Wednesday, September 2, 2015

In Which Ugly American Here Rampages King Kong-Style Through the Bus

The great and cruel thing about an indifferent universe is that my recent successes at the bus mean very little in the face of the Sunday afternoon crush. I'm not entitled to ongoing bus success, it turns out, which is how I ended up on the verge of tears and declaring "This sucks!" to a mystified audience.

Which is to say, I had my first true Ugly American moment and I'm really ashamed of it.

I can only blame myself, of course. I know better than to ride a bus anywhere on a Sunday afternoon, when the buses are guaranteed to be rolling sardine cans, but I was in the city and I needed to get home. Having (kind of) mastered the bus, I'm now especially loath to pay an autorickshaw driver to take me all the way to campus, so OK, there might be a little stubborn belligerence at play here, too.

Anyway, after waiting at the Kengeri bus terminal for what felt like a really long time, I leaped at the 228A when it came by, even though a veritable horde was leaping at it, too. And it was already jam-packed.

No worries! I insinuated myself up the steps, gently nudging a woman in a sequined green sari and a man who seemed to think he didn't have to move, though I wordlessly let him know that he did. Teetering almost on tip-toe at the top of the steps, squeezed on every side, I twitched and jerked with every bump of the bus, flailing for something to hold onto and repeatedly falling backward into the two large bags on the floor behind me.

This happened maybe half a dozen times, and I was starting to sweat. I'm not terribly claustrophobic, but that bus ride was slowly tightening an invisible fist around my neck. Things got a little irrational inside my head: Does my travel insurance have any crowded-bus caveats? What if there's a fire?

Uh, spontaneously, Rachel? And inside the bus?

It was then that I felt a sharp smack on the back of my thigh. I looked down and a scowling woman in a navy blue sari raised her hand to smack my leg again, because it was her bags that I kept lurching into. They were filled with flowers, so I guess I understand her distress, but hitting me?

She shoved at my hip to get me away from her two large bags, and I could almost hear this mean little thing inside me snap.

"There's no room, lady!" I declared, helpfully, in English. She scowled and shoved me again, and this was too much. On a bus that crowded she thought her two huge bags were entitled to precious floor space?

Wriggling a sharp, huffy 180 degrees, I grabbed the handles of the top bag, jerked it up and plopped it on her lap. She was angry. I was furious. Everybody around me was staring.

Then, like magic, a path appeared between the women crammed at the front of the bus, and a lady standing halfway up the aisle indicated I could stand in front of her.

Well. If it had been possible to stomp I would have, but I had to settle for sidling between alarmed bus riders in one of my most towering pouts. "This is The Worst," I declared, again in English, not sure what I was expecting with that proclamation.

Once I got to what felt like a square inch of floor space, I announced to the people around me, "Don't worry, I won't touch your stuff!" Again, not sure what I hoped to accomplish with that, so I grabbed the handrail above my head and stared petulantly into the middle distance outside the bus, refusing to let the ready tears fall.

And that's when shame descended. I loathe a scene, and I'd just created a doozy: this shockingly tall, obviously American woman having a spaz at someone who didn't want her flowers crushed and pouting over the crowded reality of Indian public transportation. Nobody who saw it would forget it anytime soon.

As we neared my stop, the conductor caught my eye and pointed to indicate it was where I should get off. I couldn't even offer an annoyed sigh - I know my stop, lady! - so I meekly nodded and tried to inconspicuously work my way toward the door. Thankfully, the woman with the flowers had gotten off several stops before.

I slouched down the steps and trudged along the road toward home.

Maybe I should buy a bike.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

In Which I Probably Should, I Don't Know, Take Up a New Hobby or Something

Not that my life was frantic before - I've always made a point of moving at a pace that could best be called 'desultory' - but it has calmed the heck down living here in the Indian countryside.

I became vividly aware of this yesterday when I spent 20 minutes watching an ant drag a dead bug out of my apartment.

Why was there a dead bug in my apartment that I hadn't picked up, you ask? Or an ant, for that matter? You're missing the point, I answer.

Anyway, out of the corner of my eye I noticed what looked like a dead bug moving across the white tile floor. Scuttling over to investigate, I saw a single, tiny ant, easily 30 times smaller than the dead bug, pulling it slowly but resolutely toward the crack beneath the front door. It was a mesmerizing effort.

I mentally composed rhapsodic odes to Hard Work and A Spirit of Never Quitting, going so far as to become misty-eyed over this ant's determination. It disappeared under the door with its prize, so I waited a few minutes before opening the door to check on its progress.

Which, OK, oops, that's when I remembered there's a plastic guard at the bottom of the door, so I cruelly snatched the dead bug away from the ant.

You can imagine how terrible I felt.

The ant scurried off, even though I tried to nudge it back toward the dead bug, which I'd liberated from beneath the plastic guard with a stick. Nothing doing.

So, I poked the dead bug to a prominent and visible spot on the tiles of my front patio and went to have some lunch. To my delight, when I came back I saw that seven or eight ants were now pulling the dead bug toward wherever ants take dead bugs. Teamwork! Perseverance! Hooray!

All of which is to say, I'm spending quite a bit of time in the company of ants and clouds passing and birds soaring and the idle meandering of my drifting thoughts. In a country of 1.2 billion people, I'm learning to open my eyes and take the deep breath that lifts me just off the ground, so I can float beside the loneliness instead of bashing my forehead against it.

Besides, all it takes is one bus ride into the city and I'm ready to be back with the ants pulling their treasure home.

In Which I'm Running for Public Office, Apparently

I read the other day that Pope Francis speaks something like nine languages, but instead of sending me into further raptures over my favorite modern-day hero, my first thought was, Oh, yeah??? Well, I'd like to see you try Kannada, pal!

Once again, I find myself facing a language that seems like nothing more than an elaborate practical joke, designed to make me blurt random, poorly pronounced - and wrong - words at hapless strangers.

Kannada is not going into my brain. It is not rolling melodiously off my tongue. Whenever I try to stutter a word or two that I've managed to memorize, I'm seized with antiperspirant-defying nerves that cruelly shove me into gibberish. Gaaaaa! Leeeehhh! Eeeooom!

I've grown used to politely puzzled looks and alarmed side-eye: Is she OK? Should we put a pencil in her mouth so she doesn't swallow her tongue?

So, I compensate with the ol' thumbs up.

On the bus and trying to tell the conductor where I need to go, I mispronounce a few words and then give him a winning thumbs up. At KR Market and attempting to indicate that I don't, in fact, want to pay 100 rupees per kilo for pomegranates, I say 80 rupees and get that thumb in the air. Trying to tell akka that I'd like a bottle of water, I point confidently at the shelf with the water and give her a double thumbs up.

Go big or go home, I always say.

Oh, occasionally I mix it up and flash the thumbs up's equally convivial cousin, A-OK - index finger and thumb forming a circle, three remaining fingers arrayed in a jaunty sunburst of support - but I like the decisiveness of the thumbs up. It's like an exclamation point on the top of my hand. "Yay!" it says. "I may not technically 'understand' what you just said, if we're being persnickety, but maybe I do? Subconsciously? On some sort of 'we all speak the same language as members of the human family' level? I mean, check out this optimistic thumb!"

I also pair my thumbs up with a smile so friendly it borders on manic. I smile my mouth practically off my face. If anyone's trying to cultivate an image of America as a land of intellectuals, I'm doing nothing for the cause. Sorry.

You know what, though? I may be some goofy golden retriever of a foreigner - one with opposable thumbs, luckily! - but the thumbs up also says that I'm trying, I think whatever is going on right now is awesome and I'm really happy to be here.

And I get quite a few smiles, and even a few thumbs ups, in return.

Monday, July 27, 2015

In Which I Missed the Bus

OK, fine, so The Bus Gambit didn’t go very well.

Two weeks of living in the Indian countryside and I decided that it was time to venture into Bangalore proper on my own. And not by texting Papu the congenial autorickshaw driver to come pick me up at campus. No! I was going to ride the bus!

“O, it is to laugh!” said India, then yanked my underwear up in an atomic wedgie.

I spent an embarrassing number of hours Friday scouring the Bangalore Metropolitan Transport Corporation’s website, plotting my Saturday morning ninja strike. I had times. I had routes. I thought I knew where the bus stop was, just up the road from campus. In retrospect, I see that I was one of those stray ducklings trying to waddle across eight lanes of interstate highway.

According to the schedule, the 212 bus should be by at 8:30 a.m. Conscientiously, I left my apartment early and strode purposefully to where I thought the bus stop is. Except there was nothing to indicate a bus stop – no sign, no bench, nothing. I shuffled down the street and back up: no bus stop.

Finally, I sidled up to akka, behind the counter at her shop, and asked, “Bus?”

She shook her head.

Twisting my left arm into a Z so that she could see my watch, I tapped its face and said, “8:30?”

She laughed merrily.

“No, 8!” she said, and I the silly American dork who thought the BMTC bus would run according to the schedule on the BMTC website. What is this, Switzerland? No, the bus comes by at 8-ish, maybe 7:45-ish, maybe 8:20-ish.

“Bus stop?” I asked pitifully, and she pointed to the spot across the road from her shop, where I should like to point out there is no sign.

Fine. Fine! I bought some cookies and angrily crammed them in my mouth as I stomped over to school, where I brooded in my office until I could hitch a ride to Bangalore in the faculty van. For comfort, I looked at the stupid schedules on the stupid BMTC website and saw that the stupid 212 is supposed to come at stupid 8:30. Who do I call??

Oh, right, nobody. I don’t speak Kannada.

Anyway, after the very kind Nishad, who also teaches here at IIJNM, showed me around his Bangalore neighborhood and we ate some delicious dosa, it was time to go home. But I hadn’t researched many city bus routes, so I got an autorickshaw to the central KR Market.

And may I just say wow.

You know those photos you always see of India? Of people people people everywhere and vendors lounging behind pyramids of pomegranates and cows and women in their saris and women in their burqas and everything in the world for sale and shoeless children and an inexplicable horse cart and trash and hawks looming over the butcher stalls and the odors. The odors! Jasmine and pee and curry and rotten meat and exhaust and BO and sandalwood and burning trash and bread baking and India. Just India.

Did I mention the crowds? I found myself buying a kilo of pomegranates and I’m not sure why except that I clearly had entered some sort of fugue state.

As for the buses, well, there were a bunch parked over here and a bunch idling over there and the nutso Bangalore traffic in between and the noise from the freeway flyover providing an overarching soundtrack to the rest of the noise and I loitered over here and shuffled around over there, crossing the road and then crossing it back and looking hopefully at each bus that came around the corner.

Finally, impulsively, I just got on one, handing the attendant 50 rupees, getting 20 back in change, and immediately regretting my decision. I didn’t even know where it was going! But because the universe is kind to idiots, it headed down Mysore Road, a road I actually know.

But then I panicked. What if it turned in a direction I wasn’t familiar with? Not that I’m familiar with any of them, really, but what if I ended up in, I don’t know, Calcutta?

So impulsively, I got off.

And then I sat at a bus stop on Mysore Road for about half an hour, considering my options. I could wait for a bus whose number and route I knew, but none of them came by. I could become a silent bus stop weeper, and that definitely was tempting. I could start walking, but the distance seemed daunting, maybe 15 miles.

Or I could just flag down an autorickshaw, even though I vowed I wouldn’t, even though I smugly told people that I Believe in Public Transportation, even though I wanted to be independent and self-sufficient and a cosmopolitan woman of the world.

Of course India had other ideas. I flagged down an auto and was vague enough about where I live that he agreed to take me there. Miles into the countryside he kept looking at me like “Here? How about here?”

“Just a little farther!” I kept trilling with a winning smile, pointing an indefinite finger in the direction of Just Up There.

Finally, after he sadly indicated what he’d never get another fare back into the city from that far in the countryside, I paid him double the meter – 500 rupees (about $7.75).

Fine. Fine! And a big fat whatever.

I’ll try again next Saturday.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

In Which I Have Some Roommates

It wasn't so much the frog, but the fact that he brought a friend. And the fact that they were lurking behind my bedroom door. And the fact that a sizable lizard and all his friends seemed to have joined them.

At least they eat the bugs.

In Which I Fail to Procure the TP

This is a little indelicate, and I apologize, but: I'm almost out of toilet paper.

I'm watching my single roll go inexorably down down down, despite my best efforts at moderation, and I'm not quite sure what I'm going to do about it. Maybe steal some from work? I feel like I'd be discovered, and "Toilet Paper Thief" doesn't seem like a label I want to acquire after just one week here.

I've tried buying some, but TP is weirdly hard to come by in the villages around the school. I discovered this when I sidled over to the little shop nearby and tried my very best to get some.

The store is run by a very nice lady that everyone calls akka, which means "sister" in Kannada. I don't actually know her real name, so I usually just stick my face directly in front of hers and start talking. Anyway, if I want eggs or laundry detergent or those insect repellent coils that will give you cancer, the smoke is so toxic (I bought two the other day), her little roadside shop is the place to go.

But I needed toilet paper. I felt sure she'd have it. Unfortunately, she doesn't speak English and so far I only speak about five words of Kannada, so communication can be a challenge. Mainly, I rely on my village idiot grin, an expression of pleading hopefulness and gestures so flamboyant that I automatically win every game of charades in the whole world for the next month.

Anyway, I approached akka's store and bent conspiratorially over her front counter.

"Paper?" I whispered, because it's embarrassing.

She gave me a blank look.

"Paper," I tried again, the tinsiest bit louder, and gave her a knowing nod.

Still nothing.

"Toilet paper," I suggested in a strained stage whisper. "Uh, WC? Bathroom? Washroom?"


Desperate, I curled my right index finger into a hook and frantically stabbed the air in the direction of my bottom: "Paper," I repeated. It was not my finest moment, I'll admit, but it did the trick. No dice, though.

Instead, I bought a fizzy apple drink and a package of cookies, slinking away with my sad consolation prize.

Maybe I can sneak into the students' dorms and steal some TP from there.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

In Which How Weird Is Too Weird?

When it comes to the taste of water, I mean.

Obviously I boiled it until half of it was evaporated, but it still tastes... odd. Maybe it's just a matter of getting used to new water. Indian water! And anyone who says water doesn't have a taste has never been to central Florida. Or Bangalore, apparently. This water definitely has a taste.

But too much of one? I've been contemplating each mouthful. And the electric kettle does have some sort of weird, mineral-looking grunge on the bottom, which I'm unable to scrape off.

So, ha ha, yep.

Maybe I'll just wander over to the village this afternoon and see about a new one.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

In Which Oh Good Grief, Not Again

I'm not saying it's the most pitiful thing in the world, but it certainly makes the list: the dorky, desperate hope that compels you to keep checking all the bags lurching past on the conveyor belt, even though you've checked them twice before.

Maybe third time's the charm! Maybe this time the navy blue suitcase that clearly isn't my navy blue suitcase will, um... magically be mine! Maybe it will contain all the stuff I'm generally indifferent to -- the 11 different iterations of breton-striped shirt, the mediocre hairbrush -- but now treasure with a fervor usually reserved for snake handling or fan fiction.

But nope, my suitcases decided to loiter in Frankfurt, for the pretzels and beer, apparently. Meanwhile, I arrived in Bangalore.

Unlike when I moved to China and my bags went missing for several days, however, this time I vowed to handle it with fewer tears and more equanimity. A man named Franklin is on the case, and when he told me that maybe my bags went to New Delhi, I did my best to smile beatifically. Who wouldn't want to go to Delhi? It's great there!

He said maybe they'd arrive tomorrow, but maybe not. Swell! I'll just toddle over to the village and buy a sari!

Welcome to India. I really am thrilled to be here.