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Nuances Of India

Marshmallow Juice And Sandpapered Sunglasses–Life In India

The breakfast waiter offered a choice of either grape or marshmallow juice.

I raised my eyebrows and said, “Marshmallow juice?” We were in India. I doubted Indians could squeeze juice out of marshmallows.

“Delicious,” the waiter said.

I ordered marshmallow juice, and soon the waiter put down a glass of cantaloupe juice. It later occurred to me the waiter mispronounced “mush melon,” or maybe “musk melon,” another word for cantaloupe in some parts of the world.

Welcome to India, a country where rules and standards give way to improvisation, where norms are anything but normal. I doubt irony can work in India. Irony conveys a meaning opposite to the literal meaning.

India has no literal meanings.

Vicki and I are visiting India for the third time, this time starting in formerly French Pondicherry, in India’s far southeast. Whenever we arrive in a new town we try to arrange for a car and driver to pick us up.

In this case, our hotel sent a man to the airport. We found him with little difficulty. He drove us two hours or so to our Pondicherry hotel, said goodbye, and left. Later, we went to arrange payment at the desk. “Didn’t you pay him?” the hotel manager asked.

Apparently she assumed we were to pay the driver directly. When we didn’t, he just went home.

“He’ll be back. Give me the money, and I’ll give it to him.”

We stayed at that first, inexpensive hotel for several days until the housekeeping woman pocketed a flashlight. Or at least we’re pretty sure she stole our flashlight. In 30 years of overseas retirement travel, and during 10 years of business travel before that, we’ve noticed things stolen from our hotel rooms only two times. First, in Mexico many years ago a maid stole a small calculator. This second time was this flashlight worth maybe five bucks.

I theorize that maids very seldom steal, seldom rifle through clothes and bags in search of valuables. Rather, on rare occasions, they get sticky fingers. Perhaps on a whim they take something left out on a table–a calculator or flashlight in our case–something of little value and unlikely to be noticed. I suppose, and perhaps maids suppose, that most hotel guests will just shrug it off. Many hotel guests might even wonder if they perhaps left the item at the previous stop, for example.

We informed management of the mini-theft and moved out. At the next hotel, the rooftop pool was out of service, the air con made little headway against the extreme heat, and the WiFi required that we sit in the hall, right under the router. After a few days we gave up on the second hotel and moved to the top of the line: The Palais de Mahe.

Built in a restored colonial-era French building around a sparkling pool, the Palais de Mahe opened seven months ago. The hotel offers such a beautiful setting and such good value, I figure next time through the place will be packed and we’ll have to make reservations far in advance. Unlike so many Indian hotels, at the Palais everything works every time–pool, air-con, WiFi, TV, bar, restaurant. Even when the town cuts electricity, a daily occurrence in much of India, the hotel provides backup. By all means take advantage of this special place if you come to visit.

The Palais de Mahe is a block from the beach. At 6 p.m. the police close traffic on the beach road. Nightly we walk with thousands of locals along the water.

After a couple of evenings of walking, and people watching, I noticed I had trouble seeing. Next day I went to an optometrist. He put my head in a machine, moved some dials. Sure enough, I needed new glasses.

Total price, frame and lens, about US$20, ready the next day.

I liked my new glasses so much I ordered sunglasses, too. But when I went to pick them up the eye guy refused to give them to me. “No good,” he said. “Scratched. I’ll get you new ones. They’ll be ready Monday.”

What struck me here–no excuses. In India we seldom hear excuses, those fatuous exercises that seem so popular in the Western world. “What happened was that the baby got sick, so my wife needed the car to take him to the hospital, but she couldn’t get out of work before the doctor left, so…”

You can fill in the blanks. I typically just put up a hand to stop any discourse that starts with, “What happened was that…”

Indians, though, avoid excuses. I suspect in many cases the truth would strain our credulity. I mean, those sunglasses looked like someone sanded them. How could that possibly happen?

But here the locals just shrug, move on, “ready on Monday”…

India doesn’t work. We know that, everyone knows that. Foul-ups happen. By tacit agreement locals have decided to skip the details. Instead they focus on maintaining their sense of humor, their optimism. I like that.

Paul Terhorst

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