Before you read this post, you might want to read the post right before it chronologically speaking in order to have some clue of what I'm talking about and why it might conceivably matter.
When I left off yesterday, I had just arrived at the Hotel Sangrilla on Nashik Road a quick ten minute walk from the Nashik Road Indian railway station.
I walked up to the Hotel and was hailed down by a quartet of Indian men sitting in front of two storefronts directly to the right of the Sangrilla's overly large entrance. It's taken me some time to know how to react to sudden accosting on Indian streets. Thus far, about half the time I've responded to a quickly, thickly called 'Hello!' the results have involved a very long, uncomfortable handshake-cum-handhold with some random dude who clearly has consumed a little too much water with arsenic in it for his own mental good. But the other half of the time, I've had a pleasant interaction with another wonderful Indian male, who wants to know all about my qualifications and how much my guitar cost. In this case, at this moment, since I was looking for the Hotel Sahara and hadn't found it, I decided to walk over to this quartet of Indian men and see what might come of it. And, boy.
Only one of the quartet, a Muslim man who owns the shoestore between the picture framing store and the photo printing store nextdoor to the Hotel Sangrilla, spoke functional English. What's more, his English was actually quite good, and accented with very interesting holdovers from his native Hindi. So he asked me where I was from and where I was going, and I asked him where the Hotel Sahara was.
"Sahara? SA-hara? Sa-HA-ra? Sa-ha-RA?"
"Ah, yes, the Hotel Suh-huh-ruh."
"Yes. That one."
"This hotel here will be much more suitable for your needs."
"Yes. It is quite comfortable, and reasonably priced. The Hotel Sahara is not adequate to your standards."
And so, I entered the Sangrilla and checked in, only to find out that I was the first Amerikan who had ever stayed in their hotel. Which quickly became like winning the lottery, as we shall see.
I hadn't even had a chance to place my stuff in the hotel room up on the third floor before the young hotel attendants began ringing the doorbell and suddenly barging into the hotel room inquiring about where I was from, what my qualifications where, and how much my guitar cost. This was new to me. Being from a country larger than India but with less than a third the population, I was used to a certain level of personal space. That level of personal space clearly didn't exist in the minds of even the hotel staff at the Hotel Sangrilla, and so, I quickly descended and found my Muslim friend once again.
I met his friends--Raju, the owner of the picture-framing store, Uttam, the tailor who worked behind both the shoestore and the picture-framing store, and "Harry Om," the very large owner of the photoprinting store nextdoor that dwarfed the shoestore and picture-frame store.
"Could you recommend a good place to eat dinner?" I asked my Muslim friend, whose name was Suresh.
"Yes, brother, I can. There is a wonderful establishment just down this road here called Hotel Rasoi. It will be quite suitable to your needs. I think you will find the food quite satisfying."
And off I went. It was about 7 o'clock in the postmeridian at this point, and I was famished. I rolled into the Rasoi, had the waiter recommend something Punjabi and very, very spicy, and awaited my first North Indian meal in India with a Lake Superior of saliva swishing around in my mouth.
The food arrived, a piping hot bright red-orange curry and my first Indian naan as well, and my God, I mean, I do like generally to taste the actual vegetable matter of my vegetables, and I even occasionally like to know what I'm eating, but this curry...it was divine...it was the explanation I would have needed for why and how Punjabi food has ted the consciousness of Americans in search of Indian food. The spice was intense, overwhelming. My brow broke out in thick beads of sweat, and the naan was coated in butter, which is to say, it was out-of-this-world delicious.
After the meal, I wandered slowly back to the Hotel Sangrilla. Before I could enter, my friends nextdoor accosted me once again.
Suresh: "Brother, you will join us for dinner later."
Me: "Oh boy..."
Suresh: "No, no, we insist. We will share Maharashtran specialties."
Me: "But why didn't you tell me this before you recommended a restaurant to me?"
Suresh stared back at me, choosing not to understand this batch of English.
Suresh: "You will come, brother. We will gather you at 9 o'clock."
Me: "Yes. I will come. I will come. Yes."
And so, I dashed up to my hotel room and confronted my fate. Laying there on the hotel bed staring up at the whirring ceiling fan, I compared the relative advantages of poking and choking my first dinner of the evening vs. grinning and bearing it and trustig in the good sense of my dinnermates to notice when I was about to pop from overeating. I would suffer forth and trust in the kindness of my friends downstairs.
Earlier than they said, and therefore right in line with everything I've come to expect from India, a knock rapped on my door and I didn't have time to get off my bed before the door opened and Uttam the tailor and one of Suresh's shoestore workers barged into the room and carried me off to dinner number two. It was like being trapped in Middle Earth, except I was in no way a midget, nor did I have an interdimensional gastrointestinal tract. That would come the following day.
So dinner occurred. Raju wanted us to go to a restaurant that served alcohol because all Americans drink, and Suresh came along with Uttam and Raju and I even though, as a Muslim, he had apparently never before been to a bar in all his 36 years. We arrived, and only then did I inform my new friends that I don't drink, at which point Raju expressed dismay and I assured all the gathered parties that it was really totally fine, I was used to being around alcohol, it didn't bother me a bit.
Uttam had somehow managed to go home and have his wife cook an entire Maharashtran feast between the time I went upstairs and the time he came and got me from my hotel room. So there I was, first being fed a masala dosa, vada and some stuffed Chinese-style chilies off of the restaurant menu, and then being stuffed with a massive download of Maharashtran food fresh off of Uttam's wife's frying pan. I ate, and ate, and ate. And good god, if there's one thing I can't stand, it's feeling overly full.
What's more, the food was so damn spicy, it was all I could do to keep from drinking everyone's glass of water at the dinner table. I restrained myself and downed only my own water, but the waiter kept refilling my cup so quickly and regularly that I forgot to notice that I was most definitely drinking unboiled water.
The dinner ended, they walked me straight to an ice cream parlor across the street, and it was only by demonstrating my distended intestinal tract that I avoided a dessert disaster.
Unfortunately, disaster hadn't been averted. Not by a long shot.
They escorted me home, Suresh continually referring to me as 'Come, Brother,' and debating Biblical theology with me, since I was a fellow person of the line of legitimate prophets and Monotheistic beliefs instead of these crazy Hindus he was surrounded by, God/Allah love 'em.
Sleep came swiftly, and departed just as swiftly.
After some point in the night, it became clear that I was in for it. I vomited curry in massive cascades of red reeking of garam masala. Oh God, I don't think I can ever eat North Indian food again, tasty and delectable though it may still be. I orbited the toilet, ejecting every last drop of liquid and solid from my insides back into the awaiting world-as-toilet-bowl. Over, and over, and over. If you've had dysenteric third-world experiences, you know what I'm talking about. It is HELL. Pure, unadulterated Hell.
I was in Hell. My ass burned so intensely I couldn't even flick water directly on it. I had to sort of jut my butt into the stream of shower water and then hope that I was somehow cleaning off the residue of my diarrheaic throes.
Along with the physical symptoms, I began feeling quite terrible about my entire alternative life project. My entire belief structure came toppling down. I was reduced to an intestinal tract and an apology. I prayed to God feverishly, please, to help me. I thought I might die, even though I'd been through a similarly unpleasant bout of intestinal disintegration back in April in Colombia and knew that it would all work out in the end.
So this is where India really became India.
I was definitely very sick. I wandered downstairs early and one of the kindly hotel young dudes ran across the street and purchased five bottles of water for me. Word apparently got out to my friends nextdoor about the sad state I was in. They took me to the doctor and paid for it themselves. I wobbled and nearly toppled as they held me and escorted me from my hotel room to the doctor's office, to the pharmacy where they paid for my meds, which I took for the first time in over five years because one simply can't resist India at some point, and they made sure I had everything I needed. They apologized like crazy. They were so kind, and their kindness overwhelmed me. I tried to pay. I tried to get them to let me help them in turn. They would have nothing of it.
And that day passed, my insides returned to relative stability, and I slept.
At the Hotel Sangrilla on Nashik Road near the Nashik Road railway station, there is a kindly 17-year-old female desk clerk named Manju who will check you in and attend to your needs if you come between the hours of 7 and 7 in the daytime. Manju took a shining to me during my stay because, "I like tourists," as she said.
After a day of feverish recuperation, the final over-the-top level of Indian solo wandering trippiness transpired. My fingers are about to fall off, and I'm sure noone's followed me this far down the dark and dirty path of Mangolandia blog entries, so we'll make this quick.
I was a guest in their hotel, remember.
But, on my final night in Nashik before my train would leave and carry me back to Ank's awaiting arms 26 hours away in Kerala, Manju and Aman, one of the male hotel workers, took me to my first Hindu temple. They purchased a Good Luck Chinese bell thing for me. The Hindu Temple attendant gave me a blessing and a small bag of some Indian sweets. Then Manju and Aman took me out to dinner. I seized the check at the end of the meal, but their combined Hindi fluency meant that the waitstaff refused to accept my proffered rupees. They then walked nextdoor and bought me three bags of Indian snack mix, a bottle of seeds and spices and things that one munches on lightly to clear the palate, they took me to pose with them in a picture studio for four different photos, and Manju gave me two wrapped presents with a note telling me to wait and open the presents until I returned to the U.S.A. She also bought me a bouquet of flowers. All of this happened. My bag was twice as full when I left the Hotel Sangrilla as it had been before I'd entered.
After dinner, when I parted ways with a crying Manju and Aman escorted me back to the hotel, Suresh appeared at my door with two large bags of golden sultana raisins, one for me and the other for my friends in Kerala. Then he had me hop on his motorcycle downstairs and he took me for a ride through the wind, honking and rickshaw buzzing to Nashik city proper, where he finally got his wish and watched me devour two different ice cream cones, one loaded down with Alfonso Mango ice cream, the other with Jambu ice cream. (Jambu is like a grape, but different. Don't ask.)
Finally, I did end up leaving Nashik. The train included a whole slew of its own stories, as India is wont never to relent. And since my arrival back in Bathery, Waynad, Kerala, the stories have continued to pile one on top of another. INDIA LITERALLY NEVER STOPS GIVING. Sometimes it's giving you what you want--copious, Kosmic levels of mangoes higher in mangitude than any you've previously consumed--while other times, it's taking you down deep to the dark places that you've been avoiding these past 27 years, the better to build you into the cosmic love engine that you Always Already Are. But make no mistake--India is on the scene, India is in control, and India will have its way with you. Your choice: to come quietly, or kicking and screaming.
About three weeks ago, when I arrived, Ank would anthropomorphize India like this, and I would wince. I thought he was making one of the most obvious metaphysical errors possible in the domain of interpretation. But you know what?
Ank's totally right.
Welcome to Mangolandia.