Before I get into my pre-written entry, I would just like to note that I have spent the past hour trying to book a bus to Dharamsala in early March. My friend Katherine is dealing with the same process with a different state bus company – her statement a few moments ago exemplifies everything: “They are so bloody rude! I want to write a letter and complain but I can’t find a post office!”
Nothing in this country is ever simple or straight forward.
Oftentimes I find the ordinary most interesting about traveling. The other day after our first women’s class, I had a half English half Hindi conversation with Raki (one of my favorite women – she has a spunky personality that comes out despite language barriers) where she asked me what my caste was. I tried to explain that in America, there was no caste system. Confused, she pointed to Tabasuum (another social leader in this group of women. She is really obscenely pregnant and due any day now – in fact, I thought she was due two weeks ago. Looking at her makes me tired.) and said “Muslim,” then she pointed at herself and said, “Hindu.”
Oh. Religion. I wondered briefly if she misunderstood the difference between religion or caste as English terms or if I was missing something in my own understanding of India. “Nahi. Nothing. No religion.”
Now she looked even more confused. She turned to Katherine, who said that she was Christian. Raki turned back to me. “You are Christian?”
“Merra mata-pitah Christian hai. (My parents are Christian)” I offered.
She seemed satisfied with that answer, and I was content to not go into agnosticism / my personal spirituality beliefs with our limited overlap of languages.
The day after all this, we wore our salwar kameezes (is that how it’s pluralized?) to class. From people on the street who don’t know us, we got less attention in our “suits,” which was a relief. From all those who do, however, we got lots of stares and smiles. Mine shows the leaves of my back piece in a scoop back. Once the women discovered my tattoo, every woman had to peer down the back of my shirt for a better look. My tattoo was declared beautiful, as was my suit, though I couldn’t tell if they were pleased or not with our answer of 700 R at the cost. The matriarch of the second class flipped up the front of my suit and told me to tuck the ties of my pants in. Her daughter (a woman who is 35, doesn’t look a day over 30, and is a grandmother) scolded me for not wearing earrings (no one knows what to do with my industrial) or bangles or anklets. Kamlesh (the land lady) took me aside and in Hindi – I don’t understand her verbally, but she’s pretty gifted at getting her point across – told me that I should get a push up bra to emphasize my breasts. Just to make sure that she got the point across, she took me to Mumta to clarify in Mumta’s spotty English. It was all very clandestine, with the periodic hush when Kamlesh’s teenage son walked by. Mumta laughed when I tried to explain that actually, my breasts are just small and that bra shopping is impossible enough in my own country.
Other than that, I seemed to pass inspection.
On Friday I went to see a Bollywood movie with Katherine. Complete with the larges tub of popcorn (about the size of an American medium for a little more than $2) and drinks. We sat through almost three hours of Tanu Weds Manu, a romantic comedy involving an arranged marriage, the perfect groom and the rebellious bride who doesn’t want to marry anyone her parents choose but ends up falling for him anyway. There’s another possible groom, a bad guy who brandishes a gun needlessly but eventually concedes to the Good Doctor from London who doesn’t blink when Bad Guy points a gun at him on his wedding day. We followed this up with Pizza Hut (like McDonalds, the Pizza Huts here are an improvement on the original – they have tandorri chicken pizza). It was a very middle class suburban Indian experience, which is different from our day to day.
Saturday we enjoyed the upper middle class / upper class economic strata with the most expensive meal I’ve had here in India (500R) at Khan Market in New Delhi. Prior to Khan Market, we nerded out over the Ashoka Pillar in Delhi, were disappointed by the Craft Museum, and i managed to negotiate the metro bathroom bureaucracy at our transfer point before my bowels exploded all over the pristine, modern Delhi metro system.
I’m rather impressed with the latter, actually. I was hit with a sudden wave of stomach cramps on the metro and spent about five stops with my head in my hands, trying to focus on anything but my Need For A Bathroom. I realized that I couldn’t make it to the alleged coffee shop at our destination, a transfer and three stops away. Upon deciding to get off at the transfer point (many of the metro stations, thankfully, have bathrooms), the train stalled right outside of the station. At this point I was focusing so hard on Not Being Sick that I was actually starting to shake and be dizzy.
After bolting out of the train, I asked two people where the bathroom was (in Hindi). I eventually convinced the customer service person to give the security person the okay to let me through the gate without giving up my token. It is ridiculous that even going to the bathroom here involves bureaucracy. I then had to ask two more people where the bathroom was. I breezed past the bloke who wanted 5 rupees for the pleasure of using the loo and blissfully did not shame myself in public an hour or so away from home.1
This is India, folks. I think one of the reasons Indians are so comfortable with bowel movements as an acceptable topic for breakfast conversation is because nobody is regular here. It rubs off on westerners too, as it becomes such a large part of our day to day life.
Peaceful bowels are a luxury, just like overhead showers with hot water.
Beyond that, the afternoon was pleasant – I really like Khan Market. It reminds me a bit of Dupont in Washington DC (shop and restaurant wise, not gay wise, though Dupont is not really the Gay District it once was). There is an awesome little bookstore (the kind where looking at books is like playing jenga) and a coffee shop that can actually make a cappuccino (if you order a cappuccino with extra foam, otherwise you get a latte.) and a slew of mostly relatively wealthy Indians all speaking English and not staring at me. It’s a nice break from the soul crushing poverty and gag inducing sewage I walk through in my own neighborhood. You get used to it all, truly, but every now and then an afternoon in a more familiar environment is just the touchstone that I need for my sanity.
1 After posting this entry, I had a discussion with Katherine, who is British, about the fact that I automatically wrote bloke and loo without thinking (a lot of the English language slang here is British based). “And now I say things like torch. And jumper. But you won’t hear me calling them trousers, they’re pants.” Her: “They’re not pants, if you’re only wearing pants you are not dressed. Pants go under your trousers.”