Archive for the ‘India’ Category

dosa loop

Thursday, October 15th, 2009

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Dosa production in a narrow lane off the ghats in Varanasi, India continues throughout the day in a seemingly endless loop, accompanied by the endless loop of Hindu chant CDs playing in the next stall.

Good Morning

Friday, September 11th, 2009

Sant Kabeer Public School

Monday, April 13th, 2009

One of these causes is the Sant Kabir Public School in Agra. Nahim Ahmed is a barber at the S.K. Hair Sailoon in Agra, not far from the south gate of the Taj. We met during our first attempt at a surgical strike on Agra. I’d been warned: Agra is a tourist shithole. Agra is boring. Agra is a day trip at best. See the Taj and get out! The plan was beautifully choreographed, I thought. Arrive on an evening train, staying over one night, but gaining the advantage of a Taj visit before the tour busses arrive, with plenty of time to see the Fort, take a bus to Fatepur Sikri and back, and poke around Agra before catching the overnight train to Varanasi. Needless to say, it didn’t work out that way. The comedy of blunders, misunderstandings, hijinx and good-times-rolling hospitality that came next is detailed elsewhere, but in short, our train was cancelled and as one result we made friends with Nahim and his family. Not only did we spend about 52 hours on this day trip, but I bought instruments there and left them behind, so I came back through almost a month later for some more.

At the end, Nahim and his father Salim led me away from the family house about 20 yards down a narrow lane to a little schoolhouse. The lane was so narrow that flattened against the opposite wall, I could still only fit half the sign at a time in the frame of a photo.


Sant Kabeer


Public School

A small school house is inside – loosely termed, as there is no roof over most of the space. One office that doubles as a classroom, and a second classroom flank the short hallway, which leads to an open area partitioned into four more classrooms, three of which share a corrugated tin roof, and the rest is open. In the corner is a closed in pit toilet with a water fawcett on the outside wall. The classrooms are lined with wooden benches and numbered with chalk. The whole place is decorated with evidence of pedagogy- an English alphabet chart, a map of India, boxes of lesson books. In Room 2, twelve sheets of paper with letters written on them spell out “Eskerrik Asko” on the wall.

“Hello in Spanish!” Nahim told me, a greeting taught to the kids by a Spanish visitor. I told him it doesn’t say Hello in Spanish, and we were both quietly confused for a minute (turns out it’s Basque), then we sat on the empty benches and he told me the story of the school while his father brought me report cards to look over from the office.

Nahim dropped out of school in 1994 when his father was sidelined from his music career by diabetes. He gave up on his dream of becoming a doctor to take up a trade as a barber. He was wistfully pleased when I told him about the barber surgeons in western history, and went on to tell me that he wanted to do something to help other poor kids in Agra, so carefully saved his earnings at the barber shop and opened this school.

A kid sister appeared with a tray of chai and Salim sat with a proud formality behind Nahim as his son ran down his plans for the school for me. In the rainy season, the place is too wet to work, and the municipal water is hard (this I can vouch for, it was impossible to lather soap in the shower at my hotel and you come out smelling faintly of matches.) They want to put a proper roof on the place and sink a well for fresher water.
All this wound up into the pitch- anything I might do to help would be most appreciated. How much would a roof and well cost? Nahim calculated quickly in his head, 550,000 rupees, about $11,500. I explained that the best I could do would be try to tell people about the school project and perhaps they’d want to help. Maybe if I got a lot of work when I went home I could donate, but I had my net worth in my pocket.
They were perfectly gracious, but visibly disappointed. So I took pictures and recorded Nahim talking about it- maybe that would help publicize the cause.

In “In Spite of the Gods” Edward Luce talks about the terrible state of public education in India and the practice of establishing private schools among lower income families, especially Muslims, trying to get a leg up in society. Nahim’s venture certainly seems to fit a demographic pattern. Both days I was in Agra happened to be Hindu holidays, and classes had been cancelled, another common occurence in public life, even among non-Hindus. Judges evidently often close court for all religious holidays of all creeds, even optional and marginally observed ones.
So I feel the need to shelve my natural skepticism, one which throws up the image of a communally maintained empty space where anyone with a tourist on the line brings them by for a tour, a cup of chai, and an appeal for money. I told Nahim I’d spread the word, but that I wanted photos of kids in the classrooms, progress reports, that kind of thing.

Other questions come up as well. Though I’m a product of private education myself, as an adult I feel like I’d rather see efforts go to improving the public system, but in India things are very different, so different in fact that it didn’t really even hit me that this was a private school. In the same way that the homey, congenial conditions in the Ahmed family living room- which has two large looms and eight or ten happy young girls weaving and knotting carpet all day – this didn’t fit my picture of a child labor sweatshop. There’s an obvious difference between that and sewing soles on Nike sneakers. These are people doing what they can to get what they need, so I’m not sure I could say anything against it. Still, I’d like to know that the sister who brought the chai in might stand a chance at taking classes between her carpet weaving sessions.

I’m trying to help Nahim set up a blog so he can post photos and updates; anyone interested in more info or possibly helping this school can contact me here for updates.


The Touch

Wednesday, April 1st, 2009

AKA the pitch. That commercial moment that taints even the most congenial, hospitable interactions in India (There are of course many refreshing exceptions: Madan). At best confusing, and at worst, disillusioning and frustrating, it doesn’t take Amartya Sen to know where it’s coming from- hardly anybody you meet as a tourist has any money to speak of, and you show up, with your scraped together savings, your chance bargain ticket, your tight budget, clutching that LP guide with the budget accommodations bookmarked and ‘maybe?’ pencilled beside some of the midrange ones-you should have bought that here, you know- you could have had it for about a third of the price at most. You are no bare-footed, blond-dreadlocked amateur mendicant but you’re not rich either, but of course here you are. The bare-footed, blond-dreadlocked amateur mendicant is as likely as not killing 3-6 mos. backpacking while waiting for a trust-fund to mature, but never mind that for now.

Here you have money- in fact, you appear to shit the stuff. Almost literally. You will unquestioningly hand over 42 Rs for a roll of toilet paper. 42Rs. will buy even the greenest tourist ten samosas on the street. So it comes as no surprise that in addition to inflated asking prices and constant hawking, you are met with a sea of open hands hoping for a piece of the action, such as it is. It saddened me to see a toddler in Varanasi on the Ghats practicing perhaps his first word with me: “Bakshish?”

All this though comes as no surprise. Just as the “friends” tourists make are loosely defined- your new friend, who merely happens to live in this direction and is making conversation while escorting you to the fort/temple/museum/park/monument, suddenly remembering his uncle’s shop which is coincidentally on the way. But what of the real friends you make? After playing music with someone, sharing food with their family, absorbing costs, giving gifts and even patronizing their family’s or friend’s businesses, there is an inevitable moment where things get quiet and a strangely formal air arises. Extraneous characters disappear and your friend’s posture changes, adopting a stiffness you have not seen before, as the touch begins. The laundry list of ailments, misfortunes and needed renovations comes out, and though you have gotten the point across that renting freelancers have little extra to spend, you are asked for money. No love lost is if you can’t help out, there is still an unblemished hospitality (though I experienced some ugly moments with more passing casual meetings), but you come away a bit confused, and so do they.

One friend was visibly offended when he told me “No problem, I don’t care about money. You are my brother,” and I thanked him then made the stupid blunder of trying to explain that I had heard the exact words as an opening line from hawkers on the street. That this friend called me the day after I arrived home to ask if I had any money I might send yet did not disillusion me, it only made me think about the general subject more.

Apart from feeling a bit strapped by the trip itself a few things happened to tighten the wad while I was there. First, plunged into the local economy, it’s easy to forget that this meal or that hotel room only costs a buck or two. There’s also an egotistical competitive impulse that kicks in- bargaining not out of need or of perceived value, but simply to avoid being the rube. More broadly though, I slowly became aware that I could liqudate all my possessions, and those of every person I know, and still not make a dent in the overall economic picture in India. Maybe not an argument against the idea, but until my ship comes in it’s all I got. In any case, it came up a fair amount so I feel some responsibility weave into the blithe strands of exotic experience.


Jantar Mantar

Sunday, March 29th, 2009

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This is the sundial at the Jantar Mantar, the 18th century observatory in Jaipur. There’s a calculated offset posted every day- (38 minutes on January 21 when I shot this). A tour guide jumps in to explain the whole thing.

“…our watches they may be wrong but this watch cannot be wrong, sir, any season, winter, summer, spring, autumn, we can read the local time, sun time solar time…”

Nothing a rock and a stiff brush can’t fix

Monday, March 16th, 2009

Now that I’ve been home for a few laundry cycles, I’m even more impressed with Indian laundry. The scent of India that hangs most easily on clothes- that faintly barnyard undertone that’s present in even the most industrial, polluted areas- that sweet hay scent is long gone, but I can still smell the Indian laundry service on my clean clothes. It’s an organic smell, more like oats or wallpaper paste than soap. Maybe it’s just laundry starch, but I would have thought that would wash out. All I can say is, everywhere I went clothes came back carefully folded and wrapped in the largest item- usually a pair of jeans- and cleaner and crisper than anyplace I’ve ever done laundry, either self serve or drop-off. In Rishikesh, I saw a guy scrubbing away on one of the stone benches that lines the road from Swarg Ashram to Lakshman Jhula. Nothing a rock and a stiff brush can’t fix.

Line-drying on the Ghats by the Ganges, Varanasi


So Where Is The Damned Waterfall Anyway?

Tuesday, March 10th, 2009

Note: Later I passed this way with Bergen Moore who had a working odometer, last I saw of him.  The Garur Mandir is 3.3 km from the circle at the east end of the bridge, Lakshman Jhula. The pathway to the small waterfall is just behind the temple, leading up from this sign:

This is just to keep the crowds down.  They must mean inhabited. There’s a little house in past the first rise and nice people living in the woods.


Tuesday, March 10th, 2009

At about 4:30, I rode my fifty-pound rental bike out of Lakshman Jhula looking for the fabled waterfall 3 km out north of town. On the way out I met some friends on foot returning who’d walked for an hour and not found it. I was sure they just hadn’t gone far enough. The Lonely Planet couldn’t be inaccurate, could it? Anyway, I was on a bike, so it seemed easy enough to prove them wrong before sunset. I grossly overestimated the speed of a fifty pound bike, but I still thought I could do it, and happily pedaled off up the road, which winds along about a hundred meters above the Ganges. Half an hour later, I hadn’t found anything that looked like a waterfall or a path to a waterfall except a trickle of water crossing the road at one point. Here I asked two Indian guys on a motorbike, who said it was further on, but why would I want to go there now, when it would be dark soon? It suddenly occured to me they were right- the steep cliffs I was admiring of course meant that it would feel darker sooner, but I didn’t really care because it’s such a beautiful mountain ride.

I pressed on for a bit, then hesitated at the top of a long slow decline, thinking of the return trip without the benefit of multiple gears. In fact, I could picture it, as a guy on a nearly identical bike huffed as he cranked up towards me. Halfway up he had to dismount and walk the rest of the hill. I nodded to him and he nodded back, his face mostly covered by a gray balaclava wrapped in a dingy gold wool scarf. I asked him in Hindi where the waterfall was, and he did a hilarious double-take, nearly dropping his bike. “You speak Hindi!” he said, then he launched into an detailed explanation of where the falls were, plus another larger one further on, all in rapid Hindi. Oddly, though I only barely speak a few phrases of Hindi, I understood him perfectly as he told me the entrance to the path for the first waterfall was behind the temple in the second village I would come to, and about 1km above the road. I should not leave my bike unattended and why the hell did I want to go up there now, when it was almost dark?

Ok, I said. I’ll go tomorrow. I just wanted to see how far it was. I asked his name and what he did. Madan, (which with his accent sounds like Modern) is the puja wallah at the Garur Mandir- the temple by the path to the waterfall. I’m not sure what a puja wallah is- most ceremonies I’ve seen are run by young priests, but I guess in a small temple it’s kind of like the caretaker.

Madan asked if I smoked. I looked down as I said no, and saw that he already had two bidis out, extended towards me. He was crestfallen, actually slouching in response, so I said thanks and took one. He cheered right up as he lit us both up and I took that first weedy puff, ready to enjoy a little headrush and a chat in the mountain air, dismissing the memory of the palm-reader in Jaipur who looked up from my hand with a grave expression and told me I should never smoke. But Madan hopped on his bike and called out, “Jalo!” as he pushed off from the crest where we met, towards Rishikesh, with his smoke sticking out of his mouth.

Well all right then. I scrambled to get on my bike before he was out of sight. Smoke and ride, might as well face up to the contradictions. The saddle is a lot bigger than I’m used to, so I slammed my knee on it in my haste. The Jaipur palm reader, had also told me to take care of my knees- they are my weak spot. I thought about this as I easily overtook Madan. Not terribly worried about the smoking warning, as I can’t really stand it regularly, but point taken.

We rode through a small troop of langurs on the road, who I yelled at to beat it, in Hindi, just to show off and entertain Madan. He scolded me though. “Hanumanji!” he called out, then gestured to the forest reaching up the cliffs on either side of the river. “This Hanuman forest” he said in his first English sentence to me. “These Hanuman friend.”

For the rest of the ride, Madan compared my ‘very nice’ bike to his, which needs 200Rs. of work, which he demonstrated by kicking his pedal loose then back into place. Nearly all of my conversations with locals took this financial swerve towards the end, and this one was pretty gracefully done. I pulled out some cash and stopped him before we parted company, but he refused it with a wave of his hand and rode off to the market. The next day, I found the waterfall and saw him again at the temple. I invited him to take a glass of chai with me, but he said he was going to town again, let’s get it there. We rode a second time, and again he refused to take anything, chai or money. I saw him a couple of times on trips out of town, and he showed me the temple, offered me some sweet coconut that was there for offering, and seemed earnestly unconcerned whether I donated or reciprocated.

The day before I left, I stopped in on him one last time, on my way back from swimming in the Ganges up at Phoolchatti. I went into the temple again and he told me that Garur, the eagle god, is Vishnu’s ride, basically. I asked if he had anything to do with travel in general, since I was flying home in a couple of days. Maybe, he said, but mostly general well-being for me and my family, and possibly some cosmic endorsement for a return trip. If I wanted to leave a donation, Madan promised to offer some chappatis to Garur the next day. Which he must have done because I had an incredibly smooth return flight.

Coming Down

Thursday, February 19th, 2009

The sight of the small brown silo, three-quarters full of aquamarine capsules in the flat field of green of my kitchen table this morning, triggered an odd thought that the dwindling supply of doxycyline somehow marks the daily fade of the experience of India. I’m back, but not completely, as long as I’m still taking medicine I took for the trip. Taking it at this point feels more like extending the trip by its habits than a real necessity- though the cloud of mosquitoes in my room at the India Guest House the last two nights is enough motivation.

Kind of mundane as drug experience metaphors go, but there it is. And something else about returning feels like coming down. Maybe it’s just the lack of sensory over-stimulation and intricate cultural differences, but NY seems kind of shabby and dull, weird for a place with all the hustle and self-important intensity. It’s already faded to a mundane level, but the first day home, I walked the streets on the verge of laughter, sort of gloriously mystified by the letdown, and not a little smug about the fussy appearance of peoples clothes and gadgets. And something about walking around my neighborhood felt like visiting someplace like Berkeley or Boston, someplace I used to live.

I am reluctant to wash the sneakers that just over a week ago I considered burning, or the laundry which is still in a heap on my bedroom floor. I’m not quite ready to part with the burlap, vaguely barnyard scent I didn’t know I was carrying around with me. Though really this is out of a different type of conservation, as the real dwindling this week is cash. The forty bucks I came home with is now seven, and somehow doing laundry for as much to run one wash cycle as as it costs to have a full week of load washed pressed and folded in India doesn’t rate.

Clinging to the sedimentary residue that is clinging to me. I went to India for a bunch of reasons, and the longer I’m back, the more it feels like it wasn’t long enough, and I’m not sure if I even got any of what I was looking for. Still, something happened, and I’m vaguely aware that seeds were planted. So while I finish my medicine and figure out where March’s rent is coming from, I’ll sort through the other piles- photos, movies, audio – in the scenes, stories, comments below.

Free Fall

Saturday, January 10th, 2009

I woke up in free fall- a more cosmopolitan, intercontinental version of that jolt you sometimes get, twitching awake with the feeling you’d just been dropped from six inches above the mattress. The twitch in this case was not a muscle spasm, but first of a long series of air pockets buffeting the plane roughly along like a kid batting a balloon across a living room. Routine stuff, nothing scary, but on a quiet plane where I seemed to be the only one awake, a little eerie.

It was about 3AM—not sure whose 3AM, but it felt like mine. A steady stream of air potholes jolted me wider awake, so I flipped on my MP3 player- and looked for Scott Walker’s Nite Flights, a sucker for program music. Somehow it was missing, but the Bowie version was there so I put it on and looked out the window at the black void below us. The monitor embedded in the seat in front of me showed a map with an animated avatar of Swiss Air 53 just south of Ireland. Elevation 30,000 feet. Ground speed- 850 km/hour. Outside air temperature – 84 degrees F.

Just as I read this, Bowie howled: It’s so cold

I never know what the fuck Scott Walker’s lyrics mean, and sometimes I feel like my inner music supervisor is pushing it with the references and resonances, but this was as satisfying as if the song had been playing on auto shuffle or something, so I started it over and scanned the map and looked out the window, but all you could see was shreds of cloud catching in fleeting gray streaks on the wing.

there’s no hold
the moving has come through
the danger brushing you
turned its face into the heat
and runs the tunnels

it’s so cold
the dark dug up by dogs
the stitches torn and broke
the raw meat fist you choke
has hit the bloodlight

glass traps open and close on nite flights
broken necks
feather weights press- the walls
be my love
we will be gods on nite flights
with only one promise
only one way to fall

The flight monitor is as morbid as my inner music supervisor. Besides the basic geography and ocean topography, there are x-marked spots strewn all over the Atlantic marking the sites of historic shipwrecks: Andrea Doria 1956, Titanic, 1912, etc. I’m not squeamish, but why the hell would you put this on an in-flight monitor? Now showing on entertainment channel 1: Airport 77. Channel 2: Airplane. Channel 3: Alive!

Most every airport I can think of suffers in comparison to Zurich, where I spent my three hour layover so it isn’t really fair to talk about Zurich and Delhi together, but I have to say that Zurich airport, is not only a fantastic place, but an excellent palate cleanser before five weeks of sensory overload. Camel-sponsored smoking booths quarantine indoor smokers in stylish little Scandinavian looking saunas that faintly smell of smoke just outside and minimalist public art that fits the big emptiness of the space really nicely. I took advantage of the bathrooms for what would probably be cleanest and mos comfortable situation for quite awhile and sat in the waiting area to marvel at the general mood of peace. No need for Music for Airports here, the gentle sound of shoes on stone, murmuring conversation, and absence of programmed sound except the sparse, occasional bong of a chime in a descending minor-third interval followed by a civilized, congenial voice beginning “Damen und Herren…” All this is really nice to listen to alone, without CNN, or a layer of airport smoothjazz on top.

About 18 hours later I landed in Delhi. Before the hatch even opened, I could smell that smell everybody talks about. My cousin told me of a friend who was struck by the aroma on arrival but who could no longer smell it when she left, so I was sucking it in like I was at a wine tasting to store it up for later. It took me several days to parse the various notes: full-bodied humidity, with a complex nose of predominantly diesel exhaust and wood smoke. Endless finish, differing each time, with hints of incense and food, occasionally eclipsed by lurid flashes of excrement and urine- especially in crowded public areas. This is different from the sweeter barnyard undertone, sort of a combination of manure and hay that is present but barely detectable throughout, most noticeable on worn clothes after bathing, or at home weeks later. In the airport, it is mainly humid diesel, but my newly arrived nose was imagining all the rest, trying to impose a ceremonial quality, though it was mostly just pollution, I think.

DEL, in addition to the smell, has dreary fluorescent lighting, mysterious silty puddles on the floor, and bored looking military personnel yawning over their rifles. Immigration proceeded wordlessly and without incident, then I found my bag, which I was convinced would be lost, unattended in a pile of others in the middle of the floor by the baggage claim. Nobody watching it, but no sweat either, I took it and headed out, past the money declaration booth and some armed guards who I expected would be more of a nuisance on the way out. I had nothing but 155 rupees that a friend had handed me left over from her trip. It would have been fine to show up at the hotel without even that, I figured out later, but not knowing, I waited on line to exchange a little cash, figuring on getting a better rate somewhere else later. The Thomas Cook attendant yawned and told me I didn’t want to use them, they’d charge a fee. He pointed me kindly to the Punjabi Bank, who gave me like 1860 Rs for my 40 bucks. I asked for a receipt, which he told me would cost a 100 Rs. I’d read it was crucial to have a receipt to prove you were exchanging and not earning money in India, and you couldn’t buy train tickets or change money back on the way out. This may be a selectively enforced rule, but I never ran across it. Still, I stuck with the principle throughout, and balked at any and all service charges the whole trip, even for petty amounts (20Rs), and everyone always backed down, with the exception of the Punjabi Bank teller. I refused him and he gave my money back. I went back to Thomas Cook, ten feet away and asked the friendlier guy there, who had watched the whole transaction.

“Oh they charge a fee for a receipt, but not for the transaction. We charge for both. You don’t want to change your money here” I looked at him quizzically, but he didn’t break. He nodded over his shoulder across the floor from where we stood.
“SBI. State Bank of India”
Thanks buddy. Not sure why he didn’t want my business, but I appreciated the lack of hard sell, and went to join the line. Of course this was the one to use, it’s the only one with a long line, at 1AM. We waited for a long time while something went on between the teller and some Northern European Hare Krishnas in full saffron cheesecloth regalia. Evidently the color of their money was not much more convincing, and we all waited for a half hour while they discussed it. I anticipated this for all dozen of us, but after the Aryan Krishna unit moved on, we all passed through quickly, despite that there was one teller on duty and four or five more idly looking on, coming in and out with lunch boxes, chai, and filling water bottles from a water cooler held together with duct tape. I was thirsty, but I waited.

I took my money and went through the gauntlet of drivers, piled one on top of the other along railings for a hundred feet or so on both sides with placards. None had my name so I figured being an hour or more late, that he’d left. That’s fine, I saw the pre-paid taxi booth, and was not being swarmed by beggars and pick-pockets, so I felt like I could handle it. I had splurged on the hotel’s 500 rupee pick-up service, not knowing what to expect other than extreme fatigue. Lonely Planet fosters undue paranoia about taxi scams, I found. Find out a reasonable price ahead of time,
stand your ground, and be patient. For 500 Rupees, I could have had 2 round-trip taxi rides. Or one and a good meal, and a teenaged prostitute. But who knew?

Before I took a cab, I decided on one more pass through the gauntlet, if I had missed my guy, I didn’t want to be held accountable later if I didn’t take the ride. I walked back in and out, around a guard who was about to tell me to beat it but suddenly decided I was ok. I read every sign carefully this time, ignoring the self-consciousness amid the stares and chuckles I was getting. At the end of the second side, I saw one card on the floor, with nobody holding it, reading “John Heath: Vivek Hotel” I pointed to it and a few drivers nearby shrugged, then one gestured behind the crowd and a kid came running up and shook my hand. Vinny.

“First time in India?” I heard for the first of probably a hundred thousand times. Hadn’t yet learned to say no, of course not, been here many times, just never this store/street/town/city. Just the same his “Welcome to India” felt genuine. He took my bag and led me outside, where the crowd gets a little hairier, but not impassable in the middle of the night. Probably quite a scene out here in the daytime. Drivers mobbed me and I was glad to already have one. As we passed a western girl in terrible shape, smoking a cigarette and staring into a corner, with no bags, she looked like a junkie hooker if I’ve ever seen one, though who knows what she was hoping to accomplish at the cab stand of New Delhi airport at 2AM on a Sunday morning. Vinny winked at me and said “looks nice!¦you like?” Funny how close earnestness and irony can sound. He led me away asking what I did and when I said “music”, he responded:
“Oh, I like music. I give you tep?” I figured he meant tape, so I said sure, I’d like to hear it, but he shook his head annoyed. “Tep, tep, money! Baksheesh!” Um. I clarified his non-sequitur request, that I give him a tip, and he cheered up.
“Yes! I like money. You give me some money, I am happy” He asked if I had USD on me, and I lied that I did not, out of caution.

In the lot we found a car and he woke up someone inside- Antoine, I thought, sleeping there since 10PM! But no, it was another Indian kid- the driver. They drove me around Metro construction detours that got me too turned around to follow a map- even with the compass my friend Deborah had given me for the trip, so I sat back and hoped for the best, through miles and miles of desolate long avenues which reminded me kind of West Oakland. They ignored me, so I calculated a fair tip and sounded out Hindi letters on signs, amused to find that I’d slowly decipher a sign to find it was transliterated English. Delhi Metro.

We pulled into a dusty lane with a few straggling kids burning stuff in small heaps, and rows of metal-shuttered shops. A cow lay in the dirt at a fork in the road, and I naively marveled at it. We parked and I tipped Vinny – 100 Rs. He looked at this 20% tip like I’d spit in his hand. I thought was too much for one surely, and maybe even for two, but it was 2AM and I’d kept him waiting but his reaction woke me up. How about the driver, Vinny indicated with a gesture? I said that was for both of them, masking a confusing mix of guilt and indignance.

“That is not good. Very cheap Very bad tip”

Not for the last time, I felt a mix of feeling as complex as the varying details of the aromas I smelled. Not for the last time, I decided to stick to my cheapskate guns, letting his ire fuel my response. I told him that’s too bad, and we went inside. I expected to hear more about it, but as soon as I started checking in, he disappeared, my first hint that my instinct was a trustworthy guide in these matters.

Antoine appeared from somewhere in the dark lobby and greeted me, smelling reassuringly of soap. There was a shower or bath at the end of the tunnel. The porter turned on the electricity for the lift, and we made it upstairs, to a funny little room with curtained windows and an air conditioner that looked like it might just as easily house chickens as an AC. A hollow, wood-slatted cage mounted in a wall looked past an inner fan to the courtyard of the hotel. The manufacturer’s tag on it read “Citizen: 100% Satisfaction, 0% Worry” If it were hotter than 68 degrees F, I’d dispute those numbers, but for a first photo op of the trip, very accurate.

A squatting bath was the only bathing option-spouts in the wall fill a 5-gallon bucket intended for bathing a little pail at a time. The water was frigid, I’d have to wait until morning for the porter to bring up a hot bucket, so I took some melatonin and went to sleep for four hours to the soundtrack of the gurgling toilet and the live spatter of water in the corner of the bathroom- the sink drain is just a pipe that empties directly onto a drain in the floor, where the tilted floor also leads the bath water.