So here I was soaking in my bathtub reading this book, The Speech Angel that I took from a friend’s library mostly because of the cover. It reminded me of Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns except that this one is about India, Bombay in particular, whilst the latter is about Afghanistan. Now I wasn’t even far along, chapter one in fact after a prologue. The main character, at this point, Monika, was highlighting her experience of leaving her pristine air-conditioned hotel. She had a mantra: see no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil and then add smell no evil with regards to the city. At this point I took a moment to chastise my cowardice of hesitating to share my real Indian experience. It went like this:
“How can you hope to be a world renowned author one day if you can’t write the truth? The evil in our heads we’re all ashamed of thinking.” Or in this case the bad review in the hallowed travel community. Gasp!
So I still continued with my bubble bath and Monika journeyed down the streets of Bombay when her attention was caught by the smile of a young girl who was alas! Clean! Then she did that one thing she promised she would not do. She opened her purse and took out a Rupee. Gasp!
Ok, let me quit with the drama. In her case especially it doesn’t seem to go down that route, in fact I stopped where the child is offended that she is being offered money. However, this jotted down memories of the gasp moment happening to me. This is how it went down.
We were ending off out trip of Delhi beginning the golden triangle the following day. It was probably our third day in New Delhi and we had spent an awesome time in Old Delhi by visiting the Red Ford, the Jain Temple (I will come back to this later) and the spice market. We had this amazing tour guide, Akbar, who was whisking us away and dangerously close to cows and buses alike as he ferried us in his bike rickshaw. Honestly every single second on India roads felt like it could be my last. Phew! Thank you Jesus I am still here.
Back to the story.We had just had a lovely day in Old city and we are on our way to the guest house when we made a stop before the station to buy cool drinks and water. The one rule I never break, maybe I’ll break it in the French Alps when I go on a skiing holiday one day: never ever ever drink tap water. From first world to third world countries alike, never ever do it! We were paying when this boy approached and started begging. Then I did. Yes I did it. I broke the rule. Before you judge me, a boy of about ten years comes all polite and topless and begging obviously hungry, saying “no!” is harder than you expect. It’s not human nature. You start rationalising in your head about how you can’t turn the other way. And we probably shouldn’t. So, I told my friend to buy an extra coke and I gave him a coke and he disappeared. I was happy. He didn’t stick around and ask for more stuff. Feeling good.Then Dum! Dum! Dummmm! Within seconds four boys were surrounding us with their hands in front of them mumbling. Then two more came and more and before we could even move away from the truck there were at least a dozen children around us. Now fear gripped me. I can’t move. They had us surrounded, blocking all possible directions to move away. They were so close, rubbing against us, and even lifting the plastic bag with the drinks from my friend’s hands. My eyes bulging like a lost deer and I wanted to say something but they would not understand, and engaging was probably not a good idea. My bag was feeling heavier and I wanted to scream for help. The vendor we had just bought from said some stern words and they disappeared. Just like that. Phew!
What was I thinking? I don’t even know if we discussed it until now with my friend. She likes telling the Jaipur tale. She roared with laughter when it happened. When I was under attack from a street vendor selling pens. My mistake again! I engaged. This is how it happened:
It was our first activity of the second day in Jaipur. We were seeing the Amer Fort. We were waiting for our ride to the top, an elephant. For the record I am now reformed; I have stricter beliefs about animals rights and do not support any activity that takes the animals from the wild except for conservation or medical purposes. Please forgive me for my past ignorance. There we were, at the bottom, at the elephant stop waiting for the elephant to make its way down the mountain. That’s their daily life; to ascend and descent the Amer Ford with tourists on their backs like myself taking selfies and positing on Twitter. Exhibit 1 below. Apologies once more. Next to us were a few vendors with their goods then one came right to my face and said;
“Pens! …dollars!” I didn’t hear what he said and I thought he said one dollar. And I was amazed at how he can sell a pack of pens for a dollar. So I (hiding my face and shutting eyes at my sheer stupidity) asked. Gaah! Like Bridgette Jones says. I still am not really sure what that exclaims but it seemed appropriate in this instance.
“You want? OK! I give.”(He didn’t quite say V, more like W)
“No thank you!” I said. Composed and polite.
“How much you got? Nine dollars? I giwe you.”
“No thank you.” I repeated sternly but still polite and still breaking the code: Do not engage!
This went on he wants to giwe me, I say no. I look away, he comes over to me, repeats the offer or asks how much I got while I now realise my mistake and trying to correct it by ending the engagement.
The elephant eventually came and I thought, thank you Jesus I’ll be rid of this man. No! That was not the case. We jumped on all excited and the mighty beast started walking. Now I was getting settled on the cushion and my friend was already saying “selfie time”.
The elephant had just taken a dozen or so slow steps when I hear, “Ok! Five dollars. Five dollars I giwe you!”
Then the showers of laughter started from my friend whom by now could see I am upset. The guy ran next to the elephant the entire two hundred meters or so up the path along the slow moving beast yelling ‘I giwe you’ till his price was at just two dollars. He was running next to the elephant in the heat of June morning and I felt responsible. He was moving me to shame and pity and wanted me to buy from him out of my shame and pity. I was involved. I hated the feelings evoked in me.
As if they made a pact who knows, he did not enter the Ford. He went back outside. We descended the elephants only to be greeted by a man who threw a hat on my head, got between me and my friend saying things. Now I replied rudely and close to tears:
“Please” I pleaded, “give me some space so I can have a conversation with my friend.”
Obviously he didn’t understand or care. He continued. So I took off the hat and handed it to him but he ignored me so I threw it on his head and held on to my friend who was still laughing and telling me to ignore this situation also because they couldn’t understand what I was saying. Easier said than done, so a strategy was necessary: Where do we run to find peace? That is what happened.
What didn’t happened is this: I did not stand in the middle of the court and admire its beauty. I did not pull out my info guide and see who and when built this and why. Instead we ran up the stairs where they were not allowed and where there was shade. Decided not to spend $12 on seeing the inside of the fort. My friend didn’t feel like sticking around either so after we had caught our breaths we left. Less than ten minutes inside. Our driver was shocked that we hadn’t stayed long.
Then coming to this driver. The worst! Before I owned a car I used public transport. And it is not like even in Delhi where you can go almost anywhere with the train. I love that about Delhi, and the Wi-Fi (see here, I’ve already blogged about it. Chicken was looking for nice things to say). In SA we use mini bus taxis. The drivers are notorious for making up traffic rules as they go. They own the roads. Then of course these days we are all sort of milder versions of them. Now Mr Hassan made our local taxi drivers look like angels. He was speeding and swerving all over the place; none of that smooth ride you get when you’re being chauffeured. He rang his bell (I mean hooter or horn) every thirty seconds. Yelled at other motorists meanwhile he was the one in the wrong. He was impatient with traffic making really dangerous manoeuvres like a person transporting a woman in labor or similar.
At the end and with everything that had happened we were so gatvol (had enough in colorful language) with him that I didn’t really want to give him a tip. We did though. Because we are chickens. Because we can’t tell a guy we had just asked where a temple is to go to hell when he reached out a hand asking to be paid after using one finger to point. It made me miss home. Crazy South Africans always willing to help. In another time, with better leaders, and less poverty, we could have been the best nation on earth because Ubuntu runs deep in our blood. People are willing to help, to share and care without expectations.
On the lighter part of the tale the Jain priest probably was the first. He was focused on my chest. I had a tube jumpsuit on. I know. Not my finest wardrobe choice for walking around India. Anyways after noticing this and even scooting down to bring my eyes level with his. He was not dissuaded by that and I think we carried the respect for him as a holy man, being good christian girls we are. At the end he made us bow as a demonstration of how devotees bowed at a stone in the middle on the temple. We indicated we got the picture but he insisted that we bowed, and by now well aware of his intrigue, and his strategic position behind us we half bowed and ran out. Not before he specified how much was a reasonable donation to the temple of course. And there was also lots of explanation about rituals that were performed naked. Huh! I have to Google this. My friend blamed me for tripping up the holy man with my sketchy dressing.
Then there was my favorite thing in all of India and really worth the experience; the Taj Mahal. Agra was really good. The accommodation was great, ran by a woman. The Taj experience was incredible. We went there super early and could take awesome pics before the crowds descended. Vendors are not allowed inside so I could linger, take pictures, speak to my friend, listen to the audio guide. Just bliss. We spent possibly three to four hours there. Sat and caught our breaths by the gardens. Amazing!
These are just the highlights. There were more uncomfortable scenarios and a few more good ones like making new friends and sleeping late drinking warm local wine talking about our home countries and music. Had a French boy tell me about Spoek Mathambo and Skip and Die, local artists I’d never heard of. The latter I’m yet to hear being played.
I blew up my budget by about fifty percent. By the time we reached Nepal, I was broke and had to be taking money from other accounts.
India was an experience. First place I’ve been to and don’t wish to go back to. But it was an experience nonetheless and I appreciate that. Does that make me a bad tourist?