After I got off the plane in Bangalore on May 3rd, 2010, I followed emailed instructions to look for a certain “Mr. Manas” at the gate. Exiting from the air-conditioned airport into the outside world was the usual tropical shock. It’s as if you are remembering again what hot is really like. When I recovered from the sudden heat and sun, I saw at least 100 similar-looking Indians, all holding similar-looking 8.5 x 11 pages (in landscape) with names in black lettering. After I managed to find the only one with a non-Indian name on it (mine) I shook hands with Mr. Manas. There was a fence between us, though, probably to stop the people holding the signs from swarming the people leaving the main airport door. He directed me in gestures and pidgin to take some route around to meet him on the other side, and we managed to meet up a little farther away from the crowd. When we first met he almost forcibly took my bags from me (a backpack and a little suitcase with wheels) and walked me about 20 metres away to the road. Then, Mr. Manas took out his cellphone to call the taxi driver, who had been idling somewhere. It was at this point that I realized this adventure to Asia was going to be very different from my previous ones…
After I got off the plane in Bangkok in the summer of 2007, I was greeted with a similar blast of heat. This time I was with my good friend Taylor Binnington, and we were both travel virgins. We had researched the trip over the last couple of months, consulting several Lonely Planet books. Both of us had been to the US, and had travelled a bit in Canada, but neither of us had been overseas before. The only luggage I had was a 75-litre hiking pack; Taylor had one that was slightly larger. Indeed, this was the trip where we would aim to be uncomfortable and blend in with our environment. After 6 weeks in Southeast Asia, we would come back as worldly men.
Part of our planning was to figure out how to make our money last as long as possibly, and there were specific instructions we found that described how to leave the airport. It seems that taxi drivers that pick up passengers from the arrivals area have to pay an airport pickup or drop-off fee; this is passed on to the passengers. To get a better deal, you can sneak up to the departures area, where the taxis have already paid this fee through the passengers they just dropped off. We managed to do this. To get a cheaper ride, you can ask your taxi driver to duck off the main highway whenever you are passing a toll booth. Since it was late at night, we managed to get him to agree to this. To ensure that the taxi driver is not ripping you off and bringing you to a hotel that he has an arrangement with, you ask to get taken to a main road; we asked for Khao San Road. Also, we heard drivers tend complicate matters by saying the agreed-on price for the trip was actually the per-person price, rather than the total price. We made sure of the exact price before we put our luggage in the cab.
As you can see, my previous travel to Southeast Asia had developed a very particular mindset when it comes to surviving away from the familiar. I take special joy in being able to do things by myself. In Southeast Asia, we travelled “low to the ground” as others have called it. We would only eat local food, take local transit, get drunk with locals, and avoid western comforts as much as possible. My model of travel is that you aren’t really travelling unless you are uncomfortable and away from the familiar.
To my horror, it seemed that all the details of my arrival in India had been engineered for me, to ensure my utmost ease and comfort in every possible situation, by a small army of people working for to anticipate and respond to my every possibly need. This finally brings me to the topic of this post, which is The Joys and Guilt of Servitude. This is about the guilt I feel when servitude is displayed towards me, in some mis-guided attempt to make me feel comfortable and happy. It is really hard for me enjoy this strange show of affection. Whenever I see someone displaying it towards me, several thoughts creep into my head:
“Shouldn’t you be doing something more productive and happy with your time, like reading poetry or riding bikes?”
“I don’t like yourself lowering your status towards me. Let’s relate as human beings. Tell me about yourself.”
“I can do this myself, thank you very much. I am insulted that you think I need help.”
“I am insulted that you think I am the kind of person who would get satisfaction out of this.”
I mean, I get being comfortable. This means ensuring my bed is soft and dry and my food is warm and clean. This means being expedient when providing directions or when I am checking out of a guesthouse. But servitude is entirely different; it is posturing yourself as lower towards the person you are meant to help. It is doing things for them that there is no reason they could not do with minimal effort themselves. It seems that the final logical conclusion of servitude towards something is that they do nothing themselves, not even make requests. You anticipate and fulfill every need before it even occurs to them, as if you are propping up some whimsical gelatinous cushion (me?).
The taxi ride from the Bangalore airport to my hotel was pretty long – about an hour. The combination of not sleeping in the past 30 hours, the Indian heat and the absolute chaos of the traffic made me feel pretty rough. A thought crept into my head: ohmygodIcantbelieveIdecidedtocomehereforfourmonths. Mr. Manas (who I shall hereafter refer to as my everything-wallah) and the cab driver were in the front seat, and every once in a while my everything-wallah would look back at me and ask if I was comfortable. I would always say yes, but he kept asking every few minutes anyway. At one point I shifted my weight to let my legs stretch out, and I caught the driver looking at me in the mirror. He said something to my everything-wallah in another language and my everything-wallah gasped “Oh, you aren’t comfortable” and began to jack up the air conditioning. He started debating something with the driver, and soon we had gotten out of gridlocked traffic and into a back-alley as some sort of shortcut. In my horror, the taxi driver honked the horn mercilessly at families and boys on bicycles to get out of the way of the cab carrying the important foreigner. I would have made smiling, apologetic faces at them as we careened past, but the windows of the cab were tinted. Asia wasn’t like this before.
Its not like I haven’t experienced servitude before in North America. Once when I was trapped at the Chicago airport overnight, I elected to get a hotel room instead of sleeping on a bench somewhere. I was tired and hungry and it was about 11 pm so I ordered some room service, which came to about $28. When the knock on the door came, I was surprised not to be greeted by the usual (and welcome) bored twentysomething with a tray, but rather a guy in his late fifties in a bowtie, hefting a stereotypical silver platter-like thing over one shoulder. I said “Oh, thank you” and extended my hand to accept the tray, but the waiter shook his head and moved towards me. I almost had to jump out of the way as he entered the room and laid the tray down on a table. After a series of ceremonious exchanges to ensure I didn’t need anything else, he finally left me with my food. These procedures are very unfamiliar to me. Is this supposed to make me feel comfortable in a strange place?
So not only do these servants do things I would not be able to do myself, they also will not let me do something that I wanted to do. It seems like they would consider it a failure on their part, to not have been able to fulfill my needs. It has made me on my guard when something I say or do implies there is a need of mine that could be fulfilled. I made the mistake, after we arrived in the hotel, of asking where I could go get shaving equipment. After some pretty crazy gesticulations, my everything-wallah and I settled on him going to get the stuff for me, while I would just sit in my hotel room and “rest”. Throughout this entire conversation, two other staff from the hotel just stood waiting behind him, in case I had some other need. I made the same mistake again this past weekend in Mysore, when I asked one of the hotel staff nearby where I could get some bath soap. He ended up getting me to give him 20 rupees, and knocked on my door 15 minutes later with some bath soap and 2 rupees in change. 2 rupees is about 5 Canadian cents.
When I think of travelling, I think of moving in. If I could, I would change my appearance to that of the locals so that, at least superficially, I could look the part and really disappear into where I am. Don’t strive for this and I am stuck viewing my surroundings through my own western, middle-class, educated lens, and its the same as walking through a museum and ignoring the people who live in it. Now, I know its completely foolish to think that I can actually ever achieve my goal of blending in to another culture and any “proof” that I have achieved it would be superficial, but I feel I cannot take myself seriously as a traveller unless I at least strive for it.
When I was ordering breakfast to my room for the first time in the hotel, there was another series of miscommunications. It seems like the staff wanted to give me “bread omelette” which sounds fine and familiar, but I kept pointing to the hotel menu they gave me, full of what looked like a bunch of indian dishes in the roman alphabet and asking what breakfast was on this menu. Finally, I said “I want to eat what you eat for breakfast”. This elicited a confused expression, and they said again “bread omelette”. I got the bread omelette.
I’m not sure if all this servitude is turning me into a better person, but rather the sweaty, useless white guy I’ve always been afraid of.
I was really looking forward to this internship, as it meant I could move in and blend more into local society. I am no longer transient as I was on my previous trips, but I am actually working and living here. This place is more than scenery or stage setting for me. But, I’ve now realized this is not possible. I am an alien by definition, flown in here at great expense for a short time period to do my thing and then get out. So I have forced myself to accept the servitude when it comes to me. I am elevated by definition, and to have me mess around trying to get a cheaper cab from the airport without getting ripped off or to wander the streets trying to find soap or to try to learn the local language so I can rent an apartment is a waste of the cost to bring me here. I’m not too happy with the justification, as I am very unfriendly with any order that elevates one person above another, especially if it is how much value they put on their own time.
But I have decided to follow the maxim that I have to be happy as long as the transaction between two people benefits both of you. There’s nothing I can do if someone really does take joy, or gets income from, just standing there and waiting until a whim forms in my brain. It does kind of make me think of the cow in The Restaurant At The End Of The Universe who goes out and asks patrons which part of its body they would like to eat, and then goes and slaughters itself.
I have only seen about a dozen other Caucasian people in the last three weeks. I have intentionally avoided talking to them, although sometimes I have had to nod or say “hey” if they have gotten close. This is in heavy contrast to my travels in Southeast Asia, where foreigners were everywhere, though frequently they had different accents or spoke different languages. So while I can’t truly experience what it is like to be a local, I can at least truly experience what it is like to be a foreigner for the first time in my life.
I came here with a minimum of luggage, and have had to buy a bunch of clothes. On one of my trips to a department store near my work, an Indian couple in front of my at the checkout started asking me questions about myself. Just before they finished, the male half of the couple said: “The fact that you are here is a sign of progress.” I guess it is.
Well I have to go. The other guys from my PG (Bangalore way to refer to temporary housing, more on this later) have put on collared shirts and we are heading to the pubs. I’ve heard that Bangalore is the pub capital of India, and I’m letting the locals show me around to see if the pub scene measures up to Canada. Of course, no one in Bangalore is a local either, as they’ve all migrated here from various parts of India to be part of the tech boom. I just came from a little bit farther away.