Thursday, April 17, 2008

Five More Jared's Visit Scenes

1. We were walking along a small side street in Colaba laughing about something when an Indian shopkeeper with a bushy mustache caught Jared's eye. He was holding a two-liter bottle of water -- overused to the point of being label-less and tinged with brown -- and staring at the sidewalk with determination.

The Indian took a couple purposeful steps toward the street, started to raise the water bottle, but then quickly shook his head and clutched the bottle almost lovingly to his chest. He turned around, took a couple more steps, studied the ground thoughtfully and nodded. Then, with the sudden erratic violence of Britney Spears, the Indian shopkeeper upended the bottle and shook it radically and indiscriminately over random patches of sidewalk and street. He looked like a mental patient attempting to water the lawn but who, due to furious irrationality, also managed to drench his car, the paper boy and the neighbor's dog.

"Oooooooh," Jared said, as wet Rorschach patterns formed on the sidewalk before us, "so that's where the water goes."

2. Jared was still a bit jet lagged, and we were looking for a bit of wine to help him sleep.

After asking directions to the nearest wine shop from two doormen and a beggar in Colaba, we found ourselves walking down a dark alley spotted with malaria-friendly pools of black water.

"Um," Jared said as we plowed on.

At the end of the alley was an open window and counter, behind which was a small inaccessible wine shop. I smiled at the three gruff Indians behind the counter.

"One bottle of Sula red, please," I said.

One of the workers ambled off his stool with a hint of surliness and walked to the wine rack along the store's back wall. He grabbed a bottle of wine and returned to the counter to hand it to me.

"Hmmm," I said, studying the label. "Zinfandel? No thanks. What else do you have?"

The worker huffed and took the wine back to the shelf. Meanwhile, two small Indian men who smelled as if they'd just bathed in feni slammed exact change on the counter and barked orders in Marathi. One of the shopkeepers handed them two fifths of cheap whiskey.

My guy returned with a bottle of wine.

"Reserve?" I said, reading the label. "No, I don't want this. Bring me a cabernet, or a shiraz, OK?"

The shopkeeper's tired eyes silently called me a fancy boy and he returned to the wine rack. While I waited, a dark-skinned man who smelled like urine and had a huff rag tucked into his back pocket elbowed me aside, dumped a handful of rupee coins on the counter, and received a bottle of vodka without having to place an order at all. A regular.

Finally my guy came back with a bottle of reasonably-priced, Indian-made Shiraz. I squinted and studied the label before smiling.

"See?" I asked the shopkeeper. "Was that so hard?

3. "I think this is rigged," Jared said as he lost another hand of blackjack at the rigged digital blackjack table we were gambling at in Goa.

The casino was in a decent air-conditioned hotel appropriately called Chances, and included a handful of Roulette tables and a bunch of rigged digital games. The blackjack game was a sleek black table with invisible sensors beneath each player's betting area, and several small screens on which a player's "cards" appeared. The dealer stood behind the table and pressed buttons to "deal" the "cards."

A new round began and I was "dealt" an 8 and a 3. The dealer was showing a 4. I doubled down. I was "dealt" a 2. Then the dealer "flipped" her down "card," which was a Jack. Then she "dealt" herself a 7 and everyone lost.

Similar things had happened several times, and while our own experience was not even close to a large enough sample to draw any firm conclusions about the stilted statistics on which this digital game was based, the lack of transparency provided enough circumstantial evidence for me to convict.

"Jesus!" I said, slamming the rigged blackjack table and turning to a man in a suit standing behind the dealer. "Why don't you have a table that uses real cards?

"That is not allowed," the casino official said.

"Well, how do I know this digital game isn't fixed?" I demanded.

"That is also not allowed," the casino official said.

"Seems rigged to me," I said, as I placed my bet for the next rigged hand.

4. "I can't believe you made me wear this," Jared said as he walked into a busy outdoor Saturday night market in Goa wearing a loose-fitting long-sleeved black-and-white shirt with portraits of a passively plaintive Jesus on the chest and both elbows.

"You lost a bet, dude."

"This is a very nice shirt," an Indian woman said to Jared as he passed her stall. "You want to buy bed cover?"

Jared had that afternoon lost a passionately-contested game of Playa (a mashup of Spades and Hearts that Aliyah and I invented on the beach in Mexico last year), and as punishment had to either get a card-sized temporary tattoo of our choosing, or wear for one night the shirt of our choosing. He'd opted for the shirt. We made him wear Jesus, which was not hard to find in Goa, which is full of God-fearing Christians.

"I like very much your shirt," an Indian hawker said to Jared as he strolled with a modicum of embarrassment through the market. "Want to buy another one?" he added, pointing to several identical shirts in his stall.

"No thanks," Jared said. "I think one shirt of this fictional character is plenty."

The guy looked a little hurt.

We kept walking and a hefty Indian woman soon latched onto Jared's Jesus-elbow-patched arm.

"I love this shirt!" she said. "Where did you get it?"

"Bala," Jared said, repeating his chronic mispronunciation of Baga, which is the beach we were staying near.

"Oh yes, Bala," the woman said. "You must have bought it from my friend Maria. She's the only one in Goa who sells that shirt."

"What?" Jared said. "What about that guy? And that one?" he quipped, pointing to two nearby stalls selling his Jesus shirt. The woman shrugged.

"Jesus," Jared said, shaking his head sarcastically.

"Exactly," I said.

5. The three of us were ass to ankles in the back of the autorickshaw, and all wondering why on earth our autowallah had pulled to the curb on this random street.

Motioning with a stubby digit that he would be just one minute, our autowallah started fiddling with the lockbox-cum-seat in the front of his vehicle. After much jingling and fumbling, he pulled a small metal cannister out and smiled.

"Is he going to drink that?" Aliyah said.

"Brake oil," the autowallah said in broken English.

"Don't drink it," Jared said.

The autowallah bent over and generously emptied the contents of his brake oil can into a his green and yellow machine. Then, standing up, he lightly shook the can to make sure it was empty. Satisfied that it was, the autowallah, with absolute carelessness but clear purpose, tossed the empty metal can into the street next to his vehicle.

Jared giggled before I could begin one of my overused rants about how so many Indians seem to keep their homes immaculately clean, no matter how slummy the neighborhood outside, while being so quick, obvious and almost proud to litter in even the nicest public spaces.

"Excuse me," Aliyah said to the autowallah as Jared kept giggling. "I think you dropped your can."

The autowallah said nothing and started his vehicle.

"Oh," Jared said, looking at the garbage in the street. "So that's where the brake oil goes."

Monday, April 14, 2008

Five Jared's Visit Scenes

1. Jared's lips curled as he stared at the brown-gray smear and seeped-in grime on his pillow at our budget guest house in Bombay.

"Gross," he said, inching away from his bed.

"What?" I said, flopping down on my own nasty pillow and allowing any number of invisible disease agents to commence exploration of my body. "They have pillow cases."

"That don't look washed."


Jared went to the dresser and took out a short-sleeve blue polo shirt he'd worn all day and had hung up to air out. He brought it to the bed and placed it delicately over his pillow, smiling proudly at this new line of defense.

"I'd rather sleep on a shirt soaked in Sandrew sweat than that," he said, pointing at his filthy pillow.

2. Jared and Aliyah were in a rolling race.

It had been a skittishly-played, back-and-forth game of backgammon -- a new favorite hobby of ours that we picked up after Sawyer asked Locke on a recent episode of Lost to play backgammon and Aliyah said, "Backgammon is fun."

Now, weeks later, in the final game of our round robin tournament, Aliyah and Jared were pinning all to chance. No opportunities to bounce opposing pieces to the bar remained. It was all about who got the highest rolls.

The stakes were high. The loser would have to yell curses -- "May you have 1,000 daughters!" -- at disagreeable autorickshaw drivers for the rest of the week.

Aliyah shut her eyes and blew on the dice. 1 and 2. She shook her head.

Jared rolled. 4 and 6.

"Uh oh," I said from the sidelines.

Aliyah rolled again: 3 and 1. Jared: 3 and 6. He was, by now, almost assured a victory.

Aliyah looked up at our ceiling and held the dice like an offering.

"God!" she cried. "If you exist! I need doubles! If you exist, give me doubles!"

Taking a deep breath, Aliyah rolled. 1 and 2.

"Damn it," she yelled.

"I knew it," clucked the peanut gallery.

3. The slowly roasting chicken outside the Iranian-Lebanese restaurant on Colaba Causeway had been tempting me for days. The joint didn't appear from the outside to be the paragon of class or cleanliness, but on our last day in Bombay I convinced Jared that we should eat lunch there.

Our all-smiles waiter steered me toward the chicken shwarma platter, and Jar opted for the easier-on-his-stomach Mushroom Mania sandwich. The food arrived quickly, and I went to town slapping together sandwich rolls full of chicken, french fries, pickled beets and creamy garlic sauce.

It was about halfway through lunch that I picked up a purple stick of pickled beet and saw something brown at its tip. I looked closer. A dead cockroach. Nearly an inch long. Buried in a plate of raw vegetables I'd been devouring. In India.

After our requisite "Yuck"s and "Gross"s, I politely signaled the waiter, who apologized sheepishly and replaced the offending beet dish.

Then I ate everything else on my plate, not to mention everything Jared left on his.

The bill came, and it did not, as many Indian restaurants do, include a compulsory tip. As we waited for our still-all-smiles waiter to bring change, we debated a gratuity.

"Are you kidding?" Jared said. "No. No. No. In America, you would eat for free."


The waiter brought our change. And then he didn't leave. At first he pretended to tidy up our table, but then he dropped this pretense and just hovered.

I took every rupee out of the leather bill book and put them in my wallet.

I stood up and looked at our still-hovering-but-no-longer-all-smiles waiter. He nearly snarled and narrowed his eyes with unmitigated disgust.

I paused, hurt, before quickly remembering that I too had been aggrieved.

"You served me a dead bug," I said to the waiter who had served me a dead bug.

He continued to look at me with more revulsion than I had shown at the sight of the cockroach in my lunch.

4. The monk looked like Hayden Christensen.

Jared was busy haggling with a t-shirt vendor on Colaba Causeway in Bombay when a white skinned monk in orange robes who had white paint smeared where a unibrow bridge might otherwise have been tapped me on the shoulder.

"Are you Canadian or American?" said the Buddhist Anakin Skywalker.

"American," I said.

The gora monk smiled and handed me a small brochure for a tour led by monks that included stops at a house shaped like a shoe and a vegetarian restaurant that serves some sort of holy seaweed.

"No thanks," I said, studying Anakin evermore skeptically. "Where are you from, anyway?"

"Canada," said the Canadian monk.

I narrowed my eyes and gave his orange robes a slow and obvious appraisal.

"You sure don't look Canadian."

Anakin shrugged. "I've lived in India for almost a year," he said.

"So have I," I laughed. "But I don't look like you."

5. "How many fingers do you have?" Jared said to the old woman who looked like an old man who was violently hacking apart coconuts with a frightening machete in front of ZanziBar -- our preferred beachfront watering hole in Goa.

The old woman let Jared's provocation pass -- possibly because she spoke no English -- and eventually overcharged him for no fewer than three coconuts. One to snack on, and two stuffed with straws through which coconut milk could be sucked.

Jared returned to our table, red-faced and giggling, and immediately ordered a shot of rum. The waiter quickly brought him a not-quite-clean glass with at least two ounces of noxious liquor in it.

Jared looked at the rum in his glass and then looked at the coconut, which had only a small hole on top, and which appeared very nearly full.

"Now," Jared said, "the question is, how do I get this" -- and he held up the rum -- "in here" -- he pointed to the coconut.

I love to pontificate, particularly when solicited, so I was very quick to reply. But Jared was faster.

No sooner had he smacked a tipsy period on his last sentence had Jared upended the glass of rum into his coconut. It was as if instead of asking how he might best transfer one of the liquids into a second container, he had simply said, "Now I am going to hastily transfer one of these liquids into a second container."

Half of the dark rum either missed the small hole entirely (and sloshed onto the table and Jared's lap) or quickly caused the coconut's liquid content to exceed capacity (thus spilling onto the table and Jared's lap).

"Oh man," Jared said. "My leg is covered in rum."

Then he took a sip from his coconut and smiled.

"Pretty good though," he said.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Urgent Business

I had told the same lie so many times in the last two hours I was starting to believe it.

"I have urgent business in Bombay," I said, looking at my watch with aggressive annoyance. "And this delay is unacceptable."

"Now," I continued, poking my finger in the chest of Go Air's backpedaling customer service representative, "when will my plane take off?"

Of course, there was no "urgent business" -- other than meeting Aliyah in Bombay sooner rather than later. And for some reason, no one seemed to question exactly what sort of professional business the gora with a ratty t-shirt and too much red hair poking out from his backwards baseball cap might actually have that was so pressing.

Still, as my Delhi-Bombay flight was delayed, delayed, and then delayed some more, I found my "I'm a busy businessman" story giving me a lot of leverage, and I used it.

Eventually the Go Air customer service rep went into hiding, and the waiting passengers in Delhi's lousy domestic terminal became increasingly restless. Feet tapped. Eyes rolled. Foreheads tightened. Our plane was two hours late -- with no satisfying explanation from Go Air -- and we were mad.

Nearly an hour after the customer service rep had disappeared, I noticed a flash of neon green out of the corner of my eye -- the customer service rep's shirt. I bounced out of my seat and charged forward.

"This is outrageous!" I nearly yelled, shaking my fist above my head. "Where is our plane?"

"I'm sorry, sir. It was an unavoidable delay."

"When will I get to Bombay? I have urgent business!" I said, and actually believed myself.

"Well, if the plane arrives soon, and if we board you all quickly--"

"If!" I scoffed meanly. "I don't care about if! I have urgent business in Bombay! When will you get me there?"

As the customer service rep stumbled over his nervous answer -- and as I silently contemplated how the necessity of pushy persistence to get almost anything done in India had turned me into a real jerk -- I looked behind me and almost fell over. There was a crowd of nearly twenty Indian males -- teens, middle-aged father types, seniors, and more! -- gathered around and behind me. Their faces were angry and self-righteous, and seemed to delight in seeing the customer service rep squirm. They were the closest thing to a mob that I've been a part of in India. And apparently I was their leader.

A young man with a big smile made up of irregularly shaped quadrilaterals with too much space between them stepped up next to me and spat at the customer service rep: "We have urgent business in Bombay!"

"Yeah!" several men chimed in. At least one more added an emphatic "Urgent business!"

"The plane had technical problems," the customer service rep nearly begged. "Technical problems!"

"Technical problems my foot!" said my weird-toothed sidekick, elbowing me in search of chummy approval.

Considering for the first time the possibility that I didn't want them to rush through fixing a technical problem on a plane I was about to board in India, and also realizing that I'm nicer than this, I smiled uncomfortably and figured it was time for this gora to resign as protest leader and just sit down and wait patiently for my flight in a way that wouldn't embarrass my mother.