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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A good hotel, Bad hotel, Baramati, Doing Business in India, Foreign in India, Indian bureaucracy, Indian Hotels, Travel in India, Travel in Maharashtra, Unromanticized travel

Getting a Mobul

Baramati, December, 2015

I had my mobile epiphany—Get a phone!—as I walked in from Baramati’s east side on shade-dappled Canal Street to the junction downtown with the traffic circle and Cinema Street. I’d been talking with an ancient toothless man in a Nehru hat, watching boys swim and women from the Dalit huts pound clothes on the stone platforms at water’s edge, and I calmed four small children gleeful at having their picture taken. My feet were tired.

I’d resisted after my American phone proved to be expensively blocked, but an Indian  mobile would let me call ahead to my next hotel and improve the slim chance of finding an unbuggy refuge.

The Reliance shop was close to the junction in a joined line of tiny stores. Its sign in Marathi suggested it sold telephones and such gadgets. Inside, it was chilly; the neatly-dressed clerks in the shop, once they understood I wanted the minimum–No, not that big one!–had just the mobile for me (a basic Samsung Guru or Swirl, Blaze, maybe—I forget the name and have discarded the box), a tiny do-little-but-talk phone of the sort favored by tuk-tuk drivers.

“Just 1,100, sir.”

A day’s lodging, more, in the hotels I favor.

And a SIM card?

The clerks consulted the manager. The AC hummed.

The manager might have been a State Farm agent. His smile was practiced. He adjusted his glasses. “We require passport, sir, and document of residence, where you live…”

Outside, traffic honking honking, high schoolers on their way home shouting, tuk-tuks aswirling, black and yellow, all with untuned engines, cycles swerving, trucks, push carts, the laundry women each with a laundry bucket on her head, sometimes another on a hip, walking the half mile to their streets.

The documentation could be provided by my hotel. The manager took my hotel’s business card and spoke clearly, authoritatively, for a time. He had spoken, he told me as he deftly flicked off his extra-large phone, to the manager of my hotel. In fact, as I soon learned, he spoke to Gotsurya, the easily-baffled front desk clerk, a man destined to end his days in a dungeon.

“No problem, sir. Hotel give document. You come tomorrow with document and passport. We keep phone for you.” He put my Guru/Blaze back in its box and returned it to the display shelf.

I bought a kilo of tangerines and three bananas, fended off a street sleaze asking incomprehensible questions about my passport, his tongue flitting, then hailed a tuk-tuk for the two mile trip north to the Baramati Club, my upscale residence.

Gotsurya, in his mid-20s, dressed elegantly, as befits the front desk man at a plush club, rose to greet me, inclined his head and provided the key to one, one, one. Yes, he nodded. He had spoken to Reliance. “SIM not problem, sir.”

Could I get the document now?

Tomorrow, he said.

Why not now?

“Manager busy,” he said. “Tomorrow. Tomorrow come. Morning time.”

 

Day 2. After choking down a rubbery omelet and leaving the fancy club restaurant irritated because the waiters, engaged in weighty discussion, failed to bring a cup of tea, I gave a friendly hello to Gotsurya.

My SIM document?

“Busy now. Come half hour.” He scarcely looked up. The purple birthmark on his forehead was throbbing.

A half-hour? That wasn’t good. An omen. It meant he didn’t want to deal with a SIM document. Why not? Damn! He wouldn’t want to in 30 minutes. An empty promise in the land where a promise doesn’t rise to the level of inshallah. It was time to become stern.

I needed the document at once! We had arranged this yesterday! Did he not remember? Goddamnit!! (inaudible hiss.) Glare.

Ten minutes later, all afluster, he handed me a document. It was a blurred photo-copy of my passport pages, copied again from the copy they’d made when I checked in, for the police, to combat terrorism.

He is an idiot? No. He doesn’t know what to do, so he does something. He gives me a document. When it doesn’t work no one will trace the problem back to him.

No, no. No. No! Reliance needed proof I was staying in the hotel. As the man told you. I had my real passport for them. I didn’t need a copy! I patted my pack.

The sound of the conversation wandered slowly down the corridor like the water on my bathroom floor after a shower seeps to the floor drains, to management offices. After a time, Vikhram, an assistant manager and the sports facility director, appeared. He spoke some English and had been the one the previous day to tell me, sadly, that the large swimmerless swimming pool, inviting and a vivid Caribbean blue because of the blue tile, did not open until 4.

“Is being cleaned.”

Baramati Club pool, Not Open Until 4!Closed until 4:00

Well, no. It wasn’t. It rippled invitingly just below my open room window. It hadn’t been. No one had touched it. It was as clean as it was going to be.

“Four o’clock,” he said. “Sorry.”

Vikhram was a pleasant, soft-spoken man. I explained the SIM issue. He took the passport copy from me, winced and returned it to Gotsurya with a frown.

Gotsurya had perhaps not understood, he said. He had little English.

“Come,” Vikhram said. “I drive to shop.”

That was nice. He was being helpful.

We arrived in 20 minutes. It was another hot day. The manager explained the SIM procedure to Vikhram. I handed over my passport.

“Your document?” Vikhram said, holding out his hand. “He need residence document for SIM card.”

I had a bit of tangerine fiber caught between two teeth. I freed it with my tongue-tip. Outside, a straight-backed woman passed with a large laundry bucket on her head balanced with one arm; I breathed through my nose; a lorry, dressed as for Carnival, chugged out a cloud of diesel fumes.

Well, I said… I went over it again. I had no document. That was the reason for the discussion with Gotsurya after he misunderstood directions in Marathi from this man. I needed the document from the hotel, to get a SIM card. That was why we had come, to deliver the document. From the hotel.

Had someone put LSD in my tea? No, the restaurant at the Club couldn’t make tea, which was why I had to walk two kilometers to the main road to find a tea wallah…

Of course, of course. Vikhram seemed to see a spark in my eye. I could get a SIM card at any shop. No problem. We would go back now. Buy the phone, he instructed. Avoid another trip.

I bought it, though a mobile without a SIM card is a fish with no gills, a fan with no blades, a desk-clerk without a brain, an Indian restaurant without tea.

I stayed in town, walking, communicating adequately with people who spoke no English at all. I bought a billfold, a new watchband, and I had lunch in Bustee town from a roast-corn wallah, picking up my piping hot ear from the embers with the clean husks, using a lemon slice to lift salt from a small white saucer and rub it on the ear, delicious, and went back to the Club in time to shower for my four o’clock swim.

Roasting ears, Suhus Nagar,The roast corn was tasty

Vikhram, sitting now in the sports facility office beside the gym, searched fruitlessly for a towel for the pool. Perhaps I was its first human swimmer? Never mind, I said, I’ll dry in the sun. And, he added, replacing the stack of papers under which a towel could have been, “Problem with SIM card.”

The hotel, he regretted, could not provide such a document. Reliance required a residence, a document from someone which would verify I lived somewhere. In India. An employer, probably. Hotel was helpless.

Perhaps, I should speak to the manager, I said. I knew countless tourists with Indian SIM cards. I had sat beside a Japanese woman just the other day in Pune when she recharged hers. She was not working. She was a meditator, on vacation.

“Pune,” he said enigmatically. “Manager not here.”

I swam briskly in the odd 25-meter pool, three feet deep at one end, five at the other, surrounded by treacherous slick marble, not designed by a swimmer. Emerging, I found a large blue and white towel beside my shorts and flip-flops.

 

Day three. The Swirl/Guru is fine. Charged, it lights up. I had something like it 10 years ago. It is familiar. Samsung products are reliable. The manager is not available.

Does he work today?

Gotsurya. Later. Come back in half hour.

Does the man work at all (to myself)? Vikhram appears. Is the manager a grand raja? I wonder aloud, too grand for mere guests? Phone conversation. Return at 11. Manager will see you then.

Mr. Shetty was courtly: a portly man in his early 40s dressed in dark slacks and a white, pin-striped shirt. We said hello in the lobby and retired to his tiny office. He understood my problem. Some miscommunication had occurred. He was sorry, but the hotel, a “club,” owned by a “foundation,” a corporation, could not provide the SIM document. That was done by employer. And was there a problem with coffee in the morning? He had heard something. He did not eat in the restaurant, because the waiters all surrounded him, the manager, and ignored the guests. Manpower was difficult in Baramati, but he greatly wanted feedback from a foreign guest.

The hotel was lovely, I said, though I was puzzled that the sheets on my bed didn’t cover the mattress. They tended to ride up as I slept, leaving me on the bare mattress. It was true, too, that the toilet seat was loose, dangerously so, some other things, the pool…. It seemed…unusual…that the hotel had such a fine outdoor pool but forbade the guests to use it. Perhaps I had misunderstood? In any case, my room was comfortable, and the hotel was very clean(ish)… Of course, the WiFi didn’t work. Often. And it wasn’t coffee, but tea. I had waited and waited and decided finally that India had run out of tea.

He appreciated my good joke. Chuckle. No, India had tea.

The pool, he said. Baramati Club was a club, not exactly a hotel, and the Foundation made the rules… It was beyond his reach. Sheets. Yes. He had been manager for just a year and a half, and the previous manager had bought sheets badly.

Short-sheetedThe sheets were short. But why?

He bought sheets that were too short? Didn’t he complain when he opened the package?

It is a problem, Mr. Shetty said.

Note: Explore sheet issue. The Baramati Club is the fourth or fifth hotel this trip with cut-off sheets. Am I selecting hotels badly? Do the managers get a kick-back for saving cotton? Does no one notice? Might it just be a talented, silver-tongued, award-winning sheet salesman, a former news anchor?

And the WiFi. Google tries to climb from its dark cupboard, the blue access bar flickers and then goes out in a gust of bad breath from Indian technicians.

But we were straying from the SIM card.

I shook my head clear and invoked the wisdom of my guide Indu, in Pune: “In India, there is always an alternative…”

The hotel would pay for the phone, Mr. Shetty said. He understood my frustration. They would give it to a worker.

A mobile would be useful for me, I said, calm now, manager to manager, as it was for other tourists. Communication. Particularly, I repeated, as he had made no note the first time, as the hotel’s WiFi seemed to be broken much of the time, making communication difficult.

“I will work on it,” he said.

Mr. Shetty, Baramati Club managerMr. Shetty working on it

That evening, a technician banged on my door and linked my computer to the hotel’s landline system. It worked wonderfully (until that system, too, blinked off.) (“It is company, sir,” the front desk said. “Repair 20 minutes only.”) Twelve hours later, it was still down.

Perspective, perspective. Indian Army helicopters, now 50 and 60 years old, crash regularly because of maintenance deficiencies. I was traveling in a different culture. Was I expecting too much, that sheets cover the mattress, that the toilet seat in a luxury hotel didn’t pitch you off onto the murky floor? That I could make Guru speak?

 

Day four. The manager had made arrangements. Phone calls had been made. A great effort on my behalf. We would go now, sir, Vikhram said, please to Idea shop for SIM card. Passport necessary, to combat terrorism.

The Idea shop was 10 minutes north in Vikhram’s little Honda and the procedure was quick. In an hour, without displaying any proof of residence (Mr. Shetty was a wizard!), I had five pages of documents to sign, filled out painstakingly by Vikhram and the shop manager. “Father good name?”

What?

“Father? Good name!?”

The manager was skeptical of my passport. It had no street address. Was it a real passport? I had a Michigan driver’s license with my street address. He examined it carefully, both sides. That would do.

Though I waggled my eyebrows at her, a young woman in the photo shop next door aimed a big Canon at me unsmilingly, and I got six skeptical-looking, washed-out shots for Rs 50. One got stapled to the documents. I paid Rs. 250 ($3.78). The manager, bored by the familiar, unceremoniously lifted a frayed box of small yellow envelopes from his drawer, each with a ten-digit all-India phone number on the outside and a SIM card within. I got to choose.

“Any number you like,” Vikhram said.

My number would be “activated” within 24 hours. 968-953-3954 (though the Indian presentation is without hyphens).

Need I do anything?

Automatic. It would activate before 24 hours. Tomorrow.

We returned to the hotel. I thanked Vikhram for his help. “It is my duty, sir,” he said.

 

Day 5   Thirty-five hours had passed. Blaze was still inert, but lightable, with the appearance of life, as a pink-cheeked corpse at viewing. I had made English my language. I had made Vikhram my first contact. I had used the calculator to tabulate how fast my bank account was draining.

I carried the inert phone into town and back early in the day, suddenly insecure without a mobile. Everyone had a mobile. I had made five previous trips to India without a phone, the first four without any device, but I was nervous, now, with a phone that didn’t work. I pulled it out periodically in town, turned it on and poked out Vikhram’s number on the tiny keys. Nothing. Not automatically activated at all. But to all appearances, I was as connected as everyone else. It comforted me.

9 p.m. The phone played a Bollywood air. It was ringing! It had been activated! “Hello? Hello?” I knew how Alexander Graham Bell had felt. It was from home. On the other side of the world. I had sent my new number in an email, and it worked. Guru was fine…

I called Vikhram. I wanted to thank him again. It didn’t buzz. I got a long message in Marathi, something about “balance.” I tried again. “Balance.”

 

Day 6. An assistant manager whose name I never learned, the same man who had hooked me to the hotel’s broken Internet, listened to my balance message. Yes, you have no balance. Must buy talk time. Any shop. No problem. Not so much money. And must call within 30 days, even short time, or not activate. Talk time!

I didn’t understand.

Mr. Shetty was clearer. He listened to my balance message and said I had no balance. I needed to buy talk time. Any shop. It wouldn’t cost much. He called a national help center in Bangalore, perhaps in the same bunker as those so helpful to Americans with various digital issues. Yes I had no balance. He tapped out numbers on my phone, which I had begun to call Slash. Yes, there it was. No balance. Just Rs 197.50 for incoming.

I had understood it was all automatic… I said this forcelessly, worn down, easy prey now for the tangerine/banana wallah (bad wallahs try to slip in yesterday’s bananas and too-soft, sun-ruined tangerines; one must be alert). The store said I had a balance of Rs 197.50…

“Talk Time! Buy Talk Time,” Mr. Shetty instructed, something in his manner hinting he was tiring of my mobile issues. However, I was grateful that my toilet seat was tighter. Not secure, exactly; it required stillness; but it was less perilous than it had been.) Also, a waiter had banged on my door with a cup of tea, the same milk tea in a dirty glass with sugar and cinnamon that is India’s coffee and doughnuts. Perhaps I should post a list of grievances on my door each morning.

Talk time, I said.

I walked across my suburban Serengeti to the nearest phone shop, a kilometer or so toward the main road.. He had said Any Shop. No, they said.

“Talk Time,”I said, “talk Time! Talktime!”

No, they said. No one there spoke English, and they were surly, as they had a right to be, working for peanuts in a stifling phone shop with litter piled in the corners.

OK. I’d return to the Idea shop. I began the trek. A motorcycle screeched to a stop beside me. It was a waiter from the Baramati Club restaurant. Ride? He knew where the Idea shop was, and in two minutes I was there. It was 10 o’clock. The shop opened, the neatly-printed legend on the door said, at 9:30. It was closed. A crowd stood outside on the trash-strewn pavement in the withering sun.

It wasn’t locked. I pushed in. The cleaning lady was whisking. She snarled at me and motioned me back outside. I sat down. Thank you, I would wait.

At 10:15, a clerk arrived, a puffy-eyed young woman in a sweater, prepared for her hours beneath the frigid AC. “Stand!” she told me. Why didn’t she leave her sweater on her chair, or bring it in a bag? Outside was an Oklahoma summer day, with masala instead of armadillo jerky. Stand. The cleaning lady needed to whisk. Fifteen minutes later, my clerk arrived, the store manager.

He was a skilled technician and spoke to his screen rather than to me. I did not need talk time, he said. He had told me that I had a balance of Rs 197.50, he reminded me, and I still had that balance. I had paid. It just hadn’t shifted yet from the inactive. It was automatic. First, the card was activated. Then, after another day, the outgoing call was activated and the balance would show. “Do nothing,” he said. “Automatic. Just 20 minute only.” He copied my new number onto his newspaper.

It was interesting. The activation worked in two stages. First, after a day, incoming calls were allowed; then, after another day, outgoing…

He had said nothing about the delay after the initial delay. Why? I wondered. Why wouldn’t he have mentioned that?

“I must do nothing? Pay no more?”

“Nothing!” he said. (Idiot!) He was patient. The interview was at an end. He had customers. Twenty minutes.

I returned to the club and went to my room, stretching my toes and keeping an eye on Slash. At 11:30, the house phone rang. Gotsurya. “You check out when?”

What?

Must go. Hotel full. Check out now.

Check-out time was noon.

I found Vikhram. He interrogated Gotsurya and returned to where I leaned, gazing at the empty pool. “He told you yesterday we had no room.”

I had practiced restraint. Making a scene leaves bad feelings. “That,” I said softly, nearly in a whisper, “is not correct.”

Vikhram returned to the front desk and leaned over Gotsurya, shaking his head affirmatively. He returned. “It is correct,” he said. “He not tell you.”

But he told you he did?

“He lie. He tell me he lie.”

He would rearrange the reservations, and he would speak to Gotsurya. The hotel had manpower problems.

At five o’clock, the yang side of my SIM card came to life, as promised.

I called Vikhram, who was standing beside me. I had been thanking him for not tossing me out on the street. His phone shrilled a jingle. We talked. “Hello?” “Hello?” Hello, hello.

Slash, et alSlash, et al

Day 7. Leaving. The Internet was not being repaired, and I had called ahead to the Hotel Jeet Paradise in Phaltan. Yes, the man there said, they had a good WiFi. Count on it.

I saw Vikhram with Mr. Shetty in the lobby. I thanked them again for their help. Should I mention that I had noticed my sheet now covered the mattress? That was good. Gotsurya was at the desk studying hospitality memos. Should I crack his head with Slash? My mobile is broken! No. Stay focused. “My phone works!” I said proudly.

They beamed.

No problem, sir. It is our duty.

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2013, 2014, Cheap Travel in India, Indian bathrooms and showers, Indian Hotels, Rameshwarum, Travel in India, Travel in Tamil Nadu, Unromanticized travel

The Shower Conundrum (or: The Inexplicable Shooting of a Midget)

Early March, 2014, RAMESHWARUM, Tamil Nadu

It had been a grueling 180 kilometer trip in a horn-tooting auto-rickshaw from Tuticorin to Pambam Island and Rameshwaram. When I arrived in late afternoon the temple town’s slippery lanes were teeming  with sober pilgrims to the 12th century Ramanathaswamy Temple. It is a commercialized memorial to Lord Rama’s attempt to rescue his wife Sita from the evil Ravanai.

Sri Lanka lies  just a few miles to the east.

The first four hotels I tried were dingy and  full. The general manager of the last called me back as I was leaving and with an air of magnanimity made an offer: a “suit” for 3,800 rupees, a staggering $61. It was a suite because it had an unlighted ante-room with a conference table. In the bedroom, two emperor-sized beds had been pushed together, creating mattress space but little roll room for at least eight chaste pilgrims. The bathroom was the normal bathroom for a single room.

I went next door to the Rama Palace, a two-story building set in a well-tended compound with much of the trash and garbage thrown over the wall.

Prabakaran, the 22-year-old co-manager and a graduate of a regional college for hotel administrators, showed me room 105. The sheets were short but looked clean, I would have doors both to the lobby and to the driveway and windows that opened. The uneven curtains were undecided whether to be raw or burnt umber, with decorative swirls. The walls were prison green, and just beyond the foot of the bed finger streaks at about four feet fell toward the floor where a midget had been shot. The shelves had an empty Fanta bottle with dead ants, a newspaper page dating to the previous fall and a bent plastic flower. I saw nothing moving.

The bathroom was across the lobby through an unmarked door: the cold-water shower was in the first stall, an old-style squat toilet was in the second, partially blocked by an overturned plastic bucket and a stiff mop.

“The toilet!” Prabakaran said with a flourish.

It all went for 600.

Prabakaran’s co-manager, a handsome but glum one-legged man I immediately thought of as Golm, sneered, though it made no sense. He swung away with his one crutch to the lobby sofa and stretched out facing the wall.

“What happened to your leg,” I asked him later, when he was sitting up.

“Bad man!” He glared.

I was unsure whether he meant me, for asking, or someone who had cut his leg off for some reason. He seemed healed, but maybe the memories were fresh.

The next morning the ancient city and temple called. I found my knees still worked for the squat toilet, then moved to the dim shower stall. I had the tiny bar of hotel soap, my shampoo, my finger-nail brush and my bath puffy in a plastic bag.

I had walked through  the unusually demented traffic of Rameshwarum the evening before in bayou heat but had fallen into bed unwashed except for water from the wall spigot I splashed on my head and feet. I had considered a shower, but the stall was daunting in the twilight, and I was tired. Now, I was sticky.  I needed a long, soaking shower without touching the wall.

I stripped, put my glasses in the pocket of my shorts on the door handle, balanced my puffy atop my purple soap dish, placed my green plastic bottle of Reebonn shampoo for dry and damaged hair in a cleanish spot on the dry and damaged floor and reached for the faucet.

The handle seemed to be missing. I squinted close. Yes, there was no handle.

The shower would not work

The shower would not work

No problem. It had likely fallen off and rolled to a darker corner of the stall or was outside in the larger stall behind one of the plastic buckets or the tipped-over plastic bottles on the shelf or under the wrapper from a bar of soap. Maybe even in the squat room.

I found my glasses, but the handle was gone. I had hopes for the small dark pile of this and that by the old mop. It wasn’t there.

I showered the traditional way, pouring water from the bucket over my head.

“So, the shower?” I said to Prabakaran when he appeared. I hadn’t awakened Golm, who was asleep on the floor. He was the weaker administrator of the two.

Prabakaran frowned, puzzled. Shower?

“Yes, I said. “No handle.” I motioned as though turning on a shower, indicating with fluttering fingers the water falling in the morning light on my dry and damaged head. I pantomimed finding the handle missing. My disappointment and surprise.

He had known the word “shower” yesterday. He had pointed at it and said “shower.”

He was reluctant, but I led him to the toilet room and pointed into the shower cubicle. The faucet handle was still missing.

He cocked his head and looked at me with suspicion. One day, and I had broken his shower. First minutes on the job, and he had to deal with this!

“Yes,” he said, wagging his head. “Plumber. Plumber come.” That meant the problem was solved. He turned to return to his chair by the front door.

“This hotel?” I asked politely, pointing toward the rooms I could see beyond the atrium balcony upstairs. I would appeal to his professionalism. “Pay 600 rupees. Shower broken!” I opened my arms dramatically as though it had exploded. “Want shower! Shower handle.”

“Plumber, “ he repeated. He frowned. Why was I so obstinate?

No, I said, forgoing the measured language of diplomacy. You don’t need a plumber. Give me a pair of  pliers. That will suffice. I imitated using pliers on the de-handled shower stub and celebrated the flow of water.

He grimaced, wrinkled his nose and moued at my pliers. He didn’t understand. It was too technical.

I had been too fast and overly poetic. I pinched my fingers on the grooved stub where the handle should be and tried to turn it. It wouldn’t turn.  I urged Prabakaran to try. He didn’t want to. I pretended I had a pair of long-handled pliers. I turned the stub. Water fell from the shower head. I made sounds of water.

Prabakaran denied pliers. “Plies?” he said, making a sound like a housefly.

He was getting uncomfortable. He had missed the nuance, but he understood I didn’t like the shower. I had paid 600 rupees, nearly $10, for the room. He had promised a toilet and a shower, and it was becoming clear the shower without water wouldn’t satisfy me. He was unacquainted with pliers, yet he knew my complaint was valid. It was a conundrum.

He made a full pirouette. The solution came to him. I saw it at once in his eyes.

He gestured commandingly and led me to room 107, adjacent to my toilet room. Room 107 was the hotel’s Chief Ministerial room, with two triple-size beds pushed together, a bureau, a tiny TV dating from 1969 and an attached toilet. It was the 1,000 rupee room.

He led me in. The bathroom was unbuffed since the last visitor, with coiled black noodles in the sink drain. The flush toilet’s bottom-cleaning hose was lying on the floor, leaking. The mirror had been sneezed on. There was a small dollop of brown stuff on the floor near the toilet, but the room had a shower with a faucet handle

“Lovely,” I said.

“Use shower,” he said, pointing. A small, soft-looking piece of yellow soap was waiting for me in the soap dish.

I tried the handle. It worked. Water dribbled out through the partially clogged shower head.

“And toilet,” I said, pointing and applauding like Richard Simmons. It needed a brushing, but so did the squat toilet. I tried the bottom-washing hose. It wasn’t good. The water jet was weak, but it would probably work for the brown stuff on the floor. Anyway, I had flip-flops.

“Shower,” he said firmly. He seemed displeased that I might use the deluxe toilet as well as the shower and take advantage of his good nature.

“Yes!” I said. “Good job. Shower toilet. Will use. Plumber come!” I was pleased.

He made the decision. “No problem,” he said.

He resumed his administrator’s chair by the front door. The shower complaint had been resolved in only five minutes. This was how to run a hotel!

Golm, who had gotten up and moved to the couch, didn’t agree. He wiggled unhappily and turned again toward the wall, breathing a long, exasperated sigh.  Later, he removed the bar of hotel soap I had thoughtlessly left in the 1,000 rupee soap dish.

Prabakaran (l) and Golm (caught in a rare smile), co-managers of the Rama Palace in Rameshwarum

Prabakaran (l) and Golm (caught in a rare smile), co-managers of the Rama Palace in Rameshwarum

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