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Friday, July 7, 2017

(4) "DON'T DRINK THE WATER, DON'T EAT THE FOOD, AND TRY NOT TO BREATHE TOO DEEPLY."

Westwood, Mass.
October 10, 1975
     During lunch with Floyd, he began describing a Smithsonian Study Tour to India and Sri Lanka.
     "Sounds interesting," I said, sipping my cocktail.
     My guru looked at me quizzically. "Would you like to go along? Can you part with your Jack for three weeks and three days?"
     Hmmm, I would have to think about it. India? India was the last place in the world I would have considered visiting. By the time dessert arrived, I had come to a decision.
     "Make it Hawaii and I'll go."
     "I've been to Hawaii six times." Floyd said boredly.
     The waitress brought coffee.
     "Well, okay then," I said.
~~
     "India! Why India?" My loved ones, including grown children, son‑in‑law, ex-husband and Jack, reacted with frowns, raised eyebrows, and doleful shaking of heads. Even my doctor, whom I had always regarded as a sensible, level headed sort, swore his version of the Hippocratic Oath.
     "India! What do you want to go to that sinkhole for? You'll need every shot in the book and a big bottle of Lomotil for Traveler's Disease." He urged me to see the Rocky Mountains instead.
     Friends called. They knew people who knew people who had been to India. Be sure to bring plastic bags to protect my camera and lenses from the dust-laden atmosphere. Also, a roll of mosquito netting or I'd get no sleep and malaria. I'd need a bathtub stopper (if the hotels had bathtubs), and plenty of Kleenex because I was going to cry a lot when I saw all the misery and poverty and disease.
     "Don't drink the water, don't eat the food, and try not to breathe too deeply," my son‑in‑law advised.
New Delhi
January 14, 1976
     The plane from London to New Delhi was half empty, so I appropriated four seats across the aisle from Floyd and enjoyed the spaciousness like a Maharini in a queen‑sized bed. I read, slept, wined, dined, and chatted with an Indian lad named Karid Shah. He taught me how to say please, thank you, and no (mehr bani, shukria, and nah). I took pains to memorize the word for photo. It is foto.
     We arrived at 4:00 this morning after a sumptuous dinner at the strange hour of 1:00 a.m. Also strange was our reception at the airport. We were met by a mob of Indians leaning over a balcony and shouting something that sounded like "Yankee, go home!"
     Translation: there was a guru on our flight, and his disciples were chanting, "Truth is good."
     I'd hardly stepped off the plane when a dark skinned chap walked up to me, and next thing I knew I'd been lei‑d. Floyd said I could have his. Then someone draped him from nape to kneecap in marigolds. He was too tired to object. . . .

Hotel Clarke Shiraz                                                                       
Agra, India  
January 18, 1976       
     We saw the Taj Mahal in the distance, but my photographs will have people in them—beautiful women in their brightly colored saris, exotic men wearing turbans, beggars pleading for a rupee.  It's all very different, wonderful, heartbreaking, a land of contrasts, thrilling and appalling. 
     A bevy of native high school girls approached me and asked if I spoke English.  They wanted to practice talking to me, so I seized the opportunity to take pictures and try out my three Indian phrases.  They broke into giggles when I attempted "atcha," their word for “okay.”  
    We ran into each other again at the Taj Mahal.  They seemed so delighted to see me, I felt like a favorite teacher at a high school reunion.  Floyd came along as the girls were asking if they could take my picture.  He told them I was a grandmother, which nobody believed, including me.  Then he announced that he was my son, and I gave him a good push.
The Centaur Hotel                                                                                           
Bombay, India 
January 24, 1976  
     I put in a call for a 4:00 a.m. wake‑up, as our schedule calls for bags outside door at 4:45 and ourselves in bus at 5:15.  I was sound asleep when the phone rang, dreaming that Ed had a very young girlfriend, a nice little kid who looked as if she'd just had her braces removed.  I wasn't exactly jealous, it was more like annoyance—talk about robbing the cradle, the old buzzard should be dating this kid's grandmother.  I checked my pill cycle to see if I was getting into the time when I'm not my most charming, even when asleep.  The pills haven't rounded the bend yet, but when they do, there are a few pests in this group who'd better watch out.
     They don't mean to be pests, they think they're being helpful when they look at a certain mountain crowned with a temple and say, "There's a picture, be sure to get that one."  I promise I will, at the local postcard stand, but still they persist in telling me where I should station myself to get the best angle, interrupting when I am trying to photograph a wide-eyed child.  "You should have the sun at your back," they inform me.  The sun at my back puts the glare in his eyes and a taxi antenna on his head.  Someday I'd like to return, arranging with a guide I met in Adaipur to take day‑trips, as he suggested, and photograph his friends and family.
     It's fun dreaming these pipe‑dreams even if they never become a reality. Who knows, my film may be . . . but stop, don't think negative thoughts—the pictures will be great and the Smithsonian will pay me to travel as their official photographer.
     I nearly missed the bus because of my time-losing Timex.  Floyd was not pleased with me over breakfast, but then he is never pleased about anything until five minutes past ten.
     I'm at the airport and our flight has been called. 
Hotel Rama International
Aurangabad, India                                                                                 
January 26, 1976                                     
     The last couple of days have been worrisome because Floyd was hit hard with Traveler's Disease.  Others in our group have had it and recovered after a day or two of bed rest, light meals sent to their rooms, and dosages of Lomatil.  But Floyd still felt so sick this morning when we were scheduled to leave for Madras, he said he just couldn't go, he would have to join us tomorrow.   The director told me I must urge him to get dressed and come with us, as there were no seats available on tomorrow's plane to Madras.  Floyd made a superhuman effort and is now in the back of the plane, one step away from the lavatory.  He will have two days to rest and recover in Madras, a city with hospitals and the finest of doctors.
      We have now changed to another plane (at Bombay) and are on our way to Madras.  I wish I could say Floyd is alive and well but he is at this point just alive.  Better days ahead.       
Madras, India                                     
January 27, 1976
Dear Ed,
     I've been hearing unsettling rumors about what can happen to one's letters in this impoverished country. If poor people get their hands on them, they remove the stamps, re‑sell them, and goodbye letter.  Our guide makes sure hers are hand canceled before she lets them out of her sight.
       It's disturbing because I haven't had time to keep copies of descriptions on which I thought an article might be based.  I am tempted to call you (collect) to ask if my loved ones have been hearing from me, but it would only make me feel terrible if the answer is negative.
     Would you do me a favor and call Jack at Shawmut Bank, Govt. Ctr. Branch, and tell him I'm concerned about these here Indian giver mailmen?  I would like everyone to know I have been a faithful correspondent, considering the filled schedule we're keeping and my extracurricular side tours.
    If you don't get this letter I'll forgive you for not doing the above favor. . .
Taj Coromandel Hotel
Madras, India                                                             
January 28, 1976
Dear Jack,
     When I got back to the hotel after visiting a seaside temple and taking pictures of fishermen and having a swim and a sunburn, the first thing I asked at the desk was the first thing I always ask.  "Is there a letter for me?" 
     "Yes, Madame."
     Madame's face gets three shades pinker.  But . .  .she can't read the letter yet, for she must see if poor sick Floyd is better.  This morning he said he was going to stay in bed---a relapse after yesterday's apparent recovery from three days of miserable illness—and if he didn't feel better by afternoon, he would call a doctor.
     So I carried your letter, which was burning a hole in my palm, to Floyd's room.  Bad news.  He told me he knew for sure what was wrong with him, as he'd had a milder case some years ago—his guts were falling out (hernia) and he would have to return to Boston for surgery.
     It has all been arranged.  The director and I and a man from the Sita Travel Agency will accompany Floyd to the airport tonight.  His nephew will meet him in New York.
     Such a sad blow to his dreams of the wonders he would see in India.  Yet he retains his optimism, speaks with pleasure of the happy time he had the first ten days, and says he will return another year.  He's a brave man, my Guru.
      I told my fellow travelers I had written to Ed, asking him to call you to see if you had been receiving my letters.   They thought it very funny that an ex-wife could make such a request of her ex-husband.
Colombo, Sri Lanka                                                                              
February 2, 1976
        At the "t & t" (tea and toilet) stop between Kndy and Columbo, I was too restless to rest, so the tour director granted me permission to walk on ahead of the bus.  "But for heaven's sake," he called after me, "make sure you're heading in the right direction!"
     Off I went at a dog‑trot, eager to see as much roadside life as possible before I was overtaken.  I soon had half a dozen youngsters skipping along beside me, pointing out Moslem houses and singing, "Munnee, munnee!"
     I came to a high stone wall.  Looking up, I saw a curly‑headed tot peering down at me.  Before I could raise my camera, the head disappeared as the child scurried off to tell the family company was coming.
     And what a delightful family it was.  Two lovely sisters surrounded by handsome relatives of various sizes, ages, and genders were waiting for me in their driveway.  They posed for photographs ("Wait 'til I get my baby," said one of the sisters), then begged me to come inside for a visit.
     "Thank you, but I can't take a chance on missing my bus."
     "No, it is all right, please come in.  My brother will watch for the bus and stop it for you."
     I allowed myself to be pulled bodily into their house, all the while protesting that the tour director would have my head if the bus went by without me.
     "There is nothing to worry about!  Look, my brother is already sitting there across the street.  He will wave at the bus and the driver will pick you up."
     Giving in, I sat on the edge of my seat in the sisters' airy living room, one ear tuned to every passing truck, the other hearing of their husbands who worked in distant cities, getting home only occasionally.  I think they must have been lonely and bored because they held me hostage by asking many questions about my family.  I gave them a capsule version of my soap opera life, sudsing it up with an emancipation proclamation that widened their eyes.  I told them I was happily divorced, liked my former husband very much, liked the company of my friend Jack, but had no desire to remarry.  I was having too much fun with my freedom and independence to go back to life as a housekeeper. The sisters looked at me with the mixture of awe and fascination they might have accorded a female astronaut.
     "Really, darlings," I wanted to say, "I'm from Massachusetts, not outer space."
     A teenage brother asked if I would take his foto, enabling me to escape gracefully as far as the driveway.  I exchanged addresses and embraces with the sisters, who begged me to return to Sri Lanka for a longer visit.  The bus stopped to collect me, and I climbed back into the 20th century with a touch of sadness.  For a fleeting moment the sisters had become my sisters, an encounter I won't soon forget.
Note:  All my photographs were gray and flat, apparently ruined by X-ray machines at airports.

1 comment:

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