I admit Pune did not endear herself to me immediately. I was a bit dazed coming off the train from Delhi–a train ride that exceeded 24 hours and involved catching up on old podcasts and giving some of the lesser-listened music on my iPod a chance, as well as reading a sizeable chunk of Roald Dahl’s short stories for adults (some of them surprisingly creepy [I can suggest some if you’re interested!]).
As is par for the course, in getting off the train one is waylaid by men who want to carry one’s bag for money. I didn’t feel like fighting anyone off, as I have six month’s worth of crap with me. The man carried the bag outside to the rickshaw-wallah and immediately demanded 150R, an exhorbitant amount of money. He had mentioned this amount before scooping up the suitcase and running away with it, so I cut my losses and handed it over. In front of the rickshaw-wallah, unfortunately… who, after I gave the name of the cheapest hotel in the Rough Guide I’ve inherited from Gina, said he’d take me there for 200R. It was an insane price–like, 4 times the amount that considered normal, and I lost my calm.
“NO!” I yelled. “I can’t.” I checked my poor, beleaguered maroon wallet. “That’s SO expensive. BAHUT MAHENGA! Look, I only have 140R. That’s ALL I HAVE. That’s ridiculous! It should be 50R, MAYBE. I’ve been in India! I know prices!”
He remained smiling, and pointed out that I had just handed the guy carrying my luggage 150R. “I shouldn’t have!” I said. “I won’t. No. I can’t give you that much.”
But I had little to no choice. My suitcase was already jammed in the rickshaw and I was hard-pressed to get it out and then into another one, where I would just as likely be asked for some obscenely out-of-proportion amount of money.
After I went to the guesthouse and saw that it was barren and they asked for much more than the book said and far more than it was worth, I refused and told the rickshaw-wallah I needed to go somewhere CHEAP. Cheap like less than 500R. cheap. To make a boring story shorter, he took me to a place finally–the place I am now–and eventually wanted 250 fucking rupees out of me.
To give you an idea of how outrageous and unfair that is, the rickshaw driver in Amritsar asked for a total of 400R. (100R. from each person) to drive us 45 minutes to the border with Pakistan, wait an entire hour or more for the border closing ceremony to complete, and drive us all the way back. The Pune rickshaw-wallah wanted more than half that amount for the 15 minutes he spent driving me around a tiny section of Pune.
I became so outraged that I literally had a meltdown. “NO!” I screamed. I then proceeded to call him four letter words, and scream in Hindi about how it’s only because I’m a foreigner, and I know how much things should cost. It was, admittedly, a little absurdly disproportionate of a reaction.
It’s not that I’m loathe to part with six dollars. It’s much more that I feel incredibly affronted to be treated as a naive foreigner. I’ve been here three months and at this point it’s more like living here, rather than traveling. And damned if I’m going to be treated like I don’t know what’s going on. I’ve powered through a lot of it and fought my way to correct prices and honesty with locals. I make a sincere effort to speak the language, for God’s sake. I stay for the most part in modest lodgings that the Indian middle-class avoids. So when I’m asked, by someone with a straight face, for more than twice what something is worth, it sends me into a crazy tirade much faster than anything else.
So, like I was saying, Pune and I didn’t get off on the right foot. After I threw the money at the rickshaw-wallah and told him to “Get away from me”, I went up into my room, locked myself inside, and allowed myself to sob quietly for a couple minutes. Then I curled under the blanket and slept.
This wedge the country drives in between you and everyone else–which says “You’ll never belong here”–gets me sensitive sometimes.
I felt a little less insane when I woke up. I decided to take a walk, to take in a little of Pune, gauge the difference between the north and the south.
Here’s one thing: The weather down here? It’s comfortable. Like, comfortable enough that you can walk around outside without feeling absolutely miserable and wanting with all your heart just to be inside. All of the north–with the exception of cool and calm Dharmshala–was, simply put, horrible for living. The sun was so intensive that the day was almost unenjoyable. It beat you into a submissive and yawning slave to the shade, and then it laughed at you when you passed by pools of water that were clogged with garbage and colored a noxious green. Northern India during monsoon season is unkind.
But down here, the weather is lovely. It’s warm but not hot, breezy but not chilly. I can wear jeans and not be soaked with sweat. Big, grey clouds roll in and soften the day. Gentle rain comes down and makes a jacket seem appropriate. My back doesn’t sweat (don’t look grossed out; I told you north India is intense). My feet don’t sweat. NOTHING SWEATS. It’s almost like I’m not in India or something.
Not wanting to die when I’m outside means I’ve no use for rickshaws and I’ve rediscovered walking. And, to further expound on the glories of the south, there are more trees (especially beautiful, expansive banyan trees), less garbage, and less dust.
And then there’s the German Bakery.
I have been here one day and eaten there twice. Last night and this morning. And it was so good that I ate the same thing. A mixed vegetable omelette (small aside: I am not sure why, but for some reason Indians really know how to make omelettes. I think the best omelettes I’ve ever eaten come from here) and two pieces of toast, real toast, like real-bread, whole-wheat home-made toast, not the refined flour white bread equivalent that is the widely available alternative here. And then a pot of tea–hot tea without milk or sugar, the way I like it. Chai has its place, but in the end I’ll be crawling back to the plain old hot water and loose leaves, begging for it to take me back.
It is beautiful, the German Bakery.
I also looked around and came to understand Pune a little better as I sipped my tea and sat awkwardly alone. That’s one clue: awkwardly alone. There are two things that stand out especially about Pune. One: It is a university town. There are many fine universities here, and as a result the population is largely young (even for India) and, well, hip. Like, the guys were smoking, for instance. And wearing Converse shoes. And looking really hip while smoking and wearing Converse shoes and drinking their coffees. Two: Pune was the chosen settling-place of Bhagwan Rajneesh, or Osho, the sometimes respected, sometimes notorious Indian philosopher and semi-cult leader who sort of epitomised the 1960’s eastern spiritual movement, what with his teachings on free love and awakening the unconscious and whatnot. Osho set up an ashram in Pune, less than a kilometer from where I am now, and as a result, many foreigners and Indians who follow Osho have ended up here to meditate or smoke weed, usually a combination.
In other words, I have gone from perhaps the most conservative part of India to possibly the most liberal, a place where hippie spirituality saturates. How about a couple people for a case in point?
This morning at the German Bakery, as I was indulging in a chocolate croissant (forgive me, body) and enjoying some Roald Dahl, an Indian guy slid onto the wooden bench across from me, right in front of the Tulsi Organic Tea sign. “Mind if I sit here?” he asked. He introduced himself as “Ray”.
I continued trying to read, but he lit up a cigarette and struck up a conversation, asking what I was reading and whether I worked in Pune. After returning the question, he said, “I’m a part-time model,” and I tried to swallow back a smile; really, it’s hard to stay straight-faced when a stranger leans forward across the table from you, blows a puff of smoke and says, “I’m a part-time model.” It was then that I really looked at him and noticed his long, silky, wavy hair (a mane that would make Fabio seethe with jealousy), his smooth skin and symmetric features. I also felt a little self-conscious with my black-rimmed glasses and thick book. But I still had the upper hand; I was somehow not attracted to him.
Ray was unusually chatty and somewhat embarrassingly… spiritual. He gave me his short backstory–24 years old, from a village in Kerala–and peppered me with a host of strange questions; “Which came first, darkness or light?” and announced he was in Pune to meditate and “learn why I’m here, where I’m going”.
“You think you’re going to find out?” I asked, amused, but too quietly. “We all need to turn inside,” he explained at some point, and “We’re all energy, made of the same thing, everything is God to me, that tree and you and I, we’re all the same thing.” I nodded. He then began rather frankly to talk about sexuality and explained his conflict between sensuality and spirituality. At this point he had talked me into a walk around the Osho park, and I mentally noted that I was walking under banyan trees with a strikingly attractive person I wasn’t attracted to, having a conversation about sex that I hadn’t particularly wanted to get into. I wondered if he assumed I was somebody that I wasn’t.
The whole conversation was enlightening for me. I have in the past referred to myself at times as a hippie for various reasons–being a indifferent and occasionally clueless or scruffy dresser, caring too much about recycling–but there is one thing I cannot pretend to have in common with most hippies: I am so. not. spiritual. The word itself makes me cringe slightly. I will simply not buy anything you try to sell about “inner light” or my “third eye” or “awakening” my whatever. I think yoga and meditation are good; I think they are physically and mentally productive, that they do good things for the heart rate and breathing and release helpful chemicals. But I won’t go further. And what else, I am so. not. free. love. I view all of these things with a suspicious and skeptical eye. There’s too much to be exploited with these views; people’s money and bodies can be talked into another person’s hands. Just ask how much it costs to enter Osho’s ashram of inner peace and meditation. I can meditate for free.
And when Ray started asking distressingly probing sexual questions like, “Do you have a fantasy?” with that casual and drunken-smile look of a Free Lover (and he laughed at great length, that high-pitched Indian man-giggle, when I said the answers to his questions were “personal”), and invited me some ten minutes later to stop by his place so he could give me some books containing Osho’s wisdom, I had to decline and hightail it down the street.
Because that’s not me, it turns out. That’s so not me. Talk about physics. That I will listen to.
The guesthouse owner likes to bid me adieu by taking one of my hands in between two of his, closing his eyes, letting loose a string of “Om shanti om shanti om shanti om”‘s and, apparently, reading my aura. Tonight he diagnosed a problem with my neck chakra. Said it’s blocked; thus, I have trouble communicating.
Hope this is clear enough for you.