We walked a short distance down an unpaved side road to a bare-bones office furnished only with a desk and a few chairs where the man who owned the van that transported us from the airport ran a money-exchanging business with his brother. The exchanges were moving along satisfactorily until it was my turn, when it was announced that they were out of money, and I was asked to please wait while the brother went to get more rupees. We made conversation for about 15 minutes until he returned with a thick handful of bills and exchanged my $200 for about 13,600 rupees -- which lasted me the entire trip. This was to be my first lesson in how India works, which is to say totally on its own terms and timelines.
Uma went her own way, and Richard, whom I barely knew, and I ambled off on an informal walking tour of the area. We returned to the main highway and strolled for a short distance, passing a mélange of small shops, a table stocked with rugs and towels, fruit and vegetable stands, a vendor offering coconut milk extracted from fresh coconuts, mounds of papayas for sale and other small-scale commercial enterprises.
I had been advised ahead of time about the need to dress appropriately. Women are expected to have their shoulders and chests covered, not only with a blouse that falls to below their buttocks, but also with a scarf draped over the bosom to further conceal any curvature. It is also customary for women to have their legs covered. I been told about Western women being assaulted for improper dress, so I was concerned about not causing any offense -- not just because of fear of reprisal but out of respect for their customs. I had brought a few outfits that fit the bill, but I was going to have to shop for more if I didn’t want to be hand-washing clothing every day.
Occasionally as we walked along, beggars approached us, hands outstretched, pleading for money. I had been told that the government discourages tourists from giving money to beggars, so I simply smiled, put my hand over my heart and said “namaste” as warmly as possible, a practice I would repeat throughout the trip. It tugged at my heartstrings, though and I felt a mix of emotions. Already I could see that this trip was shaping up to be a stretch for me, even though I have been traveling and living abroad since I was an infant.
Eventually Richard and I came upon a women’s collective that had been recommended by Uma where goods made by Indian women were sold. (It has been clearly demonstrated that if you want to improve the economy in a Third-World country, give women the means to earn an income.) We wandered into one building in the complex that housed three rooms filled with bolts of colorful fabric and a rack of garments.
From the rack, customers select garments they want replicated (or they can bring their own), then choose fabric to have the items tailor made.. I selected a pair of Ali-Baba style pantaloons and a simple, loose-fitting V-neck top that fell to mid-thigh. I took great delight in poring over the colorful bolts of cotton fabric and making my selection -- watermelon color for the pants; apricot for the top, embellished with orange embroidered trim -- brighter colors than I normally wear at home, but hey, I’m in India.
I took the garments over to a woman who took some quick measurements of them, which she wrote down on a slip of paper. I then took the slip of paper and fabric bolts to a somber young woman in the next room who measured and cut the fabric and a length of trim. I was then sent off across the patio to a retail store to pay for everything. That accomplished, I was instructed to return to the original building and climb a flight of external stairs to find the tailor for measurements..
Richard was also having some clothing made, and so we both walked back to the original building, climbed the flight of stairs and entered a long dark room lined with sewing machines. Fabric and items of clothing were strewn about on the floor. In a back was the tailor, a balding middle-aged man. I showed him the pants and top I wanted made and handed him the fabric. Without taking any measurements, he looked at the prototypes, looked appraisingly at me and assured me that everything would fit. I was not convinced, but he was insistent. The clothes, he said, would be ready by Thursday (this was Saturday). Richard and I exchanged a look as if to say, “Yeah, right.” We were already coming to understand the Indian relationship with time.. Nonetheless,. I came away feeling flushed with success at having completed this much of the transaction.
By now it was lunch time and we were getting hungry, so when Richard and I spied the Akasha Restaurant, which was on our recommended list, we went inside.. It was exclusively filled with Indians, indicating to us that we would be getting an authentic experience rather than something tailored for foreigners.. We were seated and ordered what seemed to be the only offering on the menu. The pleasant waiter returned with a large tray for each of us lined with palm leaves on which there were seven or eight metal bowls filled with a variety of items. I recognized yogurt, something made of beets, and a dish with noodles in it that was somewhere between a drink and a pudding. We were a bit baffled by most of what we were looking at. Fortunately, an Indian family at the next table recognized our dilemma and explained to us what was in each of the bowls.. They had spent time in the U.S. and were eager to be of service and talk to us about their travels.. Over the course of what turned out to be a delicious lunch, Richard and I got to know one another a bit, and I began to relax a little about being a stranger in a strange land..
Next: Ramana Maharshi