2014, Bad hotel, Travel in America, Travel in India

June 26, 2014, Snug in Ann Arbor

 

My flights from Little Rock to Detroit on June 21 got held up by thunderstorms that stopped Chicago’s drain. Several hundred of us arriving from here and there to the airport on the prairie spent the night on cots in Terminal 3 at O’Hare.

My months over the winter of crossing south India on trains, buses, motor scooters, rickshaws and on foot bubbled up as I walked O’Hare’s Musak-coated corridors at midnight.

India is dirtier, but even at its worst—I’m thinking here of the Marsan Lodge on Indira Gandhi Road in Chennai, samosas stacked and restacked by unwashed hands and a profligacy across Tamil Nadu and Kerala of open sewage canals —it was more appealing. We American whites, initially fortunate in the vastness and richness of a continent lightly inhabited by quickly exterminated aborigines and wildlife and built by slave labor, are well along in the creation of the landscape we deserve.

I was in a bad mood. American Airlines and its mumbling versipel, Envoy, which flies narrow tubes with stubby wings under the name of American Eagle, had been gum-chewers with cattle prods all day, herding us up and down the chute with corporate certainty: GET ON THE PLANE NOW WELCOME BACK TO LITTLE ROCK HAVE A WONDERFUL DAY WELCOME BACK AGAIN SUCKERS GET ON THE PLANE NOW!

Beyond the churlishness of flight attendant Vanessa and the Okie gate woman in Little Rock chewing three sticks of gum and later a breathing but cardboard gate woman in Chicago, I had a bad blister on my right foot from clambering the day before up and down Ozark mountains, and the chiggers had gotten me, and I’d fallen into poison ivy.

By the time knees-in-face 3259 got to Chicago, all the connections were void, and after eyeing a block-long line at McDonalds in Concourse K and having been refused a ride on one of the electric carts that buzz up and down, though I was hopping on one foot, I bought a regular-size Snickers bar for $2.13 and settled in for the night.

We forget quickly, so it is necessary to record these end-of civilization experiences for Jean Luc Picard to recover half a millenium down a narrowing road from our possum-filled ruins.

We’d backed out of the gate in Little Rock a half-hour late at 3:20, waited long enough for passenger bleating on the runway, went back for more fuel, waited again, went back again with no clear explanation to the terminal and finally  rushed onto the plane again to avoid losing our window out  at 7 p.m. American wanted to get us to Chicago, despite their blinking computers chuckling we would all be stranded there.

The waits had their amusing moments. During our first long delay, an attractive frost-headed publicist escorting a gangly teenage producer of something, mentioned to Vanessa,  a lemon-sucker throughout the long day, that Gangle’s seat wouldn’t stay up. Vanessa sent Frosty back up the jetway to get a seat reassignment from the gate woman, who slammed the door in her face and chased her back to the plane, by which time the pilot, who had been morosely silent, told us Chicago was now closed. Vanessa loudly blamed the publicist, “that woman in the sparkly jacket,”  so when she returned, blinking long eyelashes from the abuse at the gate, she was met with glares. She protested her innocence with shakes of her hair. “Shut up!” the man beside me in 8A told her, then bent again to his fluttery iphone.

Four hours later, when Chicago opened, a ground crew man in overalls took the mike at the gate, as decisive as Dick Cheney. If we didn’t have wheels up by 7, he blared as though we were resisting, we couldn’t fly, so MOVE IT MOVE IT MOVE IT!

We trotted down the jetway—“jetway!” “concourse!” “Wheel’s up!” “Device!” (the plastic thing that will supposedly drop from the plastic ceiling when American cuts off the oxygen in mid-flight to pay for a vice-president’s pedicure)… Avoid all enterprises wrapped in jargon!—in plenty of time for that seven o’clock lift-off, and then waited, and waited, and waited, while bleary standbys staggered one by one onto the plane.

At 7:15, we pushed back and after a while lifted off and then after an hour and 18 minutes touched down. WELCOME TO CHICAGO’S O’HARE TERMINAL THE LOCAL TIME IS LATE LATE LATE ABANDON HOPE ALL YE WHO ENTER HERE.

My flight to Detroit had gone (or the plane was repainted and traded to Qatar Air for a night at the casino). What to do?

The Agent, an unhappy, sweating man at the end of a long, long line, shrugged. Not his problem. He handed me a blue slip from his stack, from a company cleverly called Travelliance: PASSENGER PAY ROOM – DISCOUNT COUPON.

Travelliance, I’ve learned on my computer, is a “global leader” in what it does.

Buried in the fine print was a phone number. It led to a phone menu, Muzak, and finally a far-away voice from a meth addict telling me none of the hotels which my airline and Travelliance had “organized” at an unspecified “discounted rate” had any rooms.

Addict, responding to my “but?” sent me to a customer service specialist who hid behind Muzak and a promise every 30 seconds of an immediate appearance, for 12 minutes and 16 seconds. Where was I? Specialist asked, not having been briefed. Chicago? No rooms in Chicago. Click.

American, its single glowing eye on its next quarterly, had by then sent all the gate agents but one home. She wouldn’t talk and was surly for having to stay. If you won’t talk to me, who will? I asked. Where’s an agent? “Walk around until you find one,” she said.

The terminal, encountering airline-abandoned passengers for the first time, improvised. At midnight, a group of workers just out of the big house began putting up cots, very close together, near K-1. A long line waited, eyed by guards, each person clutching a white pillow and a thin blanket.

A pleasant couple near me, he a worker with the blind, she a teacher of autistic children suffering from cancer, began to move their cots to a quieter area. A cop interfered. “You can’t do that. Get back over there with the others!” he pointed, then returned his thumbs to his belt.

He was a burly man in his forties. No stripes. Working the midnight shift at the airport. I didn’t ask why. He answer was certain: “Because you can’t!” I recognized him from ’68, still wearing the black Chicago cop shirt, his voice an industrial grind. He was the one who hit the woman in a wheel-chair with his truncheon. I waited until he turned away to pick his nose and slid my cot behind the gate structure at K-2.

“They said you can’t do that,” the couple said, concerned that I’d be taken to the cellar.

As I lay there, my foot throbbing, waiting in dim slumber to be rousted, the brazen lights and corporate noise slapping at me, I nearly wept that the couple had gone without struggle to the cot pen. Resistance to this crass new world is our duty. When did we become so easily managed, or has it always been so? I covered my head with the thin blue blanket and wondered why the feeling surged over me as I waited for the cop, “What fun!”

At four a.m., the inmates roused everyone and took the cots down. Why so early? Because, one told me.

At the Marsan Lodge, the clerk, who ran a few girls on the side, tried to add 30 percent to the bill so he could pocket it, and he wouldn’t give me a towel or blanket, no matter how foul, until I lifted my walking stick and eyed his forehead.

My night at Marsan was better than O’Hare. I understand pimps. All night at O’Hare the taped warnings went on with Gitmo intensity. Don’t do this, or that. Don’t smoke, or else. Tell the TSA about metallic things. Don’t leave your car unattended! CNN would not shut up: a woman with pretty thighs. Bright lights to prevent the theft of ranks of gray unadjustable chairs. Two dollar Snickers. An overweight black woman limping behind her cleaning cart. Captains in their white shirts, all walking fast and thumbing their phone.

 

 

 

Getting Back

Aside
2013, 2014, Cheap Travel in India, Chief Minister (Governor) Selvi J. Jayalalithaa., Indifferent Indian government, Lack of toilets, Tirunelveli, Travel in India, Travel in Tamil Nadu, Unromanticized travel

Feb. 25, 2014, TIRUNELVELI

Disgust may be a facile response to small, soft, diarrheic piles of human excrement which line Indian streets in lieu of flowers or neatly painted fences, but that is so because the disgust has no certain target.

I walked this morning north along the Thamirabarami River, the narrow, shallow, filthy stream which flows sluggishly north and separates Tirunelveli from  Palayamkottai to the east.

Each morning the families who live in adjoining slums walk sleepily to the riverbanks to bathe and brush their teeth and wash clothes by smacking them, soapless, against river rocks and to shit and piss.

Small boys dive into the water, the women with their wash in plastic buckets that once held paint or solvent stand waist-deep in the water and visit, and a man who has just risen uncleaned from his morning squat beside the river road stops a foreign visitor and urges him to take a photo of his “super” young son. A Westerner’s taught avoidance of social objectivity makes it hard to know whether to recall  the man’s toilet habits or his pride in his son.

Thousands in Tiruneveli use the polluted Thamirabarmai River as their toilet and washroom

Thousands in Tirunelveli use the polluted Thamirabarmai River as their toilet and washroom

India’s is a disingenuous squalor. It is pervasive, but it is unseen and unaddressed.

I have been displeased in my hotel because the wifi is unreliable and the staff talk loudly in the hallway outside my door and the guest in the next room shouts on his mobile with the door open and the TV volume raised to a scream. Still, I have a shower, bottled water, sheets which may have been washed with soap, and a flush toilet. I live in relative luxury. It feels petty when I walk out to fault those who live as they must.

Those shitting beside the roads and tracks and river have no alternative. A toilet can be found in the deluxe waiting room at the train station, but it costs 40 rupees. Some expensive restaurants have a washroom with a toilet, but the great majority here can’t afford the entrance price. Otherwise, public toilets are not to be found and the out-houses I recall from my childhood haven’t been invented.

Road shit

Road shit

The Tirunelveli municipality, as is true of every municipality in India, has provided no toilets (or much of anything else), and in the months I have been wandering through south India, reading The Hindu or the laughably incoherent Indian Express with my morning coffee, I have seen no mention in the papers or on TV of toilets or shit-lined streets or roadside pissers. It’s also fair to note that if toilets were available, porcelain basins in which to defecate, the waste, given the government’s lack of interest, would simply flow out with a flush into the sewage canals and then into the river.

Pissing by a busy street, Tiruneveli

Pissing by a busy street, Tirunelveli

As I picked my way along the broken asphalt of the river road this morning, I made a prissy mental note that aside from the soft brown piles, litter adds to the unsightliness. The city sends out unsupervised workers with barrows, but they miss most streets and most of the trash, and it has become deep over the years—old paper and plastic bags and cigarette packs, a twisted shoe, discarded building materials, a rusted ambulance with flat tires, a radiator hose, or, yesterday, a dead dog with an expression of amused contempt on its maggot-covered face.

A public road, Tireuneveli

A public road, Tirunelveli

I fault the state, but it is countless individuals who routinely throw their trash in the street, and piss there, and spit and shit there. As one who travels nearly as a mute—I have not met a single person in Tamil Nadu who can hold even a simple conversation in English, though English is the country’s lingua franca—I am unable to raise the subject, and I’m doubtful that if I could speak,  my questions would even be understood.

During my weeks on the back roads of Tamil Nadu, I’ve developed a deep contempt for my easy scapegoat, Chief Minister  (Governor) Selvi J. Jayalalithaa. She is a longtime party hack familiarly called “Jaya” by the papers. Her face on peeling posters is ubiquitous. Her government Web page is a chest-thumping list of her accomplishments in winning elections with no mention of toilets.

I presume, maybe wrongly, that if if I made my way through her sycophantic retinue and gained an audience, she would frown at my discourtesy in raising such a stinky subject and tell me that programs are being instituted quite soon now to be dealing with litter and protocol for public health. My guess is  she has a toilet in her mansion.

I hear voices from home saying, “So why go there, if you dislike it so much?” I say that at times to myself. I feel, too, that mere complaint is useless, until I step in a pile.

My impulse is to look away from the mire that is India. Disgust is not easily communicable, as our national inclination to go to war demonstrates. Euphemism is the easy resort of the propagandist.

We turn away from the screams and torn bodies of war or from close observation of predatory financiers and dress up the ugliness with medals, Sousa marches and Chamber of Commerce scrolls, making it all sound rather fine.

India shields itself from the grotesque with ad words like “exotic” or “picturesque” and posters of pretty women in pretty saris. It works. The country draws busloads of uncritical tourists.

Even so, bathing in sewage has an effect on real people. Misery deserves notice.

 Tiruneveli

Tirunelveli

Shit

Aside