The Kindness Of Strangers

This is the first of two guest posts by Elizabeth Burns. Elizabeth, or Liz as her friends know her, is a very talented photographer and writer who travels.

She gamely agreed to writing a guest post on her recent trip to India for taoStyle, and as she wrote and memory collided with the muse, she asked if she could extend it to two parts. Of course I said yes. I am presently reading Liz’ new book, No Direction Home, and will have a review up in the next week or so. In the mean time, please enjoy these travelogues Liz has kindly shared with us.

Part 1

On the third day of my first trip to India in 1984, I got so sunburned blisters formed on my thighs. Messed-up train reservations from Bombay to Bangalore had me on a bus whose air-conditioning broke down eight hours into the 26-hour ride. Then I got sick for two and half weeks of the five-week trip. Thirty-three years later I decided it was time to give the subcontinent another try. It didn’t start off well. Delayed flights causing missed connections, unhelpful and unsympathetic flight crews made me want to throw in the towel before I’d even left the US. It was a very good thing that my usual fear of being seen as a pathetic loser prevented me from taking that drastic step.

THE KINDNESS OF STRANGERS

If you’ve ever been to Patan, a town in Gujarat, the peninsular state jutting into the Indian Ocean and sharing a border with Pakistan, you’ll know why I was the only foreigner in town. I wanted to see the Sun Temple at Modhera and Patan was the most convenient place to spend the night. There were two tourist hotels, the first was full leaving the concrete, four-story box Hotel Navjivan as my only option. I handed the front desk clerk my credit card, assured by the  billboards featuring a smiling, orange-tinted Prime Minister Narendra Modi that proclaimed, “You can use your credit card anywhere and everywhere. India is going digital.” The clerk immediately returned it. “We don’t accept international credit cards.” And he couldn’t accept dollars nor did he know where I could exchange them.

I had arrived in India in mid-January and the repercussions of Modi’s surprise currency reform of November 8 were still being felt. In an effort to curb corruption and cash hoarding, Modi had withdrawn the two highest denomination notes (500-rupee and 1000-rupee) and replaced them with new 500-rupee and 2000-rupee notes. Businesses had to immediately stop accepting the old currency and people had till the end of 2016 to exchange it. The suddenness of the change and the slowness in printing the new bills meant demand greatly outstripped supply. What this meant for everybody, myself included, was that getting money was a pain in the ass. The ATMs at Indira Gandhi Airport in Delhi had been empty. Every ATM in the country had to be reconfigured to accommodate the new notes, which were smaller than their predecessors. This was supposed to have taken forty-five days but was obviously taking a lot longer. Fortunately, I’d brought plenty of cash, which was just dumb luck, not forethought, as I hadn’t bothered to read up on the currency situation before I left. Fifty-eight dollars, for some stupid bureaucratic reason, was the maximum I‘d been allowed to exchange at the airport. Ok, India is cheap. I’d already paid for my hotel in Ahmedabad, the capital of Gujarat and my first stop in the state. I would surely be able to get more cash. I’d be fine. Except when I got there, everyone I’d asked had no idea where I could change money. Maybe at the Western Union.

By the time I arrived in Patan, my rupee stash had dwindled to a few thousand, paying for the room would essentially wipe me out. I wouldn’t have enough for the return trip to the temple or for a ticket out of there. I’d be stuck in Patan forever. I was snapped out of my melodrama by the appearance of the hotel manager who announced he had a plan. Next to the hotel was a gas station that accepted all credit cards. They would charge my card the cost of the room and give the hotel the cash. Genius! Problem solved! Profuse thank-you’s to both the manager and the gas station employees. I went to the sun temple. I could afford breakfast and lunch. I bought a bus ticket to Bhuj.

But I didn’t want to arrive in Bhuj rupee-less, not knowing if I’d encounter the same problems there. I wouldn’t truly relax until I was clutching a wad of bills in my hot little hand. “There’s an ATM about 200 meters away. It’ll open in an hour,” the clerk told me. I wondered why he hadn’t mentioned that vital piece of information the day before. Giving myself fifteen minutes to find the machine, I arrived precisely at the supposed opening hour, except that the clerk had gotten the hour wrong. The doors were open and the machine had just spat out its last withdrawal leaving me and dozens of others disappointed. S.H.I.T. What do I do know? And then He appeared, my knight in business casual. He took me by the elbow and escorted me to a row of scooters. My hero mounted a sleek black Mahindra Rodeo, and indicated that I should get on behind him. We whizzed through the streets of Patan, dodging auto-rickshaws, car, and trucks, a cow or two, until we arrived at another ATM center. Undeterred by the packed lobby that spilled out onto the sidewalk, he plunged into the crowd, pulling me with him, and the crowd parted like the Red Sea until we stood in front of the ATM, glinting like the Holy Grail. I felt guilty about skipping the line but not so much that I insisted on waiting my turn. I was desperate, and the others seemed to have taken our intrusion in their stride. I inserted my card, punched in my PIN, selected 10,000 rupees, the most I was allowed to withdraw, and waited with bated breath for the whirring sound that indicated money was being dispensed. Success! I shoved the cash onto my bag, trembling with relief and elation. My knight returned me to my hotel and I bid him a grateful farewell as he rode off into the sunset.

The acts of kindness in Patan were just two of the many I experienced over the next few weeks: the man in the Ahmedabad airport, who at midnight helped me get wifi  by having the passcode sent to his phone (I needed wifi to schedule an Uber pickup); the families who watched out for me in nearly deserted cars of the night trains; the people who bought or prepared me cups of tea, expecting nothing in return. Indians seemed to be waiting for the opportunity to help me out.

MORE BHANG FOR YOUR BUCK

The man dropped a small handful of pasty crumbs onto a cloth, which was draped over a stainless steel bowl. He added a tablespoon of sugar, the juice of a lime, of a small orange, two blobs of something white. He half-filled a stainless steel cup with water and with one hand holding the cup and one end of the cloth, he slowly poured the water over the ingredients, rubbing them with his other hand to push them through the cloth into the bowl below. He swirled the liquid in the bowl, poured it into the cup, back into the bowl and finally into the cup once more. He handed the cup to the waiting customer, who drank it in one gulp.

I stood in the narrow street in Udaipur, occasionally jumping out of the path of a motorbike, watching the man repeat the routine for each customer. He was the proprietor of a very popular little business. I had to find out what the drink was. Alas, the man spoke very little English. He showed me a greenish-brown cookie that was the source of the crumbs. A drink made from a cookie? He broke off a small piece and gave it to me. It was soft and sweet. Could I buy a cookie? I’d taken so many photos I felt obliged to buy something. He shook his head saying it was better if he prepared a lassi for me, with mango, popular with foreigners. He disappeared through a doorway and returned shortly with a glass of pale green milkiness. It was much tastier than I’d expected and I’d drunk almost all of it before I really noticed the glass. It was filthy. Oh God, how could I be so stupid and after being so careful up till then, not wanting to repeat the gastro-intestinal agony of my first trip. In 1984, I’d had the companionship of my ailing fellow students. This time I was going to suffer alone. Thank god I’d splurged on a nice hotel so I wouldn’t be on my knees on a concrete floor, throwing up into some crappy (literally) toilet.

And it was to that beautiful hotel room that I raced, praying a dose of grapefruit seed extract and a few drops of oregano oil would kill any bacteria who’d thought they’d found a nice home in my gut. I lay on the bed to await the coming misery. After two hours my stomach was still calm, no nausea. The symptoms I was experiencing, disconnection from my body, lightheadedness, were vaguely familiar. Then it hit me. I wasn’t sick. I was high. I learned later that I’d had bhang an edible form of cannabis. I am so clueless about drugs—I rarely consume alcohol—that only then did the behavior of the stall’s customers make sense: the uniformity of their gender, all male; their furtiveness, ducking behind a dirty curtain to drink; their reluctance to be photographed. I stayed high for seven hours and never did get sick.

Liz will be back next week with Part II of her India chronicles

© 2017 Elizabeth Burns

All photographs by Elizabeth Burns

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