Sunday, February 24, 2008

India: A Magical Journey

There is a magical quality to India that floats through memory like a warm breeze.
Without even concentrating very hard, I can see its jungle forests, tall and green in a lowering sunlight, its domed mosques and temples rising above the bustling cities, and the palaces of maharajas that still stand in the enduring landscape of its long history.
I see a wild elephant trotting toward us, head lowered and ears flapping, on a winding road of the James Corbett Tiger Preserve. I feel the gentle rock of waves as we glide past jungles and villages aboard a houseboat on the backwaters of the Arabian Sea.
A dream walk through the Pushkar Camel Fair lingers in my head, silhouettes of ancient animals on the edge of a rolling desert, moonlight illuminating reality with a glow that lights fairy tales. I see campfires twinkling and a Ferris wheel turning through space like time in the dim light of eternity.
It has been two months since Cinelli and I spent 30 days wandering 6,000 miles through the heart of this timeless kingdom. To describe it in simple terms is just not possible in a few hundred words. One absorbs India. It is a part of the physiology that composes scenes beyond memory, when the inward eye shifts to a focus of feeling.
India was not on my agenda. My wife, the adventuresome Cinelli, had lobbied for years to take the 18-hour flight to one of Earth’s most exotic lands. I usually opt for less strenuous journeys, maybe to Paris or Rome or even Prague, but she sees the world in grander terms, so we go to Africa and China and Russia too. It was time for India.
Research led us to Easy Tours of India, an organization operating out of Austin, Texas. I was lured by the adjective. I am beyond the age of mountain biking or alpine skiing so the term “easy” naturally caught my attention. I never dreamed I would be riding camels or elephants, but then in the land of Gandhi, that’s considered easy.
As it turned out, planning an extensive and expensive trip had come at an inconvenient time. In June 2007 I was blindsided into an “accidental” forced buyout, apparently engineered by a graceless little man who headed the section where my column was then appearing. I wrote a goodbye essay. My audience roared its protest and I was hired back with an apology from the editor.
I mention this to grant a look into our thinking process in mid-planning for the India trip. Prudence would dictate that we should cancel the journey and save the money. We pondered it and then said to hell with it. We’d go to India and deal with the future as it unfolded. We’ve never been afraid of tomorrow.
Travel is more than a trip. It’s a learning process, an awakening to the value of cultures rooted in the timelessness that predates our concepts of history. We saw pieces of India in the “dream time” of antiquity, in its colonial period of subjugation, in its reach for independence and its emergence on to a new world stage. We stayed in 5-star hotels and walked along roads where the poor lived in squalor beyond imagination. We ate in world-class restaurants while women with babies tapped on the car windows at traffic stops and begged for food.
Delhi, Mumbai, Agra, Cochin, Jaipur, Udaipur.
If you would ask me what experience has remained the most indelible in my string of memories about India, I guess I would say the elephant incident at the James Corbett Park and Tiger Preserve. Annoyed by the presence of tourists, the big tusker turned from a lunch of tree branches and began trotting toward us, for what purpose one can only imagine. He didn’t look happy. Our jeep driver must have set a record for escaping in reverse on a narrow, winding road because the big bull, impressed by our facility, finally stopped its advance and lumbered off into the jungle.
Was that more important than the beauty of the countryside, the gleaming towers, monkeys on rooftops or streets simultaneously occupied by cars, trucks, rickshaws, motorcycles, camels, elephants and oxen? Not really. But it translates into an image of existence on the Asian subcontinent that is both unique, larger than life and occasionally dangerous. It is India, impressive and determined, charging forward uphill while we wonder about its final destination.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

The Littlest Martini: A Six O'clock Fable

Once upon a time there was a little Martini who always wanted to be a Mai Tai.
“I’m too short,” he cried to his parents one day. “Mai Tais are tall and elegant. I’m a squirt!”
“You’re young,” his daddy said. “Some day you’ll grow from a single to a double. Just give it time.”
“Mai Tai is young too,” the little Martini said, “and he’s already tall.”
“It’s just his mix,” his mommy said. “Some drinks are just naturally taller. But that doesn’t mean you’re any less important. Be proud of what you are.”
“You’re a Martini!” the daddy said proudly “We have a honorable history! Franklin D. Roosevelt favored us and so did Winston Churchill, two great leaders of the free world! We helped win the war! You have nothing to be ashamed of, Little Martini.”
“Remember Shot?” mommy said. “He certainly wasn’t tall! And now he’s a Double Shot and the star of some very sophisticated cocktail lounges. And you’ve got a lot more growing to do.”
Little Martini wasn’t satisfied. “Even when I grow up I won’t be tall,” he said. He turned to his daddy: “You’re not tall and mom isn’t tall! You don’t even look alike. How, come you don’t look alike?”
The parents glanced at one another. Their little Martini had reached the age when he was asking questions. They knew it would happen. It was time to tell him.
“Son,” the mommy Martini began hesitantly…
“Let me tell him,” daddy. “Son, your mother and I fell in love when we first met at a disco club in L.A. We knew our love was wrong, but the attraction was so strong that we…well…ignored the differences between us.”
His voice was beginning to choke, and he didn’t want to break down before his son so he gestured to his wife to take over.
She took a deep breath and said, “You’re the result of a mixed marriage.”
The husband spoke: “I’m gin and you mother is vodka. I’m straight up with a pimento olive, she’s on the rocks with a lemon twist.”
Little Martini stared at them open-mouthed. “Does that mean I’m going to die? My mixture is wrong?”
“No, of course not,” daddy said. “It only means you’re…well…different.”
“There’s nothing wrong with being different,” mommy said. “But others may not accept you. Half gin and half vodka just don’t mix.”
“Why did you do this?” little Martini demanded in tears. He turned to his father. “Why didn’t you just marry that tonicy woman you’re always talking about! She was our kind! Then I could be just straight gin!”
“It was your mother I loved, son. I never thought I’d feel that way about vodka, but I did. And I hear that there are more mixed marriages being performed across the country. Someday, no one will notice the difference between gin and vodka. We’ll be equals in the Barnes & Noble Book of Cocktails.”
Little Martini gave up trying to be a Mai Tai. Rum just wasn’t in his blood. But the realization that he was different altered the course of his life. During his wild teenage years he turned into the worst kind of screwdriver. He was picked up twice for harassing martinis that favored onions and called themselves Gibsons. He served jail time for beating up a Cuba Libre.
His life was a mess. Both parents tried to get him into a psychomixologist but he refused, preferring instead a dissolute path toward self-destruction, loving and leaving a series of tawdry mixes and garnishes, never happy with anyone, spurning those who cared about him. Then one evening while working as a well drink in a Montana cowboy bar he spotted a Beer shooting pool. He was a tall, cool lager. It was love at first sight.
It was the kind of love that must not be spoken, but clearly it was deep and abiding. They moved in together in a duplex just outside of Butte and Little Martini openly declared himself a Cosmopolitan. His parents accepted his decision, glad that he was finally settling down, and loved it when the two adopted three babies also of mixed gin and vodka marriages that they called Betwinis, and they all lived happily ever after.