Cheap Travel in India, Travel in India

Refinement in the Tropics (Fort Kochi)

Every tourist town feels the same, and Fort Kochi, for all the blue of the sea and the old colonial buildings, is one of them: friendly insincerity.

Its cost — think of it as a cost of such commerce — was made plain a couple of days ago as I walked north from Bishop Joseph Kureethara Road past old St. Francis Church, built in 1516 by the Portugese to honor St. Antony (who has a small chapel just across the road from my rooms at Lotus Home Stay).

A little girl was working at a catch-all stand (T-shirts; puppets) outside the church with her father. Twenty stout Polish tourists, brightly dressed in shorts and sports shirts, cameras dangling, had just passed in and out. She was a cute girl in bright clothes, a tourist photo cliche, but when I asked with a gesture if I could take a picture of her, she scrunched her face. Her father knew better. He snapped at her to get with the game, and at once her face reshaped itself into happy greeter.

Image Little girl, honest

Image After fatherly lesson

Much of this is street commerce, New York, 1910.

At the open air Food Court with its five tables and unwashed table cloths, the young waiter agreed happily on Monday that my breakfast would be ready in 10 minutes, and I walked on down to the beach to watch the ferries and see the ice-cream carts arrive at the beginning of their long day.

I went back to the restaurant. A half hour later, my food came. I had a book, but I was annoyed, and the waiter, Raja, a thin kid of 17 or 18 or so in a filthy red shirt, seemed at once frightened, though I said nothing.

He’s likable. That evening, as the dark descended at about 6, he passed me by the playing field on his old bike and stopped to say hello, as friendly as ever.

“Your day is done?” I said.

No. No. He made a face like the little girl’s. He worked 24 hours for the old man, and he got paid only if customers came. Otherwise, nothing. No, he wasn’t ever finished.

What would he be doing in five years?

“I must escape,” he said. “A good job.” He repeated. “I must escape.”

“Sir, You will do me this one favor, please.” Ten rickshaw drivers, with nearly identical language, hand on heart. “You will allow me to take you to emporium close by, just to look, not to buy, sir, please, so I get a point for a petrol card for each person I bring and more if you buy, please. sir….”

But commerce is lost oddly. Up by the beach is a series of open-air restaurants. I walked there Tuesday at about 10 looking for breakfast, having abandoned the laggardly Food Court. The menu at restaurant number 2 looked good, and I pulled out a chair. No, said the waiter, gesturing me away as though I were a fly. We’re not open. I went to number three, which had several workers sitting near the money table. They shooed me away, too. Later, they said, and pointed back to the first restaurant.

Come in, come in said the waiter there. Fine, I said. I’m hungry, but could I wash up?

Maybe the restaurants are all owned by one individual, who profits, he thinks, by opening only one place for restaurant breakfast morning?

No, the waiter answered. No wash up.

Wash up is usually a euphemism here for “I need a toilet!”

“Toilet,” I said.

Come with him, he gestured, a skinny boy with a thin beard and apparently wearing Raja’s filthy shirt.  He led me to the intersection, and we turned south for a block, then east and went in through a passage-way by another idle restaurant. The toilet was there. Unlighted. Not a place to linger. No water; no soap.

I came out.

“Eat now?” he said.

We had walked so far we were closer now to another restaurant I’d found, the upstairs Loafers Corner, clean, with a series of old black and white family photographs on the wall and an excellent masala dosa and good “filter” coffee.

“No,” I told my toilet guide.

He grinned. “Maybe later, then. Remember me.”

Loafers Corner photographs

Loafers Corner photographs


We don’t need much, it’s becoming clear. Shelter. A bit of food.

I’m living well beyond that in Lotus Home Stay in a quiet neighborhood for $12.69 a day: a clean room with a ceiling fan and balcony overlooking the chapel. It has a neatly painted and unmouldy bathroom with a bidet hose rather than toilet paper, and a French hotelier who narrates her business-owning adventure in Fort Kochi over French press coffee I now make myself on the shaded back porch. I have shelter, money enough for food, and I can stay clean (and my clothes, either sending them out or, more quickly, washing them in a bucket with Tide I found in a small packet for 10 rupees).

For comparison, a bar of soap is 30 rupees; a kilo of oranges 40 or 50; a cup of filter coffee downtown, for rich tourists only, 50.

I took a cab the day before yesterday to the old synagogue in “Jew Town,” built in the early 14th century, clean and solid, like St. Francis, small, candles burning. My driver (30 rupees for a 10 minute ride) was Barack Obama Hussain.

From where you are? he asked, and grinned broadly when I answered, “USA.” (“United States” isn’t understood.)

He gave me a big thumbs up.

“Black man in White House,” he said. “Good! You like?”

“I did,” I said.

Yesterday, I took another rickshaw to the Jain temple, to watch a priest call the pigeons and feed them. Maybe 200 came, fluttering as pigeons do. The priest, wearing a gauze mask to avoid killing flying insects, scattered rice and chanted, and the pigeons landed on his outstretched arms.

A lady temple functionary seized me as I entered the Jain compound and guided me to a room full of murky paintings, which she described rapidly and incomprehensibly. Fine, I said, but I want to see the holy feeding of the birds. I started to leave.

She blocked me. Money, she said. A contribution. I must give a contribution for her lecture.

I pulled out 15 rupees or so in change and handed the coins to her.

Her lip curled, and she shook her head. “No,” she said. “One hundred rupee. One hundred.” She handed back my change.

I took it and went to watch the pigeons.

Barack Obama was there, waiting across the alley with other drivers. He gave me a thumbs-up hello as I left. He had told me about the pigeons, and I was glad to see him. “Sir,” he said. “You will do me this one small favor…”

The hands are always out, but mostly, here, it’s quiet and the shills, unlike our home-grown MBAs , aren’t entirely rapacious. The intensity does increase as you move up the food chain, or down. Even the security guards at the expensive hotels are haughty, though their faces melt into gladness if you walk in the door; the ritzy managers are from Dickens. On the other end, I guess, in Ooty last week, high in the Nilgiri mountains, a drunken laborer on a country road tried to threaten money from me with his mattock.

Would-be robber

Would-be robber

I was in a bad mood that day and came close to laying him out with my walking stick. He backed off, muttering self-righteously in a tone which seemed much like that found in the fine print of a credit card deal.  (An old man nearby, who had watched the encounter, said, “He say very bad things to you.”)

I walked home last night ahead of the heavy rain that came later, feeling lucky. The night air smelled good, Indian couples shared the street with me, the fruit stands and grocery stalls were busy, and I had money enough (10 rupees) for a little package of not-bad Bourbon (chocolate) cookies. The streets here are civilized. Even the teenage boys, laughing with each other, leaning against their scooter, flipping a cricket ball into the air, are friendly.

India is jarring me back from my middle-class reverie to the larger world and suggests in its multitude, in the generally humane encounters Indians have publicly with each other, that I shouldn’t take myself too seriously.

It’s not easy  to show the nuances of our own culture, to know the frightening expectations, frustrations, meanness and kindness, to understand the horrors of ambition.

Here, it’s impossible. I don’t know who these people are, or how their dearest myths frame their growing up. They are opaque to me.

Travel in India

My Cheap Timex

MYSORE — My Belgian novelist-and-artist friend Claire Veys (on Facebook; or wrote to me about traveling in India.

“Yes,” she said.  “I remember how every little things become difficult…and how you have to change your intern time to be in time with there.”

“I have a suggestion, or a request,” she said. “I’d like to offer to a friend some particular gift. He’s collector of things of life, and he will turn 63 soon. I’d like to offer him time passing, everywhere in the world.

Could you take a picture of your watch, or clocks where you are, and write a little comment to explain – the history of your watch, an anecdote, why you take this particularly clock, what happened when you did … something like that, and write too your name, the city where you are… I’ll compile and print all the contributions for him and offer him when I’ll have a good collection, from all over the world.”

And she wanted a title.

“Dear Claire,” I wrote. Here’s my clock story.”

It’s not old. I bought it in 2003 when its predecessor, identical in form and quality and nearly 20 years old, went bonkers and couldn’t decide if a day had 23 hours or 25.

The first one cost a little more than twenty dollars. This one, from a little shop in Burlington but available too in the better truck stops, was 29 or so. It has a second hand, so one can see the past appear moment by moment. It keeps perfect time, losing only one atomic second a decade, or maybe it’s a minute a month, I can’t remember for sure. It is reliable enough.

It also has a black leather band and an “Indiglo” dial which glows like a Carribean moon when a button is pushed, which discerning women for some reason find sexy.

I wear it when I feel corporate. It’s shown here, Nov. 11, 2013, in the Chandra Palace Hotel in Mysore.

In this purposeful photograph it is lying on my well-worn back-pack (which was delighted certainly to come to India again and ride on trains and buses); and it rests most immediately on a dimpled passport case of silkily smooth leather, bought from a conspiratorial dealer in the medieval suq in Fez, Morocco in 1978. In the background is a favorite hat featuring an expertly-ridden jumping horse, which suggests that I am a rider of great timing and balance.

My watch, for Claire,JPG

The watch (and its predecessors), the pack (rescued for $25 from a flea market in Waterbury, Vermont), the cap (a gift) and the venerable passport case encourage me that it isn’t just blather that we can find the tools we need and do what we need to do on the cheap.

Don’t wait, my humorless watch reminds me: Begin today. It’s time to go.

Our own time clocks go bonkers often even at an early age and begin to chime, “I wish I had, I wish I had, I wish I had…

At the moment, heat flavored with urine and diesel fumes rises from the churning, blaring street outside my window, my $11 hotel room isn’t cooled, and the electricity has failed three times in the past 10 minutes; but ancient Mysore waits outside, and after I take a brief nap I’ll strap on the watch,  slap on the cap at a jaunty but honest angle and find that rare someone who did.

Cheap Travel in India, Travel in India


Downstairs from my squalid room in the Hotel T.A.P. Silver Square, the amplified BOOM, BOOM from the Fusion Night Club makes the floor shake as though workers with sledges were trying to get at me from beneath.

The club is bearable. I have ear plugs, and the patrons, once outside, are mostly quiet Himalayan exiles in their 20s. Anyway, the noise comes to an end at 11:30, 15 minutes from now, so the women, not all of them escorted by men, can get home safely.

Unready, I say, because Indian grunge seems worse than ever, and I hadn’t expected to be shocked — Shocked, I say! — again. Thirty-eight years ago, my first trip, reeking Bombay’s teems of ragged people, old men dying in the gutters, children offering to sell themselves for pennies, the wealthy seeing none of it and flicking the beggars from their path with a flick of the wrist, gave pause. I retreated to my room and sucked my thumb.

Bangalore is India’s wealthiest city, and my hotel, its inner walls as unwashed as the jagged sidewalks outside, is in the midst of it. A treat of some sort — misery and hopelessness with a sweet  center of gold; or a lovely piece of candy that is foul when you bite into it.

In 1975 I met an embittered American woman who had stayed too long with too little money. India, she said, was a cesspool, and it was our future. India’s was the world’s oldest culture, and it was in a downward spiral. We were just slightly higher in the whirlpool…

Today, I had a conversation with Shrinivas Bairagi, a restaurant worker. I mentioned I had seen two policemen step up to a frail news stand vendor and each take a newspaper without paying, snarling at the old man.  “They take everything!” he said. “They are very well paid, and they have free houses to live in, but still they take. Not just newspapers but in restaurants, they have a meal and pay nothing.”

I nodded toward the jagged pavement beside us, the electrical wires dangling, the dirt which covers every surface with a crust of filth. He nodded. He was not optimistic about India, he said, and he explained: “They are all corrupt! All of them!”

ImageShrinivas Bairagi

Those who struggle here are flooded with images of gorgeous, bare-shouldered, glossy-haired women selling this or that, and the flash of modernity, cameras, phones, Ray Ban sunglasses –“Authentic since 1937,” according to the sign — cars…  The masses reach for it all, but “they,” the corrupt, grind them down.

Shrinivas, in recovery now because he must save money for marriage, said he had wasted his money on Faceboook and in “cyber cafes. But now, he said, “I spend much less.”

His idols, aside from a famous cricketer, run to Warren Buffet, Bill Gates… men who made themselves “big.”

Altruism, he said, including in himself, but in most everyone, is dead. “And if I wanted to help India,” he said, “to make it better for people, they wouldn’t let me.”

But I am still reeling, and my feelings aren’t to be trusted. India is a friendly country, mostly, and its charm blows over the broken sidewalks: I hear girls laughing together, the Himalayan dancers gathered outside the club in friendly, animated conversation (though they shoo off the beggar children remorselessly), two poor boys walk down a dark side street each with an arm draped over the other’s shoulder. They stop by a pile of trash and one boy, barefoot, tries on a pair of discarded shoes, and in the small” restaurants, the workers have uniforms and an identity.

“I like writers,” Vaseem Akram, manager of Au Bon Pain coffee shop and snack bar, told me, seeing me writing in my notebook. “They take the knowledge which they have in them and express it with the words. They don’t keep it in themselves. They don’t keep it to themselves. They let the world know about that.”

ImageVaseem Akram

I liked the little beggar girl. She was insistent. I made her go away, and she tossed a sarcasm over her shoulder. It would have been good to talk with her, but give her Rs 20 and she would demand 40; give her 40, and the whole family would make me their own… My fondness for this baffles me, but the night air here could lift a magic carpet.