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Thursday, March 09, 2006

My Porter, The Hero

At some point, it was bound to happen, I guess….
My awful, awful experience in India. So, here goes. Being a woman here just sucks.

Everyone warned me on taking trains, but in the same breath, would say I had to experience the railways to truly get the idea of what travel is like for the people of this country. Flights are a luxury here, as they’re quite expensive. So, after my train to Agra was cancelled and I took a car in the interest of saving time, I opted to book an overnight train from Hyderabad to Delhi. About 27 hours. I booked a first class sleeper compartment, to be shared with three others and boarded at 6 AM in a very hectic, very crowded and chaotic Hyderabad station. The cabin left much to be desired, plastic-covered blue and white striped beds that folded down, mud-caked windows, and insane-asylum white formica walls, browned by years of use. But, it was FINE. The conductor informed me that nobody would be joining me until 10:30 PM that night, in Bhopal.

At about 1 PM in the afternoon, I was awoken by the sound of rapping at my locked cabin door. “You have another passenger, Madam,” and into the car walked a seemingly distinguished looking doctor making his way to Delhi for a conference. He was very nice, immediately talking to me, chatting, telling me about his family (late 40s, married, 5-year old son) etc.... Then, decides to "relax." That entailed getting comfortable in his bed, a mere 2 feet of space separating him and I, no curtains, no divisions, just empty space. At this point, he’s wrapped in his sheet, and starts asking me more pointed questions that started to take on a sexual theme. About promiscuity in the States, about unsafe sex, about how arranged marriages lead to lots of cheating b/c it “just gets old, especially, like him, if you’re not attracted to your chosen wife in the first place.” I am nodding respectfully (why, not sure…), I guess feeling that I have to spend another 10 hours with this person before others join us, might as well try to not be rude, even though I am uncomfortable with the way the conversation is going. Then, he asks me what kinds of movies I like:

“Um….I don’t know, all kinds. Dramas, comedies, I don’t know,” I say, “and you?”
“I like romancees….and porn.”
“Excuse me?”
“Pornographics, I like those a lot. You know," he pauses, "all pornographics feature western women, just like you.”
GULP, GULP….my heart is starting to race. I don’t like this. AT ALL.
“I DO NOT like pornographics, as you say,” I say definitively and go back to reading my book.

At this point, I’m intently trying to focus on reading. But the words are a blur and my instinct is telling me something isn't right. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I see the sheet moving suggestively, unnaturally (well, actually, quite naturally for the nature of what was going on underneath…). His eyes are shut and he is touching himself. Quite obviously, and quite enthusiastically. I freeze. He sees me see him, and starts to gyrate his hips under the sheet, looking at me trying NOT to watch him. Staring at me, hard. I am locked in my head. WHAT IS GOING ON? WHAT DO I DO? WHAT THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH PEOPLE? THIS IS NOT HAPPENING. PLEASE TELL ME THIS IS NOT HAPPENING.

It continues, he’s tossing and turning and jerking off in the bed two feet away from me. And, as I’m about to get up and leave, he takes his hand out from the under the cover and goes:

“I really think that what you are doing is fantastic and I admire you. Shake my hand,” and offers his sweaty palm to me.

I bolt. I unlatch the door, shaking, and run into the passageway of the train, where three young porters see my visibly agitated state. They are asking me what is wrong in whatever Indian dialect they speak. I am trying to ask for a conductor, who I KNOW speaks English. They keep asking: "What is wrong," their body language says…. So, I make a jerking off signal with my hands to my crotch, and start to cry. Immediately, one porter, who probably isn’t 20 years old turns to stone, goes into my cabin and starts to remove all of my luggage, transferring it to the next cabin over (there are three first class cabins). He is so incensed by what I’ve tried to express, and spits on the doctor in his hasty transfer of my belongings. Settled in the next cabin, he shows me the panic buttons, the “help” light, and tells me in halting English, “no worry anymore, I right there,” pointing to the wall – indicating he resides on the other side of it. “You need me, ANYTHING, you call. I here," and hits the wall we will share. "You safe now.”

I lock the door, close the curtain and cry hysterically for about an hour. I have never felt so violated, dirty, unable to defend myself, as the nature of my crime in India is merely being born a white woman. I’m in hate with India, as it's SUCH a beautiful and interesting country but the people need to learn respect of other cultures and, of women. I’m angry, I’m scared, I’m furious, I’m hurting.

The porter sends in a variety of officials to hear my story, taking them aside and explaining to them in his native tongue his rendition of the incident. They all apologize profusely. The problem is that at 10:30 PM, in Bhopal, a member of Parliament and his family have reserved the compartment they put me in after the this all happened. So, they explain, I might have to go back to the other one, when others join the room. I'm miserable the thought of such a thing. But, the porter won’t hear of it – he’s taken on my defense with a passion. So, as the Parliament member boards, he goes over to him and explains the situation (a porter, speaking directly to a member of Parliament!!! Underheard of!!!) and Mr. Parliament was equally appalled. So, he had his eldest son sleep in that cabin and his daughter and wife with me (and him).

I woke in Delhi, after sleeping under Parliament’s watch, to a new day. A day to start fresh, try to forget the disgust I felt on the train ride that I JUST HAD to take. Well, I certainly got my “experience.” One I’ll never forget, that’s for sure. Michele and Jeff met me in Delhi that evening, easing me out of the anger, keeping me laughing all night. Seeing them couldn't have been timed better. And now, onto my last India city, tomorrow. Varanasi, the spiritual soul of India.

More from there, hopefully with less dramatic incident.


Monday, March 06, 2006

Beaches, Bush, Bangles...and Marriage.

After my days in crazy Mumbai, I was eager to take some time out in Goa, the beach district on the mid-western coast of India. Founded by the Portugese, and a hippie colony in the 60’s and 70’s, Goa is VERY laid back and easy going with a European flavor. Their local beer’s slogan is “It’s Goa (chilled).” Which about sums it up…

Watching sandy beaches lined with palm trees pass by the window of the airport transfer, I made my way to North Goa, known for it’s nightlife AND beaches, whereas South Goa has little or no nightlife to speak of. I wanted to have the option of joining the party or not, especially considering I was given NO such choice in Mumbai. So, to Sinquerem Beach I went, which boasts a group of resorts nestled in the remains of Fort Aguada (yep, another fort…). At the base of my hotel, where water and land meet, the solitary arm of a previously massive red brick fort jutted out into the water, the perfect spot to watch the amazing Goan sunset. In Goa, I got back on schedule. Having been on the road for over two months now, my body is starting to crave a little normalcy in schedule and ritual. Traveling Asia is starting to wear me a bit. Each morning, I got up around nine, had a huge breakfast of eggs and fruits (breakfast is included in almost every hotel room (budget or luxury hotels, alike) and the spreads are always worthwhile. I’ve become a hard-core breakfast girl, incorporating bananas into the meal each day, OBV… (yes, Marisa, I’m yours for banana desserts when I get home…) Then, I’d lay out, walk into town and back, hit the gym, eat fresh grilled seafood and salads for dinner at seaside, and get to sleep early. It was the same kind of existence that I had in Uruguay, an escape from the hectic schedule of a traveler.

The main preoccupation of the Indian people while I was in Goa was the impending arrival of Bush to India (Rik, I KNOW you wish you were here for this, right…?). Every news outlet carried 24-hour coverage of the big man’s trip, his schedule was dissected each day in the papers, and the state of the Indian government judged by opinion pages. I became obsessed with reading about Bush’s visit in the Indian papers, the impact such a nuclear deal meant to the world, to India, to the States, with how the people of India would receive him (72% were against his visit), how the people would respond (riots, protests, demonstrations), and how he would conduct himself (well, I thought). It’s interesting, if you ask many of the educated Indians about Bush, they like him, they think he’s a good man doing the job that others have been afraid to do, etc… If you go by the papers, which represent polls of much of the uneducated religious sects, they hate him. That feeling is decidedly coming from a Muslim faction, however, that is what is getting reported. My sister sent me MANY emails during the time Bush was here “making sure” I was ok, as seemingly the news over there was a little exaggerated. (I’m FINE…and love you lots, Cher). But, there were a fair share of situations that were accurately reported and interesting to note – especially being an American in India watching from the sidelines: mock funeral processions with a coffin carrying Bush with the pall bearers tagged “Iraq” and “Iran,” cartoons of Bush wearing a turban riding the Indian PM like a horse (the PM broke protocol and met Bush at the airport, the first visiting dignitary for which this happened), harsh demonstrations outside of Raj Ghat (Ghandi’s resting place) when Bush put an ironic peace wreath on the gravesite, the city of Hyderabad was declared a no-fly zone for the majority of March 3rd as Bush visited, another first. I think more than anything else, the Indian people seem to be angry at THEIR government’s handling of the situation, and the way he was treated (royally) and portrayed (regally), not Bush’s actions during his visit per se. At least being here, that’s the way I’m seeing it.

Anyway, my flight, OF COURSE was delayed into Hyderabad, because I picked the day Bush was visiting to get there myself. My trip from Goa to Mumbai was supposed to land at 2:45. My flight from Mumbai to Hyderabad was supposed to take off at 3:30. 45 minutes to get from Point A to Point B in the airport. Do-able, no? But, as I watched my G-Shock change from 3:29 to 3:30, while we were taxi-ing to um…Sri Lanka, for sure, I started getting anxious. I had tried to just “go with it” the whole trip, but as we landed with such a close call to make the next flight, I was agitated. It didn’t help when my flight to Hyderabad was also delayed, but nobody told me. This would’ve settled me down automatically, but they just kept pointing me in “that” direction (which was straight) and I kept walking, with no clear idea of where I was going, what new flight I was looking for, at what time it was leaving. I then had to wait on the “women only” security check line at the airport, which is at least 10 times longer than the men’s security check lines (of which there were three). Grrr……. I was sweaty, miserable, and agitated. So much for my beach holiday feeling lasting very long. Thanks, Bush.

When I finally got to Hyderabad, the saving grace was Ehrenberg (thank you K&C for making that happen), who is doing business in India for the next two months. I was able to just shoot over to his hotel, check into his room, and vent. FOR ONCE. See, here I don’t have any vent partners, so when I’m frustrated, I only have my own head to freak out in. It’s close quarters up there a lot with how much anguish travel like this can sometimes create. It was SOOO nice to just be hugged by someone who knows you so well, gets you, doesn’t need explanations for ANYTHING that comes out of your mouth. good to see you, Steve!!!

We spent the next few days just hanging out in Hyderabad, a modern city full of business and technology, as husband and wife. It’s just easier for a man and a woman staying together to declare marriage, than deal with the disdain for unmarried cohabitation within their hotel, using the services he’s entitled to without being related to him, blah blah… So, for the duration of my stay in Hyderabad, I was Mrs. Ehrenberg. Oddly, though, everytime they called us on the phone from the front desk or otherwise, they called him Mr. Martinez (Dad, you would’ve been proud!). I watched him try to recover from his jet-lag and culture shock, navigate his way through Indian food and Indian hospitality. It was great to witness it all from that perspective, as that’s probably what I look like as I enter each new culture/country and have to stumble through the transition. I loved that it was ME (the wife, in chauvinistic India, no less) who knew how to solve his Indian-themed problems, make sure he didn’t get ripped off, or teach him how to accept the level of service and divisions of caste here. For once, I was teaching, not learning. Felt different. Felt good.

We wined and dined with his other ex-pat friends, went running, sampled Indian food, and made friends with the military guys stationed in our hotel (they were on Bush detail, building and deconstructing all of the helicopters deployed for the President’s visit). I spent an afternoon at the Old City of Charminar and Fort Golconda (yep…another fort) filled with sights and sounds similar to Old Delhi, buying bangles galore – a Hyderabad must. I think I whiled away at least two hours in a bangles shop, shimmying my wrist in mirrors as the vendors gave me yet another set of bangles to try on. I left with ten sets of bangles, wooden ones, mirrored ones, jeweled ones, ceramic ones, antique silver ones – you name it – I bought it. Will I wear them, who knows? (You can all borrow… except you Cher, as you don’t jewel up. You either, Davs – it might be like the pirate earrings situation…)

I’m now on a train to Delhi, where I’ll stay for a night to meet back up with the Hanfts. Then, a sidetrip for a few days to Varanasi on the Ganges, the spiritual home of India (I WILL bring my long sleeves and long pants this time), then I move onto the Maldives for a week. I can’t believe India is almost over – three weeks gone. As two little birdies told me, stick with the food, and you’ll come to love it, and I can proudly say I am learning to appreciate Indian food. More than anything, I like to dip the breads (nam, chipati, parantha) in the leftover sauces from the curries and masalas, rather than eat the meals themselves. I’m into the dip: Cohen, it’s your kinda country…all fingers, broken pieces and dips. And while I don’t think I’ll be hitting Indian restaurants with the same vengeance I plan to hit Thai ones, I won’t balk when someone says, “Hey, wanna go for Indian tonight?” I’ll say, with the attitude of a true Goan, “Why, sure…sounds great.”