Varkala Beach is a really beautiful place and I was glad to be there reading and sitting in the sun and eating tandoori paratha and fresh fruit and listening to music. But then two things happened. For some reason unknown to me, a load of backpackers arrived. Where had they descended from and why were they there polluting the air with patchouli and cigarette smoke and painfully inane conversation? This was supposed to be the low season; didn’t they get the memo? Please, stay on the backpacker trail so the rest of us can avoid you.
And I found out that one of my cats had gone missing back in Hong Kong.
I contemplated my options as I sat in Little Tibet eating vegetable pakora. I had been thinking of going home early anyhow because I was realizing I might have grossly underestimated the logistical and emotional hurdles that were going to need to be surmounted over the remaining weeks of June. Also, it turns out that I had given myself a strangely useless amount of time post-ashram in India. The thing is, while twelve days may be a good amount of time for a little foray into many a foreign land, This Is India. And that was not enough time to do anything. Why? Here is why: India is amazing and overwhelming and cheap and fantastic and wild and vibrant. And in order to make it all those things it is incredibly inefficient. Finessing plans is totally impossible. If you have lots of time and flexibility you can go for weeks – months even – ambling around the Subcontinent. However, if you have any sort of schedule: Good.Luck. Trying to adhere to even a simple schedule ends up being fairly costly, and truth be told, the schedule is not gonna stick anyhow. This Is India. Just that morning I had been reading an article in the local paper about how India is Number One for Asia’s “most inefficient bureaucrac[y], with red tape a constant blight to citizens and deterrent for foreign investment.” (Indonesia and the Philippines came second and third. The most efficient? Hong Kong and Singapore. SNG won the top spot, but that makes sense, as police states do tend to be very efficient.)
Considering these realities and wishing that my plate of vegetable pakora was bottomless I started picking up on the conversations around me.
“Dude! You went there? Why? I heard that is like the rip-off capital of India because all the tourists go there!”
“I know mate. It was mental. And all these tourists who couldn’t even work out how to get on a train, I couldn’t believe it.”
“Hey, gotta fag? I’m out?”
“So, did you ever see those birds again, the ones you met up with in Agra?”
[Mental note: Agra = THE tourist destination of India.]
“Ha. Yeah man. Ran into them in — (couldn’t hear where). It was crazy.”
[Mental note: Crazy? You all go to the same places, how can that be crazy? And on that note, why am I here?] Amidst stubbornly lingering cigarette smoke, a personal aggravation I always look forward to leaving behind, I decided to move my meditation on “What To Do” elsewhere. I was wondering where Norman could have ended up on Lamma. I mean it is an island, not too far to wander. And he had run away before (he took a three-day punishment holiday following the toga party and had twice been gone for a couple of days for reasons unknown.) By the time I was alerted to this absence he had been gone four or five days already. Not a good sign. I mean, he could survive, cats are wily. But this was very unusual behavior for a cat who is well-known for adherence to routine. I felt sad, but in a strange emotional turn for me, I seemed to understand there was nothing I could do about it and so it was what it was. I briefly wondered if I had somehow matured or become less of a crazy cat-lady while in the ashram. Unlikely, but you never know, I guess.
Two Western girls sauntered by in their hippie dresses and a cloud of smoke laughing riotously over something. One of them was wearing Crocs. I was definitely going to have to GTFO of here. I sent an email to my most amazing travel agent from my iPhone and within the hour had secured a new ticket home and began to adjust to my new itinerary. It felt right. Then I thought about that damn cat and I started to cry.
I had two more days to take full advantage of the beach and the sun and the reality that I had nothing I needed to do (good, since there was little I could do) and tried to focus on the Zen/Taoist parable that I always turn to when I feel shitty about things.
This is a story of an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. “Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically. “We shall see,” the farmer replied. The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. “How wonderful,” the neighbors exclaimed. “We shall see,” replied the old man. The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune. “We shall see,” answered the farmer. The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out. “We shall see,” said the farmer.
It helped. Of course, so does being tan.
I chose to conclude this trip to India by going back to Bangalore to meet up with Nundhun for the day prior to flying out at 2:40 a.m. But of course, that sentence belies the actual reality of said last day. Remember: This Is India.
On my last morning in Varkala I woke up in the dark literally as well as metaphorically. The monsoon had arrived in the night and there was no power. I peeked outside with my Swiss Army flashlight (courtesy of my boss in HK – thanks James, very handy!) and saw that the gardens of the Kerala Bamboo Huts had a distinctively “trailer-park-after-the-tornado” feel. The palm trees had shed quite a bit of weight in the night. I grabbed my stuff and went to meet the guy who was driving me to Trivandrum for my 8:30 a.m. (Indian Supposed Time) flight to Bangalore. The driver was there and we headed out. It was fun to see the coastal villages coming to life as we worked our way south. The signs and the shops and the houses are so colorful. And I love how, unlike in Hong Kong where most advertisements feature Western faces, Indian ads are all Indian. [Still not used to the ubiquitous porn-stache though. I hate to tell a few million or so Indian dudes, but it is NOT a good look.] The ads are almost all for jewelry and movies.
And then there were the gates. Really, like gates in front of houses, not all with accompanying fences, but always a gate. This is another thing that has always drawn my attention: the human need to erect a humongous gate regardless of what lies behind said gate. I first noticed this in Jalisco back in 1988 when I would marvel at these enormous, palatial gates hiding an incomplete concrete cube of a home and a substantial amount of tropical foliage behind their grandeur. I have seen the same thing throughout SE Asia and now in India too. I guess it is the whole “first impression” concept. I don’t know. But these gates were impressive. As was the selected exterior paint palette. Violet. Chartreuse. Turquoise. Lemon Yellow. Tangerine. Almost all with contrasting colors for trim and woodwork. And big, too. [Kerala is the most literate and wealthy of the Indian states and this is very evident in the small bit that I saw. I wonder how much of that has to do with their democratically elected communist government?]
At the Trivandrum “International” Airport I checked in (had my three pages of e-ticket print out perused and stamped and checked by no less than six people) had my suitcase scanned and zip-tied, also thrice checked and walked the fifty feet to my gate. Everything seemed to be on time and we boarded the plane and were ready to go. For fifty minutes we remained in the plane on the tarmac, ready to go. We saw another plane (Indian Airlines) being towed off the runway eventually and then were given the go ahead and we were headed to Bangalore.
Once on the ground in BLR I collected my suitcase and had the simple agenda of storing my luggage and connecting with Nundhun to see about the day. Simple. Ha. T.I.I.
I was not allowed in the international terminal of the new-new Bangalore International Airport because staff for international flights do not arrive more than three hours before scheduled departures (uh, my flight would be leaving at 2:40 a.m. It was 11:00 a.m.) Don’t even get me started about how problematic an e-ticket is, particularly one with a *gasp* modification. Okay, so they were not going to let me do some sort of early check-in a la Hong Kong. Fine, I would just roll my super reliable suitcase out to the verifiably present ground staff and store it and head into the city.
“We do not store luggage.”
“What do you mean you do not store luggage? No where at this airport has a place to leave luggage?”
“Go talk to the SATS staff at the Air India counter.”
“I’m sorry. We cannot store your luggage. Perhaps talk to BIA Information at that counter over there.”
“Ma’am, we do not hold luggage, it is a security risk.” I glanced (as despondently as I could) at my bag with the zip ties at every potential opening and the no less than six security check stickers adorning it. “Perhaps try the police, they are five windows down from here.”
“Luggage is not in the area of the police. Try the SATS staff at the Air India counter.”
I am sure that this merry-go round could have continued indefinitely, but I was not in the mood to be in my own Subcontinental Flying Circus skit. I implored the SATS attendant for help (I never even worked out what SATS stands for, though I have concluded it likely has something to do with administering administration and not much else) and she was unmoved. I even tried the whole “you-are-supposed-to-be-the-‘knowledge-hub’-of-South-Asia-and-you-won’t-hold-a-single-piece-of-luggage-and-I-cannot-be-the-first-person-who-has-had-this-sort-of-a-dilemma-at-your-brand-new-super-duper-international-airport” approach. Unmoved and hardly bothered at my attempt at challenging BIA prestige she said, “No, you are not the first. But we do not store luggage.” And then she started absently flipping through a monstrous pile of papers without further eye contact to the annoying traveler in front of her.
Okay. Fine. The airport had won this round. I could deal with this. I mean, the bag is not that big (was a bit heavy with all the books I had purchased – why do I keep doing that?) and it has great wheels. I would bring it with me and see what could be done in the city. Now, a taxi. Immediately after forming the word taxi in my mind a swarm of taxi “drivers” surrounded me. Impressive.
“Where you want to go?”
“You need transport?”
“I need to get to MG Road.”
“Okay, okay, right here ma’am! 1200 rupees!”
“What? Are you on drugs? You must be if you think I am paying 1200 rupees to get to MG Road.”
“Okay, okay, how much you pay?”
“I will not pay more than 500. You must really think I am an idiot.”
“Okay okay, 550!”
“Get out of here. Now I know you are a liar and trying to rip me off. Go away.”
“Ma’am! Ma’am! I take you! 500!”
“Okay. Let’s go.”
At the car suddenly four people were angling to help put my bag in the taxi and whatever else too many people do to try to look necessary in a situation clearly only requiring one person. I noticed a guy trying to get into the car.
“Look, I am going with the driver. I do not need to have a bunch of people coming along. Me and the driver. MG Road. That is all.”
“Yes, yes, yes, just the driver. And him. This his friend. No problem. Just a friend.”
“Uh, no. That is a problem. No friends. Just me and I need to go. I am now very late.”
“Just him comes. Okay? 400 rupees. No problem. You go now.”
“400?” I was suspicious, but wanted to get out of there. “Fine. We go. NOW.”
Finally on the way to meet Nundhun (and hoping he would call since I had wiped out my phone credit) it became clear that the “driver had no idea where we were going and his English was far beyond suspect. This is another funny thing about India, I will call it “Deceptive English.” There is a statistic that says 100% of university graduates in India speak English. Granted, it is likely that my taxi driver was not a university graduate, but the thing with English in India is that truly just about every Indian you meet can throw out some English lines. And not just the super simple stuff. And they can certainly read signage, etcetera. But this leads one to assume comprehension, and this is a mistake. The appearance of English is as useful for effective conversation as a nice outfit, ie: Useless. Regardless, my driver’s “friend” seemed nervous to have a crazy white lady in the car. Fair enough. When N called he suggested changing the meeting place. I told him I thought that might be a challenge beyond the scope of my “driver” so N spoke to him on the phone. When I took the phone back I got these reassuring words: “I don’t think that guy knows where he is going.”
Really? You think?
Somehow, by the grace of one of the myriad Indian deities we made it on to MG Road. Every city in India has a Mahatma Gandhi Road and it is generally a hugely major thoroughfare. Bangalore is no exception. How could my “driver” be so confused? These thoughts were interrupted as he braked abruptly and indicated I should get out of the car.
“Uh, yeah. I am not getting out here just because you turned on to the road. We are looking for a specific cross street and building. I am not getting out of the car until we get there.”
Insolent glare. But the car began to move.
Eventually, again due to reasons I cannot even imagine, we wound up on Brigade Road, which was the intended location. I got out of the car and handed the “driver” a 500-rupee note. He pocketed it and turned to go.
“Hey, give me my change!”
Looking at me blankly he said, “No, 500.”
Looking back at him with increasing irritation I said, “No. Your friend [pointing to the front seat.] 400.”
He handed me a 50-rupee note. Now, let me be the first to say that 50 rupees is like, one dollar, and I am NEVER the type of person who freaks out about shit like this. In fact I loathe haggling and generally over-pay quite happily. Unfortunately for this kid, he had met me on my Dirty Harry day and I was not going to be taking any more crap and was ready to be as obstinate as any adversary I came across. “Give me 100.” He began to respond negatively to this. “If you do not give me 100 rupees right now I am going to start screaming in the middle of this street. SCREAMING. Do you understand? Give. Me. 100. Rupees.” He looked around at the very busy street full of locals and tourists. “I will scream.” I repeated. He immediately produced a 100-rupee note and got back in the car and beat it on down the road.
I felt victorious.
And then I saw N. Things were looking up. I told him of my adventures and he laughed and said, “At least the bag is not that big…” And pulled it along clearly noting the heft. I suggested trying to find a hotel or something to see if they would do left luggage since we were in a touristy area. The hotel was absolutely amenable to holding my luggage. If I booked a room. Next. Same thing. I made a joke about buying something from a gift shop if the owner would hold my bag and he agreed. But I didn’t want to buy anything so I bumped the bag down the stairs back to the street. We were on a bit of a schedule (I know, T.I.I. and all, but we had decided to do a half-day tour of Bangalore by bus and both of us – even N, the mostly local – thought that would probably go off on time, catering to tourists and all) and decided we would just take the bag to the tour place and see. I turned to pull the bag. It would not move. Wheel = no more. Seriously? Yes.
N courteously agreed to drag the bag and we got an auto and basically were able to get it to go where we wanted to go. Once there, and with more than 10 actual minutes to spare we realized that the bag could just sit on the bus for the day and my literal and figurative loads lessened immediately. We got our tickets (actually N paid and I never paid him back… sorry amigo! I will make it up to you stateside okay?) and then waited for 2 p.m. in Indian Supposed Time to arrive.
The tour was unspectacular, but it was a pleasure to have the company and not be walking with my suddenly immobile suitcase. I am also positive it was good to be distracted from the constantly latent thoughts of going back to a one-cat household. And we saw some cool stuff. The Science Museum was particularly entertaining. Though, as with most things like that in India, I am not sure if the intent is humor or not.
At the Botanical Gardens (“the best in South Asia”?) we wandered around for an hour or so and then I decided I had to go to the bathroom. We came across some pay toilets – maybe they would be a cut above normal? “T.I.I.,” said N. He was right of course. But I went in anyhow and was glad to pay – 10 rupees? Seriously? Okay, fine. I paid and went around the corner where I saw a sign that said ‘Toilet: 2 INR.’ WTF? I went back to the two guys who charged me ten and demanded my 8 rupees back. Again, this is such a stupid amount of money, but it was the principle. They knew exactly what they had done and were not sufficiently sheepish in my opinion. I will not bore you with the blow-by-blow of my victory, but it was a good one ending with them nearly be willing to pay ME to go away I suspect. I did go away (after I went to the bathroom) and told N the story and said I walked away because I didn’t want to get in trouble.
“What, from toilet attendants at the Bangalore Botanical Gardens?” N guffawed. “Yeah, I am sure they have a lot of pull.” I laughed, he was right, but I had made my point and that was good enough for me. After all This Is India, and I was just starting to feel like I was getting the hang of it. Of course I was… I was due to leave in a matter of hours. That is always just about when I get fully into the swing of things.
We passed more weddings than I can count and off-handedly considered crashing one. It is the wedding season in India right now and apparently this has quite an effect on the price of gold worldwide. Indian weddings are a thing worthy of their own blog. Talk about the opposite of subtle. They are fantastic, and I was only seeing them (easily passed the entrances to 50 or more cruising around Bangalore) from the outside. DISCO. It would have made for a great story I am sure, but N had a dinner to get to at a mall (hey, who am I to judge…) and I had to get back to the faboosh Bangalore International Airport. At the end of the tour we decided that I would take an auto rickshaw to Majestic and catch the bus to the airport. Sounded simple enough, save for the no longer functional suitcase wheel. [The first person to comment that I should have been carrying a backpack can consider themselves off my Christmas list. Forever.] Sounds simple /= simple. It took ages to get an auto. Then when we finally did get one, the stranger that helped us acquire it insisted the N go with me though we had planned on saying good-bye there as he had a dinner to get to. He did come with for propriety and hassle avoidance, and it turned out to be a blessing (N- think of all the karma you are accumulating!) The auto driver was grumpy and talking about how he had to urgently get to the hospital. I am not sure why and he never said. He got us to the bus station eventually and we hopped out dragging the non-rolling roller bag. Now where to go? After schlepping into the depot we found some guys in uniform who directed us onward. Following their indications we came to another guy in uniform who gave us contra-indications. As he was gesticulating towards the opposite direction an additional fellow in uniform who was stationed eight feet away at the opposite end of the same gate by which we were standing came over. The two of them were speaking with N in Kannada, better than Deceptive English I figured… but seriously, communication in India? It is what Robin Williams would aptly describe as a linguistic adventure. I wish I would have taken a photo at that moment as I watched the two uniformed depot workers who were assigned to opposite ends of the same gate pointing in diametrically opposed directions, both insisting “that” was the way to get across the road to the airport bus. It could not have been staged in a more perfectly ridiculous way. Sadly, no photo.
After backtracking to our original location and managing to get across the road (new respect for that proverbial chicken…) we came to a choice of four ramps down from the overpass. N chose #2. I think it was totally random, but perhaps he has a sense for these sorts of things, plus I was hardly in a position to say anything as I knew he was really supposed to be somewhere else. Now across the road and still unable to discern any sort of vehicle resembling the airport Volvo Bus we started asking around again. At least everyone here was pointing in the same direction. Eventually two very cozy dudes (I never did get used to the public affection between guys that is the total norm in India) gave fairly explicit information that turned out to be correct. We found the bus! Like I said, sometimes it is the small victories. N said, “See? Simple, right?” Joke? Serious? Both? Who knows, T.I.I. Either way, it was time to say adios and be on my way. Thanks are not adequate for Nundhun, but I’m sure I’ll think of something.
As the bus pulled away, it started to pour rain. Aha, the monsoon.
Back at the airport I was reminded that I was not yet out of India. The airport people did not want to let me in. It was 10:00 p.m. and they said that there would not be ground staff available to confirm I was on the manifest until 11:40 p.m. I calmly replied that I would not be waiting outside on the sidewalk until 11:40 and that they were going to have to manage to find a way to acquiesce to my demand to enter. Suddenly, there was a manifest. Amazing. Dragging the non-roller bag begind me, I was in the airport. And it hit me: I was getting out of India.
And the thing is, I really liked India; all of the unexpected and unusual things about it. I also know I will return. That thought makes leaving a place easier. This trip had been nothing that I expected, perhaps because I went in with no expectations, not because I am above them, but I simply did not have the capacity to even fathom what lay ahead of me. I learned a lot about myself, about yoga, about friends and strangers, about compassion, about India, and about my own capacity to integrate all of those things. If you always knew what lay ahead of you, would you ever move forward? I am not sure. I certainly never considered the possibility that I would come home to the kind of sadness that I did. In that I know there is a lesson waiting to be learned. What I took with me from India surprises me still: I didn’t buy anything while I was there (well, okay, two things… oh and books – always a wise choice for one who must lug their stuff around in a non-roller bag) and I took fewer photos than I sometimes take during a trip of one fifth the duration. But this trip was a portal for me. I am aware of how completely fruity that sounds, still, this was a transition for me that could not have taken place in any other way or in any other place. My teacher knew this experience would answer some questions I had and he was, as always, correct. I just did not know what the questions were. And I suppose that is what I am still working out.