2016, Cheap Travel in India, Foreign in India, India: the unexceptional, Indian bureaucracy, The Ordinary in India, Travel in India, Unromanticized travel

The Brown Paper Man

GOA–

My thousand-rupee note ($15) was torn..

I hadn’t noticed the quarter-inch imperfection at the top of the bill, just left of the declaration in Hindu and English, “Reserve Bank of India,” but the waiter at a dismal Palolem Beach restaurant brought it back, holding it gingerly, as though it had fallen in the toilet.

It was no good. He showed me the tear and made a sad face.

Of course it’s good, I said. It’s all there. Christ…

“Not good.”

I found other rupees enough to pay for the beer and the worst steak I’ve ever had and tucked the torn note back in the zippered big-note compartment of my Hugo Boss wallet.

A couple of days later, on a morning ride south, I parked my scooter next to the trash-strewn verge in Chawdi, just across from the State Bank of India.

State Bank of India, Chawdi

 

 

The manager at the Agonda Beach branch of HFDC Bank had directed me there. Yes, he said, the bill was good. I was correct. Unfortunately, he could not give me untorn money in exchange. State Bank would take it.

Inside State Bank, a large sign in English instructed all newcomers to take a token and wait until that number was called. There were no tokens. The token tube was empty. Each of the tellers had a lighted “20” below their window.

Twenty-five expressionless customers sat shoulder to shoulder on rows of soiled chairs, their backs to the tellers; others milled as though the train were due. It was a solemn group, not a smile in sight. A policeman with a double-barreled shotgun sat on a stool by the front door, already sleepy.

Teller number 4 was loudly officious in a lilac shirt and tie and was nearly free. He finished with the tiny man peering  at him over the counter, waving his hand in dismissal. He continued scowling at his screen when I spoke to him, then sprang to his feet, athletically avoiding an empty computer-paper carton and  consulted with teller number 1, a thin, twitchy man in a white shirt and Buddy Holly glasses all askew.

Teller 2 was absent.

Teller 3 was a fashionably-bloused woman of 30 with penciled eyebrows. She was displeased with her customer and showed him with a tapping purple nail where to sign the long document stretching between them in multiple copies, sighing her exasperation.

In three minutes, my teller came back. I showed him my torn bill. Could I exchange it?

“No brown paper here,” he said.

I didn’t understand.

“We are not having brown paper here,” he repeated loudly, then said it again, “no brown paper.”

“See this man.” He was displeased with my slowness. He pointed to a portly bank man of authority at a crowded desk back toward the front door. The man’s stacks of folders and loose sheets of paper leaned precariously.

I showed him my bank note.

He had been napping and had no work in front of him. He eyed me by peering upward, his head on an unchanging downward tilt. “See her,” he said. He fluttered his hand in a weak diagonal across the bank toward a heavy woman in an orange top.

She saw me coming and made a little face, a your-zipper’s-open-you-idiot moue. Her finger was stiff and humorless. She pointed at a managerial woman in an inner office, conversing heatedly with an elderly man who repeatedly pushed up his slipping and smudged glasses and a dejected village woman in a cheap purple sari.

I sat on the chair outside and waited. My guess was that the old man wanted a loan to marry the much younger village woman.

The woman in the orange top was talking to another bank veteran in a long-sleeved white shirt. His folder and document stacks seemed from his work pace to guarantee years more of work, perhaps all the way to retirement, even with no new papers added. Neither he nor orange woman looked at me.

After five minutes, the woman inside gestured to me, then, when I hestitated, waved me in, frowning.

She was middle-aged, brisk in a linen suit and in command, apparently, of the bureau I needed: Bill Vandalism and Lecherous Loans.

I showed her my bill, feeling a flash of shame at its condition. She frowned at me again, then held it up to the light. She examined the tear carefully, as though looking for evidence of illicit behavior. Then she handed the bill across the desk to the elderly man with the dirty glasses. He, too, I saw now, was dressed as a manager of some sort. He didn’t look at me but pushed his glasses up and began measuring short strips of brown paper.

He was not a petitioner. He was the brown paper man.

I asked the brisk woman if I could have my new bills in hundreds.

“Hundreds?” She was incredulous. First I tear a bill; then I want hundreds?

The paper man had settled on three strips of brown paper, like old-fashoned butcher paper. One went on the serial number. He placed it carefully on the bill to measure, trimmed a bit more with what looked like moustache scissors, then turned it over, gummed it meticulously from a glue pot and patted it down.

I left with my dirty handful of hundreds. The brisk woman said nothing. The village woman had not moved. The papering was unfinished. The brown paper man was holding up his second strip, scrutinizing with a specialist’s eye the tear on my bill, which was not straight, but curved.

 

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2016, Cheap Travel in India, Foreign in India, India and public health, India: the unexceptional, Indian bathrooms and showers, Indian filth, Indian government incompetence, Indian Hotels, Indifferent Indian government, Kohlapur, Maharashtra photos, Sanitation in India, The Ordinary in India, The poor in India, Travel in Maharashtra, Uncategorized, Unromanticized travel

Keeping Clean in India

KOLHAPUR–I made it back to my hotel, just, stomach churning from the hotel’s plain omelet this morning, I think. The kitchen is mediocre at best, but I haven’t had a problem before with an omelet. Today, I could take only a couple of bites. It was rancid.

Whatever. Maybe it was one of a hundred other things, or just a malevolent stray bacterium adhering to something I touched–a tea cup rim, or the silverware lying flat on the omelet, placed there neatly by the unsoaped, sweet-acting waiter, a wall outside, a public monument.

I am fond of India, but it is overly mild to call it exasperating.

I had taken a tuk-tuk (which this miserable uninstructable auto-correct always wants to turn into yuk-yuk) west to the celebrated Gandhi Maidan, a dusty open area just east of Lake Rankala. The lake is a a 400-acre waist-deep body of water presented on maps as blue, though it is a stew of sewage and trash. But, legs crossed and breathing shallowly, I made it back, and safe at last, relieved, I was soon sitting as usual after an excursion on the plastic stool in the shower, scrubbing my feet.

My shower, Hotel Pearl, Kolhapur

I lather them with soap and wash carefully between my toes with my indispensable fingernail brush. The bottoms are more difficult, and though I do this at least twice a day and scrub my sandals, also with bar soap, or laundry detergent or shampoo, my heels remain nearly black, even after the fingernail brush. When I rinse the suds off, the water runs dark to the drain.

I wear sandals instead of shoes because I can kind of clean the sandals. The shoes, after my months of walking in Indian cities, down slum lanes and the much dirtier main streets, would be poisonous by now. I keep them in my pack, all clean, and I’d turn to my flip-flops before lacing them up.

I make these notes because in a few months, back home, I will have forgotten how dirty it is here. It may seem unnecessary to mention, comparable to pointing out that Saudi Arabia is intolerant or that the dog pound at Cleveland games lacks a sense of fair play. But the filth is deep and pervasive and Indians are oblivious to it. That’s interesting.

I’ve seen squalor in many places, including individual apartments in our inner-city slums, or in the Middle East, where trash and garbage is pitched over the wall and forgotten. In Kuwait, the rats scurried in the piles at night, but the Kuwaitis hired workers from Bangladesh and Yemen and Egypt to pick it all up. Here, it just moulders where it falls.

Northward on public road adjacent to Rankala Lake, Kolhapur

The trash–the plastic bags and sugar cane stalks and wires and discarded flip-flops, more plastic, snack packaging, broken machines–is everywhere. It fills the parks and the sewage trenches, blows across the maidan, and rims  the lake, which has crumbling pavilions and battered fences suggesting a cleaner past; and grotesque as it is, the trash is the most bearable of the dirt.

Public road at Rankala Lake, Kolhapur

The streets are uncleaned, except with whisks, and the sidewalks, the public walls, every empty lot. I don’t mention this just to be an impolite visitor but to highlight the self-imposed degradation to which humans can become accustomed. As I sit in my hotel room now, writing, the room smells of burning garbage from the lot next door.

An image I can’t push out of my mind is from relatively clean Baramati, Swiss-like in comparison to Bombay or Pune or most of Tamil Nadu. I stayed in the plush Baramati Club in a wealthy neighborhood. It was about a half mile on narrow streets past new apartment buildings to the main road, where I could catch a tuk-tuk into town. Returning one afternoon, I saw two professional men standing on an apartment balcony, talking. One finished a Pepsi, and without looking or pausing in conversation, he pitched it to his left down into the empty lot next door. I glanced over the wall. He had done it before, often. He was a pudgy man who apparently drank a lot of soft drinks and ate chips and other snacks, and the rest of the building’s garbage was there as well, a corner of it smoldering, a nasty smell that even beyond the urine smell from convenient walls and alleys across the country is the most familiar smell of India. India is burning garbage, urine, and fumes from millions of scooters and cycles and tuk-tuks and fuming buses with slick tires, spit, uncleaned public toilets, raw sewage. Pigs were rooting in the Pepsi drinker’s heap.

But it is the surfaces that are unavoidable, caked with decades of dirt, embedded grime, never washed–the streets, the buses, the walls, the rubbly roadsides.

The crumbling pavilion at Rankala Lake, Kolhapur

It’s fair to generalize about such things. The cleaning, in the hotels where I stay, on the streets, in the parks, in every public place, is done by the very poor. They usually have nothing but a whisk. They seldom have soap or other equipment. They have no training, and no supervision. If they’re workers on city property, they’re often hired by private contractors who take the contract money, kick back some to the corrupt officials who awarded the contract, and then cheat the workers of a portion of their tiny wages. The workers go through the motions, but they spend much of their  time sitting, having by their presence relieved other Indians of a need to look at what they’re walking in.

Most surfaces here, even in my cleanish hotel room, are infectious. I bought a couple of cleaning rags when I arrived and scrub as well as I can when I arrive in a new room. I do it daily, obsessed I suppose it might seem to the unexposed like a latter day Howard Hughes, and I use a sanitizing hand cleaner from Kroger and otherwise wash my hands again and again. My sanitizer is supposed to have a citrus scent, but when I put it on it outside it has a smell of urine.

I watched poor women this morning, all of them barefoot, wash clothes in the lake, just beside the happily gurgling water buffalo who were being scrubbed by their tender. I wash my own clothes here by hand, and I have a routine. I put my underwear and T-shirt from the day before, shorts if needed, in the five gallon bucket which is in every hotel bathroom. I add a small packed of Tide or Surf and suds it up for a minute, then go to breakfast. When I come back, after an hour, I slush for another two minutes in the suds, pour out the brown water and rinse for several more minutes under the running water. It works. I can do the same to myself.

Women washing clothes in lake

At Rankala Lake, Kolhapur

The women arrive with a large basin of clothes (never any bedsheets or towels). They wet them in  the basin, and some add soap such as I use, but they can’t take the time to soak. They would be there all day. They smack the shirts or pants or once-bright sari cloth on the rocks, or twist them up and rub them hard on the rocks, then rinse in the lake water. They work at it, but the clothes are never cleaned, and on the streets most people look dingy.

Because they have no space at home, the women often dry the clothes by stretching them out flat on the trash-covered, pissed-upon dirt by the lake, or, in other towns, on the river bank.

Washing buffaloes and clothes, Rankala Lake, Kolhapur

Another image, and a fair one, I think, is from Phaltan, a town of Dickensian grimness south of Baramati. Adjacent the pleasant Hotel Jeet Paradise in a relatively prosperous neighborhood, the kids play cricket on a rutted empty lot ringed with trash and piles of burning garbage. It doesn’t occur to anyone, the proprietors of the hotel, the fathers who take their children there to play, to clean it up, and so a boy running after the bouncing ball jumps without thought over piles of trash and skirts rubble and avoids as he can the piles left by the neighborhood cows.

And, interestingly, on Indian television, the streets are alway clean and the peasants newly washed, just as, I suppose, our commercial images–perky, bright acting employees of Wal-Mart or Burger King–depict what we want to be true.

I think it’s related, or it seems so from my perspective: In today’s Indian Express and Times of India, which often print the same stories, a small article mentioned that 80 percent of the graduates of India’s thousands of engineering schools are unemployable, because they have no useful skills. That’s deplorable, of course, and the papers clucked disapprovingly today–standards must be raised! They have the same tone when, as today, “a shocking incident,” arises, they conclude, from the stress of failed exams or college debt (three female students at the Yoga and Naturopathy college at Chinna Salem in Tamil Nadu, despairing at their inability to pay “exorbitant fees,” jumped into a well  yesterday and died). Tomorrow another two or three engineering schools will open, and more students or debt-ridden farmers will commit suicide.

Filth and and public graft are flip sides of the same coin (e.g., Flint, Michigan).

One must acknowledge that the same conditions exist at our own proliferating diploma mills, which hand out worthless degrees in return for a quick buck, though our diminished sense of public honor may lead less often to suicide.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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2016, Cheap Travel in India, Foreign in India, India: the unexceptional, Indian hospitality, Indian sweetness, Kohlapur, Maharashtra photos, The Ordinary in India, The poor in India, Travel in India, Travel in Maharashtra

A Walk in Vicharimalnagar, Kolhapur

In Vicharimalnagar, a poor district in Kolhapur a half-mile north of my hotel, a walk on Saturday morning, Jan. 23, was uneventful. A man said hello, I stopped, and a crowd formed. I walked on. A man waved. I stopped. A crowd formed. Boys. Another crowd. A mother and her baby… Finally, back close to my hotel, the prosperous owner of an animation/rotoscopy business said hello and invited me in for tea:

Vicharimalnagar district, Kolhapur

Vicharimalnagar district, Kolhapur

Vicharimalnagar district, Kolhapur

Vicharimalnagar district, Kolhapur

Vicharimalnagar district, Kolhapur

Vicharimalnagar district, Kolhapur (Siddik, (L) and Svayam)

Vicharimalnagar district, Kolhapur

Vicharimalnagar district, Kolhapur

Vicharimalnagar district, Kolhapur

Ricky Jadhav, Prop. Creation Multimedia, New Shahupuri, Kolhapur (www.creationmultimedia.net

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Cheap Travel in India, Foreign in India, India: the unexceptional, Indian hospitality, The Ordinary in India, Travel in Maharashtra

Christmas Eve in Thakuraki

Thakuraki, Maharashtra

They have no email, but they were pleased pictures of them and the village would go today to the United States.

A Phaltan cart vendor of cooking oil said something similar the other day. I’d motioned with my camera, Could I take a shot? Sure, he said,  it’s as close as I’ll ever get to America.

The village, Thakuraki (pronounced Thak-rooki), lies just west of Phaltan, past the long-abandoned British airport. Chickens and goats are common, a few buffalo are staked out, but the men aren’t farmers. They work as day laborers when they can find work, carrying, lifting, making Rs 300 in a ten-hour day, about 40 cents an hour.

Thak. The villaageThakuraki

The houses are small, mostly brick with solid roofs and two or three rooms and here and there a portico. They were built illegally, on government land, according to my tuk-tuk driver Baba. Subsequently, the government provided electricity and water pipes. “Because of human need,” he said. Short of going to City Hall, I had no way of checking his story.

The Nikalje family, the mother and her married daughter, Sukanya (Sukan-eeya), insisted I come in for a cup of tea, then daubed my forehead with a red Hindu mark of welcome. They touched my feet in welcome and presented me with a coconut, a white Nehru cap (they had a tiny cloth stall on their porch) and a nice piece of cloth to drape over my shoulders as a shawl. The men were off working.

Thak. coconutThe foreign guest

“You honor them with your visit,” Baba said.

I stopped because Sukanya of the pretty smile had pointed inside to her nephew, Amand, about 7, and said he was studying in “English medium.” I said hello to him, but he ran inside to hide, to shy to speak and then too stubborn to come out. While I took pictures of everyone in the family and of neighbors who came over to greet me, he hid in the back bedroom, poking his head around the corner but disappearing when I aimed the camera at him.

After half an hour, I was comfortable enough to follow him when he ran, to the delight of  the other little boys, and I got a few shots of him burrowed in a corner as Sukanya urged him to emerge by tugging on one leg. Finally, he came out, but he never found the courage to speak.

Thak. Sukanya and AmandNo, no

That was the job of Prasad Khude, about 11, a neighbor. He wore a purple T-shirt with the legend “cotton candy.” I was his first native speaker, but he was game and after an hour he was talking enthusiastically.

He is not a good student, he told me, and he doesn’t read much: “It makes me sleep.” He wants to visit America when he grows up.

When we left the Nikalje family, telling them abhari ahote, thank you, I grabbed Amand’s hand and said thank you again for the hat, the coconut, the shawl, the friendliness, and for Amand, and began to walk away. He came along for a few steps, comforted by the family’s laughter, and then his eyes got big. Take him, take him, Sukanya said.

I gave him a wave as Baba and I turned the corner. He smiled and raised a hand.

It was a beautiful day, Christmas Eve, with good-looking chickens running free (“one egg a day”). They retreat at night to a chicken house or are eaten by dogs or cats. During the day, the danger is from hawks.

On the far west side of the village, a shy woman accompanied by several teen-age girls appeared with a thin black kitten, stroking it affectionately. Its name was Money, meaning in Marathi not “money,” but “lucky.” “Black cat in home good luck,” Baba explained.

Thak. kittenThe kitten, Lucky

He is not comfortable with animals, and when a little boy brought out his two-month-old white puppy, jumping and biting as puppies do, Baba retreated, annoyed. I also admired a pretty green parrot in “the jail,” as Baba put it, a small cage brought outside for the morning sunshine.

Down a narrow lane on the north side, another family wanted to say hello, men, women and children, and I was drawn to a girl of about three, who puckered with anxiety as I patted her shoulder.

That happens from time to time. When it does, it eases the formality of welcome. I apparently make familiar soothing sounds. This little girl retreated to her mother’s hand and smiled from a distance; up close, I was too much.

Thak, little girlWary of a stranger

I posed for phone pictures with several men and for Prasad, an emphatic stager. He presented me with a plastic baby in a yellow karate outfit, a key ring, in return for my autograph.

“Read,” I told him, trying to pay my way. “Read.”

We left the village to friendly waves, smiles, as though I’d brought something of value.

I arrived without warning or reason and was welcomed as a visitor and a foreigner by villagers who didn’t think to question my humanity, a generosity now in retreat in my own fearful culture.

Such experiences, unexceptional here, raise the question of how valid our sense is of “backward” or “underdeveloped,” how descriptive of tone.

It was a good Christmas Eve.

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The Jerk, Bombay

North From Carnac Bunder, Bombay, 2015

I met a jerk the other day.

I’d walked west across Carnac Bunder, the bridge over the many tracks just north of the ant-hill of Victoria Train Station (three million commuters pass through every day), and, with no clear intent, took the battered stairs down and wandered north and west in the crowded lanes that make up most of Bombay, remote from any tourist stop.

Along Tokaram Lane, the warehouses are fronted by bustees, the tiny slum huts made of tarpaulins and scrap wood, with cooking fires on the pavement in front, little children playing in the road, an occasional bone-thin day sleeper.

Dalit family, BombayDalit family, Bombay

I read that India’s GNP is rising, that the middle class is expanding, that prosperity is beckoning millions, but on Bombay’s flat narrow streets, little of substance has changed in the last 40 years: many more cars, the streets impassable now  with traffic, the air fouled, much more inedible trash (the cows and goats, the rats, the dogs, used to take care of every scrap of garbage), even bustee dwellers with a mobile, but the millions of ragged people are as thin now as then, and high prices, rising, rising, grind them down.

Just beside the hotel as breakfast plates were cleared from white tablecloths, an ancient woman, nearly naked, sat near a spreading pile of her own diarrhea, her head down, her hand out.

Worrisome. Throughout non-tourist Bombay clusters of young men sit with nothing to do, smoking, waiting, idle, unable to find work. They see now what they don’t have, on TV, and it dangles before them in the stores and restaurants they can’t enter, in the pretty women to whom they are invisible.

They have no clear resentment of Westerners, who are not their immediate oppressors, and unlike us they have no well-taught racial animosity.

Colaba cop, swaggering clears Colaba sidewalk of dalit riff-raffA swaggering policeman cIears a Colaba sidewalk of Dalit riff-raff

It’s a remorseless world, but for reasons unclear to me, I can pass through with impunity. Stares turn into smiles.

It’s not wise, but I interject myself occasionally.

At a littered phone stall/snack shop up in the Mahd District, a tiny boy beside me, a street boy, was fluttering a Rs 10 (about eight cents) note at the oblivious clerk. He wanted to buy candy.

The clerk, a swarthy Donald Trump in an unwashed shirt, was busy cheating me and had no time for the boy. I reached down and picked him up, slowly lifting him so that his head reached my waist, then my chest. He’d stiffened at first but quickly understood and giggled. Whoever, whatever I was, I saw that the clerk was a jerk. I was on his side.

I kept lifting him and began to hear chuckles from the people crowded at the front of the stall to watch my transaction, and then I began moving the boy in front of me like a two-legged pendulum. He giggled louder, holding out the bill. The clerk’s assistant took it, looking nervously at the boss, and handed over the candy. I lifted the boy as high as I could, tipped him forward in a bow and put him down. He scampered, grinning at me over his shoulder.

The little episode maybe contributed to the clerk’ decision not to return my money for the SIM card he had sold me that wouldn’t work in my phone. “Take that, Meddler,” he probably said to himself.

I muttered a few things myself.

 

 

 

 

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