The art of passing…
My travel besties, Jaya and Janine, showed up in Bangalore a day before I swanned in courtesy of a first-class upgrade. Our driver showed up with the idea that we would be ready to leave at 0:dark-thirtyAM that morning. My luggage did not show up at all.
The plan was that we’d take in a few temples to get back into the swing of India travel, fine-tune the relationship with our driver, and fight the random urge to slip into a jet-lagged coma. (There might be drooling…)
Janine and I were so sleep-deprived, we couldn’t have told what time it was. Or what day. (There was definitely drooling…) But the sounds (non-stop honking), the sights (cows and other animals wandering along the freeway amid entire families on motorbikes or crammed into auto-rickshaws), and the smells (we were back on two-hour feedings) of India soon had us raring to go. (And just in case that becomes literally true, I packed the toilet paper, Jaya packed the bottled water, and Janine packed the Imodium.)
Frankly, I can’t tell you much about that first trip except that we had a good breakfast at Parijata Restaurant under the watchful eye of a cheerful Ganesh in his incense-burning altar with the adjacent large-screen TV showing devotional videos, and a confusing collection of ceramic chef-heads.
When you arrive at an Indian tourist attraction, the decision on whether to hire a guide is only one of many you’ll need to make (along with how long Western feet can go barefoot on hot flagstones when required to shed shoes at temples, if you should be the ONLY one in all of India obeying the NO PHOTOGRAPHY signs, and how much toilet paper you can stuff into your pockets). Our general experience is that most guides spend most of their time reprimanding us. “This way Madam. Madam, look here. Madam, come come. Madam I am telling you…”—by which point Madam has either wandered off to take pictures (Janine), actively interrupted his script by asking random questions (me), or lost all patience and started giving the tour herself since she clearly knows a LOT more history, better stories, and English (Jaya).
Our usual technique has been to read up on the history and significant features before arriving at a site. But if it’s large, if the signage is nonexistent, and if the architecture stunning, we might opt for the guide. We have yet to be glad we did so, and this was no exception. Concluding the expected bargaining session—where the initial fee demanded was reduced to a third despite presentation of a government-issued card documenting his status as a duly-registered guide—our guide directed us to remove our shoes. After barking out orders to follow him around the exterior of the temple and pointing out the obvious features already described at the entry sign, our guide shepherded us into the dim interior. There was a little traffic jam of various tour groups, during which our guide sharply reprimanded several people for touching the carvings. Then he showed us how fine the carving work was by touching them between their carved layers. Repeatedly.
Finally, the guide briefly turned a searchlight to the intricately carved dome above. We now, he informed us, owed the owner of the searchlight an additional thirty rupees. Perhaps suspecting that a large tip was not coming his way, the remainder of our tour was briskly concluded with a demand from a hitherto invisible attendant for thirty rupees to reward his vigilant protection of our shoes.
As we put our shoes back on, our guide gabbled off a description of the gravity-defying central pillar and waited hopefully for the additional largesse an unimpressed Jaya would shell out the second hell froze over. The guide wandered off in search of less demanding clients and that’s when I realized that something was very different about this trip. Whenever we’re in India, Janine and I stick out like…well like two pasty white ladies wearing sensible travel clothes amid a sea of Indians in gorgeously colored clothing. Within in moments of arrival, we’d be swamped by vendors—from tiny children to senior citizens proffering strings of flowers, packages of stickers, postcards, flutes playing wobbly Frere Jacques, stone animals—”hand-carved, Madam”, and random strings of gaudy jewelry. The vendors would have to compete with Indian tourists crowding around and shyly asking “selfie with me?”.
But this was the day all that changed, at least for me. I was wearing my bright new kurta (tunic) and salwar (trousers), along with a large pair of sunglasses and a hat, and soon discovered they were like an invisibility cloak. The usual crowds ignored me completely while swarming around Janine, demanding purchases and photos. I hung back and tried to look like a sophisticated Mumbai resident, waving off supplicants with a negligent hand. Meanwhile, Jaya and I watched Janine take photos with everyone and try to be polite:
Vendor: “Madam wants postcard/flute/elephant?”
Janine: “No, thank you. But they are very nice.”
Vendor: “Madam wants flute/postcard/elephant?”
Janine: “No, I…”
Bravest Indian person: “Selfie with me?”
Vendor: “Elephant Madam? Postcard? Flute?”
Janine: “Sure, we can take our picture together. Where are you from?”
Vendor: “Madam wants postcard/flute/elephant?”
Surprised Indian person: “I’m from India. Selfie with me? And the other twenty or thirty people I came with?”
Janine (to Jaya): “Help me.”
Vendor: “Madam wants elephant? Flute? Postcards?”
Janine (to me): “I will get you for this.”
Who knew passing for Indian while simultaneously throwing one of my oldest friends under the bus would be so much fun? Win-win.
After a traditional tali lunch, we were ready to face the next temple, this time sans guide. The twin monolithic statues of Nandi (the bull companion of the god Shiva) watched with timeless serenity over the stunning remains of the twelfth-century Halebidu temple complex that was still not completed when sacked by fourteenth-century invaders who smashed the faces on the hundreds of carvings.
On the way back to Bangalore, we stopped at the same restaurant. Ganesh’s incense had burned down and the TV was playing an Indian soap. But in the next room over, an enthusiastic group were playing music and chanting Hari Krishna songs.
We arrived back at Jaya’s kids’ place in Bangalore in a fog of honking vehicles, jetlag, and too much good food to find that her daughter-in-law had made more food. Of course. We were in India.
I asked Janine if she wanted to take a selfie with me.