But If You Try Sometimes…You Can

28 Mar

“You need to be at the Lake Palace tomorrow at 1 o’clock for lunch,” Harsh continues.

Cue:  Giggling, screaming, clapping, jumping up and down in our chairs.

“Ok, ok.  Shoosh, shoosh,” Harsh pleads. “We really could have made more of a scene,” Lizzie later admits after he walks away and I wonder if we drew too much attention to ourselves.

He goes over the logistics. We need to bring our passports with us. If anyone asks, we are staying at Shiv Niwas, and we are friends with Baba. “And, just act a little snooty about the whole thing,” Harsh suggests.

The next morning Lizzie and I wake up, already giddy. “We’re going to the Lake Palace today!” I cheer, bouncing up and down in bed after shutting off the alarm. There is no lounging. We have a mission. We will go to the rooftop and have breakfast, something light, just to get our metabolism going but nothing heavy that will spoil lunch.

Lizzie changes her outfit at least three times. I hadn’t planned on going to a five-star hotel when I left Mumbai and packed for this trip, so I am stuck with my denim capris and a silk Indian tunic. I hope that my less-than-five-star outfit won’t keep us from getting in. Lizzie ultimately opts for jean capris as well and a new shirt purchased in Jaipur. Our fears about our outfits will later be put to rest.

We hop in a rickshaw outside our hotel and get to the information desk at the entrance to the City Palace. The same information desk where we caused quite the scene the day before after yelling at the staff for making us purchase two unnecessary entrance tickets. The rickshaw stops. We cannot go any further without tickets. Seriously?  I get out of the rickshaw and tell them we need two tickets since we’re going to the Lake Palace jetty. “Are you going to the management office?”  the attendant, the same one from the previous day, asks as he hands me two tickets stamped with the date. “No, we’re having lunch at the Lake Palace.” He sighs, frustrated. He returns my money. “Give me the tickets. You don’t need them. Just tell the guard you have a reservation.”

We enter the gate and decide to walk the rest of the way to the jetty. It wouldn’t be believable that we’re hoity-toity bitches if we arrive in a rickshaw. Halfway to the jetty, Lizzie stops. “Steph, I don’t have my passport.”
“You’re joking.” I know she isn’t.
“No, I didn’t grab my passport. I don’t have it.”
I look at my watch. 12:15. We have time. We walk back out of the gates, Lizzie continues to apologize, we get in a rickshaw and head back to the hotel. She runs, literally (I know this because she is wearing the loudest pair of heels I’ve ever heard), back to the room.  In less than two minutes, she’s back in the rickshaw and we’re off.

Round 2.

We pass by the information desk; this time we don’t stop. We get to the entrance gate. Again, we get out of the rickshaw and walk the rest of the way.

We arrive at the jetty with our makeup melting off our faces in the 100-degree heat. We are friendly, but a little stuck up. We hope to see the staff member from the day before, just for a haha-in-your-face moment. He is not there. I tell the hostess that we have a 1 p.m. lunch reservation. She asks for my name. She picks up the phone to call the restaurant and confirm the reservation. “You’re staying at Shiv Niwas, yes?”
“Great, can I make a copy of your passport?”
I hand her my passport. She never asks for Lizzie’s. We go through bag check and the metal detector.

“Have a seat and make yourself comfortable,” she tells us afterward, pointing to two cushioned chairs underneath the ceiling fans. “Would you like some water while you wait? The boat will be here in five minutes.”

When the boat arrives, Lizzie and I get in, along with a guest from the hotel. He is wearing a tattered Hard Rock shirt, cargo shorts, and loafers. I already am less worried about wearing denim capris. I am even less concerned when later, guests walk into the restaurant wearing harem pants and T-shirts. We arrive at the Lake Palace just a couple minutes later.  There seems to be at least one staff member for every guest. We are escorted to the reception desk, where one more time, I am asked to confirm my name. Then, we are led to the restaurant.

At 1 o’clock, prime lunch time, Lizzie and I are the only two people in the restaurant, the restaurant that is booked 7 days a week, 12 months a year. The only two people! A hostess leads us to a table by the window, overlooking the City Palace. She pulls our chairs out for us; she unfolds our napkins and places them on our laps. Within seconds, our waiter appears with water and menus. A few minutes later, a couple arrives and sits at a nearby table. For the next two hours, only two more tables will be occupied for lunch.

We order drinks.  Then naan and French fries. The chef makes barbecue sauce for me upon request (French fries with BBQ sauce is a must). Lizzie and I had heard lunch was served buffet-style (not the case), so we had nibbled at breakfast. By this point, we are ravenous. We each order an entrée. Lizzie goes for pasta; I for a steak, which turns out to be more like roast beef. The food is not particularly spectacular, although the French fries are perfectly crispy. We are full, but there is no way we are skipping dessert. I don’t think Lizzie and I skipped dessert once on the entire trip; we weren’t going to start at the Lake Palace. So, we order two–a walnut brownie sundae and apple crumble a la mode. We eat every morsel. Now, we are stuffed.

We pay the bill. It is probably the most expensive lunch, or meal in general, either Lizzie or I has ever had, but we are not complaining. We are still excited about being there.

“I can’t believe my brother did it.  In the last three years, I’ve only seen two people walk out of here to go to the Lake Palace,” Yash told us before we left the hotel for lunch. We are lucky. After the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks, the Lake Palace stopped allowing non-guests into the hotel for lunch and dinner, with the exception, obviously, of select non-guests from five-star hotels and, in our case, friends of Baba.

We leave the restaurant and walk around the hotel. We encounter maybe 5 guests in the 30 minutes we spend wandering. We encounter at least 30 staff members. That’s how it is in India. You rarely get decent service in a basic restaurant, hotel, or shop, but step into a five-star hotel, and you even have someone who escorts you to the bathroom.

We reluctantly walk back through the lobby and outside where the boats dock. Within a couple of minutes, a boat comes to take us back to the jetty. We step off the boat and begin to walk toward the waiting area. “Lizzie, there’s the guy from yesterday.”  The one who told us we couldn’t get a reservation if we weren’t guests at a five-star hotel. “Oh my God, yes! He has to see us!” Lizzie says.

I walk up the steps, slowly, hoping to catch his eye, but he is talking to someone. I turn around to see if Lizzie is still behind me. She also saunters by the podium, purposely trying to catch his attention. He looks up.  “Oh…hello,” Lizzie says in the snootiest way possible. “Hello,” he says.

We are so pleased with ourselves. It was like the scene from Pretty Woman, the one where the decked-out Julia Roberts goes back to the store where the clerks refused to help her when she was dressed like a hooker. “Remember me? I was in here yesterday and you refused to wait on me.” The clerks look confused, then they recognize her. They are embarrassed, and Julia Roberts says, lifting up all the shopping bags from other designer boutiques, “Big mistake.  HUGE!”

Well, in that moment, the Lake Palace staff guy is an embarrassed store clerk and Lizzie and I are Julia Roberts. Just for a moment. Then we walk back to the gate and hail a rickshaw to take us back to our hotel.

Me & Lizzie at the Lake Palace


You Can’t Always Get What You Want

24 Mar

Udaipur.  Our last stop on our whirlwind tour of north India.  Lizzie and I arrive at Jaiwana Haveli at 8 a.m., after a 5-hour overnight train ride from Bundi.  With time to kill before our room would be available at noon, we have breakfast on the roof of our hotel.  Then we tour the City Palace.  From both spots, we could see it sitting in the middle of the lake, beckoning us–the Lake Palace Hotel.

Lake Palace Hotel

Since reading in Lonely Planet at the beginning of the trip that the only way to enter the hotel as a non-guest is with a reservation at the restaurant, our hearts had been set on having a meal there.  The boats from the private jetty glide across the still water of the lake to the exclusive hotel.  We would be sitting in one of those boats in a day or two, as soon as we make our reservation.  That’s what we thought.

Arriving back at the guesthouse, anxiously awaiting our room to be ready so that we could nap, I ask Yash, the manager, about getting a reservation for lunch the next day.  “You can’t go to the Lake Palace unless you’re staying there,” he says.  WHAT??  “The guidebook says you can if you have a reservation at the restaurant,” I argue.  “The guidebook is wrong.”  Yes, Lonely Planet is definitely getting an e-mail at the end of this trip.  I am annoyed.  Lizzie looks sad, but we are not defeated.

In our room, I opened the Lonely Planet and flip to the page with the Lake Palace’s phone number.  I call.  “This is no longer a working number,” the operator says, in an annoyingly perky tone.  I try five more times.  Same message.

Post-nap, we cross the footbridge to the other side of the lake to explore the quieter side of Udaipur.  We head to Ambrai, a restaurant famous for its spectacular evening view of the illuminated City Palace and Lake Palace, to check out the menu.  I never make it to the restaurant.  After entering the courtyard at Amet ki Haveli, en route to Ambrai, a couple begins chatting me up.  The husband is splashing around in the pool, which they have all to themselves.  The wife tells me about the amazing deal they got on the hotel through a travel agency and invites me in to see their room.  Then she invited me to see her friend’s room next door.

Instead of Ambrai, Lizzie and I opt for dinner and a viewing of Octopussy, which was filmed in Udaipur, at a nearby guesthouse.  Before leaving Amet ki Haveli, though, we stop by the manager’s office to inquire about using the pool.  For a nominal fee, we could swim there, which was tempting since temperatures approach 100 degrees by midday.  Since the manager is so helpful, we decide to get a second opinion on the reservations at the Lake Palace.  “Non-guests are not allowed,” the manager informs us.  “But you can call from here if you want to give it a shot.”  I watch as he dials the working number for me; it’s only one number off from the non-working number printed in the guidebook.  The operator transfers me to the restaurant.  I explain that my friend and I are not guests at the hotel but are interested in making a lunch reservation.  “We are pretty full right now,” the woman on the other end of the line explains, “but you can e-mail the restaurant manager, and maybe he can help you.”

Hope.  That’s all we need.  I take down the e-mail address.  After the movie and dinner at Panorama Guesthouse (I highly recommend the dal makhani there), we go back to our hotel, sign into Gmail, and send Mr. Vasant at the Lake Palace a request for a reservation.  We make no plans for the next day, hoping our request for a reservation would be granted.  Before breakfast the next morning, I check my e-mail.  Nothing from Mr. Vasant.  Our only hope is that he will respond by the end of the day and give us a reservation for our last full day in Udaipur.  “There’s a Lake Palace reservation office near the City Palace,” Yash tells us, when we update him.  “You could go over there and see what happens.”

More hope.  We take the 20-minute walk in the midday heat back to the City Palace.  We ask the information desk outside the City Palace gates for directions to the Lake Palace reservation office.  “It’s inside the gates at the second jetty,” the desk attendant informs us.  “You’ll need an entry ticket to the City Palace.”  We tell him we don’t need a ticket to the City Palace; been there, done that.  We just want to talk to the reservation desk.  “You have to buy the ticket.”  I look at Lizzie.  Pleading our case to the Lake Palace reservation desk is our last hope.  Is it worth buying a ticket?  After more failed negotiations with the information desk staff, we buy the tickets and enter the gates.

We pass the first jetty.  Nothing special.  Just a dock for the boats that take tourists in a circle around the lake, not even getting close to the Lake Palace.  We walk further.  We follow the circular driveway up to a covered platform with pillars wrapped in luxurious fabric.  The overhead fans cool us.  We ask to speak to a manger about a restaurant reservation.  The dozens of staff members mill about, glancing at us every now and then, but paying us no serious attention.  After five minutes or so, a Lake Palace staff member, not a manger, arrives.

“We called the hotel about a lunch reservation yesterday,” I explain.  “We were told that even though non-guests usually cannot make reservations, Mr. Vasant would be able to help us, but after e-mailing him, we have yet to get a response.  With only one full day left in Udaipur, we would like to know if it’s possible to get a reservation.”  Like everyone else, he states the hotel’s policy of not allowing non-guests on its premises.
“Yes, we understand, but we were told that Mr. Vasant might be able to help us if the restaurant was not already booked.”
“The restaurant is booked 12 months a year with guests,” the staff member explains.
The back-and-forth continues, with him reminding us of the policy and us reminding him that we were not giving up on the possibility until we speak with Mr. Vasant or another manager.  Eager to be rid of us, he walks over to a podium and picks up the phone.  He turns his back toward us, so I can barely overhear his end of the conversation.  He covers the mouthpiece on the phone and turns around.  “What hotel are you staying at?”
“Jaiwana Haveli.”
He takes his hand off the mouthpiece,  “They are staying at some…Jaiwana Haveli.  Pause.  Yes, yes, ok.  Thank you.”

“I’m sorry.  It’s not possible since you are not a guest at the hotel,” he says.
“Then, why would they tell us yesterday it was possible?”  We are not giving up.
“The hotel does not allow non-guests.  That’s the policy.”
“I still don’t understand why they would ask us to e-mail a manager if no one from the outside is ever allowed to have a meal there.”
“The only non-guests allowed are those staying at other five-star hotels.”

WHAT?  In that instant, Lizzie and I become even more motivated to get a reservation.
“So you’re telling me that if I had a reservation at the Trident I would be able to have lunch at the Lake Palace tomorrow?”
“But because I am not paying hundreds of dollars a night for a hotel room, I am not allowed to have lunch at the hotel?”
Lizzie and I rant about how unfair the policy is, and how it’s not right to give people false hope.
“I’m sorry you were misinformed.”

Lizzie and I leave the jetty.  “Leave” is not the right word.  Storm off is more accurate.  Not only is our smidgen of hope gone, but also we are insulted and pissed.  Because we’re staying at “some…Jaiwana Haveli” and not some “other five-star hotel,” we are now not good enough to eat at the forbidden Lake Palace Hotel.

We stop at the information desk near the gate on the way out.  We still have a ticket to the City Palace that we didn’t need and want our money back.  After an argument that escalates into Lizzie and I yelling about how incompetent and unhelpful the information desk staff is, we begin the walk back to our hotel.

We step into a few shops along the way for some retail therapy and to cool off.  “Do you have a brother or a cousin who works at the Lake Palace?” Lizzie asks a guy running a textile shop.  “Actually, yes.”  He offers to give his cousin a call later that evening.  We ask more shopkeepers and rickshaw drivers and keep track of who has connections to the hotel.

Back at Jaiwana Haveli, I go into the office to check my e-mail for a response from Mr. Vasant.  Lizzie stays at the front desk, talking to Harsh, Yash’s brother and the other manager of the hotel.  “No e-mail,” I announce, walking back into the lobby.  “Harsh knows someone at the Lake Palace,” Lizzie exclaims.

“I will give him a call and see if he can do a favor for me,” Harsh offers.  “Yes, yes, that would be great!”  More hope.  This is the most promising lead we have, but I don’t want us to get too excited.  We badger Harsh every half an hour for an update.  No word from his friend.  “You’re not going to get in,” Yash warns us as we pass through the lobby to head out.

To distract ourselves, Lizzie and I go for a cable car ride up to Sunset Point.  Lizzie and I had managed to see some beautiful sunsets on our trip, and while nothing will top sunset at the Taj Mahal, the sun disappearing behind the mountains that surround Udaipur’s Lake Pichola is a close second.

Sunset over Lake Pichola, Udaipur

Hungry and exhausted, post sunset, we decide to have dinner on the rooftop of our hotel.  We climb the stairs to the rooftop and order two fresh lime sodas and French fries.  We go back to the room to shower, change into sweat pants, and head back to the rooftop for a proper dinner.  After ordering, Harsh walks up to us, puts his hands on the table, leans over, and sighs.  “So, my friend responded, and …”

Olive: The Reason to Never End a Relationship on Bad Terms

22 Feb

WARNING:  To my parents, relatives, and anyone else who prefers to think of me as the innocent little girl who signed plenty of abstinence cards as a teenager, please do not read any further.  Thanks.

Want to see every person you’ve been introduced to in Mumbai?  Go to Olive on a Thursday night.  Want to flirt with that cute guy you met a party once?  Go to Olive on a Thursday night.  Want to avoid seeing the guy you went on a date with but never called you again?  Don’t go to Olive on a Thursday night.  Want to make out with someone in front of the guy who never called you to make him jealous?  Go to Olive on Thursday.

There isn’t anything special about Olive except that it’s the place to see and be seen.  The drinks are ridiculously overpriced, and you have to stick around until 1 a.m. or later to have even the slightest bit of space to dance.  The music is good, and only once have I been to Olive when  it shut down before 4 a.m.

If you want to go out with your friends, grab a few drinks, and hang out, there are other options in Mumbai, but if you want the latest gossip or to check out who’s with who, there’s no other place to be than Olive.

There are only a couple of people in Mumbai who, in an ideal world, I wouldn’t run into again.  I successfully avoided one of them when I was at Olive two weeks ago; I noticed him getting in his car as I walked into the bar.  The other …I’m never that lucky.  He and I are too often in the same place at the same time.  Just the week before, he taps me on the shoulder at the Mahalaxmi Derby to brag about winning a bet on a race.

Rewind a few weekends before that.  I arrived at a restaurant half an hour early for brunch with a friend, and he’s sitting at a booth with some girl.  I aborted the plan to sit alone and have a cup of coffee.  Instead, before he could see me, I walked across the street to a coffee shop, ordered tea, and parked myself at a table by the window so I could watch to see if they’d leave the restaurant together holding hands or something.  Of course, caffeine on an empty stomach meant that I had to pee like crazy, and they must have left during the minute I was in the restroom, because when I returned to the window seat from which I had been stalking them, I could see they were gone.

And, of course, it never fails that he’s at Olive.  I skipped last week in order to finish some work.  But, two weeks ago, the last time I was there, he squeezed into a spot at the bar next to me.  He kissed me on the cheek and said hello to my friends.  We exchanged pleasantries, and I regretted that I had chosen to not drink that night.  He handed the second drink to the girl behind him, the same girl he was with at brunch.  Then he touched my earrings.  “I found your jewelry,” he said.  “I’ll have to get it back to you.”

I have a habit of leaving jewelry at guys’ places.  It would probably make my life easier if I would just stop wearing jewelry on dates (or stop going back to their places, as my mom would probably suggest if she were reading this post, which I hope she’s not).  But, I’m learning my lesson the hard way with Mr. We’re Gonna.  As my friend says, he’s a “we’re guy,” a.k.a. all talk and no action.  “We’re going to go to this great restaurant next time.”  “We’re going to go on a motorcycle ride along the beach at sunset.”  “We’re going to go to Goa.”   After our first date and a post-dinner make out session (during which I took off the earrings), I resisted every urge to spend the night, not wanting to ruin the chance for all the we’re-gonnas.

The next week, Mr. We’re Gonna texted me to say he’d be out of town for business, but we’d hang out when he got back.  Another week—nothing.  Then, out of the blue, a text, “Sorry I’ve been out of touch lately.  Been sorting some things out…”  At that point, I had already gone out with someone else, and thankfully did not leave jewelry at his place.  And aside from the run-ins at the horse race and Olive, we haven’t been in contact.

I recently found out that Mr. We’re Gonna is now dating my friend’s roommate, which is great because now I have an easy way to get my earrings back.  Surprising, I haven’t heard from him since his offer two weeks ago to get them back to me.  So, I texted him on Friday, “Hey.  Really need my jewelry back.  You can give them to Jackie next time you see her.”  A few minutes later, he replied, “Hey.  Had the earrings in my pocket to give them to you on Thursday if I ran into you at Olive.”

Death. It’s Part of Life.

16 Feb

I’ve been reminded of this cliché all too well over the last few days.  It all started late last week after quite a long day.  I was exhausted but not ready to go home.  What’s a girl to do?  Take advantage of her spa membership, that’s what.  I opted for a pedicure, my first non-DIY one in over six years and desperately needed after months of walking around India in flip-flops.

The rickshaw driver veered toward the curb half a block away from the spa.  Instead of asking him to drive to the corner, I was going to walk the rest of the way.  I fumbled around my wallet, looking for exact change.  He started waving his hand in my face and pointing toward the rear of the rickshaw.  I thought he was pointing toward the meter.  “Yes, yes, one minute.”  Jeez, this guy is impatient. He kept waving his hand and pointing.  I looked behind the rickshaw, thinking someone was standing there, waiting for me.  No one.  He pointed to the ground, right where I was about to step out of the rickshaw.

“SHIT.  SHIT.  CHALO!  CHALO!  CHALO!”  Go! Go! Go! He just laughed; he wasn’t taking me seriously.  I began hitting him on the shoulder.  “Chalo!  Chalo!  Shit!”  He pulled forward a couple of hundred feet.  “Ok, stop.”  He was still laughing.

The image is still in my head.  A cat was hovering over a rat, which I presume it had just killed (not that I’ve seen many dead rats, but this one looked freshly dead), and was about to eat it.  I don’t think the cat would have appreciated my stepping over it and its dinner so that I could get to the spa.  I’m not sure how the rickshaw driver assumed I would react to that, and I’m still unsure about whether or not he pulled over where he did on purpose, but I either gave him exactly the reaction he had hoped for or he was very amused at the way I freaked out over something that didn’t phase him a bit.

Then this morning, as I walked out of the house to go to the bus stop, I noticed a procession of men dressed in white coming from a few houses down.  As I passed through the gate, four men passed by carrying a wooden platform.  A dead body lay under a white sheet and garlands of flowers.  I walked along side the crowd as they carried the body to an ambulance, parked near the bus stop on the main highway, waiting to transport the body to the crematorium (yes, an ambulance doubles as a hearse).

I stood at the bus stop. Four men filed into the ambulance after loading the body into the back.  I scanned the rush hour traffic to look for my bus, and was interrupted by loud sobbing coming from the ambulance.  I haven’t seen many men cry in my life, and I definitely haven’t seen an Indian man cry.

I looked into the ambulance.  A young man, maybe around 30, hovered over the platform, his hands on the body, and wailed.  It was a heart-wrenching sound, one that seemed to silence the hundreds of honking cars and screeching brakes.  If you could define true sorrow and heartbreak with a sound, this man’s cry would have been it.  I looked around at the bus stop; no one else seemed to be phased.  In a country of expert starers, I was the only one in the group entranced by this scene.  The man continued to wail, and I continued to stare until someone in the procession closed the doors of the ambulance and it began to drive off.


3 Feb

I’m currently reading Eric Weiner’s The Geography of Bliss, a book about the author’s search for the world’s happiest places.  About India, he writes,  “I hate it.  I love it.  Not alternatively, but simultaneously.  For if there is anything this seductive, exasperating country teaches us it is this: It’s possible to hold two contradictory thoughts at the same time and, crucially, to do so without your head exploding.  Indians do it all the time.”  Now, I often feel as though my head could explode at any moment, and I’m not sure if I’ve managed to love it at the same time I’m cursing it.

Mumbai is a city of extremes.  Take wealth and poverty, for example.   The rooftop bar at the Four Seasons, one of the city’s best, overlooks a slum.  In this city of extremes, I have discovered my personal extremes.  I have been the best and worst version of myself.  And, as much as I hate to admit it, I am my worst version more than I would like to be.

In his book, Weiner talks about “going native,” when someone moves to a foreign country and completely immerses herself in the local culture, lets all of her “old ways” die, and adopts the new place as her own.

I have not gone native in India.  In fact, I resist things more than I should, and although I try to stay calm and collected, sometimes I snap.  If I had gone native, sitting two hours in traffic to go six miles wouldn’t irritate me; it wouldn’t bother me when people show up 30 minutes late for an appointment; I would barely notice the constant honking.  Seriously, why honk when traffic is at a stand-still?

And, if I had really gone native, I probably wouldn’t hate traveling on India’s trains.  Most of my friends who work here love the train.  It’s the quickest way to get where you need to go.  True, it is.  But, I don’t know, there’s something about being shoved onto an already-packed train by a group of 20 women then standing with someone’s un-deodorized armpit in my face for an hour that isn’t appealing.

Last Wednesday was Republic Day, a national holiday in India, and since my working friends had the day off, we planned to spend the afternoon in south Bombay.  I went to the train station, bought my ticket, and waited at the front of the track to board the First Class Ladies’ Car.

When I was in India back in 2007, we took an overnight train from Chennai to a village for our homestay.  The program coordinator told us that we would be in a First Class Sleeper Train.  I pictured a hotel room on wheels, basically.  A plush bed in a dark, cozy little nook closed off from the rest of the train.  “And, waiters will come by so you can order food,” the coordinator said.  I imagined room service.

I soon learned that First Class, by Indian standards, is not much different from Third Class.  You get the same bed (a bench that folds out into a bed) and the same coarse blanket, but in First Class there’s a curtain for privacy.  Trust me, it’s going to take more than a curtain to get privacy, especially when the room service I imagined turned out to be a guy walking up and down the aisle, pulling the curtains back, and yelling, “Chai!”  “Samosa!”  “Peanuts!”

And the bathroom.  Far from First Class.  A sign near the bathroom entrance says, “Please refrain from using the toilet while the train is stopped.”  That’s because the toilet is a hole in the floor of the train.  Better to pee while the train is moving than leave a puddle at the station.  My first time using a squat toilet was on a moving train around midnight somewhere between Chennai and the middle-of-nowhere.  I peed all over my leg, returned to my bench/bed, GermX-ed my entire leg, and changed pants.  No one was going to convince me that Indian trains “aren’t so bad.”

The only good thing I can say about overnight trains, or long-distance trains in India, is that you have an assigned seat.  Not on the local train.  Every woman for herself, and these Indian women are ruthless.  If you don’t shove your way onto the train, they’ll do it for you, or leave you behind trying.

Last Wednesday, when the train pulled in, I moved to the front of the platform so that I could be one of the first on.  Before allowing the dozens of people off the train before trying to get on, about 20 women, who had formed a group around me began pushing me and each other onto the train, against the hoard of the people trying to get off.

As the train started to roll, someone grabbed my neck and pulled me back toward the center of the car.  Before I could get my balance, check to make sure I still had my belongings, or regain sanity, I felt a woman grabbing at my shirt, pulling it from the shoulder.  I was still being pushed further back into the train as the woman started pounding on my arm with her fist.  I looked to the side.  With her free hand, she was doing the class beggars’ sign language, stretching her hand out toward me then motioning to her mouth.  I lost it.

“Stop touching me!”  I yelled, as I grabbed her arm and flung it off of me.  She pushed her way into the crowd.  There’s no way she even has a first class ticket, I thought.  And, then I felt awful.  I hated myself for thinking that and for taking my frustration out on that woman.  And, I really hated India at that moment.  And, no, I didn’t love it simultaneously.   I really just hated it.  I hated that something seemingly simple as getting on a train wasn’t simple.  I hated that most things that should be simple aren’t.  And, I really hated the person I was in that moment.

I’m sure that woman was used to people treating her worse than I did–I’ve seen how some people treat beggars–but that was no excuse.  I wanted to apologize, to make it up to her.    I looked around, but she had already been swallowed by the crowd.

Wingin’ It: Part 2

17 Jan

“How many motions have you had?”  the doctor asked Alaina (who has requested to be called Ida Emilia from now on) as he pressed on her stomach.  “Motions,” for those of you who don’t know, is how most Indians I know refer to bowel movements.  Loose motions, which Ida Emilia had been having since the night before, is the term for diarrhea.

Line to board the "ferry" in JanjiraAfter checking into the hotel and arranging for transportation, we headed to Janjira to visit the famous fort.  We read in Lonely Planet that we would have to buy a ticket for the ferry that would take us to the fort.  So, I imagined we would be on a vessel similar to the one that took us from Mumbai to Mandwa.  No, no.  The “ferry” in Janjira was a wooden boat with a capacity of 40-50 people, steered by two men with 12-foot bamboo poles and complete with a giant, tattered sail that slapped the faces of the dozen unlucky people who sat toward the center of the boat.

We climbed out of the boat, over another empty boat, and up the stairs.  The fort was impressive–the view of the sea and coastline was spectacular–but the structure had not been maintained.  It was practically in ruins and I wondered how long it would be before it could no longer sustain the number of visitors.  We could walk and sit anywhere we wanted, climb on anything, touch everything.  Nothing was forbidden.

“This would be a great place to do a photo shoot,” Ida Emilia commented.  “Yeah, America’s next top model should come here,” Andrea said.  “Yes!  Look, we can do some model poses on that thing,” Ida Emilia said, pointing to a crumbling, free-standing wall and some stairs.  The four of us were alone in that area of the fortress, but not for long.  Four white girls wearing shorts and mini-dresses striking ridiculous posing is bound to draw plenty of attention, and in this case, unwanted.

Within minutes, a group of 10 guys, who had been watching us, sent over three of their friends to ask for a photo with

Entrance to the fort

us.  As usual, we said no.  But they followed us and continued asking.  I was waiting for Andrea to slap them.  Earlier in the day, as we got out of the rickshaw in Janjira, a guy snapped our picture from only a few feet away.  Andrea approached him, slapped his arm, and yelled at him, “No pictures!”  The three guys at the fort finally relented and returned to their friends empty-handed.

We returned to the fort’s entrance to catch a boat back to the mainland, where we met our rickshaw driver. After a stop at a liquor shop in Murud for rum ($3.50 for a bottle!), Coke, and chocolate, we headed back to the “resort.”  What else do you do when you have two hours to kill before dinner, it’s dark, and there are no bars around?  After a failed attempt to nap, we called housekeeping for a bucket of ice, opened the bottle of rum, unwrapped the chocolate, and had a gab-fest in room 101.

Passing through the lobby on the way to dinner, we heard music blasting from the “disco room.”  “What’s going on in there?” Ida Emilia asked the manager.  A party.  We asked, “Private party? Or, can we go?”  He wobbled his head side-to-side. WHAT DOES THAT MEAN?

We went upstairs to the patio for dinner, and passed by the party room on the way out.  Still, music was blaring, so we went in.  No one was in there except for the DJ.  Kate went back to the room to shower; Andrea, Ida Emilia, and I decided to have our own dance party.  After some Sean Paul and Kylie Minogue, we requested “Sheila Ki Javani.”  That song attracted a few other people–mostly young couples and their children–from the resort.  They didn’t dance; they just sat in the chairs against the wall, so we continued, until the only people left in the room were the three of us and four 50+-year-old men watching us.

The dancing had distracted Ida Emilia from her stomach woes, but once we stopped and went back to the room, she began to feel worse.  The next morning, when she was so sick that she couldn’t even consider joining us at the beach, we asked the manager to call a doctor.

An hour and a half later, he arrived with a medicine bag and his four year old son in tow.  He began by taking Ida Emlia’s blood pressure and pressing on her stomach.  As he placed his stethoscope on her back, he asked, “How many motions have you had?”  Ida Emilia turned over.  “What?”  He repeated the question.  She looked at us, confused.  “He wants to know how many times you’ve been to the bathroom,” I said.

Having been in India for over three months and traveling quite a bit, I have come to realize that you cannot travel with someone if you are not comfortable talking to them about diarrhea.  The chances of getting sick while traveling are pretty high, and you better be with someone who is understanding, should you have to spend half the trip in the bathroom.

The doctor gave Ida Emilia some medicine and told her to take them after she ate.  “I cannot eat,” she said, “I don’t want to eat anything.”  “You’ll have to eat something to take the medicine,” the doctor warned.  “Veg only.  No chicken.  No spicy things.”  Thank you, Captain Obvious.  Ida Emilia began to cry.  Just the thought of having to eat was more than she could handle.  The doctor said nothing, then turned to me.  “Why is she crying?  What happened?”

I only know one person who got anywhere because of crying here.  When Andrea first moved to Mumbai, she met a woman who had a room to rent.  The woman had yet to decide whether or not she would give Andrea the room, but while visiting with her one day, Andrea began to cry, telling the woman how much she missed her mom.  Well, that sealed the deal, and the woman is now Andrea’s landlord.

Crying generally doesn’t go over well here, especially if you’re a woman crying to a man.  They don’t understand why we’re all so “emotional” and “upset.”  “She feels too sick to eat,” I explained to the doctor, since he no longer addressed Ida Emilia directly.  He handed me the medicine and explained that she should take one immediately and the others later in the day.  “Get her some coconut water for electrolytes,” he said, packed up this things, then left.

Kate, Andrea, and I arranged a late check out from the hotel, a rickshaw ride back to the ferry, and coconut water for Ida Emilia, then left her to sleep while we went to the beach.  Compared to Goa, the beach at Kashid was less crowded and the water bluer.  There were no hawkers nagging us while we lay in our hammocks under the shade of a thatched hut.  We had all put on our bikinis, then shorts and shirts to cover up for our walk to the beach.  Looking at the Indians playing in the sand and surf (we were the only foreigners), we quickly realized that taking off our cover-ups would not be wise.  Almost everyone–definitely every woman–was nearly fully clothed on the beach and in the water.  One man already had taken a picture of us lying in the hammocks.  Strutting onto the beach in only our bikinis would have been an invitation for loads of unwanted attention.

When Andrea told Kate and I that she was going into the sea to pee, Kate and I watched from our shaded seats to see how people would react to her.  She took off her shorts, but left on her T-shirt.  As she walked toward the water, she passed a group of six or seven men walking toward the hut.  They all stopped in their tracks, turned around, and watched her as she walked away from them.  Kate and I looked at each other and shook our heads.  Definitely not going in the water. And, I didn’t, until I had to pee, but I waited for the walk back to our hotel and chose a spot where almost no one else was around.

After a quick lunch at one of the guesthouses we had looked at the day before, we went back to the “resort” to check on Ida Emilia and pack.  We walked in to find five coconuts with straws lined up on the dresser.  I can’t even tell you how many times we stressed to the server that we wanted ONE coconut for the room.   There was no way Ida Emilia could still be deprived of electrolytes.  We went to the lobby to check out and pay our room bill and the doctor bill.  Four hundred rupees for the doctor to make a house-call, including the medicines.  That’s the equivalent of 10 USD.

The same rickshaw driver that took us to the fort the previous day also drove us back to the ferry in Mandwa.  Ida Emilia’s stomach held up pretty well and by the time we were on the ferry back to Mumbai, she began to feel hungry and ate some cookies.  She was the happiest sick person I knew.  If I had diarrhea for 24 hours on a beach vacation, I would not have been pleasant to be around, especially since I don’t like being around other people when I’m sick.  But, Ida Emilia was the most cheerful patient and wasn’t too upset about missing out on the beach time.  “I would rather be sick on vacation with all of you, than alone in my room in Mumbai.”

Ferry from Mandwa to Mumbai

Fort at Janjira

Inside the fort

Kashid Beach

Wingin’ It: Part One

11 Jan

I am a control freak.  I was pretty sure of that before moving to India, and after three months here, it’s confirmed.  Oh, and, India is not friendly to control freaks.  Sometimes it takes half an hour to get to dinner; the next day, it could take two hours.  Sometimes the train doesn’t run on Sundays, and no one knows why.  I tell a rickshaw driver to take me to the temple, and sometimes I end up at the train station.   The only certainty is that anything can happen.  So, this weekend, I uncharacteristically agreed to make a weekend escape with the girls, in which only one aspect of the trip was planned.

Destination: Murud
Purpose:  Downtime on the beach and fulfilling Andrea’s dream of visiting the “impregnable” (as Lonely Planet puts it) fort at Janjira
The Plan:  Get on the first ferry from the Gateway of India, then wing it!

“I could really love Mumbai if it was always like this,” I said, as the four of us took a cab from Bandra to the Gateway of India at 7 a.m. on Saturday.  “You mean, if Mumbai had fewer people, almost no traffic, and was quieter?”  Kat said.  I laughed.  The traffic, 22 million people, and constant noise is what makes Mumbai…Mumbai.  I can’t say I’m in love with those things.  “Yes!  Exactly!”

After waiting in line to buy ferry tickets, only to find out that they’re sold at the window next to the one with the ferry schedule, we purchased them for 8:30 a.m., made our way to Gate 2, and claimed our seats on the top deck.  The chilly, hour-long ride included on-board entertainment, thanks to the group of a dozen Indians sitting behind us who clapped and sang Bollywood tunes for most of the journey.

Arriving in Mandwa, we crossed the wooden bridge to a parking lot full of rickshaws and a bus.  Fingers crossed that it was the one going to Alibaug, where we would then take another bus to Murud.  A couple of Indians were pushing their way onto the bus, which already exceeded capacity.  “We’ll wait for the next one,” Alaina said.

“Come, come, madame,” a tall, husky, mustached Indian man yelled as he approached the four of us and pointed to the rickshaw parked behind him.  “Where do you go?”  We told him we were waiting for the next bus to Alibaug.  “Come.  Free rickshaw to Alibaug,” he said.  We were skeptical.  Did he say free?  That couldn’t be right.  We ignored him and hoped the next bus would come soon.  “Come, come.  Free rickshaw,” he persisted.

I was ready to get in the rickshaw.  Why stand in the parking lot holding our bags, waiting for the next bus?  We all looked at each other.  Should we?  “Let’s see if anyone else takes a rickshaw,” Kate, ever the voice of reason, suggested.  When we realized we were the only ones standing around and other travelers were cramming into rickshaws, we went for it.  The driver was still standing next to us, waiting for our decision.  “Come, come.”

We were the first into the rickshaw.  Within two minutes, eight guys joined us.  Six piled into the back with us–four on the seats and two on their friends’ laps–and two sat in the front next to the driver.  Thirty bumpy minutes later, we arrived in Alibaug and asked several shopkeepers for directions to the bus depot.  We boarded a red, worn out, government bus at the station, and squeezed into the corner seat in the rear of the bus.

The hour and a half right to Kashid came with a price tag of 25 rupees (50 cents).  Based on suggestions from my landlords and Kat’s friends, we decided to stay in Kashid, 20 kilometers north of Murud.  The former is quieter and the beaches less crowded, we were told.  Passing through rural villages, open fields, and hills, we noticed all the signs were in Hindi.  We had no way of knowing where we were.  “Will you tell us when we get to Kashid?”  I asked one of the guys sitting in front of us, when he and his friends took a break from singing and dancing to Bollywood songs.

Realizing that breaking out in song on public transportation must be a trend, we girls started clapping.  We sang the only part of the only song we knew. “My name is Sheila/ Sheila ki jawani/ I’m too sexy for you/ da-da-da-da-da-da.”  My friend Alaina was obsessed with this song on our trip to Nasik.  With the tune stuck in our heads, we went to see Tees Maar Khan, the movie that features the song, last weekend and now all know the chorus.

The boys clapped along, then laughed when we stopped.  “Sheila is outdated now.”

At Kashid beach, we asked for directions to Kashid Beach Resort, where my landlord’s daughter had suggested we stay.  “Siddha, siddha.”  Straight, straight.  “How far?”  we asked.  One kilometer, a food vendor told us;  three kilometers, said the next one.  We began walking.  For ten minutes or so, there was nothing in sight, and not one rickshaw passed us along the way.  When we came across a guesthouse, we stopped in.  We looked at the room, I checked the mattress and pillows for signs of bedbugs (my latest habit), and we inquired about the price.  None of the rooms we saw at the three or four guesthouses were worth the price.  Furthermore, most of the guesthouses didn’t supply towels or toilet paper, and we had not passed one convenience store on our walk.

Towels and toilet paper are non-negotiables for me.  I’m not hosing myself off after using the bathroom, and even if I had to, I would need a towel to dry off.  “No towels?” I asked.  “How are we supposed to shower?”  “No shower,” the guesthouse manager replied, as if that was the obvious answer.

We stopped outside of the guesthouse to regroup.  There were no others in sight; were we willing to keep walking and take a chance we’d find something better?  I was, and so was Kat, so after a few more minutes, we saw the sign for Kashid Beach Resort.  Alaina and Andrea went to check out another guesthouse, while Kat and I made up way up the hill to the resort.  Sweaty, tired, and defeated, we walked up the steps to the lobby and asked if any rooms were available.  “Yes,” the manager replied.

I was so thankful we had not trusted a fellow traveler, who told us that he checked that morning for a room and there were none available.  A staff member showed us a room with enough beds for four people.  The room was nothing spectacular; the place did not deserve the “resort” label.  The wall was peeling, there were not enough sheets, and the door to the patio barely closed.  But, it was the best we had seen all day.

We inquired about the price after the tour.  “Eight thousand rupees, including meals,” the manager said.  WHAT?  Two hundred U.S. dollars for THAT?  “That’s ridiculous,” I said, as I picked up my bag and walked out. Walking away from a price usually encourages the seller to drop it, but this guy obviously wasn’t worried about filling the room.

Truth be told, I was happy to spend $50 to stay there, as opposed to $8-10 to stay at one of the far dingier guesthouses, but I didn’t think the other girls would go for it.  Kat and I met Alaina and Andrea as they came up the hill to meet us.

We told the girls the price.  I was shocked that they didn’t reject the “resort” right off the bat.  “It includes all meals?”  Alaina asked.  Yes.  “Is it nice?”  The nicest we’ve seen so far. “Does that include transportation to and from the fort?”  Not sure.  We didn’t ask.  “Let’s go find out what they can offer us,” she said.

It was Nasik, round two.  The four of us marched back into the lobby, and Alaina took over.  “Ok, so, how much is the room and what does it include?”  The manager repeated the price, which included three meals a day.

“Alcohol too?”  I loved Alaina.  She was going to try to milk it.
The manager laughed.  “No, no.”
“Do you have transportation to the fort?”
“It can be arranged.”
“Is it included?”
“No, you pay for it.”
“It looked like we weren’t getting anything extra thrown in.
“Do you have towels?”
“And, toilet paper?”
We looked at each other and nodded.  Done.

Ferry, Gateway of India, and Taj Hotel

Taj Hotel

Ferries at the Gateway of India