Travel in India

Bombay, Decayed

I came down to Pune by slow train after a dispiriting week in squalid, sad Bombay with its endless maze of tired lanes. The city has decayed noticeably in the last forty years, its resources sucked away by gleefully corrupt officialdom, spring cleaning forgotten.

India is eating itself, as many countries including the U.S. are, but on a grander scale, and shamelessly: no one in the city has clean, municipally-provided water, the sewage is untreated, the streets and bridges are crumbling and choked with blaring, blaring traffic. Every surface, even in the back corridors of the grand hotels, is filthy and coated, for the idea of cleanliness has not taken hold here; the listless sweeping that moves surface trash is performed to village standards by low-caste workers wielding brooms.

Rickshaw drivers still point tourists to the dhobi ghat, the massive thousand-tub laundry that boils sheets for Bombay hotels and shirts and saris and bright cloth from across town brought and returned by long-cart, and it is still guarded by a pimp of an attendant who demands Rs. 200 for entrance, to be distributed to the workers, he says, though the workers I spoke to there 20 years ago spit with contempt and called that claim a lie.

And the drivers still mention the famous Jehangir Art Gallery, a half-hour walk north in Rupee-rich Colaba from the Gateway, but the once-proud gallery, founded in 1952 by Sir Cowasji Jehangir, Second Baronet, has become a slum (as below), its managers’ offices littered with trash, with old signs to non-existent exhibits and nothing on the hand-smudged walls but mall art.

Jehangir Gallery

The tourists go to such places in air-conditioned buses and emerge into pools of professional beggars, whining, touching, holding out stumps for inspection and pinching babies to make them scream.

In the past I stayed at the $4 or $5 Salvation Army Hostel, the Red Shield, just behind the Taj Mahal hotel, where presidents and various satraps stay, but it reeks now, infected by Bombay sloth. In 1976, when I first encountered it, it was commanded by a beefy Salvation Army major from Bristol who inspected surfaces for dirt and dared anyone to disregard her commands to behave as 19th-century methodists. (It was created in the 19th century to lure merchant seamen from the lanes of prostitutes.)

Under the current regime it’s not been cleaned or painted in years, the price for a single has shot up to $30, and I concluded on my last trip that the shower rooms were too dirty to shower in.

More important than the current grime, routine in India, the charming Red Shield mix of stoners and bewildered middle class Indians and humorless Western seekers after religious truth has disappeared from the dining room, leaving just too-familiar, non-talking flick readers peering at their phone.

Bombay, though, for a long walker, is unchanged in essence. It is much dirtier than it was, terribly expensive for the poor, filled now with cars and trucks, the air thick, and morning in the lanes is enlivened less by roosters than by men loudly clearing their throat and spitting. And in the maze of poor streets north from Colaba’s Potemkin shine, where bustees lean against old warehouses and children play in sewage-filled gutters, the people who have nothing remain hospitable and tolerant of a curious visitor.

They were never visitors to Jehangir.

Bombay lane, Kamathipura

And in those lanes, one can still find a thumb-washed glass of hot milk chai for 10 rupees and sit on an abutment and watch the neighborhood come awake.

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2013, 2014, Cheap Travel in India, Kappil Beach, Kerala travel, Travel in India, Varkala, Washington solution?

The Ants: a Washington Hypothesis (and “cheney” used as verb)

January 27, at Seawind on Kappil Beach Kerala

Tourist signs declaiming it to be “God’s Country” notwithstanding, sunny Kerala has its perils: riptides, falling coconuts, “tuskers” in the streets, multiple varieties of cobras and other poisonous snakes, thumb-sized cockroaches, tuk-tuk and bus drivers and a long list of venomous spiders, some of which jump and one whose bite, according to an Internet naturalist with no academic credentials listed, causes a victim to “bleed from every orifice” within minutes of being bitten. It’s prudent to look under the bed and shake out the covers before settling in for the night.
I’ve become most familiar with the ants. The ones in my house come in several sizes and colors. The most interesting ones are brown and small: the size of the tiny top and bottom crosshatches on my MacBook’s cursor.
As I write on a sunny January afternoon, a thin stream is moving across the opposite wall, from the window ledge southwest to the baseboard, then due west. It’s a tiny brown ant main highway–mostly four-lane north and south but bubbling out, this being India, to six or eight lanes at times.

Seawind Residence in Madathil at Kappil Beach, Kerala

Seawind Residence in Madathil at Kappil Beach, Kerala

A couple of nights ago, having just finished Heart of Darkness and being at loose ends, I could find only a done-in moth at the end of the highway, already stripped of color but being moved for its remaining calories into the ants’ cupboard, so I put a peanut on the window ledge. How long would it take the ants to find it? And what would they do with it?
It took just a minute. One ant left the highway and circled the nut, then another. In a few minutes perhaps 10 or 12 were on it or circling, though the traffic on the highway didn’t slacken. I had expected more. More action, quicker.
I broke a section of a namkeen-spiced Cheetos Puff onto the sill: a bright yellow target made with Real Cheez. That caused a stir. The entire highway veered immediately toward the Puff and the ants covered it. Meanwhile, the select, small crew continued its desultory work on the peanut.
I lost interest and went to bed. In the morning, I remembered. The peanut was gone, but the piece of Cheetos remained. More exactly, something Cheetos-shaped and Cheetos-sized remained, but it was pale. The ants had taken the color and presumably all within that was edible, leaving a husk behind and confirming what mothers have always said: “Cheetos aren’t food!”
But what are they? What is that husk, that inert piece of dry fluff that even these ants won’t eat?

Ants ignoring Cheetos husks

Ants ignoring Cheetos husks

It’s puzzling. They are voracious. Before I learned, I lost a Snickers bar to them. I put it incautiously on the table, and they bored a pinhole through the wrapper in minutes. When I pulled it open, expecting a chocolate treat, I found the bar swarming with chocolate-faced ants.
I bought a new jar of Mellow Peanut Butter, an excellent spread from Trivandrum. The ants got into it before I opened it, beneath the metal cap and through the foil seal inside. I was barely in time. Only eight or ten were actually swimming in the surface oil. I made them leave.
Alerted to the menace, I put a package of unopened crackers in a safe place—an eight-inch wooden spike protruding inexplicably but conveniently from the bedroom wall six feet above my bed. I dropped the unopened crackers in a plastic bag and hung the bag from the spike, making sure it didn’t touch the wall. That fooled them for nearly a full day, yesterday and this morning, but I glanced that way an hour ago and saw a thin trail of the little ants descending from the ceiling, and I could see them on the spike. I looked inside the bag. Thousands. They had eaten through the outer foil packaging of the crackers and then through the inner plastic wrap. I fed the crackers to the pye dog lying in the yard, who ignored the ants.
Though I’ve sprayed (a pleasant-smelling formula called Good Knight), at times I admire my little companions. They are as dedicated as their human bretheren in insurance companies and media conglomerates. They are an incentive to brush up crumbs, and they let nothing go to waste. I found a small triton sea shell the other day washed up, the dead animal inside, and put it by my porch. The ants built a hill over it and stripped out the animal within hours.
They are occasionally a nuisance, as when they eat a Snickers or find crumbs near a bare foot, for though they’re tiny, they bite. I think they must ambush the spiders and moths I see being borne off as in an old safari movie, and I think without exaggeration that if a suspected non-lemming were cheneyed by NSA thugs and strapped to a table, the ants in this house alone would leave nothing but shiny bones behind in a day or two.
I am likely breathing too much the air of India, but as I pondered the hollow Puff on my window sill I was reminded of our Real Cheez capital and the  bipedal feeder-ants there—dealers with buffed nails and good creases and fraternity grins. They leave us as window-dressing the inert dry fluff of official Washington.

And we eat it.

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2013, Cheap Travel in India, Kerala travel, Odayam Beach, Travel in India, Varkala

The Garden

I wrote to someone the other day, as I sat by this placid seaside on Odayam Beach at Varkala–fishermen dragging in their nets and arguing with each other, Western tourists walking by, the air rushing in warm through the palms, “air you can kiss,” Kerouac said when he first reached California in 1947–that the days are an endless caress.

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Sunset at Fisherman’s Art Cafe, Varkala

I was content in the sweet wind and thud of long swells collapsing in celebratory foam, the fresh oranges at every market stall and long hands of tiny bananas, and I’ve made friendly acquaintance with Wahoub Budeen, whom I think of as the stout man in the little market booth south of the bizarrely named Fisherman’s Art Cafe—fishermen don’t go there, there is no art, and the people who run it, all from Darjeeling, lean on their hands most of every day, waiting for just one customer.

Budeen insists with a big hello that I buy biscuits, or oranges, or anything. Whatever the price he gives, I wave my arms and argue it should be five less, or sometimes, to his great amusement, I change direction and go from 40 to 50, having just gotten him down to 40.

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Wahoub Budeen at his market on the Odayam Beach Road, Varkala

And just beyond him on the dirt track, the poor, sad, rarely visited Karnatakan sellers of cloth — one man, two women, two small children who should be in school. One of the woman sells fruit; the other tries to sell their faded cotton cloth; the man sits grinning at me but says nothing. The fruit woman usually has a papaya or two, a pineapple, maybe a melon and three or four oranges or bananas for sale. I’ve not seen another customer stop there. She is hopeful when she sees me.

I bought from her a few days ago then walked on to Wahoub Budeen’s stall. He has many kilos of bananas for sale. No, I didn’t need any, I said, and showed him the three or four bananas I’d bought for 10 rupees.

I’d paid too much, he said. He’d charge half that.

Yeah, I said. I know, but… I tipped my head toward the sad people.

He stopped laughing. “Yes, yes,” he said. “Yes.” And he reached out and touched me on the shoulder.

Then he threw back his head again and laughed his big laugh. I needed biscuits, he said; oranges!

The days are regular. It gets light after six and and 12 hours later it’s dark. The mornings are beautiful and easy and then it heats up toward noon and after, with the hot sun coming straight down, and that’s when the water feels best, cool and soft-handed.

There are irritants. This is weird tourist India after all, where no one works very hard and the restaurant workers have no acquaintance with soap and garbage burning and unburned makes ditches bright and public ways all papery and discard littered.

Mostly, though, because as a visitor you have a few bucks and time to stretch and nothing much to do but luxuriate, unlike the natives, and slowly turn the pages of an Inspector Morse mystery, it is perfect — Dorothy Lamour walking off the black and white screen to lead you by the hand out of your familiar blaring world to a place of fantasy much like this.

Here is relief from collapsing institutions and corporate misanthropy, the political and cultural rot of my birth world. The Indian papers have not heard of fantasy football, and our public haters, slick-haired shouters, have no reach beyond our borders.

Perhaps it’s deserved indolence after decades in harness, I tell myself, but old habits are deeply ingrained and it came to me a week ago that I understood for the first time that ugly old story of  Adam and Eve. Given this, the garden, by a nagging, small-minded creator, they got bored.

To the sickly, dour church they are poster-children of  dejection and inadequacy, slinking away, cast out, rather than walking boldly into uncertainty, but I understood their drumming fingers.

I must move soon, even knowing I will look back.

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2013, Cheap Travel in India, Kerala travel, Travel in India

Settling in, Varkala

An hour ago, I was swimming off Black Beach, just to the north, rising and falling with the long swells which make landfall here.

I’d been in a bad mood, feeling prissily that India was clutching too tightly.

But that changed in a moment.

Part of the change was my own clumsiness. I miscalculated. The breaker was higher than it had seemed and  knocked my I’m-walking-into-the-surf insouciance into a graceful backwards somersault. It restored my good humor.

Such moments should be chased. They’re infrequent: a beam of sunlight through a crack in the clouds that spiritualists call divine and which leave secularists like me struggling for vocabulary. Chase? Our clerkish culture makes it hard. Pursuit is scarcely possible from a cubicle life except at the simian level of the virtualists, those etiolated souls who flourish only under fluorescents and who seem always to be peering at some glowing device. To the others, the struggling brother- and sisterhood in the cubicle gulag, I send best wishes and my hope that you break free soon.

The flash of freedom… It was the sky, the water, the palms of a tropic coast along the low shore, the lifeguard (whom I had taken for a local idler) who called out to me and pointed me toward the south (dangerous rocks loomed under water just north of where I’d been swimming, he told me later, and it was easy to get cut or break a hand or foot), and blue ocean and clear high sky and the green shore, the black beach, the offshore breeze…. I put my face down in the cool water and felt for a tingly moment like the little boy playing in the foam at the shore.

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Net-tending boat, Varkala

I disliked Varkala at first. I’d had a comfortable train ride down from Fort Kochi with competent help from the conductor in my “AC-reserved” coach and left my city dysentery far behind, but my arrival began with a grim portent.  Specifically, petty though it sounds, I hope my tuk-tuk driver at the station doesn’t build a fleet of tuk-tuks. He was irritating. He agreed to take me to my hotel five k’s off for 80 rupees but got lost, then demanded 150 because the trip had taken longer than expected. I spoke to him sharply in Joisy (I picked up some phrases in Vermont) and he went away, scowling over his shoulder, me still muttering.

My room in Middle Cliff was OK, clean, with a mosquito net draped neatly over the bed like a bridal veil, but I was located up a littered alley far from the sea, which crashed on the rocks at the base of the cliff 100 feet down trash-littered steps (the shop keepers lining cliff-top routinely throw the day’s waste over the side. And the shopkeepers and the inumerable hangers on and assistants and idle cousins, the squads of waiters at each of 20 or 30 restaurants, the blind beggar fluttering his faded testament  of need from a doctor who won’t operate without “much money,” all reaching out, the shop folks saying, shop after shop, “You are just looking no buying,” and when to be polite you say, “Perhaps later,” they become attorneys and fasten on you like a Texas prosecutor,  asserting with a frown that the remark constituted a moral commitment to buy from them.

The newspaper vendor was a paricular blot. Newspaper sell usually for four or five rupees. He demanded 75. I laughed at him, and he got unpleasant, telling me of his hard life and he had to bring the papers out from the village and he was poor man and I was a rich foreigner. Like all whiners he was easy to imitate. The shop guys, many of them from Nepal, were amused as I walked away waving my arms, telling the idiot he should GIVE me a paper because I have gray hair and the electric power is off and I just washed my underwear by hand….

It’s a sad truth. The power keeps going off in Varkala, for long periods. It’s mid-day Saturday as I write, and the plugs have been empty and the bathrooms dungeon-dark all day. Corruption plus upcoming holidays that feature lights… The explanations vary.

Or, one last observation. My first night I was at a front table watching the flow of people. Two cops appeared assigned to make a foot patrol along this high promenade. Like most cops here, they were neatly uniformed, and they didn’t leave a wave of fear or dislike behind as cops do in Saudi Arabia or Iran or American ghettos. They stopped to say hello to the restaurant manager, standing by the fish table with its neat array of tuna, barracuda, snappers and huge prawn, all on ice. They laughed and chatted, then moved on.

Ten minutes later they returned, ending their patrol. As they passed, the manager reached out with a small bag. The near cop took it without a word, and he and his partner kept walking. The next day I mentioned it to a waiter and then to a hotel manager. They responded identically. They laughed. They weren’t amused; they were resigned. “Yes,” the waiter said, “and not just food. They also take money.”

Just next door of where I’m staying, 16-year-old Sonia runs a shop that sells cheap cloth bags and shirts and beach trousers. Her parents don’t work, and she supports them and her two little brothers, she said. They are from Gadag, in Karnataka. Of course, she’d had to leave school after the “fifth form,” she told me with a pretty smile. “I angry that!”

I bargained her down on two thin beach shirts from 1,400 rupees to 650, and I took her picture and her brother’s, 12-year-old Kumar. I haven’t asked her yet if she has to pay off the police, but O. in the Kashmiri shop does.

ImageSonia, 16

Then, recovery. I found a new place to live, a mile closer to Black Beach and pretty, with neat gravel walks, grass and well-tended new plants. It overlooks the ocean; plus, as I say, I went swimming. My fluorescent mood blew away in a hallelujah! instant.

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Travel in India

My Cheap Timex

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

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

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

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

And she wanted a title.

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

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

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

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

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

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

My watch, for Claire,JPG

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

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

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

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

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Cheap Travel in India, Travel in India

Unready

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ImageShrinivas Bairagi

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

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

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

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

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

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

ImageVaseem Akram

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

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