Two Days of Aristocratic Bliss

4:56 PM Wednesday, November 4, 1998

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So the second night Brian and I picked up Tabea, a German woman who Brian had met on the plane a few weeks ago. Driving Bangalore at night with a smeared windshield is the scariest ride on earth. You go around a corner that has no reflective lane markings (no lanes at all) so you can't see the edge of the road, and head-on comes a big truck, seemingly right for you. Hmmm, look, I think we have 6 feet on the left to squeak by at full speed -- the bastard's cutting the corner completely.

From our home in Koramangala we take National Games Complex Road (Indians have discovered the wonders of housing projects) over an open sewer/creek to Vivek Nagar, a street cutting through one of the 400 slums in Bangalore, then down MG (Mahatma Ghandi) Road. Vivek Nagar, (pronounce the 'Nagar' like you're trying to scare a little kid: 'NAGAAARRRR') a little road that was just paved last year or something, supports the commute traffic of a growing little suburb. I'd say a few hundred thousand people. They're building a big road, one that's wide, with a divider, paved and all that, but I think there have been some delays -- like a couple of years to finish that last 50 feet of it because some people decided to squat there. You go, "What the?" and then you just shrug your shoulders and take another big breath of 2-stroke engine exhaust.

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We walked down Brigade Road and stopped at a juice shop. I wasn't to excited about getting Delhi-belly from some juice with nasty water in it but Brian, promising me it was OK, and Tabea were all over it. I had some sweet lime juice (they call a green orange a sweet lime here) and then we drove down to a local bar.

Bangalore is one of the more western cities in India, probably second only to Bombay in liquor sales. But all the bars close at 11PM and they're not allowed to have live music with the booze. We went to the Black Cadillac - a cheesy bar that was mostly empty and had some drinks. Soon, we were joined by some Irish guy, can't remember his name, who, according to Brian, was one of the premiere men-about-town. We'll call him Fergus. He proceeded to tell us stories about the "orgaaaaaasmic" treatments you could receive at the Taj West End (where Brian happens to work as an environmental consultant). He told us how they'd go over your entire body looking for blackheads and ingrown hairs, do a facial, (mudpack, face and shoulder massage, dip your head in oil and massage your scalp) manicure, pedicure. They'd even pluck every last hair from your nose and ears (Fergus's personal favorite). Tabea and I decided to go together. We finished up a rather uneventful evening on the town after Tabea stopped to have 4 scoops of ice cream from a local street vendor. I hadn't the guts to indulge. Pun intended. I'm writing this 2 days later, after coming back from the Taj and getting a facial, a head wash and a manicure all for Rs.550.

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I got some good sleep and got up at 8:30 to catch a ride into town with Brian. Starting the day again with the morning commute. We met Tabea at Max Mueller Bavan Bakery -- a German rooftop bakery that gives a view of the treetops and taller structures of the city (Cricket Stadium). You sit under a thatched roof and eat strudel and omelets and tea. It's definitely the good life. Except for the weird solid clumps in the milk that don't dissolve in your coffee and just float on the top. I was told it was because they boil it. That means it's good. We had to get over to the Le Meridian, a 5-star hotel, for our Hindi movie casting call.

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We showed up at 11 and proceeded to wait and wait in the lobby. I'd been in productions in the US so I knew about the waiting. The Indian crew were scrambling and getting setup for the shoot and by 1:00 we were escorted to the wardrobe van to get some clothes. They were going to put me in a suit but none fit so I was handed a pair of lime green wide leg raver pants and a big printed yellow t-shirt with some Hindi designs. It was awful. They said, "Put it on! You will look like the leading man." They handed Tabea a super short blue and white sundress that was sort of a combo of miniskirt and shorts on the bottom. As I discovered later, all the female extras wore the most leg revealing dresses possible and the men all were dressed up as tropical tourists. We were supposed to be the hotel patrons in a foreign county (not India) that our stars were visiting on a romantic getaway.

We still hadn't seen the stars, Govinda, the "Michael Jackson of India", and the former Miss Universe from India. It was near 2 now and Tabea was getting hungry. They had just laid out an incredible buffet in the hotel restaurant for Rs.350, damn spendy, I thought. You could sample about 40 different dishes. Tabea wanted to do it but they had promised us lunch. We waited some more and soon they led us (about 20 extras) out of the front of the hotel. Where were we going? Who knows. We rounded the corner and saw the first of our group getting herded into a bus. Oh shit. This can't be good. There was a real foreboding in Tabai's eyes as I remarked that it may be possible *we* were lunch and that they were going to serve us to the crew. Then the whole crew crammed on the bus and we set off across town.

They pulled up in between some abandoned buildings (and when buildings are abandoned in India, they go from bad to.... -insert flagrant adjective-). Trash heaps against the walls, mildew stains covering everything, and nothing, once again, but floor, walls, ceiling. Oh, and the Indian equivalent of a soup line. We were handed metal plates and chapatti and then had rice, masala and dal heaped onto them. That was it. We all stood around with the crew and ate standing up. Outside. There was no water provided.

After we were done shoveling the 5 rupees worth of food into our mouths with our right hands, they herded us back on the bus. We were stunned. Not a word from anyone of the upper level crew (the 1 or 2 that came along). One German woman who was living in Bangalore refused to eat (major insult) and decided she was going home once the bus returned. I was smiling all the way. I had heard about the Indian way but now I got to experience it. Tabea was keeping a stiff upper lip. When we got back to the hotel, they put is at our marks and gave us our instructions. "When the director yells action, you walk that way, throughout he lobby." Ok. Someone said we'd do 4 or 5 scenes and this was only the first. They were going to shoot 5 days in the hotel. I wasn't planning on staying longer than it took to get in one scene. That turned out to be until 5:30.

(Excuse me while I have some Austin Quality Toasty crackers with creamy Peanut Butter. They're "baked with pride" all the way back in the U.S of A.)

I had various interesting conversations while at the hotel. Most started with "where from". I've stopped even saying San Francisco - nobody's ever heard of it. Sometimes I say Koramangala (the part of Bangalore where I live). When they ask where I live sometimes it's fun to act like I live here. With help from Brian, I can fake it and it helps get respect when I'm negotiating auto-rickshaw fares. I'm also learning when to assert my colonialist status. I'd like to ignore the caste system and social order but you get more trouble than it is worth. Many Indians will be ultra-agreeable and just stand there with their head swiveling and bobbing side to side on their neck. After standing there with them for a while, you realize that they're not setup to process anything but a direct order. It's tough to get used to the gesture they're making. They are giving the equivalent of a nod "yes" when it looks like they're shaking their head "no". If you ask a question, directions for example, that they don't know the answer to, they'd rather give you any piece of info -- no matter how wrong it is -- than not help. "Yes boss, yes boss, right this way." In America, we call this the ol' bait and switch. Oh well, you get used to it after a while and you also don't shy away from showing you're displeased with them (even if you're only mildly annoyed). Without the subtleties of a native tongue, you have to get kind of primal. I'm not suggesting you get crazy aggro here, if you do, the Indians will probably just look at you like, "boy, he must be having a bad day".

One of the conversations was with an Indian who was obviously trying to be "Hollywood". He had the collar of his Hawaiian shirt flipped out on the outside of his jean jacket. He said his favorite place was Miami Beach and couldn't understand when I thought it was too cheesy. He asked me if I liked sports and I told him all the sports I had played. He was surprised that I'd heard of cricket and then bragged about how Bangalore had won the national games championship last year. I asked him about football (soccer) and he said "there are 150 teams in the world, India, 149" and laughed. I asked why India was so bad in soccer with so many people and he said, "Indians are too soft. Some Nigerian come by and 'bink' hit him and he fall over. They are not a mentally tough people." Then he asked about Monica Lewenski, the first time I'd been asked that and he said, "Did he really do it? Have illegal sex?" and I said that the sex wasn't illegal it was the lies. But he didn't grok that. I told him that most Americans didn't care about it anyway. He said, "It's true? He did do it! It's true???!!!!!"

Tabea got stuck talking to a Muslim guy who just wanted to talk about religion. I got to lay down every piece of slang I could think of for this guy and he just ate it up. I asked was this his first time as an extra and he said he'd been doing it for 7 years. He owns a perfume shop and just does this on the side. I thought it was funny that he'd been an extra for 7 years and never had a real part. He wasn't bad looking either. I love the swingers the best I think. They're enraptured with American pop culture and are usually more forward and ask frank questions: "What about sex with American girl? Eh? Eh? Ha!"

So we worked through 2 scenes. Oh, I forgot to tell you about the stars. When they finally entered we knew things were going to start. You can't adequately describe Govinda. (Govinda means cow, by the way) This guy was dressed like a fool. Tight white pants, black suspenders, a red and white striped shirt and a little red cap tilted way off to the side and a red plastic coat permanently draped over his arm. Miss Universe looked like a Barbie doll and was dressed in a red dress straight outta mother goose. Govinda is adored by millions. He's just as confusing as Michael Jackson too. He's always on. After I told some Indian women I'd met him they all asked, "Is he always like that? Even in real life?" with interest that didn't lack any of the adoration it should have. Oh well. The superstar's a complete retard. So it goes.

He does this slick-o "I'm the Fonz" thing while looking like the Pillsbury Doughboy. The girls clutch their autograph books to their beating chests and he poses for one fan photo after another. It's really too much to bear and I usually go for the easy cheese! So we left for a while -- the casting agents were quite disappointed, they thought we'd stay until 4am and then continue for all 5 days. Life's short bud, and you're only giving me Rs.500.

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We didn't get paid however, we didn't really care. We went to another hotel and passed some time until 6:30 and the buffet was back on at Le Meridian. Another overpaid auto-rick back and we sat down to pig out. The server boy elegantly opened each silver server and explained the contents to me and I filled my plate a few times. The highlight of my evening, and a real strong reminder that I should've brought a mini-cassette recorder (this place is almost more soundtastic than sightastic) was the band in the restaurant. The theme of the Lenai restaurant was Hawaiian and the three-piece (keyboard, guitar, bass) Indian band was crooning out some Don Ho as we walked in. Tabea and I luxuriated to the sounds of The Commodores, Air Supply and other soulful soft rock faves through 3 sets. I was jumping with joy and freaking with postmodern kitsch-shock through every song. It usually took a while to identify the song through the thick mellowness that hung over each one. What was most heart-wrenching though, was that they were completely sincere and innocent, singing Tom Jones to the upper class Indians in the place. The wonderstruck whizzed by the heads of all the patrons, even Tabea. And all the absurdity and magical innocence of it focused straight on me. I've seen Mexican underground gothrock Souxie and the Banshees bands on the outskirts of Mexico City, I've seen Samoans doing Black Sabbath covers in Hawaii and I've seen Crispin Glover movies of Downs Syndrome kids at The Edge in Palo Alto but nothing compares 2 this!

We stopped by the Black Cadillac to throw back one with Brain and his wife and her friends and then crashed out. They came home and partied till 4 but we just put in the earplugs and hit it. The day in the hotel was just too much.

Today, Tabea and I got up and rickshawed to get rupees at Thomas Cook Exchange and then to breakfast at Max Mueller's then to the Taj to see Brian and fix his Dial-up Networking and get the full treatment from the spa. I've already told you about that so I'll just end with a blessing. Bless you fantastically rich westerners. May you come to know and appreciate just how rich you are. I've never been richer.