Island Girl

She stood erect and motionless atop a knoll  of rubble and gravel on a little traffic island in the middle of a busy intersection. Staring out  into the distance, she appeared lifeless, except for her large brown eyes blinking slowly.

She was a girl of about 14 or 15, dressed in traditional garb, her long jet black hair pulled back in a braid, her midriff bare, her exposed feet in a pair of flimsy sandals. Her hands were clasped together and her elbows outstretched. 
My car, stuck as always in traffic, was parked directly in front of her, so that she was framed in my passenger window. Unwittingly, my gaze was fixed on her as one might mindlessly stare at a TV screen.
I began to wonder what she was doing. I expected she might approach the car, perhaps to beg, maybe to attempt to sell something. But she didn’t move. I thought of taking a picture of her since she seemed almost posed for one. But it seemed too obvious and in a way unfair.
A boy, maybe a year or two younger, was just to her right, on what would constitute a street curb if such a thing existed here. He was probably her brother and he was rummaging through a pile of debris, perhaps fishing for anything of value that could be salvaged, recycled, traded or sold. 
Maybe she was watching over him while he went on his scavenger hunt. But she did not look at him. She just stared, trance-like. 
I wondered why she wasn’t in school. I thought about this hapless being whose future seemed so bleak. What would become of her? If she were in school she would at least have a chance of making a living as one of the millions of tech workers. Yes, she would be crammed into a cubicle, headpiece attached, hands glued to a keyboard. Yes, she would be nothing but an anonymous pawn in a global power shift that, in an endless game of making things cheaper,  “outsourced” modern-age labor from the Industrialized World to the Third World. 
But she would be making a living, enough to pay for a roof over her head. As it was, this street urchin life she inhabited would inevitably condemn her to a life of arduous, monotonous manual labor that would quickly turn her into one of the many bent-over old women who lined the streets,  sweeping with their makeshift grass  brooms, whisking dirt away, all in futility.  
Her stoicism only seemed to confirm she was already resigned to an inevitable, inescapable destiny.
But just then her eyes crinkled and she broke into a large toothy grin, springing to life like any giggling teen-age girl.
I wasn’t sure if this was a charade she played to pass the time, maybe a bit of performance art. Maybe she was slightly embarrassed that I was looking at her and at the same time flattered that anyone would even notice her amid all the chaos and cacophony of this city of 10 million souls.
And it then occurred to me that I had it all wrong. Maybe she was amused because I was the one who was trapped. After all, at that particular moment, stuck in traffic, nothing was more true.

Maybe she was as free as could be and wanted nothing more.

If the meek shall inherit the earth, they could very well start here.

The Uncomfortable Incident at Locker # 55

(The following story is true. Even the names have not been changed to protect the innocent.)
I had an hour to kill before jumping on late night calls with the U.S. and decided to take advantage of the steam sauna at the hotel to clear my head. I checked in at the spa desk, picked up a very charming antique skeleton key for a locker and began to wind my way through the labyrinth of hallways to find the changing room. I passed a woman, probably in her mid 40s,  standing by one of the massage tables. She patted the leather cushion. “Ready, sir?” I politely declined and asked where the men’s locker room might be. She motioned for me to follow her. She led me through all the secret passage ways the staff obviously used until we saw the sign clearly marked “Men.” I was about to thank her for services but she marched right into the changing area.
OK, not that unusual. I have seen matronly women as attendees in men’s restrooms in Hong Kong and Germany. They go about their business cleaning stalls and sinks with no compunction as to the circumstances. But I didn’t really want to disrobe with her there so again I was about to thank Massage Lady as a hint for her to leave when she called out “Vivek!” 
In a moment, a slender man, probably in his 20s, dressed in a bland tan uniform and who apparently was doing his best to grow a mustache, appeared. He smiled broadly for me. Maybe he recognized me from the gym the day before. I smiled back, and with this Massage Lady left me in good hands.
I proceeded to Locker # 55 and was about to insert the key when Vivek dashed around the benches and said, “Can I open for you, sir?”
I politely declined but he hovered uncomfortably close, inspecting my every move. His hands were fidgeting. Did he have no confidence that I could negotiate a skeleton key? Was he insulted that I said “no”? Was I depriving him of his only purpose in life?
I negotiated the task flawlessly (at least that’s my opinion) and opened the door. I expected this would give Vivek yet another clue that I could take it from here. But he stood there, now more nervous than before. In Asia, you get used to people being in what would ordinarily be “your space.” It’s crowded everywhere you go. But we were the only two people and I could actually hear him breathing. 
Now what? Well, I couldn’t exactly take a sauna in my work attire, I had to change. I sat on the bench and took off my shoes. Vivek immediately retrieved the spa slippers from my locker and began unwrapping the plastic. I took off my shirt and Vivek retaliated by unfolding a spa robe and holding it up, as though for me to put on.
He wasn’t budging and he was matching me move for move. Was I suppose to put the robe on first? I was in a men’s locker room for crying out loud. 
Vivek then held the robe up higher. Aha, he was providing me my own private dressing screen. I quickly changed into the little disposable gym shorts they provided and Vivek, right on cue, helped me on with my bathrobe. I quickly tied it up, afraid it might occur to him to take on this occupation as well.
I thanked him and smiled and began walking toward the sauna, clearly visible from where I was standing. He scooted out in front to lead the way.  I half expected him to be right at the door when I came out. He was not there. I walked to the showers and there was Vivek with the water running, towel draped over one arm and a glass of herbal tea held up. He smiled.

If I knew how to say the equivalent of “touché” in Hindi, I would have congratulated him on his victory.

Morning Prayers

Awakened at 5:15 by morning prayers reverberating through loudspeakers outside. That, of course is the cue for the dogs to begin their howling.

Lunch time

“Do you like Indian food?” asked Vinay, in all sincerity. Considering we were in the middle of India, I assumed the polite thing to do was answer in the affirmative.
“Oh, sure,” I said as convincingly as I could. I do, in fact; I just wasn’t sure what to expect and I’m no expert at identifying the various dishes. I didn’t want to appear ignorant.
We went into the cafeteria and my fears were allayed because there were only two choices on the menu: Northern Indian and Southern Indian. 
“As long as you’re not worried about calories, I recommend the Northern,” he said, noting that both offerings were vegetarian. I went with his advice and we each picked up a large plastic cafeteria tray, the kind with the food dividers built in, a spoon (no knives or forks) and paper napkins. We scooped up portions of rice, beans, cucumbers and various condiments that just by the aroma indicated a healthy dose of spiciness.
We sat with two other colleagues and began to eat.
“What do you think?” they asked.
“Oh, it’s really good,” I said. “The naan is much sweeter than the States,” I added.
“This is not naan,” they said, almost in unison. They said it with just a hint of condescension, as someone from San Francisco might admonish tourists that “It’s not Frisco.”
I was then educated on the differences between the flat bread that is baked and poori, a deep fried version.
Sure enough, the food was spicy. I had grabbed a glass of water but then remembered the caution to stick with bottled water only. So the glass remained full while steam built in my ears. Fortunately, there was ice cream (which had a consistency somewhat more akin to pudding) for dessert and that quelled the fire somewhat.
Over lunch the conversation covered  the same topics any co-workers would discuss: what’s wrong with our company, what we can do to improve it etc. But the lunchroom was filling up and people were waiting for tables. So we  cut the chit chat and took our trays to the kitchen. In the States, most cafeterias have those little conveyor systems where people half-heartedly clear their trays, most of it being plastic and paper products. Here, you were expected to clear everything off your plate. Sponges and squeegies were provided. And since only the napkins were disposable, there was little waste.
Next to the kitchen was a “Sink Washing Area,” where you could wash your hands before returning to work. Nice touch.

Morning scenes in Bangalore

Notice the cow munching on his breakfast …. the head is just below the cyclist’s backpack. He was one of many of the bovine species enjoying an untethered walk about town …

This may look like a carefully composed photo for National Geographic,  but — with all apologies to the young lady — it was just happenstance. I was actually aiming at the cow, but the taxi was moving too fast and the shutter speed on the iPhone is too slow.

A rug vendor cycling into market.

Welcome to India

As the plane began to make its descent into Bangalore, the crew went through all the usual requests for fastening seat belts, putting trays away and seats in the upright position.

And then the flight attendants each grabbed an aerosol can with a nozzle pointing straight up — the kind of can you might use to bomb a house for fleas — and they began walking up and down the aisles as a fine mist of some unknown pesticide covered everything — passengers, luggage and all. They did at least advise us — especially those wearing contact lenses — to cover our eyes.
The purser then instructed us to reset our watches to local time, 12 and 1/2 hours ahead. I don’t know of another country that has a timezone set to the half hour.
The hotel had arranged to have a driver to pick me up and so, after going through customs and immigration and guards with automatic weapons, I proceeded to the meeting place to look for the sign with my name on it. Usually there are a dozen  drivers with placards, but here there were well over 100. In  country of 1.2 billion, I suppose this should have been expected. 
I did not see my name anywhere. Several men approached me to offer car service “at a very good price.” I must have looked like an easy mark. But then a man came up to me and said: “Leela Palace?” I said yes, that was my hotel. I was not the only Caucasian getting off that plane so I’m not sure if he had ESP or took a lucky guess that I was the one.
We found our way to the car and began the drive into town. I settled in for what I thought would be a two-hour ride as it was the last time I was here. But the driver, who introduced himself as Patel, laughed and said it would only be a half hour. It was 3 a.m. and there would be no traffic.
Patel drove fast and maneuvered the 7-Series BMW like a pro, dodging delivery vans, potholes and barricades. When the road was straight and open, he kept the vehicle smack dab in the middle of the white lines dividing two lanes. He was very talkative and eager to practice his English. He told me that until a few years ago he knew only Kannada, a local dialect. Since becoming a driver for the hotel, he had learned Hindi (the national language) and then English, all from conversing with his passengers.
I asked why Indians pronounced the name of the city as Bangaluru. I assumed the name was changed back to its original form from the English pronunciation. (Mumbai become Bombay because that was how the English heard it pronounced and has now been returned to its original spelling and pronunciation).
Patel, who said he had only attended school until the fourth grade, gave me the complete history of the area, beginning with a tale as rich as any in Greek mythology. It was filled with deities and spirits, animal gods turning into humans etc. I didn’t catch all of it, because his accent was so thick and I was a little too distracted by his driving. But I got at least got this much:
Bangaluru is the abbreviation of three words that  mean “town of boiled beans.” The area was once a vast forest and in the 11th Century a king, while out hunting, got lost in the woods. He was tired and hungry and came upon a dilapidated hut. An old woman was inside. He asked if she could give him something to eat. All she had were some old beans, which she boiled for him. The king was so grateful that he named the town after the incident.

We arrived at the hotel and were met first with a security team who checked the trunk and then scanned the undercarriage of the vehicle with a mirror on a pole, looking for explosives. We made it through the checkpoint  and pulled up to the hotel entrance. As I got out of the car in the wee hours of the morning, I was greeted by an army of people. One woman placed a garland of flowers and honeysuckle around my neck. Another anointed my forehead with ash as she said a little prayer, while two men grabbed my bags. They  did everything but carry me to my room, which, considering the time of day and the 30-hours of travel, wouldn’t have been refused.

On the road again …

After the usual horrendous domestic flight (SFO-SeaTac, hour late, jammed to the gills,  crying babies etc. etc. etc.) I boarded an Emirates flight to Dubai, and we traveled right over the North Pole. No signs of Santa and the elves hard at work.
Nice plane and nice flight, which is appreciated considering it’s 14 hours in the air. When they dim the lights for sleeping, the ceiling lights up like twinkling stars. Only mishap was brushing my teeth with hand lotion. A very nice basket of little tubes right next to the complimentary tooth brushes led me to believe they went together. Since the writing was in Arabic I just assumed so. I still have the taste of lotion in my mouth.
Coming into Dubai, the desert was very disappointing. Looked like Nevada from the air. I was hoping to see a panorama of sand sweeping into dust storms, but no such luck. Did see a beautiful 8-line highway with two cars on it. No doubt they were a Mercedes and a Bentley.
Got into the airport just in time for the evening Muslim prayer blasting over the loudspeakers. Nobody bowed facing Mecca, though. (For Dubiaians, that means facing more or less west.) Could be because all the help is imported from Malaysia, Philippines etc. Big news on CNN (yes CNN, not al-Jazeera) was that oil prices were up 15%! Now they can build 50 more water parks and import some more penguins for their indoor skating rinks. Vegas has nothing on this place. Talk about money to burn.
OK, now on to Bangalore. Only another 5-hour flight and then 2 hours of traffic to the hotel and I’m there.