Sunday, February 7, 2016

In Which the Sheep Went for a Ride

So, I was heading into the city in the faculty van one afternoon when I glanced over at the two men on a motorcycle next to me.

Or rather, I glanced at the sheep splayed between them.

The men's attitude was that this is business as usual. The sheep seemed resigned, its gray face registering an expression of "So this is happening."

And then off the trio went to who knows where.

I really love it here.

In Which it Seemed Like the Right Bus

Naturally, I was carrying 12 pounds of guavas in a plastic bag.

It might not have been so bad otherwise, but a punishing amount of semi-ripe fruit just makes an unplanned nighttime trek seem insulting. I was feeling judged. Like, who the hell is this ridiculous fruit to be mocking me? I'd like to see it get on the correct bus.

So, I'd gotten on the wrong bus. And not only that, I'd done it blithely, to the point of smugness: Yes! Finally! The Devegere bus! I'd be spared getting off in Nalakhamba and walking the mile back to campus. Which was especially nice on account of, you know, the guavas.

As the 229 bus pulled into the Kengeri bus station, where I was sitting on a bench with my guavas on my lap, and the conductor called out, "DevegereDevegereDevegere," I leaped for the bus door. Hooray! I never manage to catch the 229!

Turns out I should have clarified if he meant Devegere Colony, where I live, or Devegere village, where I do not.

But did I ask? Of course not. I sat down - there miraculously was an open seat! - and beamed in a self-satisfied manner as I handed over my 19 rupees fare.

Oh, it was a convivial ride! Zig-zagging down Mysore Road, the bus glowed from the inside with an aquarium radiance as it weaved through the inky night. The balmy evening air tumbled in through the open windows, bringing with it an India perfume of highway dust and burning trash and incense. I closed my eyes and turned my face into it, not thinking about much at all besides my guavas.

Have I mentioned that I live in the countryside? And that it's quite dark out here?

Anyway, I wasn't paying attention, is the point. But when the bus zipped past the road where it usually turns to go to Nalakhamba, I thought, "Wait a sec..." I've seen the 229 - or a 229, at least - drive directly past my apartment, so shouldn't this bus... ?

Meanwhile, we boldly charged down a road I'd never been before.

I cast a furtive look back over my shoulder at the conductor. He appeared inscrutable, so I didn't know what he was playing at.

A quick glance over my other shoulder and I saw that the women behind me were beaming. At me. In amusement/pity: piusement. Great.

"Um?" I asked no one in particular, pointing a sad inchworm finger at the road up ahead. "Devegere?"

Several women nodded, and smiled even bigger.

"I don't think I live there," I explained helpfully.

"Village," one of the ladies said.

"Oh," I sighed. "Colony?"

Nope. They shook their heads in piusement, and I offered a "What can you do? Oh, wellllll" shrug that I really wasn't feeling. Ha. Ha ha. Got on the wrong bus again! Whoopsy daisy!


A mile or two later and the bus stopped in Devegere village. So I got off. I looked hopefully to my left, thinking maybe I could spot the school that's up the hill from mine and thus orient myself, but nothing doing. The bus took off and I stood there in the dark with my guavas.

Across the narrow village road I spotted a lady who works at the school, so I waved merrily. Hi! Don't mind me! Just out for my evening constitutional with a bunch of fruit in a bag! She smiled and pointed behind her to a doorway glowing friendly yellow, and I assumed that was her home.

"What a lovely home!" I enthused in English, giving her a big A-OK sign. "Beautiful! So, so nice! OK, I'm just going to, um... walk home now! Bye-bye!"

And I strove for a jaunty, devil-may-care stride as I headed up the dusty shoulder, navigating by the light of the moon. Out of sight of the village, I alternated between a self-pitying shuffle and a "why is nothing ever easy???" stomp. It turns out defeat and rage are a potent fuel for forward momentum. I alternated the bag between hands every so often so it could do some equal opportunity digging into the flesh of my palms.

Finally, I came to the road I recognized, where my usual bus usually turns. Onward I stomped, my false pride not allowing me to ditch the guavas, staring straight ahead in white-lipped, homicidal focus. It was while I was in this mien that a kid on a white scooter pulled up on the roadside opposite me and asked if I needed a ride.

Keeping in mind that it was dark and I was alone and I don't speak the language and this was among the stupider ideas I'd had in a while.

"Sure," I said. "Thanks."

I swung a leg over the back and secured the stupid guavas on my lap, pointing him in the direction of campus and my apartment. And delightful thing that he is, he took me straight there and dropped me off with wishes that I'd have a better night. I gave him two guavas.

And I forsook all 229 buses forever.*

*Except for the next week, when I actually did catch the correct one.

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.