“There is a special smell, unique to India,” the man had explained. “You’ll notice it the moment you step off the plane.”
I did notice it. There was a thick pungency to the air, even here at the airport in Delhi. What was it? No single thing, clearly. It wasn’t a pleasant smell, but it was not entirely unpleasant, either. I suspected odors from toilets—or lack of toilets—played a part, as did the collective scent of the billion unwashed bodies which inhabited this sub-continent. But overlaying those was a thicker, richer aroma of indolent spices, exotic vegetables, and mysterious flowers. Whatever it was, the humidity of Asia kept it all nicely packed together and ready to serve up to tourists the moment they walked off the plane. Like the ritual “lei’s” one receives when disembarking in Hawaii, the smell of India assaults the visitor with a clear message: Your passage to India is over. You have arrived. Deal with it.
The man who’d warned me about the smell, an American colored stone dealer who traveled to India frequently, warned me about many other things as well. There were so many warnings about traveling in India that I felt it would have taken very little to convince me to turn around and walk back onto the plane.
“Have you had your shots?” he’d asked.
“How about hepatitis?”
“Well, I got hepatitis A. I didn’t get B.”
“You should have gotten B.”
“Well, I was told…”
“Yeah, I know what you were told. Hepatitis B is only a problem if you’re planning on exchanging bodily fluids, right?”
“Well, you’d be amazed how easy it is to come in contact with bodily fluids in India, even if you’re careful.” He gave me a few examples that scared me to death. These warnings were too late. Hepatitis B required a three-week program of inoculations. I was leaving in a week…
“Of course you know you’re going to get sick, right?”
“No, I don’t intend to get sick. I’ve had a ton of shots, and I plan on being very careful with water and fresh vegetables and so forth.”
“Only bottled water, right?” he asked. “You think that will protect you?”
“You don’t seem to understand how India works. Let me give you an example. It’s one of the big rackets in India. They know tourists insist on bottled water. So they take the used bottles, fill them up with local water, put the cap back on, keep them cold, and then sell them to the tourists as bottled water.”
“You’re kidding! That’s…that’s evil!” I could think of no other word for it.
“I’m not kidding. The whole time you’re in India, whenever anyone brings you bottled water, check the cap. Make sure it’s still attached to the ring, that it hasn’t been broken off already.
“Also, take some food bars. You know, those power bars or whatever they’re called. Take as many as you can carry. It’s guaranteed that you’ll be in situations where you won’t have access to clean food. The food bars will keep you going. They’re a godsend. Also, take boxes of mini-wipes, those damp towlettes. They have soap in them, and you can keep your hands clean. It’s about the only way you’ll keep your hands clean in India.”
“OK, I can do all that.”
“Fine, but you’re still going to get sick. Everyone—I mean everyone—gets sick when they go to India. Oh, and by the way, if you get sick, don’t go to a hospital. Let me tell you some things about Indian hospitals…”
After getting off the phone I was depressed for a whole day. It wasn’t like this was new information. Everyone I’d talked to who’d been to India had horror story after horror story: getting sick, being cheated, having travel plans disrupted, everything going wrong, etc. One acquaintance, who’d traveled the planet thoroughly, explained it simply: “It’s the most f—ed” up country in the world.”
A book in my library at home—a book I refer to only rarely—is entitled “World’s Most Dangerous Places.” Written by professional adventurer and some-time mercenary Robert Young Pelton, it details about thirty regions on the planet which he considers the most dangerous, and assigns to them “star” ratings: one to five. Five stars are the worst. “Hells on Earth,” he calls them. “Places where the longer you stay, the shorter your existence on the planet will be.” I’d already been to two of the five-star places: Colombia and Sierra Leone. The only other five-star places were Algeria, Burundi, and Somalia. I doubted India—a modern democracy—was on the list at all, but I was wrong. It ranked three stars. The photo on the opening page of the India section showed a beggar, sitting naked in the street, one arm hacked off and one of his legs a mere leprous stump. I read the text with morbid fascination:
“It’s a miracle that India even exists. It should have ripped itself into a bunch of dinky fiefdoms a long time ago, each with hundreds of years of history, separate religions, dialects, and customs. Instead, [a billion] Indians hobble painfully forward—burdened not only with poverty, skin-and-bones hunger and sickness, but also with an alarming birthrate and a potential nuclear conflict with neighboring Pakistan. Like a terminally ill patient, India deals with the ugliest boils and rashes first. Its big problems are in the extreme south with the Tamil Tigers, and in the north with Sikh, Muslim and tribal separatists. Every time a bomb goes off (and they go off a lot), the suspects include Indians, Pakistani agents, Kashmiri separatists, Sikh terrorists, Maoist tribal rebels, Tamil Eelam guerrillas, Muslim militants, drug traffickers and even gangsters. Mother Theresa is the only one exempt from suspicion.
“India is a relatively safe country with some nasty exceptions. Breathing, driving, and hiking can quickly end your life here. It is long famous for being one of the dirtiest and most overcrowded countries in the world. Bombay is probably the filthiest city in the world. Those who see the traditional sites should be forewarned by the roadside spectacle of mangled buses, lorries, and people. According to the National Transportation Research Center, Indian roads are the most dangerous in the world, with the highest accident rate in the world.
Robert Young Pelton loves to sensationalize. To get a more balanced viewpoint, I pulled out my Lonely Planet guide for India. It started off with this statement about the country I would soon be visiting:
India will sideswipe you with its size, glamour and diversity. This is not a place you simply and clinically “see.” It’s an assault on your senses. Nothing in the country is ever quite what you expect, and the only thing to expect is the unexpected which comes in many forms and will always want to sit next to you. India is a litmus test for many travelers. Some visitors are only too happy to get on an aircraft and fly away, but if you thrive on sensual overload, then India is one of the most intricate and rewarding dramas unfolding on earth.
I think they meant “sensory overload”, not “sensual”. On the other hand India is also the home of the Kama Sutra – sort of a “Power User’s Guide to Sex.” Maybe they did mean sensual overload. In any case, even the editors of Lonely Planet, not a group that’s easy to impress as a rule, apparently found India a serious challenge for travelers.
So why was I going? Well, part of me wanted to take that litmus test. Part of me wanted to experience what was arguably the most stressful, frustrating, and challenging tourist destination in the world. I wanted to find out if I, my Eagle Creek travel luggage, and my TravelSmith adventure clothing, were up to it. I mean, a person who’s never been to Chad, Lithuania, or Guyana has nothing to feel ashamed of. But someone who’s never visited India? What a pathetic, milque-toast, excuse for a world traveler that would be. There were definitely elements of a personal challenge to this trip.
However the primary reason I was going was a speech I was giving to the International Colored-Gemstone Association at their bi-annual Congress, which this year was being held in India. Jaipur, India. I knew that Jaipur was an important colored stone center. In fact, word had it that Jaipur was trying to become the colored stone capital of the world – wresting the title away from Bangkok. Landing the ICA Congress was perhaps part of that strategy. And I was part of the Congress.
Normally, I would have been reluctant to fly half way around the world merely to give a speech, but it wasn’t going to be just a speech. I would use my time at the podium to also announce the launch of Polygon’s expansion into the world of colored stone trading – something scheduled for mid ’03, and certainly able to be announced in January. The Congress organizers had known I would be doing this, and had given me permission to do so. Furthermore, they’d also agreed to provide Polygon with a display table, where our new colored stone database could be showcased to the delegates, and where I could try to sign up new Polygon members on the spot. If we were serious about expanding Polygon into colored stones – and we were – the opportunity to speak in Jaipur was too good to pass up.
“I want to go too,” said Lynn Buckley, Polygon’s senior salesperson, when she heard I was going to India. Perhaps more than anyone else in the company, Lynn has been bitten by the travel bug, and is always eager to visit exotic places. Last year she’d spent two weeks in the rain forests of Thailand.
“Lynn, it would be great to have you there to help out, but I’m not sure the Company can justify sending two of us to India.”
As Polygon’s top-performing sales person, and the one who held the record for most sales at trade shows, it truly would be good to have her there. But two airline tickets to India? My CFO would freak.
“The company can justify sending two of us to India very easily if I pay my own way,” said Lynn, undaunted.
“You’d buy your own ticket?”
“If I had to, yes.”
“Well, if you’d buy your own airline ticket, I’m sure the company would reimburse food and lodging at the Congress itself. I know you’ll sign up more people than I would.”
“Of course I will,” said Lynn, showing the confidence of a seasoned sales person.
I’d never traveled anywhere before with Lynn, and didn’t really know her well. There were some things I needed to explain.
“Look, here’s the deal. If I’m flying half way round the world, and going to a country I’ve never before been to, I intend to take some time off and see the place. Are you up for that as well?”
“Of course. That’s the whole reason I want to go. I want to see India!”
“OK, so we’ll need to figure out where we want to go, what we want to visit, after the Congress is over.”
“I don’t really care what we do or where we go, as long as we can see the two things that I have to see.”
“What are those?”
“The Taj Mahal, and the Himalayas.”
“OK, the Taj is on my list also. Can we agree we won’t get on the plane to head home without seeing the Taj Mahal?”
“I don’t really know where it is, actually.”
“We’ll find it,” said Lynn, showing again the confidence of a seasoned salesperson.
“Now, about the Himalayas…”
“We’ll find them too.”
“It’s not that, it’s just…”
“Jacques, I have to see the Himalayas.”
“Of course. So do I, but…”
“Well, if we’re going to see the Himalayas, and we’re taking some time off anyway, well…”
“Maybe we should go to Tibet.”
“It might be possible to go to Tibet. Or if we couldn’t get to Tibet, we could probably make it to Nepal. I mean, I know it’s a long shot and everything. There’s probably no way. But if you really want to see the Himalayas…”
“Jacques I would kill to go to Tibet or Nepal.”
I was encouraged by this. Someone willing to kill to go to Tibet or Nepal was someone who had the same travel instincts I did.
“OK, let’s keep it in mind as a distant possibility. Maybe do some checking on the Web and so forth.”
Yet as the trip approached, Tibet, at least, looked impossible. It would be expensive. We’d need visas from the China embassy (always difficult to get even in the best of circumstances.) No one seemed to know how to get to Tibet from India, or even if it was possible. There was a great deal of information available on Nepal, but Tibet was a black hole. Also, India itself was looking so enormous, and impossible to really see with only a few days, that our enthusiasm for going somewhere else began to wane. We finally decided we’d make no plans until we got there. Who knew what information or opportunities might come out of the Congress itself. And in my experience it’s difficult to organize a trip like this from half a world away.
The one thing really certain about this trip was that I was about to spend two weeks with Lynn Buckley – a woman I barely knew. Early forties, divorced, magnificent auburn-blonde hair, and—originally from Atlanta—filled with southern-accent coquettishness. Her sales technique, at least with men, was to charm them into submission, and then hand them a contract and a pen. Yet inside this soft-as-a-flower exterior was a woman of steel. She always knew what she wanted, and she always achieved it. If Lynn wanted to go to India, she was going to India.
But now she was going to India with me. How would that work out? I sensed that we’d travel well together, but two weeks? That’s a long time even for people who are close friends. And two weeks in India? We weren’t talking Western Europe here—no Eiffel Tower, or gondolas in Venice. Even Lonely Planet acknowledged that many travelers to India couldn’t wait to board the plane for home. Pelton gave it three stars for danger, along with and admonition to neither drive nor breathe. The colored stone dealer was gravely concerned I hadn’t obtained a Hep B shot, and had made it clear I would be terribly sick the whole time I was in the country, regardless. Everything was difficult. Nothing worked. Natives tried to rip off tourists. The roads were the most dangerous in the world. The poverty was overwhelming. And other than the conference itself, we had no idea where we were going, how we would get there, and where we would stay once we arrived. Plus, in the middle of it all, I had to give a speech—a speech I hadn’t even written yet.
As departure date drew near, I actually reached the point where I wanted the whole thing to be over. I didn’t want to cancel it. I just wanted it to be over—something in the past. I wasn’t sure I was up to all these challenges. Two weeks with Lynn in India? We’d probably end up hating each other.
To get to India, I flew West. She flew East. This wasn’t because we were already hating each other. Lynn lived in North Carolina, and had found the lowest fare on Delta out of Atlanta, changing in Paris. The lowest fare I’d found involved United through Tokyo to Bangkok—and then Thai Airways to Delhi. And the details of this arrival were already as complicated and problematic as the trip itself was likely to be.
Friends of mine, Anjum and Hussein Malik, Muslim Indians now living in Austin, Texas, were going to be in India the same time I was. We made vows to try to hook up – somewhere. But with my own plans so unformed, we’d merely exchanged cell phone numbers, and promised to call each other. Even so, Anjum was especially concerned about the details of our arrival in Delhi, and in particular the fact that Lynn was due to arrive three hours after I was.
“It’s not a problem,” I explained to Anjum, discussing it with her by phone before departure. I’ll just wait at the airport. I always carry a good novel with me. I don’t mind waiting.
“Jacques, you don’t understand. Delhi Airport is not the kind of place you can just wait for three hours.”
“It’s horrid. Trust me on this. You do not want to wait at the airport for three hours.”
One of the things traveling has taught me is to rely on people who have knowledge of local conditions. Always take their advice. In this case, Anjum had plenty.
“Look, I’ll arrange everything,” she explained. “There’s a hotel we stay at in Delhi. The Atlas Hotel. It’s very comfortable. I know the manager. I’ll make a reservation. And then I’ll also arrange to have a car and driver meet you.”
“A car and driver? That seems like way too much trouble.”
“Jacques, you don’t want to just take a cab. You never know what kind of driver you will get. It could be dangerous.”
I remembered that India rated 3-stars for danger, and that one of the most dangerous things you could do was get in a car. Anjum continued.
“The driver is Shere Singh. I always use Shere Singh when I go to Delhi. You can trust him. He will take you to the hotel Atlas. Then he will be at the airport to meet Lynn, and take her to the hotel as well.”
“That won’t work. I made a solemn vow to Lynn that when she got off the airplane in Delhi, she’d find me there. If I’m not there, she’s already promised she’ll get back on the plane and return to Paris.”
Lynn had been doing her own reading about the dangers of India, and had been speaking to her own advisors about the inadvisability of a single woman traveling around alone. In her own way, she was getting as nervous as I was about this trip.
“You have to protect me, Jacques,” she’d insisted before we’d left. “If you’re not at the airport when I arrive, I am going to be so out of there! Seriously, I will get right back on the plane. I’m not kidding!”
We’d also discussed, frankly, the fact that the we were going to be spending two weeks together, traveling in one of the most challenging countries on earth, and that this could be hazardous to our relationship.
“We’re probably going to arrive back in Delhi, at the end of the trip, not even speaking to each other,” I noted for the record.
“Look,” said Lynn. “It’s OK if we’re not speaking. We just have to agree not to get separated. You have to stay with me the whole time, until I get back on the plane to Paris.”
And that meant, Anjum’s suggestions aside, I could not let Shere Singh be the only one meeting Lynn at the airport.
“OK, said Anjum, upon reflection. Shere Singh will take you to the hotel, and then will take you back to the airport.”
That sounded a bit inefficient, but efficiency wasn’t important here. What was important was that when Lynn came through customs in Delhi, I was the first person she saw. A small portion of my life was going to be dedicated to making that happen.
Yet meeting Lynn and getting to the hotel was likely to be the easy part. The ICA Congress was in Jaipur, a city a long way from Delhi. Jaipur was the capital of Rajasthan – the ancient “Land of the Kings” (which is what ‘Rajasthan’ means).
The ICA Congress had promised a “travel desk” at the Delhi airport, to help us delegates get to Jaipur. There were two ways to get to Jaipur: plane or car. Everyone seemed to agree that an airplane was not the way to go. The flights were erratic, in January fog often delayed them, they were expensive, etc. Much the better solution was to arrange a car. The trip by car was six hours. Via email, fax, and other electronic means of communication, I’d arranged that I would use the ICA resources to get us to Jaipur by car – the morning after our arrival. We’d somehow need to get from the hotel back to the airport, but I was certain we could manage that. The point is, everything was as organized as it could be – at least for India. Which is to say in truth it was chaos waiting to happen.
West to India
I’d spent some percentage of the time on my flight to Bangkok, trying to write my speech. Airlines perpetrate a form of fraud on travelers these days, with respect to international flights. United #445 left Denver at xxx and arrived in Bangkok at xxx. According to my ticket. That implied that an airplane flew from Denver to Bangkok. But it didn’t. The airplane flew to Seattle. In Seattle we were directed to leave the plane as there was a “change of equipment.” In airline-speak, “equipment” means “plane.” With its limited range, there was no way our Boeing 757 from Denver was going to fly across the Pacific. So we changed to a 747. No problem. I was happy to do this. But, still, the minor deceit involved with United pretending they had a flight that went from Denver to Bangkok bothered me. They should admit, via honest flight numbers, that to get to Bangkok from Denver you fly to Seattle and change planes.
The new plane brought us safely to Tokyo many hours later—still the same day, and again we were required to disembark, so they could ‘clean the airplane’. We had an hour to kill. We were being fed reasonably well on these international flights, but now I knew would come a long ten hour leg to Bangkok. And I was ready to sleep on this leg. A fast food concession at Narita airport provided both sushi, and water. It also provided an opportunity to try to resurrect my slim knowledge of Japanese.
“Sore wa, kudasai” (“I’d like that, please”) I said, motioning to a fast-food container of sushi. I resolved to eat dinner rapidly on the plane, in lieu of waiting for the interminable dinner service. “Mizu, kudasai” I added, and a bottle of water was handed over as well. While paying, I realized I had no chopsticks with which to eat the sushi.
“Hashi-wa, arimaska?” I asked. (“Do you have chopsticks?”)
The sales girl opened up my package, showing me that chopsticks had already been added.
“Hai, dozo. Gomen nasai…” That was more words than were needed, politely thanking her and apologizing for my foolishness in thinking chopsticks hadn’t already been added. I felt thrilled to realize I could still speak “travel Japanese”. I wondered how well I’d do in India. Than I remembered that the official language in India is both Hindi and English. I would not do well in Hindi, but I was extremely confident with my English. Had I known what awaited me, I would have been less so.
I’d found an airport hotel in Bangkok, on the Internet. The hotel was actually inside the airport building itself, making transportation not too challenging. I made it to my room, and went immediately to sleep. The next morning I was awake and working again on my speech. My flight did not leave until 5pm.
It almost did not leave at all. The giant Thai Airways 747 was lined up on the runway. The pilot slowly opened the throttles, and we began our long, lumbering acceleration. Faster. Faster. Soon the pilot would pull back on the yoke, the front wheel would leave the ground, and then the plane would lift off effortlessly.
Or not. Just before liftoff, the roar of the engines was suddenly extinguished, the pilot stood on the brakes, and the massive jumbo jet literally screeched to a halt. Here and there storage bins flew open. Bags fell out. A few people screamed. Then there was silence. We were two thirds of the way down the active runway, and the plane was just sitting there. Not moving.
This made me very nervous. We’d had to abort the takeoff. Fine. But why were we sitting on the active runway, not even moving off to a taxiway? And perhaps more importantly, why couldn’t the pilot quickly get on the intercom and soothe our nerves with some southern-accent-delivered drawl like:
“Well, y’all probably noticed we had to come to a kinda stop real sudden like. Don’t mean to alarm nobody. Just a routine brake indicator light anomaly. Regulations require we come to a stop and get it reset, so we’ll be mosey’in on back to the gate. Shouldn’t take but a moment, and—ya know what—I’ve just asked the flight attendants to serve everyone free drinks, and ya gotta admit that beats a poke in the eye…”
Airline captains always speak in a southern drawl which demonstrates how confident and relaxed they are and thus is very effective at calming the passengers.
But there was no such message. Not even with Thai-accented English. We just sat there. On the active runway. I didn’t like this at all. Planes should never sit on the active runway. It’s an accident waiting to happen. Active runways are for planes that are landing or taking off. It is absolutely not a good place to park.
“Let’s get off this runway!” I was screaming to myself silently. “Whatever’s going on, this is not the place to be sitting and discussing it! Off the runway. Off. Off. Off!” Memories were coming back to me of the collision of two 747’s, on the active runway in Tenerife in the Canary Islands, with the death toll around 800 and the utter destruction of both planes.
Finally, with infinite caution, I heard the engines come to life again, and the Thai Airways flight lumbered slowly off the runway and onto the taxiway. Still no word from either the flight attendants or the pilots—southern accent or not. Ah, here it came, laced with a strong Thai inflection.
“Radies and Gentermen, we aporogize, but we had to abolt the takeoff for ATC leasons. Because of the sudden stop, we are required to rest so oul blakes coor down befole we take off again, and so there will be a deray of approximatery ten minutes.”
I wondered if anyone on board, other than pilots, knew that ATC stood for Air Traffic Control. So the takeoff had been aborted not for any mechanical reason, which would be the norm. We’d been ordered to abort by the tower. In all my flying experience, I’d never heard of ATC ordering a pilot to abort a takeoff. What would cause such a thing? I could imagine only one reason: there had been another plane on the runway. Had another Tenerife just been avoided, thanks to an astute controller in the Bangkok tower? I prayed that the unknown controller would have many sons, and be reborn as an evolved mammal of his choosing. And rich.
I wasn’t traveling as a rich man today. On the United flight from Denver to Bangkok I’d upgraded to business class, using frequent flier miles. But the short hop from Bangkok to Delhi would be in coach. Of course who cares, if it’s a short hop? At least it had looked short on the map. Thailand and India are quite close on a world map. They are less so once you get away from the map. The flight time from Bangkok to Delhi, I discovered, is four and a half hours: almost as long as New York to Los Angeles. And the craziness of India began right in the middle of the flight—when they started serving the food.
If India is about one thing, it’s about religion. I doubt there’s an agnostic in the whole country. And in India, people care about religion. They care about obeying their religion. And this desire to please their deity seems to come out most aggressively in their allegiance to a particular diet. About three fourths of the people on the plane were Indian, meaning they were almost certainly either Hindu or Muslims. Hindus and Muslims hate each other possibly even more than Muslims hate Jews. In an airplane flight, this manifests itself not with any screaming or yelling or fistfights, but through fanatical, holier-than-thou, strict adherence to their respective diets.
The Hindus and the Muslims had their work cut out for them. The Muslims wouldn’t eat pork. The Hindus wouldn’t eat beef. But most of the rest of the passengers on flight xxx – not surprising given that we were coming from Thailand – were Buddhists. And Buddhists generally won’t eat meat of any kind. Also on the plane were a smattering of Sikhs – those scary men with huge beards, and turbans perpetually kept on their head to hide their yard-long hair; hair which is kept safely greased up and out of the way under the turbans. I wasn’t sure what Sikhs ate, but if someone had offered them anything which offended their religion, I suspected that violence would erupt. Sikhs are not known for their pacifism. There were Jews on the plane as well – and certainly Jews have some issues with food. Finally there was me – the one white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant guy who didn’t care at all what he ate, as long as there was plenty of it.
The lovely Thai flight attendants in their elegant gowns dutifully scurried about, trying to deliver the special meals to all the special religions. On domestic U.S. flights, delivering special meals is a simple matter of dealing with two or three people with special needs. Bangkok to Delhi, everyone on board except me had special needs. The flight attendants were immediately overwhelmed. They had their lists of who had ordered what. And they had an infinity of little trays with aluminum-foil covered dishes which were marked with a code that apparently revealed the contents – in other words, revealed which god would be offended by which dish. But finally they gave up trying to match the meals with the lists, and just went through the aisles waving the trays in despair.
“Non-veg Hindu meal”
“Veg meal. Who ordered Veg?”
“Muslim meal. Two Muslim meals here.”
“Kosher. We have three kosher meals. If you ordered kosher meal, please raise hand…”
I watched this ceremony with increasing frustration. Those of us who were happy to eat the standard meal—if there even was such a thing—were being ignored, in order to satisfy this orgy of special dietary requirements.
“You’re all a bunch of high-maintenance jerks,” I wanted to yell out. “You really think God is sitting up there with nothing better to do than watch this plane and make sure no one is handed the wrong meal? Get real!” But the mean-looking Sikhs would not have appreciated this observation so I kept it to myself.
I did try to inject some humor into the situation. I called over one of the harried and flustered flight attendants—a very beautiful young Thai woman who was near tears.
“Um, excuse me, but I ordered the special American meal…”
She looked at me with confusion and alarm.
“Special American meal?”
“Yes, you know. Hamburger and french fries. As an American, my religion requires that I eat a hamburger and french fries at least once a day.”
I thought this a funny thing to say, and was certain she would break out laughing. She didn’t.
“I will go see,” she assured me, lines of panic spreading across her face. The poor thing was emotionally near collapse. I felt terrible. As she started to rush off I touched her arm and pulled her back.
“I’m just kidding,” I explained. “Special American meal, that – that was a joke.”
She stared at me, not comprehending; not sure what I meant about making a joke out of a dietary requirement. She could see nothing funny about it at all.
“Look,” I continued, now all hope of making her laugh forgotten, “I don’t care what I eat. When you have a moment, just bring me anything you have. Anything at all. It does not matter…”
That, finally, made her relax, and the ghost of a smiled wafted briefly across her face. Then she rushed off to help the others. I knew what she was thinking:
“I’ll never understand Americans. Never!”
My own seatmate was Muslim, from Northwest India, and was happy to educate me about the land I would soon be visiting. He was well dressed in a black suit, white shirt, and tie. Young middle-age, of slight build, he sported a mustache which matched well his swarthy complexion. Most everyone on the plane was of swarthy complexion to one degree or another. I led with a question about the Sikhs.
“So, what’s with those big turbans? I’ve heard they keep their hair wound up inside the turbans. Is that true?”
“Yes, they roll their long hair up into a kind of coil, and place the turban over it. They have to do this, as their hair is very long.”
“So they don’t cut it often?”
“They never cut it. It is against their religion to ever cut their hair. It is an affront to god, in their view, as it implies that man was not made perfectly, in the image of God, and that one’s body must be altered.”
“Well, they have to cut their hair sometime!”
“No, never cut hair—on face, on head, nowhere.”
“But it would just keep growing. In twenty years, it would be, like fifty feet long or something.”
“No, hair stops growing after a certain length. Didn’t you know that? Hair from different places grows to different lengths, and then stops.”
“It does? I’ve never heard of anything like that. Why do you think it stops growing?”
“Think about it. If hair didn’t stop growing, your pubic hair would be down to your feet.”
Geez, I had to admit that that was something I’d just never, ever thought about. Or had reason to think about. He was right, of course.
“OK, so what are Sikhs, exactly? Are they a branch of Hindus, or Muslims, or what?”
“No, not a branch of either. Not a branch of any religion. They are their own religion. They are just Sikhs. They hate everyone equally.”
That was comforting. I remembered that Robert Young Pelton had specifically mentioned that when the bombs started going off, militant Sikhs were usually among the suspects. I was glad that on this flight their dietary requirements, at least, were being met. One less thing to inflame them.
When we left Bangkok the sun had been setting. Yet as we gained altitude and flew West the sun was actually coming up. Bangkok is ten time zones west of Colorado. Delhi is precisely twelve time zones west. Given that there are 24 hours in a day, and thus 24 time zones, that meant that Delhi is precisely on the opposite side of the world from Dillon. Dig a hole deep enough in Dillon, you’ll come out in Delhi. Or in Sri Lanka. Or in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. Or in Novosibirsk in Siberia. Depending on which way you point your shovel. But they all share the same time zone. And they are all a very long way from home. As my seatmate tried to explain Hinduism to me, the foreignness of where I was going seemed increasingly acute.
“The castes emerged from the mouth, arms, legs, and feet of Purusha, the first human being according to Hindu tradition. From the mouth came the Brahmans, who were the priests. That was the highest caste. Next highest was the Kshatriyas, the warrior caste. They came from the arms. Then you have the Vaishyas, who would be the merchants, farmers with their own land, craftsman and so forth. They came from the legs. And the lowest caste was the Shudras, who were slaves, servants, tenant farmers and such.”
“They’re the ones who came from the feet?”
I wondered if I could be a caste that comes from the stomach – so it would be my role to eat. The standard meal on Thai Airways had not left me fulfilled. Or, perhaps I could swear allegiance to all the religions, and thus be entitled to one of each of their meals… No, I was getting off track here. I tried to concentrate on what was being said.
“So the caste that comes from the feet, that’s the lowest, obviously,” I said, trying to keep up my end of the conversation.
“It’s the lowest caste,” he explained. “But then you have a large group beneath even the slaves.”
“The untouchables, right?” I remembered this from my earlier reading.
“Yes. The point is, there is some work that even slaves won’t do. Like skinning animals, digging graves, collecting garbage and so forth. This work is so demeaning that those who do it are considered untouchables, or in Hindu ‘pariah’. If you come into contact with one, if one touches you, you are considered polluted. Complicated Hindu rituals must be performed to unpollute you.”
“I don’t suppose those complicated Hindu rituals involve soap?”
“No,” he said, smiling. “I don’t think they are talking physically clean, but spiritually clean.”
“So what percent of Indians would be considered untouchables?”
“I’m not sure, but I think it’s a large group. Maybe 20% of the Hindu population.”
And is there no way to change castes, or to evolve out of being an untouchable?
“No, it is something you and your descendants are locked into forever.”
“That seems really unfair. If I were an untouchable, I’d try to get the system changed.”
“There is only one way for an untouchable to escape their status.”
“Convert to another religion. This is why many of them convert to Buddhism, Islam, or Christianity. As soon as they convert, they aren’t even part of Hinduism any more, and those other religions don’t have classes or castes or any of that.”
Thinking this over, I found myself amazed that there were any untouchables left in India at all. Why buy into a religion where you and your descendents are condemned to the lowest rungs of society for all eternity?
In fact, I wondered how they’d ever recruited all those untouchables in the first place? The first Hindu evangelist must have gone into some village and said:
“OK, all you people here who butcher animals and dig graves and such, under the new religion you are considered untouchables and are despised by everyone else, and can have no social contact with anyone else, and you and your descendents are all basically scum, and always will be. Anyone have a problem with that?”
“Works for me,” said the butcher.
“No problem,” said the grave digger.
“Sounds reasonable. Where do we sign up?” said the garbage collector.
Was that really how it had gone? Geez, you’d think some leader would have emerged to counter the movement, and would have replied: “Yeah, in your dreams, Brahman-scum! And you say you came from Purusha’s mouth, huh? Well you know what, he must have had bad breath!!! Now get the hell out of our village and don’t come back until you have a religion that’s ready for prime time. Ideally, we’d like something that lets us evolve and become better people if that’s not too much to ask. Can you work on that little detail please?”
And then they’d pelt him and his sacred cow with stones until they were long gone.
[put in narrative explaining Hinduism, Indian culture, history and such, perhaps from the guidebook. Maybe tie this in with my seatmate falling asleep and falling over onto my shoulder. Being Muslim, he wasn’t an untouchable so it wasn’t like I was suddenly polluted. But it was a distracting environment in which to try to read my guidebook…]
Fires In The Night
The plane door opened and I walked up the jetway into the concourse, the smell of India hitting me immediately. Pungent and cloying, it both repelled, and beckoned me onwards. I felt as a dog must feel – encountering a new scent for the first time, and being awfully curious about where it was coming from and what it meant.
My sister Beth has taught me a wonderful personal philosophy called the “Power of Negative Thinking”. The author Norman Vincent Peale became famous for the opposite, with his book: “The Power of Positive Thinking”. But negative thinking is much more potent. Here’s how it works. You assume the worst, in every situation. And if the worst happens, you have the smug satisfaction of having predicted it and prepared for it – so you feel good because your wisdom is validated. If something less than the worst happens, you feel good because you are pleasantly surprised. Typically the worst does not happen, and so someone armed with this philosophy goes through life in a perpetual state of being pleasantly surprised. Or vindicated. One or the other. It’s a wonderful feeling. Kind of a “heads I win, tails you lose” perspective – but applied to life in general, not to an adversary.
As I disembarked the plane in India, ready to face two weeks in the world’s most challenging country, I was mentally prepared for everything possible to go wrong, be horrible, cause endless misery, and result in the most despicable two weeks I’d ever encountered. If that were to happen, I was going to be insufferably pleased with myself for having predicted it.
Here came the first test. The line for emigration. This is where they check your passport. I expected this line to be in some humid, odor-filled, windowless, bureaucrat-controlled, third-world, depressing, featureless room from which purgatory itself would seem an improvement.
My spirits soared inexpressibly, having forecast this exact situation.
I’d also guessed the line would be interminable, and that also proved correct. In a country of a billion people and no doubt half of them out of work, it seemed no more than two could be spared to check the passports of incoming travelers at the international airport in this country’s capital city. If more than two could have been spared, it would have reduced a tedious one-hour ordeal, to a simple five minute process. The economic dysfunctionality was so extreme it was nearly debilitating to anyone who gave it a thought. Everyone in this line would gladly have paid $5 to have avoided the wait. At least two hundred people in the line. $1,000. I found out later that $50 is a good monthly income for a middle class worker in India. 200 passport checkers could have found gainful employment right here at the airport, eliminating the immigration line altogether. One plane-full of visitors would have paid for these passport checkers for a whole month. As I occupied myself with these simple calculations a cautionary dread came upon me. If I was going to survive in this country, emotionally, I was going to have to shut down that part of my brain that recognized economic dysfunctionality. Otherwise there would be a swift descent into madness. A micron of common sense dropped into a country with so many unfilled needs, and so many unemployed and starving people, would cause an explosion of economic growth. Right here at the airport, it was easy to see how implementing a simple $5.00 “avoid the line” optional fee would make 200 previously unemployed Indians rich for life—and also present incoming travelers with a painless and enjoyable entry experience into this exotic and vibrant country – perhaps in a small way helping fuel tourism and business travel that much more. But would it ever happen? Not in my lifetime. And I knew in my soul that outside this airport, an infinity of such economic dysfunctionalities would await me. I could not let myself be bothered by them. Otherwise my head would explode. It was a real danger – head exploding from over-exposure to economic madness. I was going to have to work on this.
Sitting down on my carry-on size, wheeled luggage, I pulled out my book, and began to read. Or at least I pretended to read. Pulling out a book and pretending to read in such situations is very calming. It makes a clear statement that you are not in the least disturbed to be in an hour long line – that in fact you have ascended to a karmic level unlikely to be disturbed by anything; and also that you brought along an interesting book. Yet of course I could not actually read. There were too many sights and sounds of India all around me.
Sort of. I couldn’t see India at all in this featureless immigration holding pen. But the other people in line were interesting. These were the various passengers who’d made such a fuss about getting the right meal, and certainly they came in many flavors themselves. About ten percent had turbans on their heads. All shades of skin color were represented, from white to yellow to brown, to black as coal. All of them looked somewhat bored and frustrated, clearly not benefiting from the inner joy of having predicted this precise environment, nor having equipped themselves with a good book to pretend to read.
Heightening the already good impression I was having of myself was the fact that I’d somehow managed to choose the one line in the whole room that was moving quickly. At this rate—even though I was near the end of it—I’d be thru immigration and onto the next challenge in mere minutes.
Aha, it was now my turn. I showed my passport dutifully to the bored immigration official.
“Wrong line,” he said blandly, motioning with his head that I should go to one of the other lines. To my horror, I realized I’d mistakenly chosen the Indian nationals line. Now I had to start over, at the back of the longest line of all: the one for foreign nationals. This was not a problem, as I’d already predicted that immigration would be an infinitely miserable experience, and take four times longer than it should, and events were now unfolding precisely on schedule, and in keeping with this forecast.
The power of negative thinking was already proving it’s worth, after only half an hour in the country. And I hadn’t even gotten sick yet. Although of course I was going to. I would probably be sick the whole time I was here.
The power of negative thinking. I clung to it.
Passing through immigration, I was finally released into India itself. Emerging from immigration, in any country, is always satisfying to the soul, because of the vast crowd of humanity that waits just outside immigration. This crowd always lifts my spirits, because it’s easy to pretend they are waiting for me. This feeling is fostered by the fact that the crowd is hoping that each person who comes through the gates, is in fact the one they are waiting for. And so they look at each person with a hope, an expectancy on their face, a latent smile, a white sign held aloft in anticipation, an eager glance. Perhaps this is not fame itself, but it is undeniably a brief taste of fame. Of course after this first honeymoon blush of enthusiasm, the crowd becomes fickle and realizes you are not the one they are waiting for, and their attention focuses elsewhere. Even so, where else in life do you have a couple of hundred people staring at you with such excitement and enthusiasm, even if it is short-lived? The thought crossed my mine that if I could feel pleasure at a couple of hundred people incorrectly-believing, for an instant, that I was someone I wasn’t, and so favor me with their attention for that instant, then I truly needed to get a life.
But in this case I disappointed the crowd, and turned aside before approaching them. There was a small, makeshift table here, staffed by two young men who were sitting beside it on folding chairs. A hand printed, cardboard sign on this table said: ICA.
“I’m with ICA” I announced.
“Yes, your name please?” asked one, and then they both began flipping through sheets of paper. My name was on one of these sheets of paper, and they looked back up. One of them said: “Lynn Buckley. Where is Lynn Buckley?”
I was quite impressed both with the fact that my name was on this piece of paper, and also that they were organized enough to have known the name of my traveling companion.
“She arrives on Air France, later tonight,” I explained.
“Ah yes. Well, we have a car arranged to take you tonight to Jaipur.” The young man spoke in heavily accented English. It was of course an Indian accent but here in India it seemed to have special opaqueness. I had to pay close attention to understand what he was saying. “Your car is scheduled to leave at 1 a.m.”, he continued. It was ten-thirty now. Lynn would arrive in an hour and a half.
“No,” I explained. “We’re staying in Delhi tonight. Going to Jaipur tomorrow. That was in the faxed instructions.”
“Going to stay here tonight?”
“Going to Jaipur tomorrow?”
The two turned and began a rapid dialogue with each other in a language I guessed was Hindi, and then finally spoke to me again.
“We arrange car to take you to your hotel. And we will find you a hotel.”
“Thank you. But I already have a driver and a hotel.”
“Oh, so what hotel?”
I gave him the name of the hotel, and they agreed the car would be there at ninr in the morning. If Lynn’s flight arrived on time, we’d have at least a few hours of sleep.
Still not yet up to the waiting throng eagerly anticipating my arrival, I paused at the Thomas Cook desk and changed $200 into a wad of local currency. The fact that the local-currency equivalent of $200 equaled nearly three inches of bills was not surprising. If this had been Zambia, $200 would have equaled a wad of bills nearly a foot thick. I was more intrigued by the fact that a giant stapler was used by Thomas Cook to group the Indian rupees into wads of a half inch each. So I was given six, ½ – inch wads, currency stapled together, for my $200. It wouldn’t fit in my billfold so I placed these rupee clumps in several sections of my luggage, reminding myself again what happens when a central government inflates its currency so shamelessly.
At last I came fully out of immigration, and here were the people with the little signs. I considered it likely that there would be a sign for me, as Shere Singh was to take me to the hotel. Ah yes, here it was. I walked over the young man holding the “Jacques Voorhees” sign and announced my identify.
“Hello, how are you?” he asked. “I am ready to take you to Jaipur.”
“Jaipur? No, you’re taking me to the hotel.”
“Yes, the hotel in Jaipur.”
“No, no. Anjum must not have explained. We’re staying here in Delhi tonight. Tomorrow we go to Jaipur.”
“You go Jaipur tomorrow? Stay here? Where you stay?”
“Well I thought you knew where I was staying.”
“Yes, you are staying at the Sheraton hotel in Jaipur.”
“No, no. That’s for the ICA congress. I’m talking about the hotel here in Delhi.”
“You stay in Delhi, it’s OK, I take you to your hotel. Which hotel you want go?”
From the corner of my eye I saw another man, waving a sign, trying to get my attention. That man’s sign said Jacques Voorhees as well.
Perhaps my fantasy had become real. Perhaps all these people really were here to greet me.
“Excuse me a moment” I said to man #1, and walked briskly away before he could protest. I went to man #2. “Why do you have a Jacques Voorhees sign?” I asked. “I’m Jacques Voorhees.”
“I am Shere Singh. I am here to take you to hotel.”
“You’re Shere Singh? Wait a minute. Who’s that other guy…” I excused myself from man #2 and walked back quickly to #1.
“Aren’t you Shere Sing? Sent here by Anjum Malik?”
“No. I sent here by ICA. I take you to hotel in Jaipur.”
Suddenly it all made sense. Sort of. But things were getting awfully confusing, awfully quickly. I hastened back to the ICA desk, and asked them to communicate to their driver the new plan. Shere Sing, the real one, waited patiently through all this. When I’d cut adrift from all the ICA people, Shere Singh and I reviewed our plans.
“Anjum say, take you to Hotel. Then come back for Lynn.”
“Yes, but I’m worried about that plan. We’re going to the Hotel _____. I found it on the Internet. It had indicated it was only “a few miles from the airport”.
About, oh, 45 minutes. Maybe more.”
Forty five minutes? I was furious. The hotel’s website had implied it was virtually an airport hotel. Quite a bit of time had by now elapsed since I’d disembarked from the plane. Lynn would be arriving in an hour and a half.
“I don’t think we have time to go to hotel and back again. I think we must wait for Lynn.”
“Yes, I think you right.”
I looked around [descrdibe scene, benches, etc.]
Alone, 90 minutes would have passed swiftly. I could have pulled out my book and collapsed time almost instantly. The Delhi airport wasn’t THAT bad. True, it was filthy and the whole place smelled like urine. But it had benches. What else did one need? Yet 90 minutes waiting with a stranger—a guy who spoke English barely at all.
I got thru it. We waited on the benches and I asked him about his family and so forth. I bought some juice—little boxed juices—from a vendor, I figured that would be safe. I tried out the restroom [descrdibe]
Finally it was approaching Lynn’s flight time. Overhead signboards portrayed the status of arriving flights, and eventually it showed Air France 999 as “arrived”. I reminded myself again that Lynn had made me promise that I, personally, was to be the first thing she saw when she got off the plane. If I wasn’t the first thing she saw, she was getting back on the Air France jet. Rather than wait in the crowd of endlessly-waiting-people, I talked my way past the guard by explaining I needed to return to the ICA booth. The ICA table literally was just outside the opaque doors from which newly arrived passengers would issue.
I waited there, making small talk with the ICA duo. Suddenly here was Monsieur______, from France. I knew him from Cibjo congresses, and knew his wife as well. WE shook hands formally, and then he—too—talked to the ICA people.
“We have car for you,” they explained, proudly. Leave in half an hour for Jaipur.”
“No, we’re staying in Delhi tonight. Jaipur tomorrow.”
“You stay Delhi tonight?”
“Yes, Jaipur tomorrow.”
“What hotel you stay at?” The details were resolved, and off this group went.
Aha. Here was someone else I knew, just exiting the doors. It was _________, also a Cibjo contact. We greeted each other, and I passed him off to the ICA desk.
“We have car for you. Go Jaipur tonight.”
“No, I’m staying in Delhi tonight…”
That got sorted out. And here came Roland Naftule, a well-known colored stone dealer from the U.S. I greeted him as well, and passed him off to the ICA desk.
“We have car for you. Go Jaipur tonight.”
“No, I’m staying in Delhi tonight…”
Roland left, and the two boys at the ICA desk were nearing a state of apoplexy. “We have cars and drivers all organized for tonight!” they explained to me. . “Everyone wants to stay in Delhi tonight. This is very bad. What do we do with all these drivers?”
“Use them in the morning,” I suggested.
And here came Lynn – smiling, blonde hair aglow, dressed in travel slacks and a black, long sleeve t-shirt.
“Welcome to India!” I said, greeting her warmly.
“JV we did it! We really did it! We made it to India!”
There was a cathartic element to these words.
At that moment the rest of the trip was not an issue. We would have a wonderful time or a horrid time or something in between, but now no one could ever take away from us the fact that we had traveled to India. We basked in the glow of achievement—such as it was. Delhi airport is a place to flee, not glow. But before we did, there was one thing I had to say.
“I just want it noted for the record that I was the first thing you saw, after leaving emmigration.”
“Yes, you absolutely were.” She hugged me again, and I sensed that travelling with this woman for two weeks might not be so difficult after all. At least that would be the case with Lynn herself. Lynn’s luggage, on the other hand, might not prove so compatible.
It’s a point of personal pride, how lightly I pack. The more distant the destination, and the longer the trip, the smaller and lighter my luggage. For two weeks in India, needing to cover what I imagined could be anything from hot and humid weather to the snows of the Himalayas, and everything from giving speeches at business conferences to exploring back-alleyways in mysterious villages, I’d packed a tiny suitcase small enough to meet even international carry-on limitations, and a tiny daypack. Lynn also had a daypack, plus two suitcases large enough to frighten an elephant.
Yet I’ve traveled with women before, and I’ve learned they rarely pack lightly, and may be genetically incapable of it, I’m not sure. I don’t hold this against them. Society pressures women to look good, and this requires luggage. The phenomenon is of value in one respect: it makes a man feel needed, being able to rescue a female from the weight of her suitcases—like helping unscrew the lid from a peanut butter jar, or retrieve an item from a high shelf.
I introduced Lynn and her luggage to Shere Singh. He and I quickly took command of the suitcases, both of us revelling in such a testosterone-rich activity as carrying the bags for her. As we exited the dismal arrival area of Delhi airport, and walked for the first time out into the actual streets of India, it hit me forcefully how visually unusual Lynn Buckley was going to be, and what a problem this might pose. Blonde hair in India is as uncommon as in Japan—a country where you might travel Tokyo for a week and never see it. As mentioned, Lynn’s hair is not short-cropped or inclined to hang listlessly. It is very bright, of a golden hue, quite long, and typically blow-dried into magnificence. There are approximately 1 billion people in India, and for most of the time we were there it seemed that at least ten percent of that number were always within a few blocks of us. In other words, India not only is crowded, it feels crowded. And everyone in those crowds was now staring at Lynn’s hair as the three of us walked the short distance to the parking lot.
In an amazing stroke of good fortune, within 24 hours of our arrival in India, Lynn blew-out her 110v hair dryer by plugging it into a 220v socket.
“Jacques,” she confessed. “Do you think you can handle looking at me with curly hair—non blowdried hair—for two weeks? Let me put it this way, I don’t think you have a choice.” I assured Lynn I was up to the challenge, and mentally blessed the fact that without the blow drier, Lynn might be slightly less conspicuous.
[need something about it being so cold we could see our breath…so much for the “heat and dust” reputation of India.] Leaving Delhi Airport, Shere Singh drove us deftly through the streets on the way to the InterContinental hotel, and I recalled some of the words in the guidebooks:
“India is one of the most intricate and rewarding dramas unfolding on earth. It’s an assault on your senses”
At 2 a.m., on a cold January morning driving through the outskirts of the Delhi airport, this assault began.
Shere Singh’s car itself was quite small and a bit rickety, yet that surprised neither of us. The highway, if one can use the term, was narrow and pot-filled—no reason to stop the presses on that account, either. However, traffic was surprisingly heavy, given the hour. And it was aggressive. I have written at length on driving in Italy and had convinced myself that drivers in Sicily, in particular, were the most rabid, out-of-control, homicidally-inclined life-forms on the planet. After several miles on the roadeways of India, I came to realize that Sicilians were in truth quite mild-mannered with their cars, and even embarassingly-timid when contrasted to their counterparts on this sub-continent of a billion people, all of whom—at least at the moment—seemed determined to get somewhere else. I remembered that India had earned its 3-star Dangerous Places rating from Robert Pelton in part because of the driving conditions. He considered driving in India one of the three quickest ways to end your life (the other two being hiking and breathing.)
The highway from the airport into town was two lanes, but only in terms of its physical width. None of the cars, and less so the trucks, paid any attention to this apparently unimportant limitation. At any given time, there were generally no less than three, often up to five cars passing each other if you count both sides of the road. The fact that so many could exist, side by side at one time, was possible in part because the cars themselves were so small – the largest being about the size of a Volkswagen Rabbit, the smallest being a three-wheeled contraption known as a “motor rickshaw”, roughly the size of a large wheelbarrow.
The trucks were not small, yet they were of unusual shape. Wide as an American semi, perhaps, only half as long, yet almost twice as tall. These “skyscrapers-on-wheels” could only be compared to a motorized elephant: huge, ungainly, yet surprisingly fast. They darted about amidst the swarms of miniature cars and motor-rickshaws, and seemed not the least concerned at the possibility of crushing several of these each time they changed lanes. Of course none of these vehicles ever exactly “changed” lanes, as there was only one lane alloted for each direction of travel. It was more a question of weaving about within the lane, often flowing over into on-coming traffic when doing so might yield brief tactical advantage, happily bouncing along the dirt and gravel of the shoulder itself if doing so was necessary to pass another car, or simply squeezing in between two other vehicles and darting ahead, in a maneuver that would be breathtakingly applauded at any NASCAR racetrack in America.
Lynn and I were terrified. We sat in the back-seat, clinching our teeth, knuckles turning white, so much adrenaline flowing through our jet-lagged bodies that we were not in the least sleepy.
One thing we noticed, even in the dark, was that on the back of every truck was painted the words: Honk Please. Or sometimes: Please Honk. I found this curious, as civilization elsewhere has generally reached agreement that cars honking at each other is a form of rudeness. In India, the trucks were soliciting such honks, and they were receiveing them. The cacophony of sound erupting all around us was, I realized, part of the bat-like, sonar-based, system that swarms of flying rodents use to avoid crashing into both cave walls and each other, despite being virtually blind. In a breathtaking moment of sciedntific discovery, I realized that this highway wasn’t quite as dangerous as it seemed. The sound of the horns was a vital piece of sensory-input that these drivers were using at what could only be a very sub-concious level.
As Shere Sing guided us deftly along mile after mile of these roadways, we began to relax just a bit. This was not easy. Relaxing in such circumstances required an almost Zen-like determination to not be affected by the close proximity, and harrowing escapades, of the other vehicles careening about only inches from our own—and avoiding our own careening only by apparent acts of devine deliverance. It was small wonder the country was so religious. God was the only possible force who could be directing traffic, and keeping so many from harm against such odds.
Yet we did eventually reach the Zen-like state of shutting down our own auto-response mechanisms to the moment-to-moment scenes of near carnage occuring around us. And when at last we were able to actually look past the roadway itself, the real India—the real soul of India—suddenly revealed itself.
Contrary to what I wrote earlier, India is not primarily about religion. Nor is it about avoiding death and dismemberment on the highways. (Although both of these are important elements of the India experience.) If India is about one thing, it’s about people.
And there they were. Two o’clock in the morning, the sides of the roadways were filled with people. Some were walking. One could only wonder: Where, at this hour? Many others were standing around, staring at the spectacle of the highway. Certainly that seemed reasonable, and must have provided hours of entertainment in its own right. A very large number were apparently sleeping—at least they were sprawled out on the ground, literally claiming a piece of dirt as their lodging for the night. Not all these were on the ground per se. Some had found accomodation on top of a cement block fence, lying on the branch of a low-hanging tree much like a jungle cat, happily dreaming away while nestled in the dubious luxury provided by the corroguted-tin roof of a mud hut, or nestled among gunny sacks of grain piled onto two-wheel carts that had been parked for the night.
“Wow,” said Lynn, unable to express herself more fully, trying to mentally internalize the concept of so many people sleeping almost where it seemed they’d “fallen”. It was as if sleep had overtaken them so suddenly that wherever they’d been at the time, that spot had become their bed for the evening. So might a mideval village of central Europe look, amidst the devastation of the black plague: bodies sprawled askew, in every position, yet utterly ignored by those who walked amongst them.
“Wow,” I said in return, finding in that short word the perfect expression of my feelings at the moment.
“The drama of India” was certainly unfolding around us, yet it was not the chaotic highway scene that most captured it. Nor was it the hundreds—thousands—of people walking, standing, or sleeping that most caught our attention either. There was something else going on here, deep into the India night, that we found both astonishing and almost unbelievable.
All along the roadways, from the moment we’d left the airport to deep into Delhi’s suburbs as it appeared we now were, the majority of the people were neithe rsleeping, standing, okr walking. They were huddled around campfires!
Campfires! The lights of these were everywhere, providing heat to those nestled around them no doubt, but also contributing to an eirie glow spawned by the foggish humidity that seemed to enshroud the landscape with mystery and perhaps a touch of malice. We were travelling through what seemed a surrealistic world, some post-apocolyptic vision of the future perhaps. Or maybe we’d been granted a glimpse into the ancient past when the tribes of central Asia had kept themselves warm at night in similar fashion. It was cold in Delhi. Emerging from the airport we’d noticed we could see our breath in the air—not an unusual concept for those who have lived in the mountains of Colorado. But it was very unusual here. We discovered later that all India was experiencing its worst cold wave in nearly fifty years. Over a thousand people died from it. These fires burning in the streets were actually saving lives.
Finally the car slowed, and then turned in through high gates in a large wall, and the images of a modern, business-hotel came into view. This was the Intercontinental, part of a well-known luxury chain, yet rooms had been available on the Internet for only $115/night. That reasonable rate, plus the fact that it claimed to be close to the airport, plus the fact that we’d probably do well to stay at a known hotel chain our first night, was the rationale for the choice. Yet I’d just learned my first lesson about travel in India: a hotel might claim physical proximity to the airport, yet still be nearly an hour away given the reality of Indian highways.
A large, beareded man in a turban approached, which I would have found frightening except his smile and uniform implied he was a doorman. Several others began converging as well, like a pack of wolves at the scent of fresh meat—or at least that’s how I’ve always regarded doormen. To someone who arrives at a hotel after conquering vast prairie-like parking lots, post-9/11 airport security lines, concourses of endless dimension, and the death-by-a-thousand-cuts ordeals of airport-to-hotel transportation—the thought that, after all that, I’m in need of a platoon of doormen to help me overcome the final 12 yards to the reception desk, has always struck me as personally insulting; and obviously fueled by a shameless lust for tip money. I have been known to ask a cab driver to drop me off half a block shy of a hotel’s front entrance so as to avoid the doormen altogether, sneak in behind them as it were, and arrive at the reception desk in triumph. One takes pleasures where one can, on the road.
I eyed the swarm of scary, turbaned Sihks now surrounding us, and tried to think of a strategy for getting past them without their notice. Then I came to my senses. First, there is no such thing as tipping in India. Second, with Lynn’s luggage we probably did need half a dozen of these well-muscled porters. So while Lynn supervised the doormen, I assumed the task of paying Shere Singh. The fare was only a few hundred rupees, or about ten dollars. I withdrew from my pack one of the stapled-together wads of rupee notes, and suddenly received my second lesson in India: One needs to un-staple the pile of rupees before one tries to use them.
The impossibly-thick stack of bills had been so powerfully and firmly stapled toghether by the Thomas Cook agent that it simply could not be taken apart. I wrestled with it in utter frustration and embarassment, under the bright lights of the Intercontinental’s covered entranceway. Shere Singh was standing by politely and respectfully, as if a monetary transaction was the last thing on his mind. It was a Sikh who came to my rescue. Seeing my problem, and perhaps having encountered it frequently in his position of greeting foreigners newly-arrived from the airport, he offered to help and I gladly handed him the entire pile of rupees. With strong, practiced movements, he pulled at the staple and twisted the rupee-brick, but even someone of his skill and strength could not pry it apart. The staple would not budge. He called out something in Hindi to others nearby, and one of these brought some tools: a pair of plier-like objects, a thin screwdriver, a knife. The three of us worked away deligently and finally succeeded. The first Sikh held up to the light the mammoth, industrial strength staple in the teeth of the pliers, and smiled proudly, like an amateur dentist extracting a troublesome tooth. I peeled off three of the notes, handed them to Shere Singh, made the appropriate goodbyes and vague references to possible encounteres in the future, and then Lynn and I were shephereded inside the Intercontinental Hotel.
It was certainly no towering glass and steel edifice, as an Intecontinental might have been in San Francisco or Miami. Its construction was of stone and wood, highlighted with polished brass, carpets liberally draped about, broad expanses of tiled floor, ceiling fans that might have turned had they been needed, and in general almost a “Santa Fe” style of architecture. Yet there was no doubt it was a good hotel, perhaps a luxury hotel depending on how one counted, and being here—after what we’d been seeing from the cab window—constituted a form of cultural whiplash. The deep impression left on us by even this brief glimpse of India’s poverty, chaos, and people had overloaded our brains, and that had happened within the first hour of our arrival. We had two more weeks in this country. Could we handle it, emotionally? There was so much to digest.
Now was not the time to try. I’m certain Lynn fell asleep in her room as quickly as I did in mine.
Everyone seemed to agree that the drive from Delhi to Jaipur took at least six hours, which is astonishing considering how close together the two are on a world map. But then I remembered our hotel claiming to be “close” to the airport. It was good to remember that I was in India—a land where they’ve definitely discovered the wheel, but have not yet discovered the wheel’s ultimate manifestation: multi-lane freeways. Yet Lynn and I ate our breakfast the next morning in leisure. Our driver—the one being provided through ICA—was to meet us at 9:00 a.m., and we had plenty of time. In fact, the first real “event” at the Congress was a welcome reception at 7:00 that evening, so we were in no hurry at all.
Business hotels generally serve breakfast buffet style, these days. It allows for great diversity in type of food—so much so that at the NY Hilton, for example, the breakfast buffet includes everthing from scrambled eggs and bacon (favored by Americans) to short, fat sausages and boiled tomatoes (favored by the British), to sliced cheese, dark break, and air-dried beef (favored by Continental Europeans), to miso soup, rice, and broiled salmon (favored by the Japanese) as well as many other items.
As Lynn and I were just beginning our breakfast, letting the fresh hot coffee rescue us from our jet-lagged and sleep-deprived state, and determined to eat enough so that we might be able to escape lunch if one was not readily-available, a bellman arrived and informed us that our driver was here.
Already? I glanced at my watch. He was half an hour early. This was puzzling. Half an hour late, even two hours late, would not have surprised me greatly. I was not prepared for something happening ahead of schedule in India.
“Please tell him to wait,” said Lynn with aristocratic authority. “We’re finishing breakfast and will be leaving the hotel at 9:00.”
“Certainly, ma’am,” the bellman nodded and hurried off to deliver the message.
“You know,” I confessed, “that wouldn’t have occurred to me. I’m so use to fast-paced business travel, that if my car arrived early I’d have gulped down my eggs and raced out the door. Asking a driver to wait thirty minutes…”
“Well,” said Lynn, “he’s the one who got here too early. And he’s our driver. Not the other way around. We’re the customers, after all.”
She was absolutely right. But on some level I think it’s possible that the class-consciousness that pervades India was already seeping into our psyche. We were leisurely enjoying breakfast in an elegant hotel, waiters were scurrying about eager to do our bidding, and our car and driver had just arrived. These were our servants, and they did as we ordered, did they not? Having been raised so forcefully as an egalitarian, these thoughts were troubling. Was India still haunted by the ghost of British imperialism and colonial rule? Were we, ourselves, subconciously falling into the old patterns? Was the fact that Lynn and I were clearly westerners, while all about us swarmed black-haired, dark-skinned laborers creating a slightly-racist demarcation between master and servant? How easy it must have been for the British, already convinced of their cultural and racial superiority, and having conquered the people militarily, to have become so bigoted and arrogant in their two century rule.
As we checked out of our rooms, a pleasant surprised awaited us. After mentally converting the rupees into U.S. currency, I was pleased to see that our entire bill came to less than twenty dollars! What a country! I showed Lynn and she looked at it puzzled. “No, you did the math wrong. It’s actually… Oh my God, it’s over $500!”
The check-out clerk, observing our confusion, pulled out a pocket calculator (a very useful device in such circumstances), and wrote down the dollar equivalent on a piece of paper. That number looked about right. Apparently we were to receive neither a windfall nor a calamity. “Darn,” I said. “Whew!” said Lynn. I made a mental note to be very careful, henceforth, in converting rupees to dollars, as otherwise I’d be exposed to emotional whiplash with every transaction.
With the help of our porters, we walked regally out of the hotel, and were recognized immediately by our driver. He came over and introduced himself to me, with a handshake and a broad smile. He nodded vaguely to Lynn, scarcely looking at her, and then turned away to supervise the loading of the suitcases into the trunk. That was odd. The three of us were about to share a six hour car ride and he might have been a bit more friendly to the 2nd passenger. Over the next several days, we noticed this phenomenon and began remarking on it.
“The male/female thing is really big here, I guess,” said Lynn, with some annoyance, about a week into our trip. “Men treat me as some kind of lesser being. They don’t make eye contact, they don’t shake my hand. Have you noticed they always communicate to you, and generally ignore me; act like I don’t exist. Geesh.”
This was hard on Lynn, a very outgoing, confidant American business-woman. She was used to a lot of things, but she was not used to being ignored. It was only on our last day in India, when we were having dinner with Anjum and Hussein Malik, that Anjum solved the mystery.
“No, no,” she explained. “They’re not treating you rudely, or pretending you don’t exist. They are trying to be respectful. You are an attractive woman, accompanied by a man. To look at you, the woman, too obviously, to shake your hand—to touch you in any way—would be hugely disrespectful. You can initiate conversation with them, and they will respond. But they will never initiate it. They will always speak to the man, out of respect. Otherwise, it would almost be a form of sexual aggression, like they were openly lusting after you.”
“Oh, wow,” said Lynn. “And all this time I thought they were treating me as an inferior, because I was female.”
“No, you are on a pedestal, because you are a female.”
“You know, in the diamond industry, at trade shows and things, I’ve encountered the Hasidic Jews who won’t shake my hand, because a touch from a woman would defile them. Really makes me feel attractive! But I guess this is something different.”
“Not just different. Opposite. They are showing you, and your male companion, respect by not openly looking at you, or making it clear how aware they are of you. But I understand what you mean. For a western woman, it makes you feel like you’re being ignored, almost insulted.”
“But what if I wasn’t traveling with Jacques? What if I were traveling alone?”
“It would be very different. Then they would of course address you, look at you, and perhaps shake your hand if you offered, and so forth. For an Indian lady to travel alone would be scandalous. But they’re used to western women doing it.”
I hadn’t recalled reading anything at all about this in the Lonely Planet guidebook. There was the usual admonishment against women wearing clothing that was overly-revealing, of course, the dangers of traveling alone, and so forth, but nothing about how men would behave around a woman if she was accompanied by a male companion. Perhaps I should have found a copy of “India for Dummies” or something, which might have included that kind of “street-smart” wisdom.
As we drove through the gates of the hotel, we found ourselves instantly back in the third-world poverty we’d glimpsed the night before. I began to realize that India consisted of islands, or perhaps little “oasis” of wealth and privilege, surrounded by the infinite desert of primitive conditions, despair, dirt, homelessness, and hunger. Or at least so it seemed at the time. I decided later that “despair” was not really part of the Indian psyche. They are a very enthusiastic, hard-working, and energetic people. I heard later that of India’s 1 billion population, about 5% are extremely wealthy, 45% are middle class, and only 50% are dirt-poor. Yet to an American driving through the streets of Delhi on the road to Jaipur, it seemed that everyone was dirt-poor.
Actually, “dirt” is the one thing that India has no lack of. India feels dirty in a way that’s different from any other country I’ve experienced. It’s a strange phenomenon. Some of it is knowledge-based. I’d read about how dirty India is. I knew it was the most disease-ridden country in the world. I’d had inoculations innumerable just to prepare myself, yet was stressing out over having skipped Hep B. As I looked out over the landscape, seeing the meat and vegetable vendors with their wares spread out on little three-wheeled carts, or on carpets or towels on the ground, or even on the ground itself, seeing the infinity of (presumably) unwashed bodies, people walking around without shoes, shivering under the dubious warmth of filth-stained blankets, catching glances of little streams that looked more like open sewars, I just knew that Hep B viruses were out there waiting for me—certain to take immediate advantage of any inattention or neglect on my part.
So India’s dirty feeling was a combination of what I’d read, and what I was seeing. I recalled the restroom in the Delhi airport, and remembered how strongly the scent of urine pervaded it. Certainly I’ve been to restroom’s in other places that had that problem. But a restroom at the International Airport in a nation’s capital city? A country of a billion people? How hard could it be to find one or two of them who could be made responsible for keeping that restroom clean? It’s important to remember that India is not the world’s poorest country, not even close. It’s per capita income is $2,570. That’s immense wealth compared to Sierra Leone, which really is the world’s poorest country, with per capita income of only $130. Yet the restroom at the International Airport in the capital of Sierra Leone does not smell of urine, while it’s counterpart in India does. That tells you something about the relative importance the Indian culture places on cleanliness.
Actually, that may be unfair. The filth of India is not really cultural, but directly related to the country’s out-of-control population growth, combined with the fact that one half of that population is living in extreme poverty. With half the population merely trying to stay alive, it’s difficult to channel resources into cleaning up the environment they live in. Yet among the middle class and above, cleanliness is no different than one finds in America. In fact, it’s the juxtaposition of these two worlds: the poverty and the wealth, that is ultimately responsible for the “assault on your senses” term that so accurately describes the country.
Certainly Lynn and I were being so-assaulted at the moment. We’d arrived in darkness, but now were seeing India in the daylight. Sort of. A thick fog blanketed the outskirts of Delhi through which we were now driving. WE couldn’t see more than about 100 yards in any direction. Even so, a radius of 100 yards, the center of which is moving swiftly down a highway, provides in India no shortage of sights.
Where to begin? Americans are used to a world in which most all movement of people occurs in automobiles. This is not so in third-world countries. Along this Indian “highway”, there were of course a vast quantity of cars and large trucks, still jostling for position no less energetically than they’d been doing last night. And, shockingly, some of these large trucks carried such vast quantity of cargo that it had to be piled up high over the tops of the truck itself, and allowed to expand like a mushroom cloud such that some of the trucks almost did resemble mushrooms. This overflowing cargo was always held together by ingenius ropes and netting that somehow kept it all on board. These trucks, filled in this way, would have violated every trucking law in America, but here in India they accomplished the obviously-desirable goal of allowing any truck that employed these tactics to carry twice its design capacity.
Yet for every truck or car traveling this roadway, there might be five motor-scooters, ten bicycles, twenty pedal-powered carts, half a dozen wagons pulled by large mammals (generally cows or horses, though occasionally a camel or water buffalo), and perhaps fifty people simply walking. And some of these pedestrians were, themselves, serving as beasts of burden: pulling the carts directly, possessing no large mammal to pull it for them.
The carts, whether animal, bicycle, or human powered, were piled high with the most interesting and diverse of items. Clearly there was currently-underway a vast migration of various fruits and vegetables from one part of the country to another. Many of these carts were overflowing with mountains of cabbages, or baskets-full of nuts, or oranges and bananas beyond measure. Some contained live chickens, in crates. Building supplies were another popular item: bags of cement, stacks of bricks, lumber, and logs possibly destined to become lumber. Yet some carts carried what could only be called long sticks, too thin to qualify as logs. These were less than an inch or two in diameter, but often a dozen feet long—overhanging the ends of the carts by great distances, and thus needing to be arranged so that they did not interfere with whatever was providing the propulsion. Typically this meant that they would divide out in the shape of a “v”, with the single point of the v being far behind the cart, and the open section provding space for the cow or whatever to do its thing. I guessed that this was firewood, obtained from what must surely be a rapidly diminishing supply of trees.
As one might expect in a city the sides of the road were heavily crowded with buildings of variouis sorts. These were generally all decrepit, to various degrees, and of one or occasionally two stories. Most were cement based: literally brick and mortar, or often smooth masonry that I suspected covered a cement-brick structure. Gray was the color of choice, as why would anyone spend precious resources on something so non-essential as paint? The roofs of these dwellings—if dwellings they were and certainly some were—often were of wood planking, yet many were dried thatch on a lattice-work of thin logs. Ah, perhaps that’s what those thin logs were for.
Growing out from these buildings, much as ivy seems to grow out of, or up the sides of, certain buildings on college campuses, were whole lattice-works of sticks and boards, covered with planking where necessary to create a floor or roofing material to create a roof. In this way the buildings overflowed into the spaces between the sides of the road—something I discovered later was completely illegal, but as impossible to stop as the importation of drugs into America. The stick and board structures were attempts to expand living space in some cases, or in others they served to provide roadside stands for selling product. The sides of this India highway were thus composed almost entirely of open-air markets, with the proprietors generally sitting cross-legged on the ground—very open for business even so.
Often missing from the doorways of the buildings were the doors themselves. And windows. Generally the doorways were merely open rectangles, and the windows often mere open squares. I was puzzled at this. Certainly one might expect some buildings to not have their doors and windows finished yet. But doorless doorways seemed to be the rule, nto the exception. How would that work, exactly?
After awhile, I figured it out. India is almost always hot. This January cold-snap was a rare phenomenon. In fact, I’d been told that India is torturously hot for many months of the year. The 1982 Julie Christie movie “Heat and Dust”, about an Englishwoman in India, leaves the viewer with the impression that India is generally one large oven, with the knob turned to “high”. If so, then open doorways and windows would be a vital part of the environment, and there would be no reason to have anything in them that would obstruct whatever slight air movement might exist. I also resolved in my mind the second problem of open windows and doorways: security. How could one lock up a dwelling and come back to it later, reasonably certain whatever had been left inside was still there? There were three answers to this, I deduced. First, there were so many people in India—and we could see them sprawling out of these buildings, hanging out in the doorways, peering out of the windows, sitting or lying on the ground just outside—that no dwelling would ever really be left alone. Someone belonging to it would always be there, because there were so many people to each dwelling. Second, the people living there never really left. It wasn’t like they all commuted to some desk job in downtown Delhi. These people lived near the earth, and were part of it. They would have little need to travel, or if they did, they would likely not go far. Finally, the idea of guarding ones valuable possessions was inapplicable in a society as poor as this one seemed to be. In short, what was there to steal? What was there to guard?
I recognized a touch of arrogance, for having that latter thought. No doubt these people did have possessions, had worked to earn them probably harder than I’d ever worked to earn anything I owned. Probably they were pleased to own them probably more than I’d been pleased to own the things I possessed. After all, most of their possessions were likely connected with survival: a bucket for carrying water, a knife with which to prepare food, a pot to cook it in, tools with which to earn a living, and so forth.
Overlaying the scenes through which Lynn and I were now passing, scenes that to American eyes spelled destitution and misery, was another element entirely. And this was an element that Americans can both recognize and appreciate: a vital energy. These people were busy. Yes, one could catch a pair of eyes staring out from an open window. But then the eyes would be gone, its owner off to engage in more productive activity. Bricks were being laid. Carts were being pulled. Roofs were being built. Manufactured items were being crafted. Everywhere was the energy of production, of accomplishment, of daily life being pursued eagerly—or if not “eagerly” at least with determination.
“Destitution and misery?” American eyes could not help but see it that way at first glance. Yet “lives being lived actively and productively” might be a better description. The Indian culture is heavily laced with a dedication to hard work, and an attempt to better one’s condition. Combined with intelligence and a thirst for learning, this goes far to explain why India has risen so fast, economically, on the world-stage, and is now siphoning off even white-collar jobs from the Western world. And here we were seeing this energetic productivity at street level, among even the poorest of the poor. If India is about one thing, I now realized, it’s about commerce. Americans can recognize this because we fancy we hold the same values.
And I’ve seen countries that do not. The Pacific islands of Micronesia, for example, are filled with a native people that—speaking in generalities—have a very thin, if non-existent, work ethic. They are inclined to sloth, preferring to sit or stand in the shade for hours, rather than actually do anything to improve themselves, or their economic condition. Perhaps this cultural trait was passed on from their ancestors, who found that little energy was needed to provide for themselves. The sea fed them effortlessly. Their climate required little in the way of protection. Isolated, distant islands did not lend themselves to conquering by the likes of Genghis Khan or Alexander the Great. Why leave the shade?
As our car left the outskirts of Delhi, the bare, non-descript cement-based structures increasingly gave way to open farmland. And soon, we had left all traces of urbanization behind. This was agricultural country now, and it was a much more lovely landscape. Whatever was growing in the fields was a mystery, but it was quite pleasant to look at, even so. I was intrigued that the fields of India, even this far north, are apparently kept in use year round. Certainly the landscape of Iowa, in January, would have looked very different: white being the dominant color, not green.
Forests, per se, were not common. The land was too valuable to be set aside idly for mere trees. And of ocurse the trees themselves must have led a largely-unsuccessful battle at avoiding begcoming firewood. The fields appeared nicely trimmed and cared for: with hedges, small irrigation canals, and here and there solitary line sof trees which might have provided boundaries between the different farms.
The rare dwellings that one could see, set either near the highway, or off in a distant field, were constructed of masonry or in some cases simple mud—all, generally, with thatch roofing.
Aproaching noon-time, the fog had cleared, and the sun cast its winter-time warmth over this very benign landscape. Driving through it, one might think, would be similar to driving through agricultural lands on most any continent. But one would be wrong. There were many things we could see from the car, that were very India-specific. While traffic had thinned, there was still the occasional bicycle, or bicycle-drawn cart; still the animal-powered or human-powered wagon, and still the occasional distinctive Sacred Cow.
India’s Sacred Cows are quite recognizable by their characteristic hump, just aft of the neck, their short, curved horns, and their long, tapered head. I’d been surprised to see, in Delhi, that many of these animals seemed to just wander about, with no adult supervision. If one chose to cross the road, traffic would politely stop until the haughty animal was safely out of the way. In fact, this godlike ability to stop traffic was what most convinced me of their divinity. Certainly none of these Indian drivers would have paused had a mere pedestrian stepped onto the roadway. Yet these Sacred Cows did not all live a life of luxury. They are to be worshiped, yes, but that doesn’t mean these cows are too good to be hooked up to a wagon or cart when there’s a need. And farmers, as one might expect, find many such needs. So looking over this rural landscape, one could dtell it was India from the sacred cows alone.
Yet all these indicators paled, quite literally, beside the one dominant aspect of the Indian country-side. There was something here that could be seen no-where else in the world; something here that endowed this special place with wonder; something that provided unexpected beauty in the midst of what otherwise would have been mere cropland. It was the one thing quintessential to India, and it was visible here in unimaginable abundance.
Gracing the landscape, everywhere we looked, walking alongside the rodeway, riding side-saddle on the back of bicycles, and most-especially, actually working in the fields picking crops, were women dressed head to toe in beautiful sari’s.
While American and European fashion designers compete with each other to expose as much female flesh as possible and thus use the minimum of fabric, and while the Muslim countries try to do the opposite, and drop a shapeless gunny-sack over all females so they can’t be seen at all, India has gone in a completely different direction. They have discovered that a woman can be much more glamorous and alluring if she is adorned with more fabric, not less, provided that fabric contains the most beautiful colors and patterns imaginable, and provided it is worn in as enchanting and graceful manner as can be contrived.
The women of India have succeeded in this marvelously, and the sari’s of India are arguably that country’s greatest contribution to art and civilization. In fact, I recalled that the entire cover of my Lonely Planet guidebook to India consisted of a single picture containing a dozen or more women clustered together, their bright sari’s blending into a wonderful confusion of design and color. And the cover of that book carries this tagline for India: …Saris, swamis & maharanis. I wasn’t too sure what swamis or maharanis were, but it was clear that if India is about one thing, it’s about women in saris.
And unlike the kimono of Japan, which has been reduced in status to mere ceremonial attire, something to be worn to a wedding perhaps, in India, every woman wears a sari. While I later did notice, in urban areas, the occasional young woman in jeans and shirt—mimmicking Western dress—out here in rural India, saris were mandatory and universal.
“Do you believe it?” I said to Lynn. “They’re working in the fields, picking crops, dressed in those beautiful costumes?”
“It’s absolutely amazing. They’re gorgeous. OK, there’s one more thing we have to add to our list. In addition to seeing the Taj Mahal and the Himalayas, I have to buy myself a sari.”
“And you can wear it to the next Polygon Christmas party. You’ll look stunning!”
“If I’m in town for the next Polygon Christmas party, it’s a deal. At least assuming I can figure out how to wear one. They look kind of complicated. Hmmm, I wonder what color I should go for.”
The saris, the sacred cows, and the intriguing forms of mammal-based propulsion entertained us as we continued our drive across the northern plains of India. But after awhile we felt in need of something to do—something that would enliven the trip. I had an idea.
“Lynn, do you know that game back in the states, called ‘bullshit bingo’?”
“What is that!” she answered, laughing.
“You know, there are all these phrases, buzzwords, that represent life in today’s corporate America. So you have a list of these buzzwords or expressions on a card, and as you sit through an endless meeting, you cross off the words as you hear them. When they’re all crossed off, you’ve won!”
“What kinds of words and phrases?”
“Oh, things like ‘think outside the box’, and ‘mission statement,’ and ‘paradigm” and “top line driven” and stuff. You can get it on the Web.”
“We can play it here. But we’ll change the rules. We’ll make it India Highway Bingo. And it will be based on these cool things we keep seeing. You know, like three women in sari’s on a single motorbike.”
“Oh, cool! You know, a camel pulling a cart should be on the list…”
After considerable discussion, we finally agreed on the following items for India Highway Bingo:
3 sari women on a single motorbike
Herd of Sheep
A Wild Boar (they probably weren’t really wild, but looked fierce enough)
A Water Buffalo
A wideload “mushroom” truck
Someone carrying something on their head
Each of us wrote this list down on a piece of paper, with the appropriate boxes next to the items, and the game began.
Lynn and I were in the back seat, she on the left side, me on the right. So anything on the left was hers, on the right was mine.
A cold, determined silence now reigned, as we each stared out determinedly at our respective landscapes.
“Ha! A herd of sheep! I got my herd of sheep!” squealed Lynn with excitement.
A few miles later: “Hey, there’s a guy carrying something on his head,” I exclaimed. I didn’t know what it was but neither of us cared.
Farther on: “A camel cart. See? There’s a camel cart!” said Lynn.
“Where,” I asked dubiously.
“Up there, behind that building.”
The game proceeded methodically. I gained three women on a motorbike. Lynn gained a mushroom truck. We passed through one blink and miss village which nonetheless yielded wild boars on both sides of the road. I was having a terrible time with my herd of sheep. Lynn couldn’t find three women on a motor bike to save her soul. I scored a camel cart at almost the same instant that she scored a water buffalo.
Finally we each had only one item remaining. I was still seeking a herd of sheep. Lynn hadn’t found anyone carrying anything on their head. Suddenly there he was, up in the distance. A guy with something on his head. And he was on the left side of the road.
“I win! I win!” shouted Lynn, so excited she almost couldn’t stand it.
“Hey, wait a minute! There it is! Look, a herd of sheep! I finally got a herd of sheep! Darn, I was like, what, 15 seconds too late?”
“Wow, that was a close game,” agreed Lynn, now collapsed back into the seat, both of us somewhat exhausted from the tenseness of the last half hour.
Another thing we’d both noticed occasionally along this highway were what, for lack of a better word, we called “weird stopping places”. These were things that looked like they might be restaurants, or motels, or souvenir shops, or some dreadful combination of all three. Americans can instantly spot restaurants or motels in our own country. We weren’t quite sure what these things were. They often had garish signs (always in Hindi so you couldn’t read them), and inevitably horrid architecture, reminiscent of that dreadful American roadside-attraction style from the 1950’s, yet rendered in a kind of down-market fashion, with unpainted cement blocks or masonry covered with cheap whitewash—sometimes with edging done in pink or chartreuse or other horrific colors. It was as if the Indian culture, having exhausted itself quite understandably with the invention and design of the sari, was now bereft of all sense of taste and style when it came to creating these roadside stops.
Occasionally our driver would turn around and ask us if we wished to stop for lunch, and I finally made the connection that when he asked this question, we were generally just a mile or two shy of one of these weird structures.
I whispered to Lynn: “I bet he gets a small fee, a payment or something, for bringing tourists to one of these places.”
“That’s why he’s so persistent, and keeps asking,” she agreed quietly.
“We’re probably breaking his heart, the way we keep declinng the offer.”
At the next opportunity, Lynn and I decided possibly we were hungry, and the idea of a restroom was growing in appeal.
In fact, restaurant/souvenir store was precisely what these things were: with about half their floors space devoted to the souvenirs. The restaurant part was quite plain: simple tables set around a room containing no decoration. The floor itself, throughout, was cement. The tables were vinyl.
Lynn and I were not especially hungry—no doubt as a consequence of having filled up deliberately back at the Intercontinental breakfast buffet, and having done little but sit in the back of a car ever since. The idea of actually spending time in this dreadful, barren, concrete-and-vinyl jungle was not appealing. As far as I was concerned Hepatitus B viruses were swarming over everything. The souvenir store provided a welcome alternative. We found things here that were both safe to eat, and recognizable. I bought a can of Pringles. Lynn found some muffin-like object safely encased in vinyl packaging. We each bought a large bottle of water, dutifully checking to make sure the caps hadn’t been broken off previously. OK, so it wasn’t exactly a balanced diet. But it wouldn’t make us sick, and it would serve to keep us alive until we reached Jaipur—where we’d once again be safe in the oasis of an internationally-recognized business hotel: the Jaipur Rajputana Palace Sheraton.
I suspected our driver hadn’t earned much of a tip, considering how little we’d spent, but soon we were back on the highway, grateful for the chance to stretch our legs, and delighted we’d been able to find food that we knew we could eat.
Thus refreshed, we decided to try to converse with our driver. The ICA desk back at the airport had made it clear that the driver would speak English, but we’d discovered that this is either a deliberate lie, told about all drivers, whether they speak English or not; or in fact the people of India speak English so differently than we do that it’s almost a distinct dialect. In this case, we found we could understand only about one fourth of the words that came from our driver’s mouth, all of which he believed were English words.
An illustration of this difficulty presented itself later in the day when the driver pointed out something he thought we’d find interesting, and he called the thing a “Biff—Halo”. (“Halo” as in: what an angel would wear.) OK, one might imagine that Halo’s come in many flavors, but what might a “biff” one be? Well, in this case we didn’t need to wonder, as we understood what he was pointing at. It was a water buffalo. He pronounced buffalo as “Biff—Halo.” To him, that’s what the English word for the thing was. Had that animal not been standing right in front of us when he pointed to it, we’d never have guessed what he was saying. Now imagine this degree of “mispronounciation” applied to all English words spoken by our driver, and it’s surprising we could grasp even a fourth of them.
Even so, we tried to carry on a conversation, with Lynn doing most of the talking, because it’s something women do well, and me doing most of the translating: from Southern Accent English, spoken charmingly by an Atlanta girl, to Hindi-based English, spoken by a man who pronounced Buffalo as Biff Halo. And back again. I failed dreadfully in my task, but some words and phrases did make it across the vast cultural barrier, and a very rough form of communication was able to occur.
In this way we found the man’s name, the fact that he had a wife and children back in Delhi, and that he drove for this company as a full time job. He was paid a flat salary which, and we translated accurately and carefully this time, came out to a mere $50 a month. And this was in a land where tipping was virtually unknown. A cabbie in Manhattan might hope to occasionally earn as much as $50 an hour, and suddenly I began to realize why the Manhattan cab industry has been more or less invaded and conquered by drivers from India and Pakistan. The chance of getting into a Manhattan cab these days, and not seeing a turban on the head of the driver, grows increasingly slim.
Knowing we were dealing with a local, someone who most certainly had plenty of street-smarts, I asked him for the piece of knowledge that had at one time saved me in Morocco. I asked him what to say to the beggars and “touts” (as I discovered they are known here) who hassle tourists and try to either ask for money outright, or offer services or products utterly not in demand. We wrote the words and phrases down carefully, and I’ll translate into normal English what our driver said.
“If they ask you if you want to buy something, just say ‘naw-hee.” (Rhymes with “hee-haw” said backwards.)
“What’s it mean?” asked Lynn, trying the word out several times.
“It means ‘no.’”
“OK, I said. But when that does absolutely nothing, and they keep after you, what do you say then?”
“Well, if they won’t take no for an answer, you must look at them directly and say very strongly the word “boose!” (Rhymes with moose.)
“What’s ‘boose’ mean?” asked Lynn.
“It means ‘stop!’”
“OK,” I continued. And when boose has absolutely no effect on them, and they keep after you, what do you say then?”
“Aha, then you finally use the most powerful word of all. You turn to them, and you say—and you must do this angrily—you say: ‘chahlay jow!’ And you wave them off with your hand, as if they were a persistent bug.”
“And chahlay jow means what?” asked Lynn.
“It’s a border-line insult. It means ‘get out of here, leave me alone!’”
“Will that do it?” I asked.
“Yes, if you say chahlay jow, they will leave you alone.”
“I don’t want to insult them,” noted Lynn, concerned.
“That’s why you have to start with Naw Hee. And then go to Boose. Only after you’ve gone through those words is it polite and acceptable to use chahlay jow. But by then it’s the right word to use, and they will not be insulted because they’ll know they had it coming. And they’ll be impressed that you speak Hindi so well, and so maybe you’re not a dumb tourist after all, and they probably should go away and find someone more vulnerable.”
“Cool.” I said.
Elephant & Castle
We were less than an hour now, from Jaipur. Farmland had given way to a very different landscape. Somewhere along the route we’d left the province of Uttar Pradesh, which contains the national capital of Delhi, and had entered fabled Rajasthan. Lonely Planet provided the background:
Rajasthan, the Land of the Kings, is India at its exotic and colorful best, with its battle-scarred forts, palaces of breathtaking grandeur and whimsical charm, rioutous colors, and even its romantic sense of pride and honor.
The state is diagonally divided into the hilly and rugged south-eastern region, and the barren north-western Thar Desert, which extends across the border into Pakistan. There are plenty of historic cities, incredible fortresses awash with legends, and rare gems of impressionist beauty. There are innumerable tourist attractions, such as Pushkhar with its holy lake, and the desert city of Jaisalmer, which resembles a fantasy from the Thousand and One Nights.
This diverse state is the home of the Rajputs, a group of warrior clans who have controlled this part of India for 1,000 years, according to a code of chivalry and honor akin to that of the medieval European knights. [However] the Rajputs were never able to present a united front against a common aggressor. Much of their energy as spent squabbling among themselves and the resultant weakness eventually led to their becoming vassal states of the Mughal empire. Nevertheless, the Rajputs bravery and snese of honor were unparalled.
Rajput warriors would fight against all odds and, when no hope was left, chivalry demanded that jauhar (mass suicide) take place. In this grim ritual, the women and children committed suicide by immolating themselves on a huge funeral pyre, while the men donned saffron robes and rode out to confront the enemy and certain death. In some of the larger battles, tens of thousands of Rajput warriors lost their lives in this way. Three times in the city of Chittorgarh’s history, for example, the women consigned themselves to the flames while the men rode out to their martyrdom. It’s hardly surprising that Akbar persuaded Rajputs to lead his army, nor that subsequent Mughal emperors had such difficulty controlling this part of their empire.
[Further on…] At Independence, India’s ruling Congress Party was forced to make a deal with the nominally independent Rajput states in order to secure their agreement to join the new India. The rulers were allowed to keep their titles, and property holdings, Yet it couldn’t last forever. In the early 1970’s Indira Gandhi abolished both the titles and the annual stipends. While some of the rulers have survived this by converting their palaces into luxury hotels, many have fallen by the wayside, unable to cope with the financial and managerial demands of the late 20th century.”
The land we were traveling through was looking increasingly less like Iowa. Where once their had been croplands, now there was barren rock. Flat plains had yielded to scrubby hills, rocky outcroppings, arid streambeds. A dry ruggedness, reminiscent of the inhospitable wastelands of western Utah, stretched without limit in all direction. If I hadn’t known we’d soon be relaxing in the luxury of the Rajputana Palace Sheraton, I might have been concerned. Even the sari’d women had become scarce, although even now one could occasionally spot a flash of green, a burst of orange, or a sliver of outrageous purple traversing the landscape by camel-drawn cart, and realize that this was still very much India, not Utah.
We passed a sign written in Hindi, above a large arrow pointing to the right. Our driver motioned to the sign, and then glanced towards us and spoke in English. These were his words:
“Wyoa, heg, halhilia vopari don oka remuka dah. Asokevski rah dimo if you want to?”
OK, so this was beyond even my abilities to translate.
“I’m not sure,” I replied. Men hate asking directions. And they equally hate admitting that they have no clue what you’ve just said.
Lynn came to the rescue. “I’m sorry. But we didn’t understand you. What did you just say?”
He tried again, this time I caught the word “palace”.
That was all I needed. I turned to Lynn and calmly translated.
“That sign back there was a turnoff, which pointed towards a palace which he thinks we might find interesting to visit. He’s asking if we wish to detour, and visit the palace.”
“Ask him how long would it take.” Then Lynn realized I shouldn’t have to translate for her, and she turned to the driver herself. “Whatdya think, will this detour takealongtime?”
The driver looked at her, and then at me, clearly needing the Atlanta-speak translated into Hindi-English.
“Trip to palace. How long?” I queried, pointing at my watch.
“Not long. Maybe one hour, maybe little more.” He threw in other words as well, but these I didn’t understand and so discarded.
Lynn and I discussed it. We still had plenty of time. If we kept going we’d arrive in Jaipur at 2pm—ahead of schedule and well before any events.
“I’d say let’s go for it,” reasoned Lynn. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen an Indian palace before…”
The driver made a u-turn, and soon we were heading for the town I discovered later was named Samode.
With difficulty, the driver made us aware that normally the company he worked for would charge us extra for this side-trip, but he wouldn’t mention it to them so we wouldn’t have to pay extra.
“I really like this guy,” said Lynn. “Even though there’s no tipping in this country, I think he’s going to earn a tip.” [remember to insert this tip episode]
“I agree. This palace should be interesting.”
Samode was only a ten minute drive from the main highway, yet it was world’s apart from anywhere we’d been before. As we drove through the small town, there was actually nothing here we hadn’t already seen on our trip down from Delhi. We’d seen the wild boars, we’d seen the sacred cows, we’d seen the camel-drawn carts, we’d seen the bicycle rickshaws piled high with cabbages, we’d seen the poverty, the elegant and beautiful sari’s which belied the poverty, the herds of goats and sheep, the mud-brick dwellings with thatched roofs, the infinity of people buzzing about, or sitting cross-legged behind blankets which served as India’s version of a strip mall… We’d seen those things before. We just hadn’t seem then in such—quantity.
“My God!,” said Lynn, as Samode began revealing itself to us.
“It’s the real India, Lynn. This is it!”
“If we tried to play India Highway Bingo here, the game would be over in fifty feet!”
And she was right. The phrase “assault on your senses” came back to me, from the Lonely Planet guidebook, and I knew when they wrote those words they were talking about Samode.
Knowingly, our guide turned right at a particular intersection, and the road became narrow, winding, and steep. Two children raced out of a doorway, perhaps eight or nine years old. The boy, like all males in India, was dressed shabbily—as if with cast-off, uninspired WalMart clothing. The girl, as with all females in India, was adorned in a stunning deep blue sari, that—had justice existed anywhere on the planet—should have earned her a “best-dressed” award from People magazine. They rushed towards us screaming with excitement, their hands outstretched, but their smiles warm and genuine.
It was tragic, that such lovely children should be at once so enthusiastic and full of life, yet engaged in what is surely the most demeaning of professions. Even prostitution carries a certain dignity—as there is a service rendered, and a payment received. Begging, as a revenue model, falls far below prostitution on the dignity scale.
Yet I was no stranger to third world countries. I had with me a magic device, something that I knew would capture these children’s excitement and enthusiasm, while freeing them of the begging-culture thralldom. I’d used this magic device less than a year ago, in the world’s poorest country. I’d used it in Sierra Leone and I knew its power. It was a miniature JVC video camera. But more than that, it had the unique ability to capture a still shot in the midst of filming, and to display that still-shot on it’s tiny 2” square LCD monitor.
I asked the driver to stop for a moment, and he did so. The children raced forward, expectantly. But I gave them something neither could have dreamed of. I snapped off a still picture—a picture of the two of them smiling and alive with excitement, and then showed it to them on the LCD screen.
Peering into the open window, they studied the LCD screen with confusion. And then they realized what they were seeing. It was them! Never has a shriek of excitement and wonder been so intense. They were magically seeing themselves, on this strange device held by the tourist! It was possible that these two children had never seen even their own image in a mirror, let alone captured with modern photography. The awe and wonder playing out on their faces was transparent, unconcealed, and hugely gratifying. I’d given them a gift far beyond that of a few rupees. I’d given them magic, and excitement, and something approaching the divine. Or at least so I fancied. No doubt their mother would have preferred rupees.
We continued a quarter mile up the winding road until finally reaching a small parking area. Above this towered what must be the palace. We’d caught a glimpse of this thing from the road as we approached Samode. It was the kind of sight one can’t take seriously—it appeared too dreamlike and fake. From the road, what it had looked like was an Indian version of a fairy-tale castle, clinging to a hillside. No doubt there was something amiss with the perspective, or the angle, or perhaps our interpretation of what we thought was there.
But now it was real. Defying all odds, somehow a fairy-tale palace had been built on the face of what was nearly a cliff. The architecture was utterly Asian, by which I mean it was unlike anything that would be found in either the Western hemisphere, or Europe. Of course it had walls, and a huge entryway guarded by a gate, but the design, the aesthetics, were like nothing one would find in Iowa, in Colorado, in Atlanta, or even in Utah. Archetecture has been defined as “frozen music” and I won’t try to play the Samode Palace’s melody here, in mere words. I found a picture of it later, on the Web, and I include it in this document—thus shortening the text by precisely a thousand words, if that other saying is true.
Our driver parked the car, and motioned us towards the entrance gate. The video camera’s battery had given up the ghost, having been depleted by the India of the prior four hours. The episode with the kids had been it’s final contribution. Yet I still had my digital still camera, and this I took with me as Lynn and I walked uncertainly up the cobblestone driveway and through the open gateway.
Apparently this palace charged an admission fee, as it surely deserved to. We paid it, and continued up the steeply sloping path. The fairy tale quality of the place increased, not dimished, the farther in we went. Everywhere we looked was elegant. The stone walkways were elegant. Stone statues had been carved, of various animals—some real, and others perhaps imagined—and these were elegant. An ornate chair, its arm-rests carved and painted so as to appear as two threatening tigers, was set on this walkway. I took a picture of this with Lynn in the chair, and then she did the same for me. Tapestries, varnished wood, carved statuary, lush carpets—all these things competed for our attention as we gradually ascended the walkway up into the palace itself.
The English-translation version of the flyer we’d been given upon paying the admission fee made it clear that this palace was now an elite hotel. One could actually register as a guest and spend the night here! That seemed to echo what Lonely Planet had said, about some of the Rajput kings converting their palaces to hotels, out of economic necessity. And the rates were quite inexpensive.
We came at last to an interior courtyard, and here, to our amazement, was the most unexpected surprise of all. Tables, tablecloths, and an ornate buffet had been laid out. A few guests were here, but only a few. Stewards nodded to us deferentially, and asked with welcoming handsignals if we wished to indulge ourselves with food and drink. No doubt there would have been an extra charge for this. Equally no doubt, one oculd have eaten off the floor here, so clean was this Indian palace. No Hepatitus B virus would have dared approach within a kilometer, so immaculate was the attention to detail, the artistry, the opulence of the Samode Palace Hotel.
We demurred, yet explored with delight the entire place. Here were little walkways, almost hidden to one who had not so diligently been determined to uncover every secret of this enchanting structure. We raced along them, as giddy with delight as had been those children in the village. Secret walkways, enchanting cul-de-sac dead ends, mysterious doorways, balconies overhanging impossible hights—looking down at not merely the palace walls themselves, but the entire mountainside—all these things delighted our senses and were the perfect antitode ot four hours in the backseat of a taxi. If it was a fortress castle, it was the most beautifully crafted ever conceived. If it was a palace, one might consider it among the world’s most enchanting. And if it was a hotel, it could only be described as the most romantic on earth.
“Jacques, let’s stay here!” implored Lynn. “Forget the rest of India. I love this place. After the ICA Congress, why don’t we just come back here and stay for a week? How can anything get better than this?”
She had a point. I was sorely tempted. “Maybe we will,” I agreed.
WE were high on the castle’s ramparts, looking out over the vast wastelands surrounding Samode. Yet they were wastelands only to our own, unpracticed eyes. People were making a living out there, I realized. Mud huts with thatched roofs were sprinkled about. There seemed little vegetataion, but maybe there was enoguht to sustain a herd of goats, or a wild boar or two. Flashes of color could be seen, tiny pin pricks in the distance, and I knew these were sari-draped women. One of these, far below us, yet not so distant as to render a mere blur, suddenly began running across the dirt fields. She was pursuing something, and I realized, with the help of the zoom lens on my camera, that she was chasing a puppy. Nothing could have made this woman more real in my eyes. The sari made her seem alluring and mysterious. The chasing of her puppy made her seem alive.
Yes, I could easily stay in this lovely environment for a week. A month. A lifetime…
It had been that: a lifetime since we’d left our hotel that morning. How was it possible that so many sights and sounds could have been absorbed in such a brief amount of tmie?
Yet the day’s big adventure was still ahead of us, something neither of us could have believed or foreseen at the moment. We returned to our car and driver, and collapsed gratefully once more into the back seat. As we retraced our path back to the main highway, and were confronted once more with Samode itself—the water buffalo, sacred cows, wild boars, camel-pulled carts, pedicabs, sari-draped women, herds of goats, people carrying things on their heads, mud and thatch dwellings, it became simply too much.
“Jacques, I’m reaching sensory overload,” confessed Lynn. “I can’t take this much longer.”
“I’m going into sensory overload every ten feet! I feel like my brain’s going to blow a circuit,” I replied. “You know the guidebooks wrned of this. ‘An assault on your senses’ was how they’d described India.”
“They were right. That’s just how I feel. Like I’m being assaulted with sights and sounds.”
“You know what I need? I need to be in my hotel room, lying on the bed, and staring at a white ceiling. My brain needs to re-set itself.”
“Yes, that’s just what we need. Our brains need to reset themselves to avoid going into emotional meltdown. I am totally ready to lie down on a bed and stare at a white ceiling.”
It was not to happen. India knew it was on a roll, and India was determined to keep us off balance.
In thirty minutes the outskirts of Jaipur began appearing. WE thought we’d lost all ability to be amazed at things happening outside the car’s windows, but in this we wree wrong. On the approach to Jaipur, magnificent walls and ramparts ould be seen high on the hills surrounding the city. Here and there, in the distance, a tower or modest fortress would interrupt the walls themselves, and reveal its fairy-tale like quality in the late-afternoon sun. It wasn’t quite as impressive as the Great Wall of China, but it might have aspired to that league, and done so successfully.
With the approach to Jaipur, the scenes we’d grown accustomed to on the outskirts of Delhi reappeared: the cement block buildings, the pole and thatch latticework hanging out from them and into the streets, the sari-women, the bicvycles, the sacred cows. Yes, we’d seen it before and now it was more of the same. Perhaps here in Jaipur it was all a bit more intense, more “Samode-like”, yet we could handle it. We were becoming seasoned India travelers by now, and—with the exception ofthe high walls and fortresses on the hill—there was nothing here that we hadn’t seen before.
“Oh my God!” I exclaimed, looking up ahead. “Do you see what I see?”
Lynn stared forward, and then her mouth dropped open.
“It’s an elephant!”
I motioined to the driver. “Look, an elephant!”
“Awa, migh oh gah see roda bot, probably.”
“Damn right!” I exclaimed, certain I was in agreement with whatever he’d said. There was nothing congtroversial about the fact that ther was an elephant walking calmly towards us,a few hundred yards up the road. We could now make out that on top of this elephant was a crudely fashioned iron-railing of some sort, softened with blankets, and on top of these blankets was a young man, barefoot,—clearly the owner or at least the operator of this leviathan.
We were almost abreast of the elephant now. It was calmly walking east down the road. We were headed west.,
“Stop the car!” I cried.
Our driver stopped the car.
“We have to ride the elephant!” I declared, in a frenzy of elephant-riding madness.
“Jacques, you’re kidding,” said Lynn.
“I never kid about elephants. Never.”
“Why do you think we can ride the elephant?”
“Because I have several wads of inch-thick rupee notes, and I now know how to get the staples out of them. Lynn, you do want to ride the elephant, don’t you?”
“Well, duh. It’s just that I can’t imagine we can really do it.”
“We can do it. I’m certain of it.”
“Well, that would be just the coolest thing I could possibly imagine.”
Our driver, being accustomed no doubt to the odd tourist-borne disease of elephant-riding madness, was out of the car now, and hailing the elephant driver. They were speaking unintelligibly in Hindi. The elephant driver barked some commands, did something with his hands, and suddenly the elephant made an abupt u-turn and headed directly for our parked car.
“Jacques, do you know what you’re doing?” asked Lynn, eying the primordial mammal now approaching us slowly yet inexorably—and becoming frighteningly larger with each step. “It’s awfully big.”
I’ve had only two prior experiences in my life with elephants. One was about fifteen years ago. I’d taken my 4-year old son Erik on an elephant ride at the Denver zoo. This was a small elephant ,and a safe, OSHA-endorsed ramp and boarding platform served to make the task of climbing onto the animal both simple and effortless. The Denver-zoo elephant walked in a circle, along the perimeter of a modest-size coral. It complete dthe circle once, then a second time, and then—the ride was over. About five minutes worth of elephant riding, but Erik had been thrilled.
My more recent experience with elephants, in Botswana and Zambia, had been a little more intense. African elephants are large and very intimidating. One of them, a male “rogue”, with huge, vicious tusks, had blocked our car on a deserted stretch of highway in the wilderness, and had gone so far as to actually challenge us—feigining brief attacking charges, and roaring at us angrily. He could have crushed our small imported sedan with a single stomp of his foot. On another occasion, a canoe safari on the Zambezi river, we’d come across a herd of elephants ripping apart the trees along the shore, in a feeding frenzy, leaving environmental devastation in their wake. Our canoes were not a welcome sight and, again, one of these animals began swimming out towards us, exhibiting very annoyed body language. We’d paddled swiftly away.
This Indian elephant was about twice the size of the one at the Denver zoo, and very much in the same league as its cousins in Africa.
After speaking to the elephant-owner our driver turned to me and (this is in translated English, and converted rupees) said “He wants $10 to give you a ride on the elephant.”
“Tell him I’ll pay $2.”
After settling on $5, the elephant driver began shouting loud orders to the elephant, who fortunately understood Hindi, and simultaneously began slapping the animal with some oddly-shaped stick made of metal. “Hai! Hai! Hai!”he cried.
The elephant, not particularly happy about this turn of events yet resigned to it, began what seemed an impossible maneuver: knealing down on the ground. Knealing is a simple-enough task for, say, a Buddhist monk, and takes only moments. For an elephant, knealing is neither simple nor quick. It is a major production and in this case happened in two stages. After a show of body language clearly demonstrating the elephant’s reluctance to do this thing, down came the front half. With all the grace of a brontosaurus trying to lie down, the front legs buckled in slow motion, and suddenly the elephant was at a 45 degree ankle—it’s head essentially pressed to the pavement, while it’s back half still soared majestically, yet somewhat indignantly, into the sky. Then—slowly, so slowly, down came the back half as the second pair of legs folded. Now the elephant was level again, but only about half as high in the air, still a great distance to one looking up from street level.
With various hand signals, the elephant-meister made it clear that Lynn and I were to somehow ascend up the side of the elephant, and reach the railed sitting area on top. I”ve had some rock-climbing experience, but this was like no cliff I’d ever encountered. There were no handholds, no ropes, no one securing me with their own leverage at the other end shouting ‘on belay!’ Looking up at the vast bulk towering above me, I fancied it would be easier to ascend the sheer sides of the QEII.
Lynn made it first, with the determination of a seasoned salesperson. I had a harder time of it, but at last, and with great indignity, I clawed my way up to, and then collapsed over, the tiny railing and onto the platform. There was not much room here, and it was not in the least comfortable. The platform, perhaps five feet by three feet, was merely a sheet of plywood with a thin blanket over it. The iron railing—about six inches high and covering all four sides—provided the only handhold.
This was not much space for three people. The driver had it fairly easy. He occupied the forward half of the platform, and his legs rested comfortably on the elephant’s head, forward of the railing. Lynn and I shared the back half, which required a degree of physical intimacy—our arms and legs were utterly entwined—that might have been awkward in other circumstances, but which was presently a survival mechanism. Only in this way could we avoid falling off.
“Aga, waga si!” exclaimed the elephant master, and then made us understand by performing a gripping motion on the railing. He was telling us to hold on tight. We did so, and thank God we did, for at that moment it was as if the world was ending in violent cataclysm. The elephant’s back-half rose up so swiftly we very nearly toppled forward, despite our hand holds. Lynn cried out in alarm. Then the forward half came up, and the platform regained its equilibriaum, almost tossing Lynn and me backwards off the elephant.
Now we were on the move. From 50 feet in the air, the streets of Jaipur appeared… Well, OK we probably weren’t really 50 feet in the air. It just seemed that high. We were certainly far above everyone else in town. We towered over the pedicabs, and the vegetable carts, and the market stalls, and the wild boars. Even the sacred cows had to look to the heavens to see us.
This street we were on, here in the distant outskirts of Jaipur, contained no less of the magic and glamour of India than did Samode itself. Yet somehow we were now part of it. Seeing India from the back of an elephant is quite different than seeing India from the back of a car. Perhaps for the first itme, it was here that the ingrained friendliness of the people became evident. Until now, we’d not really joined their world. We’d been mere spectators. Now they were the spectators, and—to some extent—we were the spectacle. The elephant itself was no big deal in Rajasthan. A pretty woman, with voluptuous and scintillating blonde hair riding atop the elephant, was something altogether different.
This manifested itself in smiles and waves from the pedestrians milling about, or working in the market stalls. Apparently the rules change when a female, and her male companion, are riding an elephant. No one hesitated to make eye-contact with Lynn now. She was the Jaipur equivalent perhaps of Lady Godiva, and they could all stare openly at her with both curiosity, interest, and friendship. Even the sari’d women, normally so demure and unapproachable, could not help but look up at the two tourists atop the elephant, smile and wave hesitantly. We welcomed their attention, and smiled and waved back enthusiastically.
A few tried out their English. “You look like…having fun!” called out one man, from behind his vegetable stand.
“Oh we are!” called back Lynn with a wave. “This is marvelous.”
“You like India?” another asked, smiling.
“We love India,” replied Lynn in utter sincerity, her eyes sparkling with excitement.
It was the children who were the most excited. Young boys and girls (the girls in miniature sari’s) squealed with glee, and raced along side us, keeping up with the elephant. Keeping up with an elephant walking slowly down a street is not a challenging task, even for young children. Yet they would race forward even so, pause for the elephant to catch up, and then wave, and scream joyously to us with Hindi words we could not understand. As the elephant walked past, they’d race forward another half block, and repeat their excitement all over again. These young children simply couldn’t walk forward slowly, the way an elephant can. Rather, they mimicked the movements of a hummingbird—darting instantly from one spot to another, yet never staying anywhere for long.
Adding magic, not that more was needed, was the late afternoon sun now setting aglow all the vibrant colors of this India street scene: the endless stalls and markets of vegetables and fruits, piled atop wooden stands or spread on carpets laid over the dirt; the picturesque animals that plodded along the street or foraged amidst the trash—water buffalo, wild boar, sacred cows, and even the stray dog; the carts pulled by the diverse assortment of propelling devices, from human to camel; and, set afire most brilliantly of all by the sun, were of course the graceful and shimmering sari’s in all their greens and golds and purples and reds and every other color and pattern imaginable.
Towering over it all was the mountainous terrain of Rajasthan, with high hills adorned with what was increasingly looking like the Great Wall of India, and here and there, ancient forts and palaces clinging to the hillside, glowing almost as vibrantly as the sari-draped women.
Automobile traffic was almost non-existant on this street, and it was easy to imagine we’d traveled not merely half way around the world, but hundreds of years into the past as well. That feeling was shattered in an instant.
Half a block ahead, and electrical transformer high up on a pole was self-distructing. Sparks shot out from it amidst scary electrical noises. While it momentarily startled Lynn and me, it utterly freaked out the elephant. He began lurching and backing away, in jerky movements which had the effect of whipping the platform back and forth, nearly sending us flying over the small railing. It was an even bet that the elephant was going to actually rear up on its hind legs, which would certainly have sent Lynn and me flying through the air, crashing to the ground far below.
In a few moments the elephant-tamer had the beast under control, yet as we continued down the street we had to pass the delinquent transformer, and all four of us, especially the elephant, eyed it warily and with deep misgivings. It had calmed down for the most part, making now only the occasional hiss and crackle. On the other hand, I’d not have been surprised had the whole thing exploded just as we passed.
“I can hear them back at the office getting the news, said Lynn. ‘Jacques and Lynn, killed in an elephant accident precipitated by an exploding transformer in Rajasthan.”
“Yeah, you just never know what you need to worry about, do you?”
The truth of this was suddenly demonstrated anew, as around the corner up ahead came a new challenge—another elephant, equally as large as our own. Now we were faced with a difficult passing situation. Both elephants were instantly aware of each other, and I sensed hesitation in the great beast benath me. Sometimes horses will become feisty and agitated if required to be in close proximity to another of their kind whom they dislike. Might the same hold for elephants?
“Great,” said Lynn. “Elephant wars.”
But the two animals passed each other relatively peacefully and with plenty of leg room between, as it turned out. Watching this new elephant approach I realized that elephant riding is similar to hot-air ballooning, in that when you’re riding in the ballon you can’t really see it, and so you miss much of the visual spectacle. Someone on the ground, by contrast, is far enough away from the ballon to actually be able to see it, and thus more fully enjoy it. Here we were on this impressive elephant, yet most of it was beneath us, and not much visible from this angle at all. Thus I studied this newly-arrived version with special interest—it being my only opportunity for doing so.
I was particularly curious how the platform was affixed and stayed in position, and I could see now how it was done. Something akin to a gunny sack filled partially with sand perhaps, was laid across the back of the animal, and obviously conformed to its shape. The wooden platform with railings was then somehow attached to the gunny sack itself, and the whole thing was connected by a lattice work of ropes and lines, around the elephants underbelly, much like the saddle girth on a horse.
“This is just too cool,” said Lynn, as we continued our stroll, high abobve the streets of Jaipur.
“You know what would be really cool?” I asked.
“Going to a drive-in movie.”
“On an elephant! That would be awesome”
“Probably difficult to arrange,” I admitted.
“Yeah, I won’t hold my breath. Maybe next trip.”
Something that increasingly drew our attention was the metal stick the elephant-driver used to steer the elephant. It was an odd contraption. About a foot in length and made of what looked like half inch re-bar, it was sharply pointed at one end, and boasted a large hook that split off from the main body, and which was itself sharply pointed. It was not clear how he used it—some combination of light poking to steer one way or the other, and to issue other commands as well.
As we were nearing then end of our ride, I began a heated negotiation with the driver, for ownership of that hook. We settled on ten dollars, an outrageous sum, and twice the cost of the elephant ride itself. But the seller knew I wanted it, and he also knew my options were limited.
We had traveled at least a mile from our starting point, possibly more, and our elephant-driver now steered us to a wooden framework with steps set up apparently for just this purpose—making it easier for elephant riders to get on and off. No one appreciated this more than the elephant itself.
I walked away, proudly holding my newest possession: an elephant hook.
“Jacques, what will you do with it?” asked Lynn
“With an elephant hook like this,” I replied, “I think I can do anything I want.”
The Gemstone Congress
Our driver, who had been following us dutifully, welcomed us back into the car and soon our journey to the hotel continued. We were clearly approaching the heart of a major city. The road broadened and now we were in a multi-lane environment, awash in motorbikes, cars, large trucks, pedi-cabs, bicycles, and of course the vast menagerie of animal life that seems congretate around the roadways of India.
The Rajputana Palace Sheraton was a pleasant enough hotel, but hardly a palace. We’d been to a real palace earlier. This Sheraton was merely an adequate business hotel with nothing particularly distinctive about it. As I’ve noticed with business hotels world-wide, once you enter you could be anywhere: London, Bangkok, San Francisco, or even Omaha. Sometimes there are a few clues, but you generally have to look for them. The only particularly Indian flavor here were the bellman who—as in Delhi—were either Sikhs or dressed to look like Sikhs, in their white turbans and uniforms. Lynn’s room was just down the hall from mine, and on the ground floor. A high wall surrounded the facility, and thus from nowhere in our environemnt could we really see outside: to the streets of India. It was another “protected oasis”, keeping the real India at bay.
We had just enough time to shower and dress for the reception party, which I suspected would be a simple affair. There’d be some buffet food, probably an open bar, and we’d mingle with gemstone dealers and luminaries from the gem and jewelry industry for an hour or so, and then call it a night. But I’d forgotten this was India.
If India is about one thing, I decided later, it’s about spectacles. India’s people love to entertain in the grandest of style, and landing this ICA Congress was a real plumb for their gem and jewellery industry. The government-funded Gem & Jewellery Export Promotion Council was determined that the ICA delegates be entertained lavishly, and it began that night.
No, this was not a typical hotel convention room setting. The Rajputana Palace was only several stories high, yet it spread out over many acres, and was shaped in more or less a rectangle around a vast interior open space. This was a garden like setting, and the hotel staff had been hard at work all day turning into more than a garden. Along one side had been set a vast array of silver vats containing an endless selection of Indian food. Special outdoor lighting had been erected, but this was somewhat subtle and did nothing to illuminate the food being offered, which was hidden in darkness. In truth not being able to see the food made little difference, because while I adore Indian cuisine, I’ve yet to learn what any of it is, or recognize anything I’ve eaten before, let alone remember what it tastes like.
What could only be the world’s largest carpet, perhaps 30’ by 30’, had been set roughly in the middle of the rectangle, but this was roped off and the delegates politely kept their distance.
It was night-time, the temperature was much milder than in Delhi, and being outdoors was quite pleasant. Lynn was dressed in fashionable evening attire, I was in a sport coat and slacks. The two of us circulated through the crowd, finding many people here we knew—or at least that I knew. A veteran of countless such events in the jewelry industry, one learns it’s a small world. The regulars were here, including people like Martin Rapaport, my friend and most powerful competitor; Bill Boyajian, president of the Gemological Institute of America; and Doug Hucker, Executive Director of the American Gemstone Trade Association. Below that upper-crust level were Chief Executives of many gemstone manufacturing firms from the United States, some of whom I knew. Yet a majority of the two hundred or so people gathered here looked Indian, and probably were.
I introduced Lynn to those I knew, and was pleased to see that she’d reverted to her vivacious southern belle persona, doing her best to charm everyone she met—and doing so effortlessly. It was difficult to believe that a few hours ago this woman had been wearing jeans and riding an elephant.
In between introductions and re-acquaintances, we had time to fill our plates and actually eat something—our first real meal since the breakfast buffet in Delhi that morning. But only part way into it the entertainment began. A parade of performers, men and women both, walked out of a side entrance ot the hotel and took their places around the periphery of the fenced-off carpeted area. Those among them who were musicians began playing Indian music—very odd sounding music to Western ears—while sitting cross-legged. Most of the musicians were men. The women, almost unbelievably attired in sari-like opulence, and heavily weighted down with gold and gem-encrusted jewelry, were the dancers.
It was a good show, and went on for over an hour. Many different costumes were featured, many different types of music and rhythums, and a plethora of dancing styles. The final performance was somewhat breathtaking. Four of the best dancers wafted back and forth across the carpet, spinning at dangerous speed while doing so, and balancing atop their heads bowls of burning oil they were fully lit—turning these women into glorious human candles.
If we’d spent the day sitting in our hotel rooms, this lavish party would have made the day quite complete. Coming as it did instead on a day when we’d reach sensory overload more times than we could count, it was simply too much. Perhaps the party continued long into the night. We didn’t stay to find out—choosing to retreat, instead, to beds upon which we could finally just lie down and stare blankly up at white ceilings, trying to grasp the enormity of all we had seen and experienced that day, yet failing utterly to do so.
The business agenda of the next two days consisted primarily of speakers. A large convention room had been set aside, with classroom-style tables for seating. The seminars the first day were interesting, and I listened to several. Bill Boyajian had much to say about the future of the industry, but one of his themes was the importance of finding a way to brand one’s merchandise. Another speaker that morning was a branding expert, from an elite marketing firm in London. “One of the most important things to know about branding,” he explained, “is that you need to have a budget of at least $50 million dollars before you can even begin. And that’s a minimum.” He went on to describe how one could best spend $50 million dollars, but at this point I was barely listening. The juxtaposition of the two speeches had given me an idea, finally, for what I wanted to talk about when it was my turn, as it would be tomorrow. I went back to my room and spent the rest of the day writing the speech. I was supposed to speak on the topic of “The Internet and the Gemstone Industry in 2003”, and of course I would—sort of.
That evening Lynn and I strolled about inside the hotel’s complex of little shops and boutiques. There were quite a few of these, and all were situated within the protection of the hotel’s outer wall—much like the merchants in a mideval village. Jewelry was everywhere, and we were constantly assaulted with polite invitations to come in and visit these little shops. Yet of course we had no interest in jewelry. We were from the jewelry industry, and had infinite access to such product. But there were others stores here that carried unique merchandise we found utterly enchanting. One store, for example, carried handcrafted, and elegantly attired dolls. They looked like something that might cost fifty or sixty dollars back in the states, but here in India they were less than a dollar apiece. I bought several, as a gift to my sister-in-law who collects such items.
Another store specialized in silk tapestries upon which were handpainted scenes of India life: elephants, dancing girls, and such. We spent considerable time in this store, as the tapestries were both beautiful and surprisingly inexpensive. We were due to leave for another “soiree”, held offsite this time. Personally, I was dreading it, as I was finding myself increasingly weary from the 12-hour time-zone jet lag which was kicking in right on schedule—the second day after arrivel when flying westbound. Lynn came to her senses before I did.
“Jacques, how important do you think it is that we go to this thing tonight? I’m really tired, and was wondering if it’s really necessary.”
It took me only an instant to realize that it wasn’t necessary at all. We were here for four nights, and seeing these same people throughout the day in any case. We bailed on the event that evening, and never did learn what it was. We were safely ensconced in our Jaipur oasis, and were quite content to spend the time recovering from the mental and emotional whiplash of the last 48 hours.
I was one of the first speakers the next morning. Lynn took control of my laptop which was presently attached to an LCD projector. She would flip through the Power-Point pages as I gave her the proper cues.
After a breezy introduction and the requisite thanks for being invited and being so happy to be here and such, I got down to business quickly.
“OK, here’s the deal,” I said, leaning forward and making it clear I was about to say something worth hearing. “We’ve had some wonderful speakers here in Jaipur, and we’ve all learned quite a bit already. Let’s go back to what Bill Boyajian said. To compete in today’s world, you have to find a way to brand your merchandise. I agree with him.
“Yet most of us here are not experts on branding, and that’s why the gentlemen from London was so helpful. I was interested to hear that a true branding expert believes—quite rightly I’m sure—that you need to have a budget of at least $50 million to achieve brand status.”
I paused, letting these two facts hang in the air.
“Now of course there are many of you here that I don’t know, but looking out over this audience, I don’t think there are that many of you who have $50 million of spare cash lying around. But maybe I’m wrong. Show of hands please. How many of you in the audience can set aside $50 million this year to promote your new brand? Hands please!”
No one raised their hands, as I knew they wouldn’t. There were a few chuckles and I realized I very much had their attention.
“OK, so I think we all see the problem,” I continued. “One of the things I’d like to discuss today is how to solve that problem. And the solution lies in a new concept. The answer to branding yor merchandise when you don’t have $50 million to do it properly is this: Micro-branding.”
I then launched into an explanation of the concept of micro-branding, which in truth was something I’d just thought up the day before, and chosen the best name for that I could think of. The short version is that micro-branding is the concedpt of using one’s existing retailer network to help promote the brand, rather than marketing the brand independently. And that meant giving the retailers the tools they needed to do the job, simply and easily, and in a way that supported the retailer themselves, the manufacturer, and the customer as well. And the way to do that, of course, in the age of the Internet was to use those retailers websites to promote your own brand at a powerful grass roots level. Of course the fact that Brandmatrix, one of the PolyGroup companies, was the only place in the world that could provide such technology, was never mentioned by me, nor did I feel it would be appropriate to do so. After covering “micro-branding”, and other ways the colored stone industry could be harvesting the power of the Internet, I finished up with a showcasing of Polygon’s new colored stone database, which is the primary reason I’d flown 12,000 miles to get here.
During the lunchtime break, I was besieged with people wanting to know more about this intgriguing new concept called “Micro-branding.” I enjoyed the attention, and—with Lynn’s help—collected a vast quantity of business cards.
Later that day, when there was break in the activity, I was approached by a very pretty young Asian woman. She handed me her card. “Christie Dang,” it said. She was a reporter for Jewellry News Asia, based in Hong Kong. I knew that publication well. It was the primary jewelry-industry trade magazine for Asia. It was actually a sister publication to National Jeweler, in the United States, since they were both owned by the same London-bsaed conglomerate.
“I’m very interested in this cncept of ‘micro-branding’” she said. “I’d like to do a story on it. Could I interview you?” So I enjoyed a half hour interview with this comely reporter, all the while having to think like lightning, because of course micro-branding was an utterly-made up concept, less than 24 hours old. I had to spin it as a revolutionary new force gaining momentum in the United States and almost certain to be the future of branding, certainly in the jewelry industry, and possibly in all industries eventually. Somehow I muddle through, and when we were finished she stood up, shook my hand, and said: “I’d appreciate any press kit or background information you can send me.”
I agreed enthusiastically, wondering where I could find such information.
One of course doesn’t want to get sick in India, and so far I’d managed to avoid doing so. But I was having trouble with a store tooth. A quick trip to a dentist would have been the answer, if I’d been back home. Yet I couldn’t bear the thought of what that might entail in India. Late the night before I’d called my dentist back in Colorado, not expecting him to have an answer but being thrilled when he did.
“You’ll also need an antibiotic.,” he explained from 12 time zones away. “ You’re in luck. In India you can buy tetracycline over the counter, from a pharmacist.” He gave me some more advice, but the bottom line was that tomorrow I needed to find a pharmacy in India.
Now, with the speech and the interview behind me, I set out to do so. The hotel’s concierge informed me that pharmacies were called “Medical Stores” in India and could be identified by a large green cross on a white background. “You’ll find them everywhere,” she reassured me. “I think there’s even one right across the street.”
Could I be that lucky? I left the hotel, emerging out its front door for the first time in two days. The Sikh-like guards nodded to me deferentially, and then I was past them and actually out the gates of the hotel itself.
It hit me—almost like a physical shock. India. I’d forgotten where I was. Here was this same world that Lynn and I had immersed ourselves in on the ride from Delhi. Here was the vast, frenzied, colorful “drama of India” in all it’s glory — all of it existing just past these tall iron gates. Two intense days of business meetings and seminars at the Congress, within the confines of a modern business hotel, had completely pushed it from my mind. I’d known, intellectually, I was in India. I’d just forgotten what that meant. It was all here, the herds of goats, the camel-drawn carts, the pedicabs, the sacred cows, the street teaming with all manner of people and all of them urgently embarked on errands or engaged in commercial activity. A frenzy of cars and motorbikes competed with the camel-drawn carts and the sacred cows. The noise, the color, the—it was all I could do not to run screaming back to my room, lie on my bed, and stare at the ceiling all over again. I forced myself to remain calm.
I was still quite a novice with India. Most of my experience had been gained from the back seat of a car. The rest, from atop an elephant or within a palace. None of these prepared me effectively for the Indian “street” which is where I now was. Timing my movements carefully, for to have made a mistake would have invited a confrontation with either a pedicab going in one direction, or a water buffalo going in another, I hurried across the street and began looking for the medical store.
I didn’t find the medical store, although I spent nearly twenty minutes seeking it. Actually I was beginning to lose interest in the medical store. Here at street-level, I was actually among the shopkeepers, the vegetable and fruit stand merchants, the water buffalo, the pedicabs, and the grizzled tribesman guiding their camels along the streets with wooden sticks. Tetracycline was not nearly so intriguing.
Finally admitting defeate, I returned to the hotel entrance where I was intercepted by two friendly young men who approached me inquisitively.
“You are looking for something,” one of them said, having apparently observed my random movements in the area. “Can we help you?”
I was taken aback, both by the man’s fluent English, and his willingness to help. I tried to imagine such a thing happening on a street corner in New York, and realized it would not happen. In truth I did need help.
“Thank you, I’m looking for a medical store. There doesn’t seem to be one around here.”
He consulted his friends, speaking in Hindi.
“We know where there is a medical store. It’s not too far away.”
“Can I walk there?”
The man looked at me strangely. “Of course you can walk if you want to, but why walk? You should take one of the pedicabs.”
The pedicabs were those strange three-wheeled contraptions, with a tiny two-person seat athwart the two aft wheels, and a bicycle seat ahead of it where sat the man who propelled the little craft. They were all over Jaipur, but I had no idea how to hail one, or how to pay for it, or even how to give directions. I confessed all this to my new-found friend, who immediately took charge of the situation.
Raising his hand sharply, he hailed one of the strange contraptions and—when it pulled switftly to the side of the road—spoke at length to the driver, who nodded sagely.
“I’ve told him where to take you, to wait for you at the store, and then to bring you back here, explained the young man.”
“Thank you so much,” I said, sincerely. “How much do you think it will cost? How much should I pay him?”
“Oh, maybe 15 or 20 rupees. No more than 20, for the roundtrip.”
Fifteen rupees was about thirty cents. The guy was right. Why had I considered walking?
On the back of a pedicab, slowly being peddled through the streets of Jaipur, I had possibly my best view yet of Rajasthan, and India. I was now part of the scene in a way that was completely different from being in the back of a car, or on top of an elephant. The sari-draped women on motorbikes were now only an arm’s length away: living, breathing people, not just fleeting glimpses of color seen in the distance. At every stoplight I’d find a dozen bicycles, each carrying exotic cargo—much of it of the animal persuasion. There were tiny cars all over the roadway, with whole generations of families packed into them. Pedicabs, like the one I was riding, slowly weaved in and out among the more nimble vehickles, doing an excellent job of clogging up everything. And sublimenly indifferent to it all were the drivers of wooden carts pulled by water buffalo.
A water-buffalo-drawn cart, dropped into a sea of traffic on a multi-lane urban throughfare, does nothing to improve the flow. I now realized we were indefinitely stuck behind one of these on what was proving to be a long stretch. Miniature automobiles and noisy, exhaust-spewing motorbikes could accelerate fast enough to pass the water-buffalo and merge back into our own lane before being flattened by incoming traffic. A pedicab—especially one hauling an American tourist—operates at a velocity only slightly greater than a water buffalo’s cruising speed, and this is insufficient for passing. So we pedaled along resignedly, envying the cars and motorbikes, until I realized a camel had also joined our little parade. Life in the slow lane: water-buffalo-cart, pedicab-with-tourist, camel with camel driver – these were the obstacles that Jaipur traffic had to contend with, and Jaipur traffic did so effortlessly, having had much practice. Even so, everyone with a horn sounded it constantly, as kind of an accepted outlet for emotional energy; much as a pack of frenzied Chilhuahas behave when a stranger knocks at the door.
Returning from my adventurous trip to the medical store, I met Lynn just as the speeches for the day were winding down. ICA Congresses are arguably less about seminars and meetings and more about socializing. We were facing a heavy schedule of “soirees” here in Jaipur. Tonight, according to the program, was a wedding. All the attendees were invited, which seemed a bit odd. On which side of the aisle would we sit: bride or groom? And how would the intimate bridal party—the legitimate guests—react to a couple of hundred strangers showing up?
I could imagine the scene, as it must have played itself out sometime earlier.
“Dearest, that wedding invitation list we’ve been working on, um, I need to add a few names.”
“Well of course, honey. I can write them down now.”
“Um, actually, I have here a computer printout…”
“Are you nuts! There are over 200 names on here. Who are these people? Long lost cousins?”
“Actually, they’re complete strangers. But my uncle’s sister-in-law owes a favor to a man who’s employed by a company which is owned by someone who’s nephew is on the staff of the Gem & Jewellery Export Promotion Council, and it seems it would be convenient if…”
Actually, absurd as it seems to Western tradition, I knew that Indian weddings were lavish affairs, and the guest list was intentionally inflated with not just every distant relative on either side of the family, every acquaintance known even remotely by the couple or their extended families, but also with entire rolodexes of business contacts. It was for this reason that for many years I’d been receiving wedding invitations from people in India who I simply did not know, but whom might have had a brief business contact with me or Polygon somewhere in the past – such as picking up a business card at our booth at a trade show. Lynn and I had an hour at least before we needed to consider dressing for a wedding, so we took the opportunity to explore the hotel grounds themselves.
It was increasingly clear that—as had been true at the hotel in Delhi—we were in a highly-protected, and closed-off environment. Actual walls, of concrete and masonry, surrounded the several acre complex like a medieval village. Yet no one wished the guests to be intimidated by the fortess like nature of their setting, and so the walls had been painted in pleasing colors, and whole gardens had been planted at their base—bright flowers, expansive shrubberies, and even numerous trees. All these contributed to a park-like setting. We were in the depths of Rajasthan, yet so perfectly-cocooned in an artificial biosphere of hotel conference rooms, modern reception desks, elegant restaurants, swimming pools, flourishing gardens, and men and women attired for business meetings, that it would be easier to imagine that outside these walls was southern California.
[Note: this and the next paragraph are redundant to an earlier section:]Even so, carefully measured, rationed, and sanitized threads of the world outside our cocoon were allowed on display here inside the hotel complex, via half a dozen up-market retail boutiques. As these were set in an area apart from the hotel itself, and looking over the open grounds of trees, grass, and flowers, it was not difficult to imagine that this was actually the countryside, or at least a legitimate replication of life outside the cocoon.
It was our second day in India and we were in the mood to shop, especially as these sanitized marketplaces were designed to put Western tourists at ease. By that I mean the goods were arrayed elegantly in lighted display showcases, not sprawled out on rugs lying in the dirt, as would have been the case outside the cocoon. One of the shops was selling jewelry, and I pitied them. Trying to sell jewelry to a convention of gem dealers would be a real slog. Lynn and I were more interested in an adjoining shop that sold hand-painted fabrics, depicting things like elephants led into battle by uniformed troops, Indian ladies in erotic poses, and processions of majarajahs. These would make good Christmas gifts and consume almost no space in a suitcase. I bought several, as they were only a few dollars each./////
“You know, Lynn, there’s another world outside these walls.”
“Is there? I’ve nearly forgotten we’re in India.”
Lynn had been inside the cocoon since the moment we’d arrived.
“That other world still exists. It’s just beyond those walls. I could take you there. “
“Oh, yes!” she said, eyes sparkling with enthusiasm.
Deciding to miss the evening event yet again, we changed into our business clothes and soon were walking cautiously out of the front door, and then through the gate itself…into the Jaipur night. Of course thanks to my medical store foray, I was an old hand at Jaipur travel by this time, and effortlessly hailed a pedicab. The cultural shock I’d experienced earlier now hit Lynn, and if it was severe during the day it was much more so at night. The little street-fires were lit up again, as they’d been on the outskirts of Delhi, and our driver took us on a tour through a bevy of alleyways and hidden streets alive with activity. It was anyone’s guess what the activity was, but the hundreds of Indians out on the street scurried about in the darkness, carrying vegetables, bring wood to the fires, working away inside little shops lit by the occasional overhanging bulb, and it was clear that the frenzy of the day was a long way from ending.
Driving on a freeway in the middle of, say, Nebraska one is starved for sensory input – so much so that soon even the billboards become fascinating. On a night-time street in Rajastan, atop a pedicab, one reaches sensory overload in about five minutes.
“I’m ready to stare at a white ceiling again,” said Lynn, echoing these thoughts, and eventually we returned to our cocoon world and embraced it eagerly. One must acclimate to India, and it is best done in small doses.
The next day was for exhibiting, and we staffed the Polygon booth much as we would at a trade show in the states. This was Lynn’s home turf. She went into action and started signing up new members immediately. Perhaps that touch of normalcy helped us cast off the final remnants of jet lag. We felt fully awake that evening, and chose to return to the party-circuit, which tonight was a fashion show. The walled garden area had again been set up for serving a lavish Indian buffet meal. We served ourselves and took our places up near the front. Yet onto the newly-erected stage came not models but elderly men in suits and ties. I was prepared to start throwing vegetables at them, in protest, but then realized that the fashion show was to be preceded by a series of speeches. These were as tiresome and formulaic as one might imagine—officials of the Gem & Jewelry Export Promotion council thanking everyone for coming, and inflicting on us endless power point slides showing graphs and statistics about gem and jewelry exporting. I had to grudgingly admit they’d been clever, baiting us with fashion models so we’d be forced to sit through the speeches. But when the show began it was worth the price. Here the culture which had invented the sari now combined it with elegant jewelry and alluring young females—all of it accompanied by lively rock music. The boring speeches were quickly forgotten and by the end of the evening I’d come to realize that if India is about one thing, it’s about glamorous women adorned with stunning jewelry—a fitting end to the gemstone congress.
TOURISTS AT LAST
The gemstone congress hadn’et exactly ended, but after a session the next morning, the remainder was devoted to closed committee sessions. We were now free, and had eight days in which to truly see India. Our decision to not plan those days ahead of time was coming back to haunt us. The more we read of my three-inch thick Lonely Planet guide to India, the more it seemed we needed eight years, not eight days. Yet we’d both done some checking around and talking to others about where to go and what to see. Lynn’s “must do” list narrowed the options further. Finally we settled on:
- Spend a day sightseeing around Jaipur, which would be today
- Move to a different hotel tonight (we were in saving-money mode, now that the vacation had begun)
- Hire another car on Friday to drive us to Agra (seven hours by road southeast of our present position)
- See the Taj Mahal on Saturday
- Figure out how to get from there to the Himalayas.
- Return to Delhi by Wednesday night for a rendezvous with Anjum and Hussein Malik, my friends from Austin. Lynn’s plane left late the following day.
Negotiating for a driver to take us around Jaipur had been handled through a tourist desk established just for Congress members, back at the hotel. The price the man quoted, after converting to dollars, seemed high.
Lynn tried to haggle, but she had no idea how to do it.
“We’re supposed to haggle, aren’t we?” she asked the seasoned haggler sitting across from her at the desk.
He feigned incomprehension. “Excuse me?”
“Haggle. You know. You name a price and we say that’s too much and offer a lower price, and then we finally settle for something in the middle.”
“No, no, no.” The man smelled blood, knowing he was dealing with an utter novice. “The lower price—it’s already been negotiated for all the delegates. Everything’s been already agreed to between the travel office and ICA. So this price I show you, that is the lower price.”
I thought that a clever thing for the man to have said, and knew it would stop Lynn in her tracks. We agreed to the price and I resolved to give Lynn some instruction on how one haggles in Asia. After all, I’d been taught by Jamie Wan in China, an expert, and had perfected my own skills among the silk merchants of Beijing.
As we climbed in the car and pulled away from the hotel, I began explaining it to her.
“You can’t start out asking if you’re supposed to haggle!”
“Well, I didn’t want to be rude, in case it wasn’t a haggling situation. And apparently it wasn’t.”
“Oh, he just made that up. The point is, he’s probably never been asked if it was a haggling situation or not, but clearly the man can think on his feet. He chose ‘not.’”
“And I fell for it.”
“Well, it’s no big deal this one time, but from now on you have to play the game properly.”
“OK, tell me how it works.”
“First, you can’t let the vendor know you are determined to buy what he has to offer. You have to appear indifferent. You have to let him talk you into it, and the whole time you have to be disparaging about what’s being sold. When he first names a price, you have to pretend you thought you misunderstood. Then you have to pretend that you think he’s making a joke. Then when you finally are persuaded he’s serious you have to be shocked.”
“There’s more. After being shocked, you have to be sad.”
“Yes, sad as in: this idiot is asking such a ridiculous price that even bargaining with him would be a waste of time. And so you’re sad. You have to shake your head. Not in anger, but eyes-downcast as if you’re somewhat embarrassed for him and his lack of knowledge of the real world and real prices. At this point you want to appear to lose interest in the item under discussion, and change the conversation to something else.”
“It doesn’t matter. Maybe the weather.”
“Don’t worry. You can just comment on the weather, and he’ll recognize this as his cue.”
“His cue for what?”
“To now invite you to say what you might be willing to spend. He’ll say something like: ‘Madam, madam, how much you can spend?”
“And I say?”
“Name a price 75% less than his asking price.”
“Yeah, right. And then he’ll laugh, and become sad, and start talking about the weather.”
“Yes, that’s exactly what he’ll do. You will both have now set the boundaries for the discussion. And you’ve both put the other on notice as thinking that the price they named is ridiculous and unworthy of further discussion.”
“OK, I can do all that. What’s next?”
After he’s shaken his head sadly, you mumble something polite and start to walk away. As soon as you do this, he’ll intercept you quickly, and usher you back into the room. Then he’ll offer a price perhaps 10% less than the original. And now this is where it gets tricky. He’s trying to make it clear that he’s willing to come down a little, but only a little. You counter by doubling your offer. You now should be at precisely half his original. He’ll shake his head sadly, as if he did his best, coming down 10%, but clearly there’s simply no reasoning with you.
“And I shake my head sadly also?”
“No, you leave. And this time you leave for real. You don’t give him time to intercept you and bring you back. You’re out of there. He has to run to catch up with you now, and he will.”
“Do I let myself be drawn back?”
“Absolutely not. He’ll name a slightly better price than his last offer. But now the game is over. You repeat your last offer, which was half his original. He’ll shake his head in woe. You don’t budge. He’ll protest. He’ll tell you all kinds of stories about how poor he is and how much he needs this money. He’ll try everything in the book. Allow him maybe thirty seconds of this, and then walk away again—rapidly. Make him again run to catch up.
“Is this ever going to end?”
“Yes, when he catches up to you the second time, he’ll agree to your price. Pay him. Take the item, and you’ll notice he’ll be smiling fit to burst. Understand that whatever you paid, it probably represented a month of wages to him, so of course he’s thrilled. That evening he’ll tell his wife how he was able to outwit the gullible American.”
“You mean I should try for an even lower price?”
“Of course not. The prices for everything are so ridiculously low that it’s not worth spending more time bargaining.”
“Well then why spend any time bargaining?”
“OK, OK. I just wanted to understand. I think I get the picture.”
[ END OF PART I ]
 See “The Leaning Tower of Pisa”
 See “West to the Orient”
 See” West to the Orient”