Friday, July 4, 2008

Goodbye India

Expanded version of my latest column for the Lititz Record:

Hello ladies and germs. The bear has emerged from his cave and now we'll have six more weeks of winter. I feel refreshed and slightly drained from ten days with my family. You know how that can be. We had a great trip with a lot fun, insults and antics. We spent a few days in Mumbai (Bombay), a week in Goa and a week in paradise, Bali.

The first surprise of the trip: my sister Anna showed up at the airport instead of my parents wearing a kindergarten style Indian headdress with feather for the occasion. I believe that's called pulling a Columbus. We did not think she could come because of training for summer camp but the family decided to pull a fast one on Tessa and I. My parents came on a later flight and I took them to rest at a hotel near the airport. I picked out a classy joint: hot water, flush toilets, a television with two english channels. I felt a little guilty splurging their money for a room that cost fifty bucks a night but I figured they needed a nice spot to rest. My sister soon reassured me that not only had I not splurged, my entire definition of nice must have been drastically altered in the last few months. Guilty as charged.

I went into tour guide mode and led the Pelger clan around the city for a few days, dousing them with facts, figures and anecdotes. I showed them Crawford Market where Rudyard Kipling's father made the bas reliefs on the outside and inside you could buy anything you wanted: fruit, cell phone covers, knock off DVDs, pet birds, bolts of fabric and dead animals of any type, slaughtered right there for your shopping convenience. I mentioned how I would like to tour guide someday because I think I'm good at it. I don't recall anyone rushing to encourage me but Bombay's not a touristy city. There's just not much to see. I saved the best for last.

My aunt and cousin flew in with only time for a few hour outing in Bombay before we migrated south. I took them to my old neighborhood in North Bombay. They loved the visit and I was proud to show them a little bit of the real city. We walked through the entrance with the open sewer river on the right choked to sludge with trash. Kids ran up to say, “Hello Uncle.” I responded with Namaste for the Hindus and Christians or Ass Salam Walakum for the Muslims. In this small little neighborhood of twisting streets not wide enough for two men where foreigners never appear, we gathered a crowd of children fast. Well dressed, smiling and with enthusiastic grins, these children loved playing with my family and posing for photos.

I got to see my three favorite children from Bombay. I swear, in a country of cute children, I had the very cutest outside my front door when I stayed there. Antra, the baby girl next door still remembered and reached for me in spite of the three month gap since I had last seen her. Omkar, the three year old little troublemaker who loves his uncle's mototcycle. He climbs on to it constantly and nobody worries about him. Kids start running around by themselves no later than 5. It's a safe place and I've seen that a woman will slap or hug any child if she sees they need it. People watch out for each other. I'm most happy that I got to see my little buddy, Sourab. A smart ten year old living across from me, he took me under his wing and showed me around the neighborhood when I first got there. He even became my Hindi teacher for awhile until I started using the words around my friends and they laughed at me for speaking Marathi. Sourab was teaching me his first tongue of Marathai, the language of the Mahrashtra state that contains Bombay. When this happened, I suspected I wouldn't be living in India so I used this as an excuse to stop learning Hindi although I did pick up some choice insults that came in handy later. The one thing I've learned: If you want to fight, just insult his mother.

Leaving that neighborhood made me nostalgic for the first and last time about leaving India. In my mind, I have pegged this country as a great place to visit but a lousy place to live. It will sound odd but my biggest reason to leave: I was sick of being famous. I never went to tourist areas so everywhere I went, people watched me and stopped me to talk. I’d answer the same questions over and over. Now, I'm a friendly guy but it got to be suffocating. It felt like being a B-list celebrity. Everywhere I went, I could never just be by myself. With every move I make attracting attention, I could never feel at home. I think if I could have walked unnoticed through the crowds, I would have lived there for a long time, maybe not forever but longer than seven months. That's why I liked the tiny little neighborhood in North Mumbai. By the end, I started to feel like I belonged and not like an outsider. It felt simple, warm, homey.

A week later, as I stepped up to the immigration counter to leave India, fruitlessly worried about that overstayed “Quit India” notice, nostalgia warmed me as I thought about this tiny little apartment with running water for only an hour a day but the cutest children in the city right outside my front door. I remembered lazy days playing cricket with the young guys, having chai with my neighbors, flying kites off the roof of the bathrooms, walking to those same bathrooms for my morning constitutional with a small bucket of water for cleaning up while getting yelled at by the kids for using the free toilets instead of the nicer one that cost 2 rupees (4 cents), coming home late at night and avoiding the rats to find old men singing their old songs after a Hindu festival, jumping into a lively dance party on some Muslim holiday where we all jumped up and down to bad rap and my fondest memory of all, the mornings sitting outside playing with kids and watching the old women gossip as they washed their clothes on the stone walk. It makes me happily sad even as I write it.

We spent the next week in the beach state of Goa. The hippy party mecca of the 60's, now it's a rapidly gentrifying place as the state cracks down on the noisy weirdoes to attract the well-heeled crowd who spend their money on cocktails and knickknacks instead of hashish and club entry fees. You can still find the crazy party and drug scene but it's not like the old days. If you need advice, ask Tessa. She spent a month down there with a local girlfriend and now is one hip Goa cat.

I spent the week eating. I finally killed off my tape worm so I enjoyed the sensation of eating for one again. I'm a weenie because I didn't like having a little tape worm for two months. I can't imagine carrying a baby for nine months that gets up to ten pounds. Now that's a parasite. I want a huge family but I must admit the prospect is much easier knowing that I won't have to carry all of them. I want enough to form a Harlem Globe Trotters type team that tours the country. However, that's just the cover because they will all be clandestinely trained to act as my Pelger's 11 for jewel heists. They will practice on Lititz establishments to cut their teeth. Watch out Hendricks Flower Shop. We're going to loot the place for Mother's Day. It's the least we could do for the amazing woman who helps me produce this brood.

Next stop on the trip: paradise. Beauty everywhere. Landscapes of lush jungles and green rice paddies stretching off to the giant breakers of the ocean. The intensely religious Balinese people obviously value aesthetics because I have never seen such attention to beauty everywhere I look. Every family has a temple in their house and the wealthier the family, the larger and more intricate their temple of wood and stone carvings featuring dragons and deities. I especially enjoyed the stone demons guarding every bridge. Small towns had art galleries and artisan workshops obviously geared towards tourists but nonetheless, they produced impressive and beautiful merchandise. I know I used the word beauty a lot in this paragraph but it simply astounded me at every turn. Understandably, a place like this also produces the loveliest girls I have ever seen gathered in one country. nreal.

We spent the week in Bali doing a lot more exploring. We saw a temple of Shiva filled with devotees coming to visit and newly married couples taking the mandatory tour of holy spots following their wedding. Dad and I enjoyed the wonderful in the church of St. Xavier. In an odd coincidence, I had just read a short history of St. Xavier’s life in Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. We read the section together and laughed that the only time I will probably ever read about St. Xavier, I show up at his church the following day.

I snorkeled for the first time in the clear waters off Bali with our guide Puta. He told us to call him Puta Tattoo to prevent confusion with the many other Putas. According to him, in Indonesia, your name depends on your birth order. There’s only three different names you can give to a firstborn son. For each new child, you have only a small pool of names to choose. As you can imagine, this leads to a lot of confusion and nicknames galore.

As for the snorkeling, an amazing experience for seeing an array of brightly colored fish and coral. Simply indescribable. Unfortunately, now I have a problem. I started snorkeling in arguably the best spot in the world. It's like losing your virginity to a porn star or having your first whoopee pie at Green Dragon, the cool farmers market in Lancaster. It’s all downhill from there. On that note, I just received my press pass from the renowned Lititz Record. My editor, Steve Seeber told me that if this doesn't get me laid, nothing will. He claims that when he goes to Green Dragon with it, he gets all the whoopee pies he can eat. That's power!

We went to the touristy town of Ubud to see a woman from my Dad’s high school class who has lived there for the last twenty years after marrying a Balinese man. They have a great house away from the town in the middle of rice paddies. I'm glad they live away from the town because Dad said about Ubud, “If this is traveling, I wouldn't travel.” Filled with tourists, men offering taxi service at every turn and overpriced though still lovely clothing and native wares. It could be the tourist street of any city in this hemisphere. I mean, there's a freaking Polo store there. I want to walk in and ask the people, why did you come to Indonesia if you're going to the same store that's all over the world. Arghhh. I know I'm harsh but whatever, I'm young and annoyingly idealistic. After this vacation, I think my family might just simplify that to annoying. Anyway, when I travel now, I dislike showing up somewhere for a few days and then moving on. I want to get to know a place by living with and around the native people. When I find a place where I never see a tourist, Lex is happy.


Alaina said...

Aunt Cin should have been up there to add her Pink Floyd bottom to the picture!

Astrid said...

Such a cute pic of the little pot bellied critter..

The pig is adorable too.