Wednesday, January 26, 2011
Tina had some more shopping to do so I tagged along with the camera to do some walkabout of the streets and get pictures of the slice of life stuff I had been driving by. I get lots of stares here, nothing threatening ever but very frank looks of ‘wow, that guy looks funny’. I went to a few shops and bought a coke, snacks etc. I talked to some people and had a little sit down for tea. 1 old man stopped me while I was snapping some cows eating garbage and asked me to take his photo. This happened fairly often, I’m not sure what the photographee gets out of it but they seem pretty pleased and aren’t shy about asking me to do it. This particular guy gave me 10 minutes on how bad Indians are about garbage. I took this to mean with regard to throwing trash on the street and/or the local authorities not picking it up. He also seemed to be making a larger point that it had always been like this and always would be. For my part I think that if you are going to have cows roaming free and want them to handle of all the organic composting for you right there on the sidewalk that’s fine but you have to figure out what to do with the plastic. All the little bodegas sell these tiny packets that have little bits of crunchy flavored stuff. Think sunflower seeds sold by the pinch. The problem with them is that the wrappers are all tossed on the ground immediately after consumption. You can’t look 10 feet in any direction without seeing brightly colored wrappers littering the street. The old man was embarrassed and upset by this and I can’t blame him.
Tuesday was a pretty laid back day. We started a little rough w/ no hot water in our shower forcing some Indian style ‘squat and fling water at smelly parts’ technique. It was early in the trip and everyone still had the spirit of adventure going so no major protests went lodged. I worked on arranging travel/hotel for us to get to Jaipur on the 28th/29th and on to Agra from there. The train booking system was mystifying me so I enlisted help. Turned out I was doing it all right but there were no spaces avail. on any trains going from Vadodara to Jaipur. Apparently I could go down to the station and get better results by claiming part of the foreign tourist quota. This is a 5-10% set aside on every train saved for those like me which gets released to locals 24 hours before the train leaves. Sounded easy enough so I arranged for a lift to the train station the next morning.
I was kinda punked out for some reason and stayed in bed sleeping a good part of the day. T and the kids hung out w/ the family for 1 year old Eshan’s b-day.
Every Train Station in the world smells to varying degrees like urine. Let me clarify, varying degrees doesn’t mean there are any that smell 0% like urine. I guess we’d say the range is from 5% of the air is actually urine to 100%. Vadodara train station is in the upper 70s. There are mangy sleeping dogs everywhere and a great deal of anxious scurrying by humans whose purpose I never quite nailed down. After several mis-starts (wait 20) I finally got to the appropriate queue and was 3rd in line when without so much as a ‘piss off’ the guy running the line dropped a ‘closed sign’ and said he’d be back from lunch in 20. The problem of course is that this is the only line that can hand out the tourist quota tickets. Wait 20. I made it to the front only to be told I had to do a different form. Back to the end of the line. Wait 20. Back to the front and now the bastard tells me that the trains I requested are full and I’d be on a waitlist. He did this with 2 keystrokes and could easily have told me the first time when I had the wrong form but such is bureaucracy so no melt down. Before I left he did advise me that there was ‘no chance’ I’d make the train. No explanation, just ‘no chance’.
Frustrated I found the rickshaw pool out front and asked who would take me the gom (that’s town for us down w/ the lingo) and for how much. I knew from having checked earlier w/ the family that 50 was the real number. The first 8 guys wouldn’t go less than 100 so I just started to walk away when one guy kind of boldy stepped forward, puffed up his chest and said “I'll take you for 50”. When we got there I gave him the 100 cause I liked the hustle and that sort of thing needs to be rewarded. We went from there to a little garden party lunch put on by 1 of the aunties. Good food and got to have my first fresh sugarcane juice. By fresh I mean they had the cane in piles there and a rickety old machine cranking out juice by the cupful. It looked like a wasteful process, getting very little juice for the quantity of plant pushed through but no matter, I loved it. Not intensly sweet like a soda, just a nice pleasant refresher on a hot day.
From there we toured Laxmi palace. The place was beautiful but hard not to think of the resources dumped into it when there was so much poverty around. But during the Raj times I guess weird stuff like that was the norm. The audio tour was nice and full of interesting facts like how the architect became obsessed with the idea that the foundation was not sound and so killed himself. J esp. liked the armory, T and Sophia the clean bathrooms.
Back to the flat to get into tuxes and fancy business for the big Casino Night, featuring goat race and booze. I don’t recall if I mentioned this or not but Gujarat is the only dry state in India. Foreigners are allowed to buy and consume though so through complex machinations involving passports and paperwork a great qty. of booze was laid on (later news reports valued the stash at 40K. US though I'm skeptical). Me and J struggled through but eventually got our self-tied bow ties on, joined the girls (looking stunning) and drove to a secure farm location. We were informed en route that these parties were sometimes raided but not to worry because the local police chief was invited and would be in attendance. The needful had been done, or so we thought.
The place looked great and the bar was going strong throughout the first goat race. The goat race is a special wedding add-on by one of the cousins based in Uganda. He had run a few for other family functions and good time was had by all. First he solicits goat owner consortia. For 1K INR you and your friends can buy the rights to your choice of goats. Winner gets the entry fees and the intense satisfaction of being proven a good judge of goat flesh. Once the goats are all claimed the betting begins. The Goat Race Master (assisted by the Assistant Goat Race Master –Jackson Baker) then announces the opening of the para-mutual betting period. Winnings are shared pro-rata by everyone picking the right goat.
I backed Bhapu (Sophia picked Big Momma) who led for the entire race including the warm up lap but was nosed out by NRI Patel at the line. I’m not claiming a fix or a mis-read of the photo results but let’s just say that the chief of police was the primary owner of the NRI Patel goat and I noticed he and the Goat Race Master sharing a big whiskey just after the race results posted.
The program was to include a family skit followed by a series of additional goat races. The family skit had been rehearsed since we arrived and the purpose was to ‘introduce’ each member of the family by having other members of the family do a sort of general imitation via dance set to favorit bollywood tunes. Each was about 30 seconds and there must have been 30 family members introduced. J, S and Tina were great sports and despite not know the songs, Hindi or any of the ‘moves’ did their part in several shows. The family laughed at the inside jokes, the crowd laughed at the songs + spectacle of people dancing and the girl marrying in wondered what exactly she was in for.
During preparations for the next goat race I noticed a group of guys standing near the entrance talking animatedly. Not wanting to be a pain, I hovered over nearby and grabbed a cousin to see what was up. The rumor was we were being raided and the police were negotiating with the in charge uncles about letting most of the party go and just keeping a few to send to jail. As things became more and more heated the guys on our side began pointing and gesturing (the Guji one where you take your right hand up by your head, palm in and make a kind of pinching motion and then rapidly and violently flinging it forward to an open hand in front of you as though you are pulling a super huge booger off of your forehead and flinging out in front of you to show someone) at me. The whole group turned to me and considered me like I was some kind of puzzle they had not considered. Eventually one of the uncles came over to me and told me to just stand there and watch what was happening but not to leave. Odd. The back and forth went on for about 15 minutes and the cops finally left. I went back to the table to finish eating but the cousins started rounding everyone up insisting we leave immediately. Apparently the uncles had gotten rid of the initial scout party but the ‘strike force’ was coming and we only had a little time to get everyone out. I helped getting everyone away from the bar and into cars and as the last groups were heading out a shabbily dressed guy reached over and grabbed one of the cousins by the arm. I kind of glared at the guy and when he noticed me I put my arm around the kid and we walked off. Later I found out that he was the plainclothes that had infiltrated the party and was trying to grab a few before the strike force arrived. I couldn’t figure out why me scowling at him did anything but glad that we got the kid home. We went bouncing through the darkness in wildly overfull cars trying to find a back-way out of the farm country that would bring us around the roadblocks. Once we were 10 mins down the road everyone kind of breathed easier and the aunties had a good cackle explaining to me the uncles told the police I was an American diplomat here on business and that if they busted the party with me in it, it would be a bad scene for all of them. The deal they worked out was to let all of us go and just arrest the catering and bar staff. I was assured that the unlucky ones knew this was a risk and ‘would be taken care of’. I later learned this turned out to be true but also that a few regular people showed up late to the party and got caught in the net as well. The guy that owns the farm is a cousin and had to hide out for about a week while a deal got done to keep him out of jail.
Sophia was a little freaked out but we talked her down eventually. Jackson thought it was the coolest night of his life. Assistant Goat Race Master on the run from the law in a foreign country. I’ve been referred to as the American diplomat ever since.
Tuesday, January 04, 2011
We didn’t seem to have too much jet lag and got up at a reasonable hour to show up for breakfast. We were informed we’d all be going for a day of beauty so split up as always…gents this way, ladies that way. They gave me a shave (both face and dome) and when I looked later noticed it cost about $4. I once paid $50 for a Royal Shave in Vegas and as far as experiences go, they were almost identical. I’ve never had a facial, manicure or pedicure and I don’t much care if I get another one. My heels are super dry and cracked (I make those Before pictures on the Heel Tastic commercials look smooth and supple by comparison). I didn’t mind any of it except when the dude tried to put my foot into a crockpot of wax. That too would have been fine but the crockpot is made for 1 large roast or a size 11 foot. Like Operation, the trick to this procedure is to get your foot straight in without touching the sides on account-a they are super-crazy hot. His English wasn’t good and he couldn’t or wouldn’t mention this fact and also he is bad at estimating foot sizes (mine is 14). A bit of burnt foot smell later we go the procedure done and I was pronounced fit to display.
Everyone had bailed so flagged down the rickshaw man and through bad English, worse Gujarati, sign language and grunting I got him to take me home (maybe 5 KM) for .75 with tip.
Back to the house I was instructed to take J, some younger cousins and a driver to go get shoes. The theory is that me and J stay in the car and the local folks go negotiate a price before I show up. The glaring American-ness of my visage apparently triples prices. We haggled it through and I think I spent $50 for chumples (?) and mogiridi (?) for me and J. Incidentally when the day of the event to wear my mogirdi came, the aunties decided I should wear my Eccos instead. The mogirdis were too fancy for the wedding. Wtf.
On the way back the driver got a call that we had to pick up and old man and drop him at the clinic where Haresh was getting a malaria treatment. Already present in the car were: driver, me, J, Tilak (14) and Tania (18). The car was some type of micro-sedan so unless we were gonna tie the old dude on the roof I didn’t see how this was going to get done. The resourceful driver flagged down an empty rickshaw and negotiated for him to follow us for the pickup. When we came around the corner and the geezer saw our full car he lost his shit. I offered to go in the rickshaw with Jackson but the driver wouldn’t have it so the old man finished his tirade and finally climbed into the rickshaw. We watched out the back as he followed us and throughout the 10 min. ride he never let up in shouting at the rickshaw man. We arrived at the clinic and the driver went over to direct mr. grumpy pants to the appropriate office. He got another ass chewing while we watched and laughed.
Continuing the trend of not knowing what was coming we found out late that there was to be a Swaminarayan pray service (bhujan?) put on by Pooja’s family that evening. We (the groom’s side) all thought this was an informal prayer session at the bride’s family’s house so no one got particularly dressed. When we pulled up to the elaborately decorated lot and found the white gloved caterers there was a collective groan of ‘we look like slobs’ but home was 30 mins away so we soldiered on. Dinner is a big bustling buffet where J and I got our first lessons in Guji buffet etiquette. Push hard, wave plate and demand service. There were candle stands with oil lamps sprinkled around and Sophia walked right into one with her eyebone. We panicked at first thinking she had scalding oil dumped into her eyeball but thankfully it was just a solid thump instead. After dinner we stopped into the swami service. Fanatically hospitable as always they spotted the big white guy standing in the back and first insisted on bringing me a chair (I declined 6 times, chair got brung anyway) and then all but dragged me to sit up in the front. I don’t much like people putting their hands on me and people here love putting hteir hands on me. I shrugged the little usher guy off finally and we listened to the signing and preaching for a few and finally rolled out for the evening.
Started our first real day to hang out with family and dive in to the wedding madness. We slept in a bit and joined the gang for brunch in Sonal’s backyard. Because the wedding had not officially begun there was some non-veg cooking happening in the backyard. A little gas burner was setup so Tina and some of the less dietary-restricted aunties fried up some ham/bacon, a type of sausage and omelets. Apparently during the actual wedding time no one is supposed to eat meat, or something. This was the big opportunity to get in some non-veg while it was allowed. Let’s talk about veg and non-veg. To this American the phrase ‘non-veg’ is one of those logic puzzles that cause my brain gears to seize up. In this largely Hindu country the default assumption seems to be that the food will be vegetarian. So if it’s anything but that then it’s ‘non-veg’ which means meat, eggs and cheese…or something. I’ll not belabor the point of how unimaginable I personally find the concept of vegetarianism but will say that non-veg sounds like some kind of triple or quadruple negative. During brunch a clamoring for Bloody Mary’s began and so we set off to town to find ingredients. I guess clamor isn’t the right word, it was one guy but that guy has a big personality and I think is a little awesome. Before the store we stopped by to visit Sonal’s husband Haresh who was in a little clinic above a grocery store (of all things) getting an IV treatment for malaria. He told me he gets this every 15 years or so and after a few days of treatment is fine. Gulp. After the clinic, we set off in search of tomato juice and worchestchisre. We failed to find anything so we stopped at a roadside vendor and bought his whole load of tomatoes. They got chopped, vodka was added and we called it bloody mary. Don’t judge us.
In the afternoon we went shopping for clothes for all the events. Some earlier arrivers had ordered tuxedos and we stopped for a fitting at a place called Raymond’s. Raymond’s must be a chain because I saw a few around town and even a reference to it in the book from 1973 I’m reading (Great Railway Bazaar). Nice place doing all sorts of formal wear and made to measure suits and shirts. We spent the most time at an ethnic wear (their term) shop getting the kurtas (link). Shopping is a very different experience here. They brought us water, tea etc and I heard the girls were brought sandwiches and snacks. Meanwhile all our measurements were taken (video) and the clerks began slapping cellophane wrapped packages onto the counter. You basically tell the guy what sort of color you are looking for and either simple or whatever the Gujarati word is for not simple and he starts pulling down packages to which our leader would rapid fire ‘no, no, no, yes, no, no’ scanning through dozens at once. We got the whole pile put together and made a side trip through the old city to have a different tailor make me a jodpuri suit. The shop was in one of the tiny alleys of the old city and we got to watch some monkey mamas w/ babies in tow scamper down 1 side of the alley and up the other. Never been that close to a real monkey before, despite the cuddly image they portray up-close they seem mean.
I’m still not ready to talk about driving in India but driving through the old city of Vadodara was totally nuts. The streets are inches wide, lined with parked bikes/scooters/motorcycles, congested with pedestrians and somehow through all this squeeze lanes. I’m not exaggerating to say that 1 average street lane in Tucson would be 2.5 here. There are not many side mirrors and clearances between oncoming traffic is measured in mm. There was tons of cool stuff to see but I’ll cover Vadodara generally in a later note.
The girls got back late from shopping fairly exhausted, we had some standard Gujarati food and off to bed. Big first day.