Archive for the ‘Pam's Essays’ Category

Goan Nomad – Part 2

by Pam

Continued from Part One.

After the disappointment of off-season Anjuna, we decide to make our way south again to Palolem, and from there catch a bus back to Bangalore a day early.

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Back on the Enfield, the coastal road gets wetter and wetter by the mile. Firehose torrents soak us from above and below and both sides at once. I take off my helmet and slip it onto Phil’s head. We have one helmet between us. We’ve been looking for place to buy a second helmet for days now but have found nothing. I am more afraid of head injuries than he is, so I keep it on my head until the rain becomes too fierce and Phil can’t see without the face shield. We are soaked to the bone and don’t have anything dry to change into anyway, so getting dry and waiting out the storm isn’t a possibility. There is really nothing to do at this point but to laugh and keep rolling – at least the water is warm.

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This trip has been about the ride, more than anything; about the freedom of movement through time and space. Unlike in a car, on a motorcycle you become part of the landscape. You see things: expressions on faces, goats, children, other bikers. You feel things: the air, the rain, dust and exhaust. You smell life going on around you and can feel your own heart beating in your chest as the adrenaline moves your blood faster.

If I’d have known being a biker chick was so much fun I’d have scored a leather halter-top and hooked up with a criminal biker years ago. If Phil had known how natural riding felt, he might have become an outlaw instead of a UI designer. Together we would have been unstoppable, and it would have been disastrous. It’s good that neither of us have discovered this passion until now.

We feel like children splashing through mud puddles as we swoop along the flooded road. We are on the lam, racing toward the unknown. If there are rules, we don’t know them. If we knew them, we’d ignore them.

I’d always thought that the notion of motorcycle-as-freedom was just kitsch made up by an ad firm, but that was before. Before I’d traveled on a bike, before I’d felt my thoughts untangle and the layers of obligation and frustration and worry blow off my skin and disappear in the wind. That was before I understood that being on a bike, even sitting on the back, is a meditation – a time of single, simple focus.

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Perhaps Phil and I revel in this feeling of freedom more because in India our freedom is so severely limited: limited by culture, limited by language, and limited by our driver, Mustaq.

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Mustaq’s job is to get Phil to and from work, and to drive me on errands, and whatever else we need. Getting from place to place in India can be difficult and dangerous for Westerners to undertake on their own, so there is a very real need for this kind of service. And Mustaq, like every other professional driver in India, considers it his solemn duty to let no harm befall his charges. What he sincerely sees as doing his job – arguing with our landlord about our water bill, making sure I choose the best papaya, insisting we use his own trusted Enfield mechanic so that “no ones will take adwantage of you peoples” – a service we once could not have survived without – we increasingly experience as intrusion.

Because taking Phil (or “Sir”) to work and back takes up only about two hours of his workday, the rest of the day he chats on his cell phone or naps in the car outside the house until I need him for my various housewifely errands. I feel somewhat pressured to validate his employment, so instead of walking to the market, I ask him to take me. Yet, each time I get in the car there is resistance: If I say I want to go to Food World, he tells me that Niligri’s is better. If I ask to be delivered to Hypermart, I get, “Oh no, madam, that is beddy teddible place. They will charging you so many hundreds of money.” If I want to drop my clothes to the ironing man down the street, he warns me, “Oh no, madam, that man is beddy beddy horrible person. I tell you which iron man for which you go to.”

Ironically, though Mustaq’s job is intended to provide us with necessary freedoms, the reality is that he has become our babysitter. This makes us feel like children, which in turn makes us behave like children: we routinely lie to him about our plans and sneak out to take tuk-tuks, which he insists are all driven by drunks, to marketplaces he insists are all too dangerous.

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We turn off the main road in Benolim, continuing down the coast towards Palolem, and spend the night at a beach cottage that is so damp the mildew stings your nose. We watch TV for about ten minutes before the power goes off, and stays off for the rest of the night.

I can’t believe how much water is falling out of the sky. I know this kind of rain from when I lived I the Santa Cruz Mountains; this is the kind of rain that floods the creeks and washes cabins down hillsides. This is the kind of rain that knocks out power for weeks at a time.

The rain keeps pounding on the roof while I scroll through the emails on my iPhone: we’re missing parties and weddings, and a chance to make $5000.00 a day while working at home; my mom wonders where I am, and Bill is getting sicker. The dog trainer sends me snapshots of Kali to prove she’s still alive and well. To me they look like hostage pictures. My darling puppy is standing on dirty cement, with metal bars in the corner of the shot. She looks strong and mean.

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At the last minute, before we began this journey, we had needed a place to leave our puppy, so I tracked down a kennel that I prayed was reputable. That’s how we do it in India: hard facts are often impossible to obtain, so prayer is the only option. I say a prayer, to no god in particular, but knowing how Muslims feel about dogs, I keep Allah off the list. I noticed that the kennel also offers dog training, and since it is painfully obvious by the way Kali still pees wherever she wants and raids the garbage can every fifteen minutes or so, that neither Phil or myself is really has the temperament or follow through to train our little ward. I made arrangements and handed over a fat wad of rupees to upgrade from puppy boarding to puppy charm school.

Since then, we’ve been worried that this might have been a really bad idea: India is a country where no one stands in line, no one says please, no one says thank you; people burp in public and spit and piss anywhere they want. These are all things Kali is already quite good at. I worry that she is being kept in a metal cage with three other dogs, like the chickens at the chicken stall, or left to wander the streets for days foraging for food, like the scrappy street dog she was born to be. The pictures on my iPhone do nothing to assuage my fears.

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The next morning we climb back on the bike, and the rain is falling harder still. The drops hit our faces like bullets. We pass palm trees and rice paddies that are a shade of green that only exists in India. We cross a river where the water is dangerously close to the bottom of the bridge. Water buffalo lie down in swamps that are becoming lakes. Crows hide under tarps. We laugh the first time we plow through a massive puddle because it feels like someone is throwing buckets of dirty water at us.

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Phil and I both love extreme weather. We’ll stay up late watching documentaries on hurricanes and cyclones. I’ve always claimed to want to see the sky turn pea green just before a tornado lands, but now I silently rescind all that. I close my eyes and bury my face in Phil’s back so the water will stop hurting me.

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We’ve been traveling for hours now without seeing another vehicle on the road. In a nation of over a billion people, empty roads should be a red flag for us; but no, we are too busy enjoying having the roads, and the increasingly violent storm, all to ourselves.

While heading down the mountain pass we roll through a body of water that is much too large to be called a puddle. The murky orange-brown liquid comes past the center of the wheels. We both lift up our feet to stay dry, which is ridiculous. Then, after days of steadfast service under terrible conditions, our Enfield decides she’s finally had enough; she simply stops without warning.

We pull off the road, I untangle myself from the bags that are squished between us and climb off the bike into the mud, stumbling backward from the weight of the camera equipment strapped to my back. We make a run for a rickety blue building, the only structure in sight, to get out of the rain – again ridiculous, considering where we’ve been and what we’ve been doing for days now. We slide down the mud walkway under an awning, and see a collection of half empty liquor bottles behind glass as we draw nearer.

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A dwarf, with some kind of palsy, limps out from behind a counter that is nearly as tall as he is. He greets us with a huge smile, and welcomes us into his bar: a room the color of a nicotine stain with a shirtless old man in the corner drinking brown liquid and watching the cricket match on a tiny TV.

“What is your native place?” the palsy dwarf asks.

“Amedicka,” we say in unison. We’ve learned that mispronouncing the name of our country is the only way to be understood.

“Ah, Amedicka. U.S., beddy good place. Near Australia, yes?”

We smile and nod. I toss our bags in the corner and pull the off the smurf suit. Underneath my clothes are soaked and clinging to my skin.

“Vishky?” he asks.

“Tea.” Phil says, “is it possible to get some tea?”

He shouts to someone in the back, and then motions for us to sit down, at a table that is dotted with houseflies. He introduces us to his mother, who brings us hot, delicious chai tea; and to his disarmingly pretty young wife; and two gorgeous, grubby children. His five year-old son is nearly the same height as he is. I chase the boy around the room roaring like a monster in my dripping wet clothes while Phil tries to figure out what to do next.

We have no idea where we are. Both our phones are dead, and we really have no idea who to call anyway.

If Mustaq was here, he’d know what to do.

Continued at Part Three.

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Goan Nomad

by Pam

In September I returned to San Francisco for a couple of weeks to spend time with my dearest friends Bill and Maggie Weir. Bill gave me away at our wedding, and Maggie is my long-standing partner in radio crimes.

A little more than a year ago Bill was diagnosed with glioblastoma – a wicked type of brain cancer. It’s been a difficult year for everyone who loved Bill, and there are many. Maggie and the children, Sophie, Walker and Logan have ridden out the storm with a grace and strength no one should have to muster. It was a true gift to spend time with Bill in his last weeks. Though bed-ridden and uncomfortable, his positive attitude still shined through.

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Bill Weir passed away on October 8th, 2009. He was a true star. Full of life and love and a spark no one ever imagined would go out so soon.

My trip home was a sad one, then; but it was tempered by great meals and wonderful visits with friends and family, I even got to do a couple of radio shows at Pirate Cat.

Meanwhile, back in India, Phil was battling his first bout of serious food poisoning, which segued into a throaty chest cold that had swine flu written all over it. He was sick the entire time I was gone. When I returned to Bangalore he looked twenty pounds thinner and still had greenish circles under his eyes.

We were both ready for a vacation.

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We head northwest from Bangalore to Goa on a grueling overnight bus with air conditioning – massive amounts of arctic air conditioning. It is so cold, and the AC is blowing at such gale force, that we have to pull blankets over our heads to sleep. A lot of road travel is conducted at nighttime in India, but I’m not sure of the value exactly. At nighttime the roads are jammed with trucks playing chicken with each other. Seriously, ninety percent of the time when you look out the front window, something, a car, a truck, a bullock cart, an elephant, a camel, is headed straight for you. This isn’t really any different from day time driving, except that when you arrive at your destination you are wrecked and lose the first day to sleep.

We arrive in Palolem, on Goa’s southern coast, and immediately rent a delicious, black, 350cc Enfield Bullet Classic, and find a room at the beautiful Bakhti Kutir, an eco-resort in the jungle that looks like it’s been built by gnomes. For a couple of days we bodysurf and wander through the tiny beach town, and eat fresh seafood. On the third day we head north, to explore Goa’s coast.

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Burning your calf on the exhaust pipe of a motorcycle is something everyone who rides bitch does – once. My first time hurt insanely bad for six weeks and took two rounds of antibiotics before finally healing. I have to admit I’m more than a little proud of that dark oval on my leg. It feels like a cosmic tattoo, something that will always remind me of our time in India. That first burn was a badge of honor. My second burn, which I achieve before we even get out of Palolem, feels more desperate, like I’m pounding on the door of the Hell’s Angels clubhouse, begging them to let me join.

I bandage my leg and we ride up the coast under a sunny sky. the ocean air reminds us of Santa Barbara, and the sun is turning both of us pink. We spend that night in the Goan state capitol of Panjim, where we finally strike gold in our search for the classic Goan cuisine we’d heard so much about, at a strange little place with a Portuguese-Indian proprietress.

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From Panjim we head inland to beautiful Old Goa, through stunning scenery, rice paddies, fishing boats, tiny markets and fluorescent sarees, while traffic and rogue water buffalo both try to kill us.

In India, Hindu temples are generally as ubiquitous as cows, but in the state of Goa, the sacred temples are far outnumbered by majestic Catholic churches, a legacy of the Portuguese. Outside of the giant Basilica of Bom Jesus, which holds the sacred remains of St. Francis of Xavier, men sell cast wax body parts. Low tables with boxes full of small translucent legs, arms, heads, lay alongside fist-sized hearts and Barbie-sized whole bodies.

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Like the Mexican Milagros, the idea is that you buy a body part to symbolize the part that ails you, and melt in on the outside altar of the church. I buy a leg, and place it on the altar and watch it blaze and melt away. Something about burning a leg to magically heal the burn on my leg seemed more wrong than poetic, but when it comes to religious voodoo, I am never the skeptic. I’ll try anything.

We light candles for Bill.

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From Old Goa we hop back on the bike and head back to the coast and north again, up to the tiny town of Baga, hoping to find a little of the rave glam we’ve been hearing about for the past twenty years.

In the evening, we sit on Baga Beach at a low table smoking from a hookah, drinking piña coladas and watching layers and layers of waves slide to the shore in the moonlight. The night air is beautiful and blowing gently in all directions at once. Families and young men crowd around tables dining, amidst great clouds of sheesha smoke. The beach is full of people with glowing red horns – children, old men, fat ladies in saris, young men in tight shiny shirts, nearly everyone at every table glows crimson, while the Eagles greatest hits play on the sound system. This isn’t exactly what we’d expected from the rockin’ rave reputation that the word “Goa” still invokes, but right now, it’ll do.

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Tucked in our strange little room, we wake in the middle of the night to the sound of rain. Pounding rain. Hammering Rain. Rain that we’re sure is washing out roads. Rain that we fear will short out everything on the Enfield. Rain that will trap us in our small Catholic room – a room decorated with only a mirror framed with tiny seashells, and a fake Barbie doll dressed in a iridescent gold plastic that circles around behind her like some impossible samba costume. Goa’s Portuguese roots are showing. The whole room looks like it’s waiting for Cindy Sherman’s camera and the junkie models to arrive. I look out the window and can see the road turning into a shallow river. I go back to sleep and dream of the end of the world.

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A few hours after sunrise, the sky stops pissing down rain. We climb onto the bike to continue our journey north to the next beach town. Almost immediately it starts pouring again, which makes the bike, which has no rear view mirrors and no horn, seem suddenly very dangerous. We ride for only ten minutes before the rain makes it impossible to keep going.

On Baga’s main strip, we pull over, in the shadow of the Sao Joao Batista church, beside a restaurant called the Infantaria. We see the sign and giggle, and know we were thinking the same childish thing: a restaurant that serves babies! Of course, we decide to go in. I climb off the bike on the wrong side and burn my calf again, two inches above the last one. I’m an idiot. They’ll never let me into the club.

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We watch the rain from the Infanteria balcony, and the Indian customers watch us. We’re used to being on display, but we fail to see what is so entertaining about watching two waterlogged white people eating chocolate cake, drinking coffee and icing a burn.

Phil discovers espresso shots with vanilla ice cream; they’re so delicious he has three of them, and it’s hours before he takes a breath. He tells me about the creative dynamic between the Carpenters, and how Karen was nothing without Richard telling her what to do. He then segues into listing the bands Todd Rundgren has produced: New York Dolls, Badfinger, Sparks, Grand Funk Railroad, Hall and Oates, Meat Loaf, Patti Smith, XTC, and so many more. He chastises me for having been a Utopia era Todd Rundgren fan, but I stand firm. If music didn’t exist, my husband and I would have a lot less to talk about: we’re the same age, and we were listening to the same things at the same time, at different ends of California, growing up.

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Resigned to the pounding rain, we buy cheap ponchos that make us look like smurfs, and climb back on the Bullet. We aren’t seasoned bikers yet, and fall seriously short in the “packing light” department: I’m carrying a big leather handbag from Barneys New York, which is now ruined, and a second bag; both are filled with wet clothes. I stack the bags one atop the other and sandwich them between us. The extra weight from a backpack jammed with camera gear and toiletries presses my ass even deeper into the hard seat. The rain pours down and leaks through the necks of our ponchos, the puddles splash up our legs, and the moisture meets in the middle.

After an hour of splashing and bouncing and trying to hang on to Phil’s slippery poncho, I whine in his ear.

“I’m cold and I’m wet, and I’m tired of being loaded down like a pack mule. My back aches, my ass is bruised, and my burns hurt…really bad.”

Phil pulls over, stops the bike, and climbs off. Then, in a rogue wave of vacation silliness, he buys an inflatable sun and insists I carry it, too, along with everything else. It’s just a child’s blow-up pool toy, but to him it’s comedy gold. It’s hard to stay grumpy while riding through monsoon rain in a purple poncho clutching an inflatable sun.

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We keep on moving through buckets of rain all the way up the northern coastline to Anjuna, our final Goan destination, excited because we’ve been reading about the killer market there, and can’t wait to see something other than the same hippie tourist tat that hangs in all the shop windows up and down the state. The roads are bumpy and my ass is still killing me, we are both drenched and sweaty. And Anjuna – Anjuna turns out to be nothing but a muddy little town on a cliff, with sad stall after sad stall selling the same sad wet crap.

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The longer we spend in Goa, and the more we see, the more it falls short of our expectations. It’s not that the place isn’t beautiful: Goa kicks Hawaii’s ass and mops the floor with the Florida Keys, but we were expecting a little more of the legendary beach bunny trance pants party scene. We were expecting some debauchery, some action. This is our own fault: shortly after arriving, we found out the “season” doesn’t officially begin for another two weeks. The guidebook mentioned something about seasons, but being from California, we don’t really understand such things. Now, after two days of being relentlessly drenched, we know the difference between monsoon season and not-monsoon season; we now know that the last week of September isn’t at all like, say, the second week of October.

From the second week of October, we are informed, Goa bursts into life. Coconut huts bloom on the sandy beaches, shops that sell everything and nothing line the streets, restaurants set up in the vacant spaces and feed the beach bunnies. Techno music pounds, hippies flock. It’s a great place for the flocking hippies.

But right now, all over Goa, tattered blue tarps and dead palm fronds cling to the sides of last year’s structures. Building rubble looks like it has been thrown around by a set designer trying to create a believable apocalyptic beach scene.

We decide, innocently enough, to head back to Palolem and return to Bangalore a day early…

Continued at: Goan Nomad – Part 2

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Pamdemic

by Pam

The H1N1 virus, a.k.a. “swine flu,” is all the rage here at the moment. India, like the rest of the world, is subject to media-driven hysterics, so I didn’t think twice about ignoring well-publicized preventive recommendations (such as avoiding crowded and enclosed spaces) and took an overnight train from Kochi to Bangalore, visited a crowded temple, and rubbed my eyes after pushing a shopping cart.

When the fever came, I passed it off as just another unbearably hot twenty minutes in India – followed by an unseasonably cold twenty minutes in India. The sneezing just felt like allergies; I thought maybe a cat had walked through the neighborhood, and the aching muscles were just a natural reaction to not being able to get my ass out of bed to exercise.

Whatever the opposite of a hypochondriac is, is what I am. I assume that physical ailments are the result of character flaws, or not trying hard enough, or being a bad person; not biology. I can’t help it, it was the way I was raised. So my normal reaction to feeling under the weather is just to notch up the self-loathing and avoid actual medial care. But, considering the times, and the current swine flu fear epidemic, my normal reaction just seemed nothing short of self-indulgent.

I decided to be a responsible citizen and take myself to the doctor.

When I arrived at the clinic they wouldn’t even let me thought the front door. A huge banner listing all my symptoms – fever, sneezing, headache, aching joints, etc. – was hung ten feet from the entrance, with a big red arrow directing people like me to go around to the side of the building. There, they’d set up a triage unit to deal with the incoming sniffling masses. Only a few people were seated in the four rows of chairs, and everyone, except for me, was keeping their germs to themselves by wearing face masks.

When the doctor saw me, there were no tongue-swabs or blood tests, just a reiteration of the banner questions: Fever? Yes. Sneezing? Yes. Headache? Yes. Aching? Yes. Appetite? No. Basically the same symptoms as every head cold I’ve ever had. Because of my pre-exisitng asthma condition he sent me packing with a box of Tamiflu, a surgical mask, and instructions to not leave the house for ten days – although I suspect he was either just playing it safe or playing the race card. The last thing India wants is a white lady to die of swine flu on Indian soil.

From what I can tell, the Indian medical system is one of the few things that actually works in this place, which is good because my immune system is worthless here. Every Indian germ is a new opportunity to take me down. I’ve been to the doctor more times in this past six months than I have in six years, and I’m beginning to think that India has cured me of my fear of doctors.

They say that India is bound to change a person. It seems to be true: thanks to four bouts of food poisoning, I can finally zip up my fat jeans. I figure if I add a little exercise to this routine, then by the time I go home I might also be able to fit into my skinny jeans. Or, a small body bag.

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Stone Temple Pilots

by Pam

Nothing is more magical than a long motorcycle ride along a quiet village road on a warm Indian night. No one honking, no one trying to commit vehicular manslaughter, no one blinding us with their brights – just graceful swooping under arches of ancient trees, past stone temples and giant rocks that have carved the same sillhouettes out of the same full moon sky for thousands and thousands of years.

Since we got the Enfield a few months back, our Sundays have been spent getting lost on the outskirts of Bangalore. Phil drives and I navigate, very badly, from the back. Now, in ancient Hampi with Phil and his son Sam, the bike I’m on is mine. I go as fast as I want, turn when I want, and nearly plow straight into a rack of Rajasthani dresses when I want.
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I speed along in the darkness, finally getting my body to move as fast as my mind, and it feels right and real. The rocks remind me of Joshua Tree, and I think about our wedding nine months ago, and what a good idea that was. I wonder what my friends will be doing on the other side of the world when this full moon reaches them in twelve and a half hours. These jagged silhouettes remind me of the ruins of Furness Abbey, in Barrow-in-Furness, England, where my my daughter is with her great great aunties and uncles, and where the moon doesn’t rise until 10 pm. It occurs to me that I’m missing my brother’s 50th birthday party tonight in Santa Cruz, and I know that I’m being missed.

I want to pin a prayer to the moon and send it to one of the people I love most, who is battling brain cancer. Being so far away from him and his family has been the most difficult thing for me in this most difficult country. It breaks my heart when I talk to him, and it breaks my heart when I don’t.

My heart is smeared from one end of the earth to the other tonight, but hearing Phil and Sam buzzing along behind me, shouting to each other and laughing, I know I am right where I’m supposed to be. My time with the two of them always feels like a gift, like I’ve been granted honorary membership in a secret club for a day, or a month.
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Outside of the cities, almost anywhere in India, this country makes perfect sense. All the half-baked confusions from bygone eras trying to find a place in this one start to smooth out, and the people are comfortable in their own skin: comfortable carrying water jugs on their head and bundles of sticks and woven palm fronds on bullock carts, tending their meticulous farms. These people are strong and patient and hardworking. They understand the rhythms of nature, something that was bred out of most Westerners several generations back. I wonder if it might be easier for me to live in an adobe house without running water and sleep on a cot on the roof and cook over a fire, than it is to navigate our fake modern house where nothing works as it should, in Bangalore.

If there is an apocalypse, I’m relocating my friends and family to an Indian village immediately.

The wind cools my dusty sunburned arms. My legs and my feet are bruised from several parking and turning mishaps – riding is new to me. I turn 48 in a few days, and it amazes me that I haven’t discovered the thrill of motorcycles before now. I know it’s dangerous, but right now I feel invincible. Maybe its all the temples we’ve been in and out of these past few days, or the multitude of blessings we’ve received from half-naked priests, or the fact that my forehead looks like someone took an axe to it due to all the kum-kum daubed across it by holy men. I imagine all these blessings creating a magical force-field around the three of us, doing what the helmets on our guest room floor cannot.

These cycle rides get me the closest to feeling like myself, or at least the person I was before coming here: always moving, usually overbooked, reaching in all directions for everything at the same time, working all day and staying up half the night. Playing music for my radio listeners and tossing around an inappropriate brand of humor over the San Francisco airwaves. Watching sunrises when I should have been sleeping. Now I go to bed early, dress in formless cotton outfits and bad footwear, and speak to the help in an Indian patois. I am careful not to look men in the eye for fear of sending the wrong message. For the first time since I was a reckless teen, my speech isn’t speckled with foul expletives. India has tamed me in ways that parents, boyfriends, husbands and children have never been able to, and I’m not sure how I feel about it.

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I am fished out of my thoughts by two headlights staring me down. A truck, occupying the full width of the road, is barrelling straight towards us. We all pull gracefully to the edge of the road and slow our bikes. The truck rolls past, we turn our heads, and in the moonlight we see a giant elephant riding in the truck bed; the same elephant we’ve been unsuccessfully looking for all day. Phil shouts and spins his bike around; Sam and I follow, smiling and laughing, shouting:

“Oh my God, there’s an elephant in that truck!”
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Never in a million years did Sam, Phil or I imagine we’d be right here, right now: in India, in hot pursuit of an elephant on a truck, so close we can see the wrinkles on her legs change shape as she shifts her weight from one side to the other.

“Yep, we’re in India,” Phil shouts, accelerating, “INDIA !”

We follow the truck down the swerving road, retracing the Hampi ruins in the moonlight. Normally the elephant spends her days at the temple, blessing pilgrims with her agile proboscis. We’d heard about her, and had been sad she hadn’t been at her post during our visit. She towers above the wooden sides of the truck bed that are painted with flowers and swastikas, and instructions to “Honk Please.” The truck rolls through the bazaar and others join our pursuit. The three of us stay close to the truck until it stops at the imposing temple gate. We park our bikes and climb off to watch the beast gracefully unfold herself from the truck bed. Kneeling with her back legs, then stepping down with her front. First one and then the other. Then searching around with her trunk while her back legs step from the truck to the stone.

We ride back to our guest house; the striped moonlight reflects off of the rice paddies flanking the sides of the road, and I think it might have been a fair trade: everything I am and everything I know, for one year in India.

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Dreams of an Everyday Housewife

by Pam

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I came to India to write. Somehow, over these past six months, I seem to have instead exchanged vows with a house. I’ve gone from being an adventurous citizen of the world, boldly throwing myself into the unfamiliar Indian landscape, to being an everyday Indian housewife. This, I imagine, is a lot like being an everyday American housewife… circa 1959… but without the cocktails or the dependable appliances.

In Bangalore, as you know by now, we live in a big house. A big house that looks like it was built for a Columbian drug lord. A house that we now know costs ten times what a house in Bangalore ought to cost, and probably twice as much as an actual big drug lord house.

We’d be willing to accept our financial folly and suck up the high rent, as it is still lower than we’re used to in the Bay Area, if it weren’t for the fact that the drug lord house was apparently built by crack heads.

The house is beautiful, to be sure. Stunning modern architecture, and more of a compound than a residence – a place you don’t need to leave to get air or light. On the ground floor there’s a built-in swimming pool where I swim laps every day, a climbing wall, and a treadmill that we never use. There are two living rooms, a media room, and four bedrooms, each with their own bath, a giant kitchen and a dining room. The place spans five levels – plus a rooftop where I watch eagles swoop overhead while I hang my laundry. One side of the house is open from the swimming pool to the roof. A bridge walkway connects the center bedroom to the marble hallway. When a breeze blows outside you feel it ripple through the house.

The place is well appointed with shiny modern appliances and fixtures, but the behavior of these things is unpredictable: when you turn a faucet, the handle is just as likely to come off in your hand, as it is to produce water. The pool’s pump leaks, creating a permanent mosquito pond in the basement; the toilet in the guest room stands in a lake on the stone floor; the media room with the giant projection screen reeks of mildew; the kitchen sink drips something that looks like blood; and the air conditioner in the master bedroom sometimes pours water on your head.

In India, the renter is expected to pay for the repairs on their landlord’s house.

All of this internal household chaos is set to the external soundtrack of a symphony of cement mixers and crying babies at the job-site ten feet below our window. The same architecture that lets in air and light now also lets in dust and noise – copious amounts of both.

Still, these annoyances are minor compared to the facts that:

A) Giant rats run wild in the house after midnight

and

B) Our refrigerator hasn’t worked for more than a month now.

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The rats have chewed holes through the window screens to get into the house, and I can hardly blame them: Rathnama tosses food scraps in the floor as she’s cooking; onion peels, butter wrappers, rejected green beans and hot chilies. In the beginning, she swept up after every meal, but these days we’re lucky if she kicks the big pieces to the corner by the overflowing trashcans. No matter how many times, or how loudly, I explain to her that she has turned the kitchen into a nightclub for rats, she just doesn’t get it.

Still, after every conversation, I walk away convinced that I’ve made my point clear. Mostly because I as I talk, she nods her head and smiles and says, “Yes, yes, yes, rats, chchchchch,” in something that sounds like English. But every time I am fooled.

rattrapLast week I set out rat traps, and caught two big juicy brown rats the first night. When I came downstairs in the morning Rathnama, apparently unclear on the end goal, was sitting on the floor next to the trap feeding the rat pieces of chapatti through the bars.

I finally decided to call a real pest control service. The next day they came and set out massive, messy, glue traps, with poison cake as bait.

Phil and I went on a long motorcycle ride for the weekend, and returned late on Sunday to find a white plastic bag on the floor in the hallway.

The bag was moving.

“Rats!” Rathnama said, proudly, and held up nine fingers.

“Get them out of here!” I screeched. “Out, out! Rats, bad!”

Rathnama picked up the bag, giggling, and launched it over the fence, to the construction site next door.

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The refrigerator is still not working.

The latest “repair people” promised to come this weekend; this has been going on for more than 4 weeks now. I waited five days for their initial visit, which yielded three small brown men looking at the black monolith like they were auditioning for 2001. Or maybe Zoolander.

After some serious gastronomic frustration during our first month here, we asked Rathnama to cook for us, in addition to her extant cleaning duties. Initially we had loved her food, but over time she has stalled out at a rotation of three meals. Lemon rice, cauliflower with caramelized cashews and chapatti, dosa and chutney. And now, after six months we are SICK OF INDIAN FOOD.

When I cook, which is more and more often, the menu is limited by the availability of ingredients, the lack of an oven, and the fact that cooking bores me. I make college student dinners; Top Ramen glammed up with vegetables; spaghetti, sans parmesan, olives, sausage, etc.; when I run across chicken that doesn’t look too scary I make fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and carrots. With quite a lot of effort, I can fake Mexican food, though we have to blanch the salsa so it won’t make us sick.

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On Monday morning the repairmen show up at the door. By the time I come downstairs in my bathrobe there are three men in the dining room, plus Moustaq, our driver. The fridge men leer at me, practically drooling. Moustaq steps between them and me, in a protective gesture. He hands me a bill.

“Is it working?” I say as I scan the handwritten invoice.

“No, Medam. This is charges for last time visiting.”

In India, finding a new American family is like catching a Leprechaun. There is a three- or four-month window when we still think in dollars and translate to rupees and every purchase feels like you are kicking ass at a Monopoly game. Money falls out of your pockets as you walk down the street, you don’t care because the denominations are so insignificant. It doesn’t even seem odd that there are three different 2 rupee coins. This is all tremendously beneficial to the lucky locals who stumble upon the leprechaun. But after a while, you just can’t help but catch on.

I laugh. “I’ll pay when the fridge works.”

The man, who is in fact dressed like an actual repairman, is talking to Moustaq.

“Medam,” Moustaq translates, “He come today after four. If he cannot arrive after four today he will arrive the next day after or before at eleven itself.”

Moustaq’s English is much better than most, but he tends to get some of the basics mixed up – “before” and “after,” “inside” and “outside,” “come,” “go.”

“Why can’t he fix it now?” I ask.

A question of that complexity, in my foreign English, threatens to make most Indians’ heads explode, so I simplify.

“Fix now,” I say.

“No, ma’am, is not possible. Bad smell,” Repairman says.

“You’re not going to do the repair because the fridge smells bad?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“It smells bad because it has taken a month for you to fix it,” I explain.

“Just leave the door open one day, I come back.”

“Are you fucking joking? I’ve been waiting for you to come back for the past eight days.”

“Tomorrow, ma’am.”

“Do you have the needful part with you?”

“Yes ma’am.”

“So it is possible for you to fix today?” I’ve learned to always ask what I would have previously thought of as ‘stupid questions’. I assume nothing.

“Just one day, ma’am. Open door one day, I come back.”

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Rathnama is already cleaning the fridge, though with a dirty rag and cold water. There is no hot water in the kitchen. I hand her a bottle of something blue, because it reminds me of Windex, and mime spraying the inside of the fridge and then scrubbing.

I’ve been trying in vain to get her to do this for the past month. Each time I illustrate my request, she takes out another jar of something, rinses it off, and leaves it on the counter. Last week I pulled everything out of the fridge, left the door open, and had one last go at charades before giving up completely.

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“After one week, ma’am, worms arrive,” Repairman continues.

“Yes,” I growl. “We know.”

“We are cleaning it right now,” I say. “It’ll be done in two minutes.”

I can’t believe I just said that. I hear that phrase, “Just two minutes, just two minutes ma’am,” several times every day. Ordering lunch, at the pharmacy, the tailor, everywhere.

And it is never, ever, two minutes.

“Tomorrow ma’am, I come back.”

“NO.” I say a little too loudly and a little too quickly.

There is no way I’m letting this man out of my house before he has repaired the refrigerator. I am prepared to duct tape him to a dining room chair if that’s what it takes.

“I’ve put up with rotting food for a month, waiting for you to fix this damn thing,“ I say, “You can put up with a bad smell for a few minutes.”

Finally, he wobbles his head in agreement, and sets his tool bag on the floor.

“Okay, okay.”

As if on cue, the electricity goes out.

He picks up his tool bag:

“Tomorrow, ma’am.”

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Sometimes you surrender, sometimes you just give up. I’m not sure which I’ve just done. They say when you surrender, you open yourself up to the next layer of India, the good one, the magical one, the layer that contains trace elements of enlightenment.

“Bring it on,” I say.

“Just two minutes, ma’am,” India replies.

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We Are Not Rich, We Are Stupid.

by Pam

About a month ago, around the time Bhaskar’s two daughters were headed back to school, I asked what was happening with Harish, our maid’s young son, and why he wasn’t returning to school as well.

“Essaaa… probably next week, ma’am,” Bhaskar answered, unconvincingly.

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Harish is our maid Rathnama’s son. During the school year he lives in this native village in the next state over, with his aunt and uncle, while his parents work here in Bangalore. Harish just turned 13, but we don’t actually believe it. His mother Rathnama doesn’t know her own exact age, but thinks she is around 30. Harish’s sister Gotimine is either 17, 18 or 19, depending upon who and when you ask. And Gotimine’s baby doesn’t yet have a name, but they are quite certain that he is six months old.

I know all this because all summer long there has been a revolving collection of Rathnama’s relations bouncing in and out of our lives. There were a couple of weeks when there were six people in her quarters, which are criminally small for even one person, and a few more sleeping on our kitchen floor.

I can’t explain how this happened, or why we allowed it, or why I bought them sleeping mats so they wouldn’t have to sleep curled up on a cold stone floor. This whole mess is just one of the many cross-cultural mistakes we’ve made so far this year. By the time Harish was the last remaining guest, we were so happy for the decrease in population that we just let it slide.

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Now, another month has passed, and I am weary of seeing Harish’s grinning face peeking at me around corners when I least expect it. “Can I watch TV, auntie? Can we swim now, auntie?” Phil and I are both very fond of the boy. He is sweet, well-mannered, and like all the Indian children we encounter, undeniably adorable. But what started out as a pleasant visit has turned into a haunting. When I finally realized I was spending half of every day hiding on the roof in a lean-to I’d made by pinning a bed sheet to the clothesline, I knew it was time to cowboy up and reclaim our territory.

I thereafter made it clear to Bhaskar, who then may have made it clear to our maid, that no more guests were allowed to stay in her quarters. No friends, no family, no one. We did everything short of posting house rules on the fridge. The message seemed to get out, and Bhaskar even stopped napping in our TV room when I was on the roof.

Yet, another week went by and still Harish was in our house.

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“So, Harish,” I said. “When do you go back to Puttaparthi for school?”

“Um, Tuesday or Friday I think, madam,” he says.

I know this means that he has no idea. I pull Bhaskar aside and ask him if he knows what’s going on with Harish and school. I say this in a tone that I hope will clearly convey that we are really and truly done having people in the house: drivers, children, the drivers children, the maid’s children, everyone.

He rattles off an incomprehensible sentence:

“Essaaa… Money pdom delations dey adr waiting podr.”

I know Harish’s family is in a grave financial situation. A couple of years ago, back at his native village where his family owns farmland and houses, his father had co-signed a loan that the other party apparently defaulted on, and now the lenders are after them. Harish’s parents have moved to Bangalore to take jobs to repay the debt: Rathnama, as a maid in our house, and her husband as a night guard at a construction site up the street. The best we can tell, it will take them years to earn enough to pay what they owe.

“How much does school cost?” I ask Baskhar.

Instead of just answering me, he calls Rathnama, her husband, and Harish into the dining room. A ten-minute mystery conversation takes place between the four of them, periodically punctuated by them each briefly looking over at me.

“Baskhar, how much do you pay for your children’s school?” I ask, trying to clarify my original question.

Bhaskar plays an important role in our India life. He’s not just our driver, he is our self-appointed nanny, guardian, and translator. The problem is, he doesn’t really speak English. He does, however, speak the local languages of Kannada and Telugu, which the maid and her family speak; and, as limited as his translation skills are, they are indispensable.

“Ma’am,” Bhaskar says, “They bring you billett with itemization.”

I tip my head like a dog trying to understand.

“Okay…” I say, tentatively. “Maybe we can contribute for his books, or uniform, or something.”

The way this whole thing is unfolding sends up a thousand red flags and I am extremely uncomfortable.

“Okee, okee. They bring bill. If you and Sir want to pay a portion, you pay.” He wobbles his head in a dismissive way.

The matter is forgotten by morning, and we take off traveling for a couple of weeks.

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We arrive back home from our travels, happily exhausted, in the pre-dawn hours of a Monday morning, to find Harish in the entryway, standing at the ready, smiling wide.

“Good morning Auntie, how are you Auntie?”

“Harish, what are you doing here?” I try my best to sound cheerful.

He hands me an envelope.

“Here is billett for my school, Auntie.”

I am so not ready to be thrown into this pool yet. I’ve just spent ten days decompressing from the dramas of my de facto household, and enjoying the lush freedom that comes when your every move isn’t being observed. I have a chest cold, and there is no caffeine in my blood stream.

I take the envelope from Harish and open it while my tea is brewing. He watches me as I pull out two letters addressed, “To Whom it May Concern,” out of the envelope. I scan the letters and see that they are from two different schools. One is an invoice for 160,000 rupees, (around $ 3,400) and the other for 120,000 (about $2,500).

They are invoices for three years of boarding school.

I am too shocked to edit myself:

“We can’t pay this, Harish, it’s too much money !”

I feel terrible. And to make it that much worse, I can see from the look on this child’s face that he fully expected me to whip out my wallet and hand him the cash. He’s putting on a brave face, but I can tell he’s hugely disappointed. My stomach is tight and I can feel my swirl of confusion threatening to turn into tears.

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I walk upstairs, lie on the bed, and stare at the ceiling. These people have so little, and this child has no future without an education. I see it all around me every day: promise turned sour and a life spent in resignation pushing a mango cart or smashing granite into gravel at the side of a road somewhere. These people want the same thing anyone wants: for their children to do just a bit better than they did. But here in India, the infrastructure isn’t keeping up with the population. This is a country where still only 17% of the population has access to a toilet, where 42% of the children are under nourished. 70% of the marriages are arranged, and the people in villages, which is 80% of India’s population, still think it is okay to marry your first cousin.

“What are you doing ?” Phil comes in and sits on the edge of the bed.

“Harish just gave me these,” I say, and hand him the letters. “It seems they think we’ve offered to pay for three years of boarding school.” Again, I’m on the verge of tears.

“And did we?” Phil asks.

“I don’t think so. All I did was ask how much school costs. I didn’t offer to pay,” I say quietly. “We can’t pay that. We can’t afford to pay that even if we wanted to.”

Phil reads the first letter out loud, and pauses.

Does anything seem strange to you about these letters ?
.
“Does anything seem strange to you about these letters ?” Phil asks.

“Let me see those again.”

I scan through the letters, and it becomes perfectly clear that the two invoices are suspiciously similar. There is slightly different formatting but with the same comically garbled English and the exact same misspellings. In fact, if I’m honest, these letters look a lot like Nigerian spam.

“These are totally forged,” Phil says, smiling.

“No… !” I say. “They wouldn’t do that.”

The thought that these people, who we have come to trust, are trying to scam us, is hard to swallow, and I spend the afternoon on a mission to prove that we are paranoid freaks. I try to get through to the phone numbers on the letterheads. Four out of four do not work. I read both the letters over and over again and try to find something, anything, believable about either one.

I speak again with Rathnama, Harish and Bhaskar, trying hard to find some scrap of mitigating clarity: I ask, as clearly as I can, where Harish would go to school if we could not pay for one of these places, and suddenly, between the boy and the driver and the maid, a fact spills out: the child is already enrolled in another school. This tiny, though meaningful, item serves to solidify what I’ve been trying hard not to see for the past several hours; my disbelief drains out of the equation and it becomes all too obvious.

“Oh, my God… this whole thing is just a fucking con,” I shout, clutching the letters in my hand like an irate newscaster.

“You think you can just type up some letters in bad English and we’ll hand you four thousand dollars ? In America when people pull crap like this we call the Hell’s Angels – or the police !”

I storm out of the room, but keep shouting, off-camera.

“Do you people really think we are this stupid ? We are not giving you a goddamn penny, or rupee, in fact you’ll be lucky if you still have a job and a place to live by morning !”

I stomp upstairs and look at the letters again, without filtering the words through my white guilt. And it becomes obvious that his ham-fisted con has all the craftiness of a fifth-grader forging a report card.

The whole situation has knocked the wind out of me. For the next three days I hardly leave the bedroom and I barely speak. I am devastated. I cry on the phone to my dad like a homesick seven-year-old at summer camp. I want to go home. I want to be someplace that I understand.

I fantasize about sitting the whole group down and telling them the story of the goose that laid the golden eggs, and explaining that sound they hear… that is a goose’s death rattle, and the sound of my wallet not opening.

Rathnama plays dumb. She swears she doesn’t know what is on the fake letters, but the way she is shamefully moving through the house cleaning things she never seemed to even notice before, tells me she knows exactly what’s up; although, I doubt her knowledge really makes her complicit, because, as an illiterate Hindu wife, she doesn’t wield much power.

While sulking, I replay the events of these past four months and realize that it is our good nature that has made us such easy marks in the first place. These people truly think that we are rich, and arguably it is my fault for giving them that impression. If I were from a village that raised goats and grew peanuts, and just stumbled into our house and saw the swimming pool and climbing wall and three extra bedrooms, I might come to that conclusion as well. The fact that I took the whole family to the zoo for Harish’s birthday, that I’ve bought the baby some clothes, and Rathnama saris and sandals, and Gotimine an armful of sparkly bangles, just helped to paint a certain picture.

The fact is, we are in India to save money for a down payment on a house when we go back home to San Francisco. Even though Phil and I have little debt, we actually own nothing, have nothing saved, and there is one more child to get through college.

We are not rich: we are stupid.

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A couple of days later, the cement mixer at the job site next door fires up under our bedroom window at 7 a.m. and wakes me out of a sound sleep. I’m pissed because right now all I want to do is sleep. I pull on a robe and march downstairs. I lean over the fence and look for the guy in the sunglasses talking on the cell phone. He’s promised to move the mixer from under my window three times now, and I am ready to rain crazy white lady all over him.

Four women are carrying cement on their heads from the mixer to the foundation they are building. A small child follows one of the women, pulling on her sari and wailing mournfully. She keeps walking, balancing her load while she climbs barefoot through rubble and dirt, ignoring the child until she dumps her cement, then picking him up and carrying him back to the mixer where she waits for the boys to shovel more wet cement into her head-tray. She sets the child down and he wails and tugs on her sari. They repeat this routine over and over.

The woman works this way every Monday through Saturday. On Sunday, she does her family’s laundry. Scrubbing and smacking the cloth against the cement wall that her sisters have already built, then drying it across pieces of rebar. She and several other people, with several other children, all live on the job-site in a cinder-block shack with a corrugated metal roof held in place by large rocks. The children spend their days playing in piles of sand that will soon be turned into cement.

I watch these women working harder than I’ve ever worked in my life, and know that if I were in their situation, I would absolutely do anything I could to get my child an education, with the hope that someday they may be able to rise above this grueling life.

Rathnama and her family, though slightly better off than these laborers, are no different. And I realize that I’ve been taking this whole thing way to personally. I did everything short of thievery and extortion to get my own daughter a good education. If I were in their situation, I might have done the exact same thing.

I do like to think I’d have forged more convincing documents.

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Days have passed by now, and Harish is still lingering around the house, though less omnipresent than before. I hazard the same question to Bhaskar that started this whole mess:

“Why isn’t Harish in school yet?”

“They waiting por monies from relations before to send him on bus for school in native place.”

Pause. Thinking.

“Bhaskar… How much does Harish’s school really cost ?” I ask.

“Just ten thousand rupees ma’am, for one year.”

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“Honey,” I say to Phil later that night, in that tone that means I am about to say something unreasonable. “Guess how much school really costs for Harish?”

“How much?”

“Two hundred dollars a year. Bhaskar told me.”

“And how do we know he’s not lying too ?” Phil asks.

“We don’t.”

Sadly, this is true. Both Phil and I now suspect that all of India is lying to us all the time. There’s always the chance that Bhaskar was in on the con as well: after all, he and Rathnama are thick as thieves; they chatter endlessly in their bouncy languages; she even cooks for him and washes his clothes. If this weren’t India we’d suspect impropriety, but things like that just don’t happen here.

Finally, we decide that ensuring Harish gets his education this year is worth a two hundred dollar investment, especially if it means getting our privacy back.

But we won’t get fooled again:

We confirm that the school is real; we confirm the costs of books and lodging; we confirm that the phone numbers work and that the people who answer do in fact work at the school answering phones.

To further ensure everything is on the up-and-up, we arrange to have Bhaskar personally deliver Harish to his new school in Andhra Pradesh. We give him five thousand rupees, enough for six months’ tuition, which we instruct him to pay to the school’s headmaster directly. We will return to the school ourselves in six months to pay the balance in person.

Bhaskar and Harish leave at 6 a.m. the next morning for the four hour drive to Andhra Pradesh. The following evening, Bhaskar returns, sleepless, unshaven, and thankfully, alone. He places a signed receipt and a payment booklet from the school on the table, tossing us a tired smile and half a head-wobble.

“Beddy good school, ma’am. Harish beddy happy.”

He really better not be lying.

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