Wednesday, January 26, 2011
Goats, Trains and a Harrowing Escape
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.