Saturday, November 5, 2011

India; memories, culture shock, and longing for a special place…

Note: I want to make a special apology to my friends in Mumbai, who wonderful to meet. I know that you probably love the place you live, and it is your home. I also know how I used to feel in Hawaii when people would come to visit, and complain about my home. It is impossible to know a place in four days, weeks, or even months; and I wanted to let you know that the following are only my very limited impressions. Having said all that…
I arrived in Mumbai at 4am on Sunday October 23rd from Dubai, and was so happy when I came out of the airport to see that the driver from the hotel was there to meet me. It was the second time (Dubai) that I arrived at an airport and there was a sign with my name, and believe me it is a welcome sight. The ride through Bombay in the dark after the bright new cleanliness of Dubai was shockingly India. Everything was very old, and the city looked like the landscape of a Brueghel painting; if not a scene from hell, then at least a minor continent. The drive itself was harrowing, and if you have never driven through the streets of India in a taxi, you have not experienced true powerlessness. My first view, especially coming from Dubai, was such a contrast of new and old; light and dark. When I got to the hotel it was just lighting to dawn, and I could begin to see where I was. My first reaction was that I didn’t want to be in this place. The air smelled indescribably bad, the streets were littered with piles of refuse, and everything was a mad chaos of sound with the movement of what seemed like millions of cars and people. I just kept telling myself that I was very tired, it was just culture shock, and I would be okay.
The hotel seemed an oasis at check in, but when I got to my room it was dingy, and did not feel clean. The shower had a large window that was blocked by a brick wall, but which I could see through to the street one story down. I doubt that anyone could see me, but I could see the people in the street, and believe me when I say this is not a place you want to go strutting about taking naked showers.  I just couldn’t take a shower feeling so exposed, so I washed off as best I could in the sink, and then was so tired, and overwhelmed with the whole experience that I went to bed. When I woke up around 11am, I forced myself to go to the front desk and ask them to move my room. I told them the safe didn’t work, and the main point that convinced them was when I explained about the shower, and feeling exposed. That worked, and they moved me to a much nicer room with a closed in shower that was much cleaner than the previous room. The safe worked, which is must for me because I don’t like carrying all my stuff around or leaving it in the hotels. I then had breakfast in the dining room of the hotel, which was actually very nice with big windows looking out onto the streets of Columba, with a nice line of palm plants screening the view. This hotel has been here since the 1800’s, with major renovations in recent years, and has a very old English feel to it. I found the regular staff was wonderful and very helpful. The front desk staff were less helpful, and I because I had a vague memory of how things work here, I had to keep going back over and over with the same requests until finally I would get a response. The one thing I did remember, and which is still the case is that everything is always “impossible”, no matter what you ask, then it becomes “maybe possible”, then “hopeful”, then “possibly likely”; and then there are the very rare occasions when someone says, “no problem”.
The big mistake on my part is that I arrived here in the middle of Diwali Festival, the festival of lights, which is like Indian New Year; and is a very big holiday season for three weeks. A lot of firecrackers and people packing the streets to celebrate was the extent of my experience. In all my research, I don’t know how I didn’t know that I would be here then, or maybe I knew and thought it would be something interesting.  I did not really have time in Turkey or Dubai to check up on India, and really was unprepared. Therefore, when I got to Bombay, planning to take the train to Goa in a few days, I was told that it would be impossible to get a train to Goa during this week. I was also told that I might not want to go to Goa during this busy time because that is when all of the Indian locals went there for holidays. So, I spent the first day trying to figure out what to do. Although, the hotel website said they would help you book trains, all they did was direct me to window 52 at the train station, which was an experience I will cherish as long as I don’t have to repeat it. I walked to the train station, which is a huge gothic monstrosity obviously designed and built by someone who had read and loved “Confessions of an English Opium Eater”. After sleeping and making me get up, out, and about, something from my previous life in Asia must have kicked in, because I was able to walk the streets of Bombay on my own and feel like I could handle the noisy, busy, chaotic, crowded, weird madness of it all. Until I got to the train station, which is when I truly realized that I was in a very foreign land.
The main thing I can say about India is that no one really cares if you are okay, and they have no sense of your personal space or being at all. My niece gave me an armband that says, “I am somebody”. That is a foreign concept here, especially if you are a woman, and most especially if you are a woman on her own. In Dubai I had a conversation with a cab driver who felt it was his right to ask me where my husband was, why I didn’t have any children, which he asked me four time because he could not understand or conceive of a childless woman, and other equally personal questions until I finally had to tell him in a very diplomatic way (because I did not want to get another cab late at night far from my hotel), that I was uncomfortable with his conversation. You will constantly have men who feel like they have every right to intrude on what you are doing, tell you what to do or not to do, comment on your situation, try to direct you, and think they have every right to ask you very personal questions because they are curious, and most of the time they are just trying to help you because, of course, you must need their help. I noticed this starting to happen in Istanbul, where it was done mostly in a very friendly and gentle way; then in Dubai where it was less noticeable because most of the men there basically ignore you. In India, at first it was mildly amusing, but rapidly it became very annoying; and eventually I had to tell myself that I was in a culture where women were thought of in a way that was a throwback to how it was when I grew up in America. It hasn’t been all that long ago that the underlying attitudes about women were the same in my home as they are here, but it has been long enough for me that it is shocking. When I am home, I only see how far we have to go to have real gender equality, but here I am made really aware of how much things have changed for women in America in my lifetime, although I realize that even in my own country those changes have not happened everywhere for every woman. I find it hard to write about this because it is so hard to describe, but most women know what I am talking about, I’m sure. Too be out in the world conducting your affairs and have men constantly butt in line in front of you, ignore you when you are talking to them, and have strangers tell you to stand up, sit down, move over there, and take their advice with regards to your affairs. To have men looking at what you are wearing with no regard for your personal privacy, and to be constantly talked to as if you were completely incapable of understanding even the basics of what is being explained, not because you are a foreigner, but because you are a woman. Believe me, before I made these assumptions, I watched closely how other foreign men and couples were treated while I’ve been on the road to make sure that I wasn’t mistaken, and that this was not about me being a woman alone.  But it is, and it is most apparent here in India.
So, back to the train station. I stood in line for an hour until I realized that I was in the wrong line, then I made my way through what seemed like masses of every person on the planet walking, running, hauling huge bundles of goods on their heads, dragging hordes of children, and people lying or sleeping on the floors. In the midst of all this madness, trains were coming in and out of the station with no signs I could read, or any idea where I should go. I tried asking a few people (men) for directions, and was either totally ignored or politely ignored. I finally made my way, through some miracle, to an office filled with men who looked at me like I had arrived from another planet, and up to a desk on the second floor where I again stood in line, and while I was in that line I had at least four men who came up to the window in front of me until I finally pushed my way to the window and started talking to the agent, who then told me that there was no space on the tourist quota (they have a quota for how many tourists can ride the trains) for first class to Goa until November 11th. I could buy a 2nd class ticket, but I would be in compartment of four men and women. I had already done that on the train from Paris to Budapest in a tiny bed in a tiny compartment with three men and two women, and I was not going to repeat the experience on an Indian train for 13 hours.
The rest of the few days I spent in Mumbai, I did get used to walking around the neighborhood, which turned out to be very safe and the people were, for the most part, very friendly and nice. I had a few good meals at some local restaurants, but overall I am not a fan of the food here because it is too spicy and hot for my liver, and because this just isn’t a town that I feel like eating in. I was walking back to my hotel one evening, and a huge rat ran right in front of me. I didn’t freak out, because we have rats on Maui, and I’ve had problems with rats in my own house on the beach; but for some reason dealing with rats in my own house was bad, but seeing a rat on the streets in Mumbai made me feel really horrible. This is an old city in an old county with 20 million plus people in one very small peninsula, and as sad as it is to say, this is the future of the world as we know it if we don’t make some pretty drastic changes to how all of us are today, and what we want the future to be.  There are 20 million people in Istanbul, and 20 million plus people in Bombay, and the world population is set to exceed 10 billion people in the next few years, and there is no sign that anyone is doing anything about any of the problems that all of these people are going to amass in a very short time. And the rats are the least of it.
I also took a five hour tour of the city booked by the hotel with the most negative tour guide I imagine has ever toured anyone anywhere. He took me all over the city, and was completely uninterested in anything he was showing me. He ended up telling me horror stories about going to Goa and how it was run by the Russian mafia and the cab drivers would take you to a hotel and later men would come in and rob you and how Goa was filled with bad people, and I should be very careful, and the main theme of his whole rant was that I had no business traveling alone anywhere, and even if I was a very smart  western women (said with slight sarcasm), I had no idea about India and I should be very careful and no good would come of it and it would all end in tears. I listened to most of it, zoned out looking at the city through a great deal of it, and told myself that all information was useful. But really, he was just a very negative man. I finally told him, again diplomatically, that I didn’t want to hear any more bad stories about traveling to Goa. He then explained to me for 15 minutes about all the tourists over the years that had come to him for help because of all the bad things that had happened to them. I have to say it was the worst tour ride I have taken so far on my trip, but he gave me his card in case I ever need his help. My impressions of Bombay at the end of the tour were exactly the same as the impression I had on the taxi ride from the airport. It was big, dirty, old, crowded, and it smelled very bad. It is amazing, because when you look at the ads in magazines or on the internet, Bombay is portrayed as this vibrate, wonderful, modern city where all these new exciting things are happening. That is not the Bombay I visited. Maybe that is all happening in Bollywood, but I didn’t go there. I had the impression that there was another Bombay, but you had to be very rich and/or very famous to go there, and since I am neither I got the plain old 20 million people crammed into a Volkswagen version.
I did get sick in Mumbai, but I was very lucky because I had one night where I woke up with pain in my stomach and bad diarrhea. I drank tons of bottled water, and the next morning I called the front desk and let them know I was sick. I had them bring me 7up, tea, and toast and stayed in bed all day watching movies. Luckily, I was in a hotel with TV and almost internet. The fridge didn’t work, but the bed was comfortable and the hotel staff was nice. I continued to drink tons of fluids, and felt much better by the end of the day; but not well enough to face the outside world. I ended up getting tandoori chicken for dinner from the hotel restaurant, which I couldn’t eat because it was too spicy. Thanks to advice on Facebook, the next day I started taking cipro. I also went and bought some other stuff from the local pharmacy.
I had booked a waitlist train ticket online for Sunday, and kept checking to see if I got a confirmed seat. While I was sick I decided that if I didn’t get confirmed the next day, I would fly to Goa on Friday, which was they day I had originally planned on leaving Bombay, and that’s what I did.
I flew to Goa because I had planned to go to Goa and most everyone except my day tour guide in Bombay said Goa was a wonderful place and when I got off the plane and smelled the air and it smelled a lot like Maui and not anything like Bombay and I was so happy; but that was the end of happy for me that day. Everyone online told me to just go to Goa; there are hotels and places to stay everywhere. Everyone in Mumbai told me not to go to Goa because there were no hotels available. So just to be safe I booked a hotel online, the only one I found that had rooms. I got a cab at the airport, and we drove and drove and drove. It reminded me a lot of combinations of the road to Hana, parts of the Big Island near Hilo, and parts of the North Shore on Oahu; only with more people, more scooters, and more mobs of traffic in places. It seemed a thousand times nicer than Bombay though, until I got to the hotel. It was miles from the beach in a residential area out in the middle of nowhere with nothing around. I took one look at the place, and said I can’t stay here without transportation by myself. I ended up in a big struggle with the staff about cancelling my stay, and they refused to not bill me for one night. By that time I didn’t care because I didn’t want to stay there anyway. The taxi driver agreed to help me find another place, and talked me into going to the main beach on the North side. I was seriously remembering all the horror tales from my tour guide friend in Mumbai, while the sun was setting over Goa and I had no place to stay, and I was letting a taxi driver help me.  We went to hotel after hotel until he finally took me to this dump (and I do mean a real dump) where they offered me the only room they had which looked a lot like the cell I was in when I got busted in the ‘70’s in Karachi, Pakistan. I refused to stay there, and I could tell the taxi driver was getting worried, but he was very nice and kept assuring me we would find a place. I was sitting in the back of the cab almost in tears wondering what the fuck I had got myself into, and feeling completely unable to do anything about any of it except to keep going on in the direction I was going and hope to hell I made it somewhere safe and nice. I said more than a few prayers, and told myself it would be okay, but I didn’t believe it; and mostly I was thinking that maybe India was not the place for me. For those of you who have read my short story which is loosely based on my adventures in Delhi, you know that my past history with India has not been pleasant, so I started thinking of things that happened to me before, and thinking that maybe India was just not my place, but there was not much I could do about that unless I wanted to fly home or fly to Southeast Asia…which I knew would not be any easier.
We went to another hotel, and they referred us to another place and finally they had a room for one night only…I would have to find another place, but I didn’t care by that time. It was late and I just wanted to eat and rest. Then they went to charge my credit card and my cards declined! Of course, when I went to call the bank, my phone was out of charge, and later when I got to the room I couldn’t find the right adapter. It was only by luck that I had enough money in rupees to cover the room and pay my cab driver, who had waited all this time for me to be settled. I refuse to be jaded about everyone, and will say that I think this cab driver was a very nice man who loved Goa. He told me wonderful things about Goa on our ride, and said that it was a beautiful place. He also said this was not the best time to come, and that it would get even busier after November 1st when the tour charters started coming!
I was so worried about running out of money, I walked through the town, (which was another walk through masses and masses of traffic and people much like Mumbai, but only more rustic and smaller), and to find an ATM that worked with my card where I was able to withdraw enough funds for another night’s stay and food.  Being stranded in Goa or India or Asia with no funds was definitely not on my agenda.
The room was $100 a night including breakfast which I thought was expensive, but evidently not for Goa in high season unless you want to stay in a dump; which I don’t.  It’s very Balinese with a huge bed, new bathroom, and air conditioning. Everything works, including the safe and fridge, except for the TV. There is a beautiful outdoor restaurant where I had dinner because I understood that before I did anything else, I needed to eat. I had a wonderful dinner with the biggest, best prawns I’ve tasted in years, and fresh Indian nan with couscous. Everyone at the hotel was being very nice, because I think they could see I was exhausted and had had a rough trip. The big downside is a large pool where the women are swimming with all their clothes on. There are no swimsuits here, and most of the women do not even get in the pool. Mind you, it is 100+ degrees out, and the humidity is about 110 degrees, so while the men are cavorting around in the pool, swimming and refreshing themselves, the women are sitting in the sun fully dressed and a few of them will sit on the side of the pool and kick their feet. So, I won’t swim here only because I don’t want to deal with the fallout.
I finally was able to reach the bank, and once again they had put a security hold on my cards. They keep doing this, and no matter how many times I have called and advised them by email that I am traveling, they keep shutting down my cards for security. The lady said she was sorry for the inconvenience, so I told her in brief about my travels and explained to her that having my card decline at 8pm in Goa was more than an inconvenience! She was not impressed, probably due to her not ever having traveled outside of New Jersey; but I was very descriptive so I think she got some idea. Right at the end of our call, my phone died, so I won’t know for sure if cards are clear until tomorrow.
The end of the evening, they had a musician by the pool singing old 80’s songs by Phil Collins, and when he sang some old love song I can’t remember the name of, I started to cry. On October 31st it will be two years since Kent died, and I have missed him so much the past few days. The day I was sick in Bombay, I lay in bed with his picture in front of me, and thought about him being gone. I’ve written so much about losing Kent that it doesn’t make any sense to write anymore; no one who hasn’t felt such a loss can really understand, and no one who has wants to be reminded.  It doesn’t go away. It is a constant pain that eases and then returns at the most inconvenient times. I started crying on the plane to Goa because I felt so disconnected and in such a hostile place, and then in Goa sitting by myself in the dining room the love song really brought it up again. I know it is partially because it is an anniversary of some sorts, and last night before I went to sleep I started to think about those last horrible days he was alive in the hospital; but then I made myself remember good times from the first time we meet, and we did have so many good times together. As soon as I started to flash all the good times through my brain, I felt better and I know that Kent’s spirit felt better. I don’t know what I believe anymore. I could honestly say I don’t really believe anything. My faith in everything has been stripped down to the bones, and I have not yet re-clothed anything that could be called a belief. I pray sometimes, I say I believe sometimes, I talk to something sometimes, but in my heart I only believe in life. And that is as good a place as I can be in right now.
I am not in India to find myself or to be enlightened. To be honest, there is nothing about India that inclines me to believe that they know what I want or need to know about enlightenment.  I will try to be open-minded and maybe I will be surprised, but I am cynical about any religion, government, system, or sect that has ideas that do not include equal treatment for all genders, beliefs, races, and orientations; for all humans.  I think humans need to look forward for the answers to our future. I do not think the past of any culture holds the key to what will make this a better world for all of us tomorrow.  That is just my not so humble opinion.
I have to add an update regarding my Facebook freak-out. I have not had too many real disasters on this trip, but spending half a day in Goa down to my last rupees with only enough money to pay one night at the hotel, and no other places available over holiday, and not being able to contact anyone by phone because minutes had to be added and cards would not work; and having internet only in one place sometimes available, sometimes not; and not being able to get my bank to understand that I didn’t need them to keep turning my cards off because they questioned a charge in a foreign country, and wondering what the hell I would do if I couldn’t get all of this straightened out was a really big freaky time for me. Luckily, except for asking everyone on Facebook for help, I mostly kept my cool and just kept trying stuff. I was finally able to get one card working, and found out my other cards were fine; it was just they wouldn’t work in this hotel or these ATM’s. Also was able to get bank to work with me, and I’ll know tomorrow if they fixed everything. I also got in touch with friends in Mumbai, and one of them lives in Goa. I am waiting to hear back from him, as he works at another resort. The funniest part of the whole thing was when my friends on Facebook thought it was all a hoax, and that I’d been hacked. They even said it didn’t sound like me, which I explained was probably because I was freaking out!
So, is all of this leading me to enlightment? Only in the sense that I will make sure I have cash wherever I go from now on, I will probably buy a new phone when I get to the next duty free stop, and I will not post requests for help on Facebook and freak out all my friends and family; although, because I couldn’t rely on the internet or the phone, it was the fastest way to reach the most people.
Even though all this; with a torrential rain storm today that muddied up everything, and the hordes of people, and how many beaches there are and how inaccessible it all is, there is something I’m loving about Goa. The people are really friendly, the beaches are like the more rugged parts of Hawaii, everyone seems to be having a pretty good time here, and the food is much better than Mumbai. It’s also very interesting, in a weird “the hippies were here” way, that still charms me when I’m just passing through. I feel like, if I could just get a handle on this place, I would discover some really interesting people and places. I saw two of the motorcycles (British) my friend told me about today. I don’t know that I will try to ride because the traffic is insane right now, but if I do stay and it quiets down I might try it out. Honestly, I don’t know what is going to happen in India. It is definitely an adventure, although at times, not one in Disneyland.

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