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 and public health, Indian Christians, Indian filth, Indian government incompetence, Indian hospitality, Indian sweetness, Indifferent Indian government, Kohlapur, Maharashtra, Sanitation in India, The poor in India, Travel in India, Travel in Maharashtra, Uncategorized, Unromanticized travel, Western tourists in India

Finding Christ in Kananagar

Kananagar, Kolhapur–Kolhapur, sometimes spelled Colapore, is an ancient city ruled until Independence as a princely state. It’s at the southwest edge of  Maharashtra less than a hundred kilometers from the coast, and this January, at least, the weather has been beautiful: sunny mid-80s during the day, low 60s at night.

Indian cities, sadly, are much alike: noisy and filthy, with few amenities such as sidewalks or–laughable–crosswalks for pedestrians.The main roads are clogged with unregulated traffic. The air is foul.

Kolhapur pedestrian in streetPedestrians walk in the street in Indian cities

But enough of that. I prefer the slums. For one thing, they make me feel rich, a new and pleasant feeling. And no traffic. Life spills into the street. Women wash clothes by dipping them in soapy water and banging them on a flat stone. They get water from the common pump and hear what’s going on, and they stare in groups, not unkindly, as I walk by. They bathe their small children outside from a bucket; the old men sit, and the crones. Workers wash in their underwear  with dippers of water over the head, and children in uniforms make their way to and from school in the neighborhoods where school is affordable.

The little kids look at me with big eyes. Cows and goats, listless dogs, an occasional cat, chickens, all go as they wish. A cow pinned me softly with her huge head today against a dumpster.  I smacked her! Again! Holy Cow, hell! She turned away as indifferently as she’d come.

Washing dishes,The age-old squat of the woman at work, Kananagar, Kolhapur

That was this morning. I’d walked back into Kananagar (“nagar” approximates what we would call a ward). It’s poor, ringed with sewage trenches, and the streets are dirt. I was there last week, just walking, taking pictures and talking as I could.

I met Agnes Francis that trip, and her neighbors. She invited me in for a cup of tea. Pictures of Christ looked down in Hindu array. The room otherwise was nearly bare. I took my sandals off at the door, as one does, and sat on one of two plastic chairs. Eight or 10 neighbors casually came in to get a look at a foreigner. Agnes Francis was quiet, and the others liked her. She touched them with kind pats.

Agnes Francis and neighbors, Kananagar, KolhapurAgnes Francis, left, and two neighbors

The neighbors were curious, but they didn’t gawk, nor did they ask questions. My story is that I’m a journalist traveling around India talking to people, writing about what I see and taking pictures. I use it though I’m writing only for myself. It gives me an excuse for wandering into neighborhoods where tourists never go.

I was drawn at first because Indian slums are spectacles, but they have become familiar. They are a refuge from the trafficky outside, and the people are far more pleasant than elsewhere.

I generalize, but here and in the States and Europe, though not in the Middle East, the poor are nicer than the rich. Here, they are a relief. India head-on is not otherwise a polite or hospitable country.

Today, mid-month, I met a gaggle of teenage boys, all with a hoodlum air–unwashed hair, dirty shirt, sunglasses dangling, a Brando sneer, gaudy watch band. They, too, have become familiar, so I said hello and spoke my little spiel, slowly. One of them told a little boy standing nearby in an orange hoody to go get someone, maybe the gang leader.

The hoodsConfronted by teenage hoods, Kananagar, Kolhapur

It was a small, reserved man who appeared. He eyed me, I thought, as though I were fair game. I looked for a wall to back against. He introduced himself: Pastor Suraj B. Kamble.

He took me to his small house, along with the squad of  hoods, all eyeing my American stuff.  I sat on the bed in the front room and soon a pretty teenage girl brought two cups of tea, one for him and one for me, and a plate of new biscuits from the corner grocery stall. He had a bit more English than the boys, but he had to reach into memory to find the words.

He was concerned I am not a Christian but openly shocked that I am an unbeliever. No proof exists of God, he said, but just as we can’t see the wind yet know it’s there, we must acknowledge God’s existence from the evidence of the natural world visible to us. And Christ taking human form to speak as he did was further evidence of divinity.

Kananagar, 1

Pastor Suraj B. Kamble, Kananagar, Kolhapur

But he didn’t proselytize vigorously. He wanted me just to enjoy my tea and cookies. The boys, it emerged, were his–he smiled–disciples. They had become Christians in the last year and stopped fighting each other and making trouble.

The nagar was mixed: Hindus, Muslims, Christians, and one atheist. Everyone got along, he said. No problems.  It was a neighborhood of workers, manual laborers, which is what Agnes Francis told me last week. Day laborers earning $2.50 a day when they can find work. Carrying. Digging. It was difficult at times to make ends meet, Agnes Francis said.

The Indian Express this morning had an article about retirement income. They discovered that Indians currently need about 35,000 rupees a month ($530) for a secure retirement. The workers in Kanan earn about 7,000 rupees a month when they have work, but that’s hit or miss. The money must support the old, too, and the young, and workers wear out early here.

In India, different worlds live next door. Just down the dirt road from Kananagar is GreenField complex–high new apartments behind a guarded gate. The girls walking there all have shoes.

I took some pictures. They took some pictures, and then Pastor and the boys walked me to their church on the southern edge of the cluster of houses, fronted by an open sewage ditch. It was a small, bare and airless room at the end of a much-divided pole barn, rented from a Christian “aunty” we met as we walked to it. He has 40 to 50 parishioners and is raising money to cut a garage-door opening in the end wall for comfort.

I waved goodbye, they waved, and I headed on the lane west toward GreenField, jumping two sewage trenches on the way.

Kananagar, 2

The hoods, Pastor Kamble and me, Kananagar, Kolhapur

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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, Chief Minister (Governor) Selvi J. Jayalalithaa., Foreign in India, India and public health, Indian government incompetence, Madurai, Travel in India, Travel in Tamil Nadu, Unromanticized travel, White in India

Rich, White and Foreign in India

Rich, White and Foreign in India.

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2013, 2014, Cheap Travel in India, Chief Minister (Governor) Selvi J. Jayalalithaa., Foreign in India, Indan press incompetence, India and public health, Indian government incompetence, Madurai, Photos from South India, The Ordinary in India, Travel in India, Travel in Tamil Nadu, Unromanticized travel, White in India

Rich, White and Foreign in India

March 21-22 2014, MADURAI

I plan my walks from Google Maps. I scrutinize satellite images for narrow lanes, rail lines, a river or sewage canal—the cramped streets where small houses touch.

The better-off in all Indian cities live invisibly behind high walls. In the crowded neighborhoods, doors are open in the morning from small rooms. Life spills into the streets. Roosters crow. Carts rumble. A woman hacks her throat clear. The milk man calls from his bicycle.

It’s a stumbling walk each morning into streets that touch ancestral memory,

Women make their trip to the neighborhood pump with 20-liter plastic jugs in red or purple or white or stripes, men sit on the ledge outside their door and read the newspaper and smoke. A man brushes his teeth on his top step and spits into the sewer gutter. A woman squats to pee by the tracks. Kids in blue/white or red/brown or grey/white school uniforms appear. It is respectable to come out pressed and shiny. In the poorest streets, they are barefoot, and the uniforms are hand-me-downs.

Ellis Nagar, Madurai

Ellis Nagar, Madurai

Raw sewage, moving slowly in dirt or concrete channels, is never far away. The air smells of it and of the urine on walls and smoke from wood grills and garbage fires and tea shops and incense a woman is wafting beneath the encrusted tail of a brown cow that has been painted with bright hand prints and devils. The air is never fresh.

Pools of sewage are close to homes

Pools of sewage are close to homes

Inside a door this morning, a uniformed girl sat on the floor while her grandmother fixed her hair. At another house a sour-looking laborer scrubbed his sudsed, wiggling little boy on a slab by the door and gave him a smack to improve his cooperation. In a deep ditch between two walls, half covered by a plastic trash bag,  a white dog was dying, shaking, eyes closed, whimpering to herself like an abused child. Just past a stand of rickshaws,  a huge man blocked my path and said in a small voice, “What is your sweet name, please?” Three huge hogs round a house corner just in front of me to root in garbage. A dog runs at me snarling.

India has millions of tiny shops. In the neighborhoods they are little groceries, corner idli and vada shops, tea stands. The grocery stalls have detergent, water, pop, festoons of packaged crunchy snacks, cigarettes sold individually and jars of penny candy. Children run to them on errands.

Women stop to talk. Men buy a tiny cup of steaming tea and eat a quick breakfast for 20 rupees. A cow or two, some goats, are tied nearby or saunter by. Dogs lounge indolently. Rickshaws cluster. The reek of sewage rises from the ditch. Vegetable vendors have their mats spread and the tomatoes and peppers or coconuts displayed. The fruit carts appear. Conversation is everywhere, laughter, the chain-saw tuk-tuk-tuk and horn blare of rickshaws, clucking chickens and a too-loud radio from a doorway.

The vegetables and bright fruits and the saris and the pink and orange walls give color to the shabby steet. Women make the wide-legged peasant bend and draw the day’s rangoli on the lane before the door. Municipal cleaners rake garbage into piles for burning, or to be taken away in carts for burning. A little boy of three defecates in the dirt 10 feet from his doorway, bending his head to watch the progress. Old women and men sit on the pavement or on age-blackened steps, staring at nothing. Escape seems unlikely.

These streets are not much visited by outsiders. I have never seen a Western tourist in them, and official India, including the limp-wristed press, ignores them.

I create a stir as I walk, much as I did snorkeling beyond the reef in the Red Sea, where the fish patterns would dissolve as I approached. It is not hostile, but it is watchful and wary.

I have learned this slowly. The shadow at the door is a woman watching, there an old man, the three men at the tea stand, the woman on the balcony, the man in the grocery stall.

I am closely watched.

They watch, but their first inclination is friendly.

Ellis Nagar, Madurai, March 2014

Ellis Nagar, Madurai, March 2014

Live in Indian hotels, as I have for months, and it’s difficult not to conclude that most Indians are listless, heedless and unresourceful. Such are India’s middle managers and company reps, those who people the hotel world.

In the neighborhoods, however, people, speaking large, are more generous to a stranger.  They have the grace politeness confers; their deference is sincere.

Of India’s many curses of self-indulgence, deference to  foreign, deference to rich and deference to white rank high, close to corruption.

It may be that the powerless are deferential, polite with a thin Potemkin politeness, because they have learned their lot is to be subordinate. Yet in these raggedy streets “they” are not uniformly anything. The weasels are easy to spot, as they are anywhere, the clean and the dirty, the quick to smile and the pimps (for here is where you go if you are looking for sex, whatever your awful predeliction), the stalwart and the respected.

Most return my namaskar greeting, the hands together in front of the chest in the Indian equivalent of “salaam alaikem.” Boys of 8 or 9 run up and say, “Hello how are you I am fine.”

My nationality is important because it confirms I’m from away, where conditions are better.  I say “USA” or  “America,” and they approve, “Ah.” But I have been German and French and Italian and even English, and they said “Ah” in exactly the same way.

No one objects to my presence, and when I stop, seeing a face or texture , I’m quickly hemmed in and pawed by the kids, who call, “Photo, photo,” so I will take their picture. One mother points to another, saying I must take her. Honor her, she says. Grandmothers appear with infants. I shoot, smilingly and pompously dispensing beneficence, as deference insists I must.

My camera has a good view screen. I punch up the shots I just took of the baby, the mother and all the kids, and the kids next door, and I can zoom in on a face and give that person a pat. They crowd in to see under the shade of my hand. No one asks for money.

They look to recognize themselves, and then they smile and thank me, “Super!” I give the little girl who’s pulling too hard on the camera a light smack and say, “Hold on,” for it seems that’s the right thing to do. I give the grandmother’s shoulder a squeeze. Touching seems the right thing to do, for men and women, boys and girls. I shake hands and give half hugs and squeezes and pats. I bask in Tahitian smiles. As I walk on, trailed to lane’s end by 10 or 12 small kids, I’m Pied Piper. One always asks for my pen; all of them are excited. The teenagers we pass are blase.

"Photo, photo"

“Photo, photo”

Celebrity politicians may pass through once every few years in a motorcade, and great seers come to town, but I am the most rare Important Visitor. I take notice. I walk the bustee lanes and speak as I can to individuals and hug pretty little girls and joke with teenage boys and say “Oooh” at babies and shake my finger at a barking dog just as they do, and jump the same streams of sewage.

I speculate, that is, that unfair though it is, I have influence by birth and circumstance somehow to encourage a neighborhood’s prettiest face, as a teacher can  lift shy students, as a priest can bless a life.

My presence and photographs of generations of family and neighbors, all the happy kids—dim images on a view screen in bright sunlight—affirm I think that I have noticed and may remember.

South Madurai bustee, March 22, 2014, about 8 a.m.

South Madurai bustee, March 22, 2014, about 8 a.m.

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2013, 2014, Bad hotel, Cheap Travel in India, Indian bathrooms and showers, Rameshwarum, Shooting midgets, Travel in India, Travel in Tamil Nadu, Unromanticized travel

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

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

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