Tuesday, May 27, 2008

15 minutes

Photo credit: Mrs. VFR

Resting on a park bench deep inside Lodhi Gardens, Mrs. VFR and I thought we had found a rare slice of solitude in the middle of a madhouse city.

Our senses had been battered all morning by Delhi's claustrophobic masses of people and cacophony of car horns. We barely noticed the faraway group of schoolgirls copping quick glances in our direction.

They, on the other hand, had clearly noticed us.

A small group gathered and huddled. Their glances became longer. We noticed. They pointed. This continued for several minutes. Trepidation finally gave way to curiosity, and they ventured in our direction.

They came, at first, in drips of two or three. But before we knew it, we were surrounded by a crowd.

They didn't speak much English and we didn't speak a word of Hindi. That didn't stop them from enthusiastically taking as many pictures as possible with us. At the end, we shook hands with each girl as they said "thank you, thank you."

We had experiences like this all over India.

People were fascinated with us. All across the country, people wanted to take pictures with us and shake hands.

Paranoid at first, I considered the possibility the picture-posing was a ruse that pickpockets used to gain close access to my wallet. This wasn't the case.

Then I surmised it was an obsession with anyone or anything American. But it wasn't happening to other American tourists. Or to any other white people. So that theory seemed wrong.

When we told Mitra, who lives in Delhi, about these encounters, she said she had never heard of such a phenomenon.

But these weren't isolated cases. This happened eight or nine times, all across the country.

Another group asked us to stop and take a picture with them inside the Taj Mahal. One of the kids asked me where I was from. I returned the question.

"Assam," he said.

"Oh yes, Assam!" I exclaimed.

"You know where Assam is," he asked with wide-eyed amazement.

'Oh yes, northeast India," I said.

The truth is that I only knew about Assam because of circumstance -- Mitra's family hails from the state. But this kid breathlessly reported to his friends that I knew Assam, and that was a big deal.

Outside the Taj, we had two crazy encounters.

Dead camera batteries left one teenage boy so dejected that he hired one of the professional photographers on site to take his picture with us.

Near the entrance to The Taj, one elderly gentleman nearly burst into tears of joy when he handed us his infant granddaughter. We posed for several minutes while the entire family eagerly clicked away. The grandfather's face beamed with pride.

Were these cases of mistaken identity?

Are we, in fact, celebrities unappreciated in our own country?

Something else lost in broken conversations?

We'll always wonder.

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Saturday, May 10, 2008

To serve man

I had been marinated in oil and spices, the meat in my legs tenderized.

And now, 45 minutes into an alleged massage, two practitioners instruct me to sit on a small stool inside what looked like an armoire. Three black hoses connect the bottom of the armoire to a boiling pot of water on a stove.

The initial parts of this experience had merely been disconcerting. This latest development sent alarm bells ringing. The time had come to ask a hard question: Was I about to be eaten?

After days of hiking in the Periyar Wildlife Reserve in the southern tip of India, a relaxing massage near the sun-drenched beaches of Varkala, a hippie hideaway on the Arabian Sea, sounded like the perfect antidote for weary muscles.

Mrs. VFR booked appointments for ayurvedic massages, rubs that locals believe enhance overall health. In my eagerness to concur with these plans, I concentrated on the "massage" portion and ignored the unknown "ayurvedic" prefix.

This was a mistake.

When we arrived for our appointments, a woman dressed in a sari whisked Mrs. VFR away. I stood in the lobby by myself for a few minutes, before a boggle-eyed gentleman wearing a grubby v-neck t-shirt appeared in the doorway.

He escorted me to a dilapidated office around the corner from the lobby. There, I was introduced to "The Doctor," a shirtless man no older than 25.

It took a moment to sink in, but I realized that I would not have a masseuse, and that The Doctor was, in fact, the masseur.

In the States, I would have walked away. No brainer. But in India, it is taboo for men and women to touch each other. Mrs. VFR and I could not hold hands as we walked down the street. In contrast, it's commonplace to see men holding hands -- a normal sign of friendship.

Like the ayurvedic aspects of the massage, I failed to consider these cultural differences beforehand. So that left me with a decision: My wife was already mid-massage. Our driver had vanished.

I stepped forward and The Doctor closed the door.

The room seemed more like the office of a mad scientist than a serene massage studio. On one side, the pot of water sat atop the hot stove. The black hoses emerged from its base like tangled octopus tentacles. On the other, the armoire was positioned in the corner, a round hole cut from its top. An ornate, wooden table stood in the center of the room.

"Take off your clothes," The Doctor said.

I stripped to my boxers.

"All of them," he said.

I stood naked in the room. The Doctor and boggle-eyed assistant tie a sumo-wrestler's white cotton cloth around my loins. They instructed me to lie down on the table.

Molten-hot oil pours from a funky contraption hanging above my head onto my chest. Standing on either side of me, the masseur and assistant rubbed the oil into my skin with rapid motions and perfect symmetry.

They press hard, as if they were squeezing the last bit of toothpaste from the tube. It is painful. It feels like they are going to rip the hair out of my legs.

Friction developed in spots on my quads not saturated in oil. Days later, a nasty rash, essentially rug burn, appears. It takes weeks to recede.

Rubbing continues. Spices are sprinkled onto my chest and worked into the lather. The Doctor also massages the spices into my hair, in much the same manner a chef would apply a rub to a piece of meat before barbecuing.

Next, the pair dig their fingers into the inner and outer portions of my thighs and gouge downward with such vicious force I fear my kneecaps would pop off.

This, I could not ignore.

"That really hurts," I said, wincing.

"Relax," the doctor said.

I never relax, but eventually, I survive the mauling. I'm so covered in oil that I flail on the table like a slippery fish. The assistant helps me upright and directs me toward the odd-looking armoire. He opens the doors and I see the stool.

Steam from the boiling pot of water flows into the bottom of the armoire via the hoses. The doors are closed. My head pokes through the small hole at the top. It's hot.

As the assistant turns up the flame on the stove, I ponder cannibalization for the first time.

I note the ease in which my head could be severed in this position, the similarities between myself and steamed broccoli. I contemplate the earlier work with the tenderizing, marinating and spicing.

"I'm cooking," I said with a chuckle, hoping to receive friendly assurance from my captors this was not the case.

"Cooking," Boggle-eyes said. "Yes! Yes! Cooking! Ha ha ha."

They thought this was hilarious.

"Who will win the U.S. election?" they ask in a clever attempt to distract me from my predicament.

I answered, and we struck up a conversation about the three candidates.

Throughout India, we encountered people intent on discussing the election, George W. Bush and American politics. Since Varkala is in a Communist state and 20 percent of its citizens are Muslims, we stayed as neutral as possible throughout these conversations.

Sweat and oil fell from my body in sheets. It sounded like giant raindrops plopping onto the floor. I feel like I'm melting. This continued for what seemed like forever. At the point I started to feel dizzy, I knew the time for my escape had come. It was now or never.

"How much longer?" I asked.

"As long as you'd like," The Doctor said.

"I'm done cooking."

The armoire doors opened, and as simple as that, I was free. No last-minute attempt to stuff an apple in my mouth or spear me with a kebab. My fears had been for naught.

The Doctor held spices under my nose and told me to snort them. I did. I stood as the pair dried me off with towels. They left the room as I changed back into my clothes, and I was free.

Mrs. VFR was waiting in the lobby. She greeted me with wide-eyed concern. She feared my response to the whole calamity of the male masseur.

But by that point in the ordeal, that seemed trivial. The true danger in the entire experience, she quickly learned, was that her husband was nearly served for dinner.

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