Friday, March 18, 2005

Seeing Pink

A day in India is not complete without a meltdown. Ok, maybe in Jodhpur there were a few days when we'd stay in the realm of friends and co-workers, and thus out of the maddenly aggressive/unpredictable outside world. Today was not one of those days.

The day and my temper started out cool. I was picked up by my driver, whose name I asked and promptly forgot, at 8:30. We drove out past the normal motley roadside crew--photos to be posted later--to Amber Fort, where I sprinted up the stairs past crews of tourist-laden elephants to the top. It felt good as hell to get some exercise. I tagged along with an American tour group for laughs, and some explanation of the labyrinth-like structure. Obviously the Rs 75 entry fee did not cover the printing of signs. There were however tour leaders yelling over each other in English, French, German, and Hindi. The American tour guide was visibly condescending to his fat, pale, and well-winded herd. I saw why when one of the fanny-packed women asked if the hooks in the ceiling were for "for the slaves." He politely but firmly explained that neither Mughals nor Hindus historically held slaves; "unlike you Americans" was unspoken and probably unappreciated by the larger audience. One of the younger men sported a too-tight t-shirt boasting of his Crawford heritage: "The home of George W. Bush."

Moving on, I checked out some awesome vistas of the 9km stone wall snaking up and over the surrounding hills, the separate quarters for the Maharaja's 300 concubines, and admired the forward-thinking engineering of an air conditioning system rigged up with piped-in water and narrow, textured stone canals.

My driver suggested the next couple stops, but even knowing the so-obvious commission to expect to be tacked onto the price, I agreed. I don't think I'm paying for this driver, I should note, and I wanted to make sure my Indian pal Bhati who's arranged it gets a cut.

So we went to a textiles emporium called Areweli. I picked out two pairs of trousers and three tops, and balked at the price: Rs 2040, a fortune. He threw in a yellow scarf, so I said ok.

I said I didn't want jewelry but I was taken to Monto Bello gems "just for look." They brought out the chai. I mentioned my palm reader's prescription to wear moonstone or diamonds for protection and was soon showed about 1500 specimens of both. The diamonds were beautiful, but I decided against spending $200 on a microscopic nose ring. Right, I hadn't meant to buy anything, but here we were at least 45 minutes into my browsing session. I got a ring for $6, probably what I'd pay in the states, so I hope Mr. Bhati got a cut.

Then somebody's sweaty, balding uncle decides to read my palm. "In 15 seconds I know everything about your forecast," he promised. I was already feeling annoyed that I'd wasted an hour inside this joint but didn't move away. He told me--shocking--that I like to travel. "Your education is not much, it was bumpy," he continued, "you will not have success in teaching or journalism"--the two work stints I'd mentioned to his cousins--"and you think too much." Yeah, I wasted a freaking hour in this shop deciding between white and whiter moonstones; he was right. I shook his hand and exited.

Ok, that's not exactly true. There was that afore mentioned meltdown. I mentioned my English literature degree as proof that I wasn't an illiterate schmuck, and he shook his head: "this is not educated; this is your native tongue." Oh really? "No, chemistry degree, engineering, this is education." He was telling me to write about Hinduism, that it was an all-knowing science which could foretell the future. I responded with a lot of silly words, like relativism, faith, rationality. Soon this became "and you're WRONG about EVERYTHING."

A fruit seller charging double at the next corner was on the receiving end of another tantrum: "it's because I'm WHITE isn't it?"

Then I went home and dunked in the pool. Hey, it could be a lot worse.

There's a French girl I met recently who can't go anywhere without attracting hoards of men staring, or worse, grabbing. Every day she returns to her guest house in furious tears. I just heard she had Rs 5000 stolen in Jaiselmer.

An Australian girl I met on the train got a kidney infection her first week in India. She was doubled over in pain, peeing blood, before she finally went to the hospital. The doctors said it was something in the water.

In India there is harassment, there are exorbitant foreigner prices. But with a little anger management comes perspective. I'm not Indian. My lungs will recuperate after a month of coughing up black sludge. Back home, dirty children are playing in the sandboxes, not begging at stoplights. No one looks twice at me in New York, unless I'm walking too slowly. Even at the ripe old age of 25, I'm not having my marriage arranged. In Soho, fixed price really does mean fixed, whether you're white, brown or green. And it will be a hell of a lot more expensive.


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