Sunday, December 23, 2007

By the Light of the Night, When it All Seems Alright

We only spent a brief two days in Bangalore hanging out with The Family, but it was an important piece of the puzzle to see. We had seen how wealthy, westernized Indians live, and also how some Westerners approach social service in India, and it felt to me like the social and economic context of India and how it relates to the Western world was becoming clearer.

But now it was decision time - where to go next? The dream of the Andaman Islands was quickly fading, due mostly to my financial woes. I had turned up in Germany without bothering to check the exchange rate from USD to Euros, and had subsequently been screwed by the tanking American dollar. Now I was in India with maybe $200 to my name. My attempts to contact my dad for a bail-out had been unsuccessful and the ticket to the Andamans would have basically cleared me out. Not only this, but my limited time in India meant that I would be able to spend about a week on the Islands, and that would pretty much use up the rest of my time. So, after some impressively friendly, calm and understanding discussion between me and my stalwart companion, we decided instead to go to Hampi - a town built basically to accommodate the tourist visitors to the ruins of an ancient Indian empire. We knew nothing much about the place, except that it was a common stop on the tourist circuit and that there was some impressive ancient architecture. We had seen some pretty amazing photos and heard some rave reviews from other travelers, so good enough - we go. We grabbed our tickets and spent the rest of the evening walking around the neighborhood close to the railway station.

The area of Bangalore close to the station, despite quite a few guest houses and lodges, is almost completely devoid of Western visitors or blatant Western influence. Perfect! Instead, it is made up of small shops and stalls, temples, bakeries, restaurants and other authentic Indian street life. The street in front of a large Muslim temple - painted bright green and white and lit up all night - was lined with street vendors selling flowers, prayer mats, Islamic literature, trinkets and food. Dana bought herself an Allah pendant. God comes in many forms, it's all the same thing, though. Our multi-religious experience continued as we wandered past a Jain temple and were encouraged to enter by the sweet old man sitting on the front step. As we walked in and took our shoes off (an absolute requirement in all holy places, as well as most homes and quite a few businesses), a boy of about 12 became my self-appointed tour guide. He lead me through all 3 or 4 levels of the temple, explaining the various murals, carvings and statues, each more stunningly beautiful than the last. On the roof of the temple was an alcove containing statues of Jain gods, and the centre of the roof was taken up by a 12-foot pyramid of stone cow heads. We had the privilege of seeing people perform rituals to their gods - burning incense, chanting mantras, or waving a sort of brush thing with a silver handle - obviously just regular folks saying a quick hello to their spiritual guides before heading home for the night.

Windows from another part of the temple overlooked the rooftop area, and these had quickly filled with young girls, all staring and pointing at the wierdo with the lip-ring. I smiled and waved to them, and they all collapsed in squeals and giggles. The way back down to the entrance of the temple was a less reverent affair, as I had acquired quite an entourage of curious youngsters. Dana and I had made our way through the temple separately, and now the kids delighted in their duty of guiding us back together. In the end, I felt a bit bad for disturbing the peacefulness of the place by causing such a stir among the young Jains, but apart from a young devotee who shushed the kids careening down the stairs ahead of me, everyone else seemed more than happy to have us. I am continually impressed by the willingness of Indians of all religions to share their faith and places of worship with such obviously clueless outsiders.

As we continued to wander, our differing senses of intuition were put to the test. Something I've been trying to learn from Dana is her almost unfailingly good intuition. She just seems to know where to go, where to eat, who to talk to. I have a pretty decent sense of intuition myself, but Dana's far longer experience in India, as well as that whole girl thing, make hers clearly superior. It seems at times that she is frustrated with me for being unwilling to make clear decisions, but I really don't care what we do, and if she's got better sense than me, what's the point in trying? This is the danger of two very easy-going people traveling together; no one ever actually comes out and says we have to do something in particular.

Anyway, on this evening of wandering, Dana Maria got into one of her excitable moods and decided that she needed a drink. Women don't drink in India, except in the wealthy and very westernized areas, which this neighborhood was not. Even men aren't really supposed to drink, as it is generally contrary to the teachings of both major religions (Hinduism and Islam). But late at night, in neighborhoods like this, there are small bars serving bad locally produced whiskey and rum. For some reason they are all called 'wine shops' although not a single one of them serves wine. Dana's intuition guided us to a bright and friendly (relatively speaking as these places go) little bar, and after some hesitation at the door, I ordered us two rums. The patrons were of course astounded at our presence, and there were some moments of serious mutual discomfort. We live for this stuff. I knocked back my sugary rum no problems, while Dana took hers with water. After some hesitant smiles and bewildered looks from our drinking companions, we moved on.

This time is was my turn to chose the venue. Dana was doing her best to let me lead the way without too much guidance, so when I approached a slightly more seedy looking place on what I realized later was a much more seedy stretch of road, all she said was , "Really?...okay." One of Dana's rules for hanging out in the more traditional areas in India is to check and see if there are any other women in the place. As we entered the bar, I saw the flash of gold-trimmed sari and jewelry from the back room. "See?" I said, "there are other women here!" The other patrons quickly noticed my camera and ushered me into the back room to take some shots. When I got back there, I soon realized that the "woman" I had seen was in fact a transvestite and almost certainly a prostitute. While my intuition had obviously failed me, I couldn't resist a few quick snaps before turning to find Dana. "We're leaving." she said. "Oh, hell yes we are." I replied, and lead her out by the arm.

As we began to wander back in the direction of the railway station to catch our overnight train to Hampi, Dana pointed out the clues on the street that guide her decisions. As a guy, I can afford to be a bit more clueless than my intuitive companion, but these lessons are good to learn. On the other hand, the whole point is to get into trouble, right?

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P.S. Thanks so much to Dana's grandma Judie for her kind words. I'm glad my writing is entertaining you. Dana has told me a lot about you, and you sound like such a cool person, I would absolutely love to come and see you if I'm ever on the West Coast.

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