Archive for February, 2011

Let Me Just Call My Driver, Part 1

I’m aware, telling my India stories to friends, that I frequently use the elitist-sounding phrase “our driver.” But for a short trip, I could find absolutely no down side to hiring private drivers in lieu of using autorickshaws or public transportation. First, there’s not a lot of public transport. Second, and my deciding factor, drivers are so cheap. Even when our relatively posh hotels arranged the drivers, we never paid more than $20US for a full day of being driven around. On a tight schedule, I think it’s totally worth it, even for budget travelers—of which I am one.

Taxi prices are what you could call “scalable” in India. If you are Indian, you pay one price. If you are foreign and non-Hindi/Telegu/Marathi-speaking, you pay, oh, about triple that price. To be fair, we’re not talking big numbers. My friend and I took an autorickshaw in Vizag to run an errand for our friends’ wedding. We found the auto in our hotel parking lot, and then called our Telegu-speaking friend (the groom) to tell the driver our destination. The driver wanted to charge us something like 100 rupees. The groom countered with the fair price—30 rupees. The driver apparently said, “But, sir, they’re foreigners!” Our friend told him, “No, they’re not. They’re my fiancee’s family.” (This is one of my favorite stories from the trip both because it’s an inside look into taxi pricing and shows so wonderfully the character of my friend’s husband.)

On one level, the 300% markup seems absurd. And it is. But 100 rupees is $2.20US. Westerners no doubt overpay over and over because it’s just so much work to fight on the price and the difference makes so little difference to our abundant bottom lines. When you hire a driver, you know what you’re getting into from the start and save the drama of haggling over the price of a vehicle every time you get in a vehicle. You also save yourself the mental anguish of said negotiations, which for me, goes something like this, “Did I overpay? Should I have offered less money? But it’s still so little money. And it’s such a poor country… I should give him a really big tip. Maybe he has kids to feed. But, then again, he totally tried to screw me over, and I don’t want to feed into this system of dishonesty…” And so on.

Drivers led to some of my favorite stories in India, some of which I’ll tell here. As a devoted NYC public transit customer whose budget permits maybe one taxi a month, I think I’ll rather enjoy remembering that, once upon a time, I had a driver.

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Attack of the Sacred Cow

As I sat down to tell the story of how a farm girl from Iowa got attacked by a cow in India, I realized I don’t even know why cows are considered sacred in Hinduism. I did what any good post-modern cultural anthropologist would do (Googled it), and came up with an article that asserts, “Cows are guileless in their behaviour…” Forgive the pun, but…

Bull.

The free-roaming urban-dwelling cows of India are one of the most visual representations to an American that, as we’d say, you’re just not in Kansas anymore. (Sorry. I’ll stop now with the agricultural kitsch.) I grew up on a farm in Iowa. I’m used to cows, but behind fences. And on my dinner plate, thank you very much. The prevalence of cattle in India is akin to the pervasiveness of yellow cabs in New York City. They’re everywhere, interrupting traffic, brash as hell, and just might kill you if you don’t watch where you’re going.

But they look docile enough. “Guileless,” as the aforementioned About.com Guide to Hinduism claims. The things that amaze and astonish you on the first days of a trip to somewhere as different as India become commonplace by day 12. Cows on the street? No problem. They move slower than the mopeds. Weave past, dash around, stay standing, no problem. I walked past that cow in Udaipur like I had many a cow by that stage, at a safe but narrow distance, and kept along my way.

Except this time I apparently did something to offend, or terrify, or something, because she lowered her significantly-sized head and slammed it into my vulnerable thigh. Like an embarrassing, loud, and very uncool little girl, I screamed — at the top of my lungs — managing even to draw compassion from the street vendors who had previously been interested only in my rupees.

Someone asked me if she (He? I’m not sure. The cattle with udders also had horns, and I didn’t stick around to check under the hood to get my attacker’s history) had gored me. GORE? Rii-ight… I checked out my leg, which hurt like hell and was now marked by a cow-nose shaped dirt smear, but no signs of a “gore,” thank God. I quickly moved on down the street, though I was already lost at this point in the maze of Udaipur’s lovely winding streets. I’d been trying unsuccessfully to find my hotel, unwilling to pull out my map just yet. And I’d just been attacked by a cow.

Bruised and stunned, I stumbled around a few more side streets, encountering a couple vendors/touts/drivers who wanted to sell/scam/chat me up. Fifteen minutes ago, I’d felt completely confident and comfortable wandering around this strange new city, exploring the locals’ market and off-the-beaten track side streets. Fifteen minutes ago, I was digging deep into the cultural fiber of this amazing country, enjoying its differences, and stopping to chat to anyone who said hello. One bovine attack later, I felt like everyone who spoke to me was on the prowl. I started to think a man was following me. I was scared. And all because a stupid cow rammed me in the thigh

I stumbled on a German cafe called Edelweiss that had been written up in my guidebook, which was filled with Europeans reading guidebooks. I gratefully snagged a table, ordered a latte, and pulled out my Moleskine to write all about it. While massaging a bruise the size of a pint glass and talking to a German medical student backpacker. So much for the authentic Indian experience.

Would I have been so afraid if a taxi gave me a tap in the middle of Midtown? Absolutely not. The danger factor being equal, the unfamiliar will scare us much more than the threat that we know. I am queen of my domain in New York City. I have very little idea what’s going on in India. I think this vulnerability is one of the things I love the most about traveling. When we are out of our comfort zone, we have a choice. We can curse the unfamiliar, cast judgement, and walk away… OR, we can jump in, take a risk, and, well… get attacked by a cow. But we become all the better for it.

As for me, I’ll keep weaving in and out of the cultural and agricultural land mines. I love people far too much to stop learning about how the ones on the other half of the world live. I’d rather suffer a few bruises than a closed mind any day.

Initial impressions: The Sounds & Smells of India

It’s late, dark, and I’ve only seen the airport. My observations are somewhat limited so far, but initial impressions..

As we were landing, my seat companion (another woman of Indian descent who has grown up in the States) said, “And that’s India. You’re gonna smell that every day for two weeks.”

She described it as a mixture of burning trash and raw sewage. That sounds a lot worse than it is, but there is a definitive odor. It’s distinctive. Not necessarily bad. It reminds me a bit of the Dominican Republic. The smell of the developing world.

Behind the row of airport chairs where I’m sitting, Mumbai’s version of elevator music is being pumped out of a speaker. I was just treated to a Bollywood-ified version of La Macarena.

On the ground less than two hours, I’ve already seen my first slums, lined up against the airport walls, seen from the windows on the airport bus. Several lights dotted the rows and rows of shacks. I wondered who’s up late, what they’re doing. I envision a diligent young student, studying. A hardworking mother, mending. So many stories I’ll never hear.

Much, much more to come…

Halfway Across the World, a Neighbor

I’m writing this from a BlackBerry in the domestic terminal of the Mumbai airport, where I will spend the next four hours waiting to board a flight, my final of three, which will take me to Vizag.

“Vizag” nearly got me left at the international terminal. The city, to where I’m traveling for my friends’ wedding, is officially called Visakhapatnam. I just had to look that up in my guidebook. Thanks to Google autofill, I haven’t learned how to spell the actual name of the city I’m going to. And my SpiceJet itinerary also used the colloquialism. The Indian police didn’t know where or what Vizag was. Thankfully, they did get my stumbling attempts at the town’s real name.

As I’m waiting for this bus to arrive, surveying the dilapidated scene at the Mumbai airport, the only non-Indian person around, a young Indian girl with an American accent asked me where I was coming from. She was born in the States, currently lives in Sioux Falls, SD, and goes to school at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln.

I grew up within 2 hours of those places. I met her at an airport halfway around the world. If there were ever an appropriate time for the cliche, this is it: It’s a small, small world. Which is an amazing thing to be reminded of as you find yourself alone at midnight in an airport halway around the world.

It’s easy enough to choose to be intimidated, or defensive, or skeptical when in unfamiliar surroundings. But it’s a whole lot more fun to open up, pray for favor, and discover ridiculous bursts of joy. Like riding the bus with a girl who was at my college campus last month for a conference.

What a small and lovely world.


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