This morning around 10:30am, I was walking down a residential street in the Adams Point neighborhood of Oakland, California and passed by a fifty-something man wearing a bird mask.  Later in the day, I drove through the suburb of Walnut Creek and saw a couple of preppy teenagers wearing slutty bee costumes, and it was only then I realized it was Halloween.  But really, it may as well have been any other day as far as that middle-aged bird-man possibly attending a residential Halloween party at 10:30am in Oakland was concerned.

In Oakland, this eclectic city of artists, techies, academics, potheads, yoga practitioners, community organizers, foodies, gang members, and/or hipster refugees from the midwest, I have walked around wearing pajamas, three-piece suits, and heavily blinged out salwar kameezes alike, without garnering any sort of reaction.  A few miles away in the Castro district of San Francisco, senior citizens regularly walk around stark naked and no one bats an eye. Oakland, Berkeley, and San Francisco together have more than a dozen annual street fairs dedicated to kink and/or weirdness.  In these cities, you will never be able to evaluate the level of education or income that a person has based on her outward appearance, clothing, or level/nature of daytime intoxication.  There is simply no correlation.

I know this near-immunity from standing out or being figured out does not apply to most of California or the United States or the world — but it’s always interesting to see what sorts of things seem to be flagged as oddities.  Somehow, without even opening our mouths, my sister and I on our 1997 India trip were always identified by street vendors as English-speaking and foreign-currency-holding.  We weren’t even dressed in western or trendy clothes or anything.  But I think my sister nailed it by guessing that it was precisely because we were wearing baggy salwaar kameezes from the 1980s that they were onto us.  What local young modern Indian women would be dressed so hideously unless their parents had left the country decades ago, passing onto them this anachronistic sense of decorum?

Speaking of decorum, a word I immediately associate with the Brits, I will be on my British Airways flight to London in less than 24 hours!! At last, my next update will touch upon actual travel experiences and the ways in which I’ve regulated my behavior behaviour.

Pity-Booking: An Examination of Spinelessness

I am a sucker, and this is likely to cause some devastation along my travels.  It’s a given that many a widely grinning street vendor will call out, “Hello, Madam, special hand-made souvenir, made only here by us only!” and I will pay three times as much for the same item that is located in every souvenir shop around the corner. But, whatever, that sort of thing lasts two minutes and only impacts me financially.  What I’m more wary of is being made to feel emotionally obligated — a feeling that chips away at my soul and makes me question the fortitude my feminism. In the US, I have been swayed to purchase something or pay more than I normally would have because of persistent and/or good customer service — but I feel like Indians take it to the next level by stuffing you with food and chai and asking you about your family and making you feel like you’re part of theirs!!

It has already started; and the pathetic part is that I haven’t even been fed food or chai or asked about my family. What happened is this: a couple of months ago, I had thought about how perhaps I could do an organized South India tour, so I Googled “South India tours” and innocently filled out an inquiry form through one of the websites, mentioning some destinations and accommodations of interest. Within minutes, I received an enthusiastic response from a man named Ashok.  “Dear Miss Leena, Namaskar! and Greetings!!!!” he began, following with a detailed itinerary appropriately customized with the destinations and nature of accommodations I had requested.  Among the perks would be a “Man Friday” who would “walk with [me] along villages in the countryside as well as walk along bazaars of the city and point out fine eating places and shopping areas in different towns – a true friend.”  I had been talking with some cousins about traveling together and I wanted to figure things out with them before locking anything down, but I replied to Ashok to thank him and let him know that I would get back to him when I was more clear on my plans.

What followed was a near-daily email from Ashok with multiple exclamation marks, reminding me that he was eager to book my tour and could customize it in any way.  My cousin then arranged our travels to Chennai and Pondicherry, so the only remaining things I needed were one bus ticket, one hotel booking, and one plane ticket (I decided I could be my own “Man Friday”): all things that I easily could have booked on my own, online, instantly.  But I felt so indebted to Ashok that I contacted him to book these things for me, wanting him to make a decent commission for his time.

Ashok provided a reasonable quote for the items I requested, and asked me  to send a copy of my passport and visa, and make a partial credit card payment.  I thought it was kind of weird that he needed my passport and visa, and I had a mild inkling that he might be trying to steal my identity or overcharge my credit card — but I decided to run with it anyway, and did as requested.  Ashok replied back confirming receipt and said he would send my bookings by the next day.  After days and weeks of follow-up to which I just received “Namaskar Leena!!!! Yes, yes, we have booked it” types of replies with no actual evidence, I finally just today received a PDF of the bus ticket.  I called the hotel, which confirmed a booking under my name, and Ashok in a separate email also copied and pasted my flight details.  But why, oh, why was this process so torturous and long-winded when everything could have easily been attached to me the next day?  Part of me wished I had in fact been scammed, and that Ashok would be unreachable after I sent him my passport, visa, and credit card.  At least then, I would know that my life was possibly in danger, and I could just book everything again from scratch!

The fact of the matter is that things are not always going to be smooth or easy, and I will just have to be patient and accepting with the way things operate in different places. But at least I can do my part and resolve that pity-booking is a thing of my past!

the state of u, i, and us

At the dawn of my thirty-second birthday, I am about to ditch my bachelorette pad and my job as a lawyer in the San Francisco Bay Area for a month of travel to the UK and India.  This premise could have only been more romantic if I were recently divorced, white, and ascetically inclined (at least within the ambit of the mystical east) — but one thing I do share in common with the author of Eat, Pray, Love is the ability to decode what the modern-day English names of my destinations are obviously aiming to signify.  Whereas Ms. Gilbert traveled to three countries that began with the letter “I,” informing her that hers was a consummate inward journey, I am traveling to the UK, then India, then back to the US.  In other words, I am exploring the state of U, I, and US.

The UK has special theoretical significance to me as it is the land of my colonial forefathers, who spread their seed over both the United States, my country of birth, and India, my country of ancestry, leaving behind a lasting legacy of railways and repression.  I’m quite stoked to visit my cousin and her family in Wales, meet up with another cousin and her hubs in London, and also meet up with two friends who are coming from other locations.  It will be my first time there, and therefore it really will be like getting acquainted with U, a new person.

India is the place from which both of my parents hail, and where most of my relatives live.  I am brown, I love spicy food, and I was a multi-year spelling bee champion, so there is no doubt that India is the land of I.  However, with my limited first-hand exploration of the land, especially as a solo traveler, India in my mind has long been stagnated into a tableau that my parents have painted based on the 1970s India that they left behind.  This will be a time to challenge and expand that notion of I, to have that quintessential “American-Born Confused Desi (ABCD) exploring her roots” experience, where I will discover that India is a land of startling contrasts.  I am excited to reconnect with family members, some of whom I haven’t seen in years, if not decades.  Several wonderful cousin-bonding opportunities and excursions are in the works.  And I’ll finally get to experience a real Indian Diwali!

Oh yeah, while in India, I also plan to stalk the shit out of Bollywood.  During my first week in Mumbai, I have booked a stay at a hotel in Bandra, for obvious reasons.  To spell it out, some ABCD chick not too long ago started working out at Gold’s Gym in Bandra; today, she is John Abraham’s wife.  Apparently, he was attracted to the fact that unlike many women he encountered, she was unfamiliar with his star status.  I plan to work out at Gold’s Gym as well.  While I don’t have the lack of starstruckness to offer as an area of novelty, I do have a body type that will be mindblowingly unique compared to the usual Bollywood offerings.  I plan to leave India betrothed to Prateik Babbar and/or Siddharth Malhotra.

And finally, I will return to the US and try to situate and strengthen myself some more in the space of interconnectedness.  This is where my individual history all began: family, home, friends, school, career, community, and countless blessings.  But try and count them, I always do.