Sunday, October 21, 2007

Ind-ventures (Please. Just this once. Let me pun.)

My new policy is to only pose for pictures if someone lets me hold a baby.

You see, somewhere deep within the Indian psyche is a near-uncontrollable devotion to Hospitality Towards Strangers. It's lovely--when it's not deeply disturbing. When said Indian has no recourse to provide hospitality to firangs (foreigners), most seem to resort to maniacal staring.

Case in point: Some friends and I took a trip to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Indian independence. We took a night bus to Hampi, an ancient capital of the Vijayangar...naragarnasomething empire. We arrived exactly on Independence Day, along with about several hundred Indian tourists who had clearly never seen a real live white person. If we stood still for more than a minute or two, we got mobbed. I'm serious. At one point, I was in the center of a group of about 50 Indians, all of whom wanted to take a picture with/of me. I literally had people asking for my autograph. That was cool for about a minute and then it got progressively annoying and scary.

We ran. And like every day in India, we ran into situations equal parts absurd and sublime.

In a country with such a long tradition of concern about purity, I am constantly amused by how little there actually is. Most of the Muslim ruins around Hampi were built on top of Hindu bases, complete with carved depictions of Hindu gods. We climbed huge rocks in the sunset to see a Hindu temple and listened to music from a mosque wafting over Friday boulders. In climbing a mountain to visit the temple of Hanuman the monkey god, a monkey jumped onto my friend Sam's backpack to search for snacks in all of his pockets.

Other noteworthy images and observations: an 11-year old girl sweeping the ground at my hostel, right beneath a sign that said "abolish child labor." Sleeping under mosquito nets still feels like sleeping in a fort of blankets, and I still giggle inside every time I get in bed. On the train back, we met Mr. Kumar, who was extremely proud that he spent "one whole hour talking to foreigners." He mostly just talked about the fact that his mother forced him to get married three years ago, but, due to both of them working on postgrad degrees, they had never spent more than a month together. "I have not had much satisfaction in my marriage." On the train ride home, halfway through the state of Karnataka, all the people, buildings and vehicles turned earth-red.

Several weeks later, some of us took a train to Pondicherry, a former French colony. There, we rented scooters and motorcycles and braved Indian traffic to find a beach near a remote fishing village. The driving was made more difficult by the fact that the motorcycle that I was on did not have a horn, which is like not having a steering wheel, doors, and turn signals on an American vehicle. We compensated by yelling OUR HORN IS BROKEN every time we came up on somebody and feeling extremely classy.

On the way home, the motorcycle stalled like you wouldn't believe and we couldn't get the damn thing started for about 15 minutes. As I looked up in frustration, I saw a statue of what I think was Jesus. Or possibly Krishna. Having exhausted all other avenues, I raised my hand and said. "Can we get a little help here? My mom's been in the God business for quite a while now, and I help people sometimes. Whaddya say?"

The motorcycle immediately started, and now I'm pretty sure I have to be a Christian. Or possibly a Hindu.