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, Cheap Travel in India, Kerala travel, Travel in India, Varkala

To Indian Dentist

I needed a new crown.

The temporary crown over the implant post had worn out and popped off in Ann Arbor in October, where a dentist I’ve come to think of as Dr. Doofus glued it back on for nearly $400 and then again for $74, when her first gluing was insufficiently sticky.

I was attracted by the price here of $200, and the Montreal couple in the next room at bizarro Mektoub resort had determined this Varkala man was reliable. They had researched up and down the coast for an Indian dentist to replace two of the woman’s failing bridges – work that involved 14 teeth and much shaping and welding. “He has recommendations from Westerners, even Americans,” the man said.

Dr. S’s office is across from the Bata shop in downtown Varkala, next to a fruit vendor. His sign features an extracted tooth smiling from a red circle that could be a pool of blood and a peeling slogan: “We care your smile.”

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S’s “dental spa” (his card has grimacing Halloween lips in lurid color around clenched teeth)  is up a flight of unwashed stairs on Temple Street.

At the top of the stairs, shoes and sandals are left for hygienic reasons at the door, but the inside made clear shoes weren’t the problem. It was in miniature the 3 a.m. Greyhound bus station in Fort Wayne, Indiana a half century ago minus the wino on the floor by the Coke machine.  The foul cushions on the benches were decoratively striped. Across, by the reception counter, were four battered folding chairs, each with a grease blotch above where countless anxious heads had leaned on the off-white wall.

I was encouraged that I had found the place, even if it looked like a place for a drug buy. I hadn’t been able to find the sign from my scooter in the carnival blaze of sign-crazy India and had gone too far along Temple Street.

I asked a passing man in creased trousers and a long-sleeved shirt with a tie, the sign here of a respectable place holder. “I show you,” he said. He waited patiently  while I locked up in front of a peppers vendor then took me by the hand into and out of the path of an onrushing bus, its horn blaring, through a maze of tuk-tuk rickshaws swirling hornet-like, housewives and servant runners from the hive of businesses on the street to the office and then up the stairs to the door itself. “You must be removing shoes,” he said, pointing to the pile at the door.

The waiting room

The waiting room

He was a sweet man, and I was encouraged because I had asked him what he thought of Dr. S. as we marched unscathed though traffic.

“The best,” he said.

My Canadian neighbors had been persuaded by the endorsements but I remembered as I stepped barefoot onto the grimy office floor that I hadn’t asked exactly where they’d seen those endorsements, which might be as reliable as the endorsements I’d read from happy travelers of a hotel in Bangalore which turned out to have a rap nightclub on the floor below.

Come to think of it, I didn’t know anything about the Canadians except that he had studied at an ashram. Were they good judges of dentists? Did Canadian dentists have clean floors?

Why was the door with the TOILET sign darkened with smudges?

However, I am cheap, and this was simple dentistry which shouldn’t even lead to blood. Pop off the old, take an impression, cement on the new…

S. was an Indian hipster, down to the blue jeans and the carefully oiled Frankie Avalon hair. He donned gloves, pushed me back firmly in the chair, tapped the questionable crown, and said, “Yes, yes.”

The crown would be zirconia – the latest thing. He made a starting offer.

I’m careful with my health. I did the math. Not even 50% of a bad Ann Arbor gluing, so if it fell out, I wasn’t out much.

And his equipment looked clean. True, the assistant was one of the receptionists, and she had come in from the desk and was wielding the spit-sucker without gloves, but everything was going in her direction, not from her to me. And yes there was no soap in the muddy bathroom, but surely the office had soap somewhere? What the hell. When I joined the Army I signed up to be a paratrooper. Geronimo!

Next step: X-rays.

That was down the street, the assistant said. He had been leaning in silence against the wall, apparently a patient in pain.

“Just there behind,” he said, pointing vaguely north. “See sign ‘BAR’? Yes? There behind.”

The next morning I went for the pictures and pretended confusion as they pointed at my feet. The place looked too dirty for bare feet. “No, no,” I said. “My teeth.” I pointed and handed over the sheet of paper with S’s instructions.

“Twenty minutes,” the man behind the counter said. “Sit there.”

There was an odd odor, maybe of burned hair. I went outside.

A young woman came immediately and led me forcefully into a room with an X-ray table. “No, No. Stand,” she said and roughly turned me around. She found the tooth and made me hold a small tab behind it with my forefinger while she pushed the button.

Then I went to the machine that circles your head and bit on a tiny piece of plastic intended to keep me in position. I clenched and waited while the rotors warmed up, humming like a ceiling fan. It took so long my teeth began chattering from the strain, but it made no difference. I left with a negative that cost 580 rupees.

I scootered back down the street for my appointment. “No, no,” said the receptionist, counting through a stack of rupees. She fluttered her hands as at a bug. “No electricity until five o’clock. You come then.”

I don’t think so, I said, rolling my eyes like Dennis Hopper. That’s too late. That could put me on the streets in Varkala at twilight time and it’s hard enough at noon on a scooter to dodge the tuk-tuks and pedestrians and trucks all plunging without a glance left or right into the dodgem-car street. I don’t want to drive a scooter here after dark unless I’m bleeding heavily already.

Friday I went back. The electricity was on and the unwashed hygienist was there with her hose.

This was the plan, Dr. S. said, pulling my X-ray negative from its brown envelope and holding it up toward the ceiling fluorescent for a moment. He would give me two crowns. My implant with the temporary crown at number 5 rested in porous bone and should be bridged for extra support to the solid implant at number 4.

“But isn’t that crown good?” I said. “Number four?”

“Yes,” he said. It was fine, but it would have to be reshaped to help number five.

“How much?”

At least 20,000, maybe 21,000, he said, holding my mouth open with two gloved fingers.

No, I told him. Just one.

He may be exactly right about the bone. He wears his blue jeans well, and he does have those endorsements. I was focusing on the superficial. After all, I had a Vermont implant fail because of too-porous bone for number 13, though the surgeon who removed its wobbly remains wondered aloud how it had ever been inserted at such an insupportable angle.

I have concluded that finding a competent dentist anywhere requires some false starts, some What the hell! sessions with licensed professionals who sat always in the back and missed Friday classes to get an early start on whatever dental students do on weekends. And as I waited I read in India Dentist a complaint from a senior dental surgeon that competence was a worry here, too. India dental schools had lost all credibility and standards had plummeted since they separated for turf reasons from universities. Now, he wrote angrily, the students simply “vomited back” on exams what their instructors had force-fed them the previous day. They had no understanding of the medical aspects of dentistry.

S. shrugged at my decision. OK.

He picked up his drill, humming to himself. One it must be. One, two, double my fee. Two, one, out it may come…

Wait! The cost?

“Ten thousand ,” he said. “Cash.”

He drew a diagram. Make it 11,000, he said, with this shield to “prevent corrosion.”  He drew a crown with a short skirt. He may well have drawn the extracted tooth on his street sign.

OK. And add the undercoating, I said. I wanted the best.

That was the time to leap from the chair and negotiate. I could have gotten him down to 8 or 9, even with the skirt, but I didn’t. I was getting oddly restive, partly because the receptionist-assistant seemed to be falling asleep on her feet, though her hose was on and sucking air.

His job now, he said briskly, was to “shorten” my temporary crown and then take impressions. My tooth would be ready in seven days.

But I was going to Sri Lanka maybe, I said, maybe sooner than that.

Four days, he said, and pushed me back in the chair, opened my mouth, and as quickly as a knifefighter jabbed me in the upper gum with a needle. No sweet talk from him.

Then he buffed the temporary crown for 15 minutes, and the assistant seemed to do her job skillfully. I gagged just once when she thrust the suction device in too far.

I understood only belatedly what he’d done. It worried me a bit. I had never heard of the technique. He had shortened my temporary crown by half, shaping the plastic into a base for the new crown.

“But the temporary came off twice,” I said, “in October. It has a hole in it. If you glue the new one to it, won’t the new one just pull it off?”

“Yes, yes,” he said. “Come Wednesday. It is not a problem.”

Twenty-four hours later, his work was smooth to my tongue, but my lower lip was a bit numb. I think I’ll do without a shot Wednesday, I told myself. Just pop off the old and glue in the new, please. Why would my lip be numb? What was in that needle? Why did he give me a shot, anyway? The implant is nerveless…

But isn’t all life a mystery?

Wednesday was Christmas. I climbed the stairs at 3:30. Dr. S. was waiting, wearing the same shirt as for my first appointment. No assistant was needed this time. The new crown fit perfectly. He puffed air on the temporary, squirted glue in the new crown and pushed it into place.

“How does it feel?”

“A little high,” I think.

He inserted a strip of carbon paper. ‘Bite!”

He examined the tooth. No, the bite was perfect. He held out a wad of cotton. “Bite on this for half hour please.”

He held out his hand for the rupees.

In the outer office, the receptionist handed me a 10-year guarantee for the crown. “Zirconia,” she said.

Outside, the scooter wouldn’t start. “Damn that Rafi!” I said clumsily, talking past the cotton, but that’s another story.

Two days later, the crown feels pretty good—maybe a little high at the back—though my tongue detects extra cement that oozed out during the insertion and initially I had to pull off cotton there from the wad.

Yesterday I ate a Snickers bar and chewed on that side, and my crown on a crown didn’t move a smidgeon.

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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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Refinement in the Tropics (Fort Kochi)

Every tourist town feels the same, and Fort Kochi, for all the blue of the sea and the old colonial buildings, is one of them: friendly insincerity.

Its cost — think of it as a cost of such commerce — was made plain a couple of days ago as I walked north from Bishop Joseph Kureethara Road past old St. Francis Church, built in 1516 by the Portugese to honor St. Antony (who has a small chapel just across the road from my rooms at Lotus Home Stay).

A little girl was working at a catch-all stand (T-shirts; puppets) outside the church with her father. Twenty stout Polish tourists, brightly dressed in shorts and sports shirts, cameras dangling, had just passed in and out. She was a cute girl in bright clothes, a tourist photo cliche, but when I asked with a gesture if I could take a picture of her, she scrunched her face. Her father knew better. He snapped at her to get with the game, and at once her face reshaped itself into happy greeter.

Image Little girl, honest

Image After fatherly lesson

Much of this is street commerce, New York, 1910.

At the open air Food Court with its five tables and unwashed table cloths, the young waiter agreed happily on Monday that my breakfast would be ready in 10 minutes, and I walked on down to the beach to watch the ferries and see the ice-cream carts arrive at the beginning of their long day.

I went back to the restaurant. A half hour later, my food came. I had a book, but I was annoyed, and the waiter, Raja, a thin kid of 17 or 18 or so in a filthy red shirt, seemed at once frightened, though I said nothing.

He’s likable. That evening, as the dark descended at about 6, he passed me by the playing field on his old bike and stopped to say hello, as friendly as ever.

“Your day is done?” I said.

No. No. He made a face like the little girl’s. He worked 24 hours for the old man, and he got paid only if customers came. Otherwise, nothing. No, he wasn’t ever finished.

What would he be doing in five years?

“I must escape,” he said. “A good job.” He repeated. “I must escape.”

“Sir, You will do me this one favor, please.” Ten rickshaw drivers, with nearly identical language, hand on heart. “You will allow me to take you to emporium close by, just to look, not to buy, sir, please, so I get a point for a petrol card for each person I bring and more if you buy, please. sir….”

But commerce is lost oddly. Up by the beach is a series of open-air restaurants. I walked there Tuesday at about 10 looking for breakfast, having abandoned the laggardly Food Court. The menu at restaurant number 2 looked good, and I pulled out a chair. No, said the waiter, gesturing me away as though I were a fly. We’re not open. I went to number three, which had several workers sitting near the money table. They shooed me away, too. Later, they said, and pointed back to the first restaurant.

Come in, come in said the waiter there. Fine, I said. I’m hungry, but could I wash up?

Maybe the restaurants are all owned by one individual, who profits, he thinks, by opening only one place for restaurant breakfast morning?

No, the waiter answered. No wash up.

Wash up is usually a euphemism here for “I need a toilet!”

“Toilet,” I said.

Come with him, he gestured, a skinny boy with a thin beard and apparently wearing Raja’s filthy shirt.  He led me to the intersection, and we turned south for a block, then east and went in through a passage-way by another idle restaurant. The toilet was there. Unlighted. Not a place to linger. No water; no soap.

I came out.

“Eat now?” he said.

We had walked so far we were closer now to another restaurant I’d found, the upstairs Loafers Corner, clean, with a series of old black and white family photographs on the wall and an excellent masala dosa and good “filter” coffee.

“No,” I told my toilet guide.

He grinned. “Maybe later, then. Remember me.”

Loafers Corner photographs

Loafers Corner photographs

ECONOMY—-

We don’t need much, it’s becoming clear. Shelter. A bit of food.

I’m living well beyond that in Lotus Home Stay in a quiet neighborhood for $12.69 a day: a clean room with a ceiling fan and balcony overlooking the chapel. It has a neatly painted and unmouldy bathroom with a bidet hose rather than toilet paper, and a French hotelier who narrates her business-owning adventure in Fort Kochi over French press coffee I now make myself on the shaded back porch. I have shelter, money enough for food, and I can stay clean (and my clothes, either sending them out or, more quickly, washing them in a bucket with Tide I found in a small packet for 10 rupees).

For comparison, a bar of soap is 30 rupees; a kilo of oranges 40 or 50; a cup of filter coffee downtown, for rich tourists only, 50.

I took a cab the day before yesterday to the old synagogue in “Jew Town,” built in the early 14th century, clean and solid, like St. Francis, small, candles burning. My driver (30 rupees for a 10 minute ride) was Barack Obama Hussain.

From where you are? he asked, and grinned broadly when I answered, “USA.” (“United States” isn’t understood.)

He gave me a big thumbs up.

“Black man in White House,” he said. “Good! You like?”

“I did,” I said.

Yesterday, I took another rickshaw to the Jain temple, to watch a priest call the pigeons and feed them. Maybe 200 came, fluttering as pigeons do. The priest, wearing a gauze mask to avoid killing flying insects, scattered rice and chanted, and the pigeons landed on his outstretched arms.

A lady temple functionary seized me as I entered the Jain compound and guided me to a room full of murky paintings, which she described rapidly and incomprehensibly. Fine, I said, but I want to see the holy feeding of the birds. I started to leave.

She blocked me. Money, she said. A contribution. I must give a contribution for her lecture.

I pulled out 15 rupees or so in change and handed the coins to her.

Her lip curled, and she shook her head. “No,” she said. “One hundred rupee. One hundred.” She handed back my change.

I took it and went to watch the pigeons.

Barack Obama was there, waiting across the alley with other drivers. He gave me a thumbs-up hello as I left. He had told me about the pigeons, and I was glad to see him. “Sir,” he said. “You will do me this one small favor…”

The hands are always out, but mostly, here, it’s quiet and the shills, unlike our home-grown MBAs , aren’t entirely rapacious. The intensity does increase as you move up the food chain, or down. Even the security guards at the expensive hotels are haughty, though their faces melt into gladness if you walk in the door; the ritzy managers are from Dickens. On the other end, I guess, in Ooty last week, high in the Nilgiri mountains, a drunken laborer on a country road tried to threaten money from me with his mattock.

Would-be robber

Would-be robber

I was in a bad mood that day and came close to laying him out with my walking stick. He backed off, muttering self-righteously in a tone which seemed much like that found in the fine print of a credit card deal.  (An old man nearby, who had watched the encounter, said, “He say very bad things to you.”)

I walked home last night ahead of the heavy rain that came later, feeling lucky. The night air smelled good, Indian couples shared the street with me, the fruit stands and grocery stalls were busy, and I had money enough (10 rupees) for a little package of not-bad Bourbon (chocolate) cookies. The streets here are civilized. Even the teenage boys, laughing with each other, leaning against their scooter, flipping a cricket ball into the air, are friendly.

India is jarring me back from my middle-class reverie to the larger world and suggests in its multitude, in the generally humane encounters Indians have publicly with each other, that I shouldn’t take myself too seriously.

It’s not easy  to show the nuances of our own culture, to know the frightening expectations, frustrations, meanness and kindness, to understand the horrors of ambition.

Here, it’s impossible. I don’t know who these people are, or how their dearest myths frame their growing up. They are opaque to me.

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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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