Thursday, February 24, 2011

Down the Rabbit Hole

Do you ever feel like you’ve wandered through the looking glass, fallen down the rabbit hole into an Alice-in-Wonderland sort of world where nothing is quite what it seems?  I have that feeling a lot in India.

It’s a topsy-turvy world here, where many things I take for granted either don’t exist or are present in such an altered form that they’re barely recognizable. 

What kinds of things, you ask?  Well, take restaurants, for example; I take for granted most places I go that I will walk into a restaurant, be approached by a waitperson who wants to sell me food and drink, and who’s eager to lavish attention on me in the hopes of getting a good tip. 

Here?  Not so much.  I’ve practically had to tackle waiters (they’re always men, never women) to get them to bring me a menu, take my order, bring me another drink or the bill.  I could sit for hours staring at them and they’d never actually come over to me unless I specifically motion them over.  Going out for dinner can take hours even if they get your order right the first time (a big “if”).  I tried an experiment in a cafe yesterday, walking in and sitting down without flagging a waiter; I was curious to see how long I would sit there before he deigned to come over to me.  After an hour and a half (spent surfing on the cafe`s free Wi-Fi), I concluded that it was never going to happen.

I take the whole hotel-room-booking process for granted too.  I assumed, when I went looking for a place in Varkala, that I could say, “I’d like a room starting such-and-such a date” and that I’d have to give them an end date as well.  Nope.  They wouldn’t promise me a room starting the next night, even if they had one free, in case someone showed up that same day and wanted it (I guess the notion of renting it to that someone just for a night didn’t occur to them); when I said I didn’t know how long I’d want to stay that didn’t appear to be an issue, I just have to tell them the day before I want to leave. 

I already wrote about my life as a rock star in this upside-down world; I have yet to walk down a street without anyone staring at me and my picture will be gracing more photo albums on Indian coffee tables that I can shake a stick at.  Small children in particular find me endlessly fascinating, if a little strange and scary; they don’t know what to make of this tall pale creature with the oddly-coloured hair.

Then there’s plumbing.  I expected that there’d be a lot of squat toilets around, and there are.  But there’s a lot of other stuff that I can’t quite get a handle on:  why the shower head is always in the middle of the bathroom (never a separate stall) so that you get the entire room wet when showering; what the inevitable buckets in the corner are for; why there’s never any toilet paper even in the “Western-style” toilets; how you’re supposed to dry yourself off if (in lieu of said toilet paper) you use the hose thing on the wall (kind of a handheld bidet) to clean up.

Electricity too — I take for granted that if I want to turn on a light or the ceiling fan or the air-conditioning that I flip a switch and things happen.  If it doesn’t work and there’s no electricity, it’s usally something major that has gone wrong:  a transformer’s failed, power lines have been knocked down in a storm, or (most memorably) the entire grid has blacked out across all of eastern Canada and the U.S.  Here?  Not so.  Brownouts happen, all the time; here in Varkala it’s been at least twice a day and frequently more.  

No one gets excited about them; sometimes the hotel or restaurant or whatever has a backup generator and things flicker back to life, sometimes not.  Everyone just waits patiently for the power to come back and life carries on as usual; I’m guessing that there’s more demand than there is capacity in this country and at least some of the brownouts are deliberate to manage supply.  So flicking that switch isn’t necessarily going to make anything happen at any given moment.

Going to the beach is another through-the-looking-glass moment.  Any white woman showing any amount of skin at all is instantly subjected to the same attention as, say, a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model (even those of us with quite modest attire); Indian women invariably go into the water fully clothed in saris, if they go in at all.  There’s no in-between; you’re either an object of intense fascination and probably a Jezebel/Western slut or you’re a modest and self-effacing “proper” woman.

[Men don’t get treated the same way, of course.  They get to uncover a lot more; I even saw a few in Speedos on the beach, which is never a good idea, anywhere, and in fact ought to be against the law unless you have the body of, say, an Olympic swimmer (who are allowed — in fact encouraged — to show as much skin as they please).  Most Indian men in Varkala wear dhotis — a length of cotton fabric knotted around their waists — in lieu of shorts or pants; if they get too hot, they just fold it in half and tuck in the ends so it becomes a knee-length garment.  Women don’t get to do the same with their saris.]

Sunscreen’s another thing.  Since I have ancestors who hailed from cold grey northern climes (Ireland and Scotland, mainly), I don’t have sun-friendly skin so I go through litres of the stuff.  I take for granted that I can find it wherever I go, even if I will be mocked by the locals for the amount of it I use; I remember being told in Italy to slather on olive oil instead before sitting out in the sun so I’d get some colour.  (Yeah — deep-fried crispy Carol, that would be an attractive sight.)  They never mocked me in Oz for using ridiculously high SPFs, as they get the concept there (well, considering all the first “settlers” were from the same neck of the woods as my ancestors, there are lots of pale Celtic types with skin that doesn’t cope with the sun any better than mine).

Here in India, I can find sunscreen for sale, which pleasantly surprised me; it’s hard to find in some parts of the world where people are naturally darker than me.  But Indian sunscreen exists, I’ve discovered, not for protection against skin cancer or ageing, but for social status; whiter skin is prized over darker, and sunscreens often have “whitening” cream added and promise to “improve fairness”.  They won’t just stop you getting any darker, they’ll actually make you lighter.  Hmmm.   If I use one of these, I might actually become translucent.

Then there’s illicit substances.  India is (nominally at least) a conservative society, and some towns go so far as to make alcohol, not just drugs, illegal in their vicinity.  But here’s the rabbit-hole twist:  those seem invariably to be the towns where it’s easiest to procure the stuff and where you’re most likely to be offered it.  Pushkar, in theory, is a dry town as it is considered a sacred place for Hindus, yet if you walk along the main street at night you’ll be quite brazenly offered cold beer to entice you into shops, and you can order “bhang” (marijuana) in your lassi or buy yourself some hash.  Here in Varkala, many of the restaurants aren’t technically licensed, but they’ll still serve you alcohol — just wrapped discreetly in newspaper and poured into a coffee mug (I’m sure the cops never see through that ruse, ever).  This, despite the huge sign out front advertising "Kingfisher beer -- the King of Good Times".

And don’t even get me started on shopping.  I’m not a shopper at heart; I tend to go shopping (other than for shoes) only when I need something and with a clear idea of what I want, so that I can just walk into a store, buy it, and leave again.  It’s not a recreational pastime for me;  I shop like a straight man.  Here?  It’s an ordeal, no matter what you’re buying.  I walk into a shop and am instantly swarmed by salespeople thrusting goods at me; unlike Canada (where they will acknowledge you politely but leave you alone thereafter if you like, until you need their help), or the UK (where they pretty much just ignore you), salespeople never let you just look around in peace. 

And there’s the endless haggling:  I expected before I came that I’d have to haggle if I wanted to buy souvenirs or clothes or whatnot, and I do.  I didn’t know that I’d have to haggle for pretty much everything, from rickshaw rides (no taxi meters here) to taking a yoga class to renting a room for the night to buying sunscreen.  It’s only restaurants that have fixed prices, and hey, maybe you can even haggle there; I just haven’t tried because I get so fed up with the whole concept.

But this is all starting to seem normal to me, now.  When I get back home, waitstaff in restaurants are going to seem inordinately pushy and in-your-face; salespeople in clothing stores will seem very rude for ignoring me.  Going to the beach or walking down the street and being completely ignored — no paparazzi in sight! — will be very deflating, as I realize I’m no longer exotic and enthralling.  Having someone expect me just to pay the price they ask, without being willing to negotiate, will seem exceedingly inflexible.

But that’s a month away, yet.  For now, just call me Alice.  In Wonderland.


  1. Love it!
    Next time I want to know anything about foreign travel, I'll go ask Alice.

  2. Ooh, I forgot one bizarre thing I meant to include -- here, in Varkala where it's 35+ C during the day and really, really humid, there's a shop that sells NorthFace-style jackets, fleeces and ski pants. Hmmm ... for people who are going trekking in the Himalayas after lazing at the beach? (sounds like the wrong way around, I think ...)