Good God ... we finally made it to India!
But, a last chirp or two from Alf before Tilman has her say:
And, one more air disaster:
And a couple of useful links for those in the market:
Now ... on with the India show ... with Tilman as your M.C.!
"India really is about the people, isn't it?"
Alf, Annie, and I left early this morning from Le Parc Hotel in Paris and caught an easy ride to the Orly airport, where we quickly found Elisabeth waiting for us. We boarded our short flight to London, where we would catch our connecting flight to Madras. Now, the first thing you should know about me is that I hate to fly, especially in what I consider to be small planes (anything smaller than a DC-10), and for short distances. Nonetheless, Annie and I situated ourselves comfortably, safe with the knowledge that we'd have plenty of room since the flight was nearly empty. Oooh, no, here came two women, who, taking their seat assignments very seriously, moved in on us and jammed us into a corner. Confident that they would move once they realized that we were an island in a sea of empty of seats, Annie and I waited patiently for them to move. It dawned on us as we began taxiing onto the runway that we were the ones who should have moved, and huddled close together, we began to giggle our way over the English Channel, much to the chagrin of the woman seated so close to us.
Little did we know that this would prepare us for the second leg of our journey to India. From the get-go, we started out with middle seats far away from one another. We tried to endear ourselves to the woman at the gate, but she would have none of it, explaining that this was a VERY full flight. I actually wasn't so sad with my spot, because I was tucked in the bowels of the plane and could pretend that I was at a really bad movie theater. My only complaint was that my neighbor constantly feigned sleep when I tried to get out on the aisle to hook up with Annie, making my escape one that a contortionist would have admired.
Annie did end up on an aisle, but at a heavy price, for her aisle mate was an incessantly nasty man, who didn't hesitate to remark to Annie when he noticed she didn't finish her lunch, that she should be ashamed given how many hungry people there are in India. You should have seen her face when he said that to her. We did pass the time with regular jogs around the plane and one royal visitation to First Class to visit with Alf and Elisabeth tucked into their British Airways pods.
We landed in India at 3:00 AM, and then were swiftly transported to the first of our many hotel stops, the Taj Coromandel. Even at that hour, the streets were already busy with small, unsteady shops shining their bright lights on people bathing, eating, sleeping, walking, and biking. It was our first inclination of how busy these streets would be during the light hours of the day.
Given that we went right to sleep upon our arrival, our first clear glimpses of Madras were the next morning, when we wound our way down to the beautiful lobby of the Taj Coromandel. What better way to start this adventure off, but to eat, so we headed to the Indian restaurant for a huge lunch which consisted of lots of curry, deep fried prawns, spicy lobster and Tandori chicken. We were about to leave full and happy, when a plate was placed on our table which contained four pouches of "breath freshener". The waiters had been so solicitous and kind, that it was hard to turn them down, but all of us did except for Elisabeth, who popped the whole thing into her mouth. The rest of us were digging under the table getting our things together to meet our tour guide in the lobby, so when we saw Elisabeth zipping towards the door, we thought she was just anxious to get going. Little did we know that the sumptuous morsel she had just eaten was so foul, that she knew she had to get rid of it quickly. Being the gracious, French lady that she is, she opted to run to our sixth floor rooms, shoo out the cleaning staff, and deposit her unwanted wad of what she later likened to air freshener into the toilette. The three of us quickly agreed that had it been us, we would have never made it out of our seats before, at best sneaking it into a napkin and tucking it under the cushion, where it could freshen the air for the remainder of the year, and at worst, spewing the palette cleanser all over the room.
We finally found Elisabeth and hooked up with our tour guide for the day, Girija, who was a spitfire of a woman. We were finally in the streets of Madras during daylight, and even though Girija wanted us to listen to her lectures, we couldn't keep our eyes off the vibrant streets, filled with colorful saris and offbeat, western-inspired signage. Our first stop was the National Art Gallery, where we were able to familiarize ourselves with 10th, 11th, and 12th century gods and goddesses. It took us a few minutes to fully understand that not only were we allowed to touch the merchandise, but to fully appreciate the sensual nature of the deities, we were encouraged to caress the bronze figures. Yes, I said caress; maybe even grope a little. We all tried to look so natural as Girija guided our hands slowly over each curve. Oh boy, did we have a lot to learn about Hindu ways.
Next we went to Fort Saint George, which was the original English colony in the area. Given that we were now on British territory, we were told to keep our hands to ourselves. There would be no caressing here. Whereas the National Museum housed beautiful art, most of what we found left behind here was a collection of weaponry and ridiculously pompous ensembles better left in Britain.
With that duty fulfilled, Grijia livened up again and explained that we would be going to a local Hindu temple, called the Mylapore Temple. She explained that this was a busy, working temple, not a tourist temple, and since it was Sunday, we would have a chance to see many families there, worshipping and playing in the different courtyards and shrines. The first thing we noticed was how gracious people were about being photographed. By now, most of you are familiar with Annie's photographs, and she is in heaven in India, because she has no qualms about sticking her long lens into people's religious business. I must admit that I just follow her around, copying what she is doing, so I only egg her on. We were allowed to photograph everything except one area where only Hindus are allowed. Therefore, we were mortified when we saw Annie being tossed from this inner sanctum, ending up in a pile of cameras and film, but with an all knowing smile which told us that she got the perfect picture. After this, Girija stepped up the tour a little bit, hoping to avoid any other mishaps and guided us to the wishing tree, where people tie knots onto the tree to wish for a spouse or child. (They also return if their wish is granted, with offerings to thank the Gods for their good fortunes.) This tree was closely located to the Astrological shrine, which is a critical stop for anyone wanting to get married. Hindus believe that the stars and planets guide people together, and that it's important to pray to the seventh planet, Saturn, to find the perfect mate. I'll leave it to all of you to imagine the jokes that went flying through that shrine as we circled our obligatory nine times.
It was at this point that Girija decided that we had done enough damage to the local Hindu population, so she carted us off to the nearest Catholic church, where she hoped we'd at least know how to behave. She introduced St. Mary's church to us by saying it would be the first time we would see Jesus standing on a lotus flower, flanked by two peacocks, and fully clothed. The church was rockin' when we arrived, with a sitar-based disco beat and lights to match. Once again, Annie found herself in the inner sanctum, this time following a group of missionary nuns so she could get closer to the altar to provide you a photo of the man himself. Oops!, as if on cue, just as Annie was about to click the shutter, every single nun sat down, leaving Annie in quite the pickle. With nowhere to hide, she began what looked like a cross between a Shiva dance and the Hustle to the nearest exit. It was now time for Girija's revenge.
Oh, how we needed the Erickson girls (Christy, Patty, and Lisa) for this next expedition. How naïve we were to think that we could just walk into a shop and know what we were doing. After working the Nepal circuit, you think we would have learned a thing or two from our shopping gurus, but nothing could have prepared us for what lay ahead. The clerks quickly assessed that Elisabeth should stay with the expensive carpets, while Annie and I were escorted down below to the "Arts and Crafts" area. Trying to seem so savvy, Annie and I circled around the room about 100 times, hoping that the hovering hawkers could back up an inch or two. Given that we were the only people in the shop, we should have cut our losses and run, but no, we decided to make Patty proud and bring home the fabric she has longed for. So pleased were we with ourselves over our purchases of silks, bronzes, and lacquerware, that the rupies just didn't register in our minds. Off we went upstairs, only to find Alf snoring in the corner, leaving Elisabeth at the mercy of the Kashmiri Carpet dealers. Before we knew it, Annie darted out the door for a quick smoke, only to be beaten out the door by Alf, who miraculously awoke when he heard the door open. Like a fool, instead of giving the stink eye, I passively suggested that it wouldn't make me throw up to see a carpet or two, and all of a sudden we were surrounded by flicking and whooshing sounds which indicated that an onslaught of carpet presentation was imminent. I caught a little stink eye myself from Elisabeth, and rightly so, because she understood the full ramifications of my passive gesture. After many apologies and shameful looks, Elisabeth and I escaped without "supporting the Kashmiri war effort." All said and done, we felt that we had escaped unscathed.
A bit later, as Annie and I pored over our purchases, perhaps a bit worried that we had spent a trifle much during our first shopping spree, but maybe even more worried that our credit card numbers were in the hands of Kashmiri freedom fighters, the phone rang. The look on Annie's face should have warned me that something big was looming, but I innocently waited to see with whom Annie had just made a date to meet in the lobby. Hanging up the phone, Annie informed me that the shop owners had been patiently waiting for us in the lobby for the last two hours and regretted to tell us that they had undercharged us for Patty's fabric. What were we to do? Within minutes, our plans ran the gamut of changing rooms, to changing hotels, to calling the Erickson girls for help, to seeking advice from Elisabeth (whom we should have listened to all along). With the silk in hand, Annie and I bravely wondered down to the lobby, where we geared up for the big fight. Having fought enough of her own fights for one day, I offered to be the bearer of bad news to the men. I was hot, too. I wasn't going to back down and was ready to fight to the bitter end. Well, you can imagine our great disappointment when they graciously apologized, took the fabric from us, and walked away, leaving us all puffed up with no one to fight with.
(LOUD SNAPPING NOISE)
Anonymous audience member: "Did the film break? Someone please turn on the lights."
(THE SOUND OF STAMPING FEET)
Alf: "Sorry! There seems to be a minor problem with the projectionist. But, we should have the situation sorted out momentarily. Please be patient."
(MORE FEET STOMPING)
Alf: "Yes, well, there is a small hitch ... but, we shall have it corrected shortly. In the mean time allow us to offer you this 'short subject' from the Roaring Twenties."
(SCREAMS OF "WE WANT OUR MONEY BACK!")
Alf: "I implore you to keep your seats. For your continued amusement during this most trying time please enjoy this Russian epoch."
(SHOUTS OF "WE CAME HERE TO SEE SOMETHING FUN FROM INDIA, NOT LONG WINDED BORING STUFF FROM RUSSIA")
Alf (his own patience growing thin): "Indian? You want something Indian ... I'll show you something Indian."
(CRIES OF "FRAUD ... WE PAID OUR RUPEES FOR TILMAN'S JOURNAL OF HER TRIP THROUGH INDIA ... NOT FOR QUOTES FROM AN INDIAN RAILWAY TIMETABLE")
Alf (dodging bits of curried chicken parts): "Hold your seats ... Tilman is here with the missing reels."
Alf (aside to Tilman): "Roll the fucking film, will you!"
Tilman's Journal continues ...