A college anthropology course I was taking when living in Chicago required that I spend five weeks in southern India doing research. The course had all the customary classroom textbook and exam requirements, and these were augmented by films from the India Tourism Board regarding life in India. There also was a class outing to a local Indian restaurant one evening to introduce us to foods to which we may not have been exposed before. Then, the professor informed the class that our studies would culminate with an actual visit to India at the end of the semester. We were expected to write a research paper upon our return to the United States based on our travel experiences, and this would constitute the major portion of the final grade.
About a week before we were to depart the U.S., I received a shocking surprise. I learned that no one else in the class would be going. Everyone seemed to have an excuse for not making the trip—couldn’t afford it, couldn’t get the time off work, didn’t want to go, etc. I was disappointed but had no intentions of canceling myself, so it was just me, the professor, and his wife. She had preceded us to India by a few weeks to get “the lay of the land”, I presumed. It wasn’t explained why, and I didn’t ask. The three of us were to meet in Bombay (renamed Mumbai in 1995) and then travel together for the balance of the trip.
But, my adventure began even before reaching India. The professor and I departed from Chicago and flew directly to London, England, where we were informed that we had no confirmed reservations for the rest of the journey. One of my classmates, a travel and tourism student, had made the arrangements for us but didn’t notice that the remaining portion of the trip after the London stop was “on request”. That’s airline lingo for “standby only”, rather than confirmed reservations. We were placed on the waiting list for each of the remaining segments of our flight: London to Rome, Italy, Rome to Karachi, Pakistan, and finally, Karachi to Bombay, India—taking almost three days in total.
Each of us carried only a large backpack and nothing more. We intended to travel as cheaply as possible in order to really get into the experience and not “view it from afar” (from a first-class section point of view, that is). When we arrived in Bombay finally well after Midnight, the professor retrieved his backpack from the luggage carousel, and that’s when we discovered that mine was missing. Of course, the Lost and Found Department was closed at that time of night, so we’d have to wait until morning to either locate my backpack or file a lost baggage claim.
Our accommodations for the first night also had been arranged by my classmate (God help him!) but after that, we were on our own. We took a taxi to the YWCA guest house in Bombay where the professor joined his wife in the “for-couples-only” section. I secured shared lodging with two female students in the building next door in the “young-women-only”, dormitory-style hostel.
I had breakfast with my new roomies in the morning and learned all about their lives as students in India. They spoke very good English and proceeded to tell me all about their Home Economics classes. One animated girl chatted on about their teacher who was trying to instruct them on how to use a sewing machine. The teacher’s favorite expression when something didn’t work right on the machine was, “It’s all haywire” (much the same feeling that I had about how my trip had begun).
I met up with the professor and his wife after breakfast, and we attempted to locate my missing backpack. A trip back to the airport proved unsuccessful as there was still no sign of my bag, nor any airplanes landing at that time of day. We decided to do a bit of sightseeing to pass the time after learning that the next plane would not arrive until the middle of the night. After a dinner of Chinese food, I left the professor and his wife and returned to the airport myself to keep the vigil for my lost bag. In the end, it was worth the wait, and happily, my backpack and I were reunited at long last.
It was so late when I got back to the youth hostel that I had to awaken our security guard to gain entry. (The students had a strict 10:30 p.m. curfew which I missed by a mile.) The security guard was at his post doing what he was supposed to do at that time of night—sleep in the doorway of the hostel to prevent anyone from getting past him. I awakened him, apologized, carefully stepped over him, apologized again and went inside. I trudged up the stairs to my room, changed into clean clothes, shoved the backpack under my bed and got a few hours’ blessed sleep.
After breakfast and bidding my roommates farewell, I joined the professor and his wife for the official beginning of the adventure we were about to experience. At each place we visited, they would introduce themselves to people first and then introduce me as “the class”. (That got old pretty fast.) We stayed in other hostels and cheapie hotels along the way and ate primarily Chinese food—lots and lots of Chinese food. Contrary to what the professor had been stressing all semester long about savoring the new and different experiences we would have, I guess curry-spiced Indian food was not on his “to do” list.
After several days of sightseeing and exploring our new environment, we finally left Bombay and headed further south. We booked first-class passage for ourselves on an overnight steamer cruise to Goa where I shared a cabin with the professor, his wife and his filthy cigar. Second-class accommodations were supposed to be worse.
At Goa, I decided to find out just how much worse and secured second-class passage for myself on a local train to take us the final leg to Bangalore. “Second class” is exactly what you might imagine. Absent were the padded railway seats, and in their place were only hard, wooden benches. If I opened the window to get some air inside the stifling train car, I had to do battle with the constant onslaught of coal dust from the engine. Wipe off perspiration or wipe off soot—those were my choices.
We were met at the railway station in Bangalore by another academic, a friend of my professor. Paul, originally from Great Britain, was there on sabbatical from the University of Illinois, writing a book about the life of the hill tribes in the south of India. He taught anthropology at the University back home and used filmmaking as his primary medium of instruction. He became our instant guide (and my instant friend!) and got us into places normally not visited by tourists.
Wherever we went, the strong scent of eucalyptus hung in the air. At first, it assaulted my senses because I wasn’t used to such a constant, heady aroma. But, by the end of our journey, I inhaled in great lungs full, welcoming the pungent ever-present scent. To this day, I find the smell of eucalyptus in the air a pleasant one, easily transporting me back in time (a la Pavlov’s dogs) to the weeks I spent there.
The car traffic in India was “unusual”, at best. At night, drivers didn’t turn on their headlights, whether in or outside the towns, except to flash an oncoming car in warning. It’s a wonder anyone survived that system—including sparing me so I could live to tell this story.
It was difficult, as well, getting used to crossing the streets on foot in the city. One always had to be mindful of traffic passing on the “wrong side” of the street, as in England. One street in Bangalore completely mystified me. When crossing over on the striped, pedestrian crosswalk to the opposite side of the street, I was met at the curb by an iron railing barring my path. Then, I had to walk about twenty feet in the street before being able to step up onto the curb where the “safety” railing ended.
I found the city markets fascinating, though. Everything imaginable seemed to be for sale, from booths where vendors sold lace tablecloths to family planning tents where vasectomies were performed on the spot. (Talk about acquiring “seedless grapes” at the marketplace!)
We had been in Bangalore for just a short time when Paul introduced us to a restaurant called “The Only Place” for one of the most delicious (and cheapest) steak dinners I’ve ever eaten. It became a regular haunt, and after dinner, we’d go to “The Milk Bar” for what was to become a dessert favorite with us—vanilla ice cream topped with fruit salad and whipped cream. Cruelly, there was a scale on the street corner just outside “The Milk Bar”. We’d weigh ourselves, and then the machine would dispense a fortune-telling card. It beckoned me, and guiltily, I let myself be drawn to it each and every time we ate there.
Before leaving the U.S., I had secured an “All-India Liquor Permit” from the Indian Consulate in order to obtain liquor legally during our stay. Once in India, my name would be recorded, the permit would be used to purchase “six units” of liquor per month and would expire after three months’ time (the permit, not me). The six units denoted various quantities, depending upon whether you purchased beer, wine or “spirits” (hard liquor).
One day, Paul and I went into town to purchase liquor. Most of it would be used for gifts we’d present to the various tribal leaders that we planned to visit in the Nilgiri Hills of southern India, but some would be for our own personal use. I underwent the lengthy registration process in Bangalore so my name could be logged into the registry as a bona fide purchaser of “spirits”.
My passport, my tourist visa, the liquor permit and the liquor order form I had filled out were carefully checked by the local authority. Surreptitiously, Paul and I lifted several blank order forms from the counter so that I could sign my name and turn them over to him for his later use. (Once this initial registration is completed, the order blank holder need not present any identification for future purchases.) Paul cautioned me in advance to sign only my first and last names on the registration form without the title of “Ms.” In short order, my title would become “Mr.” once he began using my permit after I departed for the U.S.
Before long, my professor and his wife informed us that they’d had enough of our itinerary. They decided to leave us and travel to a resort area in the south of the country but would rejoin me in Bombay a couple days before our return to the U.S. Left to our own devices, Paul decided that he would continue doing research on his book and that I would help him. Oh, I almost forgot to mention our mode of transportation for the balance of the trip—Paul’s motorcycle.
Our first stop was at a French Catholic mission where the only person living there was a French priest who spoke no English. This was no problem for Paul who is multi-lingual, and he chatted away with the priest for quite some time. (I was very bored.) The priest gave us access to the library there at the mission, and we pored over dusty tomes for hours, locating several important references for the book Paul was writing.
We declined an invitation to stay for lunch because we did not want to be late for a fire-walking ceremony Paul wanted me to see. He apologized to the priest for cutting our visit short but said we only had time to stay for a drink. Imagine my surprise when a box of crackers and a bottle of Red Knight Whiskey appeared from the priest’s desk drawer, especially at 11:00 a.m. on a Sunday morning!
“Je suis desolee que je ne peux pas offrirle Johnny Walker”, he apologized. (“I’m sorry I can’t offer you any Johnny Walker.”)
He explained that the isolated mission is a good place for meditation, but that’s about all.
We visited several of the tribes in the Nilgiri Hills during those next two weeks, finding lodging at a missionary tourist home run by a charming, elderly New Zealand woman. She had emigrated from her homeland many years before and now offered room and board at reasonable rates to traveling missionaries and others. We were served sumptuous European-style meals, each of which was preceded by a prayer of thanksgiving led by our gracious hostess.
Each morning a servant would quietly slip in through my unlocked back door (sometimes while I was still asleep in the other room) to bring pots of hot water to fill my nineteenth century cast-iron bathtub. After bathing, I’d dress as fast as possible in order that my body might retain some of the heat from the bath water’s temperature. Our rooms weren’t heated, so I learned quickly to bathe and dress as hurriedly as possible. Then, after having our breakfast, we’d hop on the motorcycle and leave the tourist home to begin the adventure “du jour”.
Over the days that passed, we paid a visit to many of the tribes in the area, obtaining interviews from the elders for Paul’s research (and mine). If we were lucky enough to find a ritual ceremony of some kind going on nearby, we’d make it a point to attend. During the day, we’d be offered something to eat and drink at every place we stopped. To refuse the hospitality would be taken as a personal insult to the host. And each evening, of course, we’d have a big dinner at home to look forward to. Many times we’d have to stop in the forest between tribal visits to give up our last meal, just in order to make room for the next one.
I know. Yuck.
At the various festivals and ceremonies we attended, Paul filmed the activities, and I took on the role as his assistant. My job was to follow him around and record the background music and crowd sounds on tape for later dubbing into the film he was shooting. I toted a tape recorder slung over one shoulder while pointing a three-foot long, directional microphone at the crowd to capture the audio portion. I wore headphones and walked a couple paces behind him, careful to not get distracted from my duties in case he stopped suddenly. I even remembered to hit “Record” (most of the time) as he filmed.
The male-female gender roles were still quite separate and distinct at that point in time. A woman “knew her place” and accepted it without question. But, if she were a foreign woman, it was an entirely different story—the second-class citizen status did not apply. I was accorded every courtesy and consideration that men were given, including being invited to sit on the “men’s side” of an arena at festival celebrations. My status was elevated even more by being in the company of Paul who was very well known and well liked by many of the tribal leaders. He was known to them as “King” (which totally impressed me at the time until he explained later that the word simply meant “white man”).
The local women occupied a separate, subordinated place there and did not directly take part in the festivities as the men did. They just observed from the sidelines. A prime example of this occurred at a village ceremony we attended to celebrate the cleansing and reopening of a temple previously “defiled by an unclean woman” (someone who had entered the temple during her menstrual cycle).
Musicians began to play, and the men moved from the perimeter of the outdoor arena to the center. They formed a large circle and moved to the music of horns and drums, maintaining the circle as they danced. And then, I was invited to join in the dancing—just me and the guys. The women watched from the outer edge of the grassy field, and no one, male or female, voiced any complaint about my participation. It was simply an accepted fact that a foreign woman enjoyed the same status as the men. Everyone just appeared happy to have their temple back in use again. (I smiled, too, and then tucked my spare Tampax down a little further inside my pocket).
After a couple weeks of traveling around the hills of southern India, Paul and I finally returned to the “big city” of Bangalore. All I craved was a long, hot shower and a pillow on which to rest my sore butt after spending too many hours on the back of a motorcycle, especially while wearing my oversized backpack. One of the places where we found lodging on the way back was a rest house in the town of Mysore. It was at a railway station by the name of Mysore Junction. (How appropriate!)
A final visit to “The Only Place” for one last, delectable steak dinner with an ice cream and fruit salad chaser, and I was ready for my trip home. Despite all the walking I had done throughout my stay, the meals had outpaced the exercise, and that damnable scale on the street corner by “The Milk Bar” showed I’d gained eleven pounds! Even the message on the fortune card spit out by the scale was a disappointment.
We returned to the U.S. after five weeks, and I wrote a brilliant (I thought) seventy-eight page paper detailing my experiences. I walked into the old professor’s office, beaming my exuberance, and presented my masterpiece to him with a flourish.
He looked up from his work, took the paper from me and said, “Oh, yeah. I turned in the grades already. I gave you an ‘A.’ ”