Archive for the ‘Pam's Essays’ Category

Pam, On The Road.

by Pam


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I pull around the corner and launch myself into traffic, barely looking to see what I already know is coming at me: a bus, three tuk-tuks, a scooter carrying a family of four, and another scooter with a giant bundle of laundry that the driver is reaching over to steer.

It’s usually best to just focus on the spaces inbetween these things up ahead, and trust that the people behind are doing the same.

In front of me is a blue and white city bus, full to sardine capacity. Without warning, a yellow and black tuk-tuk slips inbetween the bus and me; I swerve, push ahead, and slide back in front of him. A half-block open stretch is pure freedom, with the warm wind and showers of leaves falling from the overhanging trees.

The traffic stops, and I dive into the two-foot wide space between the bus and the cars. I have to tip the bike to the left to avoid the metal rebar that is hanging off the back of an oxcart. A young boy sits on the other end of the pile of metal, piloting two grey beasts whose horns are painted blue and capped with little bronze cones. A stream of scooters and motorcycles crowds in behind me, and we all wait, breathing the billowing exhaust while waiting for the light to turn green.

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When we first arrived in Bangalore, and suffered through our first cross-town drive in the back of a taxi, our brains nearly exploded. After twenty minutes, I laid my head on Phil’s lap so I wouldn’t have to watch.

Indian roads, and Bangalore roads in particular, are like a life-and-death video game: anyone, or anything, can come at you from any direction, at any time, for any reason – car, bus, motorcycle, camel, scooter, ox-cart, bicycle, cow, goat, old women, young men, pony carts, monkeys. You must be ready to steer or swerve around them, accelerate, or slam on your brakes at any second. At night it just gets worse because a quarter of the people drive without their lights on, and the other three-quarters drive with their brights on, ensuring that everyone is periodically blinded.

The other hazards (apart from the traffic, the animals, and the people) are the roads themselves. Some sections are smooth and paved, while others are dirt and gravel; most have large random holes where unmarked roadwork is, or was, or might be, taking place. Piles of sand and bricks from construction projects spill out and cover parts of the roadway throughout Bangalore. There are frequent, randomly placed, speed bumps.

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We hadn’t planned on learning how to ride motorcycles in India, but Phil fell in love with the Enfields, and I fell out of love with having to depend on a driver. Phil learned to drive the Machismo with me on the back, between 10 p.m. and midnight – the hours between when most Indians go to sleep and when the dogs claim the streets.

We rode through the outskirts, through villages quickly being absorbed by the city, on roads that disappeared into dirt track, while being chased by ragtag packs of feral dogs.

The bike was old, unreliable, and difficult to start. It abandoned us over and over, leaving us in sleepy alleys, surrounded by dogs, and on deserted country roads, surrounded by dogs. We would walk towards civilization with sticks and handfuls of rocks for protection, hopping up and down and shouting when a tuk-tuk rolled by. Then we’d attempt to explain to the driver, with no common language, how to get to our house, while having no idea where we even were.

One Sunday afternoon drive turned into an epic two-day adventure, when the bike’s engine exploded oil all over the highway. We were welcomed into a tiny village by a committee of about 30 children who gave us a house-to-house tour while the mechanic repaired the bike well enough to get us to the next village. In that village we found another Enfield mechanic who finished off the repair. By then it was late, so we found a hotel, spent the night, and the next day we had the most stunningly gorgeous drive back to Bangalore, on a road we would have never found without our mishap.

These breakdowns and mishaps were as entertaining as anything we had set out to do purposefully. Landing in random places has shown us more of India than we would ever have seen otherwise, and the hospitality we were greeted with over and over again made both of us feel quite comfortable launching ourselves into unknown territory, with unreliable transportation.

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One afternoon, we took the old Bull to a local mechanic to repair a small oil leak. When Phil went to pick it up after work, the bike was in a thousand little pieces, and, according to the mechanic, who by now we were certain was crooked, absolutely everything was wrong with it. One week and a couple of hundred U.S. dollars later, Phil retrieved the bike, and that very night it died on us once again, next to a field of blue tarp tents and camels, and the requisite pack of wild dogs.

By now the thrill of the unknown was getting in the way of Phil getting to work, and we decided to stop pushing our luck: our plan was to sell the old Machismo, and drop the cash for a brand new Thunderbird for our final six months in India, and then sell that before we headed back home. But before we could sell the first one, our regular mechanic insisted on having one more go: he rebuilt the engine, top to bottom, cursing the previous mechanic under his breath the whole time.

This time, the old Machismo started easily, and ran like a dream.

In the meantime, I learned to ride the new bike. A shiny red Enfield Thunderbird Twin Spark. For days I just looked at it, terrified to try. It looked bad-ass and menacing, with these low-slung curves and more metal that I was sure I could be in charge of. But I knew that if I could learn to drive it, I would have freedom. The kind of freedom that isn’t available when people have made it their duty to take care of you. By this point I was sick to death of being the expat white lady in the back of a car with tinted windows, and my relationship with our driver, Mustaq, had become strained. I dreaded even having to go grocery shopping, or to go anywhere the required a car to get me there.

Phil gave me a nudge and a few lessons on a quiet street.

I took to it easily. Surprisingly easily, as if I’d been riding my whole life. It felt like a cross between a bicycle and the unruly horse I used to ride when I was a teen. It was thrilling. Bangalore was my oyster. Mustaq would no longer be my babysitter. I was free. I was cocky. I crashed. It hurt. I got back on and rode to the hospital. I lay on the couch for a week, and have a nasty scar on my arm.

Carefully and humbly, I began riding again. I followed Phil and learned how to cross a mobbed intersection by tucking in next to something bigger than me, then moving when they moved. I learned to wend my way to the very front of the mob at any red light, then blast out ahead of the traffic before anyone else. I began to see the patterns within the chaos. There were rhythms and agreements. I learned to stare down and honk, and stop quickly, to push forward like I’m trying to get to the stage. I learned to expect that someone is going to be turning right from the far left hand lane, and to not freak out when they did.

Indians, in one sense, are excellent drivers: they aren’t considerate drivers, or safe drivers, but they do seem to be pretty good at not hitting each other. The most amazing thing about India traffic is that no-one gets angry when drivers make bonehead moves. But heaven forbid you actually hurt someone: a few months back a bus driver hit a child on a congested road in Bangalore. Justice was violent and swift:

A mob beat the crap out of the driver and set the bus on fire.

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About once a week Phil or I get pulled over by men in uniforms who may, or may not, be traffic police. Two or three of them set up shop on a street and flag drivers down with a stick. Once pulled over, they issue a fine that is based, in our case, on the color of our skin.

“No turn. One thousand rupees, Madam.”

“For what?” I ask. “What did I do?”

“No free turn. Six hundred rupees, Madam.”

“You mean there are actually rules ?” I say, pretty sure I’m talking too fast for him to understand.

“Five hundred rupees, Madam.”

“Are you even a real police officer ?” I chide, leaning over to see if he has two stars on his shoulders.

“Three hundred rupees, Madam, you must pay.”

“You take me to the police station and I’ll pay there,” I say, and smile with a snappy head tilt.

He waves me on with his stick.

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Most of the license plates in our area of Bangalore begin with “KAO5.” The “5″ looks like an “S,” making it “KAOS”, which is simply stating the obvious. I should hate all this chaos. I should be terrified, but I’m not. I adore the lawlessness of it. Sliding though the crazy streets, I feel like my childhood hero Evel Knievel. People do stare, even more so than usual: Indian women rarely ride motorcycles, and my white skin is a double shocker. But on the bike I move fast enough and am concentrating hard enough to barely notice.

With us both riding, more and more of our weekends are spent on sojourns outside the city, rolling though idyllic scenery, through small villages, seeing animals and birds, and beautiful lush farmland. The countryside, where 80% of the people live, is where India shines. The insane confusion of the city gives way to an ancient way of life that, aside from the introduction of televisions and cell phones, hasn’t changed in hundreds, if not thousands, of years. The perfumed air is sweet with the mysterious smells of wood and earth, animals and blossoms.

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Every trip we make on the bikes that ends after dark is finished off nicely with the double dog dare:

There are two particular wild dogs that lurk at the approach to our street; they know our bikes, and they hear us coming. By the time we get to their hiding place they are in position: they lay in wait until we get close, and then give mad chase, barking ferociously while taking bites out of the air, near our legs.

We laugh and scream like seven-year-olds, and then take another lap just for fun.
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[ Thanks to Aman Sagar for the photograph, and to Ranganath Krishnamani for the Kannada script - which, by the way, means: "Awesome bike; awesome girl." ~ Ed. ]

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Cooking With Elf Gas

by Pam

Everyone said we would get sick of Indian food. Everyone was right.

For the first several months we were in love with butter chicken and naan bread, saag paneer, navratan korma, chicken 65 and dal . We happily ate vegetarian thalis served on banana leaves from steel buckets. I learned to cook biryani and chitranna (spicy lemon rice) and chapati. We learned to eat with our right hands, while keeping the left one on our laps. We approached meals with excitement, hoping each time, to discover a new favorite dish.

It took about six months for the thrill of Indian cuisine to expire, but expire it did. Phil lost his appetite first, and it happened overnight: One day we were happily eating chapati and aloo gobi, and the next day his whole body recoiled when he sat in front of a plate of chicken curry. I’ve since caught up with him; now we only eat Indian food when absolutely necessary.

There are very few restaurants in Bangalore that serve good western food. Actually, I’m lying: really there is only one, but it’s on the other side of the city, and very expensive.

Our only hope of not starving was to cook our meals myself.

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All my life I’ve cooked like an Alzheimer’s patient: I start with the best of intentions, then wander out of the kitchen and forget what I’m doing. Then, ten minutes later when the pan on the stove starts crackling and the apartment fills with smoke, I act surprised, like this is the first time I’ve ever caught dinner on fire. But back home, even a careless cook can be a good cook.

San Francisco has an abundance of amazing grocery stores, offering every delicious, organic, vegan, grass fed version of anything you want. Our vegetables, fruits, eggs, and grains arrive every Saturday morning in a wooden basket from a biodynamic farm. In summer we get fresh corn and heirloom tomatoes, baby lettuce, snap peas and sweet carrots, served with fresh salmon that my brother pulled out of the ocean. In the fall and winter we eat roasted potatoes with turnips and rutabagas, we have mixed greens cooked in garlic and virgin olive oil with grass-fed organic beef, or roasted free-range chicken, or tri-tip drizzled with truffle oil served with caramelized leeks and roasted fingerling potatoes.

When I don’t feel like cooking we can go out for sushi, or tacos, or (beef!) burgers, at one of several dozen restaurants within walking distance. We can drop into a bakery at any time of day and pick up a fresh buttery croissant or a sticky warm cinnamon roll and a soy latte.

But here in Bangalore, due to the challenge of cooking food we can safely eat in a country that eats food we can no longer stand, I’ve been forced to actually seek out, read, and follow recipes. Which, in turn, has forced me for the first time ever to actually become interested in the process of cooking. I now spend hours browsing epicurious.com searching for recipes that fall within my strict perameters.

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I have a two burner stove that’s a cross between a camp stove and a Wolfe range. The stove is powered with Elf gas. The Elf gas travels through a blue rubber tube, up three floors from the gas canister. When the canister is empty I go to the Elf store and exchange it for a full one. I still think it is funny. Elf gas.

I also have a small toaster oven. But the only baking pan I could find that fits inside the toaster oven is heart-shaped, so every lasagna, and cornbread, every macaroni and cheese casserole, every batch of lemon bars becomes a de facto Valentine. I like this almost as much as I like saying Elf gas.

Aside from the obstacles presented by cooking with Elf gas, a single heart-shaped pan, an Easy-Bake toaster oven, and the things we won’t eat, there are the things we can’t eat. We can’t eat any unpeeled fruit. Raw vegetables are out and salads are a death wish. The reason for this is as disgusting as it is simple: Elf gas! Kidding, kidding; the real reason is: Poop. Both the irrigation water and the drinking water are often contaminated with human waste. As well as the water being dangerous to ingest, the many hands that food passes through are also very likely contaminated.

Getting sick in India is just part of being in India. It isn’t just Westerners who get sick, either: every year, more than two million children die from preventable diseases, and most of these are from waterborne illnesses such as cholera, dysentery, typhoid, or jaundice. The statistics are stunning, and make it hard to keep off the soapbox. More than 70% of the Indian population lack proper toilet facilities. Public toilets, when they exist, often don’t have running water, rarely have toilet paper, and rarely have soap to wash your hands. The farm irrigation water is contaminated from human waste runoff because the fields serve as de facto toilets. In Bangalore, a city of 6.5 million, the sewage treatment plants only treat sewage in limited areas of the city. Sewage that isn’t treated is simply pumped into the Thenpennaiar River, which flows to Krishnagiri Reservoir, which contains the city’s supply of drinking water. I’m not sure why India keeps choosing tradition and superstition over science, but it’s really pretty simple. People, don’t poop in your drinking water. This isn’t new information, and it isn’t being kept a secret.

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The fruit and vegetable wallas push their carts through our neighborhood each morning, along with the man who sells long-handled dusters and aluminum water jugs, and another whose bike is towering with woven grass mats. Each vendor has a unique, bird-like cry that we’ve come to recognize. These cries, often overlapping one another, with the horns and whistles and the rattle of scooters starting, the insane dog yapping across the street, and the call to prayer from the neighborhood mosque, all together signal the beginning of another day in Bangalore.

There is no shortage of vegetables in India, but I have no idea what three-quarters of them are. Pale green serpents and foot-long blistered reptilian gourds lay in neat rows on the wooden carts, beside a pile of okra and ridged cucumber things. Small mountains of tiny purple eggplant, too bitter for words, fall over themselves. Giant round squash, in translucent white and orange, crowd into one corner of the cart, and are available by the hunk. There are things that look like prickly pears but aren’t, and deep brown orbs the size of elephant droppings that I refuse to believe are edible.

I’m sure there are dozens of ways to prepare these exotic vegetables, and they might even be delicious, but they would also be Indian. And I’d be more inclined to experiment with this exotic bounty, but getting my husband to eat vegetables of any sort is a careful dance. I’ve been known to resort to blending, trickery and lies, and stop just short of an airplane spoon. The only local vegetables familiar to us are: Roma tomatoes, red onions, garlic, carrots, potatoes, green beans, cauliflower and small green chilies.

The fruit cart usually comes around right after the vegetable cart has left. I run back down three flights of stairs and buy fresh pineapple, watermelon, and papaya that are available year round. I buy oranges that are green and limes that are yellow. Starting in February, the mangoes arrive; a new variety hits the carts every couple of weeks until the summer monsoons come.

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I buy what I can from the street vendors, but for the rest of our supplies I go to the grocery store. Nothing I could have read or done before coming to India could possibly have prepared me for an Indian grocery store. To me, they are a hub of cultural insanity, a place where logic and common sense collide and are both knocked unconscious. It’s a place where Phil and I both lose all our cultural sensitivity and end up behaving very, very badly.

Every store seems to be overstaffed to the point of confusion. Moving through an aisle, I slalom past a person sitting barefoot on the floor amid a mound of cellophane packages, dusting each one with a rag before carefully replacing it on the dusty shelf, while another employee stares at me with an armload of small cookie packages. Two more workers lean against the shelves talking, while another paints the bread shelf with toxic black paint, while the bread is still on it. And no matter where I am, a woman with a coco broom is trying to sweep under my feet.

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I buy mostly from the shop around the corner, even though their workforce is made up primarily of children, and the place looks like a farm museum. The shelves are lined with packages of mystery grains and seeds and jars of red stuff, and plastic bags of cooking oil, and pouches of milk, plus boxes and boxes of spice mixtures with the word “masala” included on the label.

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Then, when I want to buy milk I don’t have to boil before using, or real cheddar cheese, or a five-dollar can of imported refried beans, or actual salami, I go to the HyperMart. They also have fish, but you can smell it from the parking garage three floors below, so I’ve never even considered buying it. They sell beef, but that scares me too. When we’re feeling really flush, these trips to this magical place will include an eight dollar package of Philadelphia Cream Cheese. At least half of the time it’s gone bad by the time we buy it, but that doesn’t keep us from trying. Hope springs eternal in our pursuit of familiarity.

When I’m finally done with the shopping, I step into the checkout line. Then someone steps in front of me – then someone else, and someone else, and so on, until finally I hold onto the counter and wedge myself into any remaining space between the formica and the cashier. This is standard behavior in India.

Once I make it to the front of the line, I have to check my attitude. In the States, grocery store clerks are a shining example of efficiency. Their magic fingers fly across the keyboards like lightning, they ask if you’re having a nice day, and they listen when you say, “No, not really.” Here and now, my cashier behaves as if this is his first day on a job he wasn’t trained for. He seems confused about the cash register, the concept, and what it is he is actually supposed to be doing. He wanders away from the register midway through the transaction and doesn’t return until another one of his befuddled co-workers goes and finds him. After everything has been rung up, he walks to the other side of the store to swipe my credit card, finds a pen and hands it to me with the wrong receipt to sign. He then finds the correct receipt for me to sign, and rifles through a drawer to find another pen because the first one doesn’t work. Then, when the transaction is complete, and I am positively homicidal, I walk ten feet to the exit where I am stopped by a guard who insists on seeing my receipt. He counts my bags then stamps and punches a hole in the receipt before letting me out the door.

This scene, or one very much like it, plays out every single trip to the market, and by the end of these experiences I have lost all faith in India.

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Once back at the flat, with my painfully sourced ingredients, I can now make pasta with marinara or Bolognese sauce. I cook green Thai curry and Vietnamese Pho. Fresh flour tortillas, salsa made with blanched and peeled tomatoes, red onions, coriander, green chilies and lime juice. Pinto beans I’ve been cooking all day, ground chicken with onions and garlic and non-Indian spices. Fresh watermelon juice and lemon bars. I cook Southern fried chicken and green beans sautéed in butter and garlic, and sweet cornbread. I make crepes and shaksuka, and banana bread.

By now I have surrendered to the reality that it takes at least an hour, and usually two, just to make a simple dinner. To occupy my brain while my hands are busy, I listen to episodes of This American Life, or old podcasts from my Pirate Cat Radio nights; I find myself laughing because even from the distance of 8,700 miles and a full year, Pixie and Maggie are still pretty damned funny. It was a phase of my life that started with research for a book, ended five years later with a massive hangover, and I can’t wait to get back on the air when we get back home.

For now, though, I have become the domesticated housewife that our mothers struggled not to be.

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A Perfect Day

by Pam

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It’s eleven a.m. and the power is out. Normally it goes out by nine, so I already feel like I’ve gotten two free hours. Unable to work on the computer, or to catch up with my Facebook life, I do the dishes.

I wash the dishes in cold water, because in this land of exotic amoebas, kitchens don’t have hot water; I use medicinal smelling hand soap because I am out of dish soap; I can’t go to the shop to buy dish soap because the garbage men might come while I’m gone.

The garbage men come nearly every day, except when they don’t, like yesterday, and the day before. And now, the bin is overflowing and starting to smell bad. They usually arrive in the morning, but sometimes they arrive in the afternoon. I can’t leave the trash in the courtyard downstairs while I go out because the street dogs will tear it apart; and then our neighbors, who are all Brahmins, will see what’s left of the beef bones I give to our dog, and chase us out of town with pitchforks and flaming torches. And I can’t leave the trash on my own balcony until tomorrow because the rats and the bandicoots will chew through the plastic to get at the trash, leaving a pile of plastic chips and rotting garbage sludge waiting for me when I step out of the front door in the morning.

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Outside, the street is rumbling from the generator down the block; it always kicks on when the city power kicks off. After a few minutes, the fumes from the generator will float up to my window making the apartment smell and sound like a giant truck is idling just outside the front door.

Another half hour passes; there is still no power, and still no trash men, so I start in on the laundry. Before India, the only things I ever washed by hand were lingerie and the occasional sweater. I fill one bucket with laundry soap and water and soak my husband’s shirts, and feel like I should get a medal. Then, one by one, I pull them out of the bucket, spread them out on the tile floor of the bathroom, and go at them with a scrub brush and more soap. I knead and smash the soapy shirts, then rinse them out in a bucket of fresh water, then again under the tap. When the water runs clear, I wring the shirts until my arms hurt – twisting as much water out of them as possible before hanging them on the metal drying contraption I set up on our balcony.

I used to do all this on the rooftop, smiling at the Indian housewives and maids washing clothes on the surrounding rooftops. I’d watch their technique, scrub when they scrubbed, then slap when they slapped. I’d feel the sun on my back and watch the eagles swoop and listen to the crows caw to each other from the tops of the giant trees. These hours in the morning sun made me think I might never use a washing machine or have to join a gym again.

But these rooftop sessions lost their lustre one morning when I caught sight of a man spying on me from the next roof, while crouched down behind a water tank. It was clear what he was doing. My response was exactly the same as every other time I’ve been molested, grabbed, flashed or peeped in this country: I went inside, locked the door, and curled up in a fetal position for the rest of the week.

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The power crackles on for a few seconds and then disappears. Another hour passes. I make a sandwich with the last of the almond butter I brought from home and the honey our friends brought us at Christmas. For years I’ve existed on almond butter and honey sandwiches; now they are rationed delicacies, sticky treats to remind me that someday I won’t be washing clothes by hand, in a dark bathroom, in a house that smells like diesel fumes, waiting for the trash men and hoping they get here before the bandicoots.

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Here Comes The Neighborhood

by Pam

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We like to keep our front door open to let in the light, and to let Kali out, although it seems to be the signal to the neighborhood that we are accepting visitors. The neighborhood kids have gotten so comfortable coming in that if our front door isn’t open, they poke their heads through the bedroom window and ask, at the top of their lungs:

“Are you sleeping, Auntie?”

“Stop looking in our windows,” I shout from a half sleep.

“I’m just seeing if you’re sleeping, Auntie.”

“Yes, we’re sleeping. Looking through other people’s windows is rude.”

“Sorry, Auntie. I’ll come back later, Auntie. When should I come back?”

An hour later he shows up in my kitchen.

“Why aren’t you in school?” I ask.

“We had a picnic at school yesterday. The head mistress told us to stay home today and rest.”

Every week these kids seem to have one or two days off, for “Teacher’s Prayer Day,” or “Children’s Day,” and now “The-Day-After-We-Had-A-Picnic Day.” The list goes on and on, and probably explains a lot about the sorry education these kids seem to be getting. In any case, a day off of school means that they’ll probably be lurking around, in and out of my hair, all day long.

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A few months back we moved from the hellish palace at Panduranganagar, with the four bedrooms and the built-in swimming pool and the rats and the cast of Ben Hur, into a simple two-bedroom flat in the sweet, sweet neighborhood of J.P. Nagar. Our arrogant landlord’s parting gesture was to attempt to wring another five thousand dollars out of us by falsely accusing us of stealing and breaking a long list of things. Phil and I were insulted beyond belief and responded with letters that likely caused his computer to burst into flames when he opened the emails. His response to our response was to threaten to have us arrested. Our response to that was to laugh. We never paid the money and we never got arrested. Such is India.

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Our new place is what they call a stand-alone house, even though there are four units in the building. According to India, we are on the second floor; according to logic, since we have two floors below us, we are on the third floor – that is, unless you find it logical that the number “ground” comes before the number “one”. Up here, we are at eye level with the giant trees and close to the rooftop and the eagles. It’s a quiet street with no construction, no truckloads of gravel and sand being dumped out into massive piles, and then scooped by hand into a cement mixer two feet from our bedroom window. Our house has no rats and no live-in help.

Our new neighborhood is like America in the 1950’s, and we are like the first black family on the block. Watching us go about our business provides people in balconies up and down our street something to do; and by do, I mean stare. I get the feeling we confuse them. They are kind, but wary. They seem utterly amazed that we need to wash our clothes, buy groceries or walk our dog.

Phil and I are the only people who live in our new house. It’s hard for the locals to understand why we would want to live in such isolation. Here, people live collaboratively. Groups move as one organism. It works for them, and we gave it a shot, really we did: we had a maid, and a cook, and pool boy, and a dog walker, and a full-time driver, like many Indian and ex-pat families.

In India, labor is cheap, but that cheap labor often comes with a price tag much higher than the wage would suggest. For 100 rupees a day you can get someone to turn your white clothes gray, hide things in closets you didn’t know existed, and use your new cloth napkins to wipe out the inside of the trashcan. Someone who will walk into your bedroom unannounced and sweep under your bed while you’re having a sensitive conversation on the phone. Someone who will lie to you about when they walked the dog, and who will attempt to extract money from you whenever the opportunity allows.

Aside from all that, our biggest challenge has been the lack of privacy. We are Americans, and it is impossible to explain just how much we need our privacy, and just how much we dislike having our every move watched, dissected, commented on, or corrected; just how much we enjoy and need solitude.

Phil and I may need those uncrowded moments more than most. For each of us to work, we need time to dream, to stare into space, time to try uncertain things, and we don’t need seven people watching us when we fail. All these quiet moments disappear when there is someone sweeping under your chair, or needing you to celebrate a birthday for the neighbor’s child. Phil compares his work process to spinning plates: once you get them all up there spinning, and someone or something breaks your concentration, it can take hours, or days to get those plates up in the air again.

Also, where we come from, self-sufficiency is a virtue, a concept that doesn’t appear to work in a nation of over a billion people. Americans pride ourselves on being able to carry our own water (even though the only place we’ve actually seen people carrying water is India).

In the end, I decided I’d rather spend my time doing the cooking, cleaning, and laundry myself, rather than ineffectively pantomiming instructions. My solution was to go retro: now I clean the bathrooms and scrub the floors. I wash our clothes by hand on the rooftop and hang them on the line. I cook our meals from scratch and wash the dishes. And at the end of the day my nails are shot, but I have a feeling of satisfaction, rather than the sinking feeling of a day lost to infuriating interruptions and miscommunications.

But, as it turns out, India abhors a vacuum, and there is no such thing as alone, or any approximation of it. Our new neighborhood came with children, two in particular: Sachin and Viresh. I don’t have a favorite, but I do have a least favorite…

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“Did you just wake up, Auntie? I got up at 5:30, Auntie,” Sachin says.

“Why do you sleep so late, Auntie? What are you having for breakfast, Auntie? My father gave me four hundred rupees yesterday, Auntie,” he says and shoves the cash in my face as I’m pouring hot water into the teapot.

“What are you going to do with the money?” I ask, and resist the urge to suggest he buy a muzzle.

He shrugs his shoulders. Actually, he shrugs his whole body, and begins to hop up and down. He pops another candy in his mouth and I see his pockets are bulging with candy. Candy in purple wrappers, the same purple wrappers that I find up on my stairwell every day.

I grab his hand:

“These wrappers,” I say, “go in the trashcan.”

“Yes Auntie. What is this, Auntie?”

“A flea collar.”

“Whose boots are these?”

“Uncle’s.”

Sachin slips them on his feet.

“Auntie, Uncle’s feet are huge!”

He then starts singing:

“Boots, boots, boots, Uncle’s boots, Uncle’s boots, boots, boots. Do you play football, Auntie? I play football and cricket. These are Uncle’s shoes, boots, boots, boots…”

Damn, this kid is bored, bored out of his mind. At home, a kid his age would have soccer practice three times a week and hours of homework every evening; they’d be taking clarinet lessons, or at the very least be wasting their afternoon in front of the TV like we did when we were kids. I’m glad he’s not doing that, but I have mixed feelings about what he is doing instead.

“Kali, come here, Kali come here,” he is repeating, sort of like a chant, not really addressing the dog, or anyone else, just talking to hear himself talk, or to prove he exists, like boys that age write their name all over everything. This boy is scribbling his name all over the inside of my head. He is a verbal graffiti artist and I want to have him arrested, but this is India, where the only way to get arrested is to piss off someone rich.

He tries to teach the dog to talk:

“Kali, these are boots, boots, bo-o-o-ots,” he says, not daunted by the fact that she isn’t catching on.

He puts on my shoes and starts dancing around the living room, complaining that his feet are slipping out of them. He hums and sings and hoots and beeps while he’s dancing, he makes every stray thought into a song.

“The chair is red, the TV is rented. Kali, Kali, Kali.”

He doesn’t know how to be quiet, and I don’t know how to shut him up. The only thing to do is to kick him out, which is when he pretends he doesn’t understand my strange accent.

Then, Sachin gets distracted by a vendor’s song coming from down in the street.

“He’s selling plastic suitcases, Auntie. Would you like to buy a plastic suitcase? We bought one three years past, very good plastic suitcase.”

Shopping can always get my attention, and the plastic suitcases I’m picturing in my head are strange and fantastic, brightly colored, angular, covered with decorative stickers in an unintelligible squiggly language. I pull myself from the computer to see these very nice plastic suitcases. I peer over the balcony with my chatty shadow by my side.

“See auntie, suitcases!”

What I see is a thin man with a two-foot tower of blankets balanced on his head. The blankets are wrapped in zippered plastic covers, or “suitcases,” as they are called in my neighborhood.

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Yesterday, Viresh, the quieter child, was outside on the balcony with Kali, and I was on the couch writing. I heard the familiar soft rhythmic bells that I’ve come to know is the sound of the camel that comes through our neighborhood from time to time.

“Auntie, look, look!”

I get up and dash to the railing, because there is a camel walking down our street. A camel! Half of Viresh’s little body is flung over the metal railing, and he is pointing with his whole being, sparks are practically shooting out of his fingertips. But he isn’t pointing at the camel.

“Look, Auntie, pizza, pizza!”

He’s pointing at a flyer that someone in a uniform has just slipped under the windshield wiper of the car across the street. He doesn’t even notice the camel that is draped in colorful blankets and bells, with a seat balancing on its hump, and children balancing on the seat.

A young boy of about twelve walks the great beast with a rope. He stops at the car with the pizza flyer on it, looks at his reflection in the side mirror, and writes his name in the dust on the window.

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The Trashman Cometh

by Pam

We Americans are prissy about our trash. Once we put it in the trash can, we don’t ever want to think about it again. Where it goes, who takes it there, what is done with it when it arrives. In our culture, trash just goes away. Here, in our quaint, quiet, middle class neighborhood, the trash men come every day, usually around the time I settle into working.

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I can hear the whistle blowing from a block away; I grab my trashcan and run down three flights of stairs. Every day I am embarrassed: my neighbors bring out their tiny waste baskets with a few cellophane wrappers and some dust in the bottom, while I stand at my gate with a five gallon bucket of refuse. Juice boxes, plastic soda bottles, food that has gone bad, half a pineapple we forgot to eat. This shameful illustration of our wastefulness pains me.

In the street below a small dump truck arrives. There is one man driving, one man taking the trashcans from the neighbors and dumping them into the back of the truck, and a third man sitting in the bed of the truck, ankle deep in garbage, sifting barehanded though each and every piece of rotting stinking trash that has been hurled into the truck. We are horrified by this, all of this. We are not sure what is worse – having our trash so thoroughly picked through, or the fact that it is done with bare hands and bare feet.

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He tears open tiny bags and scrapes out boxes. Everything is recycled by someone, somewhere along the line. Anything of value is picked out, cleaned off, fixed, reused: one afternoon I watched three small girls prying the metal rings off of a four foot mountain of liquor bottles, tossing the glass in one pile, and the metal in another. Plastic bottles never go to waste; they are used for petrol and refilled with water for bathing, or drinking. What isn’t used is bundled together with the other plastics and sold to the recycler. Any remaining food scraps are tossed in a field to feed the cows and pigs.

Wasting food in India is a cardinal sin. Each day I try to do better, to shop better, to use what I already have, and feed what is left to Kali. Still, sometimes I sneak out at night and dump our extra leftovers on the street corner for the emaciated street dogs to eat, and to save myself the disgrace of having it show up in our trashcan.

This garbage arrangement isn’t a city service, it is a private enterprise. I’m not sure how it works with other people, but when we first moved here the young man took my trash, and asked for money. I thought he was asking for water, and ran upstairs and got him a glass. The next day I gave him a hundred rupees, around two dollars. I’m pretty sure I overpaid, because since then he’s been my best friend. He blows his whistle in front of our house, and waits for as long as it takes for me to get downstairs with my garbage. Kali races downstairs when she hears his whistle, and wags her whole body until he scratches her head and gives her some garbage-love.

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I cringe when I watch these young men dig through the filth. But they are the trash men, and this is what they do, it is their birthright. It’s what their fathers did, and what their sons will do. And along the way, if any one of them should aspire to do something different, it’ll be a long slippery climb out of the garbage pit; and this is the New India. The New India with a growing middle class. The New India that has abolished the caste system and child labor. The India with education and opportunity for all.

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It’s easy to send a message of booming progress overseas when all evidence to the contrary is safely obscured by a distance of several thousand miles. But spending any real time on Indian soil will likely challenge the fashionable narrative that this place is on the verge of becoming the next economic powerhouse. When an eight-year-old serves you tea, you’ll question how successfully child labor has been abolished. When it happens the next day, and the next, and when you see a ten-year-old at a sewing machine in the market, or changing a tire at the ‘puncher shop,’ you might stop believing the hype altogether. When seven kids behind a cash register have the same look of total befuddlement, and you start to figure out that a large percentage of the population is barely literate, and then you see the disdain with which the upper classes treat the lower classes, you may even come away from the experience questioning whether India should even be allowed to even sit with the grownups yet.

This isn’t to say that America doesn’t have its own problems; it surely does. And we can start by learning from India’s example, and being more a lot careful about what we throw away.

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Goan Nomad – Part 3 – The Finale!

by Pam

Continued from Part Two.

Eventually we are rescued from the dwarf’s bar, and from his kids, by the guy who rented us the Enfield in the first place, and we roll back into the tiny beach town of Palolem. The place is crawling with waterlogged young Israelis who also missed the monsoon memo. The main street in town is flooded with eighteen inches of water, which we have to wade across to get to the travel agent’s office, so that we can check on the likelihood of our bus actually leaving tonight.

We’re assured that the bus will be leaving as scheduled.

We hole up in a restaurant that serves something they call “pizza,” and watch the rain pour off the roof like a waterfall. The field across the street has gone from a field, to a swamp, to a swimming pool. A few hours later we wade back through the murky water to check in with the travel agent.

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“Buses having number of yours. They contact with too much rain. Worrying there is not need,” the travel agent says without looking up. Phil and I are used to untangling sentences like this. We worry about what it is doing to our brains.

The small storefront is now crowded with refugees, standing on the stoop and at the window watching people wade through the water. The room lights up with flashes of lightning then rumbles eerily with thunder. Every few minutes the entire place bursts into laughter when an innocent steps blindly into the deep end of the street and is swallowed up to their neck.

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I look down at the twin burns on my calf, realize that wading through brown flood waters in an Indian village is probably the worst thing I could do for my blistered wound, and become obsessed with imagining the bacteria that are surely taking up residence in my leg. I panic at the infection that will come and the gangrene that will follow. The next hour will be spent going from shop to shop trying to find gauze and antibiotic cream, and enough tape to create a waterproof seal.

Phil, meanwhile, is completely unmoved by my plight, and has decided that he needs new sunglasses. He goes from crappy store to crappy store looking for the perfect pair to make him look like a Bollywood gangster.

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We decide to leave early for the station so there is no chance of missing our bus. The station is only four kilometers outside of Palolem, so we load our luggage into a tuk-tuk and brave the puddling roads. When we arrive, I show our tickets to the man at the counter, who secretly molests my finger while he looks deep in my eyes and informs me:

“This, madam, wrong junction. Wold bus stand, fi minute walking only.”

I yank my hand away and storm off.

“We’re at the wrong place,” I inform Phil. He looks around, at dozens of buses at dozens of terminals, with hundreds of people boarding the beasts.

“This isn’t the bus station?”

“Apparently our bus stops at the ‘wold’ station, five minutes that way,” I say, pointing that way.

We lug our stuff into another taxi.

“One hundred rupees,” the driver says. “One hundred rupees to wold bus stand.”

“Are you joking?” Phil shouts, full of a brand of indignity that is only possible after being cheated and lied to, everyday for more than six months.

“Too much, we give you twenty.”

“No sir. One hundred. Raining.”

“Fifty,” Phil counters, “We give you fifty.”

The driver wobbles his head in a way that sometimes means yes.

“One hundred rupees, raining.”

While one hundred rupees is only about two U.S. dollars, in tuk-tuk terms this is a fortune. It might even feel worse because the driver has stated his intent to screw us, rather than just gouging us at the last minute. But by now our only dry clothes, the ones I’ve been keeping safe in a plastic bag so we’d be able to travel on the all night air conditioned bus without getting pneumonia, are getting soaked. I push Phil into the tuk-tuk and take over the transaction:

“Okay okay, one hundred, raining! Fuck it, who cares? It’s two dollars.”

A full minute and a half later the auto delivers us to the ‘wold’ bus stop, which is hardly a bus stop at all, and definitely not one hundred rupees away.

“Prrrrrick,” Phil growls, rolling his R’s dramatically after popping his P.

By now it is dark, and we stand under a sheet of corrugated metal for forty-five minutes, asking everyone who passes if this is really where the bus stops, and if they think it’ll come at all in this storm, and every answer is different. I call the bus company directly, and I’m assured the bus “will arriving” at some point. The rain pools and leaks through the metal roof. I don’t believe that the bus will really come, so I call again, and they hang up on me. I call back, and this time the guy gives me the phone number of the bus driver! I fish around in my wet purse for a pen and paper, and write the number on Phil’s arm with eyeliner. We call again and again, but there is no answer.

A taxi, parked next to the bus stop with the driver asleep in the backseat, comes to life, and a brittle version of It’s a Small World After All plays as it backs up. This is normal here: Indian cars have backup songs! Silent Night, La Cucaracha, Greensleeves, Für Elise, but right now it doesn’t feel like a small world. It feels like a giant world, made up mostly of water, and everything I know feels far, far away, and there are things about India that are so strange they defy gravity.

After another hour passes, we carry our stuff across the street and take refuge in a sweaty little restaurant where the shirtless cook is slinging slimy slop into stainless steel trays at the speed of sound. We sip hot chai tea while Phil charges his phone for the first time in two days.

We scroll through the news on the iPhone, and we learn that we are at the epicenter of an extremely massive monsoon season flood. Villages are submerging all around us, and people are drowning just five kilometers from where we are sitting. The roads are washed out, the train tracks are flooded, and the airport is closed. Nearly a hundred people have already died in Goa and the neighboring states over the past three days. Families are stranded on rooftops; crops have washed away; refugees are crowded into temples and government buildings; food is being airdropped by helicopter. Turns out this is the worst storm and flooding in more than 40 years, and the rain is still coming down.

Our bus is not coming tonight.

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We coax a reluctant tuk-tuk driver to get us back to Palolem; he has to take a rather dodgy alternate route, since the main road is now closed off. We manage to reclaim our room at the Bhakti Katir, but at double the price. It’s after midnight, raining like a bitch, and they know we have little choice.

In our little cabin, the air is so moist that the mattress is damp through and through; it bleeds moisture into the sheets, and into the clothes we are sleeping in. The outside bathroom, the one that was so cute when we first arrived, loses all its charm the first time I have to pee while holding an umbrella over my head.

The next morning, we book a flight back to Bangalore for Monday; now we have four days to aimlessly knock around Palolem, waiting for our flight, and hoping for the best.

Some people would call this vacationing, but we don’t know what to do with ourselves. There are no movies, no media, no computers. We read, and spend hours writing in notebooks. We eat, then wait to get hungry, go somewhere else, and eat again. We’ve already bought all the Ali Baba pants, gangster glasses and wraparound skirts made of old sarees that anyone could want. And I’ve had to talk Phil out of getting a tattoo three different times, on the grounds that the tattoo artist we checked out yesterday, still sucks today. We feel like shipwreck survivors waiting to be rescued.

We are bored.

Phil decides that drinking will help pass the time. This confuses me: in the years I’ve known him, I’ve only ever seen him sip the occasional cocktail or a glass of wine, but now he’s ordering multiple piña coladas with every meal.

“Are you mad at me?” I ask meekly.

“No one drinks piña coladas because they’re mad at their wife,” Phil slurs, and touches his glass to mine. “Drink up.”

We rope strangers into our festival of boredom. One of them turns out to know about ten people we know in Los Angeles, and it actually is a small world after all. We get them drunk and make them listen to us complain about Natalie Merchant songs and dreadlocks. We tell them about India, because the more we drink, the more we have to say about this country. We discuss the language issues and the poverty, the child labor that is everywhere. We talk about how amazing our rooftop is at sunset when the eagles that swoop and hover overhead are swapped out for giant bats with two-foot wingspans. We talk about the kids in our neighborhood who come visit and try to teach me Kannada while they snack on whatever is in my kitchen that day. We ramble on about our driver Mustaq and how he promises me that he only hits his wife when she deserves it. We try to remember all the pushcart cries we hear from our bedroom window each morning.

We are wet and bored and miserable, and we know that leaving India is going to break our hearts.

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Epilogue

In the end we arrived safely back in Bangalore after an uneventful one-hour flight; but it took three hours to get from the airport across town to our house. Traffic was jammed on every thoroughfare, but not because of accidents, or flood damage; but because there were people in the street collecting rupees from every vehicle, for flood disaster relief. Bangalore was fine, but other areas of our state, Karnataka, were hit even worse than Goa. We tried to be mad because we just wanted to be home already, but we just couldn’t do it: we happily emptied our pockets and handed over the cash, before braving the final leg of our journey.

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