The newbie wed – prologue
For those of you who have been kind enough to follow me for the last year, you know I talk a lot about my relationship with my significant other, Geoffrey and my experiences living among his extensive family in Southern California. You can view previous posts to see the earlier stories about our meeting and marrying back East. Like most relationships and whirlwind courtships (we courted each other, because the minute I saw him, I knew we would end up together) it is a saga of joys and hardships, celebration and pathos. Much, much more to come …here is Part III of my five part series on the wedding trips, first posted last year and then made private, until today.
I might have dubbed this ‘the Un-y-moon, Part III’ but the fact was, by the time this phase of our new adventure together was taking place, we had already put honeymoons behind us. Honeymoons plural because we did make another trip which we hoped would balance out our unfortunate experience in Mount Snow (not that it was all bad, but it was not particularly romantic, as I wrote earlier). Long trips are a good way of getting to know the person you married. Our second honeymoon, which took place six months after the first and had been pre-planned, was a trip to India. We went to Bombay and then on to Poona (they are using their Raj names again), which is considered a luxury resort town in India, along the lines of Carmel in California or the Hamptons, in New York. This was the first of a number of mini-sagas that led up to our move to California and the culmination of all our wedding-related tales. The flight from JFK to Bombay was a total of 22 hours, with a stopover in Frankfurt, Germany. Landing in India later was like a dream sequence. Primarily because we were exceedingly tired even though the down time in Frankfurt was about six hours and we had had an opportunity to get cleaned up, since German airports have all the amenities and are always immaculate. I had been to Germany several times previously, but never to Frankfurt, so instead of sleeping as other people who were on our long flight wisely did, we grabbed a cab into the heart of town to see a bit of Frankfurt and then raced back to catch our evening flight to India. Frankfurt, as expected, was charming and quaint. One thing we did while we were there was pick up a dozen boxes of chocolate to bring to people in India as gifts, because we were told that chocolate was a delicacy in India, and what could be better than German chocolate? We flew on Lufthansa, my favorite airline at that time. All I have to say about that was, it was efficient, clean, punctual and chilly – the stewardii, I mean. My husband, who has a diabolical streak, eyeing a fierce-looking stewardess coming down the aisle checking seat-belts quipped (please forgive me for even repeating this, but it is to illustrate my main point): “Coffee? Tea? … Shower?”. [You will have to fill in the blanks.] I was horrified, of course, and slumped way down into my seat. (My only defense here is that I am quoting the SO who I discovered was quite willing to say something outrageously offensive and un-PC, just about anywhere). Everyone else who heard him was now tittering apprehensively, which only made the stewardess scowl, prompting additional laughter. I can only chalk it up to his youth (although he still comes out with these things, what can I say…).
Prior to this trip, I had been to some pretty poor places, inner city ghettos in the US, Appalachia, slums in Puerto Rico and Rio de Janeiro, Mexico City, Morocco, etc. But. nothing prepared me for Bombay (imagine Calcutta!). When we stepped off the plane in our NYC garb, we were thronged by the poorest, thinnest, most disease-ridden children I had or have ever seen. They were probably mostly Untouchable orphans. I don’t recall whether anyone analyzed their makeup but it was like being in a movie. I had my Pentax Spotmatic with me but I couldn’t bring it out to photograph this pitiful mob. Not only for sympathetic reasons but also to protect my camera from being snatched. This looked like a desperate crowd.
We spent our first evening with a friend of a friend who owned a house on the outskirts of the city. If you have seen the movie Monsoon Wedding, you get an idea of the setting and the family. They were lovely people who picked us up at the airport, showering us with namastes and bows, to which we responded in kind as best we could, as we were by now really overcome by exhaustion and culture shock. As we drove from the airport through Bombay everywhere we looked, the streets were teeming with people. It seemed as if all humanity was streaming into the downtown district and surrounding any vehicle on every side.
I could write a book on my impressions of India that first day. It was at once staggeringly crowded, poor, dazzlingly colorful, exotic and fascinating. In other countries I had been, one could squint and imagine you were somewhere back home in the US, but not India. It was clearly a world apart. My many experiences and impressions are too numerous for this post, which is really about the ongoing development of being a newly wed – a complete novice at marriage and getting used to a human being who, other than a few interests, was so radically different from me in almost every way. I was learning how to ‘go along, to get along’, but didn’t know it at the time. So, for now, just a few words about our introduction to India and traveling together. When we arrived at our new acquaintances’ house, for whatever reason, we entered through the kitchen. There on the gleaming white tile floor in the appliance-free room were half a dozen women, dressed in saris, squatting all over the floor in their bare feet and preparing food on those same tiles.
I almost let out a gasp and then caught myself – just gripping my husband’s arm. He seemed to take no notice, mostly because he was famished, I suppose and used to snacking virtually all day, whenever he felt like it. We realized we had eaten very little since we left NY, since the German food on Lufthansa was heavily meat-laden and at this point we were already vegetarians (one of our compatibilities). No worries about the fare in India, most are Hindus and thus, vegetarians as were our hosts for the night. The kitchen looked clean and so did the floor, spotless, in fact, but still!
Dinner went quietly for us. For once I was silent, nervous about the food and too tired to talk. Afterward, my enculturation to India and its subtle differences accelerated. We were ushered to a covered veranda to sit in deep cushioned chairs, that could have been lifted right out of a Kipling novel. As I leaned back gratefully, hoping I wouldn’t close my eyes and fade out, one of the uniformed serving men came in balancing an enormous round brass tray, with huge glasses of a turquoise-green, cloudy beverage. He went around the room silently, starting with our host and hostess, a businessman and his wife, both likely in their early 50’s. Everyone took a glass, and our host began to chatter, telling us all about his trips to the States and rambling on in a hypnotic British English, so I began to relax. Until I took a sip from that glass. Even though I had dined repeatedly in Indian restaurants for years (and loved and still love the food), I was not familiar with this particular kefir-type drink. I am not a creamy drinks aficionada in the first place, I don’t like ice cream sodas or shakes or smoothies. And I had had a sweet version of this drink, mango flavored usually. But, I knew enough anthropology to realize that I had to drink this. One taste and I almost lost it. It was so sour, bitter and salty, and what’s worse, the color was the green equivalent of Pepto Bismol. All I could do, I thought, was to chug it and get it over with, which I promptly did. Smiling broadly, my attentive host snapped his fingers and oh good, yes, you guessed it, another gigantic glass of seasickening lassi was in front of me pronto – you can imagine what I was feeling at that point. But, while I was dealing with that dilemma and praying I wouldn’t revisit dinner in a few seconds, in front of everyone, another servant appeared with another tray, piled high with something I could not figure out. The closest I could come in memory at that time was its vague resemblance to a Puerto Rican specialty called ‘pasteles‘, huge banana leaves stuffed with chickpeas, raisins and rice, spiced with cilantro. I actually came to love pasteles and yet figured this might not be too similar, as the platter was being passed after dinner. Probably a dessert, I reasoned. Well, anything to disguise the fact that I was not drinking any more of that lassi, so I nodded at the green package, which was daintily placed right in my bare palm. First of all it was wet and cold, and I am rather finicky about having clean, dry hands. In fact, I never ever eat with my hands, not even sandwiches or pizza. I cut everything into small, neat bites. This was a huge, bright green, package of what looked like Palm Sunday fronds, folded intricately and fastened with — what was that! – twigs! I looked around to see how others were managing this and saw everyone else nibbling away happily. I took a bite and I am sorry to say, virtually spat the contents back into my hand, my eyes darting around to see if anyone noticed. Everyone was staring at me, just as I had feared, but they were all doing it too – biting, chewing and spitting it out! This leafy envelope is called ‘paan‘ in Hindi. I will let Wikipedia describe it: “Paan, in Hindi: पान from Sanskrit parṇa ‘feather, leaf’is a stimulating and psychoactive preparation of betel leaf combined with areca nut and/or cured tobacco. Paan is chewed and finally spat out or swallowed. Paan has many variations. Slaked lime paste is commonly added to bind the leaves. Some South Asian preparations include katha paste or mukhwas to freshen the breath. Paan is originally from and native to India and Pakistan. Paan is also consumed in many other Asian countries and elsewhere in the world by some Asian emigrants, with or without tobacco, in an addictive and euphoria-inducing formulation with adverse health effects.” I assure you there was no euphoria involved. It tasted like eating perfume-infused wood. I could barely manage it with my delicate teeth, fearing the loss of a few crowns. Added to the long plane trip, the auditory and olfactory assault of Bombay proper, the sight of the meal being prepared next to many-ringed toes, the sickly green drink, the paan was the final straw. I won’t describe what followed, but it wasn’t pretty. What was interesting though, was my SO. Raised on rich, fancy foods and cheap salty chips of any description to which he was addicted and had to have on hand all day long, my husband, who had consumed very little Asian food up to that point in his life, wolfed down two lassis and a few paans. I almost expired, just watching him do it. Fast forwarding for a moment to our return trip on the plane, he had lost thirty pounds, presumably from not having access to a refrigerator and his favorite snack machines for an extended period (we were in India for a month). He became a mere shadow of himself, a very little person, I noticed for the first time – he had a small frame, like me, he was now just a taller version of me. I too lost weight, but I could ill afford it. In an ironic twist, I, who absolutely adored Indian food, had a hard time managing some of the more unusual dishes, especially when we were guests as we periodically were, for the duration (Indians are the friendliest, most hospitable people I have ever met) and Mr. Spoiled, who had previously sneered at anything not served on sterling-flanked Limoges, ate to his heart’s content and slimmed down at the same time.
[To be continued …]
Images: nycaviation.com,railwaytechnology.com, monsoonwedding.com, wherevertheneed.com,commonswikimedia.org,timesofindia,wikipedia.org,naturalhighsafaris.com