Almost Done In

India nearly did it to us. Pulled the cork, yanked the chain, slipped the rug, halted the march.

Travel all by itself is difficult. Independent travel is even more difficult. Travel as an illiterate adds yet another layer of difficulty--even if sooner or later one can find someone to speak a passable bit of English. (Ah yes, those conquering Brits made it easier for those of us who speak little besides the Mother Tongue. During our months in Asia, not only were the languages unknown, we couldn't even cipher the various alphabets.) But India has a black belt in difficulty.

India reduced me to an open pool of tears on several occasions, and on one, produced ranting but righteous indignation at several decibels--soon to be accompanied by the swinging of my day pack properly weighted with guide books (the touts who were the focus of my wrath got out of the way of the crazy woman before the swinging pack stage). It also caused me to gurgle with delight, and learn to be serene in the face of impenetrable Indian illogic. And it wore all of us out.

The difficulties started with the fret over malaria. We had heard and read horror stories about Larium, the drug of choice to prevent malaria these days. We talked with doctors, each of whom had a different opinion on the subject. The last we consulted, a tropical disease specialist in Bangkok said he no longer prescribed Larium for travel in India--he'd rather treat the disease than the side effects. He recommended using a good mosquito repellent and netting. Period.

Most Aussies we encountered traveling in Asia were taking Larium, some with side effects, some without. Other travelers were either taking nothing, or were taking some of the older, less effective (but less pernicious) drugs. Finally someone suggested we call the Indian Embassy in Bangkok. After all, it's their country... they'll know. So we did.

The woman we finally got after several transfers worked in the tourism section. "Malaria? " she said with incredulity, "This is winter, there are no mosquitoes." Suitably mollified, we set off for India with mosquito coils and two types of repellent--just in case. When we got off the plane in Bombay, we were greeted by one of the dirtiest, run-down airports we'd ever seen--and we were immediately covered in mosquitoes. As I sprayed and rubbed each of our little band I related the embassy story to the woman behind me. She rolled her eyes heavenward and said something like, "You called the Indian Embassy?? And you believed them?!"

This just started a good downhill roll. It was Christmas night, and it seemed that there were no hotel rooms to be had. The phone at the airport worked only sporadically, and when we could get through to hotels listed in the Lonely Planet guide, they were not only full, but were charging four times what was listed.

Oh yeah, and we had no money. The ATM in Bangkok had given us an unintelligible message, but no money as we were leaving. And the credit card that was supposed to catch up with us via air delivery service in Bangkok, hadn't. Lost in the shipping lanes? Unsent? We had no way of knowing what our money situation was, except that we had none.

We managed to find a hotel near the airport that became our base for the next three days of getting money worked out (involving frantic phone calls to the States, visits to our bank and the translation of bank rules--"two party" does not mean two names on an account), buying train tickets north (this took a whole day, visits to myriad offices, filling out various forms), and making reservations for our next stop, Amsterdam (which we could not get for one month in spite of our instinct to bolt after a few days--and for which the airline tried to require that I take a cab ride to the airport until I called management and complained that every OTHER country and airline had been able to take our reservation by phone).

We were, at first, fascinated as we watched people hang bare butts over the sides of the train platforms (or roadsides) to relieve themselves, and huge rats scurrying to clean it up. But it soon grew alarming as we imagined the resulting air and water, which were impossible to escape. We began to get used to beggars and shoeshine boys constantly hammering at us by devising games to keep our sanity. But never the touts who landed like flies at every bus and train stop.

After a while I felt fragile and incompetent and I couldn't figure out why. India is a VERY male dominated society, and while you can do some maneuvering as a woman alone, as a woman with a man, well, you just don't exist. For example, when Sam and I complained that the hotel laundry in Agra had shredded my new shirt, they were all abuzz with the idea of replacing it, until we responded in the negative when asked if it was "the Master's shirt." They then brought a "lunch kit" to George to thank him for not making any more fuss! The men at ticket windows would not deal with me if George was in sight. George was expected to bear the brunt of protecting his little harem and doing all the logistics.

When it all got to be too much, we checked in to a four-star hotel in Delhi and didn't move. It had clean sheets and towels, a TV that worked, the toilet flushed most of the time, and it had a good shower with hot water and water pressure. It even had a restaurant that served Continental food. A refreshing vacation, even if a bit expensive.

The final blow for me came as were leaving Bombay. The ATM well was unexpectedly dry (again!) and we didn't have enough money to pay our hotel bill and pay the airport departure tax (which we had tucked safely away to be sure we'd have it). We tried every permutation of alternative payment with the hotel (short of trading the kids), to no avail. At last George remembered the "lucky $20" that my father had given me for an emergency. I howled, and wept and swore--but I gave it up and stood staring at the full moon in disbelief, all my superstitions creeping like demons from my battered psyche.

Sam explained my embarrassingly odd behavior to our Indian friend who had come to say good-bye. There was a sudden flurry of activity, and our friend announced that he had managed to find a way for us to cash a check. And not just for the $20 (+ a hefty fee that we were grateful to pay)-- but for enough extra to get us out of the Amsterdam airport and get a little food. So I guess it was a lucky $20! Not only did I get to keep it, but we have a little money to land with and I wasn't institutionalized!

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