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: 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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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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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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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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Cheap Travel in India, Foreign in India, India: the unexceptional, The poor in India, Travel in India, Uncategorized

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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Cheap Travel in India, Travel in India, Uncategorized, Western tourists in India

Colorful Bombay

Up by Crawford Market in Bombay, I saw a brief cultural dance that would fit neatly in a Kipling story.

Crawford Market, Bombay

 

A white-haired couple from somewhere north of Pennsylvania, plump and pleasant looking, was walking tentatively, bravely alone. They walked through jumbles of porters with boxes stacked high on their head like  bearers in a Tarzan movie and in the slow flow of heavy wooden handcarts pushed and pulled by one or two or three men. The loaded carts are hard to start, hard to stop and hard to steer. And the streets there funnel the engine-roaring, horn blaring trucks of retailers loading up on fish and fruit and vegetables, and taxis swarm. Hovering, little roosts of thieves, crowlike, watch with sharp eyes.

The couple had passed me when I stopped to buy three bananas, and I noticed that the man had a large Canon camera swinging from a shoulder strap, its long lens swinging this way and that as he walked. He and his wife were both in khaiki shorts and bush shirts, as if looking for leopards, and the man was wearing a canvas expeditionary hat of the sort sold in New Yorker side-panels.

Just outside the market, they mistimed traffic on a side-street and nearly got hit by a truck. You can cross through the flow if the truck or bus or cycle, the tuk-tuks,  have time to swerve, but you must walk in a straight line, balletically, fending off speeders with a fluttering bull-fighter hand, and at a predictable speed.The traffic streams around you. It’s a lovely, enlivening system. Stopping suddenly or changing course screws it up.

They lost their nerve, understandably, and stopped. The truck driver slammed on his brakes, shouting Mumbaikar imprecations, and created an even bigger obstacle. Somehow, in the blare of horns, the oblivious couple, unimpressed by the virtuosity that left them unsquashed, staggered on to the other side. They neglected to thank the truck driver for his reckless virtue (though, of course, the paperwork for killing a pedestrian is formidable, and the required bribes would go on forever).

“Are you with them?”

A young professional man of some sort was speaking to me, tilting his head toward the old couple.

I wasn’t, I said.

“That camera,” he said. “I worry that thieves will take it. The market is full of thieves.”

Some thieves in India rob from scooters, whizzing by and snatching gold chains, shoulder bags and large-lensed Canon cameras swinging casually from the left shoulder on a broad strap that would move from the leopard-hunter’s shoulder to the thief’s in a trice, whoosh, never to be seen again; others are runners, or a hand from between vegetable stalls, or a team: one hits the opposite shoulder, and when the head turns, the partner grabs the chain, or bag; the camera. The market is crowded.

Crawford Market (2), Bombay

“I am trying to tell him,” the professional man said. “But he thinks I am selling him something.”

I told the man I’d do my best and followed the couple onto the vegetable wholesale floor, a busy place.

They were uneasy. The guidebook had said “busy” and “colorful,” but it hadn’t mentioned the porter suddenly blowing his nose between two fingers right in front of them, or the sidepusher on a loaded handcart shoving them aside with a quick arm—“He hit me! That man hit me!”—to save them from getting run over, again, and who is this little man now in front of them, appearing from nowhere, holding up a badge of some kind and chattering in Indian English about “veddydangerous.”

“No, no, no, my dear,” the little man said to the camera man, “I am not guiding. I am working with market. Your camera,” he motioned at it, “not so good here.”

The man understood. His lip curled. “He’s saying we can’t take pictures,” he said disgustedly to his wife. “We have to pay something.”

The small man fluttered unimpressively. He was not selling, he said too quickly now to be understood, but the camera could be stolen, “taken, you see. Not everyone here is so pleasant,” he said, more to me now, standing sympathetically beside him, than to them. They had figured him out and were ignoring him, unless he made them buy a ticket.

I tried. I had the advantage of looking familiar to them, though it might be like Midnight Express, with me working some fiendish scheme to steal their passports. I planned a suave intervention, but abandoned that and gave them both a mighty shove, “Jesus Christ!” grabbing the woman to keep her from falling. She nearly screamed. They hadn’t seen the heavy cart bearing down on them, nor had I until the last moment, and they were unsure even as it passed us by, a ton or two, inches away, that it was serious. Surely there were rules!

“This man works for the market,” I said. “He, and the man outside, were trying to warn you that your camera will be stolen if you carry it like that. You’ve made yourself a target.”

“A target!” the woman said.

The man snorted. “No problem so far,” he said in an executive voice, and turned away, toward the oranges and Kashmiri apples, stacked high in American-looking cartons (brought in on the long handcarts).

“He said ‘target,’ you’re a ‘target!’” the woman said to White Hunter.

I watched them walk on, their pale legs incongruously soft amid the hundreds of muscular worker legs around them. They walked against the flow, forcing the porters to dodge them. Behind them, wringing his hands and gesturing to other market workers, the little man followed at a distance, watching on their behalf.

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