelling in the north of India, and I’m sure you (who are you?) can’t be bothered reading it.  So I’ll try to keep it as short as I being me can, though probably won’t, or can’t… 

 

Indore – bonus round #1

As we (Flo, Celia, Erin, Gautier and Francois) set out for our trip up north, India was in the throngs of Diwali (think Christmas + New Years x homemade firecrackers).

In practical terms this meant that there were absolutely no seats left on direct trains from Pune to Delhi.  A tourism officer at Pune Train Station suggested that we take a ‘short’ bus trip to Indore and then get on a train from there to Delhi.  So we bought the tickets to Indore, expecting a three or four hour trip up to Indore and then a night train into Delhi 

The bus trip was sixteen hours of potholed roads and erratic driving.  Erin and I shared a double sleeper (not sure what ‘sleeping’ had to do with it).  The bus bounced along those roads with so much abandon that it felt like trying to sleep in the back of a rickshaw.  Twice during the night I heard a muffled scream and thud and looked up to find Erin on the floor – the bouncing having bounced her right out of bed.  From my vantage point there was something kind of comical in the image of Erin’s almost magical teleportations (now you see her, now you don’t) though I believe Erin would care to differ. 

Finally our shaky legs touched solid ground in the city of Indore in the state of Madhya Pradesh.  By this time MP had become a running joke with our group – think the ACT of India, but with far less to do.  Even the ever-optimistic Lonely Planet seemed to struggle to find the silver lining when describing this part of India:‘Despite the fact it cuts a huge swathe across central India, Madhya Pradesh doesn’t figure much in visitor’s plans’.  This coming from a group of people who describe Pune as ‘a thriving centre of academia’, ‘interesting’ and ‘well worth a day or two’ – lies!

N.B.  I do love Pune, but as a tourist, seriously don’t bother, and even as a student – don’t expect much resembling ‘thriving academia’. 

LP was right about this though – MP doesn’t figure much in visitor’s plans, and for this reason our group of six westerners instantly became the biggest attraction in town.  Cars would slow down and people would giggle and stare as they passed us.  So we spent four hours wading through the dust and curiosity of Indore until our train arrived to finally take us to Delhi (via another sixteen hours in transit).  

 

Delhi – public transport heaven 

My strongest memory of the three days I spent in Delhi is the metro.  Descending the escalators into the Delhi underground was like being teleported (again!) into a cleaner, more efficient European rail system.  I was almost euphoric the first time I caught it – here was a vehicle that took me where I wanted to go, at an affordable price, with no attitude.  This euphoria can only be understood in the context of five months spent dealing with rickshaws on a daily basis.  I believe I’ve aired my rickshaw woes on this page before, but here’s a refresher: noisy, smoky, exposed to the elements, manned by sadistic and petty people. 

So my first few days in the north of India were spent riding the metro system with a big grin on my face, pretending I was in a country that made a lot more sense, in which geography and maps mean something…that was until I encountered the drawback of the metro – it gets crowded, and when it gets crowded the cowardly pervy weasels of this country muster enough fake bravado to go for the grope. 

Translation:  there were hands on my bottom that weren’t mine and the magic of the metro was dulled.  

 

Varanasi – the madness that is India 

Shortly after arriving in Delhi Erin and I split from Team France and eventually from each other, Erin going west to Rajasthan and me going east to Varanasi. I had been looking forward to doing some solo travelling – having not travelled very much with others perhaps I am yet to develop that all important skill of compromise.  So I bought a ticket to Varanasi and then consulted my LP to do some preliminary reading.  I was confronted by a plethora of ominous adjectives under the Varanasi ‘Dangers and Annoyances’ heading.  My favourite was the evocative first sentence of the section asserting that: ‘predatory touts and rickshaw-wallahs here pounce on visitors like starving tigers pouncing on a defenceless dear’. I began to fear that I’d made a mistake in choosing Varanasi as my first solo destination. 

When I arrived at the chaotic Varanasi Station at 4:30am I was brimming with all the half-forgotten high school self-defence techniques and strained confidence that I could muster.  In reality it was not much worse than any other Indian city that I’ve visited, and the poor rickshaw driver was probably more afraid of me and my edgy assertiveness than I was of him (that’s what I was hoping on the drive to my hotel anyway). 

Unlike most places on my trip there’s no one image of Varanasi that has remained with me above any other – the whole experience was crazy, a personification of the madness that is India.  I’m sort of at a loss to describe it.  Maybe this excerpt from my diary is the best I can do… 

Public/private separation doesn’t happen here.  People live, eat, die, shit, procreate on the streets.  It’s strange to watch as a watcher with western sensibilities.  When do you look away?  Today I saw people perform the last rites for their father/uncle/friend.  They set him on fire and I watched from a few metres away.  I felt like an intruder and kept asking the Indians milling around if it was ok for me to be there.  The question seemed to confuse them.  To treat something like that in the west as a spectacle would be regarded with abhorrence.  In some ways here these things are inherently a spectacle.  I love being here, the city is living, the culture is alive and not the fossilised pantomime that you get in so many of the tourist centres in Europe.

 

Agra – Lucy the Mosquito Mercenary 

I had a return ticket to Delhi from Varanasi, though while waiting for my train at the station I ended up talking to a Scottish couple (Pete and Claire) who were there to catch the train to Agra, leaving at a similar time to my own.  At the last minute I decided to go with them to Agra instead of heading back to Delhi so I went and exchanged my ticket for one to Agra.  The only problem was that it was still Diwali season and there were still very few seats available on any train.   Although nothing is easy in India everything does tend to be in abundance, or at least if not in abundance then possible, somehow. 

Example:  if there are no train seats left it is possible to buy a ‘general’ ticket – this buys you a place in the train but no seat – this explains those stereotypical pictures of Indian trains with people hanging out of doors and windows and squashed into baggage compartments. 

So I got on the train with Pete and Claire and my general ticket, optimistically imagining that some sleeper seat would become available. It didn’t. As I was accumulating newspapers in order to make a clean (or at least less dirty) spot on the floor of the carriage to sleep Claire offered half of her bed to me.  This was a really touching gesture.  For those of you not initiated into the world of Indian second class non-AC sleeper trains – the beds are narrow enough for sleeping to be a precarious performance of balancing skills even for one person. 

In spite of the inevitable complications of sleeping head-to-toe on one of these skinny planks it was an offer I couldn’t really refuse and as Claire said we became very close friends very literally. (This was a source of much interest to the male passengers on our carriage who quickly began to mill around us with their insidious camera phones until we were able to chase them away).

Agra is the home of the Taj Mahal, the reason why Claire, Pete and I, (and any other tourist) found ourselves there.  I couldn’t really be bothered articulating the experience of seeing the famous structure.  It was what you’d expect but not, it looked like how it does in the pictures but not, it was exciting but not. 

I think the memory that will stay with me the strongest from Agra is the half hour spent killing mosquitos in Claire and Pete’s hotel room…it’s more exciting than it sounds…actually no it’s not, but bear with me…or not. 

There is a prelude to this, or a context, or an intro or something:  Pete and Claire had just spent ten days of silence in a Buddhist meditation course in Bodhgaya.  They hadn’t converted to Buddhism, but they had enjoyed the course and had gotten a lot out of it and were trying to live by at least as many of the teachings of Buddhism as they could remember and/or harmonise with their lives.  Part of this was a teaching that involved conceptualising every living thing as an incarnation of your mother (the theory being that you love and respect your mother and treat her well, and if you treat every living thing with equal love, respect and kindness then our world would be a very happy place – though maybe not considering some of the mother-child relationships we’ve all encountered). 

After seeing the Taj Mahal Pete, Claire and I went back to their room to watch a movie on their TV.  The room was full of mosquitos.  Being homesick and loving children Pete and Claire were having difficultly with the idea of squashing these hundreds of reincarnations of their mothers between their hand and the wall.  Not having done this Buddhist course myself, I felt considerably less attachment to these mosquitoes and absolutely no guilt at killing them (particularly considering my experience with Dengue fever – which I’d hope no mother would want to give to their child).  I became the Mosquito Mercenary on behalf of these diligent sort-of-Buddhists. 

Unfortunately my killing techniques were neither efficient nor accurate and Pete and Claire put their pledges on hold and finished the mozzies off for me.  We then sat down to drink beer and watch Robocop on cable (though with Pete and Claire in the lotus position so it was ok).  

 

Jaipur – my ‘home away from home’ 

Pete and Claire were set to go on to Jaipur from Agra and I decided to tag along.  Unfortunately I had booked no accommodation ahead, which would normally not be much of a problem except that there was an India vs. Pakistan cricket tournament going on in Jaipur at the time. 

Consequence: no spare rooms, anywhere.  I rang literally ever hotel in the LP but to no avail.  At around the same time mum gave me a call.  I vented my dilemma to her and abracadabra…take the magic of internet, an enterprising mum and leave to sit for thirty minutes and poof – accommodation booked in Jaipur for me. 

As a twenty-two year old, getting my mum to book accommodation for me from the other side of the world was not necessarily a high point, but it was higher than the prospect of spending another night in Agra (I’d already spent an extra night there grudgingly writing an essay that our Gender Studies teacher popped on us mid-holidays, but that’s another story). 

The catch was that the accommodation was actually a homestay situation, right in the burbs of Jaipur – basically a family with a big house and extra rooms who occasionally rent them out to foreigners.  I don’t think they needed the money, they just wanted to add a bit of colour to their monotone middle-class lives – they seemed very exhilarated about having me to stay at such short notice, they literally said that it was ‘very exciting’ for them. 

This family was a nightmare.  They have a website and wanted me to leave comments on it, recommending it to other travellers.  Here is the response I drafted: 

‘Homesick?  Travel weary?  Missing the tough love of mum and dad back home?  Why don’t you spend a night at Guesthouse Suburbia!  It’s your Indian home away from the home that you came all the way to India to escape in the first place.  It’s got hot water, central heating and two cold-as-ice daughters who are guaranteed to make you feel like a worthless slug from the moment you walk through the door, if not since your birth.  Each room comes complete with prying and domineering mother and a childlike father who barely graduated from nappies when his wife began wiping his ass for him.  Not only that, but all your meals are provided freshly cooked from the malnourished maid onsite – even when you don’t want them!  But never mind because mealtimes here are a ritual not to be missed.  There is no better way to get an insight into the life of a twenty-something independent Indian women shackled by culture and tradition.  And just try to swallow your dry chapattis as mother Puja interrogates you from the head of the dinner table.  No question is too sacred – income, virginity, god – the sex, religion and politics rule has been thrown right out the window!  And don’t bother leaving the table until you’ve consumed every morsel of painstakingly handmade barfi, mithai or ladoo.  Don’t like them?  Who cares!  One withering glance from father Aniket will have you snorting them up your nostrils rather than spend another moment under his disapproving gaze.  All transport to and from the dwelling is arranged by mother Puja and her fleet of rickshaws on 24-hour call.  Though this is not for convenience of course– there is a rickshaw stand right down the road.  No, mother Puja needs to know your ever move and she has her rickshaw cronies on the case.  Don’t try to hide anything – Mr rickshaw-wallah is watching, and information tips well.  So for that authentic taste of home away from home just dial 1800-SUBURBIA.  Alternatively, when you leave the train station take a right out of the city, keep travelling until all the houses and streets begin to look the same, take a left at the tennis courts and it’s the door with the ornamental swan shaped doorbell.’

So I am exaggerating and it was far better than another night in Agra – but you get the idea.  

 

Pushkar – reflexology tripping 

Pushkar is the home of the annual camel fair which attracts a few camels and every tourist between here and Mongolia.  Us tourists wander around gazing at the eccentric exhibit of Indian desert life, the camel owners wander around gazing at the eccentric exhibit of western tourist life and everyone leaves feeling happy and enlightened and like they’ve had a once-in-a-lifetime-experience.  Except the camels, who I have discovered have no personality whatsoever and just plod. 

In Pushkar I decided to get some reflexology.  I had no idea what that really meant, but these things are so cheap here that I’ve started exploring some of the alternative remedies available. 

For ninety minutes a girl pummelled my feet, hands and ears, probing pressure points and releasing chakras.  Unfortunately I have been cursed with extreme ticklishness and so the session was fairly trying for both of us – me because I got to the point where I was collapsing into spasms of laughter every time she even looked at my feet, her because she quickly began to run out of polite ways to say ‘keep still, I’m not even touching you’ in English. 

We both endured and I left the place feeling wonderful.  For the next few hours I floated around the camel fair experiencing oneness with my chakras or something.  Finally when it began to get dark I returned to my hotel and had dinner and a lassi and proof read my brother Max’s essay for English (it was a very nostalgic dinner of ‘texts’ and ‘composers’, metaphoric journeys and changing selves). 

As I was approaching the conclusion I began feeling strange – dizzy and disconnected with reality.  I just managed to pay the bill before returning to my room and collapsing into a deep and long sleep, fully clothed.  When I woke up the next morning the feeling hadn’t left me.  For the whole day I wandered around the fair feeling overwhelmingly lethargic and unable to connect with what was going on around me.  I had no idea what was happening to me – I began to think that the reflexology had somehow unscrewed some brain chakra and was sending me crazy.  It was incredibly disconcerting. 

It was a week later when I met three Alabaman girls who informed me that what had sent me into this haze was not the reflexology but the lassi I had had with dinner.  The menu said ‘special lassi’ which I, in my naivety, had assumed meant served with lots of interesting spices or something.  It did have interesting spices in it, but also lots of bhang and I had accidentally gotten myself stoned.  

 

Jaisalmer – Daniel the globalised-glocalised guide extraordinaire 

In Jaisalmer I decided to take a two night and three day camel safari in the Thar Desert.  It was the most uncomfortable three days of my trip (maybe even including when I got food poisoning). 

I keep trying to invoke a glimmer of outdoorsiness in myself but it won’t take.  I always think I’m on the verge of overlooking the dirt in my hair and the strain of the elements, but these glimmers of optimism only ever occur at mealtimes – once the food is finished I descend back into grouchy dreams of showers and clean sheets, or more masochistically – soft cheese, red wine and modern art galleries. 

According to my diary here are my first impressions of the desert and my ‘safari’ companions: ‘Crocs, socks and sandals, the nickname ‘Bug’ – bad sign.  This place is like desert with regrowth – it’s all shrubs and tumble weed.  I want the golden rolling sand dunes of cliched travel posters.  There’s even sand between my teeth and I can’t feel good about it.’ 

In the end it wasn’t as bad as all that, I warmed to my companions – even Bug had her moments.  And I’ve got to admit that it was fun to sleep under the stars, and eat meals made from scratch and cooked over the camp fire – but the meals were my saving grace. 

My strongest memory from the days I spent on camel-back is of our guide – Daniel.  Arts and social sciences love its jargon and globalisation studies (my major) is particularly fond of inventing awkward words to describe various things.  The word globalisation itself is the best example – and no one can even define it conclusively (I should know I did a whole course on it). 

In globalisation studies there is all this talk of the globalisation-glocalisastion dichotomy.  I don’t really know what that means, but I think if I had to personify this dichotomy somehow it would be our guide – Daniel.

He’s twenty-two and lives with his family in a tiny mud hut in the middle of the desert.  He is illiterate, but can say ‘camel’ in eight different languages.  He has never lived with electricity but he has a mobile phone (courtesy of his boss) that is almost glued to his ear – chatting constantly on speaker phone with the other camel guides in the area.  He’s never left his province and probably never will, but he’s familiar with Japanese commands, Parisian swearwords (oh the joys and omnipresence of that pervasive word –  ‘putain’) and Dutch lullabies.  He’s never seen a movie or watched TV but is constantly singing classics such as ‘Hey Mickey’ and ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ – though with his own interpretation (‘hey Mickey hey Mickey you’re so nice you’re so nice Mickey Mickey you’re so nice hey Mickey…’). 

He was the most eccentric, charismatic and animated guide I could have hoped for, and the most confusing mix of isolation and international exposure – globalisation and glocalisation (?)

 

Bikaner – food poisoned and bed bound 

I travelled from Jaisalmer to Bikaner with an Irish friend (Kieran) I had made on the camel safari.  We visited the famous ‘Rat Temple’ which is what it sounds like – a temple dedicated to and infested by rats.  It was smelly and strange, though with not as many rats as I was hoping for (in my mind there were Indiana Jones-style swarms). 

I am proud to say that I had the good fortune of having not one but two rats climb over my foot (I think they were mating).  I had an almost overwhelming urge to kick them off, until I remembered that they are holy rats and that having them climb over your foot is apparently very auspicious.  Though I’m sceptical, you’ll see why…

Later that day Kieran and I were eating lunch in a hotel in the city centre when we had the following ominous conversation:

L:  (reading LP) Wow it says here that you can do a camel safari all the way from Bikaner to Jaisalmer.  It takes fourteen days.

K:  Can you imagine fourteen days on a camel?

L:  Sounds like hell, I’d rather get food poisoning. 

Finally, a phone call with Dave later that day retrospectively seemed to put the final nails in my figurative coffin. 

Dave and I are meeting in Vietnam in just a few days now and we were talking about what Dave should bring:

L:  Have you thought about bringing any medical or first aid things?

D:  Ummm…

L:  Well just so you know, I’ve already got a gastro kit from the Travel Doctor in Sydney so I wouldn’t bother with another one of those, I haven’t had to use it at all.

D:  Ok I’ll write that on my list: Lucy has gastro. 

I promptly got food poisoning. 

The next few days I spent bed bound and food poisoned and lonely and feeling sorry for myself.  Though at least I was able to do it in style – when mum found out that I was sick she went and booked me a few nights in a beautiful hotel that had been the old governor’s mansion before his great grand-son converted it into this funky guesthouse.  The manager took great care of me, got me a doctor and encouraged me to eat a bit of curd and banana or tea every day.  The doctor prescribed me five different types of antibiotics to take three times a day for the next two weeks and tried to give me a needle – overkill for a bit of food poisoning I thought.  I fought him off and once he’d left I asked the manager to take me to a homeopath instead.  The manager took me one his own motorbike, stayed with me to translate and then, for the next three days took every opportunity he could to corner me and discuss alternative remedies.  I was happy to oblige seeing as my only other interaction during that time was with the television – my transition to telemovie expert and closet fan was far too smooth and I enjoyed the distraction the manager offered.  

 

Amritsar – communal kitchens and immaculate toilets 

This was one of my favourite cities and, like Varanasi, I can’t really give one reason or lasting impression – it was the whole atmosphere, the spirituality and the foreignness of it. 

It was one of the cleanest and most organised places I’ve ever been to in India.  Even the toilets were clean – I almost took a photo of them the first time I went in.  After five months of rancid, blocked and overflowing squat toilets these sparkling, immaculate western-style loos complete with toilet paper and soap had me close to tears. 

The Golden Temple complex (Amritsar’s main attraction) not only features the temple but accommodation, food and amenities – all provided free to anyone, Sikh or otherwise.  I slept in the dorms they reserved for foreigners and enjoyed the hostel atmosphere that made me reminiscent of my time in Europe.  But the weird thing about the accommodation was that outside of my dorm room was a huge open air courtyard in which the majority of Indians were sleeping, underneath huge doonas but still exposed to the elements (and Amritsar was freezing at night).  It didn’t seem right that the tourists were put up in beds under ceilings while the people who had travelled there for spiritual reasons and not just curiosity, not just because they could (like me), were made to sleep outside.  It’s not like we were paying for the difference either – it was all free and donation is optional. 

To be white in India is to be treated with a weird and incongruous mix of deference and objectification.  I’m often pushed to the front of queues, given copious cups of chai or the best of whatever is on offer (food, accommodation etc.), yet at the same time my white skin and my gender seem to lead many women and particularly men to the conclusion that I am a decadent, immoral slut, or just not even human, merely an object to grope, laugh at or undress with their eyes. 

Anyway, in Amritsar mealtimes were a big novelty, with a 24-hour free communal kitchen serving dhal and chapattis to anyone who felt hungry.  Unfortunately my stomach was still feeling unhappy following the food poisoning so I could only bring myself to eat there once (the other times I stuck to banana and curds). 

The whole thing was an amazing production though – as you enter you pass scores of volunteers sitting together gossiping and peeling onions or shelling peas – this food is then taken to huge kitchens at the back of the building where it is added to industrial sized pots and stirred with massive paddles until its ready to serve. 

After having entered you’re handed a metal plate and bowl and ushered through to a huge hall filled with neat rows of hundreds of people sitting on the floor.  Marching up and down the aisles are men armed with buckets of different types of dhal, rice and curry.  With huge ladles these men scoop huge servings of food onto your plate, with perfect aim even from up to a metre away.  You can see what type of food the man is carrying by the colour of the food splashes up his left leg.  Alternately other men stalk the aisles with huge plates of chapattis, flinging them at you frisbee-style. 

After finishing your meal you’re herded through an exit at the other side of the hall, past a row of volunteers who grab your plate and bowl, and send it along a huge line of more volunteers who methodically scrape, rinse, clean and dry your plate and bowl and ferry it back to the man at the entrance.  The whole process, like the toilets, had me completely mystified – I had never seen such efficiency and order on such a large scale in this country, ever, and I probably never will.  

 

Attari – the ruffled peacock feathers of vehement Indian patriotism 

An hour’s drive from Amritsar is Attari – one of the overland border crossings between India and Pakistan.  This place is a popular attraction among tourists and locals for the nightly theatrical border closing ceremony.  And it was amusing, though a little frightening too. 

On the Indian side the guards were dressed in the most incredible uniforms complete with head gear that resembles the open tail of a red peacock.  For about half an hour a dozen men in these elaborate costumes march up and down in front of the gate that separates India from Pakistan, ruffling their feathers, puffing up their chests and kicking their legs up past their ears.  Meanwhile they actually have a crowd-warmer who marches around in front of the crowd with his microphone, starting chants, demanding applause and basically stirring the crowd into a patriotic frenzy.  It was a little frightening. 

As a (cynical, anational) Australian I generally associate such blind patriotism with racism and intolerance, Cronulla riots-style.  And although everyone was very well behaved I felt kind of uneasy as I passed a huge billboard declaring ‘WELCOME TO INDIA – THE WORLD’S LARGEST DEMOCRACY’. 

The sentence is true, in a factual sense, but the day to day workings of politics of this country seem to hold only a tenuous relation to democracy.  But how can you recognise or question that when you’re too busy chanting about your country’s superiority and your unconditional devotion to its cause, whatever that may be?  

 

Chandigarh – is poo 

Basically Chandigarh is poo because out of all the cities I’d visited in India this was the first one where I didn’t see even a single person smile and I had a miserable time there. 

The attraction of Chandigarh is that it’s India’s only planned city.  The map in the LP showed a network of streets on a grid, it showed order, it showed something that I had never seen in any other city in this country and I was excited to see it in the flesh. 

But it was poo. 

As usual I hadn’t booked any accommodation ahead.  I arrived in the city at 6:30pm and though it was already dark I figured this would give me enough time to find a room before it got too late. Three and a half hours and eleven hotels later I was wishing that I’d never bothered with the city of grided streets – it felt cold and impersonal and uncaring.  I missed the organic India of erratic lanes, snaking streets and everything in abundance.  I’ve never bothered booking accommodation ahead here because there will always be someone willing to get you what you want, for a price, but never a very exorbitant one.  The un(der)employment and poverty is such that an enterprising nature can be a big bonus and I think that it’s for this reason that you can get almost whatever you want, whenever you want it – if the person you ask doesn’t have it then inevitably his (it’s never ‘her’) brother/uncle/friend/father will (the glaring exception for this rule is a rickshaw after 11pm in Pune, but that is because I believe rickshaw drivers are of another breed entirely, a breed where perversity and sadism even overrides all, but I won’t get into that again). 

I began to feel like the Virgin Mary – Jesus being my burdensome backpack, Joseph my rickshaw driver and my donkey the rickshaw.  No one wanted us to stay (not that Joseph or the donkey were invited), and no one cared that the likelihood of my sleeping in the train station was growing exponentially with every refusal.

Finally, at hotel #11 the manager decided to help me out, made about five phone calls and finally found me a room.  I was so deeply grateful and exhausted I almost cried.  The hotel room was about ten times more than I’d normally pay, but at that point I was beyond caring.  I vaguely wondered why he made me pay half of the money before I left for the hotel but that echo of a thought was very quickly drowned out by the prospect of food and sleep. 

When I arrived at the hotel I realised why the manager had been so emphatic about my paying half the charges up front.  The hotel was filthy, noisy and a little frightening.  My room was right by the reception and I could hear every cough and movement of the guy behind the desk, all night.  What worried me even more was that they didn’t even ask to see my passport.  Almost everything in India requires a passport and visa number if you’re a foreigner.  I had never stayed in a hotel, no matter how cheap and dodgy, that hadn’t wanted a copy of my passport.  My tired mind began to grind into overdrive and the x-ray vision of my imagination began to spy unbelievable acts of criminality and perversion occurring in the rooms neighbouring my own.  Before I went to sleep I made sure to map out an escape route, position a makeshift weapon near my bed and tuck my money pouch and passport into my pyjamas, ready for a quick escape. 

In the softer light of day the next morning I realised that the hotel was less threatening than my exhaustion and imagination had made it seem the night before.  Nevertheless, I made a quick escape from the hotel and the city as soon as I possibly could and got on a bus for Shimla.  

 

Shimla – is not poo 

This was the last stop on my trip before returning to Delhi and then Pune.  If I could have I would have stayed there for weeks.  Shimla is right up in the hills of the ‘sub-Himalayas’.  Cars are banned, rubbish bins are plentiful and utilised, the air is clean and the people are relaxed and friendly. 

I didn’t really do anything during my few days there, just read and wrote and drank expensive (but real!) coffees, and it was lovely.   

 

So that was my five weeks in the north of India.  I think I’ve set a new record in verbosity and long-windedness for myself.  It’s a bit more detailed than I’d intended and a bit more linear than I’d promised and if anyone has actually reached this point then you have all of my respect and gratitude and sympathy.

This week will go down in the history of my life as the Week that Disappeared.  This is because as soon as it is over I am going to obliterate it from my memory, exorcise it from myself.  Make it go away.  I have decided that writing it down will be the first step in this exorcism. 

It was as if on the stroke of midnight, the transition between Sunday and Monday, last week’s grace and this week’s turmoil, began.  Sunday night we spent in a restaurant with some friends, great food, and wine that was great by my Indian standards, but still tasted a little like feet.  Getting home involved the customary battle with rickshaw drivers who work on the basis of a simple formula:

Gender + Nationality + Destination + Time of day+ (Kilometres x 6 + 2) = Cost

I’ll explain.  The Kilometres x 6 + 2 is the standard fare for a rickshaw ride.  A rickshaw driver will almost never just turn the metre on for us though because we are western female foreigners living in Bopodi (i.e. distant destination).  This is a bad formula.  In addition is the ‘night charge’ that rickshaw drivers are fond of adding on as soon as the sky begins to darken.  This is a battle that we will never win, can never win but that we fight every single day.  Often the price they’re asking would be the equivalent of a bus fare in Australia, but it’s about more than the cost now.  It’s about being sick of being treated differently all the time because of our nationality.  It’s about the almost uniform unpleasantness of rickshaw drivers.  I guess it’s about power, a tug-of-war.

We’ve started lessons a few times a week with an Indian friend, she teaches us Hindi and in exchange Celia and Flo teach us French.  Much of the first lesson was about teaching us such useful phrases as “That’s not fair”, “You’re lying to me”, “Just put the metre on” and “Please give me the normal price” – all these phrases with rickshaw drivers in mind.  In the heat of the moment I can never remember how to say these sentences in Hindi, but we’re all practising.

So, back to Sunday night and after arguing with the rickshaw driver we got home. By the time we got to bed (via a few brandy sours and some very bad 80s French pop music, merci Celia et Flo) it was after 2am and Erin and I had a class at 10am the next morning, we really needed some sleep.  But sleep would not come.  I lay for 2 hours listening to the cacophony of beeping traffic (yes even at 3am), barking dogs and our creaking fan.  Finally I was so desperate for sleep that I got up and started doing uni work, hoping that it would be so uninspiring that it would send me to sleep.  And it kind of did.  Nevertheless this was at about 5am and I had to wake up in far too few hours. 

At 8am I dragged my unimpressed body out of bed and towards the coffee percolator.  But normal life wasn’t going to happen this week.  Our household had fallen under the spell of the Week that Disappeared and calamity had hit.  I’m not going to say much about this episode except that it was very frightening, and involved pain and panic and a realisation of how scary it can be when things go wrong in a confusing and foreign country. 

I began feeling very alone and frustrated.  I wanted to make the situation better and I knew that if I were in Australia I’d know exactly how to get what was needed.  But nothing is simple in India.  Phone numbers weren’t working, or if they were working the required person was out to lunch.  The episode ended as happily as it could have done though.  New friends living locally and old friends living a long way away all lent so much help and advice and I realised how much of a support network really is available to us if we need it.  It was a good realisation.  So by Monday night calm had settled back over our apartment, at least temporarily.

Appendix:  Australian Consulate is useless and unhelpful for all their hypocritical rhetoric of support for overseas citizens.  I’d suggest going straight to the American Consulate or the nearest five star hotel if bad things ever happen when you’re overseas. 

 

On Wednesday Erin and I had an essay due on Dalit literature for the infamous Raj Rao.  Thus, Tuesday involved copious amounts of coffee, procrastination (for me that involved sweeping and mopping the floor, face masks and cooking elaborate meals) and very little sleep.  My procrastination (but not my essay) was helped by the fact that we had carpenters and tailors over all day.  Erin and I had organised for a clothes hanger, post box and curtains to be made but of course they didn’t turn out exactly as planned and so there was much negotiation and frustration in stunted Hindi and English. 

I was also exhausted due to lack of sleep on Sunday night and not being able to catch it up on Monday night.  For much of the day I felt as if there was a layer of cotton wool separating me from my brain.  Concentration was difficult (obviously not helped by my penchant for procrastination, the presence of obnoxious carpenters who enjoyed poking through our belongings, and too much coffee). 

I finally finished the essay in some passable form at 4:30am.  The day had been a too-long and painful slog, though punctuated on the stroke of midnight with the transition to my birthday.  My housemates helped me celebrate this in style by wrapping a gaudy ashtray in toilet paper, writing ‘take it easy’ on it in permanent marker and taping a burning cigarette to it so it protruded out the top of the ashtray like a birthday candle.  They came into the living room where I was working, turned of the lights and put on the song ‘Take it Easy’ (I think an 80s French pop song – a genre of which my French flatmates are connoisseurs). 

The ashtray was accompanied by a tacky key ring with my name on it that is powered by some solar arrangement and that flashes obnoxiously.  I couldn’t think of a better way to celebrate my Indian birthday.  I think this episode should be exempt from my Week that Disappeared – a sustaining interlude. 

You would think that after so little sleep and at such a revoltingly early hour of the morning I would fall into bed and fall straight to sleep.  But alas no I lay awake listening to the outside noises for a few more hours, coughing incessantly – I was getting sick too.  In fact it was the coughing more than anything else that ended up keeping me awake for so long, my own addition to the Bhau Patil (the road we live on) symphony. 

After a perfunctory 2 hour sleep I once again dragged my unhappy body out of bed and towards the percolator, my breathing now punctuated with coughing, my voice reduced to a mannish croak. 

Fortified with coffee I stepped out of our apartment building.  I walked straight into a funeral procession.  No, seriously.  There was a funeral procession marching down our street and they had reached our end of the street just as I exited the apartment building.  There were lots of men in white, women in technicolour saris and a dead body lying in a glass casket garlanded with flowers.  This was the first image of the first day of my 22nd year – the greying body of a dead man being carried down the street by mourners.  I was to find out a few days later that the man was a mafioso who had been shot in our street that morning.  So probably as I was coughing up my left lung this man was being shot.  Bad omen?  It felt like it. 

Next was the usual battle at the rickshaw stand, as detailed in a previous episode.  Because I was alone that morning they were even less willing to compromise than usual and in my tired and fragile state I was less willing to accept their double standards.  It ended up in a fight and with me having to walk up the road until I could hail a rickshaw who would play fair.

I had very diligently woken up early so I could attend a politics class that I had not attended (for various reasons legitimate and not so much) for almost a month.  The teacher is Madame Pandit who I have mentioned in earlier blogs.  Her most defining characteristic is her presence, the volume of her voice (and actually her body), its grating tone.  This was not something I felt like confronting in my drowsy and sick state, but despite this I dragged myself to the classroom somehow.  Madame Pandit, however, did not.  I’d turned up for absolutely no reason.  I was not happy.  There was not much point in returning home as I had class at 11am, so I bided my time at uni.  At one point mum called me to wish me happy birthday but the reception is so bad at uni that the call was cut short.  This depressed me even more, all I wanted at that point was to hear a familiar voice. 

At 11am I went to my English classroom only to find this one empty too.  Was it some public holiday that I was not aware of?  It had been Gandhi’s birthday the day before, but I was not aware of anything particular happening on October 3rd, except my birthday of course, but that wasn’t really cause for a national celebration.  I went and found my English teacher who was as ignorant as I was as to why no one else had come to class.  It’s obvious now that it was a conspiracy of the Week that Disappeared but at the time we were both quite confused. 

I had one more class that day – Gender, Culture and History.  This was a course I was really looking forward to, I have done a similar sounding course at UNSW which was great and I was keen to get an idea of the Indian approach to feminism.  In reality it is the most mind-implodingly boring course I have, for a million reasons that I won’t go into.  It makes my brain want to curl up and die.  It just does.  Because it was, after all, the Week that Disappeared, this class was running.  I don’t even know what we covered, I was inebriated with tiredness.  I could only concentrate on keeping my eyes open.  This was such a struggle that I had to devise various ways of achieving this including drinking copious amounts of water (a mistake if you’ve ever seen the women’s toilets at UoP) and taking my shoes off and placing my feet of the cold ground to shock myself into consciousness. The teacher indulged herself in 30 extra minutes of class.  I thought I was going to explode with the desire to get home. 

Finally I stumbled out of the building and tried to find a rickshaw to take me home.  There weren’t any, or not any willing to go to Bhau Patil road at least, even though it’s a mere 10min drive.  In the end I was forced to drag my unhappy and unwell body 3km down the road and up 5 flights of stairs and…home.  I fell on my bed and had a grateful birthday phone call with Dave. 

In the innocence of Sunday night, pre-Week that Disappeared, I had agreed to go to karaoke for my birthday.  This now seemed like a mistake on a number of levels, not the least being my complete and utter lack of singing ability.  People try to comfort me, “no really Lucy, you’re a great singer” or “of course you can sing, you’re just too self-conscious about it”.  And I appreciate the support, but let’s be honest.  I cannot sing.  It’s a hereditary thing, and those of you who have attended family birthday parties will know what I mean – our rendition of “Happy birthday” sounds like cats mating (no offence family, but we all know it’s true).  One of the most comical and excruciating moments of my life was my piano exam, the bit where the examiner plays a tune and you sing it back.  Cats mating.

So you get the picture: it’s bad and karaoke is not my thing. Nevertheless, complete with alarming sounding cough and croaky man voice I dragged myself to this karaoke bar called “Not just jazz by the sea”.  I didn’t hear any jazz and we weren’t anywhere near the sea so that was a bit confusing.  Appallingly cheesy macaroni and lychee flavoured margaritas increased my confusion. 

In the end it was a good night.  Heaps of people turned up, most of whom I had never met in my life.  My birthday wish to not sing was respected.  The whole group of people who didn’t know me were dragged on stage by the karaoke-coordinator-man and forced to sing “Happy birthday” to me, both verses (I had no idea there was a second one, maybe it’s an Indian thing).

Some randoms engaged in some very energetic Bollywood dancing to some Hindi song sung by a man with the most scarily versatile voice I have ever heard – he could master anything from Barry White to the Buggles.

We were kicked out of the karaoke bar at 11:30pm due to the newly adopted curfew for bars here.  We hadn’t quite quenched our party mood so we returned home, drank brandy sours and danced to…bad 80s French pop music (merci Celia et Flo) and I got to open my present which was a beautiful mirror from FabIndia, my favourite shop in Pune. 

This time I lay down in bed and fell asleep, finally, gratefully, deeply for 12 hours, not waking up until 1:30pm the next day.  The only problem with this was that I had slept through a meeting for a sociology group assignment which had been at 12:30pm.  I figured my health superseded some presentation due in 3 weeks and sent my group members an apologetic message. 

The rest of Thursday went relatively smoothly considering, apart from cutting myself while chopping onions and bleeding everywhere. 

Friday began with me spilling boiling hot coffee all over the sensitive inside of my wrist and burning myself.  I battled on nevertheless, wrapped ice in a tea towel, wrapped this around my wrist and went to class feeling very sorry for myself.  I sat through class with the ice on my wrist but by the time class had finished all the ice had melted and my wrist was starting to burn again.  I was supposed to wait around for an hour for another group meeting but I couldn’t hold on, I really needed to get home and stick my wrist under water.  My only alternative was to spend the next hour in the uni bathrooms with my wrist under the tap.  As I mentioned earlier, the women’s bathrooms at uni are a problem that I’ll refrain from going into.  This was not going to happen. 

I raced home via a chemist for some burn cream and stood underneath the tap for another hour and wrote another apologetic message to my group members.  The meeting was just to distribute reading material so I offered to meet them near where they live in order to collect the articles. 

My overzealous group member replied with an abusive message accusing me of laziness and having no respect for other people’s time.  Considering the week I’d had I was not in the right emotional state for dealing with such accusations calmly.  I sent an angry message back informing her that I was not conspiring to make her life difficult, that I had had a very bad week and that she should get a life.  In hindsight perhaps I should have thought first and messaged second (a slogan for our generation?), she’s quite capable of dobbing on me to the teacher (you’d think her 23 years would put her marginally above this). 

Our inevitable confrontation on Monday morning hung over me all weekend.  In reality Monday morning arrived and we had a strangely uninvolved encounter.  It turns out that she had already emailed me the articles on Thursday and so my attendance at the Friday meeting was completely pointless.  Estupido! 

My week really improved when the weekend arrived.  We went to a party on Friday night and hosted a party on Saturday night for my birthday.  We also acquired a pool (of the inflatable variety which we christened by squeezing our-four-selves and our cocktails in for about 10mins until the novelty wore off) and hot water and a shower (of the about time variety, achieved by withholding the rent from the landlord.  It worked like a charm – something that he’d been putting off for two months suddenly, when the money stopped, materialised in two days).  A long sought after copy of Titanic in English (not Hindi dubbed) also came into our possession, but that’s another story. 

Putting my Week that Disappeared down I’ve realised that I don’t really want all of it to disappear.  Maybe the Week that Disappeared isn’t a completely appropriate title.  Maybe I’ll rechristen it as the Week of Selective Amnesia (which works on more than one level considering the number of brandy sours, gin and tonics and rhubarb liqueurs I consumed). 

Qualifier:  I must sound like a really diligent student, dragging myself to class sick and wounded.  I’m not really.  It’s just that I’ve ended up missing a lot of uni because I went on a random trip to England, Scotland and Berlin (Scotland for my cousin’s wedding, the rest to make the long plane trip worthwhile), and really can’t afford any more absences.  I’ll write about my UK/Europe aside later, I can’t find the words for it right now.

prologue – no more words.

September 29, 2007

I have had one class with Raj since The Class.

I sat through the whole class in stony silence.

It doesn’t seem like a very strong way to express my dissatisfaction or dissent, but it was more gratifying than you could imagine.  To Raj’s credit, he was really making an effort to involve the class more than he ever had.  He was asking us questions and not in the vague and unhelpful way that most teachers here do – “So what do you think about (insert capitalism, democracy, god or some other huge topic that you could dedicate a life to analysing)?  Any comments?”.  Raj was asking specific questions in a way that made me think that he actually wanted a response.  This didn’t necessarily mean that he fully listened to people’s answers or refrained from interrupting them, but it was a start.  He addressed Erin and me directly a few times, even taking the trouble to try to learn our names.  He seemed to really be trying to get us involved in some discussion. 

I would not be roped in.  I sat through the whole two hour class in stony silence, perfecting my death stare (which I have been told I’m already pretty good at).  If he asked a question directly I would answer in the least amount of words possible, all the while studying this huge black ant that spent the whole two hours trying to crawl into the power socket on the wall opposite me (the ant never got all the way in, I was quite disappointed as, being in a morose and morbid mood, I was looking forward to seeing what would happen when it reached the electric current). 

I like to think that he looked a bit defeated at the end of the class. I believe that despite his aggressive response to our previous attempt at discussion, he was excited by it and, like us, would like to see a bit more interaction in class.  It was deeply gratifying to deny him of this.  I am keen to have another go at discussion in Raj’s class.  But I’m not ready to forgive him just yet, especially because he never came close to an apology.  It’s pretty immature and petty to punish him like this, but I would not have felt happy with myself if I had have been compliant after the way he made us feel the last time. I’ll be honest – it felt lovely to make him scramble for a response like that.  The rest of the class were not exactly responsive either, so a lot of the time his questions were met with blank stares and thick silence.  On the outside I looked like I was trying to project venom out of my eyes, but on the inside I was grinning.  Spite – ugly but gratifying, sometimes.

my wrong words

August 30, 2007

I have come down from my gushing enthusiasm re. my subjects and teachers at UoP.  I am almost-but-not-quite feeling disillusioned all over again.  Mostly the reasons for this are simple:

  1. The student-teacher power hierarchy is so rigid that class discussion consists largely of silence or repetition of what the teacher has just told us.  Critical thinking, emphasised in theory so much by the politics teachers, is not really practised and not particularly encouraged.
  2. My Politics in the Developing World teacher holds very strong views that somehow manage to combine westcentricism, neo-liberalism and neo-Stalinism.  This is confusing and depressing (she apparently has the ear of the UNDP in India).
  3. A minor difference in opinion in our Dalit Literature class somehow became a messy hour long argument between Erin and I and our teacher Raj Rao.  Let me try to explain…

 I have been reluctant in getting this exchange down, I was shaken by it, can’t really find the right words for it – but here are my wrong words anyway… 

In our Dalit literature course we were looking at two autobiographical excerpts.  One was the story of a Dalit child – she was a good student but was unable to stay in school due to discrimination on the basis of her gender and caste.  The second story was of a Dalit woman who was in an abusive marriage.  She returned to her home and told her family about the unhappy situation.  The family supported her and told her she could stay with them rather than forcing her to go back to her husband (which often happens). 

Raj Rao is our Alternative Literatures teacher who, as I’ve said, is a published gay writer himself.  He places a lot of emphasis on being revolutionary, ‘anti-status quoist’, extreme.  He makes a point of declaring his sexuality to us, repeatedly, and believes that if you’re not open about these things then you’re ‘status-quoist’ and a lemming to society.

Raj said that the second story (about the married woman) was better than the first (about the school girl) because it was more progressive – the family were doing something that was difficult but that could work to break down patterns of abuse and discrimination.  Women here are often sent back into abusive marriages, often with fatal consequences, and he appreciated the move against that by the family. 

The problem Erin and I had was basically that there was more than one interpretation of these stories, that both could be progressive in their own way.  After all, the stories are autobiographical.  This could mean, by implication, an ultimately happy ending to the first story – the girl was denied a traditional education, but she has presumably found an alternative to this as she is now a published writer.  Also, the second story, taken to its logical conclusion does not necessarily have a happy ending.  Raj himself explained to us the stigma that surrounds unmarried women above a certain age in Indian society.  It is similar to the Madonna/whore dichotomy that women encounter in western society – if a woman has not taken the path of chaste, monogamous housewife she is assumed to be a libertine, polygamous prostitute.  Additionally, stories that don’t have happy endings can still be revolutionary – they can create friction and indignation and outrage and these feelings can be productive in terms of achieving change, of being ‘revolutionary’.  These ideas were the essence of what Erin and I said, not that groung-breaking. 

Raj exploded. 

He became extremely defensive, aggressive even.  He accused us of not knowing what we’re talking about, demanded that we explain ourselves properly, but then kept interrupting us before we could complete a sentence.  He continually peppered his sentences with post-modern lingo – meta-narrative, intertextuality blah blah blah in a way that suggested we wouldn’t understand these terms. 

He accused us of having a missionary complex, of liking the first story more because we saw a place for ourselves in it, a space for us to enter and interfere and make things better for the poor misguided Dalits.  I think that there is definitely an aspect of this in me.  It’s too easy to let aid work become an egotistical, self-growth exercise, to venture into the wildernesses of poverty, do some good deeds, talk to some wary locals and leave and never come back, congratulating yourself and boasting to your friends about the profound connections you’ve forged with the natives.  I’m guilty of this, but I’m aware of it too, and the way Raj accused us was unnecessarily scathing.   In any case, none of us are perfect.

It was incredibly intimidating to be confronted with so much resentment and bile from a teacher.  It was unprofessional.  He even used the rest of the class against us at one point.  As I said earlier, the power hierarchy is quite rigid and in most of our classes students just do not contradict their teachers (maybe we shouldn’t have attempted it, but I didn’t even feel like we were contradicting him, just offering a different perspective).  So halfway through the argument he accused us of just wanting to disrupt the class, of not making any sense, of not being able to grasp a simple concept.  He proceeded to go around individually to the rest of the class, asking them what they thought.  Each student parroted what Raj had been saying or regurgitated the plot of the two stories.  It was so demoralising, at least one of the students must have thought something different.  Though I don’t really blame them for biting their tongues if that’s what they did, at that point I was wishing that I had not said anything either. 

As I said, Raj is fixated with declaring his sexuality, using it as a pretext to his ideas.  He decided that it would be “polite” if we did the same, explain ourselves in terms of where we are coming from.  I believe now that he wanted us to say that we are white, middle-class and heterosexual so he could chop us down again, reiterate our status-quoism, missionary-complex and remind us that we are not in the position to really critique Dalit literature because we have no understanding of it (which is what he had said to us earlier, but why did he let us join the course then, and what on earth are we meant to say about the literature if we don’t have permission to be critical of it???  This is political correctness taken to excess and I told him.  It is not helpful to put writing like this on pedestals, to not critique it, to tiptoe around the writing like Raj seems to want.).  Raj kept insisting that we “explain where we’re coming from”.  I did not feel comfortable opening myself up like that, being forced to explain myself considering the negative atmosphere that had been generated and said so (this was after about 45 minutes of arguing)… 

Raj:    “Are you accusing the class of generating a negative atmosphere?  I think you’re the one who has created the negative atmosphere.  Look around you, who in this class are you accusing of that?” 

I was forced to explain that it wasn’t the class that had created the negative atmosphere but Raj himself.  I told him that he had made me feel uncomfortable with his aggression, that he had become patronising (calling me “my dear girl”, I hate being called pet names like that) and unpleasant and I reserved my right to not have to open myself up like that.

He seemed to gather himself together a little after this, though he wouldn’t let the argument go, saying that he wanted to make sure that we did not leave his classroom confused because that had never happened to him in 20 years of teaching.  Crap.  I’m sure he just intimidated students so much that they realised (more quickly than we did) that it is far better to not express confusion or disagreement with anything he says. 

He finally dismissed us 30 minutes after the class should have finished.  Ultimately he seemed to respect us for defending our opinions in the argument, though he still ensured that he had the last word. 

It felt humiliating to have dominated a whole hour of class with an argument (that Raj classified as a “non-argument”) just between Erin and I and Raj, with the rest of the class silent and watching.  I feel stigmatised in front of them now, and I think some of them might be less inclined to talk to us.  Raj also made a point of telling us that he had now been prevented from going through the second half of his lesson plan, intending to make us feel guilty, which it did.  Ultimately I feel proud of us for sticking up for ourselves and not being railroaded by his aggressiveness (he is one of those people who feel that if you talk longer and louder than your opponent you have won the argument), but I never want to go through that again. 

Erin and I went on a quest for tonic water after this episode.  We had bought a bottle of gin  duty free in Darwin airport on our way to Mumbai and felt that this would be a perfect time to break it open (we were stunned and in shock and in desperate need of a drink).  Unfortunately when we asked for tonic water we were directed to the chemists.  We settled for guava juice and Bacardi (also courtesy of Darwin Duty Free). 

I’ve always been spoilt with English teachers – Mr Young and Mr Green in high school, then Liz McMahon and Kate at uni.  It feels like a violation to have such a bad English experience.  I’m about to leave for his class now and I have butterflies and I have resolved to never speak up again in that class and I hate that he’s had that effect on me.

scenic scenery

August 30, 2007

We have been befriended by a man whom I shall call Laxman. Laxman haunts the university canteen even though he is no longer a student. But he is not there to study but rather to prey (in his own way) on sweaty, overwhelmed western exchange students. Laxman does not have a generous heart – he never tips, he reprimands beggars, he’s careful with money – but for some reason he has decided to take all of us harassed foreign students under his wing, with no clear motives, for nothing concrete in return.

He has engaged in the dirty work of house-hunting for some, he has linked empty bedrooms with homeless students, he has procured scooters, beds and stoves for others. He has become the strange fairy god mother of the exchange student population. Laxman’s assistance is difficult to resist. He has one crucial thing that we all lack. He’s Indian. He can speak Hindi, he understands how to do things. He gets things done. Particularly in terms of finding a flat, his assistance has been invaluable for some. Most landlords do not want to rent to western students. Here, our white skin carries connotations of libertinism, decadence, polygamy, alcoholism, drug addiction. It’s as if by giving us a place they’ll lower the standard of their building. We know another household made up of a Spanish guy, a Polish guy and a girl from Reunion Island/France. The girl comes across as Indian if she doesn’t say anything (a huge advantage when doing anything from shopping to catching rickshaws). Laxman finally procured them an apartment by constructing an elaborate story which basically entailed the girl being an Indian businesswoman, married to the Polish guy, setting up a company in Pune in which the Spanish guy was an associate.

Laxman is highly aware of the upper hand he has. In a way he flaunts it. I believe that this is his payment for services rendered – freedom to luxuriate in his superior understanding the country, customs, food and language and freedom to impart his knowledge on us ignorant fledglings, to excess (he’s incredibly patronising, feels the need to instruct us on the most obvious or arbitrary things, such as the proper manner in which to use the slices of lemon that you tend to receive along with your meals at restaurants here).

Laxman organised an outing on Sunday. He rented a car and a driver and organised for Erin, Celia and I, the Polish guy, the girl from Reunion Island/France, an Iranian student and a Polish traveller to take a trip to a waterfall four hours drive from Pune, called Varandha.

I feel uncomfortable accepting things from Laxman. As I said, he’s patronising. But he is difficult to resist and I accepted and capitulated and tried not to grimace as he explained the proper, Indian way of washing one’s face with water, among many other things.

It was a nice day. The hills were hilly and the trees leafy and the waterfall was wet. I had to pee in a bush. This was a low point. The high point was swimming in the waterfall. But I was forced to do this in my jeans and top and then wade around for the rest of the day, wrapped in a shawl because my top had gone see-through, with extra kilos of water dripping from me. We walked up a hill, I couldn’t breathe, my lungs were sad. (I was sad that I had such sad lungs, due an to unhealthy lifestyle that I thoroughly enjoy. This made me sad too. But also happy.) We drove home; it was a long trip to do in damp, muddy clothes and an extremely carsick guy sitting opposite me who looked like he was going to puke on me at any minute. Luckily he held off and we arrived home safe and sound, yearning for a hot shower, but resorting to a cup of tea and a few buckets of cold water over our heads instead.

chicken masala fatigue

August 30, 2007

The other day I happened to be in central Pune (as opposed where we live and go to uni which is to Pune what Mount Druitt is to Sydney (that makes me sound a bit suburbist, but I guess I am – I’m not proud of it but I grew up on the Northern Beaches after all)).  So I was in central Pune and I decided to indulge in going to one of the few supermarkets I’ve seen here.  It’s called Dorabjee’s and it stocks a lot of imported things.  I was careful with what I bought, the prices are high by Indian standards, and even Australian standards.  I made my purchases and hurried home, looking forward to surprising my flatmates with my bundle of treats from home that we’d all be missing. 

I was greeted with the sort of reception I’d been hoping for.  We all fell on the food.  You need to understand that our diets have really lacked flare over the past month.  The only kitchen appliances we’ve been able to accumulate so far have been a kettle and a toaster.  The little corner store down the road from where we live (Choice Super Shoppe) actually stocks a surprising amount of stuff for its size, but there’s still a limit.  Some of Choice Super Shoppe’s food is a bit suspect too.  The other day our ‘brown’ bread had swirls of white through it – it looked like they hadn’t mixed the brown food colouring into the white dough enough.  Basically our meals have consisted of instant coffee, tomato on toast and choco pops.  I think I’ve lost about 5kgs just from lack of inspiration. 

There’s also a restaurant down the road from where we’re living which is a good supplement to our depressing diets.  It’s called Kohinoor (why is that word in my Microsoft Word dictionary?) and features menus inexplicably decorated with pictures of Greek alleyways and pixelated sunsets.  They make quite nice Indian and Chinese food plus they deliver.  Nevertheless, I still haven’t gotten the hang of really enjoying Indian meals for breakfast lunch and dinner.  At home I like going to Indian restaurants or making curries, but once a month maximum.  Indian food three times a day is tiring.  Also, unlike most Indian places in Sydney, ground whole spices are rarely used here, except in the really nice places.  Rather, they have infamous bags of masala powder (actually I don’t know that – but I’m visualising huge canvas sacks spewing potent red powder) with which they generously season EVERYTHING.  The same masala smell emanates from almost every restaurant or canteen and that same masala taste will haunt your mouth in the morning, pretty much regardless of where you ate and what you had and how thoroughly you brushed your teeth.  I hate to put this in writing because I wish I was more adept at assimilation and adaptation, but in all honesty, when I leave India I am never, ever eating veg masala ever again.

 

So, my imported purchases were cause for great excitement.  It was only when I started putting away the food from Dorabjee’s that I realised the mediocrity of what I’d bought, of what had made us all so excited.  Mayonnaise, peanut butter, nutella, bread, tuna.  By my Sydney standards that’s a pretty drab shopping-list.  But there were no tomatoes and no masala.  It was a strange but genuine moment of culinary heaven.

It was Parsi new year on Monday so there was the possibility of a long weekend (in reality there wasn’t one but it served its justification purposes nevertheless…)  It was almost a month to the day of our arrival in Pune and Erin and I still hadn’t managed to get out of the city.  So Erin and I and our flatmates – Celia, Flo and Hugo – decided to spend a long weekend in Goa.  We ended up missing two days of uni, but I believe that this has been compensated for by the educational nature of our trip, but maybe you should judge for yourself…

 

Lesson one:  How long is an Indian kilometre? 

To get to Goa and back we travelled twenty-six hours in total – a fourteen hour train trip there and a twelve hour bus trip back. 

Apart from the ogling eyes of a few men (real and imaginary…), the train trip was a good experience.  Sitting in the open doorway of the moving train with nothing separating me from the environment was probably the closest I’ve come to a spiritual experience in India.  Everything felt very simple and right from that train doorway.

The bus trip back was less pleasant.  The much touted air-conditioning on the bus brought the temperature down to about twelve degrees.  I ended up having to put on almost every article of clothing I’d taken with me to Goa (which wasn’t very much, considering it was a beachside holiday).  Additionally problematic was the man across from us had the most incredible snore which progressed from a loud growl to a throaty gurgle throughout the long trip. 

Another serious problem with the bus trip was that the ‘toilet’ stops consisted of parking next to few discreet bushes.  This was fine for the men who could jump off the bus and do their business.  But of course it would have been highly unacceptable for a woman to utilise the flora in this way.  It seems that women tend to not have bladders in India (actually in a way they don’t, I suppose – the female body is often treated as an embarrassing aberration, an unmentionable or a commodity, not to be catered for or accommodated). 

I have also never been able to grasp the art of sleep while sitting up, so the twelve hours on the bus stretched almost interminably, with only snoring-man’s nasty noises to keep me company while everyone sat comatose, head resting in awkward positions, lines of dribble coming from their mouths.  My insomnia was made worse by the knowledge that I’d have to go almost straight to university after getting off the bus in Pune and my desperation to gain a few hours of rest made it even more impossible to achieve. 

We never questioned the amount of time that these journeys took.  An overnight trip to get to and from Goa seemed to make sense.  It was only a few days after we returned that we realised that Goa is only about 300km from Pune.  On average that would mean that we’d been travelling at about 23km per hour.  It wasn’t even as if the train and bus were moving slowly or that there were that many stops.

So lesson one (belatedly arrived at):  A kilometre can mean many things in India.  

 

 

Lesson two:  Where did all the noise go? 

First image of Goa: a big rusty sign saying NO BEEPING ZONE.  Bliss.  In Pune I live my life to a soundtrack of beeping, blaring, horning, honking.  I have become a beep connoisseur – my ears are now finely tuned to the different tones of the rickshaws, scooters, motorbikes, trucks, cars, buses and assorted ramshackle machines that somehow propel themselves down Pune’s pot-holed roads.  Some cars and rickshaws have novelty beeps (imagine the most manic ad jingle, in beep form).  Even more eccentric are the noises most cars produce when they are reversing.  For the first few weeks I thought it must have been someone’s obnoxiously loud ringtone.  The beep is so institutionalised here that Indian trucks (often beautifully decorated) tend to have big painted letters on the back declaring ‘HORN OK PLEASE’. 

    horn

At first I reasoned that all this traffic noise must be functional.  Pune roads are chaotic – traffic lights and lanes hold only paltry authority, pedestrian crossings mean nothing.  Pune’s traffic police wear a look of uniform exasperation, their arm-flailings largely ignored, their whistle-blowing blending with the cacophony of the street.  I assumed that this traffic noise must be used as a way of warning other drivers of their presence – which can be totally unpredictable (example: when in a rickshaw, if the driver encounters a traffic jam, instead of queuing he (there are absolutely no female rickshaw drivers) will often bypass the jam by driving over the cement middle bit of the road and over to the other side, thus avoiding the queue).  So I thought there was some order to the chaos.  That was until I was given a lift by a local in a car at about midnight, the street was empty but he could not keep his hand off the horn.  I couldn’t help laughing as we drove through the empty streets, the lonely car giving forlorn hoots that echoed off the surrounding buildings. 

The relative silence (I say relative because as far as I know, India is never ever just silent) of Goa the beep-free zone was blissful.

Lesson two:  The noise probably went to Pune and Goa’s golden silence is just as functional as Pune’s pervasive traffic orchestra.  

 

 

Interval:  Lucy through the picture postcard.

Goa was ridiculously idyllic, it had the works – palm trees, uninhabited beaches, friendly locals, a guesthouse right on the beach, fresh fish, serene-looking rice paddies (although pervasively branded with huge billboards sprinkled amongst the paddies along the main roads – including an ad for ‘Gandhi Publicity Agents’, and who wouldn’t want to have Gandhi’s image, but can you really say that, here?).  

 

 

Lesson three:  A cautionary tale. 

Goa is a tiny enigma of a state.  It is largely Catholic and the Indian take on Catholicism is lavish and colourful and much more festive than most of the west’s dour approach.  It was colonised by the Portuguese instead of the British (I wonder how the Portuguese were so much better at religious conversion, there is hardly a trace of British religiosity in the (tiny portion of the) rest of India that I have seen).  Actually, there is a church up the road from where we’re living in Pune, but it’s also across the road from an IT Park and I suspect that it might be at least partly to cater for the western expats in the area who have come here on the back of Pune’s technology boom.  In Goa Christian fervour was splashed over almost everything, buses had big stickers declaring ‘PRAYS GOD’ and even the fishing boats were called things like ‘INFANT JESUS’. 

    church

The whole of Goa is only about 100km in length so we decided to rent two scooters and a motorbike and use the three days we had to see a bit more of the state.  Flo, Celia and Hugo are all quite confident motorbike/scooter riders.  Erin and I had a go but Erin managed to tip us over while trying to turn (don’t worry, we were only going at about 2km/hour and on grass), and I didn’t even attempt anything but going in a straight line at a speed just fast enough to keep the scooter upright.  So it was decided that Flo, Celia and Hugo should do the driving and Erin and I could sit on the back.  There were plans for us to have a go at learning, but this never eventuated.  I think this was a good thing – coordination is not my strong point – I hardly trust myself on a push-bike, let alone something with an engine.  There is also the small matter of my stillborn attempt to learn to drive – if I managed to crash into a parked car while driving veeeeery slowly in a quiet street (which I did)…well enough said.

On the Sunday we decided to drive up to the capital of Goa– a small city in the north called Panaji.  We had not yet learnt the valuable ‘how-long-is-a-piece-of-Indian-string’ lesson (see lesson #1) and anticipated the trip would take us a maximum of one hour.  We left Benaulim (the beach we were staying at) at about 2pm.  The trip took us significantly longer than one hour, but was a beautiful ride.  I’d heard a lot of things about Goa – particularly in relation to parties, drugs, washed-up hippies and ultra-tourism – so was quite surprised by the relative peacefulness and greenery. 

Panaji was not really as picturesque as the Lonely Planet guide had me anticipate, but we wandered around, bought some Goan speciality fenny (a liquor made from cashew nuts) and happened across a music festival in a Hindu temple.  We were invited into a big hall to watch what seemed to be a traditional music competition.  We felt extremely conspicuous and a little ridiculous.  This was particularly because we’d been talked into buying strings of marigold offerings by women who had set up some stalls at the entrance of the temple.  Inside the hall there were a couple of alters in front of the audience.  We couldn’t bring ourselves to go up and lay these offerings at the alter in front of all those curious eyes.  Finally, at the prompting of some men sitting behind us we crept up to the alter, trying to arrange our faces into an appropriate look of seriousness, but not necessarily devotion which seemed inappropriate considering we had no idea to which God we were offering marigolds or why. After making our offerings with as much dignity as possible we made our retreat from the temple and had a walk around the town until the sky began to darken at a rapid rate… 

The monsoonal downpour began soon after (Lesson 3a:  It’s low season for a reason and monsoonal rains are not conducive to driving safety).  It was after 6pm and it belatedly occurred to us that we were quite a long way from our guesthouse, in monsoon season, dusk was encroaching and (ahem) we’d forgotten our helmets (Lesson 3b:  Wear that stupid helmet).  The happy, holiday mood of our group darkened along with the sky. 

When we turned the bikes on the mood of our group darkened further – none of our headlights were working (Lesson 3c:  When you’re a foreigner (or even a local) in a touristy Indian town expect to be ripped off and act with appropriate vigilance). 

Ironically we became the only vehicles on the road that were beeping incessantly (see Lesson #2) as it was the only way (apart from using our break lights) that we could make our presence known on the road and also ensure that we were all together and no one had gotten lost. 

But our sad story doesn’t end there – the scooter that Celia and Erin were on ran out of fuel in the middle of nowhere, halfway up a hill (Lesson 3d:  Scooters need petrol).  Though this wasn’t completely our fault as the petrol gauges on the bikes were, like the headlights, victims of lack of maintenance and not working…Actually no, it was completely our fault. 

       helmets are good

Erin and I both (separately and without being aware that the other was doing the same) went to the nearest little roadside stall and asked where we could buy petrol from.  I was told that there was a place a little up the road, the direction of which was indicated with vague and ambiguous gestures of the arm.  In true Indian style, the guy Erin approached for petrol (just ten metres down the road) readily produced some from inside his little stall.  I came back and relayed my guy’s instructions to Flo and Hugo who drove up the road to find this alleged petrol seller.  Unbeknown to them, at the same time, Erin returned to Celia and the scooter with two litres of petrol in old water bottles (Lesson 3e:  Communication skills are no laughing matter kids).  We couldn’t get in contact with Flo and Hugo to tell them that we’d found petrol until they’d driven about two kilometres down the road.  Finally we were reunited, though this involved leaving Flo stranded in the driveway of some strange house by the side of the road in the middle of nowhere, all alone in the pouring rain for about a quarter of an hour. 

By this time it was completely dark. 

Problem:  India is a huge country with a limited power supply, blackouts are a fact of life. 

Ramifications:  A lot of our ride home was done in almost pitch black darkness because the street lights kept turning off and, of course, we had no headlights. 

We had to try to stay on the tail of trucks and other vehicles so we could follow their lead, as we could barely see the road below us, beeping and braking all the way so that we could communicate our whereabouts to the other vehicles (so in an abberation of lesson #1, traffic noise can be functional). 

Halfway through our journey home it began to rain, viciously.  Poor Flo, of the stranded-alone-in-the-middles-of-nowhere, was worst off as she was wearing contact lenses which began to float around her watery eyeball as the rain flew painfully into all our faces.  I was on the back of Hugo’s motorbike, terrified because I could barely keep my eyes open in the downpour, and I didn’t have to drive and had a free hand to wipe away the water every now and then.  I tried not to think about what his vision must have been. 

Finally at about 9pm we arrived, shivering, shaken, soaked and limp with relief at our guesthouse in Benaulim.  The euphoria we experienced as we finally dismounted from our bikes in the Furtado’s Guesthouse parking space quickly flattened into shock and incredulity at the stupidity of what we’d just undertaken. 

Needless to say perhaps, the next day’s planned scooter ride to the southern beaches of Goa was vetoed in favour of a day at Benaulim swimming, walking and drinking cocktails.  The day was soured a little by the discovery of a group of pervy Indian men filming us swimming.  But I ran at them and they ran away and it was oddly gratifying.

 

 

Conclusion:  Return to reality. 

The following day we arrived back in the noise, pollution and chaos that is Pune.  We had to go almost straight from the bus stop to uni, all of us conspicuously branded as truants with our newly acquired tans.  

Class dismissed.