I awoke in the morning with the brief panic that immediately turned to immense pleasure during a momentary lapse of knowing where I was. I was in Bangalore, India. New country, new language, new currency, new customs, new food, just like that. Sweet.
I showered and dressed; first order of business was to find breakfast. Downstairs, I asked the men at the front desk where I was in relation to Mahatma Gandhi Road, knowing that last night's rickshaw driver had taken me to the wrong hotel. I started walking the direction the men gestured, just to find a place to eat.
Bangalore is the Silicon Valley of India. Yes, it seemed that anyone who wasn't wearing traditional attire was wearing khakis with a tucked in short sleeve button-down and an ID badge around their neck. As a result of India's technological boom, and subsequent everything else boom, the city's infrastructure is way behind the population growth and traffic needs. I walked beneath a freeway onramp that was being constructed over what was currently a dirt road squeezing between buildings.
Emerging at MG Road, I was embraced by a swarming cacophony of two-stroke rickshaws. A metal sign at the corner tracked the statistics on traffic fatalities and injuries on the road. Things were looking real safe with an overall downward trend to a low of only about 1100 deaths on the road in the first 8 months of 2005. Many of the rickshaws were had license numbers "KA05" which I thought suiting, looking like they'd be pronounced "chaos".
I came upon a restaurant that appeared to be filled to the brim with businessmen on their way to work, so I ducked in to have my first meal. The entrance was a wide open wall and amidst the chaos, it was hard to make sense of the process. Customers mobbed a counter behind which staff stood, faces concealed behind a very low wall that only exposed their torsos above the counter. Food was being served but how to get some?
The sign above the counter listed in English a variety of dishes, none of which sounded the least bit familiar to me. I wormed my way to the counter and was roundly ignored as dishes were handed out. I finally caught on and realized that coupons were handed to the men behind the counter before food was handed over. How to get those coupons? I ducked low to make eye contact and ask. I was pointed behind me, where there was a man at a cash register.
"How can I get some of those coupons?" I asked the register operator.
"Well, you have to tell me how much you want."
"How much? Hmm, well, I don't even know what I want. Do you have paneer?" I asked, grasping for my favorite Indian dish back home.
"Only for dinner. We have dosa."
Having no idea what the hell dosa was, I said OK.
"What dosa?" the man asked. He listed off a few words and I grabbed the only word that I recognized from Indian dishes back home.
"Dosa Masala. Oh! And one chai!"
"150 rupees." 50¢. Hot damn.
Coupons in hand, I gave them to the man behind the counter, and waited my turn. The dosa was like a savory pancake cooked a bit crispier and wrapped around potatoes and spices. It came with some sauces that I picked up with the dosa, all performed with my bare right hand, of course. It was fucking incredible. Likewise with the chai, drunk from a short tin cup. After washing my hand at the washing sink in the corner, I stepped out into the street, and walked right into the next crowded restaurant I saw and ordered the same thing again. This Indian food thing was going to work out really well.
Bangalore was only on my itinerary as a transit stop to get on to the places I was more interested in, so next order of business was procuring a train ticket out of town. I made the long walk to the train station and there I got a bit of assistance from a train attendant to find out where to buy my ticket. Through the tunnels to another platform; easy enough.
The tunnel was virtually empty, being between departures and arrivals, and was cleaner than those in London, if that says anything. As I traversed the tunnels, backpack and all my belongings in hand, a middle-aged man walking with a cane came down the stairs into the tunnels and walked the same direction I was. He was scruffy and dirtier than the software developers anyway, and he walked over to me, showing enthusiasm, I assumed, at there being a foreigner in his neighborhood. He didn't speak English but smiled broadly, repeated things in Hindi, and made vague gestures at me. I smiled back and was wary as he appeared to be a close talker, slowly squeezing me between him and the wall of the tunnel as we continued forward. I was quickly becoming suspicious of his intentions, so I stopped abruptly, as he continued forward a step, giving me some space. I continued walking, aiming for the exit. He continued to smile, and made the universal gestures for camera. Right, like I'm stupid enough to pull out a camera when it's me and Scruffy McDirtbag alone in a fucking tunnel with all of my belongings on my back. Smiling back I made the universal empty-hands gesture to indicate I wanted no memento of him whatsoever.
In a flash it happened. As I made the empty hands gesture, bringing them close to shoulder level, he stepped in front of me and with a deft hand, darted in and touched the tip of my penis through my pants.
Shocked, all I could do was shout "Hey!" scowl and bring a threatening index finger between his eyes as his grin widened again, he made a taunting face, and then galloped on down the hall in the direction we had come.
God fucking damnit. I've been sexually assaulted in one way or another on every one of my international trips and I have to get it my first day in India. Do I have a fucking sign that says "Hey international whack-jobs, try and check out this farang's cock!"?
Well, he was on his way, and as anger boiled in me, especially knowing that despite my lightweight stature, I could have knocked the fucker out, was I not burdened with 75 pounds of backpacker necessities. Infuriating.
Above ground again, I saw a handful of police officers standing around chatting. I approached them, for shits and giggles.
"I don't know if you care to do anything about this, but I wanted to let you know that a man in the tunnel just came up andů touched me." Blank stares. "He cornered me and touched me," I said, gesturing to my crotch.
"And what do you want us to do about it?" asked an officer.
"Well, I don't know, but it isn't OK. I guess I didn't think you would do anything, but I wanted you to know, in case you would." I walked away, even more humiliated than when I was in the tunnel.
I asked mustachioed the man at the train station ticket counter whether the train I thought would get me to Mysore really would.
"Yes," he said, as he tilted his head from side to side.
"Are you sure?" I asked.
"Yes, he said, tilting his head from side to side again.
At once I was confused and realized what I was seeing. The confusion: in my experience, a head waggle indicates that one is unsure about the topic. His language spoke to the contrary though; why? In a flash, I pictured myself back at work, talking with Suvendu Dash, an Indian coworker. From time to time he tilted his head to the side when he was saying the affirmative. I had never even noticed it until that moment, yet as I stood there unsure what the ticket man was telling me, I pictured Suvendu doing it, clear as day. In the context of the western atmosphere and being confident in understanding what he was telling me, Suvendu's body language had never been a consideration, but thankfully my subconscious had saved it for later and I was able to remember it in that instance. The ticket man was telling me yes, and the head-waggle in India means yes, the equivalent of a Western nod.
With that issue somewhat settled, I completed my transaction, but the phenomenon never ceased to be unsettling throughout my entire stay in India. It takes a long time to overcome the expectations that are borne of years of matching behavior with meaning, and this is only exacerbated by the uncertainty that comes from never knowing just how much of your statement the listener understands due to language barriers.
Nonetheless, by the time I got to Bangladesh, where a single tilt to the side indicates the affirmative, I had finally approached comfort with the body language, and even picked up the single head tilt to the extent that I still find myself, months later, using it when I say yes, from time to time.
As it turned out, my train wouldn't leave until later than I expected, so I dropped my bag at the station's left-luggage desk before venturing back into Bangalore. I hired motorized rickshaws as taxis between each of my destinations, they being the cheapest and most agile method of negotiating the chaotic streets of Bangalore. The rickshaws in India are two-stroke rattletraps built on souped-up Vespa parts. They're three-wheeled, always pointed yellow, loud and spewing rancid smoke, and always offering a single passenger entrance on the left side of the vehicle.
My guidebook warned me that rickshaw negotiations aren't complete until the final rupee has been handed over, meaning that the drivers will agree to a price before boarding but will reinstate negotiations as they pull up to the stop.
"OK, 50 rupees," my rickshaw driver declared as I unloaded my bags.
"Uh, no, you the price was 40. that's what I will pay."
"No, now price is 50 my friend."
"Well, then like a good friend, you will be satisfied with the amount we agreed upon," I said, handing him the exact change, having counted it out and pulled it out of my wallet during the ride. He was incredulous and shouted that I should come back as I walked away, but a deal's a deal.
Similarly, I made it my rule of thumb that prices were declared before I boarded any rickshaw, and I counted out exact change during the ride. I pulled all of my bags out of the cab and onto my back before acknowledging a price again, and handed the bills, folded, to the driver as I walked away. From time to time I would get the call to return and finish negotiating, but the drivers knew I really had them over a fence and had no reason to fall prey to their schemes.