excerpts from a diary of travel in India, 1989
(photo of me at the Narian Niwas guest house in August, 1989)
By way of introduction: I came across a notebook on my bookshelf after I had written the text On Tourism and was getting ready to post the essay and my travel images onto my website. I was astounded to find this diary sitting on the shelf in plain sight, as I had completely forgotten its existence and discovered it when I moved it to put a large cookbook in its place. I was also amused by the incredibly cerebral first entry because at the time I was suffering from the severe anxiety that is often referred to as “culture shock” and I can see that thinking about art and politics made me feel more at home within myself on that first deeply alienating day. I remember standing in a shop looking at silver bracelets and stepping back into the dusty streets of Bombay and thinking, “Oh my God, we’re still here. What am I going to do? There are 29 days left—a near eternity”.
2 August 1989
I want to remember Kaslyn and Batina but am now totally engrossed in thoughts about an article; about India/Krzysztof Wodiczko’s Homeless Vehicles (for reference see http://www.medienkunstnetz.de/works/homeless-vehicles) and Tompkins Square Park set up as a set of observations and not a theoretical discourse. Also try to evacuate the “good liberal” utopian touch. Started thinking about this with reference to the acceptance of poverty as given (the caste system) and the criticism of Wodiczko’s project in that implicit in the Homeless Vehicle is an acceptance of an unacceptable situation rendering the motivation to alter the situation moot. That, I suppose constitutes the criticism on the left in its simplest terms. But put another way, is it acceptance of the material reality of the homeless that makes the left and many middle class bourgeois squeamish about the Homeless Vehicle in the first place? What exactly are the implications of accepting and responding to “immediate need?” Perhaps, turning this situation on its head; the implication of not accepting this is what happened in Tompkins Square Park. Compared to extremes here—in Bombay if someone erects a lean–to or hut (according to some law passed several years ago) it cannot be torn down. So the ranks of hut dwellers continues to swell as people gravitate from the countryside into Bombay. And one could say that it is just this sort of acceptance that has made the situation here impossible. The problem is so vast that any action really seems totally useless.
But the situation in the U.S. is not the same. Mark Weiner once said to me that the U.S. is riding through the world in a Cadillac while the rest of the world…. We’ve made such an unpleasant bargain with consumerism and corporate America that we don’t or can’t envision the kinds of shifts in lifestyle required (they are probably not that extreme) to take care of some of the obvious problems confronting us now. I suspect if we spent less time watching Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous and more time watching Lifestyles of the Shack Dwellers of Bombay we’d have an easier time of it.
The point is that the Homeless Vehicle does respond to “immediate need,” and that need not obviate the impetus for change or dilute its motivation. There have been numerous more or less thoughtful (less would be Mayor Koch’s invective not to give money to beggars) statements issued concerning the ill advisableness of giving directly to people asking for money in the streets. The most compelling contrary argument is the simplest; that if someone is begging they must need the money. And it is true that giving to a homeless person directly provides a meal that moment (or drugs as Koch would have it) and does nothing to ameliorate their situation in the long term. To stop doing this in the name of future long–term change just means that someone stays hungry now. That’s all it means.
With this in mind one might pursue the implications of not accepting “immediate need” as it was acted out in Tompkins Square Park (for reference see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bunhcwSvil8). The police came into the park and confiscated the property and destroyed the “housing,” e.g. plastic covers, cardboard boxes, etc. of the homeless “encamped” in the park. It seems that the homeless have no right to make this public park their home. They are an “eyesore” and a nuisance to the residents in the co–op apartments surrounding the park as well as an indictment of the housing policies of Mayor Koch and his relationship to New York City’s most aggressive developers. Perhaps Donald Trump can turn Tompkins Square Park into an Ice Skating Rink. At least it wouldn’t be such an easy place to bed down in for the night.
What is the underlying message of the “clean-up” in the park. It seems that the message is that we don’t want to look at this, in fact, perhaps, if we can’t see this—it will go away, or it won’t exist. Hmm. Where can we “relocate” these people to? Where have we heard this before? Do we see what we do or hear what we say? Because it seems that the unspoken sentiment of the action in Tompkins Square Park was “let’s get rid of these people.”
In closing I might look to the recent development in legislation and the Supreme Court decisions and think about where we’re heading.
Supreme Court erosion of Miranda rights.
Supreme Court on Webster plus three other cases pending.
Senate on the NEA esp. its punitive aspect.
Perhaps if KW went into business—even if the cart were really cheap—he could make it on volume.
Similar thoughts come to mind re: the handicapped and how uncomfortable we are in American culture about them. Here, the variety of “abnormal” bodies mixed in with everyone else is a totally accepted part of the fabric of every day life. The isolation in the States of handicapped persons makes them seem out of the realm of the “normal” course of life. That makes John Callahan’s cartoons seem even more to the point.
3 August 1989
I realized as I was trying to fall asleep last night that I’d forgotten about Geanco, the Italian tourist from Milan that we met at the airport. He’d been to India before and acted as something of a buffer for us on our first day. We wandered through the streets with him and ate our first meal at the Leopold with him. Initially, he was a bit aggressive but I’m glad he was with us for the first few hours. We bid him farewell in front of the hotel after dinner (a very early one) and tried to sleep. He was keen on adventure, which to him meant finding a last minute place to stay, changing money on the black market, etc. He was constantly telling us what was “really” Indian and what wasn’t. To me it all looked so incredibly alien I couldn’t begin to imagine what he was talking about. He also accepted a small room that I wouldn’t have dreamed of staying in. He told us that Indians don’t use sheets so I was amazed and awed when our beds were made up with clean sheets and fresh pillow cases.
I realized too that writing about experiences here and recontextualizing them into New York experience has a funny exploitative feel but also a calming affect, similar to that of having a camera in front of my face. It creates just enough distance to make me marginally comfortable.
We went to the bazaar today. The crush of people was beyond imagining. Every time we’d step into a shop, I’d feel totally at ease. Then we’d regain the street and a certain tension would reassert itself. We actually got onto a bus during rush hour! (We arrived in Bombay a day or so after all of the city’s taxi drivers went on strike, which is how we encountered the Italian tourist on the bus from the airport.)
There are hundreds of dogs everywhere. I’m totally terrified of them all. Geanco, I noticed, was oblivious to them. “Real” India, I guess.
We went to the Hanging Garden—which was peaceful and beautiful with topiaries of elephants and ostriches. There, a “guide” attached himself to us. I decided it was ok but ultimately he demanded 20 RS and I thought to give him 2 RS. Actually, I had no idea what was up but I felt he was “having us on” so I stood firm. No more uninvited tour guides. He did tell us the popular “vultures and bones” story about the Bombay water supply. It’s in the Lonely Planet book! He talked for a long time about “welchers” before we realized that he was telling us about vultures.
Bipin’s friends came this morning. (Bipin was the man that ran our local newsstand at the Carroll Gardens subway station in Brooklyn. He was Gujarati and very overqualified to run a newsstand. He asked us to deliver a small package to some friends in Bombay.) They kindly dropped us off at the Hanging Gardens. We got back on a bus.
So far, I go through a brief but intense period each day wishing I were on my way home. I’m not that good at this sort of thing. Still it’s incredible. There are funny moments stepping out of a restaurant or shops when I think to myself—”Oh God, I’m still here.”
I haven’t started loving it yet (the standard cliché about Westerners in India is that it is a love/hate relationship) but I’ve had a few elated moments. I can’t imagine the Raj or Pam and Mark living here for that matter. (My longtime friends Pam Stivers and Mark Fritzler lived in India while Mark worked for CARE.)Perhaps I’m tense because I think I’m supposed to be.
I’m writing and Gary is doing a watercolor of our room. Really fun!
Got a silver bracelet at the bazaar. Been taking pictures. Unlike in Europe it doesn’t seem to matter to me here that I am a dopey tourist.
2 August evening
Dinner at Tagore in the Taj Mahal Hotel. Food and beer good. Table of 5-6 Japanese men to our right. Beautiful dancer doing a traditional dance (I was told the name of it but instantly forgot) that is very modern and minimal and got us into a conversation about Philip Glass. Also, Gary had a great insight into my anxiety about unstructured time, i.e. that I associate it with the feeling in childhood of neglect and having nothing to do, which conjures up visions of sitting alone for hours in the basement watching television. Also, that my father was the one who did the only structured things with us—miniature golf or watching me swim laps. Just before the trip I thought about this one activity—him watching me swim and recalled an incident in graduate school at the pool where I was suddenly acutely conscious of the feeling of being watched in the pool. Acute enough to get me to quit the pool. The other thing I thought of was that when I have an acute feeling of anxiety and I happen to see myself in the mirror while enveloped in that feeling—generally, I look exceptionally good to myself.
3 August 1989
Got period. First morning I didn’t wake up and think, “Oh God, we’re still here”.
Today was an easier day than the previous two. I guess we’re getting used to it. If we’d gone to Elore (sic), etc. I suppose we’d never have grown accustomed. We stopped at one of the city’s two Synagogues. The keeper was an old Indian with a cane and no teeth. The Temple was on the second floor and reminded me of Synagogues in the Jewish ghetto in Venice. The old man said no one comes there but later contradicted himself and said that people come on Fridays and Saturdays but there are not enough for a minion and there is no Rabbi. The corner stone was laid by the Reverend Silas Isaac Silas.
We went to Elephanta (a small island in the Bombay harbor accessible in colorful rickety boats that make you think hard about how far you can swim). Tried Dramamine for the first time. Got very drowsy but the pills were a total success. I brought them along for the camels. We had an amusing tour guide. In the boat on the way back when she realized we missed the vegetable market in the bazaar she said, “Well you haven’t seen anything then.” I thought the bazaar was the most anything I’d ever seen anywhere! She warned us that Calcutta was overcrowded. Seeing Bombay, I can’t imagine what that must mean.
Forgot to mention our self-appointed guide from the Hanging Garden pointing out women doing laundry in the water below the Garden and exclaiming, “That is self-service laundry, Madam.”
4 August 1989
This is the first time in my life that I don’t find myself thinking—I’m Jewish. I just feel WHITE.
We saw the Crawford Market today. Somehow I couldn’t bring myself to photograph there. Then we walked back to the hotel passing St.Thomas’ Church. It was completely empty except for two sweepers. The place was full of memorials to men of military rank or members of the East India Company with the occasional mention of their wives (one or two of whom died in their twenties). Then we ate at the Oberoi. A semi-comic moment when we realized we had no silverware and understood about ordering bread first (our neglecting to do so caused some consternation). The rest of the meal we took our cues from the two Indians seated at the table behind us who were a course ahead of us. From there to the photo exhibition and a conversation with a Bengali woman whose son goes to college in the States.
7 August 1989
Two days in Hyderabad already. Pam cooked a luxurious meal for us on the first night. Mark drove us around a bit. On the first day we went to see the baby at Apollo Hospital. Poor thing looks more like a bird than a baby. Then on to a landscape of rocks where we clambered around for a good hour. Afterwards, over to the old city. Then a wonderful dinner picnic at Golconda Fort with two other families living in India: Marie-Claude, John, Joanna and Marianne, Kathy, Merle and Emma. All work for Icrasat. Up late talking to Pam about art. Driving here is incredible. There are no rules of the road to speak of and seemingly no accidents.
Recipe (from Pam) for making Yogurt at home: to be left undisturbed for 8 hours.
Bring whole milk temp to 180 degrees in a double boiler.
Pour into glass jars and cool to between 109 and 106 degrees.
Take 1 tablespoon from each pint. For each tablespoon add 1/2 teaspoon of starter yogurt.
Distribute evenly. Stir gently.
Let sit for 7 to 8 hours.
Wrap jars in pot holders. Wrap with a towel and leave in a cupboard.
Pam described my desert this evening in a local restaurant as little lactose pillows floating in a sea of sweetness. Woken a dozen times this a.m. by the phone—consequently tired much of the day. Went to visit the baby (bird) again. Pam and Marie-Claude plan to share caring for her. She will leave the hospital in two days time. We go to Marie-Claude’s for coffee (which turns out to be chicory) and then go with her driver to see Bidri Ware. The Muslim shop was a small stall–like room that was open to the outside and had a small office in the rear. We were shown the entire production process step by step, from sand mold to silver inlay to blackening metal and final oiling of the surfaces. I bought a tiny bangle for Alex and ordered three more for myself due to arrive on Wednesday evening. Marie-Claude bought Pam a small box as a gift. She is made uncomfortable by my presence; she is very attached to Pam. I attempted to speak French with her but got the cold shoulder. Sabita (Pam and Mark’s adopted child who was then four) fell asleep at dinner.
9 August 1989
Photographed Saresh’s new laundry shop. Pam says Indians never smile for photographs.
Saw the baby bird one last time and then went to Secunderabad to shop. I bought one scarf. I am not a big shopper but people always think they are being considerate if they take you shopping. Gary was an angel. I’m sure he was bored to tears. It was a tense day for me, perhaps because we pick up and leave tomorrow and I so hated the flight into Hyderabad. And this one to Calcutta will be two takeoffs and two landings. Feeling here as though the colonial period hasn’t really ended. The ex-pats sit about and complain about the help (something Pam and Mark don’t participate in)—the Mali (or gardener), etc. Particularly difficult is the situation of the women. The men work and by and large seem a conventional and sexist lot. They’re here doing something “important” and the woman’s role is to facilitate that. A lot of traditional separation of the sexes too. At the picnic I realized that all of the women were together in one small circle and all of the men were in another. When Pam commented that Marie-Claude had all of the makings to be a truly frivolous character it was hard to disagree. She is, however, very excited about the baby.
Drove past a procession. Actually it turned out to be a demonstration. Apparently, the state minister N.T. Ramah Rah is a member of the opposition—I gather they were his supporters. A lot of trucks, headbands, flags and banners. Tomorrow begins a bandh (general strike), according to our taxi driver. It was called by the (I) Congress Party. Everything will close down tomorrow for the entire weekend. There is a lot of political graffiti about voting. Pam filled in some background. Evidently N.T. was a movie star and still feels free to make movies as head minister of state. This is the only state in India where Telegu is the majority language. Mark just returned to tell us that the demonstrators are working themselves up—getting themselves ready. No one seems to be too worried so it should be ok. Mark says they will probably stone a few buses.
10 August 1989
Said goodbye to Pam at the house and Mark at the airport. The flight left Hyderabad at 10:00 a.m. and we landed in Visakhapatnam at 10:45 a.m. to find that the connecting flight to Calcutta would not depart until 4:00 p.m. “Schedule change on Tuesdays and Thursdays, Madam.” So we decided we ought to leave the airport and all the flies and go into town. Reluctantly left our baggage with the clerks at the check in with many assurances from them that it would be safe. Then ventured outside to find a cab. We were told that the taxi fare would be 60-70 RS but with the bandh on today the cab driver wanted 180 RS. I refused. I stepped over to a cop leaning into a departing “official” car to ask how much I ought to pay. The officer in the vehicle overheard us and after a moment offered to give us a ride into town and he never relinquished responsibility for us after that. First we stopped at the Head Commissioners residence to deliver a package. Afterward, a short tour of the waterfront. (At this time Visakhapatnam was a military town with a large Soviet presence.) Then to Police Headquarters where we were offered water (which I was afraid to drink) and hot tea with milk. Relieved to have something we could accept. Our host offered us the use of the bathroom—which was insisted upon because he planned subsequently to offer us a meal and Hindus must wash their hands carefully before and after all meals. He told us about and then showed us the parade grounds, the new conference room with an enormous elliptical table and the basketball courts, tennis courts and volleyball court. We talked mostly about traditional aspects of culture; respect for elders and hospitality. We explained to him that in the U.S. the hospitality that he had shown us as visitors would not likely be reciprocated. He seemed very pleased to have American guests despite the fact that India and Pakistan were enemies and America was then an ally of Pakistan.
We were escorted to the Officers Club for lunch. The rice wasn’t hot but the chicken was so I ate that and the yogurt. There was too much food and I was worried about offending our host but also worried about what it was safe for me to eat. Our host had some odd ideas about progress. He told us about tribal peoples and seemed distressed that they did not wear what he referred to as “proper clothing.” He wished culture to progress (hard to say exactly what he meant by that—it seemed to have to do with clothing, watches, haircuts and the like) and at the same time maintain traditional values, e.g. a respect for elders and for guests. After lunch he handed us over to a driver with a Jeep who took us on a 40 minute tour of the waterfront— fishing boats, Mosque, Temple, Church, railway station, garden—and then at 3:00 p.m. delivered us to the airport. There to discover yet another delay. Our hosts only request was that we send a photo of ourselves, signed, for his scrapbook.
Here there is a note reminding me of the euphemism that all of Mark’s employees use to absent themselves from work. They call the condition “loose motions.” According to Mark the entire Indian population is suffering from some form of dysentery at all times.
11 August 1989
I guess I haven’t written anything since our arrival in Calcutta. I read the Indian newspapers on the flight and took the pre-paid cab to the Fairlawn. The ride was so long and circuitous that had it not been for the pre-paid cab I never would have believed that we were en route to the hotel. It was already dark and along the road we could see hundreds of box-like stalls with candles in them. All small street shops. My favorite was one with two huge chandeliers in front; nearly as large as the place itself. Finally arrived at the Fairlawn in time for dinner. We sat with some young and not very friendly French kids. I spoke briefly to one of them.
Awakened early this morning by Dhobi or the kitchen staff. We ate breakfast and went to the railway station. Stopped briefly at a Church. It’s very hot out. Back to the hotel where we went through a ridiculous scenario trying to get our room changed. We were made to feel like ugly Americans and it tainted my feeling about the place. We are expected to eat in but the eating ritual here is a bit bossy. Not matter where we choose to sit it’s simply not acceptable so tonight we went out to dinner—not a much better experience.
(note: I don’t know why there is no description of the legendary Fairlawn in the diary. The owners had stayed on after the Raj and were ancient Brits. She with hair dyed black and bright red lipstick that found its way close to the neighborhood of her mouth and he barely able to stand behind the front desk. Meals were bland British fare and it was frowned upon to eat ones meals out. Our initial room was off the dining room and the clatter began very early. The help slept in the hotel in the dining room on the bare floor under the tables with no blankets, pillows or mats. Outside the hotel on the sidewalk was a classic Calcutta beggar who had no arms or legs and was deposited there by someone in the early a.m. on a small straw mat with a beggars bowl where he remained until the end of the day.)
Saw the Victoria Memorial. Our favorite spot contained the small portraits of women on two sides of a free standing wall plus a photograph of an aged Queen Victoria looking for all the world like a stand-in for Alfred Hitchcock. Everything looked run down and shabby. The standard model of the place in the entryway. (The train station in Bombay had one too!) Tried to see the Church, which was on Pam’s must see list but it was closed from noon to three. Fort William was a bust too, couldn’t get in. We saw the monument at the north end of the Maiden. We walked a lot.
Returned to the hotel for lunch. Gary bought a nice bird book last night in a bookstore that is clearly an archive of recent paperbacks discarded by tourists in Calcutta but they did have a copy of the Birds of India volume we had seen at Pam and Mark’s. After lunch to the Indian Museum. That was another interesting experience of fading grandeur. A lot of beautiful objects in a shabby, run-down environment. Nothing, not even the Victoria Memorial looks “upscale” here, nothing except the Oberoi Hotel. The Museums have no climate control.
Then home to tea. It felt like 100 degrees today.
Then my idea—to find the Sisters of Charity Mission. No idea why, just to say I’d seen it, I suppose. This resulted in a two hour ramble through Calcutta including the incredibly narrow street we came home on in the dark. We found the residence of the Sisters of Charity and talked to a very sweet and gracious nun. She extended an offer to join the nuns in prayer if we were Catholic and gave us directions back home. A young women led us part of the way and it was so far from the point indicated in Tony Wheeler’s book that we didn’t quite trust her and never properly thanked her which was awful. I thought she was going to ask for money but she was genuine and just wanted to help us and she had walked us very far from the spot where we’d stopped to ask her for directions. Later in the evening I thought I spotted her up ahead of us. Guilty conscience. I think we thought we were going to the famous Mission of Mother Teresa. The residence is here and apparently we had walked past the orphanage where the children are but the Mission for the Destitute is further north in Kalicut (sic). Quite a misadventure.
12 August 1989
Is there a connection between being shallow and excessive fussing with one’s food? This thought prompted by the blonde girl at the table who reminded me suddenly of an old friend.
14 August 1989
En route to Varanasi on the train. We went to the Oberoi Hotel for a swim (at that time you could go directly to the pool of a 5-star hotel and give the pool boy a little money and have a swim) before checking out of the Fairlawn and were adopted by Anil, a non-stop talker, attorney, or liar as he refers to himself, whose idea of prestige is knowing his way around the Oberoi Hotel. He took us to a very good South Indian lunch spot, the Jyoti Vihar, on Ho Chi Min Sarani, right next to the American Embassy. Then we walked to the Hooghly where I did manage to photograph the Howrah Bridge without incident. (It was illegal to photograph bridges in India at the time. They were considered sensitive areas along with military installations.) The Smiths, our British hosts at the Fairlawn, warned me against trying to photograph the bridge lest I get myself arrested and recommended that I purchase postcards of the bridge at the Oxford Bookstore, which I did just in case I was unsuccessful. It is hard to describe Anil except to say that he seems to epitomize what is tragic about India; makes one think about the ways in which one imagines that the British destroyed the place.
Our second attempt to get to Howrah Station went smoothly. The Moslem festival, which had been brewing for days had come to its frenzied peak and a lot of the roads were blocked off by parading celebrants. Our initial driver, one example of local stupidity, refused to go around the festival, as though only one road went to the bridge. No amount of effort, including repeatedly offering him the map could move him forward. Finally, Gary, the most even tempered person in world, was yelling at him too. The driver suggested several times that we get out and walk with all of our luggage through the parade and flag another cab on the other side of it. He, meanwhile, had told us that the celebrants were carrying large knives and he was afraid they would stone his car. Eventually, he took us back to the hotel and after 20 minutes another driver was sought. He was a spry old Sikh who got us there via the route that we kept suggesting to the first driver. It took 15 minutes in all and we made the train, had bananas and cookies for dinner, got bedrolls, padlocked our belongings down and went to sleep. Now about one hour from Varanasi.
15 August 18989 – Independence Day
Varanasi is turning out to be something of a bust. The entire old city is closed off due to violence breaking out between Moslems and Hindus. A curfew has been set and there is no getting near the Ghats or the Ganges. My one glimpse was out of the train window just as we pulled into Kashi Station. As a consequence there is nothing to do or see. Yesterday we found it tough to find a hotel and ended up at the Taj where we ate lunch and swam and waited until 7 p.m. but finally got a room. It was such luxury. We ordered room service. We had fish & chips, some mediocre samosas and a pot of hot chocolate. Today the miserable curfew is still on so we had breakfast, swam again and moved to the Indian Hotel, which is 250 RS with air-conditioning. We hired a car to go to Sarnath to see the Buddhist Temples and ruins. That was lovely and gave us something to do; there was also a deer park and an enclosure filled with captive birds. Tomorrow we set out for Agra. Gary wanted me to note that at the Taj Hotel there was a Bible and the Bhagavad Gita on the bedside table. Getting him to work on the watercolors of our rooms at the Taj and the Indian.
17 August 1989
The curfew was loosened and we saw the ghats after all. There was access to the Ganges just below the old city. We found the same driver who took us to Sarnath and at around 9:30 a.m. headed to the Ganges aiming for Dasaswamedh Ghat. The driver let us off near a yellow Church and said it was roughly 100 meters to the water. We told him we’d be back in one hour. Only a few steps on our own and we are picked up by a classic guide who is not a guide, salesman who is not a salesman. He offers to take us by a “short cut.” Twenty minutes later we are totally lost and well into the old city, where we are not supposed to be, having just witnessed what may turn out to be “an incident” between a soldier and a civilian trying to enter the street from a deserted alley. We both began thinking that our guide would never lead us to the water and we got a bit sharp with him, he got testy but suddenly veered to the river. He pulled the usual “come for tea for five minutes” routine and we were somewhat at his mercy, finding ourselves at the Manikarnika Ghat with no way to go back along the waterfront. Everyone has a scam. A boatman wants 200 RS so we ask another who wants 300 RS but agrees to 200 RS and it turns out represents the same boat as the first and so we managed to dump our sly salesman and escape down the river. We got out of the boat at Dasaswamedh Ghat after going down river as far as Harishchandra, the other burning ghat. Fortunately our only “meat floating down the river” was an animal carcass with a bird along for the ride. At the Mankarnika Ghat there were two boat hulls full to the brim with ashes. Not a lot going on today so no smell to try to forget forever.
Then back to the India Hotel to pack, to the train station for breakfast and the news that the first-class cars to Agra have been cancelled. We spent from 12:45 p.m. on Wednesday until 4:00 a.m. Thursday on rock hard seats in a 3-tier berthed cabin. During the day our travel companions were a family who were moved out later by the conductor. Then we were joined by two wonderful women who fussed over us. One was a beautiful women named Sushma, who gave me a cheesy little maroon painted ring as a gift and hugged me goodbye when she got off the train in Lucknow. It was pretty dreadful from that point on, about 8:00 p.m., until we arrived in Agra. The moon was full when we stepped off the train. We flagged a rickshaw; there was a lot of sky and we headed to the Tourist Guest House, where we were told we could have a room by 9:00 a.m. (This hotel, at six dollars a night, did not have sheets to speak of but it had two charming brothers as proprietors whose motto was, “Don’t worry, chicken curry.”) We dropped off our luggage and went straight to the Taj Mahal, which opens its gates at 6:00 a.m. and is completely empty and spectacular in the early morning light. (At the time this was the great advantage of the 4:00 a.m. train into Agra—that one could arrive at the train station and go directly to the gate at opening time. The gate had been open 24 hours a day in the past, but after the recent unrest in the Punjab began a group of militant Sikhs threatened to blow up the Taj so they began to close the site down at sunset and reopen it at sunrise.)
Afterward, we found the Relax Restaurant, as per Tony Wheeler (Lonely Planet), which was closed for the day but the owners were about and they opened the Restaurant just to serve us breakfast and with real coffee!
Returned to the Hotel at 9 a.m. and took a nap. We got up at 12:30 and went to the Agra Fort and over to Itmad-Ud-Daulah with the most awful rickshaw driver, whom I allowed to get to me. He wouldn’t stop talking for one minute. I finally told him I was sick and to shut up. One minute incredible splendor; total frustration the next.
Gary just reminded me about the music in the Relax Restaurant. We were looking out the window e.g. an opening in the wall with no glass pane, at two small shops across the street and a camel strutting by, the first we’d seen, both of us swatting at pesky flies and suddenly we were listening to Eric Clapton!
21 August 1989
No entries for a while. Actually have to force them now—the impulse to write has worn away. We went to Fatepur Sikri on the tour bus on our second day in Agra. Chatted a little with other guests at the Tourist Guest House including one woman who had flown to India from London on Afghan Airlines. Her trip took 48 hours including a dramatic landing in Kabul complete with flares to deflect heat seeking missiles and shelling less than one mile from the airport. We ate lunch at the Guest House and then walked around Kanari Bazaar. We took a rickshaw back to the Taj and then hung out at the Relax for an hour or so—jazz accompaniment this time. Then walked back to the Taj to watch the sun set. Afterward to Zorba the Buddha for a vegetarian dinner. Rajneesh cooking turns out to be the cooking of the Bhagwan of Oregon fame. That was a shock. There was a small bookcase on one wall of the restaurant with all of his books. It was also the cleanest restaurant we’ve been to. They used boiled water to make their ice cubes and washed their vegetables “nicely.” We had to wait nearly an hour to be served so we waited outside where we had an encounter with another Anil type, also seemingly unbalanced, and then a long and friendly chat with a severely cross-eyed rickshaw driver who it turned out, didn’t want anything from us. At some point in the midst of all this our driver from the previous evening (the drinker) appeared and we agreed he would return to take us home. The confession that the rickshaw-wallah had been a rickshaw driver 15 years ago set me off somehow. I couldn’t shake it all evening and went to sleep miserable about the sadness of the place.
The next morning we were up early to start out for Bharatpur and the bird sanctuary. A two and a half hour train ride punctuated by harassment from 4 or 5 small boys. Talked with two British tourists. Bharatpur was wonderful. After a mishap with the rickshaw and Govind Niwas we went on to the Forest Lodge inside the sanctuary—a good ending. I think we were the sole guests in the sanctuary hotel on the night we spent there. The hotel manager was separated at birth from Omar Sharif. The staff were sweet and solicitous. We had a rickshaw ride around the sanctuary on the first day and spent the evening out watching the stars and talking to the staff. The next day we got bicycles instead. It was quiet and serene. Made me long for a different kind of vacation next time. Our departure was filled with the usual not understanding Indian ways. We did meet Colonel Singh though. Gary was by then feeling a bit shaky. A cockroach in my tea made me a bit shaky too. Colonel Singh was very sweet. The Bharatpur train station was a hell hole and we got there without any water and couldn’t buy any either. The fast train to Jaipur was late arriving and when it did there was a squabble about seats and no light in the car for most of the journey and no air-conditioning! Jaipur by 11:00 a.m. and to the Narian Niwas Guest House, a place suggested by Pam’s friend Eva. It’s quite wonderful. We had beer and grilled cheese sandwiches and went to bed.
Bad experience with Raj the driver who ripped us off for 60 RS. I guess I had some inkling but I didn’t want to fight it. Tomorrow, if he has the nerve to show up I will tell him off. Gary not feeling well all day. Made me nervous. We got him some Bactrim at Jonathan Rosen’s suggestion. Shopped in the old city. Bought ankle bracelets and some lighter clothing, lunch at ? (sic) and walked some on the MI road, then back to the hotel, sex, relax, dinner at Niros and beer back at the hotel. The high point of the evening was our tiny and young rickshaw-wallah, Unam. He pursued us pretty aggressively and offered the ride, quite far, for 7 RS. I wasn’t sure he’d be big enough to carry us but he was persistent and we relented. I didn’t have much confidence in his driving ability and I was half-certain he had no idea where the place was but after some amusing and indecorous behavior we arrived safe and sound. First a detour into the old city and an unbelievable traffic jam. The kid had to really push his entire frame into motion to get us going. At one point he leapt off, having lost his thong a few yards back, but our favorite moment was when he jumped up and said politely, “One moment Madam, just one” and walked onto the nearby lawn to pee. Back in flash and on we went. He told us that we were the Maharajah and Maharani, a great fantasy meant for him or us or both. He claimed to be 15! Gary told him he did a wonderful job. He shook both of our hands with great enthusiasm. We gave him 10 RS and a much coveted cigarette. At one point he had asked where we were from—then added with a big grin, “I’m Indian.” He was really enterprising. He tried to fix us up with his brother and to get more work for himself. It’s still fun for him.
Tomorrow Samode and maybe Fatepur, a swim at the Rambagh Palace and on to Jodpur on the evening train on which we don’t have confirmed berths. That should prove hellish.
(Here the diary ends. We went on to Jodpur and Jaisalmer, where I shot some of the black & white photos that strike me as looking so old now, then back to New Delhi and home, but I never wrote any other entries in the diary.)