Postcard #35: (re)Defining service

Please indulge me in a little white woman complaining.

Like myself when I dyed my hair blue in 8th grade, the Indian service industry is still trying to define itself. I don’t mean that the hospitality that I have experienced in this country is poor, I just mean they are trying to iron out the details, basics, for example, like bringing the beverages before serving food.

As I wrote earlier, when we blew in off the one lane asphalt road along the beachside cliffs of Kudle Beach to check into the “luxury” hotel we were met with mild hostility from the security guard at the entrance. We looked far too bedraggled (read: already sunburned, sweaty and wrinkled from the bus ride) to afford 4000 some rupees a night accommodations. Even as we checked in, the welcome committee was skeptical.

During a chance meeting along the path to the beach with an aging, leathery German tourist curious about the price of our hotel, we discovered there is a wide range of acceptable lodging in Gokarna. For example, for this guy, “anything with a bed without too many bedbugs or cockroaches is decent.” Sure, a beachside cabana has allure, but not when you and the other 50 guests are all shitting in the same hole; I would know, I visited it and it’s the same for residents as it is for those eating at the restaurant. But then again, a low concrete shack is less than $5 a night. It’s worth considering if the bug situation is under control. Unfortunately, weekend getaways are such a good excuse to escape our uncomfortable apartment that we’ll spend two (nearly) sleepless nights in the night bus.

Settling into the hotel room, even though the shower was equipped with rain shower head, there was still the classic plastic bucket and pitcher situation for those who will forgo luxury in favor of the traditional and low environmental impact style of bathing. Next to the bed, instead of rugs, there were plastic doormats, the kind that are fluffy clumps of curly plastic spirals. All of the room information was written in Cyrillic. I was just happy to have a soft bed, A/C, and good water pressure but aesthetically, ascetically, there is always room for improvement.

To my dismay, and despite the booking site promise of “breakfast included,” we had to order whatever the hell we wanted for breakfast since they had no damn menu, no damn buffet. The whole point of luxury is that I don’t have to do all the work here! I don’t want to invent my own breakfast. As expected, my dry scrambled eggs and Pierre’s sad, thin omelette were disappointing! More disappointing than the fact that the cold toast, anywhere in the country will always be served with the same fluorescent pink toxic jam that tastes like no actual fruit found on planet Earth.

The moral of this series of complaints is that complaining pays off. When I expressed my consternation about breakfast, the fellow at the front desk generously let us come back and use the pool after we had already checked out. Bonus pool time. That is luxury.

Postcard #34: Souvenir shopping without leaving your beach towel

Peddlers of every sort roam the beaches with their goods and services. There is the slender old man with a plastic basin filled with pineapples balanced on his head, a knife on the waist. One man carries a lumpy sack filled with young, green coconuts. There are women draped with scarves or encumbered by clothes with the om symbol printed everywhere. A young man sells carved stone incense holders. There are many young men and women with strings of semi precious stone beads suspended from their arms. They are all looking for the fresh white tourist, willing to shell out rupees for a “handmade” souvenir.

That’s how we met Bawani, a local girl with long lashes and a small smattering of freckles across her nose. One of her front teeth was broken from the inside making a triangular gap, adding more charm to her smile. She was covered with heavy beads, and the day before, she was trudging through the sand trying to entice buyers. Today, she sat down at the edge of our blanket for a rest and spoke more to us as we sat there sweating in the noontime sun. I watched her wad up some red hued chewing tobacco in the palm of her hand then wedge it in her cheek. I looked at her beads determined to buy something with the scant cash we had. Meanwhile, she teased me about my raging red sunburn (“chili chicken skin”) and she told me about herself. Bawani has four younger sisters that she is supporting. She has a boyfriend named Raj who does tattoos; she showed us his work, his initials tattooed next to those of her father. She restrung some beads for me to wear as a bracelet, eventually we haggled and soon she was on her way.

She would spend the rest of the day walking from beach to beach making few other sales, but the Indian beach goers were uninterested in overpriced souvenirs. The money she made that day would be delivered back to her mother, to pay for her younger sister’s schooling. Her back would hurt from carrying the heavy stone beads on each arm but she would have the strength to wrap those same tired arms around Raj’s waist when he whips through town on his scooter. Her father disapproves, but like she told us, “love marriage is possible.” Tomorrow, she would go out again and charm some more sunburnt suckers getting ready for a swim.

We, in turn, spent the rest of the afternoon fending off the other vendors, our red skin indicative of western money and poor bargaining skills. It’s a hot sandy hell for a girl who has to support her family but paradise for the pale, carefree tourists.

Postcard #33: White hippies

At the seaside town of Gokarna, we stepped out into narrow streets which were alarmingly filled with the most aging white hippies I have ever seen outside of the Oregon Country Fair. It was no surprise that night, after roasting ourselves in the hot sand and rinsing in the Arabian Sea, that we would stumble upon a bonfire and drum circle on the beach. I mean, the first faces we saw were the weary visages of white hippies, hair in knots, dressed like locals, topless, in dhotis, listlessly dragging their flip flopped feet in the street.

For Hindus, Gokarna is an important pilgrimage site for the worship of Lord Shiva. For vacationers, for many Europeans, Gokarna is an unspoiled beach perfect to escape the hedonism of Goa. For white hippies, I can only imagine that it’s an pleasant and inexpensive cadre in which you can do downward dog on the beach with an actual dog below you on your mat. It’s a place where you can forget the material world, procure cheap accommodations, where there aren’t any bed bugs or too many roaches, shit in a communal hole, so long as you have the appropriate Rudraksha beads, strung on a string by a sadhu. By night, you can express your wild animus fireside with other like-minded individuals. The Arabian seaside of upper Karnataka is THE spot to pursue the ascetic lifestyle of your wildest dreams.

Postcard #32: Cyclone vacation

On the eve of our departure for the coastal town of Gokarna, 200 something kilometers from Bangalore (200 some kilometers warranting a 10 hour bus ride) a cyclone blew in from West Bengal. Chennai was getting the brunt of the storm, but Bangalore was being doused despite the dry season. The weather didn’t bode well for our seaside weekend break.

The night bus disorients time and space; it’s the most dreadful form of teleportation. For one hour, you wait in a cold drizzle on a busy street in front of a government complex called the Silk Board. You’re herded on the bus by a nervous teen with a croaking voice. You’re shuttled for 10 hours, supine. You spend 10 hours rolling around on a rubber mattress surrounded by other people in their compartments. It’s a rollicking form of sensory deprivation. Then, suddenly, you emerge blinking in the sunlight of a new town.

Postcard #31: The Kormangala ATM tour

Modi’s demonetization is really putting a hitch in my giddy-up. Banks are shuttered closed, tattered inkjet signs marked “NO CASH” hang from the grills closing off the ATM vestibules. As soon as the shutters rise, people line up to withdraw their measly 2000 rupee bill. Limit one per person. People emerge from the vestibule, soberly folding the purple note into their wallets. They got their money, but who will be able to make change, as I have yet to see a new 500 rupee note. This occasion has helped me improve my Hindi: “cash nahin,” or “no cash.”

On the eve of our departure to the remote town of Gokarna, on the Karnataka coast, we were desperately in need of bills. I spent nearly the entire day walking 12km to try to find an open ATM with money in it. Seeing a crowd, I joined the queue. Axis Bank rejected my transaction several times. When it was time to process, the screen went completely black for an alarming amount of time. The security guard, with his rifle swinging loosely and recklessly from his shoulder told me it was impossible to get cash out with my foreign card. So, if you are ever interested in a walking tour of Koramangala’s ATMs, please contact me, (cash only please.)

Postcard #30: Squashed girl problems

The trouble with Bangalore is this incessant traffic. There were many times, in many places where I have nearly been squashed by cars. Some of these memorable moments include: Suresnes, while looking at the big white dog with one eye, in London, crossing any street, (damned left side drivers), and the crosswalk by the train station where a scooter teen tried to murder me so I pushed him as he whizzed by. The other day, I nearly walked into a running scooter, driving down the wrong side of the street while SOME WOMAN had the AUDACITY to tell me to watch out as if I was the one going to the wrong way!

I come from the West, where the pedestrian is king. In France, I can afford to be reckless, if a car hits a pedestrian, the pedestrian is always right. Pierre says that’s no way to live your life, crossing in traffic, willy-nilly. Even though I use extreme caution to the point of waiting 5 minutes for a break in traffic, someone is gonna come careening out of nowhere and it will be all my fault. You can’t pretend you’re in Paris when you’re really in India.

Postcard #29: A special message from the Guru

More exclusive news from the Guru: Akshar yoga students should be drinking alkaline water for the wellbeing of our organism. It’s just one way people can combat the environmental chaos of of the modern, industrialized world. Mineral water (purified drinking water), is too acidic. Thus, you can create your own alkaline drinking water in several ways, one way is to drink out of a copper water bottle. The second method to alkalize tap water is to buy a clay jug (5 liters, handmade), fill it with water, add some tulsi (holy basil) leaves and let it stand overnight. In the morning, sunlight should reach the water’s surface, penetrate the water, and by 8am, it should be ready to drink. I can’t BELIEVE Pierre says yoga is a sect. I must arrange to get my jug.

Postcard #28: Cake cutting ceremonies

Today I received an exclusive invitation via Whatsapp to the one year anniversary of the yoga studio where I practice. Who knew that the day would end with me sitting on a sofa while a local B-list Indian actress wearing a Juicy Couture velour tracksuit forced me to eat rice while one of her companions made me pronounce the dish’s name in Kannada while spilling barbecue potato chips all over the carpet (it’s bisi bele bath, literally, hot lentil rice)?

The invitation specified a special celebration at 4pm. Logically, I arrived to yoga class fashionably late, and was forced to take a spot at the front of the room, perpendicular to the teacher. Meanwhile, because Madame Galrani, film actress and owner of the “most luxurious yoga studio in Koramangala” (according to her Twitter bio) was participating, there were 2 guys with video cameras and photographer crouched in the front of the room. I am not 100% sure that my leggings weren’t transparent or that I was wearing appropriate underpants but I know I will be able to verify in the photos later.

Between classes, everyone was forced downstairs to witness the cake cutting ceremony while the actress ordered everyone around (“come, come.”) She wanted us to all be in the group photo in front of the gold upholstered wall. Us, the obedient students, did not get up during class to take breaks so we were hesitant and disheveled after the intense physical activity. Anyway, our yoga teacher got fed up with waiting and herded us back upstairs to the studio (I didn’t want to eat cake before class anyway.) (This statement may or may not be a lie, since it was chocolate cake on offer.)

After class, I went back down to the lobby and was immediately handed a piece of cake and watched wide-eyed as someone poured the rest of a packet of barbecue flavored potato chips over the slice. The actress interfered, admonishing the help for not serving me rice first while I tried to politely decline (“come on, come on, it’s not spicy.”) I was then commanded to sit on the sofa and finish two plates of food after spending an hour and a half of intense physical activity. As the actress throughly ignored me, I struggled to eat the food while piteously wincing at the receptionists. It was cool experience though, since I have never met anyone with that many Twitter followers or such an inflated sense of privilege.

Postcard #27: Love Thy Neighbor

The ground floor of our apartment building houses both a vegetable shop and KS Store, a convenience store (also known as the Happy Deal Store.) It’s taken a month for the local business owners to finally be friendly with us, before, they (understandably) treated us with what I am interpreting as mild distrust to indifference. The owner of KS Store is a guy with great hair  and even greater mustache who needs constant reminding to bring up the 5 gallon jug of purified water to our apartment. The vegetable store is run by a rotating series of family members, I’m assuming, since the women are all splitting images of each other. The owners are a Tamil couple, a man with wide, slightly protruding eyes and a prominent belly and his wife, always clothed in an impeccable sari, with a delightfully luscious neck roll.

Today, the friend of the woman who runs the vegetable store stopped us to say hi. She was chatting with a wizened little woman in a sari called Mary. Mary, making conversation, mistakenly identified Pierre and me as brother and sister which is further proof that white people all look alike. Initially, Pierre thought that she was trying to tell us that her and Grija, the woman who owns the vegetable store were sisters. I then realized that she was trying to sus out our relationship. To avoid the awkwardness and societal shame of admitting that we are two godless perverts living in sin, we told them we were married. I don’t know if the idea went across well but it was finally nice to get to know, at least on a first name basis, some of our neighbors. Clearly, we are all harboring some curiosity about each other.  It also marks the first step towards coercing the people who we interact with daily into liking us. I mean, KS store guy is finally smiling back at me, so that’s something.

Postcard #26: Hell is a cackling French girl

Standing in the corner next to the oven in the sprawling five bedroom apartment of a friend, abandoning the party on the rooftop terrace, I considered the many ways to live as an expat. The spindly French girl in the pilling, polyester red dress upstairs has been living here for two years. Every two to three months, she returns to France and despite all the culinary bounty available, she returns to Bangalore with a suitcase full of French breakfast cereal. From all evidence, she loves Coco Puffs, chain smoking and fast fashion.

Before I abandoned the cold terrace with it’s relentless mosquitos to stand next to the slowly cooling oven, we talked about the expat population of Bangalore. She lamented over the stay-at-home French MILF population who have nothing better to do than to organize charity or cultural functions, get their nails done and wait for their husbands to come home. According to her, once these women return home, their nails will be so perfect, they will be good on manicures for the next 15 years. Adding to her defaults, apparently she also doesn’t know how fingernails work. Later in the evening, this same French girl admitted to pursuing the 19 year-old intern and joked that she too was a MILF. We all go abroad for different reasons, but normally we have more wisdom or grace to show for it. Instead, some, cackle in the night air as they complain about the inconveniences of the country where they chose to live.