I rolled into the Hotel at midnight, surprising the staff who were perhaps not used to guests returning so late on a Sunday night. I arranged my wake-up call for 3:30 am and was asked if I wanted room service breakfast. I couldn’t imagine – I was so full from Markus’s gastronomic tour of Delhi. I was also in a great mood because I was flying to Ladakh and couldn’t wait. I agreed to a cup of Chai (tea), and bid a cheery good night to the three gentlemen at the desk. En route to my room I pass a staff member checking his cell phone, give him a friendly smile and wish him a good night, too.
As I was sorting my luggage for the trip, my phone rang.
“Hello, room service. Would you like your mineral water?”
I was confused, but assumed it was arranged by the guys at Reception. As my mineral water supplies were low, I agreed.
Two minutes later the doorbell rings. It is the same staff member I passed on the stairs who was playing with his cell phone. He was smiling.
And suddenly he takes one slow step into the room and moves his arm as if to close the door.
It is remarkable how quickly the brain can process in a dangerous situation. I immediately thought “holy shit this guy maybe trying to rape me one more step and the door will be closed behind him and I will be trapped holy shit holy shit holy shit” and took a very fast step so I was braced against the door.
He must have seen the terror on my face. He backed up a step and showed me the receipt: 22 rupees. Keeping one eye on him I reached for my walled and gave him 30 rupees. Thank God he left and I loudly locked the door behind him.
Who knows what really happened. Innocent misunderstanding? Or did he assume that a single Western woman coming in at midnight was looking for company?
I didn’t wish to deconstruct the situation further. Suffice to say I wanted to learn from my foolishness and for my knees to stop knocking.
The phone rang at 3:15 am – Chai is arriving in 10 minutes. I dread it’s that guy again.
I’m putting on my bags when the doorbell rings. It’s a different guy. I say I’ll take it in the lobby.
The drive to the airport was quick and painless. At the airport security was very tight; my eticket and passport were checked before I even entered the terminal. At check-in I got a seat on the right side of the plane, as requested. I then proceeded to the “Women’s Line” where I have a body (but not cavity) check behind a frosted screen. I got through with an hour and a half to kill which I spent losing myself in a small but powerful collection of incredible photographic books of India. Sigh, * those * are the photos I wished I were taking. I also got caught up in their cookbook collection and delicious selection of travel writing. I barely had timed to buy a dew plum lip balm from Fabindia, a paneer patty and the soundtrack to Slumdog Millionaire – I didn’t want to be subjected again to a Nandu-like interminable repetition of whiny Hindu music.
Two more security checks later I was on the plane. The near-full plane was about 90% tourists, including an enigmatic trio comprised of a short, grey-haired female robe-clad monk flanked by twin Westerners wearing heavy-duty face masks. I didn’t like them. No reason.
The early dawn sky was overcast; I was concerned I wouldn’t see the Himalayas properly. Wouldn’t it be cool to see Everest? Maybe that’s why David the Photographer told me to get a seat on the right side of the plane. Weird vapours began escaping from above and below the overhead bins. Felt very Star Trek circa 1971.
Breakfast comprised warm mush (semolina?) embedded with fun little treasures like black seeds and the occasional lentil, a chocolate croissant (chocolate!!!!!) and fresh papaya and pineapple. Bravo, Kingfisher Airlines!
I squinted my eyes at the thick cloud cover. Are those foothills? Hold on, peaks are starting to appear. I felt giddy. The Himalayas. I try not to think about rugby teams, planes and the Andes. I decide that I will not eat the creepy twins no matter what.
Look, a river with fine tributary tentacles. So remote!
By then the sun had broken through. To my grave disappointment I realized that I was the wrong side of the plane. On the left side the glorious Himalayas sparkled in the sun. Those of us on the right had our retinas singed. All my planning and early arrival for nothing! I frantically scanned the left side of the plane for empty seats, but alas, my fellow passengers were far more wily than I. I cursed audibly.
Sweet Jesus. Past the creepy twins I glimpsed glistening blades of white encrusted mountains, impossibly steep, untouched, servants to no one but the sun. My neck started to spasm.
As we descended I could finally enjoy the view from my window. The sheer immensity and barrenness of Leh’s surrounding mountains came into view. I wondered how there could be life of any kind here, let alone human. It was the most remote outpost to which I had ever travelled. I was dumbfounded by the mountains’ awesomeness. Small, green, heavily-cultivated strips appeared in the valleys, Leh’s welcome mat. Then appeared dusty Leh, with its scattered buildings, rectangles clinging to sides of inhospitably rocky and crumbly inclines. A sense of reverence swells inside the cabin. Collectively we are experiencing something special. This is India?
We had a very fast landing, and prophetically “Save the Best for Last” muzak accompanied our deplaning. We exit straight to the tarmac. Even with the jet fumes the air is spectacularly fresh. Sunny and 16C, my guess. Other passengers shared my ecstatic look of wonderment.
Picking up bags I was engulfed by Israelis who chattered loudly in Hebrew as we filled out our immigration and swine flu forms.
Unfortunately, yet again I arrived in an Indian airport without being met as promised. I earnestly cruised the line – twice – but a placard bearing my name failed to materialize under my eagle-eyed scrutiny. Naturally my phone didn’t work (too easy). I asked a group of guys, “Hotel Mandala?” They shook their heads unhelpfully.
Suddenly I heard someone yelling “Mandala!” I looked up and had to fight the involuntary grin.
It was Stanzin, my tour coordinator for my Ladakhi stay. And he was hot! Really good looking in a Benjamin Bratt, Benicio del Toro kind of way. Dark wavy hair, goatee, light brown eyes. I was going to like it here.
We drive up (and up) to reach the hotel. I observe a heavy military presence. We pass different ethnicities and the inevitable, ubiquitous muslim shops displaying stripped, dead goats. The air is extraordinarily dry. My lips are shriveling by the minute.
The Hotel Mandala is handsome example of typical Ladakhi architecture. Owned by the Minister of Tourism for Jammu and Kashmir (I can’t decide if that’s good or bad), it is white, with elaborate brown wood-carved window frames trimmed in black. I note a dour-looking Western man sitting outside (I later discover he’s French, explaining his comportment.) I am given a traditional white welcome scarf printed with the eight auspicious signs of The Buddha. Pina coladas, take note.
Stanzin and I review the itinerary. Today I am to take it easy, and tomorrow will be easy touring of various sites such as the Hall of Fame. I can’t imagine what that is.
I involuntarily begin speaking more slowly. Is Ladakh permeated with Zen? I am shown three rooms which are more or less equal; I choose one on the second floor. The accommodation is basic: two beds and hot water from 5 am – 9 am (although allegedly the solar heating provides warmish water for the other times of day). I’m not a big fan of Indian hotels’ propensity for locking doors from the outside, but the windows are large enough to jump out of if necessary. There are only two towels (no hand towel), and it wouldn’t be India without a controlled supply of toilet paper. The TV works, leaving me with one additional outlet. My window overlooks a pretty garden, rooms from the resort next door, and those incredible mountains. It is impossibly sunny.
As I begin settling into my home for the next fortnight the alarm suddenly goes off in my stomach. I rush to the bathroom and my guts explode. I try to ignore that the bathroom screen vents onto the public hallway for all to hear.
One pepto bismal later I meet Stanzin downstairs and request an additional towel and bottled water. Yes, yes, Stanzin assures, we’ll send them up.
Ten minutes later the towel wallah arrives with two towels. He notices my other towels on the bed and confusion reigns. He thinks I don’t know what they are and tries to explain. Then he tries to take them away. We negotiate the release of three towels into my guardianship.
No sign of the water, however. I nap for four hours.
My sleep is deep and dream filled. I am in Leh, which because of its remoteness is very popular with celebrities. I spot Angelina Jolie from a distance, then notice Brad Pitt standing more closely accompanied by three white boys with dirty blonde hair in bowl cuts. My father asks: did I bring my hockey equipment? I am crushed; I only have a pale yellow hockey jersey that is way too big and not even mine. I join a tour group with Alan Alda who looks like Alex Trebec. The phone rings. It’s my 1 pm lunch wake-up call, as promised.
Meals are served in a large dining room. Only one table is occupied, by eight grubby 40+ year-old travellers who I suspect are French. I sit on my own and am served a thick potato corn soup. Overall very tasty, although some of the corn is quite crunchy. I observe that, like my room, there is no discernable source of heat. Not that we need it now – in the sun it must be 30C – but what happens as the nighttime temperature races to single digits?
I attempt the buffet, modestly. I have my first papadum of the trip, small spoonfuls of dal, eggplant curry and paneer in a creamy tomato and pea sauce. I also have my first gulab jamun for dessert, all surprisingly tasty. And I purchase two bottles of “Leh H20” for 30 rupees each.
I return to the room to apply sunscreen, grab my journal and seek a quiet spot in the garden below.
Ladakh really is a magical place. If I were religious, I would say I feel closer to God here.
I am stopped by Reghi, one of the hotel employees. After completing the Indian interrogation trifecta (where I’m from, if I have a husband and if I have a baby) he shares that he is from Manali, making him neither a local nor a Ladakhi speaker. He asks if I’d like a massage.
“Do you do the massage?” I enquire.
“Yes, I do massage.”
I am dubious, but forge ahead. “How much?”
“Pay what you want,” he answers.
Oh yeah, one of those, I think. He then says that all the massage parlours in town are closed.
“Why?” I ask, intrigued.
“Because last year a girl, there was a rehj. They close all massage.”
This I have to pursue. There was a rash outbreak in the Leh massage circuit?
I ask again. “I don’t understand. What happened?”
When he repeats himself my skin goes cold.
A girl from Mumbai was raped last year in one of the massage parlours. Holy shit – flashbacks to last night, fury boiling thinking about the pending Afghani constitution allowing rapists to get off scott free by paying blood money to their victims and which allows husbands of wives who withhold sex to deprive their spouses of food and money. From the top of the world I silently radiate a holler of rage that skims the Himalayan crests and ripples through the adjoining valleys, picking up speed as it ricochets through Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tibet, China, ascending to the atmosphere as it shatters into a trillion shards of rose-coloured injustice which dusts the planet in an invisible iridescent blanket.
“So yes, let me know if you want massage,” Reghi asks hopefully.
Sitting in the garden I am pestered by house flies who persistently buzz around the back of my rattan chair. I wonder if there’s a pile of poo nearby.
As I sit, quietly writing in my journal, I am hit by the realization of how happy I am. I love writing. It’s a moment I have gone back to repeatedly during darker times.
Suddenly I hear a noise of grass being ripped. A cow has wandered onto the hotel grounds, contentedly eating the lawn. Bemused, I watch her go further into the grounds. I hear a “hut” noise and one of the staff members comes running after her. Boy, could that cow move. I asked if this happens often. “Sometimes,” the response. I offered to chase the cow away next time. “Ma’am, you don’t have to,” he answered.
Whoa, when those clouds come the temperature sure plummets. There can be a 10 degree dip in 10 seconds.
After a mediocre buffet dinner I head to bed for 9 am, after I’ve allowed 30 minutes for my malaria pill to pass through the esophagus. (Argh, I keep forgetting to take with dinner.)
Alors, les etoiles! The sky is awash with winking lights. I’m convinced I see the red planet to the west.
The room is warm. I sleep with the windows wide open. My dreams wake me up at various points in the evening – I am being chased by an evil man who conscripts an army of minions to trick their way into capturing me, but I continue to outwit them. I may choose the wrong side of the airplane, but dream minions are no match for me.
The first stop on Markus’s and my tour of Delhi was the Crafts Museum where our main objective was to clandestinely take contraband photographs without getting kicked out. In the Gift Shop we were enchanted by the wind chimes, but our wallets stayed sealed.
We then went to the National Gallery of Modern Art where all bags and cameras were checked except for Markus’s 8.1 megapixel cell phone camera. It was a dizzying maze of diplays arranged seemingly without methodology. In the “Seeds of Time” collection my imagination is captured by the unsung Tilly Kettle, by whose name and subject matter – well-executed dancing Indian women – I presume was a British female. She was only 46 when she died in 1786. I wondered what brought her to India? Was she the daughter of a General? The wife of a liberal businessman who indulged her talents for the arts? Did she have children? Was she happy? How did she die?
I enjoyed a work showing the sunken temple in Varanasi believed to have been cursed by the builder’s mother 150 years ago, the time at which the painting was created as the featured temple was proudly erect and firmly stationed.
We wandered through the extensive modern Indian art exhibitions, accessed through a labyrinth of glass ramps seemingly leading the visitor back on her own path repeatedly. I was arrested by a large black and white photograph of a doll buried in gravel, only its face and part of its stomach visible through the detritus. The paint on its wooden eyes had rubbed off, leaving two creepily vacant, unseeing orbs. Then I read the card.
“Victim of Bhopal chemical disaster.”
Horror forced me to look at the photo again. I am haunted.
We couldn’t find our way out of the Museum. I was tempted to leap over ramps, but wisely the fear of plummeting to certain agony kept my movements rational. Markus suggested he could pee on one of the paintings, indubitably ensuring a most expeditious escort to the exit but also perhaps time in an Indian jail which would not be optimal. After 15 minutes of circling and doubling back we finally passed dear Tilly Kettle and escaped to the sorry excuse for a gift shop. The pickings were slim. When I tried to get a closer look at one of the shelves the woman barked at me: No! You can’t go there!” Markus said, “You’re right. Indians are bossy!”
We exited into Delhi’s mugginess and gently but forcefully persuaded our driver to take us to Moti Mahal for lunch even though he complained there was no parking for him. “This is not about you!” I felt like squawking. We negotiated that we would meet him in 3 hours from dropping us off at the Red Fort. We gave him sufficient funds to cover the parking fees.
Moti Mahal was worth the battle with the driver. Influenced by many beers later that day, Markus confessed that he almost cried after tasting the butter chicken. The chicken tikka garlic-cardamon, jalfreezi (mixed vegetables) with coriander, raita with cucumber and tomatoes washed down with lemon soda were worthy companions.
On our walk to the Jami Masjid I wasn’t paying attention and got run into by a bicycle rickshaw, ouch. We ascended the formidable steps and, as I didn’t want to pay 200 rupees to take photos, I waited outside while a picnic tablecloth-wrapped Markus went inside and secretly videotaped the interior on his phone.
Map in hand I took Markus on a walk though the bazaar. It was very dark, narrow, and completely tourist-free. Markus was nervous. Following my instincts and the slivers of bright sky shining through the architectural labyrinth, I navigated us to a main road.
We were followed by a bike rickshaw who offered to take us on an hour tour for 200 rupees. We settled on 150. Our driver, Sunny, was 60 years old. He took us to the spice market, but given that it was Sunday there was nothing to see. While Sunny grabbed his lunch it started to rain. Markus and I took shelter and everyone was fascinated by us. Sunny took us through alleyways and suggested we visit a Jain temple at the end of a cul-de-sac, so to speak.
The sign at the temple warned that menstruating women were not welcome. Lovely. We walked upstairs and were immediately greeted by an earnest Jain priest (?) with short brown hair, big brown eyes and dressed all in white. I’m sure he was convinced he was speaking clear English, but it actually sounded like
“Ditcha jayn moooka hul puja, gold thousand Mughal ninna temple. Come!”
Markus looked at me like I was supposed to understand. I looked back at him and subtly shook my head. Our guide went through a lengthy explanation about a particular figure in front of which was a silver box. He lifted the box to reveal an outline of feet.
“Shmage,” the priest commented reverently. Markus looked flummoxed.
Pointing to a bench, Markus asked, “Can I sit here?”
“No.” was the non-negotiable answer. *That* we understood clearly.
Our charming guide walked us to the third stopping point. Markus suddenly raised his eyebrows and asked me, “Oh! We’re on the tour??” I burst out laughing. But the priest barely noticed, plowing ahead with his myriad sentences beginning with “Ditcha jayn.”
The temple was beautiful. The painted walls were exquisitely detailed with gold plating, Belgian glass, mirrors and thousands of painted figurines. Our guide plugged in a Chinese bell machine. I was deaf.
At the end of the involuntary tour our guide demanded 100 rupees. Markus was having none of that. 20 rupees, thank you very much and good day.
Outside we sat with Sunny under an overhang while it poured, watching the Jains bathe in rain. Sunny told us he had been a rickshaw driver for 25 years. He could neither read nor write, but spoke English perfectly. He lived with his family under a plastic tarp down by the river. He used to be a hand rickshaw driver in Calcutta and worked with Mother Teresa for six years. We tipped him 250 rupees.
Reunited with our driver we headed to Castle 9 Bar at Connaught Place. Shortly after we sat down Markus pointed out that a couple who had been smooching nearby had been told to stop kissing.
“Are you serious?” I was shocked.
“I’ll go ask,” says Markus who duly confirms that the couple at the back of the bar was requested by the management to stop making out.
We headed to The Host restaurant for dinner where we ordered daal makhani, lahshuni chicken kebab, onion kulcha and lime soda. Markus had been to chef school at age 17 and loved to eat, but I was having trouble keeping up. I heard more about his “Mr. Drink and Fly” experiences, that he would party in Sweden on a Friday and wake up in Spain on a Sunday, not knowing how he got there. He had done this 7 or 8 times, and recognized that it was scary. Especially because the tickets were always one way.
Not to let a Sunday night end quietly, we proceeded to Addictive Dragon’s Maharani bar. Chris Brown’s Forever came on and I was moved to dance. A trio of young Indian men entered the bar and one began dancing with me. Staff told him to stop dancing, that it wasn’t cool for the bar even though there was only the five of us. They turned down the music lest we miss the point. No kissing in bars, no dancing in bars – WTF??
Sahil, Samir and Mayank were our new Indian friends. Markus showed off photos of his girlfriend in a bathing suit and it was like watching three cats on catnip. Samir tried to advise me that everyone in Ladakh (Himalayan India) was a thief, but I couldn’t be sure because his English was nearly incoherent. At one point Markus went to the bathroom and Sahil put his sweaty palm on my leg for just a beat too long. I jerked my knee and reflexively said “get off.” He didn’t try it again. I was happy when Markus returned.
The three musketeers left before us, with unintelligible Samir saying he was going to call me when I was back in Delhi, as if. I told Markus about the leg incident. He felt bad, but it was also clear that he was quite drunk by this point.
On the tuktuk ride home he was ruminating about how cheap everything was in India, and how his partners in China are appalled by how he tries to bargain constantly.
“Cheap like a Jew,” he slurs.
“What?” I start.
“We have an expression in Sweden, when someone is cheap we say they’re like a Jew.”
“What the hell does Sweden know about Jews?” I barked.
“Nothing,” he sheepishly admitted.
I told him I was personally offended as I was Jewish. Then, as is so often the case when faced with this type of scenario, the perpetrator says something like, “I have many friends who are Jews.” Here we go.
But he surprised me. “I have a Jewish tattoo on my body.”
I couldn’t help myself. “Where?”
He lifted his shirt back. There, surrounded by flames, was the Hebrew word for God. It was sizeable.
“Can you read it?” he asks.
“Yes.” I tell him it says I want a falafel with extra hot sauce. I don’t really.
“Why do you have that?” I ask, very curious. He answers that it’s personal, but that he’s been to Israel many times and that he is a Christian who tries to be a good Christian. I can’t really decipher the story through the alcohol, but it was something about an Israeli girlfriend. He said that the tattoo had landed him in some hot water, like when he was in a sauna in Iraq. Unfortunately, I never got the story because just then we arrived at the Hotel Ananda. A big hug, a big goodbye, a wish of safe travels, and I scurried up the Hotel’s steps.
I was driven to the train station by two tourism mafiosi (“You WILL fill out the comment card. YES! Have you filled it out? Now? Fill it good.”) Luckily the train was straightforward: it began in Varanasi and ended in New Delhi, eliminating guesswork. Moreover, it was considerably cleaner than the last train, and by now I was (ahem) and expert in Indian train travel.
The train was crawling with military, whole conga lines of soldiers who didn’t exactly inspire confidence. A captain put his ear to my bag. I offered to open it but he poo-pooed me.
My Indian lower bunk berthmate dropped off his bag and disappeared. He left an ugly, beat-up metallic case, exactly what you would imagine to contain a bomb. To my relief he returned and the train left, on time and intact.
Not knowing when we were scheduled to arrive, my biological controls woke me up at 5 am. I noted my snoring cabinmate’s bedside reading: a rather large hardcover entitled “A Guide to Small Arms and Other Portable Weapons.” My briefcase observation – not so neurotic now, eh?
Turns out my train was three hours late, so at that time I still had another six hours to go. I kept myself entertained by staring out the window. It was like watching TV. I saw loincloth-attired sweaty men in a wrestling circle. A cow swinging its tail exactly in time with I’m in Miami Bitch as it played on my iPod. I saw monkeys, fetid water, people living in garbagey squalor, people living like animals, pooing out in the open next to the train tracks. I watched people going to work with heavy loads on their backs, fields of green rice, mothers cooing over their babies, daal cooking over fire, barefoot men working construction. I was transfixed.
It was raining in Delphi when the train arrived, making the platforms even more dense. The buzzing of people going up, down, forwards, backwards; grandmothers camped out with the grandchildren; chai wallahs enticing thirsty customers; men cooking snacks; porters carrying packs on their heads like lines of red ants; westerners looking firm and helpless. The train station collects Indian life in one narrow space.
August 15 is Independence Day in India. Because public holidays are often excuses for terrorists to blow up crowds, I decided to lay low. Besides, I was exhausted.
Eight hours later I awoke, well-rested and ready to wash off the train grunge. No hot water. In fact, no water at all. The skies were grey. Was the tardy monsoon finally here?
I entertained myself by reading the India Sunday Times:
21 Andhra farmer suicides in 40 days.
Peddolla Nadipi Bhumana hanged himself at home in Donchanda Village of Morthad Mandal late on Friday night. It’s learnt that the 55-year-old farmer, faced with crop failure, was driven to desperation because he was unable to clear his mounting debts.
And Prime Minister Manmohan Singh says in his Independence Day speech that no one will go hungry.
More weather news. Only in India would I read the following sentence:
By late afternoon the rain had stopped even as the maximum temperature *plunged* to 30.2 degrees Celcius.
Movie star Shah Rukh Khan held up for two hours by US immigration because his name is “Khan.”
Oh, those naughty Bollywood stars.
Swine flu was also a concern:
3 swine flu deaths in Bangalore in 24 hours. Swabs from a pregnant woman who died at a private hospital in Chakan in Pune district are to be tested for swine flu.
I wonder how in a high density, low hygiene country like India how epidemics can be prevented. A Page 4 article talks about the disposal of masks by H1N1 positive patients in household garbage. These masks are picked up by sweepers who then pass on the germs. Officials are talking about guidelines like sprinkling masks with bleaching powder or equipping sweepers with protective gear. What are the chances either will be implemented? Also, are we sure the bacteria lives on in the mask?
Around 6 pm I put on my salwar kameez and walked to a nearby recommended restaurant, Alpha Spice. Remarkably, wearing the Punjabi suit was almost like being cloaked in invisibility. What a luxury to be ignored in India.
The door said “Closed” when I arrived. I went in anyway. The large restaurant was bedecked with white, green and orange Independence Day balloons.
Within 10 minutes of being seated – and the only patron in the restaurant – a decidedly Western fellow was seated at the opposite table. He smiled and said hello. I invited him to join me.
His name was Markus, a half-Greek half-Finnish 28-year-old born and raised in Sweden. He was a partner in a firm that sourced manufacturers of cleaning products like brooms. He was very experienced with Asia travel, but this was his first day in India. He was surprised how “rural” Delhi was.
It became apparent that Markus was the kind of person who lived life in the moment. He explained that it was not uncommon for him to go on a bender and wake up in Spain, Greece, France without any memory of doing so. Sometimes he was even a tour leader – so his friends would tell him because he wouldn’t remember. From his stories he also clearly had a way with the ladies – I think he’d had girlfriends of every nationality. His current was a Swede of Moroccan descent at the Indian Embassy in Stockholm. He was clearly quite fond of her.
Markus walked me back to my hotel. The weather was perfect, and it was such a treat to see the quiet energy of the market area after dark. We arranged to meet the following day for a tour of Delhi. He was a perfect gentleman.
My watch says 5:15. I am getting picked up for the overnight Varanasi to Delhi train at 6:15 pm, so it is tight. Persuaded by my new traveller friend Aaron and the price — 600 rupees, approximately $12 — I decide to risk it.
I gingerly enter the hotel’s Massage Centre. There are three sorry-looking barber chairs and a chubby guy in a shirt too small for him. There are no health and safety forms, just money to pay.
My masseuse is a short, round woman with a gentle face and eyes that don’t quite focus together. She takes me through a darkened room in which a tourist appears to be getting a facial. My massage room has dingy yellow lighting, a table covered in a dark blue oil-stained blanket and a once-white cloth where my head will go, and a broken plastic chair with threatening protuberances.
“What is your name?” she asks.
“Mera nam Amy hei,” I respond.
Her jaw drops. “You speak Hindi!” she squeals delightedly. Her name is Rica and she has been giving massages for 17 years.
Once we have completed the requisite Indian interrogation and established that I am from North America, married, have no children and am a student, she commands me to remove my clothing.
“Everything?” I ask. For some reason I mistakenly assumed that this would be a head massage, likely influenced by the rubdown I observed a tourist enjoying from a grubby Sadhu on the Dasashwamedh Ghat. Truth be told, I had no idea what an “ayurvedic massage” was. I look at the now wide-open door connecting to the room with the facial. I notice a second door at the foot of the bed that connects back to the entrance. I envision Aaron accidentally walking through it, impaled by the sight of my naked body. I shudder.
Rica steps out of the room and I begin to disrobe. I eye the thatch-covered walls with suspicion. Is there Chagas disease in India?
Naked, I climb onto the massage bed. I lie on the left side of my face; there is no head holder. The table smells of exotic oils and a thousand foreigners.
Rica returns and starts massaging my right leg. It feels incredible, but I begin to question the wisdom of an oily massage prior to an overnight train ride.
She massages the other leg then leaves the room. For about five minutes I am so blissed out that saliva dribbles liberally out of my mouth. Then, unhappily, it occurs to me that I am not the first to drool on this bed. I wonder where my masseuse has gone.
Rica returns and lays her face on top of my cheek. I am jolted by the intimacy. “Sorry, sorry!” she repeats. Her cheek is soft.
She kneads my back, my hands, my arms, my shoulders. “Oh, you are very strong!” she remarks.
I straighten with pride. “Thank you,” I respond.
“Not a good thing,” she adds. I realize she means my upper back is very tight. I am now convinced by the wisdom of getting a massage.
She leaves the room again. I lie in anticipation and peek at the clock. 5:45 pm.
When Rica returns I can sense she is carrying something. Suddenly I feel a couple drops of liquid land on my open palm. The brain takes a second to respond. It is burning oil.
“Holy s()%&@#,” I instinctively respond.
Rica mumbles a word that sounds like “sorry”. I glance at her. Her cheeks are puffed out; her mouth is full of something. Please tell me this isn’t how the oil is kept warm, I silently pray.
She is holding an herb-filled cloth bag that has been enthusiastically dunked in very hot oil. She begins to smack the bag and rub my legs with her hot hand. It actually feels amazing.
But then I smell it.
Hot, rich, sweaty butter.
I am being drowned in ghee! I am a slathered croissant, a fresh-baked shortbread cookie, a cob of corn that has been liberally rolled through a vat of margarine. I smell like a family-size tub of movie popcorn drowned in buttery topping. This is not good.
After generously appointing my backside, Rica indicates I should roll over. “Mmmm mmm mmm,” she hums. I comply. With another “mmmm” she motions at me to move up the bed. Is she serious? It is miraculous my breathing has not spun me off the table, I am so slippery. I try to slide up while she encourages me with “mmmmmmm!”, but finally I have to sit up and, using those “strong” muscles, delicately propel myself backwards. I nearly slide off the back of the table straight into the Chagas-infested thatch wall.
She holds my hand to her stomach. “Mmmm,” she says, cheeks puffed out.
“Oh, you’re pregnant! Congratu—“ She cuts me off with a quick shake of her head.
“Bladder!” dribbles out of her mouth.
“You have to go to the toilet? Please go. Seriously.” I implore.
She shakes her head and grins. Great – now I’m covered in boiling clarified milk fat being kneaded by a portly woman with a distressed bladder and a mouth full of betel nut goober. This sure is relaxing.
To make up for the time she has been out of the room she wants to keep me longer, but it is now 6:15. “I have to go,” I apologize.
Rica hands me a towel and escorts me to the shower, walking right past a new tourist who is lying topless and, by the shocked look on her face, was clearly not expecting anyone, let alone a naked, glistening, buttery North American, to go sliding by her.
In the shower I am trying not to panic about the untold inconvenience missing my train would create, but the damn ghee isn’t coming off.
Rica appears and hands me a bar of soap. Too late I realize there was someone else’s “personal hair” on the soap which is now stuck in the middle of my palm. “Eww eww eww” I mutter under my breath and hope the shower washes the offender away. Thankfully, it does.
The soap helped, but there was no avoiding that I was going to have a greasy train ride. I quickly got dressed, paid the tip, and ran as fast as I could, leaving a trail of butter behind.
August 14 cont.
Because the skies threatened and ultimately delivered rain, Josh, Aaron and I decided to spend the afternoon relaxing in the “Baskin Robbins Lounge” of the Hotel Surya. Once the pizza and babaganouj were ordered, we entertained ourselves by telling jokes.
Aaron shared his favourite which entirely escapes me except that the punchline was bizarrely unfunny.
Josh told the following joke:
A limbless girl is lying on the beach. A good-looking guy comes by. She starts to cry.
“Why are you crying?” he asks.
“Because I’ve never been kissed,” she whimpers.
“Well, I can fix that,” he says, gently kissing her on the cheek.
She continues to cry.
“Why are you still crying?” he asks sympathetically.
“Because I’ve never been kissed on the mouth,” she weeps.
“Let me fix that,” our gallant prince whispers as he gently touches his lips to hers. Yet she still cries.
“I’ve never been French-kissed,” Josh says the girl’s line, hushing slightly on the word “French.”
So the guy French kisses her. And she still cries.
“Why do you still cry?” the bronzed, hard bodied, raven haired, blue-eyed demi god asks. (Ok, this added description was not provided by Josh, but now who’s telling the joke.)
Josh says, “The girl replies, ‘Because I’ve never had sex.’”
Aaron: You’ve screwed up the joke.
Josh: No I haven’t.
Aaron: You’ve used the wrong word. The joke won’t work.
Josh: It still works.
Aaron: No it doesn’t.
I sit there patiently.
Josh: “He picks her up, throws her into the ocean and says, “You’re fucked now.”
I laugh graciously. I’ve heard it before.
I share the only joke that comes to mind:
A pirate walks into a bar with a steering wheel in his crotch. The bartender asks, “Isn’t that uncomfortable?”
The pirate replies, “Aarrrrgh, it’s drivin’ me nuts!”
They laughed graciously.
It rains. We’re not going anywhere, even if the anniversary of Krishna’s birthday promised untold delights. I pull out my proudly Canadian playing cards and decide to have some fun.
“Want to see a card trick?” I ask innocently. The boys agree.
I fan the cards on the table. “Pick a card,” I instruct. Josh complies.
“Now, tell me your card.”
They both stare at me.
“What?!” Aaron ejaculates.
“Tell you my card??” Josh asks incredulously.
“Yes please,” I encourage, already giggling.
“Uh, ace of spades,” he says.
“Ok, now put it back in the deck.” He complies.
I start flipping over cards as they watch with amazement, their mouths agape. Aaron is starting to turn red. By this point I’m laughing so hard I’m crying.
About two-thirds of the way through I’m perplexed. I haven’t seen the ace.
“YOU PASSED HIS CARD ALREADY!” a now hysterical Aaron points.
I had misheard. Josh said, “eight of spades”. I’m such a bad magician that I can’t even do a fake card trick right. I reach for the famous disintegrating Indian napkins to dab my overflowing eyes. We sit back exhausted and cleansed from the laughter.
We spent the rest of the afternoon playing Gin Rummy (I sucked) until Aaron said he was going for an Ayurvedic massage.
A massage, eh? Hmmmm….
Getting down and dirty in Varanasi, a gnome-filled Garden of Eden and duping Indian pilgrims (Varanasi)
Nearly slept through my 4:20 am alarm. I jumped up with a start straight into my mosquito net. A small jet engine revved up as the mosquitoes took flight.
When we arrived at the boys’ hotel Aaron was nowhere to be seen. “You learn about a person when you do this kind of travel,” Josh said sagely, rubbing the sleep from his eyes.
Devesh showed us to our boat. We pushed off, the overcast sky lightening sluggishly.
The place was overrun with tourists. Dozens of boats glided past quiet ghats, cameras following the shoreline like periscopes. A few pilgrims indulged us by bathing themselves and washing their clothes. One jolly good sport broke out the fire, the face paint and the Om chanting. Shutters clicked madly. We could see monkeys running amok while residents lived behind window bars. On the east bank of the river a group of Korean tourists collected sand, believing that it was the same sand upon which the Buddha once walked.
We disembarked at the crematorium ghat, now much quieter than the previous night. We wandered through the back alleys of Vishwanath Khanda, unchanged for thousands of years. In the narrow passages we gave way to cows, locals, pilgrims and sadhus. I passed women in bare feet adorned with delicate bangles and carved toe rings navigating through unimaginable filth with balletic agility. It was like walking through the middle ages: cramped passageways; tall, crumbling buildings; tradespeople selling their wares, including a young, bashful boy selling yoghurt.
On Devesh’s suggestion Josh and I ventured through a skinny corridor leading to the Kashi Vishwanath Temple, a revered Hindu site located next door to the Gyanavapi Mosque. The original Vishwanath Temple was destroyed by Aurangzeb (son of Shah Jihan) to make room for his mosque, but the current Siva temple reappeared in 1776. In 1835 it acquired one tonne of gold leaf for its dome.
Needless to say, the tension of having two different religious centres in such cramped quarters meant that security was extremely tight. We had to leave all our possessions, including the cameras, with Devesh in a silk shop. No worries – a young man was arranged to take us through.
After passing through a metal detector and full pat down, we could briefly peer through the window to the Temple; however, non-Hindus are forbidden entry. I asked our guide,
“How do you know I’m not Hindu?”
“Yes, I am Hindu,” he answered.
I tried again.
“But what if I have converted to Hinduism? How would you know?”
“Yes, we have essential oil!” the enthusiastic response as a perplexed Josh and I were ushered to his shop. Evidently all visitors drained into this alley, clearly designed to trap unwitting tourists.
Josh reluctantly subjected his forehead to the anti-migraine blend. Within 60 seconds his skin was on fire. He asked me if his skin was blistering. Our young friend then dipped his finger in the bottle and came at me. I ducked, grabbed Josh’s hand and made a run for it, Josh holding his forehead tenderly.
Rather than turning right to go back the way we entered the secret garden, I suggested we explore to the left. It was almost like there was a magical force field stopping tourists from going further – none of them ventured to the left. Except, of course, us.
Suddenly we were surrounded by a conga line of devout Hindus. The alley didn’t go for too much longer – it ended abruptly with another metal detector and heavily-armed soldiers – so we turned back. A Hindu man warmly invited us to enter one of the temples. I was sorely tempted, but I couldn’t bear to remove my shoes. Traversing the disgusting floor in either bare feet or socks was just to gruesome to contemplate. Yes, it was that gross.
Next stop on the tour was Banares Hindu University, established in the early 20th century by the lyrically named Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya. With 33,000 students on a 22 km-square tree-lined campus, it is one of the largest universities in Asia and, despite its name, not religiously affiliated. It has over 30 university departments, including the enigmatic “Basic Principles Department.” (Devesh, who did his Master’s degree at the University in 4th Century Sarnath Buddhism, had no idea what that was.) Devesh explained that India used to suffer significant brain drain until the government mandated that Indian nationals who graduate must commit to working in India for 7 (!) years after graduation. We drove by pale yellow buildings trimmed with maroon. I noted the inconsistent availability of air conditioning and the signs reading “Ragging is a Cognizable Offense.”
We visited the Shri Viswanath Temple that featured an absolutely glorious display in honour of Krishna’s birthday. It was like a frenzied Hindu Garden of Eden made of gnomes: colourful multi-sized characters, many of them Krishnas, primarily in blue, danced for an audience of smaller characters such as snake charmers and a voluptuous reclining Wonder Woman. Within the Temple was a Siva lingam: a five-headed cobra into which Ganga water was poured and dripped like venom from the ten fangs. We watched as devotees would grab a handful of sugar/wheat mixture, hold it under the venom water to moisten the mix, then reverently pray. Later they would eat the mixture.
I loved watching the religious ritual. I found it strange how open, how non-private religious participation is in Hindu India. Seems quite democratic.
Outside we went to one of the many student cafes. We enjoyed a delicious 3 rupee cup of chai served in a disposable ceramic cup. I loved the feel of the hot chai against the pottery. Felt real. I asked Devesh if the water for the chai came from the Ganges. Devesh said that he could tell me it was if I wanted.
I asked Devesh the same question I tried asking the purveyor of acidic aromatherapy: for temples restricted to Hindus, how do they know I’m not a Hindu? Finally, the mystery was solved. Hindus believe that you can only be born a Hindu; conversion is not possible. This answered my unasked question about why Hinduism was relatively limited in its global reach.
I asked, “Sonia [Rajiv Gandhi’s wife] couldn’t convert to Hinduism?”
“Correct,” answered Devesh. In fact, some Orthodox Hinuds don’t even consider Rajiv Gandhi, former prime minister of India, to be a true Hindu. His father, Indira’s husband, was Muslim by birth, but because he was an orphan he was adopted by Nehru and given the surname Gandhi. On a trip to Nepal Rajiv was denied entry to a temple because he wasn’t pure enough. A furious Rajiv issued sanctions against Nepal with devastating consequences. I obviously don’t know the whole story, but that seems a bit disproportionate?
Next stop was the Temple of Mother India featuring a large-scale map of the Indian subcontinent made from marble (I believe). Devesh explained that it was often included on pilgrims’ itineraries as one of the many temples to visit, but that most pilgrims are surprised because it isn’t actually a temple but rather a way to teach the uneducated about their country and the surrounding geography. I was disappointed there were no pilgrims as I would have liked to ask how they appreciated the ruse.
Our tour with Devesh ended. We sat in the lobby of Josh’s hotel and reviewed the costs. Somehow my 600 rupee tour ended up costing 4300 for the 3 of us. If I wasn’t so sleep deprived I might have asked why the 7-fold increase, but at the end of the day it’s about value. Yet I couldn’t help but feel that the agency I snubbed somehow got their cut.