Friday, April 24, 2009

An Aborigine in India

Wholey / Holy Crap India!

10pm at night and I wait totally jet lagged and tired with a crowd of hundreds around a small luggage carousel. A very suspicious customs officer stares totally confused back and forward from my passport photo to my face and at the front where it says Australian. He says nothing, stamps it slowly and stares intently at me with as I manouver my backpack through the crowd.

Wholey crap! or is it Holy Crap? Outside it’s nearly midnight and there’s hundreds and hundreds of people. I haven’t seen this many black faces in the same place since NAIDOC Week or when I went back to visit family on the mission. I get whisked off at high speed into the darkness in an old pre-paid taxi. Then the aroma hits me.....oh the smells! They rush in through the back windows practically slapping me in the face. Rubbish, cow manure, fruit, incense, flowers, a rainforest like smell, dirt and dust, car exhausts, chai tea, wood fires burning. My non-English speaking driver is zipping through the streets dodging cows, dogs and people, stopping occasionally to tell people that he has an Australian in the back. Men and women, young and old, children, anyone who can stick their head into the back window wobble their heads and smile broadly at me. Unknown to me they’re speaking Malayalam, the dialect of Kerala.

‘Sorry I don’t understand‘.
‘You Hindi, hindi?’
‘No, no Australian‘.
‘Punjab, Punjab?’
‘No, no Australia‘.
‘Tamil, Tamil?’
‘No, sorry no’.

Starting to get freaked out I ask the driver if we can go. He wobbles his head at me, smiles and speeds off with his hand permanently glued to the horn nearly running over everyone in his path.

Kerala is tropical, hot, noisy, smelly, humid, and in your face but just beautiful. It was a culture shock alright in more ways than one. Going to the toilet in any other country is always an experience and people always have a story to tell. I have travelled all over the world, Tahiti, South America, South Africa, Cambodia, Europe, but think India may very well take the cake. To this day I have no idea how those immaculately dressed women squat over a hole in the ground. The reason everyone wears some form of sari, dress or sarong type wrap around becomes immediately evident. And with the food, well….when you gotta go. Holy crap at the sacred temple. The temple visits are very special spiritual experiences and luckily for me usually always came with a local story teller happily volunteering to tell me it’s amazing history. Funny how all the migaloos seemed to have to pay for that. I zip around a corner to a very posh toilet block. There is (like everywhere in India) a bureaucracy and I am amazed but not surprised to find an administration desk at the front. What? The man behind it asks me in Malayalam…..

‘One rupee or two?’
‘Sorry I only speak English.‘
‘You are not from here?’
‘No, sorry.’
He wobbles his head and asks me again - ‘One rupee or two?’
I thought, Shouldn’t I be asking how much it is?

He points at a sign on the wall which says if you are just going in to do a number one it’s one rupee. But if you are going to do a number two it’s two rupees. Embarrassed at having to announce my toiletry intentions in front of a huge crowd of people (and there is always a huge crowd of people).

‘Oh, I don’t know? It might change when I get there’

The septic system as it is in India doesn’t allow for paper to be thrown down it. He gets frustrated, gives me a hand full of toilet paper and tells me to remember to use the buck (the vessel for the loo paper).
No 2s are more expensive in holy places. Don’t even remind me about the squatting part of it.

Yoga and Mozzies

The Yoga Ashram sits peacefully on the side of a dam in the beautiful Indian tropics. I arrive in the middle of the night to some very strange animal noises penetrating the silence which seemed too close for comfort. Yoga Camp?….Army more like it. Your preconceptions of a lovely peaceful, relaxing yogic holiday experience quickly goes out the window when being woken up by someone smashing a cowbell at 5am. I had done this before and knew what to expect but it is still a shock and quite amusing to watch everyone else struggle with you. I quickly get adopted by the other Indian people at the camp.

‘We are thinking you are one of us?’
‘Sorry no I am from Australia?’
‘Yes but you are looking, Punjabi?’
“Are you from Mumbai?’
‘Yes, but your parents are Indian, yes?’
‘No, sorry.’
‘Your grandparents?’
‘Arghh yes, your great parents!’
‘No sorry, I am Aboriginal.’
‘Where is that?’
‘No, I am native, original, ummmm from Australia.’
‘Oh yes but someone in your family migrated to Australia from India yes?’

I gave up trying to explain as they refuse to believe I have no Indian heritage. I passively sit in on conversations about arranged marriages, food, children, yoga, the weather and constantly try to avoid being roped into performing in the local talent show.

Yoga army took its toll in more ways than one. Everyone relished in, suffered and endured the emotional, spiritual, and physical roller coaster. There was crying, laughing, happiness, anger, disbelief, starvation (the food wasn’t that crash hot). And mozzies like you wouldn’t believe. Prehistoric huge fury, ugly mozzies that devour you day and night. The yogic and spiritual philosophy of the ashram coming to a head at then end of the month when a local Indian man stood up and asked the yogi / guru….

‘What for I am?’
To which he answered wobbling his head from side to side with the common broad smile.
‘I don’t know! I don’t even know why I am here.’
An answer prompting a round of hysterical laughter.

Angie and the Elephant

Thought they were cute didn't you? Weellllllll! On my day off from yoga army camp, I was taking a walk through the Kerala jungle when, at a little lake side stood a couple of frantic Indian ladies waving at me to jump on board their boats. Turned out that what looked like the middle of no where was a weird disused amusement park. Well sort of. It was an overgrown bizarrely landscaped park on the side of the dam where these ladies had little boat tours still operating.

'Half an hour 400 rupee. We take you around the lake'.
‘Oh I don’t think so, thank you‘.
‘Yes madam, yes please here come sit, sit‘.
‘Just half an hour madam‘.

I jump into the boat, a freshly cut coconut with a straw sticking out of it in one hand, and my bag and camera in the other. While one lady pours petrol from a plastic container into a motor that looks like it belongs on my backyard lawn mower as the other lady stood back to rev it up. We take off at lightning speed across the lake. Five minutes into the peaceful ride through gorgeous scenery and jungle….

'You want to see elephants?'
‘Elephants! What elephants?’
‘We take you to see elephants?’
‘Elephants! Cool! Why not?’
‘We take you, we take you, 100 rupee.’

The Indian money machine spins outta control as the trip starts to turn into the boat ride down the river in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. I have no choice. We get to the entrance of what I can only guess is a wildlife park. Then I get ushered down a path to some Indian men waiting with sticks and pointing into the jungle.

‘4 elephants, 4!’
‘Oh wow cool.’

They drag me to a huge enclosure with two five year old elephants. Very cute until they turn around and start playing with their own poo. They take photos of me then drag me off to the side of the river where a HUGE and I mean HUGE old elephant is getting a bath in the river.

‘Madam you ride this one, you ride, 100 rupee.’
‘Oh no, no thank you.‘
‘Yes you ride on his back’.
‘I don’t know, no, no thanks.‘
‘Yes, yes we get ready. ‘

Another tourist, an Aussie girl is standing next to me.

‘I'll get on if you get on.’

So they drag the elephant out of the river attach a seat to his back and we walk up a huge bamboo type struck to walk straight onto his back. We have a quick ride up a short path in the park.…veeerrry slow. The elephant is obviously very relieved for it to be over as his pace quickened on the way back.

As we jump off the Indian ladies grab the cameras out of our hands.

‘Photo, photo?’

As I start to pose for the photo the giant elephant curls his trunk around my waist, sniffs me all up and down, and then proceeds to slides his truck, which is covered in his own shit, right down my pants. All the way down my front right leg. I look down in horror as everyone bursts out laughing. Then the elephant turns to the Indian man opposite me wearing an orange sarong and rips it off him. Before the Indian man realises what's going on, he is standing in front of us with nothing on expect for a pair of really daggy undies. Thank god he had those on. Then the elephant passes the sarong to me as if to say - Sorry here wipe it off with this. The Indian man and I look at each other and laugh hysterically. The Aussie girl reminds me that elephants are vegetarian so his poo shouldn't be that bad.

As we leave they hit us up for money for bananas to feed the elephants. We get the conversations about their families, kids and grandkids all the way back on the boat. Drenched in elephant poo and nearly 600 rupees poorer I go back to the yoga camp / army.

Mopeds, Cricket and Indian Didjeridoo Players

After yoga camp / army experience I decide to go get some real relaxation. I arrive in Goa a bit hesitant but open minded. Some people said ‘Don’t go, it’s not like it used to be, it’s too touristy, it has been ruined’. Others said, ‘if you don’t want to get hassled (not that I was, I really just blended in. They all thought I was Indian) and have a nice place to swim it is still a good place to go.’

So I booked into at the comfiest place I could find, rented a local moped and tried to ride it. I don’t know why I tried as I have never ridden one before. There were the usual bloody dogs, goats, cows, people and other crazy moped drivers on the road. Man I wouldn't have stacked it if there wasn't that bloody goat in the way, or the dog running in front of me, as I tried to dodge a sacred cow, with four crazy moped riders furiously beeping at me and yelling (probably ’Get out of the way!’) as they sped past. I freaked out, put the brakes on way too hard and crashed in front of a crowd of men building a new house out of dirt mixed with cow shit. They all ran out with the attendants from the neighbouring hotel to help me.

‘OK madam, OK?’
‘Yeah, yeah, I'm fine. It’s fine. Thank you!’

I’m totally embarrassed as I watch the builders laugh and an older man drives past me slowly, wobbling his head and mumbling something at me (probably ‘Stupid tourist!”). So that was totally it for my Indian driving experience. I decided never to go there again. But honestly, please, a bloody goat, dog and sacred cow....what sort of traffic hazard is that normally.

After injuring myself I decide to soak my sorrow in the ocean. I get dropped off by a local taxi driver who won’t take me all the way to the beach. He stops and says he is too embarrassed to go to the end as that’s where all the westerners go swimming with nothing on.

‘What? A nude beach?’
‘No madam, not totally nude’. All the western women wear hardly anything at all. Little things on them. And the English ones. Revolting.’

He spits sideways. I try not to laugh.

‘Someone should tell them that if you look like that, they should cover themselves up. I never go I am too embarrassed. It is full of ugly, ugly people.’

‘OK, no problem I’ll walk’.

As I reach the beach there is a hoard of bizarre looking tourists from all over the world….English, German, Turkish, Israeli, Aussie etc etc. As I walk across the sand, I start to see what the taxi drivers means. An overweight middle aged English man lies on his back asleep. The front of him is red raw with sunburn. He is wearing a hideous pair of speedos two sizes too small. I quickly look the other way and shudder thinking of how much pain he was going to be in the next day. There was the obligatory cow here and there, scattered down the beach. I sit down and just get settled when interrupted by….

‘Hello, are you from here?’

I look up to see two skinny Indian guys. One is holding a cricket bat.

‘Ugh? Oh, sorry no.’
‘Kerala? Are you from Kerala?’
‘No, I am from Australia?’
‘Oh! Cricket, cricket!’
‘Ponting!’, ‘Sharne Warne!’ ‘Gillie, Gillie!’
‘Oh, yeah right, cricket. Sorry I don’t follow cricket, I really don’t know anything about it.’
‘Yes cricket, shit, bloody, shit.’
‘Excuse me?’
‘The Australian cricket team. They say bloody and shit all the time.’
‘They do?’

While showing me their cricketing moves they insist…..

‘Yes, yes.’ You’re out - Shit, bloody shit! It’s a six, bloody beauty mate!’
‘Well maybe they do. Sorry I don’t watch cricket.’
‘Ok, we see you. Bye.’

They happily wander off repeating profanities they apparently learnt from the Australian cricket team. I lie back and try to relax when with the wind comes my most hated sound, the delayed repetitive beat of a totally out of time, unrythmical bongo player. But what really gets my attention is the accompanying wail of a didjeridoo. I look up to see a skinny dread headed bongo playing hippy who looks like he literally hadn’t bathed since the 70s. With him is an Indian guy carrying a didjeridoo and trying to play it - badly.

‘Hey mate where did you get that?’ I ask.
‘Oh I made it’.
‘Yep, I’m sure you did’.
‘Who taught you how to play it?’
‘I taught myself’.
‘Have you ever been to Australia?’
‘Have you ever met any Aboriginal people?’
‘No, why?’

The hippy buts in…

‘Yeah we paint them and sell them in the street. We give lessons too. If you want to learn how to play one we’ll be back there in an hour’.
‘Well sorry no I don’t. And actually they are a men’s instrument and women aren’t supposed to play them. It’s very disrespectful.’
‘No it isn’t’
‘Oh believe me, yes it is, and I think I know’
‘Why would you know?’
‘Believe it or not I am actually Aboriginal, that’s why. So you are painting them, selling them and giving lessons on them without any permission and without any knowledge or experience of Australian Aboriginal Culture at all’.
‘Well everyone else does it.’
‘Right mate, yep that makes it OK.’

On the verge of getting totally pissed off I walk away. The global appropriation, disrespect and cultural theft of Indigenous peoples everywhere throughout my travels and now in India was too much for me to bare. I leave the bizarre beach life of Arambol and head back down south.

Trying To Get Out - Indian Beaurocracy

Over it! I am totally over it. I had a great time, bought beautiful things, met lovely people, saw an amazing country. But I’m hot, tired, been eaten to death by mozzies, spewed my guts up a few too many times, got harassed for NOT being Indian, and it’s time to go home. I hit the airport early and waited outside, not in the front waiting area. It’s the rules. I don’t understand but wait on one of the only four available seats. The ticketing desk opens two hours later. Someone told me on my travels that because there are so many people in India they make stupid tasks an actual job so that people can have work. That makes sense but is annoying as all hell. I stand at the counter with the attendant looking at my ticket totally puzzles.

‘You are leaving India tonight?’
‘Yes, that’s why I am here.’
‘But you’re ticket says that you are not arriving in Australia for another month.’
‘Yep, I know I changed it.’
‘So you are flying to Singapore, then to Australia’
‘But not straight away’
‘That’s right.’
‘Hmmm. I will have to get someone to look at this ticket.’
‘Why? It doesn’t stop me from leaving India. My plane leave in two hours.’
‘Yes but you are not going back to Australia for another month’

Frustration and panic set in as the attendant calls the airlines security ticket person over to take my ticket and passport to a private room. God knows what for. They leave me standing at the ticket counter while the whole flight gets checked in. The security ticket person comes back just before I have to board.

‘Very sorry Madam for the inconvenience. There is not problem with ticket. You can go.’

I run through to customs, put my two bags though security, run up three flights of stairs and hit the back of the line onto the plane when the security man at the door stops me.

‘Sorry Madam you can not get on unless you have tags on your bags’.
‘Tags? What do I need a tag for? I just came through customs and security.’
‘Sorry Madam that is the rules. You need a tag on both your bags.’
‘But they are just going in the overhead locker.’
‘Sorry Madam I can not let you on the plane without a tag on your bag.’
‘Oh for christ sake, where do I get a tag?’
‘At the front of the airport Madam’
‘You mean way at the front, at the entrance, back out before customs and security and the ticket counter?’
‘Yes Madam, that is where we keep them.’
‘You gotta be kidding me! God just let me out of here!’

I run back through customs, through security, through the whole bloody airport to grab two 1 inch by 2 inch tags for my bags which have a total amount of information space on them to write my name. I get back up to the plane door. The security guy looks at the tags, smiles, wobbles his head and lets me through. I am the last person on board. I walk onto a plane full of pissed off people who have been waiting for me for an extra half hour.

Welcome to my Womba World


  1. I felt I was there with you Ange! It was good to read this piece again.

  2. ps

    ange, anonymous is me, srp! chose anonymous profile because in the past the other profile choices have required me to do things i really don't know how to do, and right now couldn't be bothered mastering!