Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Fish In a Bowl

by Skald

The Rickshaw stopped on the corner and I stepped out.... handed over 300 rupees and looked around: instant panic. A thousand eyes were on me. Bold black & unblinking. Pressure closing in. Busy intersection in the north suburbs of Bombay... off... way off the guidebook maps. Freak in a freak show.... the whole neighborhood stopped to stare at the bald, white foreigner. Cars slowed . children pointed. Conversations broke in mid-sentence.... heads turned towards me. whispers and scrunched eyebrows. shop owners peered from their doors.... busy commuters stopped in midstride.

I strained the backpack onto my shoulders, and I grumbled "I am a huge, white, skinhead, turtlish freak...." Short rabbit-like breaths. Darting eyes searched desperately for the hotel sign. "where is it, where is it?".... I scanned the sidewalks and intersection.... .and set off to my right.... better to keep moving... flee the unflinching eyes.

But no escape... every corner turned presented another pool of Indians.... more stares, more pointing, more whispers. Dark thoughts, ìthey hate Americans.... Iíve got to find the hotelî. I hurried.... faster and faster down a side street to nowhere, then a dead end. "Fuck fuck fuck" I thought and pirhouetted... knees buckled from the weight of the backpack. I sped back to the main intersection and chose the next road to the right....

And there it was... the Hotel Gupta. Sanctuary. I leapt for the doorway... bounded up the stairs to the check in desk. A greasy-haired man with a thick paunch scowled... scanned me... and said, "Hmmmm, can I help you?" "I have a reservation", I stammered, "Skald". He did not move, nor look to the reservation book... held my gaze and said, "we donít have a reservation for that name, sir". Tense voice. Taut lips. "But.. I called... I called. From America. Two weeks ago. And made a reservation".

Throat tightened in fear. My first trip... my first day abroad... and already- disaster. Where would I stay? How would I find a place? Could I get a taxi way out here? Why had I let my Indian friend in Georgia convince me to stay here.... I should have stuck with the safe backpacker joints listed in Lonely Planet.

The clerk wobbled his head...îvery well, we have a double room for 600 rupees... you will have to take thatî .... he squinted, leaned forward, and slid the guest book towards me. "Ok. No problem" I said and lunged for the book. Thank god. I whipped out my passport, which I'd cleverly hidden in a pouch around my neck, just as the guidebook suggested. Filled out the guestbook... was led to my room.

My first hotel room in India. As the clerk opened the door, I prepared for the worst: mental flashes of roaches, bedbugs, decay, and filth. I was in an exhausted jet-lagged stupor. He swung the door wide and I stepped in, "whoa". Clean tile floor. Double bed with immaculate white sheets. Bright lighting. "Great. This is great", I mumbled as he handed me the key. I locked the door lightning fast and slid the bolt for good measure. I was safe... locked in a tidy, clean, room. A room, I suddenly realized, with AIR CONDITIONING! I was safe from the staring hordes. I was safe from the flinty clerk. I was safe from India.

I threw the pack to the floor in front of the bed and shuffled to the bathroom. No roaches. No dirt. Immaculate porcelain. Western toilet. Shower with hot water. Long, deep conscious sigh....... release of terror and anxiety. Turned and shuffled back to the bed and fell to it. Thoughts: "should take a shower"..... but in minutes I was out. An exhuasted valium-like coma after a 24 hour journey of flights and layovers.

Thus concluded my first day abroad.

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